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Meet the Korean War veterans returning to South Korea for the Winter Olympics

Key Points
  • Sixty-five years later, the U.S. Army and Navy veterans have come back to the country where they once served to watch the Olympics Games in Pyeongchang.
  • For them, the international celebration of sports is also an affirmation of the huge economic progress South Korea has undergone in the last six decades.
  • The Korean War is often referred to as "the forgotten war" because of how little attention it received during and after the conflict.
Left: Third Class Petty Officer Jack Keep on watch at sea aboard the USS Gatling, off the coast of North Korea, 1953. Right: Corporal Lewis Ewing, serving with the 6th Helicopter Company in Chuncheon, South Korea, 1953.
Courtesy of Jack Keep and Lewis Ewing

At 83, it would be understandable if Jack Keep and Lew Ewing didn't feel like braving a long-haul flight to the sub-zero temperatures of South Korea's Pyeongchang.

But that's just what these two Americans, veterans of the 1950-1953 Korean War, did when they traveled to the 2018 Winter Olympics this week.

In 1951, 17-year-old Jack Keep enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and in early 1953 was assigned to Task Force 77 as a petty officer aboard a ship patrolling the North Korean coast.

That same year, Corporal Lewis Ewing was stationed at Chuncheon as a helicopter crew chief with the U.S. Army, responsible for maintaining the aircraft that sent supplies to troops on the ground and transported the wounded to hospitals.

Sixty-five years later, they've come back to the country where they once served to watch the games in Pyeongchang. For them, the international celebration of sports is also an affirmation of the immense economic progress South Korea has undergone in the last six decades.

"I've never seen an Olympics firsthand, so I'm looking forward to the opening ceremony because that's always impressive. I'm just ready for whatever they give us the opportunity to see," Ewing told CNBC earlier this month over Skype from his home in Virginia.

"I'm too old to get giddy about things anymore," Keep said during the same call, laughing. "But it will be quite a thrill it be able to attend the Olympics."

Left: Jack Keep during his first revisit to South Korea, Seoul, 2015. Right: Lewis Ewing, present day
Courtesy of Jack Keep and Lewis Ewing

This won't be the first time Ewing and Keep have returned to South Korea, traveling to the peninsula in 2006 and 2015, respectively, thanks to the Revisit Korea Program organized by the South Korean government to invite Korean War veterans back to the country.

Ewing recalled how Korea today contrasted with his first memories of the country.

"When we left Korea in the 1950s, the city of Seoul was total devastation, just nothing but rubble," he said. "The tallest building I remember seeing was taller than a one-story building, but it was all bombed out.

"Now today, Seoul is like any metropolitan city in the United States, high-rise buildings that go up forever. It's absolutely amazing the progress they've made over there in 60-plus years since the war. It shows you how hardworking and energetic the Korean people are and how they really won't give up."

A 19-year-old Corporal Lewis Ewing in Chuncheon, South Korea, 1953 while serving with the U.S. Army's 6th Helicopter Company
Courtesy of Lewis Ewing

"But also it's amazing how friendly they are," he added, "and how they show their appreciation to the American GI."

'The forgotten war'

For vets like Ewing and Keep, that appreciation is priceless.

"It means a lot to us, because when we came home from Korea, nobody knew where we were, or cared," Keep said.

"So most of us didn't talk about it much until recent years. We started having interactions with different groups of Korean organizations, and that's when we started thinking about it once again, and the people have always shown great appreciation for us."

The Korean War is often referred to as "the forgotten war" because of how little attention it received during and after the conflict. Korea did not galvanize U.S. popular support or protest the way World War II or Vietnam did. And when it began in 1950, then-U.S. President Harry Truman termed it a "police action," an undeclared military action under the auspices of the United Nations.

Image: The USS Gatling DD671, Jack Keep's home for four years while serving in the U.S. Navy. Courtesy of Jack Keep

In the summer of 1950, communist North Korea invaded the South with the support of China and the Soviet Union, after the peninsula had already been split as a consequence of the Cold War. An international UN coalition of 16 countries came to the South's aid with the U.S. at the lead — Americans constituted 90 percent of the troops. They braved freezing temperatures in mountainous terrains, and many who survived lost fingers and limbs. But three years of a brutal war of attrition failed to elicit a surrender from either side.

By the time fighting ended in July 1953, more than 34,000 U.S. forces had been killed. The number of both North and South Korean casualties is widely believed to have been close to 3 million, the majority of whom were civilians. 7,747 Americans are still classified as missing in action.

An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, but no peace agreement — meaning that the two countries are still officially at war. The Korean Peninsula is split along the 38th Parallel North, the border that divided the U.S. and Soviet Union's respective administrations of the South and North just after World War II.

The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, established as part of the 1953 Korean War armistice, remains the most heavily-fortified border in the world
Courtesy of Jack Keep

On the 38th Parallel sits the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily-fortified border in the world, which still sees occasional flare-ups and sniper fire.

Enduring gratitude

South Koreans vocally attribute the freedom they have today to the war veterans' sacrifices, knowing that their democracy would not be possible had they been taken over by the communist North.

In 2010, on the war's 50th anniversary, South Korea's then-President Lee Myung-Bak wrote a letter to U.S. vets, saying: "Korea today is a vibrant democracy with a robust economy and we are actively promoting peace and stability around the world ... We wish to dedicate these achievements to you."

"Since I've been with the Korean War Veterans Association, we have a lot of interactions with the Korean community here, so we've gotten to know the folks real well," Keep said. "We have a real love for them and they seem to love us as well."

"Korean ladies always like to have me over for lunch to test out some new recipe they have," he added with a laugh.

The Olympic rings is seen in Hoenggye town, near the venue for the Opening and Closing ceremony ahead of PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Getty Images

The 2018 Games are particularly significant for Keep and Ewing because the event has spurred some diplomatic progress — it's the first time that North and South Korea will be competing in any event under a unified flag. Asked if they thought this might be a breakthrough for relations between the two adversaries, the vets were cautious but hopeful.

"Well, I think Ronald Reagan had it correct when he said 'trust and verify'," Keep said. "You know you can't trust the North Koreans, but I think we all hope that there'll be some loosening of relationships where they get to talking and maybe make it possible once again for families to visit across the line and things like that.

"I think it'll be a long, long time before everything cools down with the North, but we have some hopes."

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.