Punxsy man creates display commemorating Korean War
PUNXSUTAWNEY — With the Korean War commemorating its 60th anniversary July 27, for veteran Richard Bianco, there was only one thing to do — memorialize it in the form of a display in his apartment at Mahoning Towers in Punxsutawney.
“I wanted to do this for a long time,” he said.
“(The Korean War) is ‘the forgotten war,’” he added, borrowing a phrase that is frequently used to describe the event.
When asked if people seemed to know much about the war, he said, “They don’t, but I speak up.”
That’s part of what motivated him to create the display — the lack of awareness for veterans of the conflict.
The groundwork for the idea was laid a full decade ago, during the 50th anniversary of the war. Bianco, who moved to Punxsutawney just last August, lived in Illinois at the time.
The anniversary was far more widely commemorated in Illinois during the period of 2000—2003. Memorabilia started coming in, both from government organizations that were commending the surviving veterans and from individuals with whom Bianco came into contact.
It was during that period that he obtained most of the items in the display and began to generate ideas about putting it together in order to celebrate veterans of a lesser-known war.
“Everybody’s always talking about Vietnam,” he said, referring to the Vietnam War, which followed shortly on the heels of the Korean War. “But we did our job. We never went over the hill.”
Fought from 1950-1953, the Korean War started when the armies of Soviet-backed North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, the national border, into pro-Western South Korea.
In July, the United States entered into the war on South Korea’s behalf. It was widely considered to be a war against the international spread of communism, in a time when the Cold War was at its peak.
Fighting centered mainly on the 38th parallel, where casualties quickly mounted with neither side gaining much as a result. The war ended when U.S. officials, fearing things could spill over into a larger war with China or the Soviet Union, began working to call a cease to hostilities.
In the end, about 5 million soldiers and civilians were killed. The Korean peninsula is still divided between North and South Korea today.
Bianco went overseas to South Korea in 1951, arriving in the city of Pusan, after having been drafted from the Army Reserves, where he had previously served for a year. He served during the war as a guardsman on the 772 Railroad, which soldiers at the time called “The Deuce.”
His job was to guard the train as it carried supplies to the frontlines, alongside one other U.S. soldier and two Republic of Korea soldiers.
The supplies were intended for the 1st, 7th, 23rd, 24th and 25th divisions.
The train would also carry wounded soldiers out of the war zone and back to medical facilities in South Korea, in addition to transporting the occasional prisoner of war.
The biggest fear was guerilla attacks along the train’s routes. It was from these that Bianco and his comrades were to protect the train and its supplies. Usually, such supply trains would be ambushed by enemy combatants who would leap out of the jungle or off of hills onto the cars in order to impede progress or steal supplies.
Bianco’s train didn’t come under as many attacks. He recalls one attempt made by the enemy that failed before a single shot needed to be fired, as the guerillas failed to get aboard the train.
One of the biggest difficulties along the way was whenever the train had to pass through tunnels. These would fill up with smoke very quickly, making it difficult to breathe. Bianco and the other soldiers always carried with them water canteens that they used to soak rags that they would place over their noses and mouths in order to protect their lungs. Bianco attributes the atmosphere in the tunnels to throat problems that he struggled with later on.
He reports that the civilians of South Korea and the soldiers of the Republic of Korea both were very grateful, helpful and welcoming to the incoming U.S. soldiers, before and after their arrival.
“We gave them everything, and they respected us for that,” he said. He said that some of the items in his display were given to him by Korean immigrants during the 50th anniversary.
His impression of the Korean landscape was less enthusiastic.
“It was all muddy, sloppy... You had to watch yourself,” he said.
Looking back on the 1940s and 50s, he believes that the world was a different place than it is today. “Back in the day, it was beautiful,” he said.
He felt that here and abroad, there was a more pertinent understanding of the old adage: “Freedom is not free.”
The Korean War, while not as controversial or as big a media sensation as the subsequent Vietnam War, has still been the subject of some debate, both then and now. But for Bianco, it wasn’t a matter of the war itself but of trust in leadership.
“We had good presidents. They knew what was going on,” he said. He said that he believed in them when they made the decision to head into Korea and that he did the same when the peace treaties were signed and the war ended.
He particularly praised the decision of President Harry S Truman not to take the war into Manchuria, as was recommended by General Douglas MacArthur.
“We’d have been slaughtered,” he said.
He left Korea and came home around April 1954. There was a 30-day period in which soldiers were allowed to reenlist, but Bianco opted not to. His rank was and is Private First Class.
His display contains a variety of items, ranging from medals that he received both in the service and after, during commemoration events; a certificate of honorable discharge and another certificate of appreciation given to him by the Freedom Team Salute; pictures from the war; some historical documentation including maps and information about the presidents in office at the time; albums full of photos, particularly of veterans; brochures of South Korean tourist destinations for those with an interest in seeing history up close; and numerous other items.
His favorite is a medal reading, “Efficiency, Honor, Fidelity,” that he likes because it’s the only one with his name engraved on it.
There is only one item of note missing from his collection — his uniform, which was stolen from him while he was living in Illinois.
While the display is limited to his apartment in Punxsutawney, that doesn’t mean it’s for his eyes only. He invites anyone at all to come see it and learn about “the forgotten war.” There is no charge, and walk-ins are welcome. Anyone who would like to visit is invited to call him at (814) 938-4971.
“I want these people to come over and see this history,” he said.