Jim Steinthal found a nice surprise when he dusted off his old dress greens and donned his Army uniform for the first time in 45 years.
It still fit. Better yet, he looked good.
“I put this on, stood in the mirror, and thought, ‘Dang, you look sharp,’ ” the 87-year-old former command sergeant major and Puyallup resident said.
He wore the uniform for a special occasion Friday, when he joined several dozen fellow Korean War veterans for a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. They were honored for their service in a conflict that’s commonly called the “Forgotten War.”
More than 60 years later, the veterans were reminded that their sacrifices are well remembered both in America and in South Korea.
They heard from one of their peers, Maj. Gen. John Hemphill, who described South Korea’s progress from the “rubble” he observed at the end of the war to the peaceful and prosperous nation he visited in August.
“It’s not forgotten by the people of the Republic of Korea. It’s not forgotten by them,” said Hemphill, 87, of Steilacoom.
They also received thanks from one of South Korea’s senior diplomats on the West Coast, Consul General Moon Duk-ho.
The Seattle-based diplomat told the veterans that the sacrifices of Western troops and the continued presence of American forces in South Korea have allowed his country to grow strong while its perennial enemy, North Korea, has faltered in the decades since the war’s end.
When South Koreans look north, “we can just see our modern brothers; they are in deep darkness,” he said.
Those remarks at times brought smiles and tears to the aging veterans who made their way to JBLM on a soaking-wet day.
“All these memories come back,” said Mildred Farrow, 87, of Lakewood.
Her late husband, Samuel Farrow, was taken prisoner during the war. He struggled to express himself when he came home but gradually opened up after joining a POW support group in Tacoma. The couple visited South Korea together in the late 1990s, a few years before he died.
“He really was misunderstood,” his widow said. “We didn’t know how to understand his experience.”
Friday’s event was similar to one JBLM hosted last year recognizing veterans of the Vietnam War. This one brought a smaller audience, but it was just as significant to the veterans and their families. Hundreds of modern-day soldiers filled out the theater and applauded the Korean veterans, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s.
“It’s important as veterans that we honor the legacy of our past and we preserve that legacy for our future,” said I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, who led both the Vietnam and Korean War remembrance events.
Several of the veterans were former Korean soldiers who moved to the Puget Sound region after the war. They sat together in the blue uniforms of the South Korean army.
Their highest-ranking delegate was retired Maj. Gen. Nam Pyo Park, a University Place resident who had been a deputy commanding general of Korean division at the end of his military career.
Most of the veterans looked happy to spend time in each other’s company.
“All my buddies are here,” said Ernest Oliver, 91, of Fircrest.
Sotero Soto, 89, of Olympia brought three of his eight daughters. He’s a regular at many veterans events in Thurston County, but this one was special, he said.
“I think it is fantastic. I really appreciate that they are honoring my dad,” said his daughter, Sue Soto.
The ceremony brought Steinthal back to the earliest days of his Army career. He met his wife, Fran, in the South Sound in the years before the Korean War while he was stationed at Fort Lewis.
In 1950, he boarded a ship at the Port of Tacoma and sailed with his artillery battalion across the Pacific. He fought in Korea for 13 months, advancing north of Pyongyang early and then retreating when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers pushed back against the American advance.
Steinthal also participated in the battle of Chipyong-ni, when a vastly outnumbered American force held its ground in the winter of 1951 and set conditions for a counterattack against the Chinese and North Korean troops.
“I’m proud of him,” Fran said.
Steinthal saw South Korea once after the war, when he was stationed at an American base there in the early 1960s. It left a lasting impression.
“The Korean people appreciate us,” he said.