Sixty years after a cease-fire paused the Korean War, Garner resident John Rogers traveled to Washington to be honored with thousands of fellow veterans on July 27.
That pause button remains activated; a tenuous, incomplete peace in a stalemated war that never technically ended. But Rogers participated in a key battle that helped turn the tide back against a North Korean army that had pushed the South to the brink of defeat. President Barack Obama recognized veterans of “The Forgotten War” with a speech as the veterans were treated almost like royalty according to Rogers and his family.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better event… I was really pleased with what happened there that day,” Rogers said after traveling north with his daughter and son-in-law. “Obama gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.”
Rogers attended the event with his wife as well as his daughter and son-in-law Pam and Samuel Barefoot, who live in Thomasville. (Chad Barefoot, who represents much of Garner in the state Senate, is Rogers’ grandson.) Samuel Barefoot concurred with his father-in-law, saying “they really did them right and rolled out the red carpet.”
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“It was nicely done,” Barefoot said of the ceremony near the Korean War Veterans Memorial. “I was blown away.”
Rogers grew up in Fair Bluff, a small river town near the South Carolina border, and he enlisted in the Navy at 18. He was assigned to the USS Mansfield, a World War II-constructed destroyer.
His ship led Destroyer Squadron Nine into the Inchon Channel on Sept. 13, 1950. The mission: draw battery fire to reveal the position of North Korean defenses, then bombard them in advance of a land invasion.
“We didn’t know how much firepower they had on that island except to go into that harbor on Inchon,” Rogers said. “The Inchon invasion was probably the biggest thing I was involved in during the war.”
Inchon (now Incheon), a coastal town on the west coast less than 20 miles from Seoul, had not been heavily defended. The city fell quickly to heavy naval bombardment and an amphibious assault led by Marines as Northern forces retreated to Seoul. Only one U.S. sailor was killed and six wounded in the naval bombardment itself.
The battle well north of their front lines broke the stride of a steamrolling North, which had cornered Southern land forces to a tiny southeastern corner of the peninsula in just a couple of months.
The victory set the stage for a longer, bloodier battle – Second Battle of Seoul. The South, along with U.S. and U.N. allies, recaptured the city on Sept. 25, largely cutting supply lines to Northern forces in the southern half of the peninsula. Seoul would change hands three more times as the war ebbed and flowed, but the North would never regain as much control of the peninsula.
While searching for a downed Air Force bomber just two weeks after Inchon, Rogers’ ship was damaged by a mine that injured 27 and eventually sent the boat to Washington state for repairs. The ship rejoined the war effort in late 1951, taking on gunfire support, escort and shore bombardment duty.
‘A useless thing’
Like most Korea vets, Rogers returned to the U.S. after the war not to the cheers of World War II nor the jeers of Vietnam.
“Theirs was a different kind of homecoming,” Obama said at the ceremony. “Among many Americans tired of war, there was, it seemed, a desire to forget. To move on.”
Rogers came back to North Carolina and eventually began a career in the public sector. He worked for the City of Raleigh for more than 34 years. Eventually he became the supervisor of the water department. His son said he was known and well-liked downtown.
“As one of these veterans recalls, ‘we just came home, took off our uniforms, and went to work.’ That was about it,” Obama said. “You, our veterans of Korea, deserve better.”
Rogers, who now has Parkinson’s disease, said he appreciates the benefits and respect accorded to veterans in the United States.
“The United States favors veterans more than any other country that I know of,” Rogers said.
But while the war did stem a communist invasion from the North, Rogers also talked about the destruction on both sides of a war that killed several hundreds of thousands – including more than 36,500 Americans. That fight ended with a similar border dividing the peninsula near the 38th Parallel as the one dividing it before.
“War, it’s a useless thing. Nobody wins,” Rogers said.