On 60th anniversary, county recognizes veterans of the Korean War

Richmond resident Richard Riles served as a Navy seaman during the Korean War. (Photo by: Sally Schilling)

Richmond resident Richard Riles served as a Navy seaman during the Korean War. (Photo by: Sally Schilling)

The Korean War is often called “the forgotten war” because many veterans felt their service went unrecognized. For the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, Contra Costa County is honoring veterans who may feel they have been forgotten.

“Many of them came home and felt like no one knew where they were,” said Nathan Johnson, the veterans service officer for Contra Costa County.

At first, Korean War veteran Richard Riles wanted to forget the war he had served in. “We didn’t want to remember that war. We were greatly outnumbered,” said Riles, a Richmond resident who entered the Navy at 17 after training in the ROTC in high school in Kansas City.

The Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, took thousands of lives. According to the Department of Defense, 36,574 members of the U.S. military died in the war–more than five times the number of U.S. military members who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s important not to forget a veteran from any war or peacetime,” Johnson said.

The county is hosting an event the day after Veterans Day that will honor all service members and feature Korean War veterans. County supervisors are interviewing local veterans ahead of the event, and asking them to speak about the ways they feel they have been forgotten. “We thought who better to reflect on that than the veterans of ‘the forgotten war,’” Johnson said.

As of 2011, there were between 400 and 700 Korean War veterans living in Richmond, according to Census estimates from its five-year community survey ending in that year.

In high school, Riles said he learned how to assemble a rifle in the dark. He wanted to be like the Army soldiers he saw wearing combat boots.

But the reality of being a young Navy seaman was different.  Riles and his fellow troops lived aboard the USS Bremerton and had to work with faulty equipment. They suffered through a cold Korean winter with shoes made out of mere pork skin. “They didn’t hold warmth,” Riles said.

Riles had a variety of duties during his six and a half month tour in Korea. He and the other young men operated heavy weaponry on the Bremerton. Fear of the enemy was faint in Riles’ mind. What he really feared was that his fellow troops might accidentally hurt each other while operating complex machinery.

“I was more fearful of the people being harmed around me,” he said.

While Riles assumes that conditions have improved for today’s troops, he still finds it important to discuss the circumstances that he and his comrades were faced with.

“The things we had to suffer through were not great things,” he said. “These are things we don’t look at as civilians.”

The county is encouraging veterans of the Korean War to attend an event on November 12. One Korean War veteran from each district is being asked to share his or her stories with his or her district supervisor in a taped interview prior to Tuesday. The interviews will be screened at the event. Korean War veterans will be asked to step forward to be recognized, but all veterans are encouraged to attend.

The event will be held in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers at 651 Pine Street in Martinez at 11 a.m.

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