Petaluma monument to honor veterans of Korean War
Korean War veteran Paul Lewis of Petaluma hopes to see yellow ribbons around the trees at Walnut Park the day a memorial is dedicated to the Americans who served and died in the armed conflict on that remote Asian peninsula six decades ago.
That occasion would be on Veterans Day this year, if the backers of Korean War Veterans Memorial can raise $30,000 in time to place a granite and bronze monument next to the park’s gazebo on Nov. 11.
The ribbons would be more than 60 years late but might help make up for the relative vacuum that enveloped the Korean War, a brief but bloody conflict that passed, largely unheralded, amid the booming 1950s and has been overlooked ever since. Dubbed the “forgotten war” in 1951 - the year after it started - Korea was wedged between the Allied triumph in World War II and the social upheaval and dispiriting U.S. loss in Vietnam, where U.S. involvement began just two years after the Korean armistice was signed in 1953.
Lewis, 82, raised on a Petaluma dairy ranch, remembers the town of his youth just as it appeared in the movie “American Graffiti,” a place where guys went “cruisin’ in cars with a sweetie on your hip.”
The troops who beat Hitler and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito had come home to ticker-tape parades and the postwar economic wave was rolling. But the draft had resumed, and Petaluma farm boys like Lewis were conscripted to fight a war “in a country we never heard of and a people we never knew,” he recalled.
Lewis joined the California National Guard’s Petaluma-based 579th Engineer Battalion in hopes of avoiding the draft. Instead, he was the only man selected from the guard unit for regular service. An Army corporal, he served for nearly a year in Korea, walking patrols on trails and in rice paddies, getting shot at occasionally and suffering frostbite during the bitterly cold winter of 1953-54.
A 1952 graduate from Petaluma High School, Lewis knew the three older grads who went to Korea before him and never came home.
The monument, already designed and approved by Petaluma’s Recreation and Parks Commission in April, will bear the names of Army infantrymen Robert Andrew Baur, 23, and Joseph R. Mendonca, 21, who died in the fall of 1951, and George Joseph Poe, 20, a Marine who died in early 1953.
Mendonca had intended to take over his family’s dairy, and his parents were “devastated when they lost their only son,” Lewis said.
Baur had looked forward to ranching in Chileno Valley, and Poe, a good student and football player who joined the Marines and volunteered to serve in a rifle company, was killed at an outpost on Pork Chop Hill, a battleground for much of the war.
Poe was “a good-looking Irish kid with a 1941 Chevy,” Lewis said.
A total of 1.8 million Americans served in a United Nations force that battled North Koreans and Chinese - supported by the Soviet Union - for control of a nation that had been divided at the end of World War II and the subsequent start of the Cold War.
U.S. forces sustained 33,379 combat deaths in a war that settled into a stalemate less than a year after the invasion of South Korea in June 1950 and ended that way, after two years of sporadic negotiations, with establishment of the Demilitarized Zone, which still divides North and South Korea at roughly the 38th parallel north.
There were no parades or fanfare for the returning Korean War veterans, nor was there the same hostility directed at some Vietnam veterans years later.
“We came back, licked our wounds and got a job,” said Lewis, a co-founder of Bar ALE, a livestock feed company now located in Williams. “It was a war nobody talked about.”
For South Koreans, it is regarded as the seminal conflict dividing their modern democracy and the totalitarian dictatorship that rules impoverished North Korea. “We helped them get that freedom,” Lewis said. “We can sort of puff our chests out (over that).”
Joe Noriel, another member of the committee sponsoring the Petaluma monument, said the public was “done with wars” in the wake of the “great battle against Germany and Japan.” Korea was about containing communism and was “not well understood by the public,” he said.
Noriel, a former Petaluma Historical Museum association president, is not a veteran but his father, the late Ron Noriel, served in World War II and Korea and was Petaluma’s assistant fire chief.
The monument will include multicolored granite, reflecting the first fully integrated U.S. force that served in Korea, Noriel said. The desegregation, begun as a battlefield necessity and then authorized by the top command, implemented President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order calling for equal opportunity in the Armed Forces at a time when most African American civilians endured discrimination, said Melinda Pash, author of a book on the Korean War.
Donations to the Petaluma Korean War Memorial Fund may be made at Umpqua Bank, 201 Western Ave., Petaluma, 94952, or by calling the bank at 658-4861. The Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 78, based in Santa Rosa, is assisting with the fundraising effort.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemo?crat.com. On Twitter ?@guykovner.