“Freedom is Not Free” Remembering Why at the Korean War Veterans Memorial


Nineteen figures, dressed in combat uniforms and moving in formation, cut a silent, ghostly silhouette against the seasonal colors of the National Mall.  Tall in stature and gray in color, these figures represent an American infantry unit from the Korean War.  

The statues are the most prominent feature of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Sitting just to the southeast of the Lincoln Memorial, it is one of the National Mall’s most intriguing sites. 

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces of the Korean People’s Army, with the backing of Soviet and Chinese leaders, poured over the 38th parallel, attacking south with the goal of reuniting a divided Korea under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Within 48 hours, the United States committed air and sea forces to the defense of South Korea. On June 27, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 83, calling on “Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack…”. 

Fighting would last 38 months, during the years from 1950-1953. United Nations forces were able to repel the initial North Korean invasion. The last two years was largely a stalemate, even though there was fierce fighting and direct engagement between US and Chinese ground troops. An armistice halting the fighting was signed on July 27, 1953 in Panmunjom, Korea.

By the end of hostilities, over 5.8 million Americans served in the US armed forces and 36,574 Americans died as a result of hostile actions in the Korean War theater.  In addition, 103,284 were wounded during the conflict. Losses were especially high among the Korean combatants. Over 162,000 South Korean soldiers and 526,000 North Korean soldiers were killed. Civilian deaths during the Korean War on both sides are estimated at between 2-3 million. 

The details of the Korean War may not be known to many of the visitors, but the memorial vividly weaves together symbolism and imagery to portray the conflict’s sacrifices and significance.  

An image of a US Navy nurse from the Mural Wall

For full effect, the statues should be viewed in conjunction with the Mural Wall, which adds a unique, two dimensional feature to the memorial. The 164-foot long wall is constructed of a highly polished black granite and stands to the statues’ right side. It bears the images of over 2,400 troops and different specialties from each branch of the Armed Forces that supported the infantry during the Korean War. Both the faces of the statues and the visages on the wall are based on actual Korean War veterans, taken from photographs supplied by the National Archives and Records Administration and other renderings. Viewed from a distance, the service member images on the wall resemble the mountains of Korea.  The wall vividly reflects the statues, suggesting 38 servicemen moving in formation and symbolizing the 38th parallel and the 38 months of the war.

On the left side of the statues is the United Nations curb, a stone edge to a paved walkway with the name of the 22 Countries that, like the United States, fought or provided material support in Korea under the auspices of the United Nations.  

An engraving of the the United Nations seal as depicted on the United Nations Curb.

The statues appear to be moving toward an American flag flying from a flag pole next to a reflecting pool shaded by a grove of linden trees. At the base of the flag pole is a small stone with the inscription “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” 

The pool is inscribed with the numbers of casualties sustained during the war by both the United States and the United Nations. The area is known formally as the Pool of Remembrance; the pool and the adjoining benches shaded by linden trees invites quiet contemplation of the war and its costs. 

* * *

For the United States, the Korean War was unlike any other before it. 

Congress made no declaration of war. Rather, the US fought under the auspices of the new United Nations and provided most of the UN combat forces. The Korean War would be more limited, without the general mobilization of American society as was seen in the First and Second World Wars. A new branch of the armed forces, the US Air Force, would organize and conduct air campaigns.  And for the first time since the American Revolution, the war was fought with a racially integrated military. (Notice the 19 statues represent multiple racial and ethnic groups and all four branches of the armed forces).

Statue depicting a US Air Force Air-Ground Controller

It was also fought in a very far away land, not well known to many Americans, to contain the spread of communism, the growth of which in Eastern Europe and China immediately following World War II was seen as a threat to the American democracy and capitalism. 

The Korean War remains with us today. The armistice of 1953 only ended the fighting, but not formally the war. A demilitarized zone marks the current border between the two Koreas. Tensions remain high. Korea is never very far from the headlines or newsfeeds and remains a major focus of US diplomacy and foreign policy. The US is still committed to the defense of South Korea and maintains a force of approximately 24,000 troops in the country. 

Over 7,600 US service members are still listed by the Pentagon as missing in action. The North Korean government periodically returns remains of US service members. In 2018, 55 boxes of remains were presented to US officials and taken to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii for identification.  Potentially, 80 US service members may be identified from these sets of remains. Some already have. One was US Army Corporal Charles S. Lawler, 19, of Traverse City, Michigan.  Corporal Lawler was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He was reported missing in action on Nov. 2, 1950, after his unit was attacked near Unsan, North Korea. He was buried in his hometown on July 27, 2019. 

A group photo from the 8225th M*A*S*H*. The concept of forward deployed military hospitals was successfully implemented during the Korean War.

Popular narratives sometime label the Korean War as “the Forgotten War”, which seems misleading. It certainly was never forgotten by the Korean people, nor by the veterans who fought there and certainly not by the families of those who died there. The US military community has not forgotten as there has been a large military presence in Korea for decades. And the 1968 novel M*A*S*H*, about an Army field hospital which became a successful motion picture, then later a very popular television show, continued to remind the American public of the Korean War.

And now for over a quarter century, an exceptional and dignified memorial stands on the National Mall to help us remember. 


Route Recon:

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is located at the western end of the National Mall. It is two miles walking distance from the U.S. Capitol. A paved footpath connects the Korean War Veterans Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial area. The nearest metro stations are Foggy Bottom (23rd St. &I St. NW) and Smithsonian (12th St. & Independence Ave. SW).

Visitor parking is available along Ohio Drive, SW between the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson Memorials. 

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is accessible 24 hours a day. Some visitors especially like to visit at night or in foggy or rainy weather, when the statues take on a surreal nature. 

There are many online resources regarding the Korean War. A good place to start is the US Army Center for Military History’s Korean War Commemorative Website .   

One Last Note: The Department of Defense (DoD) currently lists the number of US service members killed during the Korean War as 36,574. For many years, the Department of Defense had listed the number as 54,260, which is the number included on the memorial. Later research conducted by DoD determined the higher number included deaths of US service members who died on active duty during the 38 months of the war, although not necessarily as a result of combat operations in Korea. The higher number is included on the memorial as it honors all US service members who served during the Korean War. 

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