They once fought to defend South Korea. 70 years later, these foreign veterans are choosing to be buried there

(CNN) – For more than 30 years, British veteran James Grundy has traveled 5,500 miles annually to South Korea to visit the graves of dead bodies he found as a young man hunkering down in the war.

According to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK), Grandy was only 19 when he joined the Korean War in 1951. As part of a recovery unit, he exhumed fallen soldiers from battlefields on the Korean peninsula and transported them to a cemetery in the southern coastal city of Busan for burial.

The cemetery is the only UN cemetery in the world — and for many, the ultimate place of reunion between veterans, widows and loved ones lost in the Korean War.

It was established in 1955 after the South Korean government offered land for permanent use by the UN to honor the military and medical personnel sent from 22 countries under the UN flag during the war.

United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK) in Busan on August 21.

Jesse Yeung/CNN

Although most of those countries have repatriated the bodies of their dead, more than 2,300 people from 11 countries are currently buried there, according to the UNMCK.

Many of these soldiers were later joined by loved ones who wished to be buried together with their widows and other family members.

Today, the cemetery is an idyllic 35-acre expanse of green grass and water features, with a memorial hall, memorials dedicated by the various countries that participated in the war, and a memorial wall inscribed with all the names of UN troops who died during the war. struggle

Whenever Grandy buried the body he retrieved, “He promised, ‘I’ll come back to you. I won’t forget you,’ ” said his adopted granddaughter, Brenda Yoon-Jung Park. “That’s why he would return to Korea every year to keep his promise.”

Starting in 1988, he made annual trips to the cemetery — until a pandemic stopped the trip. In May, even though Grandi was battling cancer and growing frail, “he insisted on coming to Korea for a final visit”, Park said.

James Grundy, says fondly "uncle jim" and his niece Sharon Hewitt.

James Grundy, affectionately known as “Uncle Jim” and his niece Sharon Hewitt.

Sharon Hewitt

She added, “It was the only joy in his life. . . . He wanted to come again.”

Grandy died in the UK in August. His remains will be taken to the UN Cemetery where he will be cremated as per his will. “He wanted to rest in peace with his companions at the cemetery,” Park said.

A quick history

The Korean War – sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten War”, despite the loss of millions of lives – began in June 1950 after North Korean forces invaded South Korea.

The United States called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which decided to send troops to Korea just two days after the invasion – the only time in the organization’s history that combat troops have been sent in the name of the UN.

The 22-nation “United Nations Command” helped turn the tide of the war, with US-led forces advancing toward China’s border with North Korea. But Chinese forces intervened and pushed the UN back on the peninsula.

The two sides reached a stalemate along the 38th parallel, where the border between the two Koreas is today. An armistice on 27 July 1953 brought the conflict to an end. However, the war never officially ended because there was no peace treaty — and its influence continues to this day.

An American corporal watches as a 9-year-old Korean girl places a bouquet of white roses on the grave of one of his dead comrades at the United Nations Memorial near Busan, South Korea in 1951.

An American corporal watches as a 9-year-old Korean girl places a bouquet of white roses on the grave of one of his dead comrades at the United Nations Memorial near Busan, South Korea in 1951.

Bateman Archive/Getty Images

For some veterans, the UN cemetery represents both the cost of war and the deep connections they made with other soldiers and with South Korea.

Boyd L. Watts, an American veteran who joined the war when he was 18, told the Korean publication Haps Magazine that he had been visiting Busan at least once a year since 1991.

He was amazed at how much the country had developed in just a few decades, he said — a theme that also underscored the cemetery. In a memorial service hall, a video for visitors highlights South Korea’s transformation from a war-torn nation to a thriving modern metropolis — made possible, it said, by the sacrifices of United Nations troops.

South Korean honor guards carry flags of UN allies during a memorial service for UN veterans of the Korean War at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan on November 11, 2020.

South Korean honor guards carry flags of UN allies during a memorial service for UN veterans of the Korean War at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan on November 11, 2020.

Jung Yeon-jae/AFP/Getty Images

Other veterans who have revisited Busan echo this sentiment.

Johan Theodor Eldevereld, who served as a private first class and fought hand-to-hand against North Korean soldiers, returned to South Korea in 2016 – his first time back since being discharged during the war. According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, Eldwereld said he was impressed by the country’s economic revival.

He died the following year, and was buried at the cemetery — according to his will, which said he wanted his ashes “buried in the Republic of Korea where my comrades sleep eternally,” according to Yonhap.

final resting place

As the small group of surviving veterans ages, a growing number — hailing from around the world — have asked to be buried in cemeteries, alongside the friends and fellow comrades overseas they once fought to defend.

Watts, the American legend, told Haps magazine in 2010: “They’ve buried a lot of us old fogies in there … I’d love to be a part of that.” Following his death in 2020, his wishes were granted, with family, friends and representatives of the US military and embassy attending the ceremony.

Another US veteran, Russell Harold Johnstad, served in the military police during the war and was buried in the UN Cemetery in 2020.

United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea on August 21.

United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea on August 21.

Jesse Yeung/CNN

“Mr. Johnstad was initially opposed to the idea of ​​being buried at UNMCK, saying he felt he did not deserve as much as others who lie there, but his wife and family were able to persuade him to change his mind,” said. In UNMCK a statement on its website.

The most recent foreign veteran to be buried in the cemetery is Canada’s John Robert Cormier, who died in 2021 and was cremated in June this year. According to the UNMCK, he was only 19 years old when he arrived in Korea for the war, returning to the battlefield despite a life-threatening injury.

He had an “unwavering desire” to be cremated at the cemetery, the UNMCK said after his ceremony, adding, “He would have been missed by his 380 (Canadians) comrades who waited here and are reunited today.”

Today the cemetery, not far from the coast, is a popular destination for war history travelers, accessible by bus and subway. Free to enter, daily UN flag raising and lowering ceremonies are also held, along with special events commemorating important dates such as the outbreak of the Korean War.

Top image: The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, Korea, on August 21. Credit: Jesse Yeung/CNN

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