Rowan Museum exhibit brings back the hot war within the Cold War for veterans of Korea
SALISBURY — Korean War veterans can agree on many things.
For one, Korean winters were the coldest — frostbite cold.
“Kick me in the knee,” Milton Iossi says. “I won’t even feel it.”
Another thing, Clarence Beaver says, is that no matter where you stood in North or South Korea, you could see a mountain.
And don’t let anyone tell you differently, Bob Poplin says, this wasn’t a police action. This was a full-blown war.
When the armistice was called on July 27, 1953 — soon to be 60 years ago — it was a happy, happy day.
The Rowan Museum opened its summer-long Korean War exhibit Sunday afternoon, and many Korean War veterans such as Beaver, Iossi, Poplin, J. Francis Holt, Virginia Graves and Tom Frick were on hand to remember what often has been called The Forgotten War.
Sometimes people just didn’t want to hear the Korean War veterans’ stories after they returned home, said Terry Holt, a Rowan Museum trustee and chairman of the exhibit.
“But they have to be remembered,” he said.
During a brief sharing of stories Sunday among the veterans present, Holt said he wanted them to know they are remembered and that their service “means the world to us.”
“We want everybody in Rowan County to come and see this exhibit,” Holt said.
Kaye Brown Hirst, executive director of the Rowan Museum, said much of the credit for the exhibit must go to military artifacts collectors Sonny Karriker, Gleen Hinson and Jerry Brown.
“It’s been interesting, all that we’ve learned from these guys,” she said.
The county’s Korean War veterans also have helped tremendously with the exhibit in offering oral histories and sharing their own photographs and artifacts.
Francis Trexler, widow of Ret. Col. Tommy Trexler, said she couldn’t help but become emotional while walking through the exhibit and seeing the display case devoted to her husband, who was a prisoner of the North Koreans for 33 months.
“He’s my hero,” she said.
She recalled on their last vacation bus trip to New England, how Tommy had shared his POW experience with the rest of the passengers. Frances Trexler said Tommy talked from his heart and mind that day, “and there wasn’t a dry eye on the bus.”
A captivating, two-page description written by Tommy Trexler details what his POW experience was like, and it’s part of the Rowan Museum’s exhibit.
“We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose,” is the way Iossi, a retired Foreign Service officer, describes the Korean War. He served with the Army Corps of Engineers as a firefighter, among other duties. For much of his 18 months of combat support in Korea, he was stationed in the northeastern mountains above the 38th parallel, the line dividing North and South Korea.
He’ll never forget the frequent nights of “Bedcheck Charlie,” when the enemy would fly with fire over the U.S. camps. The sweetest sound in Korea, Iossi said, was when the guns went silent with the July 27 armistice, as promised by President Eisenhower.
Holt remembered he was in a foxhole when Eisenhower announced the armistice, and he said the U.S. soldiers celebrated as though it were Christmas.
Graves (see the accompanying story) said she held a lot of resentment and bitterness about the Korean War, but working with Rowan Museum and talking about her experiences “has really helped to bring me out.”
“I’m proud of serving over there,” Graves said.
Iossi, Graves and others said it shouldn’t be overlooked, but the American involvement led to independence and prosperity for the people of South Korea.
It truly did make a difference, they noted.
Beaver was part of the Army’s 32nd Engineering Group, and he spent most of his 16 months in Wonju, a railroad center about 15 to 20 miles from the front lines. For the most part, he designed bridges and a few buildings.
Sometimes he had to report to the 24th Division, and there were occasions in which the enemy took shots at him.
“They were poor marksmen,” Beaver reported.
Poplin enlisted in the Navy when he was 17, and he was serving on the USS Valley Forge when the fighting started in Korea. He remembers the Valley Forge was in Hong Kongand had to travel first to the Philippines to get ammunition.
Many of the men on his ship were asking the question, “Where’s Korea?”
Poplin learned the answer to that question for 27 long months.
Poplin said his aircraft carrier was the first to fly jets and the first to fly jets at night.
The Rowan Museum’s exhibit means a lot to him, Poplin said.
“He’s always said I’d wish they’d do something about the Korean War,” said his wife, Ann.
Karriker, the military artifacts collector, said he noticed how shows and events always had plenty of stuff from World War II, but hardly anything from the Korean War.
He decided he would only collect Korean War artifacts. If it’s from that time period, Karriker says, “I’m going to buy it, if I can afford it.”
“I’m going to help you keep it alive,” he promised the Korean war veterans Sunday.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.