SHELDON, Iowa | The Korean War is unfairly referred to as "The Forgotten War" by folks across the U.S. The "police action," as President Truman called it, came on the heels of World War II, at a time when citizens here suffered from a case of war fatigue.
Soldiers from 1950 to 1953 headed to Korea, did their work, and came home as the struggle against Communist forces at the 38th Parallel faded from the front page, soon replaced by a focus on Vietnam.
The Korean War is anything but forgotten in South Korea. That's what U.S. Marine Corps veteran Bob Hoogeveen learned upon his return six years ago.
"I went back for selfish reasons, really," says Hoogeveen, a retired school administrator and founder/leader of Village Northwest Unlimited in Sheldon and other residential facilities in Iowa and Nebraska designed to serve those with disabilities. "I went to South Korea in 2010 to see where I'd been, to see how things had changed. I was totally unprepared for what I experienced."
Bob Hoogeven, a native of Lester, Iowa, had two older brothers who served in the military. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as a 17-year-old in high school during his senior year at Lester High, 1953.
"The two-year enlistment was new," he says. "I wanted to serve my two years and then use the G.I. Bill to further my education."
Father Harry Hoogeveen signed, but only with the stipulation that Bob finish field cultivation duties that summer. Bob entered in August. By early December, he landed at Incheon, South Korea, assigned to guard a bridge loaded with dynamite. If enemy tanks get too close, they were instructed, blow up the bridge.
"We were told that if we didn't stop the enemy, three-quarters of us would be dead and one-quarter of us would wish we were dead," he says.
Thankfully, the North Koreans, or the Chinese, didn't come. Hoogeveen carried a rifle, but didn't see live action. He credits the men before him for helping ensure his safety.
"For 16 months, we sat and looked at Korea, living in a tent and sleeping in a sleeping bag," he says.
Hoogeveen, who could type, spent a good portion of his tour 1-2 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), serving in an office, an area still considered on the front lines. He battled cold and snow.
He also fought the reality of life in Korea, a country gutted by Japan in the 1920s, then divided into North Korea and South Korea after World War II. Russia, according to Hoogeveen, commanded North Korea to attack South Korea three years after World War II. It took five years for the invasion to happen.
The farm boy from Lyon County landed in the country and traveled via train that first day. He watched as peasants rose from holes in the earth, emaciated, starving, begging for scraps of the 1942 sea rations he carried. Hoogeveen tossed a bit of his food out the window to a little boy with his hands in the hair. The boy would have been about 5 years old.
Hoogeveen can get emotional talking about it. Who wouldn't?
He soon pulled duty guarding a garbage truck. Hoogeveen had to go ahead of the military garbage truck as it made its way to a dump site. The reason: Koreans would get too close to the truck and get run over if he didn't keep them away. Once the garbage was dumped, Koreans dove in, scrambling for every scrap of discarded food they could find.
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Hoogeveen, a corporal, served his tour and came home in August 1955. He began his education at Northwestern Junior College in Orange City, Iowa, that fall, and played football. He met a beautiful woman named Esther and ultimately earned a degree in education at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
He and Esther wed and raised four children as Bob served Iowa school districts in Sioux Rapids, Mallard, Akron and Sheldon. He took a one-year sabbatical 41 years ago to help start Village Northwest Unlimited. Serving the disabled became his career, his passion, from that point on.
"I stayed at Village Northwest for 25 years and then helped develop a similar site in Lake City, and then in Omaha, and then we helped with Opportunities Unlimited in Sioux City," he said.
A fellow Marine asked Hoogeveen in 2010 if he'd like to return to Korea. Based solely on that conversation, he registered for a tour offered free of charge to any veteran who served in that country prior to October 1954.
"We landed at this beautiful airport at Incheon and I'm soon getting cheers along with 80 veterans in the tour," he says. "The bridge next to a tiny bridge I took from Inchon in 1953 is now 12 lanes."
When Hoogeveen left Korea in 1955, there were 1.5 million people in Seoul, a city in which two bridges covered the Hahn River. In 2010, Hoogeven learned the city's population was close to 11.5 million people. There were 37 bridges over that river.
"I saw an opera house, stayed in a 4-star hotel and witnessed a family recreation center that's larger than the Mall of America," he says.
He traveled four-lane roads and heard about the best steel mill in the world. Dinner buffets featured seven islands of food, 67 dessert options.
He visited the structure at the 38th Parallel where peace talks were held. He looked at North Korea and crossed the negotiating table to physically stand in North Korea for 20 minutes, eyeing a North Korean guard through the window.
On one side, he witnessed prosperity, first-rate education systems and a people driven to succeed, 70 percent of them Christians. On the other side: Gray and darkness, rumors of 100,000 Christians jailed for their beliefs in a nation marked by persecution and intolerance.
"For me to see it all became insignificant," he says. "You cannot believe the progress this country has made."
At a banquet honoring U.S. veterans, Hoogeveen sat with an educated woman. She asked about his long-held impressions of their country. Hoogeveen relayed the story of seeing women and children emerge from holes in the ground in December 1953, most of them freezing, starving.
The woman thanked him for coming to protect her and the people of her country. As a child, she lived in a hole in the ground. Were it not for America, she told him, she likely would not have survived.
Another man stood to thank Hoogeveen and the men who joined him. "Thank you," the Korean said. "You came to a country you didn't know to save a people you never met. And we will never forget."