The Korean War Memory Tour Does Kansas and Nebraska Today

This penultimate post in the Korean War Memory Tour series reviews those two states furthest west to which I traveled while driving to Kansas City, Missouri in the summers of 2015 and 2016, Kansas and Nebraska, which are forever linked both by a common boarder and the act making them territories.  I had the opportunity to visit Kansas three times: first to the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene in 2015, second to memorials in Lawrence and Overland Park also in 2015, and lastly to monuments in Topeka and Kansas City, Kansas in 2016.  In contrast I visited Nebraska once, in June 2015 on the way to Iowa, although I still got a chance to stop at memorials in Falls City, Beatrice, Lincoln, and Nebraska City.

415 Kansans were killed in Korea, yet the state of Kansas now includes examples of almost every kind of Korean War commemoration from dual Korea-Vietnam memorials and official state monuments and to sculptures on college campuses and memorial highways, or from POW memorials and rest areas marking the 38th parallel to monuments honoring individual generals sponsored by historical societies located on military bases and local memorials that were initially built as Eagle Scout projects.  The first of these is Washburn University’s Memorial Student Union in Topeka, which opened in the fall of 1951 and now includes a plaque with the names of those 21 alumni who were killed in Korea alongside their classmates that died during the World Wars.  Though I did not get the see the plaque, since I twice made it to Topeka in the evening and it is viewable only during business hours, because one visit was the week leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the tornado of 1966 that “either destroyed or heavily damaged” every existing “building on the Washburn University campus”, I learned all about it from their local NPR.

In 1979, on the ground of Fort Leavenworth, a marker honoring General Creighton Abrams was dedicated that describes his service in Korea as “talented, intelligent, hardworking”, while in Kansas City at a park on Leavenworth Road sits a dual memorial to Korea and VN dedicated on Veterans Day 1988.  In 1991 an All Veterans Memorial mentioning the Korean War was constructed in the town of Emporia, which in 1953 was the first city to celebrate Veterans Day rather than Armistice Day thanks to Alvin King.  The Frontenac Memorial Wall, which notes Korea, was first built in the 1990s as an Eagle Scout project.  Kansas, like other states such as Alabama and Rhode Island, is home to multiple monuments that could be considered official state memorials, the first of which was constructed in Wichita in May 2001 after winning the support of state legislators.  Located within Gage Park in the state capital of Topeka (as can be seen in the image at the top of the page) the Northeast Kansas Korean War Memorial was dedicated to northeast Kansans from two dozen different counties in July 2003, several months before the town of Arkansas City dedicated a Korean War Liberty Tree Memorial on Veterans Day of 2003.  These were not the only two monuments in the state to be dedicated to Korean War vets fifty years after the armistice.

In 2003 the town of Pratt dedicated a plaque to Emil Kapaun, Pastor and POW who passed away in 1951 “in Pyokotong, Korea” after “giving of his own food and clothing” to his flock, and was “born at Pilsen, KA” which already had a monument to him at the local Catholic Church noting he was “captured by Chinese communists”.  A decade later Kapaun was given a posthumous Medal of Honor by President Obama, who spoke about the Chaplain’s sacrifices during the ceremony, less than a year before another White House event at which twenty-four veterans who were previously passed over for racial reasons were recognized by receiving Medals of Honor for their service during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  Those veterans recognized in 2014 included Leonard Kravitz, uncle and namesake to the rock musician who was born after his death, following a decades long campaign by his childhood friend from Brooklyn.  Commemoration of the Korean War would continue in Kansas following the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice, with two more monuments and a memorial highway all dedicated within the next five years.

On April 16 of 2005 a sculpture was dedicated on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence “honoring 44 members of the university community who died in the conflict” at an event that included “veterans groups from across Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.”  Another memorial that can be thought of as an official state monument was dedicated in Overland Park on September 30 of 2006, thanks in no small part to an over $370,000 government grant which allowed the plan to proceed ahead of schedule.   In 2008 the legislature formally designated “part of K-4 as the Korean War veterans memorial highway” and authorized the Secretary of Transportation to arrange for signage but noted that “such signs shall not be placed until the secretary has received sufficient moneys from gifts and donations to reimburse the secretary for the cost of placing such signs and an additional 50% of the initial cost to defray future maintenance or replacement costs of such signs.”  Though there have been no newer dated monuments in Kansas that mention the Korean War, this list does not include undated memorials, such as a marker noting the 38th parallel at the Matfield Green Rest area in Butler County between Emporia and Wichita.

A total of 307 Nebraskans died in Korea, but it would be decades before monuments were built in their honor.  According to WarriorsRemembered.com, which tracks Vietnam War sites of memory, the first monument built in Nebraska to mention Korean War veterans was a dual Korea-Vietnam memorial in Omaha dedicated on May 25 of 1976, decades prior to a plaque put up at a local high school in 2003.  The website lists the memorial in Falls City, also home to Richardson County’s Military History museum, as opening on July 28 of 1984, several months before the dedication of Cherry County’s War Memorial in Valentine on Veterans Day.  According to the American Memorials Directory website, plaques for both Korea and Vietnam were added to a memorial at the county courthouse in Alma in 1985, while Warriors Remembered notes that Otoe County’s War Memorial in Nebraska City was dedicated on June 14, 1987.   Following a visit by a traveling Vietnam War Wall to Lincoln’s Antelope Park in 1989, the spot became a site of military memory, leading to the creation of a Veterans Memorial Garden there beginning in 1991, which now has two dozen markers including the furthest inland for the Merchant Marines and Seabees.

Although no other dated Korean War monuments were dedicated in Nebraska during 1990s, an  undated Korean War Memorial in Columbus near the Platte River was most likely built in the 1990s, as it gives over 50,000 as the number of Americans killed in Korea (a figure revised down in June 2000), while Columbus is today home to a University of Lincoln student who is collecting oral histories of Korea.  Two more local memorials were dedicated during the fiftieth anniversary cycle of the war in the early 2000s: the Cass County Veterans Memorial Wall in Plattsmouth which was unveiled November 10 of 2001 and a Veterans Memorial in Franklyn, dedicated May 31 of 2002, which has the phrase ‘Freedom Is Not Free’.  The Beatrice Veterans Memorial Wall of Honor was dedicated on May 30 of 2005, while about two years later in 2007 the site added several historical markers including one focusing on Korea and the Cold War. In 2008 the small town of Crofton near the South Dakota border dedicated a Veterans Monument in the South Park area of the community, just a year after the local American Legion started to raise $75,000.  Most recently, high school students in Central City helped create a monument to local veterans in 2014.

Kansas and Nebraska also offer an opportunity to evaluate the degree to which the history of Korean War memorials may match or depart from the history of Korean War films and television shows, as I explored in a dissertation chapter that I discussed during a Temple Talk on Pearl Harbor Day of 2016.  In general, there was a huge spate of Korean War mass media manifestations in the fifteen years from 1951 to 1966, a period when there was also a wave of local monuments constructed across the country, although both On-Screen and In-Stone sites of Korean War memory often shared the stage with WWII.  During the second wave from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s Korea was often overshadowed by –and sometimes conflated with– Vietnam on screen, while Korea monuments most often also included VN.  From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, the period from the lead up to the creation of a National Korean War Memorial in DC to the fiftieth anniversary cycle of the war years, local and state monuments began to spring up all across the country, while Korea increasingly played a key role as backstory in TV and film.  The most recent period from 2004 to the present has seen much more detailed depictions of the Korean War on TV shows such as AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s documentary Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States as well as in films such as Indignation and Operation Chromite, while the Korean War Memory Boom that began three decades earlier has continued on the local level as communities keep dedicating monuments and memorial infrastructure such as highways and bridges to Korean War vets.

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