WASHINGTON — Fifty years after the North Korean invasion of South Korea began the conflict often called the "forgotten war," President Clinton said Sunday the United States is still coming to terms with its role and trying to account for its dead.
"Korea was not a police action or a crisis or a conflict or a clash," said Clinton, using some of the terminology applied to the three-year United States involvement in Korea, which ended as it started with the peninsula divided along the 38th Parallel.
"It was a war, a hard, brutal war, and the men and women who fought it were heroes," Clinton said to applause from the more than 7,000 veterans, their families, military officials and others gathered at the commemoration at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington.
Clinton also announced the recent identification of two more of the 42 sets of American remains recovered in North Korea since the communist regime there began allowing searches by the U.S. military in 1996.
The remains belong to two Army sergeants who died in 1950: Hallie Clark Jr. of Hannibal, Mo., and James Higgins of Bellam, Ky. The two are to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery later this year.
"This nation continues to search for every warrior," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said. "They did not face the horror of battle for us to turn away in the hush of peace."
As Cohen and Clinton spoke Sunday, a U.S. military team was heading to North Korea to begin a new search--the first of five joint excavations scheduled this year.
The presence of American and allied forces in Korea altered the course of the Cold War, by convincing the Soviet Union that "America would fight for freedom" against communist forces, Clinton said.
He called the recent North-South summit in North Korea a "hopeful and historic step" but cautioned against any illusion that the armed standoff in place for 50 years would ease quickly.
Facts about the Korean War can be elusive--even one as basic as how many Americans died.
For years after the war ended in 1953, the Pentagon published a figure of 54,260. That combined the 33,643 "battle deaths" with 20,617 "other deaths." But in 1989 the Pentagon began revising the totals because "other deaths" included U.S. military deaths worldwide during the three years of the war, rather than just those who died in and around the Korean peninsula.
Standing solemnly before hundreds of Korean War veterans at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, Vice President Al Gore pledged that the "forgotten war" would no longer live in obscurity.
"I would like to say to all of you who served in the Korean War that your country greets you today," Gore said, drawing applause--and tears--from the veterans, many of whom leaned on canes. "Your bravery has too often been ignored."
It was only five years ago, the vice president added, that a monument was erected in their honor in the nation's capital.
"To the vets here today, the Korean War was never forgotten," Gore said. "You remember the cold, the biting cold . . . the swarming insects. For you this is never the forgotten war."
The words sent chills down veteran Leo Grimes' back. Grimes, 62, remembers how close he came to death as a point man for his infantry division in 1951. The Delaware man drove to Washington on Sunday for the ceremony, where he mingled with other veterans and recalled how difficult it was to return home after the fighting. While veterans of World War II celebrated the end of the conflict with "Victory!" headlines and their country's warm welcome, Grimes said he arrived home to find he hadn't been missed at all.
"Some people didn't even ask me where I was," he said, fighting back tears. "It was the lowest point of my whole life."
Times staff writer Bonnie Harris contributed to this story.