On July 4, memories of a veteran who sought to bridge differences

Why We Wrote This

A trip to Seoul reminded the author of his former editor, a Korean War veteran who became Nevada’s governor and who believed that a sense of independence can coexist with a desire to unite.

Ann Hermes/Staff
The Statue of Brothers depicts a North Korean and South Korean soldier embracing, at the War Memorial of Korea in March 2013, in Seoul, South Korea.

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In 1997, I went to work for the Las Vegas Sun, where a former two-term Nevada governor named Mike O’Callaghan served as the executive editor.

With his highway-wide shoulders and oil-drum chest, “Governor,” as most people called him, brought to mind an aircraft carrier cutting through high seas when he strode across the newsroom. He radiated what could be described as an imposing benevolence, resolutely devoted to the principles of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness – and unafraid to raise his booming baritone to emphasize his point.

The Korean War forged the raw toughness that Mike had displayed as a teenage boxer in Wisconsin. The Army platoon leader proved his mettle in 1953, when an enemy mortar round shredded his left leg and killed a U.S. soldier next to him. Refusing medical evacuation, he cinched his leg with a telephone wire and crawled back to the unit command post. Over the next three hours he directed his platoon’s movements, giving orders by phone until North Korean troops retreated.

Mike’s actions earned him the Silver Star. While a partial leg amputation ended his boxing dreams, the slight limp caused by his prosthetic leg neither slowed his gait nor dimmed his sense of purpose. As he once told a reporter, “There were plenty of things I wanted to do, and doggone it, you don’t have to have a foot to be a governor.”

A statue outside Korea’s national war museum depicts two soldiers standing atop a granite dome as they share an embrace that at once suggests love, anguish, and longing. The two men are brothers and adversaries – one fighting for South Korea, the other for North Korea – whose sibling bond conquers their military allegiances. As they clutch each other, their feet remain on opposite sides of a crack that runs across the dome, a tableau symbolic of two countries bound by history, geography, and family yet divided by war.

I saw the sculpture on a recent visit to Seoul, and its portrayal of aspirational unity reminded me of one of the few Korean War veterans I have known. His service on behalf of another country pursuing its independence endures as a feat of valor and sacrifice. But as July Fourth approaches, and as America at this moment appears unified only in the pages of the Constitution, it is his life’s work after the military that offers a useful lesson for a polarized nation.

In 1997, I went to work for the Las Vegas Sun, where a former two-term Nevada governor named Mike O’Callaghan served as the executive editor. The title sounded much too tame for a man of his physical and figurative stature.

In bearing, with his highway-wide shoulders and oil-drum chest, “Governor,” as most people called him, brought to mind an aircraft carrier cutting through high seas when he strode across the newsroom. In spirit, he radiated what could be described as an imposing benevolence, resolutely devoted to the principles of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness – and unafraid to raise his booming baritone to emphasize his point.

AP/FILE
Two-term Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan (r.) stands with Vice President Walter Mondale and California Gov. Jerry Brown (c.) in Reno, Nevada, on Jan. 13, 1978. Mr. O’Callaghan's newspaper editorship was the last of the Korean War veteran's many occupations.

The Korean War forged the raw toughness that Mike had displayed as a teenage boxer in his native Wisconsin. The Army platoon leader proved his mettle in 1953, when an enemy mortar round shredded his left leg and killed a U.S. soldier next to him. Refusing medical evacuation, he cinched his leg with a telephone wire and crawled back to the unit command post. Over the next three hours he directed his platoon’s movements, giving orders by phone until North Korean troops retreated.

Mike’s actions earned him the Silver Star, and while a partial leg amputation ended his boxing dreams, he chased his future without any loss of optimism, ambition, or Irish cheer. The slight limp caused by his prosthetic leg neither slowed his gait nor dimmed his sense of purpose. As he once told a reporter, “There were plenty of things I wanted to do, and doggone it, you don’t have to have a foot to be a governor.”

He made a few stops between the Army and Nevada’s top office, including high school teacher and boxing coach, county probation officer, and state health and welfare official. In 1970, running as a Democrat for governor, Mike steered his low-budget, grassroots campaign to an upset over the favored Republican candidate. Four years later, he received twice as many votes as his two opponents combined.

His bipartisan appeal testified to a rapport with voters across ideological and demographic lines as he moved between the state’s halls of power and its small towns. He possessed a cinematic presence and back story but showed a common man’s touch, enabling him to advance causes ranging from affordable housing and rural schools to child welfare and prisoners’ rights.

He practiced politics with great energy and profound humility, aware of his mandate as much as his flaws. He brought those traits – along with his salty sense of humor and cackling laugh – to the newsroom after leaving office. Writing a regular column for the Sun, he continued to advocate for the dispossessed with blunt candor, guided by the moral compass that led him to South Korea decades earlier.

In his columns, as in war and politics, Mike sought to uphold liberty and opportunity as ideals without boundaries. He supported Falun Gong members persecuted in China, Kurds in northern Iraq victimized by Saddam Hussein, and Mexican journalists targeted by drug cartels and police alike. In a 1999 piece, he called for increased U.S. aid to Central America, a region familiar to him from numerous visits, to alleviate the privations of countries “grasping for democratic principles and economic survival.”

Evidence of Mike’s legacy of public service abounds in and around Las Vegas, where a middle school and a military medical center bear his name. In 2004, months after his death, the governors of Nevada and Arizona announced that a new bridge spanning the Colorado River between the states would be named for him and Pat Tillman, the Army infantryman and former NFL player killed in Afghanistan that year.

The tribute to Mike’s memory aligns with his unrelenting efforts to connect with people and bridge the differences between them. On the Fourth of July, in a spectacle that can seem like a grand contradiction, we celebrate the nation’s independence by coming together. But as he showed throughout his life, and as represented by two Korean brothers hugging on the battlefield of a war not yet over, a belief in freedom can coexist with a desire to unite.

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