Today was the third time in the last four years that I’ve been able to attend the annual Korean War Armistice Day celebration at the New Jersey Korean War Memorial at Boardwalk and Park Place in Atlantic City. Today’s ceremony, which began at 11 AM with a Call to Order by William D. “Bill” Coulter Sr. at the Brighton Park amphitheater that is adjacent to the monument and concluded about forty-five minutes later with a wreath laying ceremony within the memorial itself. The several speeches offered by veterans and government officials provide some insight into the state of American collective memory of Korea sixty-three years after the signing of the armistice ending active hostilities in the Korean War.
Commander Coulter, who heads up the local Atlantic County KWVA branch and hails from my hometown of Somers Point, acted as a kind of master of ceremonies, introducing a number of speakers and presiding over a wide range of program activities from the Presentation of the Colors and the two invocations, one in English one in Korean, to the singing of both nations’ national anthems and playing of Amazing Grace by the Atlantic City Police & Fireman’s Bag Pipes at the conclusion of the ceremony. Commander Coulter used several Korean phrases throughout his commentary, while also noting that he himself did not fight in the early 1950s but served in Korea “in 73 and 74”. After the two prayers and two songs, Commander Coulter introduced Charles Koppelman, head of the NJ state KWVA department, to deliver opening remarks and to begin introductions of several speakers who are government officials.
These proceedings started with a small snafu as initially State Commander Koppelman called for a representative from Atlantic City to read a proclamation from the mayor, but no one came to the fore. He quickly discovered that the printed program he was using lacked a key change and a representative from Governor Chris Christie’s office was instead present to read a proclamation on Mr. Christie’s behalf that highlighted the continued commitment of the United States to protect the Republic of South Korea. This message was reinforced by the next speaker, Congressman Frank LoBiondo, who spent most of his time talking about the threat of North Korean aggression, which in turn offered Commander Coulter the chance to crack a quick joke at the expense of the “Little Fat Boy” as he termed Kim Jung Un and the fact that American stealth bombers stationed in South Korea offer a strong counter to North Korean actions.
The next speaker came down all the way from New York City to attend the event and even made a donation to the state KWVA. Consul Who Seok Oh from the Republic of Korea discussed the sacrifices made by New Jerseyans during the Korean War and cited American actions six decades ago as enabling South Korea to today rank as the eleventh strongest economy in the world. He also used a few phrases that are commonly evoked when recalling the Korean War, noting that it was “A Forgotten Victory” (an idea that was echoed by later speakers) and borrowing words from the National Korean War Veterans Memorial in DC to note that American soldiers in Korea fought “to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met”, which has always struck me as a particularly meaningful memorial line in that it suggests the soldiers who fought in Korea were more selfless than those who’d fought in Europe.
Deputy Commissioner for Veterans Affairs Raymond Zawacki began by speaking about the initial formation of the committee to create a Korean War Memorial in 1996, then elicited a somber moment when he asked if anyone who worked on that effort was present only to discover that none were, surely in part because so many Korean War soldiers have passed away over the last two decades, resulting in each subsequent ceremony having fewer veterans present. This theme was echoed by the next speaker, Brigadier General Michael L. Cunniff, who spoke about New Jersey Korean War Medal of Honor recipient Hector A. Cafferata Jr. who passed away in April of this year. Cafferata, who has an elementary school in Cape Coral, Florida named for him, may have killed as many as a hundred Chinese soldiers, although he was credited with only fifteen to be credible according to General Cunniff, who also noted that Cafferata added an element of humor to the dedication ceremony of the NJ State Korean War Memorial in 2000 when he said his heroism was explained by a fear that if he fled he’d only run into more Chinese troops.
The final speaker of the day, before the singing of God Bless America by the Clerk of Weymouth Township and the movement of the ceremonies to the monument itself, was New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission Chairman and Chief Administrator Raymond Martinez, who was there to discuss a Veterans’ driver’s license that would replace the current sticker as well as plans for a new Veterans’ License Plate. This unveiling (which can be seen in the image at the top of the page) was a highlight of the ceremony in that it marked a very real and tangible way in which the state government is attempting to better serve veterans, in this case by making it easier for them to obtain proper services by just showing their license. Walking around to get a clear picture also gave me a better vantage point from which to appreciate the crowd, which included many members of the Legion Riders and even a few members of the Press Corps.
After moving to the memorial itself the ceremony concluded with the Placement of the Wreaths by four local branches of the KWVA from throughout the state of New Jersey and a benediction by the very same Reverend who had delivered the earlier “American Invocation”. In what was maybe the most memorable moment of the event, at least based on the number of passersby who strolled over to catch a glimpse, several buglers played Taps while the assembled soldiers all saluted the names of their fallen comrades who are carved in the marble of the state memorial. The other moment that stood out to me was Commander Coulter’s call to add a Korean War flag to those flying above the monument, which was applauded by the crowd and would bring the Atlantic City site in line with other official state memorials.