South Carolina's Korea veterans remember the "Forgotten War"
07/23/2013 12:52 AM
07/23/2013 12:59 AM
More than 60 years ago, Everette Bedsworth got the surprise of his life when he climbed a hill in Korea and came face to face with a group of enemy soldiers.
Bedsworth was stripped of everything he had and marched at gunpoint down a narrow path by a North Korean soldier.
He could have spent months or even years as a prisoner of war, or he could have been killed. But instead, then-corporal Bedsworth's life was saved when another U.S. soldier, lying in wait, ambushed the man leading Bedsworth away.
"I just remember thinking about surviving," Bedsworth said. "I'm thankful that sergeant saw us coming."
Bedsworth is one of tens of thousands of South Carolina veterans of the Korean War-era, and while his war story isn't typical, the story of his homecoming was.
When asked, Bedsworth summed up return from war in a single word: "Uneventful."
But on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, hundreds of South Carolina veterans will gather to be thanked and celebrated.
Sen. Tim Scott is hosting ceremonies for the veterans in Spartanburg and Charleston on Saturday, July 25 — the date of the signing of the armistice which ended the war.
The ceremony at USC Upstate is expected to draw hundreds from across the region, including dozens from Spartanburg County.
Scott's office said estimates place between 40,000 and 70,000 Korean War-era veterans in South Carolina. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 38,000 veterans in the state served during the conflict.
"I understand the importance of recognizing veterans," Scott said when reached via telephone earlier this month.
Unfortunately, the senator said, most older veterans are recognized more when they pass than they are while they are alive.
"My mom said ‘Give folks roses when their alive,'" Scott said. "I don't know that we've done enough to say thank you yet."
Saturday's keynote speaker, former prisoner of war Bill Funchess, said he's looking forward to the ceremony.
"The story about the Korean War has not really been told," he said from his home in Clemson. "Many just don't understand."
Then-1st Lt. Funchess served for the entirety of the war.
He was stationed in Japan in the months leading up to the war and was part of the forces that entered Korea shortly after the war began on June 25, 1950, he said.
Months later, Funchess and his platoon would be overwhelmed by "hundreds and hundreds" of enemy soldiers and taken captive. The soldiers were then forced to march to their prison.
Funchess, who had been shot in the foot with machine gun fire, said he saw four of his men killed for failing to keep up.
"I was determined to keep walking," he said when describing the pain in his foot.
Funchess was held as a prisoner of war for 34 months, being released on Sept. 6, 1953 — months after fighting ended with the signing of an armistice on July 27, 1953.
"We had no clothing, no heat," Funchess said of his time at three different prison camps. "We quenched our thirst by eating snow. Soldiers lost fingers and toes to frostbite."
But even Funchess' return was low-key by today's standards.
He was met at the airport by more than 100 friends and relatives and, weeks later, a barbecue was held in his honor in the town of Norway.
Today, returning soldiers are often greeted by crowds of hundreds and cities have held parades for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In recent years, some cities have extended those celebrations to veterans of the Vietnam War as well.
A 2012 "Vietnam Veterans Homecoming" was billed as the largest of its kind when it drew tens of thousands of veterans.
But Korean War veterans have been largely overlooked, according to some who served.
More than a week before Scott's Upstate ceremony, ten local veterans — members of the Korean War Veterans Association chapter in Cowpens — met to discuss their service.
The group, which meets at the Cowpens Lions Club on Battleground Road every second Saturday, said they were looking forward to the event.
They gathered with black and white photos from their service days. Others carried aging documents crinkled with worn edges and brought along merit ribbons, once proof of their skills and achievements, that had long lost their luster.
Above all else, the men said they look forward to being surrounded by their fellow veterans.
"I'd like to see them," said John Threadgill.
Threadgill spent 22 years in the Army, serving in Korea, Germany and Vietnam.
He recalls come home from the latter with other soldiers and changing into civilian clothes before stepping off the plane.
"It was different then," he said. "There was tension. There probably still is."
Bedsworth, who spent "three years, one month and 16 days" in the Army during the Korean War, said he still remembers being shot at on several occasions.
Mimicking a machine gun, Bedsworth described the day he was briefly taken prisoner after finding himself face-to-face with the enemy.
"I saw a hole and I jumped into it," he said. "I stood up and one of them was pointing a rifle at me. I shot him and got down. When I stood back up, ten of them had guns on me."
Bedsworth, unlike the other men, was involved in a similar ceremony in Greenville "several years ago" and visited Korea five years ago. In that country, several people stopped to thank Bedsworth and other veterans for their service.
Not all of the men who gathered in Cowpens served in the war, but they are all bonded by the era in which they served.
Most were drafted from Spartanburg or the surrounding area. None of them knew if they would be on the front lines or safe at home, they said. Lewis Dawkins Jr., who retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer, was on the USS St. Paul when it bombarded the coast of Korea.
Charles Weber, who served for more than four years in the Navy, helped transport 100s of soldiers to the front lines.
"We'd pull up in the harbor and let the troops off," he said. "You could see the 38th Parallel from where we were."
Another Navy veteran, Ronald Gibson, was part of the amphibious forces that shuttled troops and supported them with artillery fire from the sea. He served several times on the front lines and vividly remembers being strafed by a North Korean plane before that plane crashed yards away.
Gibson said he and the other veterans aren't heroes. And he openly recoiled at the word.
"I'm a volunteer," he said.
Others said the heroes were the ones who didn't come home.
Even today, the ranks of Korean War-era veterans are thinning.
Ron Kichline, who spent 20 years in the Air Force and served in Vietnam, said the groups numbers were dwindling every day.
"These organizations are getting smaller and smaller," he said.
Many of the members are 70 or 80 years old, he said.
John Hammett, commander of the Cowpens chapter, the only Korean War Veterans Association group in Spartanburg County, said the organization opened its doors to all veterans who have served in Korea, even recently, in an effort to boost membership.
"Now they're all eligible to join us," he said. "Anybody who wants to come."
Scott said the ceremony, to be held at the University of South Carolina Upstate Readiness Center, will be relatively brief. Each veteran will receive a certificate and a pin.
He acknowledges that the recognition is relatively small token of appreciation, but said that recognition could go a long way.
"It's important for us to stop and say ‘Thank you,'" Scott said. "In the end, I'm most excited about having an opportunity to look these men and women in the eyes and say ‘Thank you.'" Interested veterans should register with Scott's office by calling either his Greenville office at (864) 233-5366 or one in North Charleston at (843) 727-4525.
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