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A 35 mm view: Army vet reflects on experience at Korean DMZ

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Katie Gar Ward
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The room was no more than 100 square feet, stacked nearly floor-to-ceiling with an eclectic collection of books, 35 mm cameras, metal-detector equipment and military memorabilia.

Shelves full of Civil War-era relics lined the wood-paneled walls. A document written in Korean characters, yellowed from age, hung below:

"A letter of thanks; 24th Repl. Co.; To: 1st Lt. Smith."

Situated between these historical keepsakes sat retired U.S. Army Maj. E. Vernon Smith Jr. He glanced down at the fading black tattoo on his forearm - the insignia of the 82nd Airborne Division - his eyes tracing its once-distinct edges, altered with age. Reaching carefully for a delicate black-lacquered box inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs, his eyes grew distant with memory.

"An orphanage in Korea presented this to me," he began, gesturing to the box.

As a 24-year-old first lieutenant, Smith was stationed roughly 15 miles south of the 38th parallel in South Korea. His unit's presence provided support after the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed July 27, 1953, ending the war between North and South Korea.

Now, 60 years later and more than 7,000 miles away at his home in central Virginia, Smith finds meaning in the keepsakes he received and photographs he took during his 16-month rotation in Korea, forever preserving memories of his experience.

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when roughly 75,000 soldiers with the North Korean People's Army poured into South Korea across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Republic of Korea to the south and the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the north.

Sanctioned by the United Nations, American troops entered the war on South Korea's behalf shortly thereafter. According to the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation, more than 5 million Americans served during the conflict, and more than 54,000 lost their lives by its end in 1953.

After more than two years of negotiations with no clear victory, the United States, North and South Korea, and the People's Republic of China agreed to an armistice to end the stalemate, which included forming a 2-mile-wide border separating the Korean peninsula, known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Smith had served two years with the 82nd Airborne Division before his assignment to Korea. While he didn't arrive in Korea until three years after the war's end in the fall of 1956, Smith said its impacts were still evident.

"It was a very different time. It was very bleak and very poor - all shot up," he said. "There wasn't much culture - everyone was just trying to stay alive and recover from the effects of the war."

As Smith recalled his initial observations, the expression on his face became animated, as if each line and wrinkle told a sentence from his life's story.

"You would go down to Seoul in a jeep and notice all of the buildings had shrapnel damage and were destroyed," he continued. "Some of the Korean temples were still standing and we would go through them just touring. I would have an [enlisted man] take me in a jeep up to the 38th [parallel], and we'd look across the DMZ with a telescope and see nothing but the North Korean side of the land. We always expected the war to start up again, so we were nervous and scared, but we sort of got used to it."

Assigned as the executive officer of the 24th Infantry Division Replacement Company, which later became the 1st Cavalry Division, Smith's mission was to oversee the logistics of returning companies and battalions who had served a 16-month rotation in Korea back home, while welcoming and preparing replacement units.

"There were about 200 men on the installation, which was a barbed-wire compound surrounded by guards," he said. "Replacements were coming in and out every day or two - some would go on the DMZ, some would do motor-pool duty, some just served as a presence. At our compound, you would sort of do the same thing every day."

To help pass the time and break the monotony, some of the Soldiers in Smith's compound read or slept in their off-time, but Smith had a more creative desire. He took up photography, feeling compelled to document his surroundings and the people he saw during this time in history.

"I wanted to preserve my memories of the assignment, and remember such a poignant time in our military history. I had a 35 mm camera, and even had a little dark room in my hooch," he said. "I loved taking pictures of people. It was my first time abroad, and being 24 years old, seeing hardship and suffering made people very interesting to me."

Smith glanced back down at the lacquered box in his hand, explaining how this memento had remained one of his most treasured. During his rotation in Korea, he learned of a local orphanage near the compound. After visiting the children and seeing their poverty, he felt a sense of duty to help.

"They looked sad. No toys, no clothes. They made their clothing out of anything they could find, mostly GI blankets," he said. "I wrote home to my wife at the time and my parents, and they went around the town and gathered toys and clothes and sent them to me. I took them to the orphanage, and did that five or six more times over the course of several months."

He recalled how excited the children were when he came to the orphanage, especially when he brought them Christmas gifts during a visit. Still holding the box in his weathered hands, he motioned to the framed document written in Korean.

"The people in charge there presented me with this box and that letter, thanking me," he said. "I was really grateful, but didn't think I had done anything special. I just wanted to help."

Setting his treasured box aside for a moment, Smith retrieved a tin container that had been tucked inside a closet. Inside were hundreds of slides he had made from pictures he took in Korea.

He set up his projector and began feeding slides through. Some were of local villagers, some of the children from the orphanage and others of military life on the compound. He explained the stories behind the slides, his recollection as vivid as if he had left yesterday.

While he found some comfort through photography, Smith said the hardest part of his rotation was being away from his family. Smith and other Service members were scheduled to end their tour in 1958. A portion of their trip home would take them under the well-known bridge in San Francisco, so they coined a motto: "The Golden Gate in '58!"

"Everyone looked forward to going home, and when you were a 'short-timer,' meaning down to your last month, you would go and buy a bottle of Seagram's VO whisky, which came with a little brown and orange ribbon on the bottle top," he said. "You would take off that ribbon and tie or pin it on your fatigue cap so everyone knew you were about to leave. When it came my turn to pin it on my cap, I was proud to have served my time, but ready to go home."

As he continued to feed slides through the projector, Smith explained the significance his experience serving after the Korean War had on him.

"I don't think I did anything special, I was just one more young officer there, doing his part for the mission," he said. "I made the best of my time, did my job and served my country, but I feel like that was the first instance we didn't finish a war. It upset me that we served and [the war] didn't really get finished, so as a country and a world, we must always learn from history in moving forward in any type of military mission. When you fight a war, don't settle for anything less than victory so our troops' sacrifices won't be in vain."

Placing the slides back in the box, Smith explained his passion to document history that began in Korea has stuck with him throughout his life, where he has found enjoyment writing editorials on current events and unearthing Civil War relics.

"There is much to learn from history," he said. "The past shapes us into who we are today, and if we pay close enough attention, we can use those lessons to shape our future."

Smith looked to the ground and seemed to drift into a memory. Appearing lost in thought, a few moments later, his eyes began to water. He let out a deep sigh.

"Being in the military made me proud then," he said. "And I am still."

Smith's weathered hand extended to grasp the black-lacquered box. He briefly opened it, as if the memories of his experience in South Korea were contained inside. He carefully set the box in its place on the shelf amongst the array of military relics, where it would continue to serve as a reminder of the orphaned children who once wore clothes made from GI blankets, their delighted faces forever etched in his memory.