‘Thanks America’: Korean honors fallen US soldiers

‘Thanks America’: Korean honors fallen US soldiers

Sung-yull Koo, right, the man who initiated the Korean War memorial event Liberty Walk, poses with Korean War veteran Chuck Gaiotti in this photo taken recently. Courtesy of Sung-yull Koo

Hundreds of Koreans, dozens of US military servicemen and women walk 4 kilometers in Seoul in memory of US soldiers who died during Korean War

While visiting many different U.S. cities over the past five decades since he arrived in the country in 1967 as a Korean immigrant, Sung-yull Koo, 79, was surprised to learn that Korean War Monuments are almost everywhere. Even small cities and counties, with which Koreans are not familiar, have war memorials in remembrance of the bloodiest war since World War II.

As a Korean, Koo said he felt indebted because so many young Americans were killed or wounded while fighting for the freedom of South Korea against the invasion of the communist North. Nearly 5 million people were killed during the war, and 37,000 of them were U.S. troops. Over 9,000 Americans were also wounded.

Koo tried to figure out if there was anything he could do to give back to America. The “Liberty Walk,” launched in 2018, is the brainchild of his years of soul-searching to find his role to recognize the young American soldiers whose lives were tragically cut short because of the war.

Under the Korean War memorial event held every year on June 25, the day when the war broke out, Koo and like-minded people walk nearly five kilometers to remember the Korean War and fallen American soldiers. The memorial program is his version of “Thanks America” campaign.

Each participant donated a certain amount of money and the money raised through the event has gone to elementary schools located in the hometowns of the chosen soldiers each year. The donated money was spent to renovate their libraries or reading rooms named after Korean War soldiers.

Readsboro Elementary School in Vermont is the first U.S. school that received a donation from funds raised through Liberty Walk. It is the alma mater of Sergeant Richard Bolognani who died on Aug. 18, 1952, in Korea’s mountainous eastern county of Inje. He was just 22.

To date, 11 elementary school libraries in 11 different U.S. states have benefitted from donations raised through the Liberty Walk memorial program.

“Our collective memory of the help we received and the sacrifices of the American soldiers have faded away,” Koo said in an email interview with The Korea Times. “Every time we think about those who perished, we are humbled by it. Teenage soldiers from the South who never saw any snow surrounded by 120,000 fresh Chinese troops along the shores of the Changjin in minus 30 degrees Celsius. Unimaginable hardship. We wish to shine a light on their sacrifice and honor them. We do this by supporting small elementary school libraries in the soldiers’ hometowns, and we keep their spirits alive with the Liberty Walk.”

Every year, Koo himself chooses U.S. soldiers to honor and commemorate. This year, four people were chosen to be recognized for their sacrifices: Private Jackie Lee Murdock of Indiana; Private Wilbur Barlett Colford of Maine; PFC Robert Dewayne of Kansas; and Sergeant George T Brower of North Carolina.

The 625 Foundation hosts the Liberty Walk. The three-digit name of the foundation refers to the date when North Korea invaded the South and started the war. Koo founded the non-profit group in 2019.

His idea to establish the foundation started with his realization that the younger Koreans know little about the war, not to mention about the sacrifices of some 37,000 U.S. soldiers, during his conversation with two Korean students he met in Kathmandu, Nepal. After the trip, he prepared to establish a foundation that can educate the young Koreans about the war and its legacy.

This year’s Liberty Walk took place in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Las Vegas and Rupert, Vermont.

“Here in Rupert, we have 4H Club children walking with us. They are our previous notable guests. They’ll learn about the war, about the 94 Vermonters who gave their lives in the Korean War,” said Koo. He is currently living in Bennington County, Vermont with his wife.

Participants of Liberty Walk Seoul gesture in a group photo taken on Saturday in front of the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul. Courtesy of Association of Republic of Korea Army

This year is special to Koo as the Liberty Walk project has made remarkable progress: it was also held in Seoul on Saturday.

About 1,000 people, including 60 American soldiers posted in Seoul, walked four kilometers of the route from the War Memorial of Korea in Itaewon, Seoul, to the National Museum of Korea to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the war.

“About 500 people had initially signed up for the event. But nearly 1,000 people showed up on Saturday and walked to remember the U.S. soldiers’ sacrifices,” said an official who had been involved in the event asking for anonymity for he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In Korea, the Association of Republic of Korea Army (AROKA) organized the event as the 625 Foundation has no branch in Seoul.

Some of the notable participants include Kim Seung-yu, former president of Hana Financial Group, and Kim Young-woo, a former three-term lawmaker who also served as chairman of the National Assembly National Defense Committee.

Koo said he was excited about the Liberty Walk Seoul. “This is fantastic,” he said.

He has a humble wish: he wants to expand his version of giving back to America in return for
the country’s sacrifice to defend freedom and democracy in South Korea and help more school libraries in 50 U.S. states, a goal that seems not too remote, given the progress it has made during such a short time span.

Koo hopes that the Liberty Walk can be developed into a mutually beneficial platform that can help American kids learn more about Korea and its culture. He aims to establish a Korean shelf in the elementary school libraries and donate books about Korean culture, such as Korean food, K-pop or Hangul (the Korean alphabet).

Ex-lawmaker Kim, who serves as an advisor of the Liberty Walk in Seoul, hints at further expansion of the Korean War memorial event. There can be other country-specific programs that thank Turkey or other Korean War participating countries, he indicated.

“Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea during the Korean War and some of them are currently developing countries. I think we may consider raising money to commemorate the fallen or wounded soldiers from those countries, too,” he said.