In 1948, Walter R. Harmon, age 16, was in the Air Force, after running away from home in Alameda.
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“All my brothers and sisters, who were much older than me, had been involved in WWII, and one of my brothers was highly decorated,” said Harmon, who is now 82. “I joined up what is now the Air Force and was sent to Lackland Air Force Base. I was doing well and then they wanted me to join Officers Candidate School.”
That was when the military found out Harmon was only 16.
“After I was discharged, I hitchhiked back home and went back to Oakland Technical High School. I told the principal I was a vet and had the G.I.Bill. We didn’t get along,” said Harmon. “I got my mother to sign the paper to join the California Air National Guard when I was 17.”
When the 144th Fighter Air Wing was activated during the Korean War in 1951, Harmon was sent to electronics school in Illinois.
“I wanted to see action and applied for active duty in Korea, but I was sent to more schools for radar and radio at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa and at Johnson Air Force Base in Japan,” he said.
“The war was rolling along pretty hard, but I was still in school,” said Harmon. During his many hours of school during his three years in the Air Force, he met a number of combat-weary American and South Korean soldiers while on leave in a mountain R&R camp in Japan. “I studied Korean and I met a lot of the Korean bigwigs.”
He was given the Korean Service Ribbon and the United Nations Service Ribbon and was discharged in 1953 as an Airman First Class, Tech Specialist.
The walls of Sportman’s Hall in Pollock Pines, which Harmon owns, bear photographs, plaques and framed documents from U.S. presidents attesting to Harmon’s interests and accomplishments, which are wide and varied. One display is devoted to Gen. William McEntire Dye, who was the first U.S. military and agricultural adviser in Korea in 1888, helping to establish Korean-American relations.
Harmon traveled back to Korea, Okinawa and Japan in 1998 and is planning to return to tour both North and South Korea and China this August. On the 1998 trip, he and a Korean friend toured shipbuilding companies and steel mills in South Korea in the company of Gen. Lee and met the heads of major companies, like Hyundai. Harmon spoke at a Korean university and was invited to give a similar talk to a women’s-only group.
Along with fellow Korean veteran Clint Eastwood, Harmon wants to make sure “The Forgotten War” isn’t forgotten.
“It shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s an important piece of history and of our comradeship with the Korean people,” he said.
The Korean people, according to Harmon, are “brilliant, proud people and we are lucky to have them as friends.” He cites examples of U.S.-Korean collaboration including South Korea’s sending 312,000 soldiers from 1965-1973 to fight alongside American soldiers in Vietnam and a collaboration between U.S. Steel and Korean Steel. Harmon, the author of several books, was acknowledged for his friendship and encouragement in the book, “Genesis of Korea-America Friendship,” by the author Dr. Young Sop Ahn.
Harmon received a letter from Eastwood, who attended Oakland Technical High School two years ahead of Harmon, asking for his support in moving the Korean War National Museum from Springfield, Ill., to a larger venue in New York City. Harmon is using his considerable energy to move this plan forward.
“Our Korean War vets are dying off rapidly,” said Harmon. “It is important to preserve their stories before it is too late.”
During the 60th anniversary ceremonies at the Korean War Memorial honoring the cease-fire on July 27, President Barrack Obama said that no war or veteran should be forgotten and the legacy of the Korean War veterans is 50 million people who live freely in South Korea.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.