THE faces of the 19 young American infantrymen are tense with the anticipation of combat. Spread in patrolling formation, they move forward from thin woods on the edge of Washington's Mall, heading forever toward Heartbreak Ridge, or Pork Chop Hill, or Chosin, or any distant battle of what has been called America's forgotten war.
They're just statues, cast steel, part of the Korean War Memorial that will be dedicated this week in D.C. But to veterans of the Korea conflict, they represent something large: remembrance.
''Been a long time coming,'' says one of many Korea vets who stand a stoic vigil behind a fence at the memorial's edge, awaiting its completion. ''It's been a long time coming. That's all I've got to say.''
A long time, indeed. The armistice ending the Korean War
US Remembers Its 'Forgotten War'
was signed 42 years ago, on July 27, 1953.
At the time it was anticlimactic; veterans simply returned home and picked up their old lives, without the glare of attention - both positive and negative - that accompanied the end of that other shooting war against an Asian Communist foe, Vietnam.
The Vietnam memorial, though criticized by some for its starkness, has long been a focal point and place of catharsis for Southeast Asia vets and their families.
Organizers of the Korean memorial hope it will serve something of the same purpose for an earlier generation of servicemen and women, down to attracting the flowers, pictures, and left-behind memorabilia that helps make the Vietnam Wall an intensely moving experience.
Estimates of the crowd expected for the July 27 dedication of the Korean memorial range from 100,000 to 500,000 people
With a joint appearance by President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam, a mass troop muster, and addresses by the joint chiefs of staff, it will be the largest ceremony ever to honor the 5.7 million US Korean War veterans.
''They just never got that kind of attention,'' says Greg Player, spokesman for the Korean War Veterans Memorial advisory board, as he meanders slowly with a reporter, around the memorial site.
Beginning of cold war
To history, the Korean War may be judged a starting point of extreme cold-war tensions. It began June 25, 1950, when Soviet-backed North Korean Communists poured across the 38th parallel and into the south.
It took General Douglas MacArthur's landing at Inchon to pinch off the offensive and send the Communists reeling back north.
Then, in turn, the surprise entry of China into the war ended US hopes of uniting the peninsula under Seoul's rule, and resulted in the bitter military and political stalemate between the Koreas, which continues to this day. The three year war claimed nearly 3 million lives from two-dozen countries.
The 19 statues that make up the central element of the Korean War Memorial are meant to represent all the US services and all the various ethnic groups that served in US forces.
As visitors enter the memorial, they walk up to the patrol from behind. The first thing they encounter is the statue at the patrol's flank, which is turned, gesturing toward them.
''The guy looks you in the eyes and says, 'caution','' say Mr. Player, Korean War Veterans Memorial spokesman.
The figures are 7 feet tall and float eerily on bases buried in a mass of creeping juniper. The $18 million monument was sculpted by Frank Gaylord, of Barre, Vt. The soldiers are clad in foul-weather ponchos and seem to hunch against a cold wind blowing over their backs, even in the hot drizzle of a Washington summer.
They advance endlessly toward a flag in the distance. A black-granite mural, etched with the faces of thousands of veterans, echoes the design of the Vietnam War memorial, a mere rifle shot away from the Washington Mall's famed reflecting pool.
''I'm deeply touched,'' says Leo Alvares, a retired school teacher who served in Korea as a Marine sergeant and who is among the many veterans visiting Washington for the week's festivities. ''It leaves you with something.''
Mr. Alvares stares across at the memorial as rain drives other watchers away. Quietly, he calls out to the statues, reciting the names of companions who were the war's casualties.