The war in Korea is sometimes called the Forgotten War. Try telling that to the man I met in Washington, D.C., last week.
After a stroll along the Tidal Basin to admire the cherry blossoms, I stopped by the WW II Memorial to search for visiting veterans, intending to say a word of thanks. I scanned the clumps of tourists scattered around the memorial. Not a gray head among them. Then I saw him: a white-haired man sitting alone on a low wall near the entrance.
I sidled past, pretending to take pictures, then casually sat down near him.
“This is a beautiful place, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yes, it is, but it came too late for a lot of guys,” he replied.
“Are you a WW II veteran?” I asked.
“No, I’m a Korean War veteran,” he said.
My initial, polite questions met with willing answers. Within moments we were deep in conversation.
His name was Vincent Krepps. He had a twin brother, Richard, who was listed as missing in action near the onset of the war. The Army never discovered what happened to Richard. But Vince never gave up. Throughout his life, he searched for someone, anyone, who had been with his brother when he was killed, or when he was taken prisoner, or when he was a captive in a POW camp.
In 1998, after 47 years, a woman heard his story and asked her father if he had known a Vincent Krepps during the war.
“No, but I knew a Richard Krepps. He and I were in the same POW camp.”
The man got in touch with Vince and showed him a picture of a row of American POWs. The man himself was in the picture, as was Vince’s brother, standing at one end of the row. The man said that Vince’s brother died at the camp, the victim of starvation and disease.
Vince’s voice shook when he recounted this moment.
“I usually carry a copy of that picture with me,” he said. “But I don’t have one today.”
Then, “I won a Silver Star,” he murmured off-handedly.
“You won a Silver Star?” I asked in amazement. Silver Stars are not handed out like Halloween candy. “How did you earn it?”
For 30 minutes, I was on a chaotic battlefield in Korea with him, diving into a gully when the tread came off his tank. The enemy was approaching “like a swarm of ants.”
“I was 18 years old, scared, didn’t know what I was doing, just following orders,” he said. “When I jumped out of the tank, I left my weapon. All I had was one clip and one grenade.”
The enemy laid withering fire on his surrounded unit. From his position in the ditch Vince heard his lieutenant’s urgent voice, calling for a tank driver.
“At first I thought to myself, ‘That’s not my tank, so I don’t have to go.’ Then my values got the best of me and I stood up and ran to the tank. It had two engines and I managed to crank one of them on a weak battery, then threw it into gear and cranked the second engine. You know, like you crank a car by pushing it then turning the ignition.”
I nodded, spellbound, into his gray-green eyes.
“I drove the tank through an enemy roadblock. There were men lying everywhere, most of them mortally wounded.” His fingers touched his chest.
“I’m sorry, this is hard to talk about,” he said, his voice trembling.
Vince wrote a book about his search for his missing brother and about his time in Korea. It’s called “One Came Home.” When I got back to the hotel room, I Googled “Vincent Krepps.” Over 2,800 hits popped up.
Vince lives in Maryland, so he can visit the Korean War Memorial at will. But it’s a fairly new monument, dedicated in 1995, coming too late for a lot of guys. Honor Flight Savannah stands ready to provide Korean and World War II veterans all-expense-paid trips to see their war memorials. Visit www.honorflightsavannah.org for more information.
We should never fail to honor the courage and sacrifice of people like Vince. Nor should a war—any war—that claimed American lives ever be forgotten.
Megathlin is a Savannah writer and the author of “Fighting without Fanfare: Honest Thoughts about Human Dilemmas.” She is a member of the Honor Flight Savannah Board.