PANMUNJOM, DEMILITARIZED ZONE, KOREA — Amid gray morning drizzle at a remote outpost on the world's most heavily fortified front, they poured out of buses: more than 1,200 elderly men from 16 nations wearing Australian slouch hats, American VFW caps, French and Belgian berets.
The 50th anniversary of the Korean armistice at Panmunjom Sunday is probably the last formal meeting of a band of brothers who rarely received acclaim for a war that took the lives of 84,000 under UN command.
"This is great," said Henry Commer from Pine Bluff, Ark., who was stationed near this spot for two years.
"When I got off the boat after the war, the Red Cross gave me a doughnut and a cup of coffee, and that was it. There was no publicity, no heroes' welcome. This is the first time I've been honored."
The event, a showcase of the vast differences after 50 years between the closed North and open South, was an emotional one - and it comes amid a 10-monthstandoff with the regime of Kim Jong Il over the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Many US veterans of what is often called "the forgotten war," had never returned to Korea. They expressed disbe- lief at seeing a country they remember as a wasteland of rubble, water buffaloes, and children foraging in garbage - and said the vibrancy of Seoul, the high-tech capital of the South, made them feel the war was worth fighting.
"I wrote letters home to war buddies last night," says Leo Cullen Beaudin, stationed at Pusan in the war. "I said, they won't believe what the Korean people have accomplished in 50 years. It gives meaning to what we did."
At the Panmunjom "joint security area" between the two Koreas, vets were treated to speeches, groaning tables of shrimp, cheeses, and pasta, media interviews, and an honor guard - all within 100 yards of North Korean military observers.
No comparable event has ever taken place here. North Korea last week demanded the commemoration be canceled, saying celebrations are inappropriate for a war that has not ended - though experts point out that the North refers to July 27 as "Victory Day."
Since October, when Pyongyang admitted to having a covert nuclear program, the Koreas have been a hot spot. Mr. Kim, leader of the North, kicked out inspectors, and Pyongyang now claims to have reprocessed plutonium and be on the verge of testing a nuclear weapon.
Nations including China, a key combatant 50 years ago with the North, are trying to engineer multilateral talks - with the US insisting Kimmeet with his Asian neighbors.
"The North Korean nuclear program poses a very critical challenge," said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark in a speech. "The world community must make it very clear to North Korea that the development of nuclear weapons is provocative and unacceptable."
The Korean War started in June 1950 as North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel, catching US advisers and South Korean forces off guard. The first armistice talks began in 1951, but took more than a year to conclude, involving some 174 meetings while the war raged.
US Korean vets, who returned home in the shadow of the triumphal World War II soldiers, have long felt bitter about their treatment. The official parade for Korean vets came after the Vietnam parade; their Washington memorial was also built after the Vietnam memorial.
Joe Willaford, now retired from Boeing in Seattle, spent a freezing winter with the 2nd Division near the front. He came home and was told he couldn't join the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) since "it was a police action.... We were accused of losing a war. People wanted a positive victory. They couldn't deal with a standoff." (Today the VFW makes no such distinction.)
"I go to bookstores in Fort Worth and there are hundreds of books on the Civil War, on Vietnam, on World War II," says Lloyd "Jack" Jones, who served as a marine at Inchon. "I ask about Korea, and there's usually only one or two."
Since June 2000, the golden jubilee, there have been about a dozen veteran reunions. Get-togethers have included a 50th anniversary of the Chosun Reservoir battle and the Inchon landing battle.
Historians say the fighting and conditions in the Korean war were especially bitter. The weather was frigid. Seoul was taken and lost four different times. The US-led forces started a full retreat, and only after two months of vicious fighting, and a daring landing behind enemy lines at Inchon, did they regain the South.
As they started to push into the North, China entered the war. For Mao Zedong, it became a venue to show communist fighting spirit, and buff his image and prestige as a world leader. The Chinese were prepared for huge casualties, and they attacked in endless waves - often overwhelming UN forces by sheer numbers.
"I felt forgotten before I ever got back to the States," says one US vet. "The Army sent me without the proper clothing. I spent a winter freezing, and then I was wounded."
The war's inconclusive end also touched soldiers from New Zealand and Australia, and Belgium, Canada, and Britain - who also felt forgotten.
"I joined up to fight like the other guys on my ship," says John Strachan, a gunnery mate on a New Zealand vessel. "We wanted to prove we could do our bit like the World War II vets. But we came home and no one said anything.... Coming here and seeing the progress Korea has now made seems to clean the slate."
Mr. Beaudin joined with 12 buddies from the Washington Heights section of New York. "If you tried to tell a marine how tough it was in Korea, they would say, 'Hey, in Iowa Jima we lost 5,000 in a day.' We were just kids, and that's how we were treated when we got back. We could never get past that. Then there was Vietnam, and all the horrors, and the squeaky wheel got the grease. We finally got our parade after the Vietnam vets."