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Many people in the United States do not even know that we had a war in Korea. It is often referred to as “the Forgotten War”. It occurred shortly after World War II and is often overshadowed by the Vietnam War. I interviewed my grandpa who was a soldier in the Korean War to get a deeper understanding of what life was like during this time period.
Lawrence Werner was born in December of 1931 in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up in the city as a first generation American in his family. His father immigrated to the United States in his early 20s and moved to Chicago since it was a major hub with lots of opportunities for jobs. Lawrence did not grow up with much money as it was hard for his father to find a job due to the Great Depression and its lasting effects on the economy. His mother was the typical housewife and did not have a job. He faced a lot of hatred throughout his childhood and teenage years for being German. It was especially hard during World War II as the primary enemy of the war was Germany.
After World War II, tension was building between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States feared that Communism would soon take over the world and believed that Korea was one of the first steps in this process. Korea broke out into a civil war between the Soviet backed North and the pro-western south. This was the first military action of the Cold War. Harry Truman, the president at the time, said, “if we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another”. This fear led to the United States to get involved and help protect South Korea. “The fight on the Korean peninsula was a symbol of the global struggle between east and west, good and evil”, democracy vs. communism. The United States started drafting young men from the US in order to gain troops to fight this war. My grandfather got drafted when he was nearly 19. Being drafted had a large impact on his family: “It was a very hard time for my family as my older brother had also been drafted not long before I was. My mother was obviously worried about our safety”. Lawrence faced two very different opinions on the war within his own family. His mother was very upset about the United States entering the Korean War, “she was against the war and was mad at the government for getting involved and risking our lives for something she believed was not a problem for the United States”. His father, however, had a different opinion on the war: “he was proud of us for being able to serve our country and that we were fighting for the good of everyone. He enjoyed being able to tell his friends that both his sons served in the war”. Lawrence wrote a letter to his brother not long after he found out he had been drafted. Lawrence prayed for his brother with the hopes that if he could not return, then his brother could. He could not imagine his mother losing both of her children to the war. At this time many people opposed the draft as they felt it was unfair and favored certain classes. People with money could often buy their way out or attend college to avoid being enlisted. Others fled to Canada so that they did not have to risk their lives for the war. There were numerous protests where young men would burn their draft cards to show their hatred for the system as well as their disagreement with the war. My grandfather had no way of getting out of his deployment and left for Korea soon after he was drafted: “There were not very many ways that I would have been able to avoid the draft. I was not raised with money, so I couldn’t buy my way out and I did not have the money to attend college. The only thing I could have done was to flee to Canada, but I knew that if I did that, I would not be able to return as I would have been seen as a traitor to the United States”.
During the war, Lawrence was a member of the air force, but he never saw combat. He was a Tactical Aircraft Maintenance specialist who was in charge of keeping the aircrafts in exacting standards. He was a part of the air force for almost two years and then was discharged and thanked for his service. He choose not to enlist again, unlike his brother who volunteered for the Vietnam war right after being discharged. He also wanted to settle down and start a family and he said, “it would be hard to leave them for such a long period of time”.
After Lawrence returned from war, he was lucky enough to find a job pretty quickly. He said, “Due to the skills I had from fixing planes while in the Air Force, I was able to get a job at a General Motor factory. I was a part of an assembly line building cars. I worked there for over 35 years”. The attitude in the United States was much different than he had hoped for when he returned home. The veterans returning home from the Korean War received nearly no attention. James Wright writes, “there was no celebrations in Times Square – or anywhere else… Washington greeted news of the Korean truce yesterday with a matter-of-fact attitude – quietly, without evident jubilation”. It was very disappointing for many of the soldiers who returned home because they had just risked their lives for their country and they received no thank you. The country was distracted by the Vietnam War, which was happening at the exact same time. The Vietnam War received all of the media coverage and the country was divided in half: half wanting to get involved and half believing that it was not our problem. Lawrence was very upset by how they were treated when they returned home and was even more upset by how the Vietnam veterans were treated: “I wish that our efforts had been more appreciative even if people did not agree with the war. Many of the soldiers fighting did not have a choice and were drafted. We put our lives on the line for everyone in the US and it would have been nice to know that people understood that”.
As things were heating up with the Vietnam War, he tried to distance himself from politics and anything war related. He met his wife and we got married in 1957. Their first child was a baby boomer born in 1961 and that’s when they decided to move to the suburbs. They had heard many good things following the suburbia trend and thought it would be a good place to raise a family. They had three more kids in the coming years while he was working at the factory and his wife took care of the kids at home.
Lawrence Werner was a key example on how the wars that took place in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, shaped the citizens of the United States. There is still much debate today on whether getting involved in these wars was the right thing to do and we will forever have to live with the fact that thousands upon thousands of American soldiers died for wars that we could not have gotten involved in. Through interviews with people like Lawrence, a greater understanding is learned about what life was really like during these time periods.
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