MIDLAND—Death and fighting. That is what Hyeon-koo Shim remembers most of the Korean War. His wife, Sung-shil Shim, recalls being crammed onto an already overcrowded train bound for the relative safety beyond the embattled capitol city Pyongyang. Infantryman Jim Shaw still wonders what became of five orphan boys he helped rescue and secretly care for on the outskirts of his company’s base. Lives inextricably linked by what is often called “The Forgotten War” were brought together by a pastor who remembered to say “thank you.”
Hongkak Koo, pastor of Midland Korean Baptist Church, was born almost two decades after the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953. But the 42-year-old understands his native South Korea came perilously close to communist rule and only avoided the fate of modern day North Korean because of the willingness of America to join the fight. For that he is grateful.
“Koreans owe a lot to Americans. Without the sacrifices of American soldiers South Korea could not be what it is today,” Koo said.
From the rubble of war, South Korea has risen to be the world’s 12th-largest economy in the world with a democratically elected president. By contrast, North Koreans suffer under the political, religious and economic rule of a communist dictatorship.
Koo said a look at a nighttime satellite image of the divided Korea illustrates the stark contrast between the two nations. With the exception of a glimmer of light representing the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, the northern country is shrouded in darkness. Within its borders South Korea shines bright.
In 1997 Koo came to the United States to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. While working on his dissertation in 2005 he was called as interim pastor of the Midland church. Each weekend he flew the 600 miles round trip to serve the congregation that would eventually call him to full-time ministry.
Emigration to the U.S. from South Korea has steadily increased since the mid-1970s. In Texas most newcomers settle in larger cities like Houston and Dallas that have established Korean communities. Midland, more readily associated with the oil industry, ranches and the hardscrabble roughnecks such enterprises produce, is home to about 100 Koreans, according to Koo. Many of them attend Midland Korean Baptist Church.
On behalf of his church and the local Korean immigrants, Koo wanted to find and thank the Korean War veterans in his community. The church is a mix of English and Korean-speaking members. Some, like the Shims, are old enough to remember the war. Others have never visited the country to which they owe their heritage. Services at the church are in English and Korean.
In 2011 the church hosted the first celebration service honoring the veterans. Again this year, the church treated veterans to food and entertainment unique to the Korean culture.
“I thought it was pretty neat,” Shaw said. “It was sure something they didn’t have to do.”
The 90-year-old veteran was 32 years old when he served in Korea. He downplayed the role he had in defeating the threat of totalitarianism. As a member of the First Marine Division, Shaw said he was just doing his job.
“I’m proud we did it,” Shaw said.
Koo said he took time to meet each veteran and listen to their stories of a time and place he never knew.
“As I listened I had an affection for them,” Koo said.
He was especially moved by Shaw’s tale.
During patrol by a river, Shaw said his unit noticed “five of the dirtiest little boys” he had ever seen. Orders dictated soldiers not associate with civilians—a command easily observed since few remained in the region that would later become the 38th Parallel. But Shaw could not leave boys behind.
“I just picked them up and hid them on the outskirts of the company area,” he said.
Shaw doesn’t know if his commanders never found out about the children, ages 12, 8, 8, 7, and 6, or just turned a blind eye, but he and the soldiers fed and clothed the boys and gave them a tent and stove for the winter. They even gave them chores—washing clothes—to keep them occupied during the day.
After six months Shaw was reassigned to Busan. He never knew what became of his five orphan boys.
Sung-shil Shim, 73, was familiar with their plight.
“I recall many orphans lost and abandoned on the streets,” she said, answering questions provided by the TEXAN and translated by Koo.
She was 10 years old when her family tried to flee Pyongyang.
“So many people crammed into the train that many were left behind, including our parents. I never thought that would be the last moment to see them.”
Sung-shil Shim and her sisters were raised by an uncle.
Also speaking through Koo, Hyeon-Koo Shim, 75, said his village was occupied alternately by North and South Korean soldiers. Air raids “bombarded” his home, killing his uncle and injuring his brothers and sisters.
“I still remember things clearly as it was yesterday. My memory of war is horrible. I saw soldiers fighting each other and killing people,” he recalled.
The Shims’ separate experiences during the Korean War left them with different views of soldiers. As a 12-year-old-boy Hyeon-koo Shim could not understand why people killed each other. He didn’t like war or the soldiers who participated. But Sung-shil Shim and other children were befriended by the American troops who gave then treats like candy and gum.
“It was so delicious. And, in fact, I never had a chance to eat chocolate before,” she said.
The celebrations at Midland Korean Baptist Church gave Americans and Koreans who endured the war an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate their experiences. Koo said the celebrations in 2011 and this past June gave war generation Americans and Koreans the opportunity to share their stories with younger generations.
“They need to know what we Koreans owe America so they can appreciate it and contribute to this country,” he said.
Sung-shil Shim was unable to attend the June celebration but her husband did.
“Through the event by our church, I came to appreciate more about the sacrifices of many American soldiers. Looking back, I was too young during the war to appreciate their sacrifices. But now I realize how much I am indebted to them and sincerely want to express my gratitude,” said Hyeon-koo Shim.
He now makes regular donations to two Veterans of Foreign Wars offices.
Shaw, member of a Christ Church Midland, said he was glad to reconnect with the Koreans whom he called “the workingest people in the world.”
“They’re nice people. I love the Korean people,” he said.
Koo would like to see other Korean churches duplicate the efforts of Midland Korean Baptist Church—while there is time. There is a dwindling opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the Korean War from veterans and civilians of that era.
Koo reflected on the war and his gratitude.
“Living in the States and having the opportunities to meet Korean War veterans has been such a blessing and privilege to me. While preparing this ceremony I have come to appreciate Korean War veterans more than before. As I meet and listen to the stories of each and every individual veteran, I was often overwhelmed emotionally.”