A Native American Remembrance on Korean Armistice Day

On National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, Kiowa tribal member Dennis Zotigh pays respect to the veterans who served during the Korean conflict, and especially to the three Kiowa soldiers who gave their lives there. Dennis, whose uncle served in Korea, also shares memories of performing with a Kiowa cultural group in Seoul nearly 20 years ago and his impressions from that trip.

Dressed in ceremonial regalia, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne), a veteran of the Korean War, stands with World War II veteran Senator Daniel K. Inouye  and Native American veterans  of the Vietnam War during the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.  September 21, 2004, Washington, D.C. (Mario Tama/ AFP for the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian)
Dressed in ceremonial regalia, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne), a veteran of the Korean War, stands with World War II veteran Senator Daniel K. Inouye and Native American veterans of the Vietnam War during the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. September 21, 2004, Washington, D.C. (Mario Tama/ AFP for the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian)

“There is a camaraderie that transcends ethnicity when you serve your country overseas in wartime.” —Senator and Korean War veteran Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne)

Today the United States observes National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day. The Korean Conflict began 70 years ago on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea, and ended on July 27, 1953. According to Department of Veterans Affairs records, nearly 37,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces died in that conflict half a world away, in battle or as prisoners of war, and more than 100,000 were wounded.

It is impossible to give exact numbers for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian members of the military, but approximately 10,000 Native Americans served in Korea during the war. Some carried on their people’s warrior traditions. Some were continuing military careers that began in World War II. Some enlisted for economic reasons, including to qualify for education benefits provided after 1944 by the G.I. Bill. All were answering the call to protect an ally of the United States .

Military records show that 194 Native American soldiers, sailors, and airmen died in the Korean conflict. Medals of Honor were awarded to seven American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian soldiers, all serving in the U.S. Army: Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr. (Ho-Chunk), Captain Raymond Harvey (Chickasaw), Sergeant First Class Tony Kenneth Burris (Choctaw), Private First Class Anthony T. Kaho‛ohanohano (Native Hawaiian), Master Sergeant Woodrow Wilson Keeble (Dakota Sioux), Private First Class Charles George (Cherokee), and Private First Class Herbert Kailieha Pilila‛au (Native Hawaiian). Often acknowledged as the most decorated American Indian servicemember is Pascal Poolaw (Kiowa). Poolaw served in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam and received 42 medals and citations, including four Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and three Purple Hearts—for wounds suffered in each war.

I am an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe. We carry on a rich tradition as protectors of our land, people, and way of life. Three Kiowa tribal members gave the supreme sacrifice on Korean soil: Silas W. Boyiddle, Luke B.Tainpeah, and Dennis K. Karty. Their patriotic service is a virtue I am very proud of as a Kiowa citizen.

In addition, an uncle—William “Bill” Hall (Zotigh)—served with the 8076th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) Unit, 2nd Infantry Division. Our family lore recounts that my uncle fell in love with a Japanese woman in Korea and had a son there, and that they were not allowed to return with him to the United States. Why is still a mystery. Growing up I was hooked on watching the MASH series on television. Yes, it was a satirical comedy, but I also watched for the insight it gave me into my uncle’s experiences. Years later, a Kiowa tribal dance group was invited to perform in South Korea, and I was asked to join them.

Flying to Korea took 14 hours. We arrived in the heat of summer. Walking outside Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport, we were met with a heavy blanket of humidity. The sights, smells, and sounds were so different from what I was used to. I remember realizing that North Korea was ruled by a dictator with nuclear weapons and that its border was only 35 miles north of Seoul.

We performed as special guests for the 25th anniversary of Seoul Land, South Korea’s most popular amusement park. Park visitors were very interested in our culture, especially when we wore our feathers. After each performance, visitors would line up to take photos with us. They were extremely polite and appreciative though at that time, nearly 20 years ago, most did not speak English.

At the end of the day, the entire park would come together for an grand finale. They saved our group for last, before each night’s huge fireworks show. One memory that sticks in my mind is when Korean traditional dancers performed to the Korean anthem Arirang. Back home in rural Oklahoma, my uncle used to sing the same song late in the night. In Seoul, I thought of how he must have missed his son, and remembered the heartfelt emotion that came through in his singing this song.

One Thursday, on our weekly day off, I caught the subway and bus to Inchon, a landing point on the Yellow Sea for American forces at the start of the Korean Conflict. My uncle landed at Inchon. The sea truly was a dull yellow color, though there was now a Domino’s Pizza among the traditional seafood restaurants along the shore. Historical markers on the harbor area gave information about the American landings.

At night we went back to our hotel exhausted from performing in the heat and humidity. Near our hotel were steep mountains. Soldiers of the Republic of Korea (ROK) watched the northern horizon from guard towers on top of each peak. One Thursday we rented a van and drove to the 38th parallel, to an area called P'anmunjŏm, a de facto border village separating North and South Korea and the place where the armistice was signed. There was a heavy military presence, ROK troops on one side and North Korean troops on the other. We were allowed to enter a building where we could walk to one side of a large negotiation table and technically be in North Korea. We were told that in the case of an attack on South Korea, American and ROK forces could be fully mobilized and ready for battle in less than three minutes.

There were American military bases throughout the country. We were permitted to visit the base in Osan, south of Seoul, and Yongsan U.S. Military Base within the city, the headquarters of the U.S. military in South Korea. Outside the Korean War Museum, near Yongsan, were military tanks and armament that were used in the Korean Conflict. Of particular interest to me was a statue of two brothers in uniform—one from South Korea, one from North Korea—hugging. It reminded me of the U.S. Civil War, when brothers fought on opposite sides. The museum itself was fascinating in telling the story of the pain the war caused for the citizens of the Korean Peninsula, who were once one nation, as well as the history of U.S. and Chinese involvement in the war.

We performed in Korea for almost three months. At the end of our visit, we were given time to honor and pay tribute to the three Kiowa tribal members who died on Korean soil. In our final performance, we explained to the audience that the blood of our tribe had been shed here so that their people could have independence. Then we read the names of our Kiowa warriors out loud: “Private First Class Dennis King Karty, Sergeant Luke Buddy Tainpeah, and Private First Class Silas Wayne Boyiddle, whose remains were never recovered.” I sang the Kiowa Empty Saddle Song, a personal song made for Luke Buddy Tainpeah and used by our tribe now whenever one of our men or women dies a warrior’s death.

After we came home, I learned more about our Korean war dead:

Sgt. Tainpeah, a member of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regimental Combat Team, was born in 1923 and enlisted from his family’s home in Verden, Oklahoma. He was in killed on March 28, 1951, in combat at Parun-Ni, South Korea.

PFC Karty, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, was born in 1931 and enlisted from his home in Lawton, Oklahoma. He was captured while fighting in the vicinity of Panmegi-Ri, South Korea, on May 18, 1951, and died as a POW in North Korea on March 30, 1952. His remains were returned to his family two years later. PFC Karty is honored as a Comanche veteran, as well.

PFC Boyiddle, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, also enlisted from Lawton. He was born in 1928 and was missing in action after an attack in Choch'iwon, South Korea, on July 11, 1950. Of 667 soldiers in his battalion, more than 60 percent were killed in that battle. The Army gives PFC Boyiddle’s date and place of death as October 31, 1951, near Manp'o, North Korea. His remains were identified by a DNA match with one of his younger brothers in the summer of 2002, around the same time I was performing with the Kiowa dancers in Seoul, and he is now buried in Caddo County, Oklahoma. Among his family’s keepsakes is a black-and-white photo of Silas in Korea with an Asian woman and child. Umlike my uncle, he did not live to tell anyone what they meant to him.

Looking back at my time in Seoul, I’m reminded that North and South Korea are, bu international law, still at war. The Republic of Korea never accepted the terms of the armistice. The agreement signed on July 27, 1953, led to a cease fire and the creation of a demilitarized zone, and began the return of prisoners of war and their remains, but the peace remains fragile. This is the reality we live in.

The National Native American Veterans Memorial is currently under construction on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Congress charged the museum with creating this memorial to give all Americans the opportunity “to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans.” Their legacy deserves our recognition.