The Korean War Memory Tour Worked Out Ideas In West Virginia

The relationship between the number of monuments and memorials recalling the Korean War in each state to the number of residents who died during the conflict has long been an issue of interest for the Korean War Memory Tour, ever since it was suggested as an important context by a member of my dissertation prospectus committee. Even though West Virginia was ranked only 29th out of 48 states in the 1950 census, with a population just over 2 million, a total of 801 West Virginians perished in Korea… meaning one out of every 2,500 West Virginians alive in 1950 died in the war over the next four years. In comparison, the states right below West Virginia in the census (Kansas) lost 415 residents in the war, while the state immediately above West Virginia in the census (Connecticut) lost a total of 314 citizens. Clearly West Virginia felt the human impact of the Korean War more heavily than did most other states, however, in contrast to other states such as Connecticut and Kansas, West Virginia is home to many fewer monuments and memorials recalling the conflict. Moreover, all of the dated monuments and memorials in West Virginia that specifically mention Korea were created over the last three decades, suggesting that the death toll may have simply made it too painful to remember the war for years after.

So far I have discovered only two undated war memorials in West Virginia that could have been constructed earlier than the 1980s based upon their constitution and the conflicts covered at each site. The Randolph County Veterans Memorial in Elkins has matching carved faces for both the World Wars as well as Korea and Vietnam, suggesting that it was originally constructed as one monument, however the Paw Paw War Memorial consists of four distinctively designed plaques that were most likely dedicated on different dates, perhaps even during different decades, meaning the Korea plaque could have been added as early as the 1950s although most plaques from that era use the term conflict rather than war. The earliest memorial in West Virginia built to commemorate only Korean War soldiers seems to be the Barbour County Korean War Memorial in Philippi, which was dedicated on July 29 of 1989 in honor of “All Barbour County Veterans Who Served During The Korean War” and consists of a small plaque sitting in front of a gazebo and near another plaque mentioning Korea that sits adjacent to the courthouse as a part of the Barbour County War Memorial that consists of four plaques on the pedestal of a Doughboy, which except for the statue all appear to have been dedicated at the same time based upon appearance.

The 1990s was the hey-day of Korean War memorial construction in West Virginia, with the vast majority of local monuments mentioning Korea in the state being dedicated during that decade. This ‘Mountaineer Memory Boom’ started in Spencer in 1991 with a marker honoring Ruby Bradley, the most decorated female veteran in American history, not far from an existing bridge named for her in 2001, which is currently scheduled to be replaced. Along Chancery Row in the college town of Morgantown the Monongahela County Commission Korean War Memorial was dedicated in 1992, the same year as a similar Vietnam monument located just feet away. On May 31 of 1993 the Wheeling Veterans Memorial was dedicated along the Ohio River waterfront, at the time covering every war from the Revolution up to ‘Desert Shield’ and describing Korea as “United States Leads United Nations Against Communism”, the same year the bridge crossing the Ohio at New Martinsville was renamed for Korean War Veterans. On Veterans Day of 1995 the official state Veterans Memorial was dedicated at the capitol in Charleston, a four-sided monument designed by Joe Mullins, a West Virginia State art prof picked for the gig in 1987. After being closed for over a year the memorial, which includes a statue of a Korean War Air Force Pilot that was dedicated on Veterans Day of 1998 and was the third statue out of the four to be completed, was rededicated on Veterans Day of 2009 by Secretary of State and Korea vet daughter Natalie Tennant.

On April 30 of 1995 the West Virginia legislature designated “That Portion Of WV Interstate 77 Extending South From The Ohio River To Charleston… As A Memorial To The West Virginia Veterans Who Served During The Korean War”, followed shortly by a formal dedication on June 25 of that year, according to the plaque located at a rest stop just off the interstate in Williamstown (which can be seen in the image at the top of the page). The plaque, which was itself dedicated later on August 12 of 2004, provides a perfect example of the fact that one never really knows where they might find a reminder of the Korean War, as I imagine many a momentarily bored tourist waiting for a travel partner to have read that plaque during the last dozen years. In 1999 a plaque denoting the Spanky Roberts Memorial Bridge which mentions his involvement in the Korean War was dedicated in Fairmount, the same town that for the last few years has been trying to build a lighted Korean War memorial with a 38-meter tall flagpole. The project first experienced financial issues in November 2015 and despite a donation at the next Flag Day of an even larger flag that is visible for miles up and down Interstate 79, if only during daylight, the project still remains unfinished according to an Op-Ed piece published online on September 14 of 2016.

Despite the ongoing difficulties in Fairmont, there have been other Korean War monuments dedicated across West Virginia since the year 2000. The largest of these memorials is a red-brick arch in South Charleston that was dedicated on Veterans Day of 2003, although additions followed including a laser-engraved map in 2004 and a plaque honoring Ruby Bradley in 2005, while the monument is used regularly as a site for Korean War commemoration. The Raleigh County Veterans Memorial in Beckley was dedicated on May 31 of 2004 and includes a wall denoting the Korean War dead from the county, in contrast to the monument at the nearby Memorial Airport that was dedicated on July 30 of 1978, which was meant to honor all vets but fails to name any wars specifically. This distinction between memorials that name Korea, and therefore act to remind people of it, versus those that honor all who ever fought may also ultimately be useful criteria for determining exactly which monuments to include in my study.

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