When the Korean War broke out, about 70 percent of the 1950 class at Seoul High School in South Korea signed up to fight.
Although most of them were too young to enroll as regular troops, they still volunteered. And those who survived — many of whom immigrated to the United States later in life — still share a special bond.
On Sunday, the Seoul High School Alumni Association of the USA honored their fellow alumni, as well as American veterans of the Korean War, at an event in Fort Lee. They hosted the veterans at a breakfast, which was followed by a wreath laying ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial Statue in Fort Lee.
The alumni, many of them in their 80's, traveled from as far away as California to attend the event. The U.S.-based alumni group also offered all-expenses-paid trips to veterans who live in Korea so they could attend the ceremony, which was attended by several municipal and elected officials from around the region — including Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who is a Korean War veteran.
"I didn't cross the Yellow River, but I did cross the Hudson River to come to this event" Rangel said. "It's good to know that we helped liberate and give the Koreans justice. It's a great nation. Sixty-one years ago, I didn't know how important stopping communism was."
Dominick DiPaolo, a Clifton resident who fought in the war, voiced similar views.
"What has happened in Korea is a miracle. They went from being dead to a great country, and they are now here and they are educated and bring a lot to the U.S," he said. "I think God is going to help them go very far."
Korean immigrant groups across the U.S. have made it a point to honor not only their own veterans, but also the Americans who fought alongside them.
American veterans of the Korean War have a place of honor in Korean society, and immigrant groups across the U.S. often hold special dinners in their honor and give them gifts — ranging from engraved gold watches to all-expense-paid trips to Korea to discounts in Korean-owned businesses. It's also common for Korean community groups in America to send a representative to their local chapter of Korean War veterans or attend their meetings.
Steve Kang, a community organizer and business leader in Palisades Park, a northern New Jersey town known for its large Korean population, was a 1974 graduate of Seoul High School.
Kang said it was very unusual for a high school to have such a high number of volunteers in the war effort, especially since the school had been established only four years earlier, in 1946, when Koreans took it over from the Japanese. He said a large percentage of the students at the time had come from the northern part of Korea — fleeing the communists — and volunteered to fight against them.
Kang, who at 56, is too young to have fought, said he feels it's important for new generations not to forget the sacrifices the school's alumni and their American counterparts.
"I feel very strongly that if we don't do this today, these people will be gone," Kang said. "Korean and American relationships ever since have been very close, and we always recognize and honor the American veterans. On all these occasions, Koreans and Americans are connected."
Among the Seoul High School alumni attending Sunday's events was Dr. Louis S. Shim, who was 16 when he entered the war and fought as a foot soldier for two years before coming to the United States and joining its Army.
"I'm really thankful for the Korean veterans' service and sacrifice," said Shim, who now lives in California.