President Barack Obama praised the courage of America’s Korean War veterans and called on the country to learn from the conflict at a Saturday morning event celebrating the 60-year anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict.
"Your lives are an inspiration. Your deeds will never be forgotten," he told the crowd of veterans at the Korean Memorial. Obama praised the veterans for defending "a country they never knew and a people they never met."
Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and other administration and military leaders laid a wreath at the memorial honoring those who fought and died in the three-year war before giving brief remarks.
The armistice ended armed hostilities between the north, aided by China and the Soviet Union, and the south, aided by the United States and the United Nations. Over one million South Koreans, and 36,574 Americans, died in the conflict.
No peace treaty was ever signed, and the war is technically still ongoing.
Obama asserted victory in the war despite the lack of a formal resolution.
"That war was no tie," he said, citing South Korea’s thriving democracy and economy as evidence of triumph over South Korea’s northern communist neighbor.
He praised the fortitude and courage of the veterans who fought a hostile enemy in a brutal climate.
"Surely no one endured more than our POWs in those hellish camps where the torment was unimaginable," Obama said. "Our POWs from Korea are some of the strongest men our nation has ever produced, and today we honor them all, those who never came home and those who are here today."
There were many former POWs in the crowd. One, Wallace Dunham, was captured while fighting and spent over a year and a half in a prison camp in the northern part of the country.
Another, C.L. Wright, was a prisoner for 32 months after being captured north of the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
"Main thing was the food, we didn’t have no food," he said about the conditions in the camp. "No bath, no toothbrush, no nothing … we didn’t even change clothes [until] about April." The prisoners were fed "rice and rotten pork, fish—worms in it," he said. "But you had to eat it to survive."
There were also numerous South Koreans in the crowd, both veterans and others from the country. South Korea’s president sent a representative who addressed the crowd, thanking the veterans for their service and highlighting the strong alliance that exists between South Korean and the United States.
Both Obama and Hagel highlighted lessons from the conflict. Hagel cited the value of "alliances and international institutions," while Obama praised the value of a racially integrated military. Obama also promised to "maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none," citing the lesson of our ill-equipped military at the beginning of the conflict.
Obama noted that the veterans came home from Korea to "a different kind of homecoming" than their predecessors from World War II. "These veterans did not return to parades," he said.
"On this sixtieth anniversary, perhaps the highest tribute we can offer our veterans of Korea is to do what should have been done the day you came home," he said.
"In our hurried lives, let us pause, let us listen," Obama said. "Let these veterans carry us back to the days of their youth and let us be awed by their shining deeds."