Kyle Kopitke can usually spot a veteran among visitors to the National Korean War Museum in Wahiawa. Most of them are in their 70s or 80s. Most don’t say much as they peruse the galleries of photos and artifacts.
“They walk around looking at the displays with this kind of time-warp stare,” says Kopitke, the museum’s curator. “I approach them and ask them gently, ‘When did you serve?’ It can be hard for them to talk about it.”
More than 30,000 American soldiers died in the United Nations’ three-year campaign to force communist North Korean troops out of South Korea. Despite those numbers, the fight has gone down in history as “the forgotten war,” overshadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War.
“You go there, you do what you’re supposed to do, you come back and people tell you it’s ‘the forgotten war,’ that we lost,” says veteran Edward Toves, who spent 13 months on the front lines of the 223rd Regiment, G Company. “We lost a lot of men in Korea, including my commander, who was only 21. It feels really bad when people say you’ve been ‘forgotten.’”
Rather than wait any longer to recognize those who served in Korea, Kopitke organized a grassroots effort to build and operate the war museum. A former Peace Corps worker from Florida, Kopitke moved to Hawai‘i specifically to open a museum dedicated to veterans. Today, more than 17,000 Korean War veterans live in the Islands. The National Korean War Museum opened in February as the first such museum in the country.
“For 50 years, these men have been told that they failed,” say Kopitke “When they come here, the museum calls the war a ‘frozen victory,’ and we tell them, ‘thank you for everything you’ve done.’”
By “frozen victory,” Kopitke is referring to the cease-fire agreement that ended the fight in Korea. No peace treaty was ever signed. Even today, more than 30,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea, amid growing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The museum is housed in a 200-foot-long, 1940s Quonset hut, a bomb-making factory during World War II. Local and Mainland companies and individuals donated money, equipment and supplies for the effort—everything from an industrial-grade laminating machine to roofing materials.
Volunteers built most of the walls of the museum’s 38 galleries, now filled with uniforms, weaponry, lockers, scrapbooks and sepia-colored photos printed on canvas. More exhibits are on the way, including a marble wall memorial engraved with the names of soldiers killed in action. Kopitke plans to devote a second wall to veterans who survived.
“It’s a temple as much as it is a museum,” says Kopitke. “People who come here often say to me that they feel their husbands, their sons, their uncles, who fought in the Korean War, walking right next to them.”