Memories of Korea in Missouri

With her brother on her back, a Korean girl trudges by a stalled tank in Haengju, Korea, June 9, 1951. Photo by Air Force Major R. V. Spencer
With her brother on her back, a Korean girl trudges by a stalled tank in Haengju, Korea, June 9, 1951. Photo by Air Force Maj. R. V. Spencer (80-G-429691)

For the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, the staff at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO, wanted to try something different.

“Instead of doing a straightforward chronological presentation, we also wanted to focus on the personal experiences,” said curator Clay Bauske. The team worked for a year, collecting stories and memorabilia of people who were involved in and affected by the war.

“Memories of Korea” will run through December 31, 2010.

The exhibit combines handwritten letters and diary entries with first-person interviews, photographs, and footage from the war. These intimate accounts are presented against a backdrop of four thematic areas that cover the cultural history, political context, personal experiences, and the legacy and future of Korea.

The library received support and interest for the exhibit from the community surrounding Independence. Plans for the commemorative Korean War programs and exhibition were posted on the library’s website and in local magazines. “After we put up the schedule, people started calling us to contribute their personal memorabilia,” said Bauske.

The team worked with the Center for the Study of the Korean War, also located in Independence. Through this partnership, the library borrowed items from the center’s collection for the exhibit and tapped into the community of Korean War veterans. The Truman Library also drew on the holdings of the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Among the personal items on loan are objects that veterans assembled as their own meaningful reminders. One is a shadow box created by Robert Callahan, who was wounded in the war. The framed box displays the actual bullet that was removed from his body, along with the Purple Heart that he received.

Another item on loan is from a veteran who first arrived in South Korea through the port city of Busan. A civilian gave him a South Korean flag that the soldier carried throughout the war. For every battle that he was in, the soldier recorded the name on the flag. This flag is on display in a frame the veteran created, along with pictures of himself as a young soldier and as an older man.

“We included the piece as it is with the handwriting, in the frame with the two snapshots, because this is in itself a part of the Korean War experience,” said Bauske.

Other highlights from the exhibit include a series of drawings from Korean War veteran Patrick Flaherty, who was stationed in a graves registration unit, and diary entries from President Truman in which he vents about his frustration toward the lack of progress in the war.

Director of education Mark Adams designed hands-on activities with the goal of introducing young audiences to the pleasure of learning about history. The interactive children’s area includes a magnifying glass station to search for details in a picture and a game of matching pictures of important figures in the Korean War to their names.

Comment books throughout the exhibit focus on topics such as recollections of the war or ideas on the future of Korea. The comments range from impromptu memories to appreciation for the recognition of veterans, and a strong desire to attend future commemorative programs. One comment from a visitor reads, “I was a 16-year-old National Guardsman and was mobilized early during the war with an infantry division. . . . We all, at least those still living, get together every two years to stay in touch.”

The Truman Presidential Library will host public programs commemorating the Korean War through the end of 2010.

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