Watching the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year's day, I was thrilled to see two special floats. One was the float celebrating Military Dogs -- those intrepid animals who have helped our armed forces in many wars. (Did you see the tearful reunion of that Army soldier, a dog handler on the float, who dismounted to the avenue and greeted his wife and child who thought he was in Afghanistan? Tearful.) For many years I have been striving to do a movie called The War Dogs about the adventures of these brave animals who sniff out dangers and save so many lives. There is a monument to them being constructed at Texas' Lackland Air Force Base, where they are currently trained. You would think movie execs would be fighting to do such an exciting untold story, but sadly, not so.
The other float that stirred my blood was one called "Freedom Is Not Free," and it celebrated what we call "The Forgotten War," my war. No one remembers that from 1950 to 1953 we engaged in a 'police action' in the country of Korea, which cost the lives of 33,000 soldiers, five times more than we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan in 12 years of fighting there! It was a police action because it was never declared an official war by Congress. President Harry Truman decided that we had to preserve the fledgling democracy of South Korea from invasion by the North and later the Chinese, and so I was drafted in 1951 and sent to a U.S. Army Signal Corps training camp in New Mexico.
I had told them in my indoctrination that I had a fear of heights so, of course, I was sent to a pole-climbing outfit in the desert. I swallowed my fear, put on the foot/hook clamps and belt, and climbed a hundred-foot pole in front of the entire company... and swore that I would never do it again. (And didn't.)
But they then put me on a troopship, and after three weeks of seasickness we arrived in Pusan, Korea. By some wonderful accident of fate, the Commanding General heard from his friend and my former client, actor/commentator Robert Montgomery, that I had been a New York publicity agent and writer, so out-of-the-blue he assigned me the unique task of creating a local Army newspaper, which would compete with the official Stars and Stripes which -- for some reason -- he disliked. Thus I was given the designation/rank of 'War Correspondent' and assigned to establish a paper, which became The Hialeahan, named for the U.N. Hialeah compound where we were stationed. Sixteen nations participated there via the U.N. in the war. For a year I built the paper into a potent Army source of unvarnished news, and my friends in New York had columnists Walter Winchell, Leonard Lyons and Earl Wilson sending special columns to our paper. I came home with three Army Commendation Medals for having the best paper in the war zone, and a raft of harrowing adventures, which I have tried (unsuccessfully) to blot from memory. (Like when the invading Chinese army infiltrated down to Pusan and attacked the compound one night... me, alone in my newspaper office, fatally defending it from a Chinese soldier with a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver I had won in a card game the previous week. Or learning to cook Chinese food from an employee of the paper. R&R -- rest and recreation -- occasionally in Japan. Running the USO program, hosting visiting stars -- Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna -- and lecturing thousands of troops weekly on basic hygiene and war news. Heading home on another troopship and discharged in mid-1953, back to the p.r. wars.)
Which is why I was thrilled to see that float honoring Korean War veterans. And to hear the commentator say that the builders of the float had been helped by several dozen elderly Korean people who had been saved by the Army in those days. They came to Pasadena on Friday and glued rose pedals and leaves to adorn the exhibit. The Los Angeles Times quoted Army Col, David Clark as saying: "The Rose Parade is the heroes' welcome these veterans always deserved and never got." The paper notes that we all came home after surviving unimaginable horrors to silently shoulder the burden of what is still nicknamed "the forgotten war." Incidentally, this was the first American war which was fought by many minorities in what was the newly-integrated armed forces. Being a young innocent from Brooklyn, newly-graduated from NYU, I vividly remember being educated in so many unknown incidents by guys I met from every state... southerners, Indians, blacks, Midwestern farmers and Mexican laborers... a real education in the real world that has stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.
When I returned to Korea on Cinerama business many years later, I was stunned by what the prospering country had become -- gleaming skyscrapers everywhere. No signs of the grimy country I had known remained. My young Korean movie business associates listened in astonishment when I told them of the brave U.S. Marines who had fought the invading Chinese in bitter cold at the 38th parallel, about the Inchon invasion by MacArthur's forces, and how the general had been fired by the president when he wanted to bomb the Chinese mainland with atomic weapons. Like I said... the forgotten war... but not by me. And not by those veterans who rode on the float or watched in grim silence. Yes, it was a Rose Parade I will never forget.
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