Ewin Brandon knows the Korea he sees on television is the same place he left more than 60 years ago, but sometimes it’s hard to believe.
Skyscrapers and even paved roads weren’t prominent features of the landscape in 1953. Now it’s clear Koreans have a lot more to lose by waging war — and more reason to work out the differences between the North and the South.
“We’ve got to try to trust them,” said Brandon, an Anniston resident. “We’ve got to hope this will work. I believe that if anyone can do it, Donald Trump can.”
Brandon is one of thousands of Alabamians who will watch this week’s expected summit in Singapore with a special interest. President Donald Trump is set to meet North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un for talks on Tuesday. Brandon, who spent the last months of the Korean War driving around the peninsula with a carbine at hand and a cobalt hand grenade on his belt, says he hopes the talks lead to peace — because the other option is too terrible to contemplate.
At 86, Brandon is among a dwindling number of Korean War veterans in Alabama — men, mostly, who were often drafted into service, fought fiercely only to wind up where they started, and saw their war less celebrated in popular culture than the conflicts that became before or after.
Their exact numbers in the state are difficult to count. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 26,505 Alabama residents in 2015 were veterans who served in the Korean War era, but that number doesn’t distinguish war veterans from those who served stateside. By 2020, that number is projected to shrink to 15,000. About 1,100 drivers last year had Korean War license plates that only war veterans can get, according to the state Department of Revenue. In 2010, there were twice as many.
Ready to fight tonight
But the conflict has deeper roots here than one might expect. Since the war, countless veterans have done tours of duty in the peninsula, where peace was never officially declared and the U.S. motto is “ready to fight tonight.”
Jim Coppola, an Anniston resident, was one of those soldiers. Coppola was stationed near the demilitarized zone in 1969, a year when U.S. forces often exchanged fire with North Korean infiltrators and the North shot down a U.S. surveillance plane. Coppola worked in fire control in a field artillery unit, not close enough to see the DMZ but close enough to send artillery shells into it.
“I hope it goes well,” Coppola said of the upcoming talks. “South Korea was such a nice place, and I’d hate to see a war ruin that.”
Trump’s plan to talk directly to Kim has earned mixed, but largely negative, reviews from former diplomats and other Korea experts. No president has held such high-level talks with the North, leading some critics to fret that the talks would lend legitimacy to the North’s claims to be a serious power in the world. Past agreements, arrived at by more roundabout methods, haven’t stopped the North from getting nuclear weapons. And Trump said he “doesn’t have to prepare much” for the talks, National Public Radio reported Thursday.
Coppola, the Anniston veteran, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I don’t know if you can trust the North Koreans,” he said. Even so, he said, talks are worth a try because they could yield an agreement that works.
Trump’s critics have also worried openly that Trump might give away the store, agreeing to pull all U.S. troops out of the Korean peninsula as part of a deal. Coppola doesn’t see that happening.
“I don’t think America will ever withdraw,” he said. “There will always be a peacekeeping force.”
Asked why he believes the U.S. won’t withdraw, Coppola said the American presence there had always been strong.
Still, the peninsula has already been through changes that local veterans find hard to imagine. Brandon said that back in 1953, the idea of North Korea developing a nuclear weapon would have been unthinkable.
“If you had told me back then that the North Koreans could build an automobile, I would have said you were crazy,” he said.
‘Best of luck’
Brandon worries that a new Korean conflict would bring back the conditions of the early 1950s, when Korea was poverty-stricken and a bad semester in college could threaten a young American’s life.
Brandon played football at Tennessee Tech after leaving high school, but flunked out, he said, because he was too focused on the game. More than a year passed without incident. Brandon got a job and a wife. Then he got a draft notice.
His college time and a high school typing course landed him a job in an Army intelligence unit, where he was quickly made a sergeant and charged with making sure other units took proper care of their classified documents.
He was issued a carbine rifle — he has never fired one, even in training — and sent to front-line units to make sure their secrets were safe. Among his jobs: If a base came under air attack, he was expected to stand in the open door of the unit’s classified documents vault, ready to toss a grenade in and destroy the material.
It never came to that, though Brandon said he saw some bombing. Mostly, though, he saw the economic devastation war can bring. Lacking plumbing or soap, the locals collected used water from the G.I.’s laundry to wash their own clothes. Roads were filled with men carrying massive loads on “A-frames,” a traditional wooden backpack carrier.
Brandon recalls seeing a fellow soldier once grow impatient while stuck behind a slow-moving man with an A-frame. The soldier shoved the man into the mud.
“That’s just the way the GIs treated the Koreans,” he said. “I can’t blame Koreans for saying they want GIs out of there.”
Still, Brandon doubts there would be a deal that includes a withdrawal.
Despite their own personal investment in America’s Korea policy, Brandon and Coppola both sound open to a solution — ready to not fight tonight.
That’s also true of Bob Hill, a Florence resident who’s a past president of the Alabama branch of the Korean War Veterans Association. The group is open to all veterans of a war that has yet to be officially ended — whether they went to Korea in 1952 or 2002. Still, age seems to be taking its toll, with many past chapters now listed as inactive.
Hill served in the Navy during the war, on the USS Yellowstone, a destroyer tender. He said sounded cautious but hopeful about the summit.
“I wish Trump the best of luck in trying to deal with Kim Jong Un,” he said. “I yearn for the day when North and South Korea have a relationship and cooperate on economic matters. It would mean everything for them. It would mean everything for the world.”
© 2018 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)
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