Six decades ago the United States was embroiled in a three-year war in Korea that was arguably as deadly as any military conflict before or since. Yet, many veterans consider the Korean War the fight our country has forgotten.
"It was a very deadly war in a lot of tough terrain. The amount of people who died in the amount of time we fought ranks it as one of the deadliest wars," said Cynthia Tinker, program coordinator at the non-profit Center for the Study of War and Society at UT. "I think it is considered 'forgotten' because it came just a few years after World War II. It ended with a truce and there were no victory parades or homecomings. Then the Cold War was still going on and Vietnam was not far off, so the country was weary of war."
Many of the people who witnessed the brutal fighting in Korea from 1950 to 1953 first-hand also served in World War II. Even some of the youngest troops who saw action in Korea are now in their 80s. This week a reunion along the base of the Great Smoky Mountains demonstrates that those veterans who are alive today maintain a great spirit of camaraderie.
Every year Richard Scott drives from his home in Chicago to reunite with a unique band of military brothers.
"We do our reunion somewhere different every year. This year we are having it here in Gatlinburg. Everybody looks forward to coming back to see their old comrades," said Scott. "It's a great get together. We remember everything that happened at that time and it's like looking back in history."
Scott's history is with the 474th Signal Aviation Construction Company. The group stands out in military history because it was one of the few U.S. Army units assigned to the new United States Air Force during the Korean War.
"We wore Army uniforms and had Air Force patches," said Dr. Gerald Pires, a veteran of the 474th attending this week's reunion from Oregon. "It was good for us to be there because we were training Air Force people to do our jobs. It was a transition period during a very serious war."
The 474th tackled the task of building communications infrastructure in war-ravaged Japan and Korea. The Air Force as an independent branch of the military was not yet off the ground when war broke out in Korea so the Army provided the manpower.
"We had linemen, cable splicers, and pole climbers. We did that kind of work in Japan and would help with anything to do with communications the Air Force wanted done in Korea," said Scott.
Those who actually remember the fight first-hand grow fewer every day. The amount of deceased veterans is apparent in the roll call sheets at the 474th reunion.
"That last page is full of names of everybody that is deceased in our outfit. It always hurts to see old comrades go. Then there are a lot of guys who can't get around like we used to. At least by us getting together, we're keeping things going," said Scott.
The reunion also gave Tinker a chance to tap into the knowledge of an increasingly rare group of veterans. She spoke to some members about the mission of the Center for the Study of War and Society.
For several years, the center has worked furiously to document and record the histories of World War II veterans. Now Tinker is broadening the center's focus.
"We're trying to reach out more to Korean War veterans and Vietnam veterans because they're advancing in age quickly as well. The Korean War has been overlooked quite a bit," said Tinker.
Tinker talks with these veterans and tells them how the center records their life stories.
"It's not just their military service. It's also about society, so we find out all about their entire lives leading up to their service and how their experience affected their lives after they were done with the military," said Tinker.
When the center conducts in-depth interviews with veterans, a bound copy of the history is produced and given to the veteran or their surviving family members.
"It's historically important for researchers, historians, students to have access to these first-hand accounts," said Tinker. "Our mission is two-fold because it helps preserve this history for academic work and it also gives families a life history of a loved one."
Veterans of the 474th may live too far away from Tennessee to conduct the interviews in the future. However, donations of photographs and other memorabilia can be made to the center and then kept in a special collection at the UT library.
Whenever and however it is recorded, veterans at the reunion said they want history to remember the forgotten war.
"I hope it's remembered. It was an important war and the people who died there died for a reason. I wouldn't want them to be forgotten," said Pires.
The UT Center for the Study of War and Society website provides more information on programs and projects to document veterans' personal histories..