Stationed in Japan in the first days of the Korean War, Lou Repko of Lorain was among the first American soldiers sent to defense the 38th parallel against invading North Koreans.
It was a job for which U.S. troops were woefully unprepared, said Sheila Miyoshi Jager, professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College.
“The last thing he expected was to be abruptly thrust into the front lines,” she said last Wednesday in a Veterans Day ceremony in downtown Amherst.
Jager spoke just feet from a wall bearing a new mural honoring Korean War veterans. Designed by Amherst artist Mike Sekletar, the piece includes an homage to Repko.
It shows the Army veteran at the wheel of a Jeep — an image made famous when it was published in 1950 on the cover of LIFE magazine.
Repko became a “front line celebrity,” Jager said, departing for the United States just before armistice talks began.
But what makes the Korean War unique is that no peace accord was ever signed, which means technically the United States and North Korea remain at war to this day.
That means Sekletar’s mural honors not only those who served in “the Forgotten War” of the 1950s, but those GIs who continue today to watch over the Korean border.
Jager is an expert on the history of the two nations.
At Oberlin College, her courses include “Korea: Past, Present, and Future,” as well as others focusing on the war, the opening of Korea from 1876 to 1905, and the Japanese seizure of the peninsula in the late 19th century.
She is also the author of four books: “Narratives of Nation Building in Korea: A Genealogy of Patriotism,” “Ruptured Histories: War, Memory, and the Post-Cold War in Asia,” and “Brothers At War: The Unending Conflict in Korea.”
Now Jager is penninga fourth on the power struggle over the Korean peninsula at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, entitled “The ‘Other’ Great Game: The Opening of Korea and America’s Rise to World Power.”
But she also has personal connections to Korea.
Her husband of 24 years is a Korean-American veteran of the U.S. Army. His parents lived through the war, coming to America just after its end.
Jager’s son is also preparing to graduate this spring from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was sent this past year to stand guard at the border between North and South Korea.
Those two nations could not be more disparate, the professor told a huge Amherst crowd.
South Korea has “one of the most prosperous vibrant economies in the world” while the regime of deceased supreme leader Kim Jong-il and his son, Kim Jong-un, has left millions living under unspeakable conditions, she said.
Hundreds of thousands have perished due to famine in North Korea while most are left malnourished.
“The only things North Korea produces are fear, hunger, and repression,” Jager said.
Meanwhile, she believes the legacy of American veterans’ service in the region can be seen in South Korea’s success and its contributions to world peace.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Oberlin News-Tribune Sheila Miyoshi Jager, professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College, speaks as the guest of honor last Wednesday at Amherst’s Veterans Day ceremony.