6.25 Couple honors U.S. ‘foot soldiers’ from Korean War

Couple honors U.S. ‘foot soldiers’ from Korean War

Koo Sung-yeol (third from right) and Kim Chang-hwa (second from right) pose for photos with the school principal, superintendent, and students after a donation event at Workman Elementary School in Michigan, United States, on April 4. [KOO SUNG-YEOL]

In Kaycee, Wyoming, the only school library is named for Corporal Demaret Kirtley, a Korean War veteran born in the small American town.

The library got its name thanks to a $5,000 (6.26 million won) donation by Koo Sung-yeol and Kim Chang-hwa to the school in May 2021.

In 2020, the Korean couple, who have lived in the U.S. for more than 50 years, founded the Korean War Foundation. It has made $5,000 donations to schools in the hometowns of nine American soldiers who died in the Korean War.

Koo and his wife make donations to the schools and deliver nameplates that honor the fallen soldiers.

The couple’s grand notion: to pay respect to the American foot soldiers in the war for Korea’s freedom from all 50 states. 

Corporal Kirtley died on Dec. 6, 1950, in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir on the Gaema Plateau in South Hamgyeong. He was 21 years old. His remains, which were not recovered at the time, were returned to his hometown in June 2019, 69 years after he died.

The average age of U.S. soldiers killed in action from the nine states was 21.2 years old. All of them have one thing in common: they were all foot soldiers.

“How can there be a general without a foot soldier?” said Mr. Koo in a telephone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on May 24. “But no one remembers the young foot soldiers.”

Koo’s plan is to make 41 more donations of $5,000 each to schools in the hometown of fallen soldiers in other states. This year, the couple will honor veterans from Kansas, California, and North Carolina from the 24th Infantry Division.

The U.S. participated in the Korean War as part of the United Nations (U.N.) Allied forces. More than 37,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and 90,000 injured. More than 7,000 remain missing.

“You can easily find the Korean War Memorial monument in the United States,” Koo said. “Whenever I step into their hometowns, I can feel the sadness of losing a young child and a brother.”

As a Korean living in the U.S., Koo is repaying the sorrow with donations. He explained he is donating “to remember and commemorate their sacrifice.”

“It is not a shame to get help when you’re in trouble, the saying goes,” Koo said. “It is a bigger shame not to be grateful after receiving help.”

Koo graduated from Yonsei University in 1965 and moved to the States in 1967, and has been living there for 55 years. He was a history major in college. In the U.S., he ran a computer software development business.

Koo, who was seven years old when the Korean War broke out, recalled, “The North Korean People’s Army walked around the neighborhood with guns.”

“Because I was young, I didn’t realize the misery of war at first,” Koo said. “I only realized it after the recapture of Seoul on Sept. 28, when I saw bodies scattered here and there and bullets piled up.”

A news photo of Kenneth Shadrick, a private first class soldier from West Virginia, who was the first to die in the Korean War at the age of 19 [625 FOUNDATION]

Koo and his wife’s first $5,000 donation was in October 2020. They chose a town near their house. The donation went to Readsboro Elementary School in Readsboro, Vermont.

Corporal Richard Bolognani, who was from Readsboro, died on Aug. 18, 1952 in Inje, Gangwon. He was 22 years old.  

The couple chose $5,000 donations as that was the amount they raised at a Liberty Walk event they hosted on June 25 of that year. The year 2020 was the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. Since 2018, the couple held Liberty Walk events every June 25 to commemorate the war.

Why donate to elementary schools? “Elementary school students are at the age where they get the most knowledge,” Koo said, “and I wanted to let them know about the special relationship with Korea.”

The fallen soldiers being honored are all from small towns. 

“They’re not easy to find, and they don’t get enough support,” Koo said. “Yet even being in the countryside, I feel that the students’ outlook on the world is open, pure and bright.”

He is planning to create a Korean Shelf in the school libraries he donates to.

“The two countries became brothers through the war, but I want to show that Korea is not all about war,” said Koo.

“It is to help students learn Korean language, history, and art through paintings and writings,” he said.

The June 25 Liberty Walk event this year will be held in the U.S. and Korea. Participants will assemble in front of the War Memorial in Yongsan District, central Seoul, go to the entrance of the U.S. Eighth Army base and walk about four kilometers to the National Museum of Korea. U.S. troops in Korea will participate.