Photos: More from Tuesday's Honor Flight ***
WASHINGTON — They remember it all — the pounding of the artillery bombardments, the exploding mortars and ultimately the hand-to-hand combat with waves of enemy soldiers.
Then there were the outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever, the bitter cold that froze feet into hardened blocks, and the cat-sized rats that roamed the barracks in search of care package cookies.
It's been described as the country's “forgotten war,” but the memories came flooding back Tuesday for the Nebraskans who fought on the Korean Peninsula 60 years ago.
A bright, crisp fall day greeted the 135 Honor Flight veterans as they arrived at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which stands as testament to their sacrifices and those of so many others. Another planeload of Korean War veterans from Iowa will arrive today.
The site's central tableau is a squad of stainless-steel soldiers armed with M-1 rifles and carbines, carrying bulky walkie-talkies with extended antennas.
Spread out on patrol among the greenery that evokes a rice paddy, their helmets look like overturned pots on their heads.
Johnny Austin, 83, of Lincoln choked up as he gazed into the faces of the lifelike statues.
“I lost a lot of good friends there — and so did everybody else,” Austin said. “Tears come to my eyes for all the guys who couldn't make it.”
He can tell you exactly how long he was in Korea: 16 months, 10 days, 2 hours and 10 minutes.
“I didn't have no watch or I'd have looked at my second hand,” he joked.
Accompanying the veterans were 22 guardians, including Carolyn Manhart.
Her parents were children in Korea when the war broke out and both later moved to the United States, where they met and started a family.
Manhart was standing behind the wheelchair of Myron Schiefelbein, 90, of Lincoln, who worked on a 10-ton wrecker during the war, pulling disabled tanks and other vehicles out of the way after they'd been blasted by the enemy.
“Without veterans like Myron, I wouldn't be here, wouldn't be living in this country, wouldn't even be alive,” Manhart said.
Members of the Nebraska congressional delegation met the veterans at the memorial.
Bill and Evonne Williams have helped organize and raise funds for Honor Flights over the years that have brought more than 1,500 World War II veterans from Nebraska and western Iowa to Washington to visit the memorials in their honor.
Williams said Tuesday that he's been to 50 or more funerals for past participants. About one out of three was dressed in an Honor Flight shirt in the casket.
Tuesday's flight was for those who followed in the footsteps of those World War II veterans, the guys who went off to war in Korea but didn't enjoy the same big celebrations that they had watched their big brothers receive.
Williams noted that this group was heavy on combat veterans, which was reflected in the number of medals among them: one Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, 16 Purple Hearts and seven Bronze Stars.
One of those Purple Hearts belongs to Robert Wallman of Friend, Neb., who arrived in Korea in July 1951 as a private in the infantry.
He celebrated his 20th birthday there on Sept. 29.
On the afternoon of Oct. 4, his unit was taking some nameless hill when a mortar shell blew his right leg to kingdom come.
In a bit of gallows humor, the medic told him he had a “stateside wound,” meaning he'd be headed home.
“I'm just glad to be alive,” he said Tuesday.
After a long hospital stay in Kentucky, he went on to sell cars for 30 years in Lincoln, while he and his wife raised seven kids.
His great-grandson recently joined the Marines and asked for his advice.
“Keep your head lower than your ass and you'll be all right,” the old soldier told him.
Besides the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Tuesday's group also visited Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, walked past the iconic Vietnam Wall and stopped by several other service-related memorials. Those on the trip talked of how Korean veterans were overlooked in many ways over the years.
Wallman said that lack of recognition persists today and pointed out that raising the money for the trip was not easy.
“It was a war nobody wanted,” Wallman said.
As a teenager, he watched the World War II veterans return to massive parades, but he said there was no ticker tape for him and his comrades.
“We never had a parade. The Korean veterans never did have a parade,” he said. “I think we deserve this Honor Flight.”
Correction: Johnny Austin was misidentified in a previous version of this story.