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   Korean Memorial   

Illinois Remembers the Forgotten War
Korea 1950 – 1953
60th Anniversary

 

   
   

Illinois and the Korean War:
Year Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
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Illinois remembers “The Forgotten War” during the 60th anniversary of the Korean War

Information about Illinois’ participation in the war, including those killed in action and Medal of Honor recipients, will be supplied monthly

SPRINGFIELD – “The Forgotten War” is forgotten no more in Illinois.

The State of Illinois is commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War by supplying information each month about the state’s involvement in the conflict.  Starting in June 2010 and running through July 2013, the state’s newspapers, radio and TV stations will be provided with the names of Illinois service people killed in action 60 years ago that month, key developments in the war, accounts of Illinois’ Korean War Medal of Honor recipients, and other information designed to inform citizens of the war that killed 1,754 Illinois and 54,246 United States citizens.

“We must always remember the brave men and women who served honorably and paid the ultimate price defending our freedom during the Korean War,” said Governor Pat Quinn, who has proclaimed June 25, 2010 as Korean War Remembrance Day in Illinois.  “Monthly history lessons about the heroic contributions of our service members during the conflict in Korea, a war too often forgotten, will ensure that this generation, and those to follow, never forget these heroes and the values they fought for.”

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, Illinois Korean Memorial Association, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum are sponsoring “Illinois Remembers the Forgotten War” along with media partners the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Broadcasters Association.

“The purpose of history is to remind people where we’ve been and what we’ve done.  We couldn’t be more proud to remind Illinoisans where the members of our armed forces went and what they did during the Korean War,” said Illinois Historic Preservation Agency Director Jan Grimes.  

“The State of Illinois has a long and distinguished history of military service to the nation, and the Korean War is no exception.  We remember, with gratitude and honor, the men and women from Illinois who answered the call to duty and courageously and selflessly served.  They will never be forgotten,” said Dan Grant, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The first information series follows, covering the months of June and July 1950.  The next information will be distributed in July 2010 and will cover August 1950.  For more information, or to access information that has already been distributed, visit www.Illinois-History.gov or  www.veterans.illinois.gov.

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"Freedom is not free"

One soldier's story on the eve of the Korean War 60th anniversary

By Dr. Mark DePue, Director of Oral History

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Captured soldiers“Freedom is not free” writes William W. (Bill) Smith of Quincy, Illinois whenever he signs his book, A Moment in Time. Bill speaks with considerable authority on the subject of freedom, having spent two and a half years in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. He survived the ordeal, but nearly half of those who were captured with him in the early months of the Korean War did not.

Smith was captured on November 2, 1950 near Unsan, North Korea when Chinese forces sprang a surprise attack on the lead elements of advancing United Nations troops. It heralded a dramatic change in the war. The brass had long insisted that the Chinese would not intervene despite their threats to the contrary. Douglas MacArthur, fresh off his triumph at Inchon, boasted that the troops would be home by Christmas. The action at Unsan proved MacArthur and his intelligence experts to be tragically wrong.

Over the next two years, Smith endured the worst of what man can inflict on his fellow man: A forced march north where stragglers were summarily executed; severe beatings; being hung by his wrists from a rafter; Russian Roulette; water torture; sleep deprivation; standing on ice for hours on end; long stretches of solitary confinement; and “the hole.” Scores of POWs died of malnutrition and disease during their first winter on the Yalu River. When a prisoner died, the living kept the body for several days – it meant another handful of cracked corn for those still alive – then when the stench became too much, they dragged their dead comrade across the ice of the Yalu River into Manchuria and buried him in a shallow grave.

Prisioner ReadingDaily indoctrination sessions, conducted by Chinese officers speaking impeccable English, started in 1951. Day after day, all day long, the prisoners gathered for these lectures and learned about the evils of capitalism and American imperialism. The message was incessant, with endless variations on one simple theme – the superiority of Communism as a political and economic system. Group confessions and self-criticism sessions were part of the regimen, with extra food for those who collaborated. Smith’s captors sought to exploit every weakness they could find. “If God is so good,” they once taunted Smith, “why is he leaving you here?” “He’s watching you!” Smith heard himself answer. “God knows, they would go berserk.” After another incident, he was court-martialed and sentenced to “life at hard labor.”

In the summer of 1952, Smith was labeled a “reactionary,” (an especially uncooperative prisoner) and moved to a new camp with other reactionaries. A year later he was exchanged with other sick and wounded prisoners in Operation Little Switch, weighing only 82 pounds. He spent the next two years in a series of military hospitals, slowly regaining his strength while battling a host of physical and psychological afflictions.

Perhaps the real measure of Bill’s character was revealed after being released from the hospital in 1955. It happened while he visited a fellow POW buddy in Bluefield, West Virginia. That’s where he met 19-year-old Charlotte Yost. She had just experienced a painful breakup from her fiancé of two years. “On Sunday night I went to bed and I prayed that God would send me somebody to love, and someone who would love me,” recalls Charlotte. “On Monday morning Bill prisoner of war campknocked on the front door lost, looking for his friend.” She had no doubt that this handsome young man was the answer to her prayers, and Bill, for his part, was equally smitten. The relationship moved quickly, but something troubled Bill. He finally decided to lay it all on the line – actually laying a thick folder containing his medical records on Charlotte’s lap. “Read these,” he told her, “and if you feel like you can go on from here with me after what you read, we’ll go on, and if you don’t, then I’ll walk away.” She scoured the documents then made her decision. “I took him on faith, and I took him on love, and I love him just the way he was, and I love him just the way he is.” The two were married within weeks.

Some 53 years later Charlotte helped Bill write about his years as a POW, motivated by their desire to explain to their granddaughters why they couldn’t jump on grandpa’s bed to wake him up.

Bill Smith spent his time in hell, and understands freedom in a way that most of us can never comprehend. He credits Charlotte with saving his life. “Freedom is not free,” he tells anyone who will listen. “Be watchful of those who would take it.”

Mark DePue is the Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. You can listen to Bill and Charlotte Smith’s entire story, and those of many other veterans, at the program’s web site.

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Freedom is not free

One Illinois soldier’s World War II story

By Dr. Mark DePue, Director of Oral History
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Private Vince Speranza was taking a breather from his training with the 87th Infantry Division in late 1943 when his life changed.

He and his fellow grunts were ordered to take their seats on a grassy bank for a demonstration. “All of a sudden, three C-47s come zooming over the sky, and when they get out where we can see them, the doors open and parachute after parachute. Here these guys come vrooming on down. … Brilliant, shining boots, silver wings, pants bloused into those jump boots, and, oh, those jaunty caps.

Soon, an officer stood in front of the men from the 87th. “We’re taking recruits for the parachute troops,” he explained “We’re looking for a few good men. And there’s fifty dollars extra a month jump pay.

For Vince, that was the clincher – a chance to fight with the best, and extra pay to boot.

Speranza arrived in Europe too late to jump into Normandy, and also missed Operation Market Garden. He got to France in November 1944, and was assigned to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the fabled 101st Airborne Division, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. On Dec. 17, General Eisenhower sent them to Belgium and the important crossroad town of Bastogne, hopefully to blunt the massive German offensive.

By December 20th the Screaming Eagles had been cut off by rapidly advancing Panzer units. There they stayed, outnumbered and outgunned by seven enemy divisions, resisting repeated and deadly attacks. They held out against all odds. Because they did, the German offensive failed.

Speranza was only 19 at the time, but combat has a way of aging a man very quickly. He was also wiry and fleet of foot, so his commander often sent him into the ruins of Bastogne to carry messages to headquarters.

On one of those trips, Vince saw a destitute family huddled on the sidewalk outside their bombed-out home, tears streaming down one man’s face. Vince discovered the man was a Dr. Govaerts, and with him were his wife, another couple and the doctor’s 12-year-old daughter, Ann-Marie.

Vince knew he couldn’t leave them there – Bastogne was still under artillery attack. He convinced them to move into the cellar and helped move debris around to create a makeshift shelter. He gave each man a cigarette and to Ann-Marie a D-Bar, the soldier’s prized chocolate ration. Vince returned when he could over the next few days, bringing them K-rations, a can of beans and some carrots he had scrounged.

On Christmas he came bearing gifts, such as they were. For the men he had two packets of cigarettes wrapped in yellow parachute cloth. The ladies received beaded bracelets he had rummaged out of a bombed-out store, and Ann-Marie got a coloring book and crayons. It seemed like such a little thing at the time, but Vince knew he had to do something for them.

After the Battle of the Bulge, the cruel imperatives of combat and the struggle to survive pushed the meager Christmas gifts out of his mind.

Vince finished the war near Berchtesgaden, the site of Adolf Hitler’s favorite retreat, the Eagle’s Nest. After the war, he returned to his home on Staten Island, where he became a history teacher, making a point of teaching his students about the war. And with each passing year, his memories of the Govaerts family slipped further away.

He returned to Bastogne in December 2011 and was speaking to a group of visitors at the town’s museum when a man approached him.

Are you Vincent,” the man asked.

Yes,” Vince replied.

Are you Vincent, who was here in Bastogne during the war,” he asked again, tears filling up his eyes. “I’m Dr. Govaerts,” he said. And with that, the two men embraced.

The man, Vince discovered, was the son of the Govaerts couple he had helped some 67 years earlier.

Before [Dad] died,” explained the son, “he gave me a blue bag. ‘You must find Vincent, and thank him.’” Then he dug into the bag and handed Vince a piece of yellow parachute cloth. Written on it were the words “Merry Christmas, from Vincent.”

Vince was overcome with emotion. The memory of that destitute family and his Christmas gift was restored. The circle was complete.

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Vince Speranza now calls Auburn, Ill., his home.
Mark DePue is the Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. You can listen to Vince’s entire story, and those of many other veterans, at the oral history section of the library’s website.

 

Board of Trustees

Sunny Fischer, Chair
Daniel J. Arnold
Julia Sniderman Bachrach
D. Jeanie Cooke
Melinda Spitzer Johnston
Gary L. Hammons
Dr. Theodore Flickinger


 
 
 
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