For the past ten years, when I’ve been able, I’ve made a point of going to the U.N Cemetery in Busan on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the exact time and date that hostilities ended in World War 1. For Britains, Canadians other commonwealth nations and notable nations such as France this day has come to be known as Remembrance Day when those countries remember those that have sacrificed their lives. Not only in the first Great War, but in all conflicts since. The day has become synonymous with the red poppy of remembrance inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields”.
The first time I went to the U.N cemetery I had expected there to be some sort of service or ceremony, but to my surprise there was no one there. In hindsight this wasn’t totally surprising. November 11th isn’t commemorated in all countries like it is in the U.K and Canada. Although America does have Veterans Day on November 11th there main day is Memorial Day. Koreans Memorial Day is in June and of course the Australians and Kiwis commemorate ANZAC Day.
So each year I would find myself alone in the cemetery and would find a gravestone of some soldier, any soldier and pay my own private, silent tribute to him and those that had given their lives. Not only those in the two great wars that my Grandfathers and their fathers before them served in. But also those that gave their lives in the Korean war. A war that sixty years ago decimated this country that I’ve come to call home, but has seen a quite miraculous transformation from the ashes to rise to the economic powerhouse it is today.
Then about five years ago I noticed a small, but noticeable group of foreigners and Koreans holding some sort of service near the newly built “Wall of Remembrance”. A group of Canadian veterans had decided it right that this day should be remembered. The following year the group was much larger and with the noticeable presence of some Korean veterans. Every year it grew until the organization of the event came under the wing of The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs and the local Busan and Nam Gu governments. Last year and this the ceremony became quite a big affair. Government ministers rub shoulders with veterans from Korea, Britain, Australia, The U.S, New Zealand, Canada and Turkey to name just a few. A military band plays sober music in the background and tributes are read and speeches given.
Sometimes I wish again for the days of my own private act of remembrance, alone in the cemetery. The ‘2 minute silence’ isn’t silent at all since the band plays over the top. The 11th hour isn’t observed either. Maybe it’s significance isn’t realized here. But at least they are remembering. For that I am thankful.
As I walked away from this years ceremony, I made a point, as I always do, to walk around some of the gravestones. To read the names of the men who died. This year one gravestone stood out. It was surrounded by Irish flags and a basket of flowers with two rosettes perched on top saying “Proud to be Irish!”. The grave belonged to a Private Keating, a gunner in the Royal Artillery. He had died here in Korea in June 1953, aged just 24. A gray haired gentleman came up to me and said, “That’s mine. That’s my father. I don’t think he or any of them knew what they were coming to. So young, so young”.
Lest we forget.
Addendum: I rushed this piece out for one of the local magazines here in Busan so it wasn't subject to the usual meticulous scrutiny I normally afford my writing. The editor of the magazine did quite a bit of editing on it and I appreciate his input. Actually, I prefer what he did!
Here is the edited version if you wish to read it.
Busan Haps - Lest We Forget