In August of 2006 my photo exhibit “GIs and the Kids – A Love Story” opened in the new city hall of the Metropolitan City of Gwangju. The exhibit told the story of the relationship of American servicemen and women to the children of Korea. In doing my research on that topic in the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland and in the archives of the Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Japan I collected over 2,000 photographs. Those, in addition to the ones I took while a serviceman in the Korean War and others that I copied from books and magazines or that were sent to me by Korean War veterans, constituted the source of the photos in the exhibit.
The exhibit consisted of 35 panels each about two foot by four foot. It takes about 100 linear feet to hang the exhibit. Rev. Haeryang Yoo Kim of Gwangju had purchased a copy of the photo exhibit and added Hangul translations for most of the English titles of the photographs. It was through her efforts that the exhibit had its first showing in Korea in the new Gwangju city hall.
Little did I realize the impact that the exhibit would have in Korea. I was mobbed by the press. Never before had I been confronted by a veritable wall of photographers, TV cameramen and reporters.
I have 54 pages of newspaper clippings about the exhibit. The story was on all the TV news channels that night. The public affairs officer of the US Forces – Korea told me that this was such a refreshing breath of fresh air as most media coverage of the US forces in Korea had been very negative for the preceding decade or more. He was even more astonished by the fact that the exhibit opened in the City Hall of the Metropolitan City of Gwangju as Gwangju is known as the hot-bed of anti-Americanism in Korea. Airmen at the local U.S. missile base do NOT go into Gwangju in uniform and are not well received there even in civilian clothes. At the ceremony opening the exhibit the commanding officer of the US base and all the servicemen and women were invited to attend = the first time they had ever been invited to any function in city hall.
A 36 page booklet had been prepared by my hostess, Rev. Haeryang Yoo Kim, as a program for the day’s events in which all the speeches to be given by the dignitaries were printed in English and in Hangul (Korean). When I read the speeches that were to be given I was appalled! It was all about George, George this, George that. Everyone was missing the story. The story was about the tens of thousands of servicemen and women who helped the kids, not about George. I quickly spoke to the official interpreter and gave him my new speech to look over and be prepared to interpret for the Korean speaking audience. When I was finally introduced by the Mayor of the city I went to the microphone and said, “When a messenger comes bearing bad news it is not nice to shoot the messenger.”
I paused and a number of persons laughed. Then I said “and if the messenger brings good news it is totally inappropriate to make the messenger into a hero.” I let that sink in for a bit while the interpreter rendered it in Korean. I continued “I am not a hero. I am merely a messenger. I have a wonderful story to tell. It is a story of love and compassion in the middle of a war. It is a story about our servicemen and women who saved the lives of over 10,000 children in the Korean War. Don’t mistake me for the story. I am a sociologist. I am a story teller.” And with that I sat down.
Gwangju Mayor Park Gwang-tae was very pleased with all the publicity the event generated and offered to make me an “Honorary Citizen” of the Metropolitan City of Gwangju. Feeling that such a formal ceremony would even further spread the story of how the American servicemen and women rendered humanitarian aid to the children of Korea during the war years I agreed to go back to Korea for the ceremony provided he made it clear that he was honoring me for saving this wonderful bit of history of the Korean War and as a representative of all those GIs who did so much for the kids fifty some years earlier. At that ceremony in early December of 2006 I was once again surprised at the amount of publicity the event was given but much to my pleasure the emphasis was on the story that I had saved and the orphanage museum that I was helping get created in Gwangju. When the mayor placed the collar of flowers around my neck I broke out laughing as I felt I had just won the Kentucky Derby. It was a lovely ceremony and I enjoyed every bit of it….especially the dinner later at the Chung Hyun Memorial Orphanage where the orphanage museum and archive will be developed.