On a visit to Seoul last summer, retired Maj. Gen. John Hemphill gazed up at skyscrapers and saw signs of the peace that has held in the decades since he fought there as a young officer in the Korean War.
“I was just amazed,” said Hemphill, 87, of Steilacoom. “When you look at the land itself, back in those days they cut down trees and made charcoal. Now (South Koreans) plant trees.”
He plans to share that transformation on Friday during Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s salute to Korean War veterans, an event the base is hosting to honor a fast-disappearing generation of military service members.
It follows a similar ceremony held for Vietnam War veterans last year, when JBLM’s I Corps invited thousands of service members on base for what it billed as a homecoming from the war. The Vietnam event proved popular, I Corps spokesman Jesse Paulsboe said, and the base wanted to offer a similar thank you to troops who fought in a conflict commonly referred to as the “Forgotten War.”
Again, JBLM will open its gates and welcome veterans who may not have stepped on to a military installation in years.
This time, JBLM expects a smaller crowd, mostly because there are far fewer Korean War veterans alive today than Vietnam veterans.
“I’ll be 88 next month,” Hemphill said. “I was 24 when I went there. I’ve talked to some of my young troops. They’re in their 80s now. There’s less and less of us.”
About about 5.7 million troops served in the war and about 2.3 million of them are alive today, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Hemphill is scheduled to be one of the ceremony’s featured speakers. He remains active in the local military community, often showing up at JBLM and helping out Army-related organizations.
In late 1952, he was a new lieutenant in charge of an infantry company on the front lines. He got the tough assignment because the Army coming out of a drawdown after World War II was low on young and capable officers.
A West Point graduate with paratrooper training, Hemphill headed to the war.
He and his soldiers often faced heavily armed and large forces composed of Chinese and North Korean troops. In one fight, his company took more than 100 rounds of artillery in a single hour. His soldiers were dug in well, and were not harmed that day.
Hemphill received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second highest honor for bravery on the battlefield, for his role in an April 1953 attack against an entrenched enemy force defending a hill.
While wounded in both legs, Hemphill and his soldiers took heavy fire from an enemy machine gun in a protected position.
He picked up a rocket launcher and “disregarding all thoughts of personal safety, charged the machine gun bunker,” reads his citation for his Distinguished Service Cross. “When he was approximately 20 yards from the position, Lt. Hemphill fired his only round of ammunition through the aperture, scoring a direct hit and annihilating the occupants.”
He recovered from his wounds at a military hospital in Japan and returned to South Korea in May 1953, getting a staff position in the headquarters of the 7th Infantry Division. By the end of that year, Hemphill was observing prisoner exchanges between American and communist forces.
Hemphill remembered that some American prisoners of war were treated skeptically when they returned to U.S. units.
“Back in that time, there was a fear of communist brainwashing and we treated our prisoners very badly,” he said. “We didn’t know better. When they went back on the ships, we had interrogators for them.”
Hemphill returned to combat in the Vietnam War, where he served on three tours. He’s been to peacetime South Korea twice, once in 1985 and again last August. He does not have the same desire to see Vietnam again.
To him, visiting South Korea is a reminder that “when you take a look at it, that’s the last time we were successful in war,” he said.
The conflict ended in July 1953 with an armistice that divided the Korean Peninsula between democratic South Korea and communist North Korea. South Korea today has a dynamic international economy while North Korea remains a global recluse.
Hemphill’s most recent visit gave him a chance to tour one of his old observation posts near the demilitarized zones. He got to meet with American and South Korean military leaders.
He also had opportunities to connect with young people. Children displayed American flags for him, a message that conveyed that their parents and grandparents had passed on lessons about the war.
“The biggest thing going there is the appreciation of the American soldier,” he said. “They didn’t forget. They’re not forgetting.”
If you go
What: Korean War veteran salute
Where: Joint Base Lewis-McChord, enter through DuPont Gate at exit 119 off Interstate 5
When: The gate opens at 9 a.m. on Friday. The ceremony follows at 10 a.m.
Who: It’s hosted by JBLM’s 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command and is open to veterans and their families.
For more information: Call 253-967-0400