In the course of passing years, one often encounters a moment that shapes the rest of his life. For me, it was standing in an almost empty campus in the summer of 1950 and realizing how dangerous my world was about to become.
The fall session was still weeks away, and the old San Francisco State College campus at Haight and Buchanan seemed eerily quiet. I had just emerged from the Quonset hut-office of the Golden Gater, the weekly newspaper I had been elected to edit for my senior year. I was already planning the first edition.
Moments earlier I had received a telephone call from my wife of a year saying that I had just been notified in the mail that all Marine reservists had been called to active duty. I was to report to the San Diego Recruit Depot in a month. The significance of that notification chilled my heart.
The war in Korea that Harry Truman had called a "police action" was heating up. Reinforcements were needed. That meant me. I had joined the Marine Reserves to make a little extra money while working my way through college. After marrying in my third year of school, I went inactive but remained in the reserves.
This all comes back to me on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the end of that "police action" that came at a cost of three million lives, both civilian and military, on both sides of the 38th parallel. The war began on June 25, 1950, when the North invaded the South, and ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953. Nothing much had changed. The border between the two countries remained pretty much the same. Despite an immense loss of lives, North Korea was still hostile and South Korea still vulnerable.
By minimizing the nature of the war with euphemisms, little attention was paid to its blood-letting. No massive gatherings protested or praised our efforts. No bugles heralded our return. The Inchon landing and the disaster at the Chosin Reservoir when the Chinese joined the fight might be listed as minor notations in history books, but who will recall the battles at Hwachon, Taegu, Chunchon, Inje or the Yongso Valley?
I re-visited those places in the spring of 2000 to write about the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. The old battlefields are thriving communities now. The mountains are vacation resorts. Mud trails flattened by the machines of war are major highways. There are signs of life everywhere in the once-shattered land we had won by force of arms. Trees shade the mountainsides we had charged up in the face of enemy fire. Flowers blossom where bombs fell. The rice paddies we marched through thrive with the foods of life. Nature has forgiven what warriors trashed.
Was all of this worth the lives of the comrades who died in my arms? I have pondered that question many times since the late summer afternoon that I stood outside the Gater office on the almost deserted campus. In South Korea, I was thanked for having helped to save their nation. But did we save it? Will we be forced to fight for it again?
Fifty years and three million lives later, questions remain, answers are elusive. Alphonse Karr was right when he said the more things change, the more they remain the same. One can only sigh and wait.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Al Martinez is a Los Angeles Times columnist and novelist. He and his wife, Joanne Cinelli (both attended '47-'50), met while working at the Golden Gater and recently celebrated 53 years of marriage. Martinez's travel book, "I'll Be Damned if I'll Die in Oakland," is due out from St. Martin's Press in the fall.