When he first touched Korean soil, Jim Bridges was a 19-year-old soldier on America’s mission to save South Korea from communist rule. Sixty years later, the Fallston resident returned to find South Koreans on a remarkable mission of their own: Thanking the soldiers that kept them free.
The Korean War began in 1950, sparked by an invasion into the south by the communist north that drew pushback from United Nations forces comprised mainly of American troops. After three years of fighting, 36,000 American service men and women were dead, and tens of thousands were wounded. But South Korea was established as an independent nation separated from North Korea by the 38th parallel, a boundary set by the armistice that ended hostilities in 1953. In the ensuing years, South Korea prospered as a republic, while North Koreans labored under communism and dictatorship.
Recent satellite photos of the Korean peninsula further illustrate the contrasting fortunes of north and south:
Jim Bridges first arrived in Korea in 1953, drafted and assigned to the 7th Infantry, which was headed north and ended up fighting the bloody battle of Pork Chop Hill. But Bridges and several other men were sent south instead, picked out at the last minute – Bridges says it was because they were taller than the rest – and reassigned to the 91st Military Police Battalion. Bridges served out the remainder of the war and then signed on for more, logging a total of three tours of duty. Afterwards, he never expected to return to Korea, but the South Koreans had other ideas.
The Korea Veterans Association in Seoul, along with the South Korean government have subsidized the cost of travel for Korean War veterans and their families for years, encouraging them to return to the country they helped save. Thousands of vets have thus been welcomed through the Korean Revisit Program, stepped up for the War’s 60th anniversary in 2013.
This year’s anniversary also happened to coincide with Bridges’ 80th birthday, prompting his daughters to surprise him with the trip. Once there, Bridges said one thing surprised him the most: “the gratitude”.
Planned honors were scheduled throughout the multi-day tour, including a formal banquet and military parade with honor guard:
Unexpected were the personal expressions of gratitude, from the high school students who were paired up with the vets for a day to learn about the war…
and from the kindergartners who waved welcoming flags and lined the walkway as the veterans entered the Korean War Memorial:
Most unexpected, were tears in the children’s eyes as they presented each vet with handmade cards carrying their nation’s message both simple and profound: “Thank you”.
Below are selected photos from the tour. More information about the Korean Revisit Program can be found here: http://www.kwva.org/revisit/
A North Korean soldier keeps watch at the Demilitarized Zone separating north and south:
Note the camera in the second story window:
Veterans get an up-close look at the military parade held in their honor:
At a memorial ceremony for the Nevada Outpost Battle:
At the Chipyong-ni Battle Memorial Service
At a display of military equipment:
At the Korean National Cemetery:
At the Korean War Memorial: