Korean MemorialKorean War & Korea Defense Service Veterans, Lake Co. (FL), Chapter 169

Former Spy Now Businessman Remembers On the 51st Anniversary of the Korean War

Graybeards, March/April, 2002, Pg. 42-45.

Former Spy, Now Businessman, Remembers Annually Hosts U.S. Veterans Who Served in Korea’s “Forgotten War”

By Larry Weier

Just five years after harsh colonial rule of Korea by Japan ceased with its surrender to General Douglas MacArthur, ending World War II, young Choon Kyung Kohs world was turned upside down and his life was forever changed. At war’s end, negotiations had given control of the northern half of his country to the Soviets, while the US received control of the southern half.

But communist North Korea wanted it all, and its troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, to take it. Seoul, the South’s capital, was captured on June 28. Just a day earlier, the United Nations called for a cease-fire and President Harry Truman ordered U.S. troops into Korea. The North’s 135,000 troops greatly outnumbered President Syngman Rhee’s Republic of Korea (ROK) 90,000 troops as civilians fled from the invaders and headed far south, where a defensive perimeter was being established at Pusan. American GIs, together with ROK troops, fought defensively to slow the advancing enemy while the perimeter was being set up.

Young Koh, who now goes by the name Eddie Koh and owns Quail Hollow Golf & Country Club in Wesley Chapel, was only 15 and in high school. Although he was born in Chor Won in North Korea, about 200 miles north of Seoul, his family had moved to Seoul because of growing unrest in North Korea. Kohs father was a founding minister of the Seventh Day Adventists Church in Korea and sensed increasing antagonism toward his activities in Chor Won.

Too young to join the military but fluent in English, Koh joined the School Volunteer Army (SVA). Its members wore no uniform and carried no weapons. Their mission was two-fold. They were to infiltrate the North and convey to its citizens that UN Forces were in Korea to help them.

They were also to gather military intelligence for UN Forces headed by MacArthur, named Commander of Unified UN Forces on July 8. Koh also served as an interpreter.

He fulfilled a key role in the famous amphibious landing by MacArthur’s troops at Inchon on Korea’s west coast, southwest of Seoul.

With North Korean troops pushing aggressively south to surround ROK, US and UN forces at Pusan, MacArthur’s strategy was to make a surprise landing at Inchon, advance east and cut the supply lines for North Korean troops driving toward Pusan. They could then be isolated and destroyed.

Landing at Inchon would be very difficult and exacting, though. Low and high tides can vary by 23-35 feet. If troops landed at low tide, they would be on mud flats, faced with scaling a sheer, 30-foot seawall.

However, if they landed at high tide, they would be nearly even with the top of the seawall, needing only short ladders to climb ashore from their landing craft.

Koh was part of a small reconnaissance team reporting to US Navy Lt. Eugene Clark, whose mission was to signal MacArthur’s forces offshore about the tide. To do this, the group went ashore at Palmi Do, a small island in the approach to Inchon where a damaged lighthouse beacon was located.

Koh and the rest of Clark’s team repaired the beacon and, at 12:01 AM, Sept. 15, they lit it. The landing at Inchon, code-named “Operation Chromite,” began with that lighting. First Division Marines were first to go over the seawall from Navy landing craft at 5:30PM that day.

Later, in October, Koh was the first to discover that Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) had crossed the Yalu River border into North Korea to join the fight against UN troops. Koh had infiltrated North Korea near the Chosin Reservoir when he saw soldiers in different uniforms speaking a language other than Korean. He recognized it as Chinese and sent word of CCF intervention back through intelligence channels. UN Headquarters staff did not believe him at first but his report proved to be accurate.

Some 300,000 CCF troops subsequently ambushed elements of the Seventh Army and First Marine Divisions from mountains overlooking the area. The GIs had to fight their way back south 45 miles in bitter, numbing cold and deep snow to the east coast port of Hungnam, where they were evacuated by some of the same landing craft, including Henry’s, that had brought them ashore at Inchon. They suffered heavy casualties —including more than 8,000 killed — by CCF troops holding the high ground above their route. Survivors are reverently referred to as “the Chosin Few.”

Koh is overwhelmed by the courage and humanity of the Americans carrying out the evacuation. “Not only did they evacuate US troops,” he said, “but, at great risk to their own fives, they also evacuated 90,000 North Korean civilians escaping communism, all while under fire from the Chinese.”

American pilots showed the same kind of principles, according to Koh. “They refused to attack temples and shrines and similar buildings, even though they knew enemy troops hid there during raids. Americans honored the rules of the Geneva Convention,” he said. “US troops would use men and resources to guard and care for prisoners. The Chinese and North Koreans would simply kill prisoners in many situations.”

With two years of on-again/off-again armistice negotiations taking place while heavy fighting continued, an armistice was finally signed at 10:00 AM, July 27, 1953, with all fighting to cease 12 hours later. A Line of Demarcation and Demilitarized Zone was established at roughly the 38th Parallel. After three years, one month and two days, the brutal fighting came to a shaky and fragile truce. No final agreement ending the war has ever been signed. Opposing forces still patrol the demilitarized zone.

An odd thing about the Korean War was that the US, technically, had not been at war because Congress had never issued a Declaration of War. Nervous politicians instead referred to it as a “conflict” or “police action.”

This is one factor in it being called “the Forgotten War.” Another is that it had the historical misfortune of occurring between World War II (people were tired of “war”) and the much longer Vietnam War that followed and was viewed via satellite TV24 hours a day. (Incidentally, Congress never officially declared war in Vietnam, either.)

After the armistice, Koh began corresponding with ex-GIs with whom he had become friends, including Harry Elder, Basil Goldman and Jack Root. All lived in the New Jersey and New York area. Although the three hadn’t known each other while in Korea, they became acquainted through their mutual correspondence with Koh. This led them to discuss bringing him to the United States. All were bachelors, though, and it would have been difficult if not impossible for one to adopt him. Koh was then 19.

Through Elder, who lived in New Jersey, the three contacted NJ Congressman Hugh Addonizio, who was sympathetic to their idea. Addonizio arranged to have Koh interviewed by the US Ambassador in Seoul. Koh had “less than five cents” in his pocket at the interview when the Ambassador told him that he could leave for the States within the next week with a passport and President Rhee’s blessing.

Koh had no idea where he would get the $600 air fare and was elated when the Ambassador told him that a one-way ticket was being held in his name at the ticket counter of Northwest Airlines — already paid for. He boarded the plane days later with $20 given him by friends.

Elder invited Koh to live with him in East Orange NJ while he finished high school and studied to become a naturalized US citizen. He accomplished both goals and then volunteered for the draft in Aug. 1956, to earn tuition for college after service. He was sent back to Korea as a counterintelligence officer interpreting and analyzing anti-US news during his two-year hitch.

Koh returned to New Jersey and received a degree from the Newark College of Engineering in 1960. He was hired by Bendix Corp. and remained three years before starting his own import/export business, using contacts in Korea and partially financed by $4,000 given him by ex-GI Root. Koh had met his future wife, Joanna, also Korean, in New Jersey and they married in 1962. Business with Montgomery Ward brought him to the Tampa Bay area on numerous occasions.

The Kohs decided to move here and raise their two sons. One, Albert, is now a reconstructive surgeon in Boston. The other, Harry, is a trial lawyer in New Jersey.

In the interim, Addonizio, later Mayor of Newark, had been sent to prison for his part in a building scandal. Nonetheless, Koh says, “He’s still my hero.”

After leaving the import/export business, Koh and his wife owned and operated a Tampa restaurant for eight years. Then came an opportunity in 1993 to purchase Quail Hollow Golf & Country Club on Old Pasco Road  in Wesley Chapel. They made the purchase and today, in addition to managing the operation together, also live on the premises. His brother, Moon Kyung Koh, a retired minister, lives nearby.

It was while sitting and chatting with Korean War veterans at the club one day in 1996 that Koh decided he and his wife would host an annual outing honoring US veterans of the Korean War. Its purpose would be to show their personal appreciation, as well as that of all South Koreans, for the sacrifices that American troops made in rescuing their country and saving its people from communism. All veterans who served in Korea between June 25, 1950, and July 27, 1953, would be welcome to attend, along with their spouses.

Golf, food — including a buffet dinner — beer and soft drinks are “on the house,” courtesy of the Kohs. The event has grown each year. This year’s outing, the sixth, was held Monday, Aug. 13, and drew 250 Korean veterans and guests. In addition to the free goIf, food and refreshments, Korean folk dancers in colorful, traditional costumes entertained them.

Ann Poonkasem, a young Korean graduate of USF holding the title of “Miss Tampa,” sang the US national anthem. Kimi J. Springsteen, representing the area’s Asian-American community, choked up as she recalled the night of North Korea’s invasion and thanked the veterans for coming to her country’s rescue. “You will never, never be forgotten and will be honored for generations to come,” she told them.

American and Republic of Korea flags were displayed on each table and around the clubhouse and golf course. Banners reading “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE” and “FORGOTTEN NO MORE” hung over the practice green. A special table is set each year in honor of Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action from all wars. One chair tilted against the table is symbolically “reserved for one who hasn’t returned.”

Koh explained that veterans don’t often share with their families what they went through in combat. He said that the annual outings reveal veterans’ experiences that even spouses learn of for the first time. Koh feels that everyone — spouses, children and grandchildren — should know of the sacrifices they’ve made and of the hardships they’ve endured.

Koh can’t forget the loss of two million lives of his countrymen, South and North. Asked whether the two Koreas would ever reunite into a single country, Koh replied that “it will take a big forgiveness.” Personally, because of his own experiences, he “can’t forgive” the North Korean government.

“Not really. Not under any conditions. However, the younger generations should work toward reunification for the future of both countries,” he said.

Although South Korea’s President Kim Dae Chung received the Nobel Peace Prize for opening the door to reunification talks with North Korea and has another year-and-a-half in office, Koh feels that “North Korea is not ready to unite.” He is distrustful of the North, pointing out that “it is taking advantage of the US to get aid and other benefits.” Food and aid money, he believes, are siphoned off to support the military. “Civilians are very poor and children are starving,” he said.

“Before the US makes any real effort to reunite the country,” he said, “North Korea must first be made to account for the more than 8,000 US troops still listed as Missing in Action.’American families have a right to know where their sons are and to bring them back home, whether dead or alive.”

On the positive side, he thinks that China will not again actively participate in armed aggression against South Korea by the North. “It has nothing to gain.” He believes China’s emergence in the world economy and its hosting of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will keep it out of such an entanglement.

(Thank you Larry Weier for photos and letter. I normally would consider this a story and not print in Chapter Affairs. I made the exception this time because it ties in with your chapter and it is a great story about a true hero and now a great American. I do wish to correct some history.

It was the 7 Inf. Div, not 7th Army at the Chosin and we also must remember the 3rd Inf. Div. had the rear guard along with the 92nd Artillery Bn. to help those UN Armies and civilians to escape. Also the 8th Army (those not named above) came under attack during this period on the Central and Western MLR. Maybe the 7th Army you speak of were ROK’s but I do know the other units including ROK Units also bore the brunt of the 300,000 Chinese invaders and suffered many casualties. How do I know, well just my own 2nd Inf. Div. had over 5,000 casualties during this same period and I was in that division in 1950-51. I also lost my twin brother on Dec 1, 1950, MIA/POW who was in my unit in the 2nd I.D. remains not returned, and still in North Korea.

Our readers tend to get upset when units are omitted and I did not try to name all units in order to make sure I am not omitting all our brave heroes. We were all U.N. Forces.)