Editor’s note: This story originally appeared June 21, 2000 in the Metro section of The Post. It was part of a series called, “Invation Plus 50; The Legacy of Korea.”
Frank Hackett does not talk much about what happened during the Korean War, because of the dreams those memories bring, but his children know the meaning of certain events and dates.
"They know September 15," said Hackett. "That's the first day I ever killed anybody."
That was the day 50 years ago when Hackett, then an 18-year-old private first class, landed with the 1st Marine Division at Inchon. Moving inland, Hackett spotted a North Korean soldier shooting at Marines. Hackett aimed his rifle at him.
"I had done everything the Marine Corps taught me. I put his head right on top of the sight, but I couldn't pull the trigger, because I guess I thought about it. You're raised 'Thou shalt not kill.' "
Then through his sight, Hackett watched as the North Koreanpointed his rifle at him. Even from a distance, the gun looked huge. Hackett pulled the trigger and promptly threw up. "I got sick because I killed somebody," he said. "After that, it didn't bother me."
Hackett, a 68-year-old Herndon resident, is a bluff and plain-spoken man, but like many Korean War veterans, he is conflicted about his experience. "I think it was worth it," he said. "If I had to do it over again, that's a different story.
"Knowing what I know now, and what I've suffered over the years, I would say I wouldn't do it, I'd rather not go," he said. "But we all can't say that. Somebody had to go."
Hackett went. His experience is in many ways emblematic of that ofthe nearly 1.8 million other Americans who went and served in theKorean War. They come from a generation closer to World War II than Vietnam, one in which sacrifices were borne with little complaint. Nearly 37,000 of them died, and 8,100 remain missing. For many of those who made it home, the war took a heavy physical and emotional toll that lingers and is often overlooked.
"We paid a high price," Hackett said. "I'm paying for it now."
Thousands of veterans are expected to assemble Sunday at theKorean War Veterans Memorial on the Mall and in Seoul for ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the war June 25, 1950, but Hackett will not be among them. "Why go someplace that's going to give you nothing but bad memories anyway?" he said. "I can't bring myself to go to the Mall to see theKorean memorial. I just don't want to do it. I'm an emotional person, and those things tear me up. I best leave it alone."
That view has sometimes made it difficult for organizers of the 50th commemoration ceremonies to get the word out to Korean War veterans. They never joined service organizations in the same way that veterans of World War II and other wars did. Only 13 percent ofKorean veterans belong to such organizations, according to Army Col. Charles Borchini, deputy director of the Pentagon's commemorations committee.
"The war ended in a non-celebratory way," said Richard Kolb, publisher of VFW Magazine. "When they came home, they come home quietly. There were not many parades. That generation was used to winning clear-cut victories, and they grew up in that generation. They themselves may not have felt quite up to par."
The term adopted by President Harry S. Truman and others to describe the conflict--police action--rankles to this day. "If you lose [thousands] dead, that's some kind of war, I don't care what theysay," Hackett said.
Hackett tried joining some of the organizations but never felt welcome. "I never could handle it," he said. "I'd get into too many arguments."
The World War II veterans Hackett encountered at the VFW posts were dismissive. "They said, 'You weren't in a fight.' They said, 'It wasn't a war, it was a police action,' and that always started an argument."
Hackett belongs to one veterans organization, the Chosin Few, made up of Marines and Army soldiers who survived the bitter fighting in sub-zero temperatures following the Chinese attack at the Chosin Reservoir in late November 1950.
Like most members of the organization, Hackett suffers from frostbite, an affliction common to many Korean veterans.
Hackett's second wife was shocked some years back after a big winter storm hit the Washington area and Hackett's hands swelled and cracked from shoveling snow. Hackett told her it was no big deal, it happens to all the guys who were at Chosin.
"Every winter, my heels crack and they bleed," he said. "If it gets too cold and I spend any length of time outside shoveling snow or something, my hands will crack between my fingers and bleed. My ears will crack."