Forgotten Memorial to a Forgotten War

D800-Korean War Memorial-0980-2014-03-04B&WAsk any visitor to Washington, D. C. to name the city’s most famous war memorial and she will probably say the Vietnam War Memorial or, perhaps, the newer, much grander World War II memorial.

It’s almost certain she will not mention the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Yet, to my mind, the Korean War Memorial is far more moving than either of its more illustrious neighbours.

The Korean War Memorial is so often overlooked that I wonder if it has to do with the fact that the Korean War itself has been forgotten. A conflict that happened some time vaguely between World War II and Vietnam for reasons that no-one remembers and with an outcome that no-one can recall. It’s America’s forgotten twentieth-century war.

Yet, almost 40,000 Americans died in Korea in three years, compared to 58,000 in ten years in Vietnam. Korea was a short, costly, brutal war and one that was hellishly difficult to fight, especially in winter, when many American soldiers suffered frostbite from patrolling and fighting in knee-high snow and sub-zero temperatures.

D800-Korean War Memorial-0984-2014-03-04B&WU.S. Secretary of State at the time, Dean Acheson said of it, “If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war, the unanimous choice would have been Korea.”

The monument that commemorates the Korean War is marvelously effective in showing the horrors that American troops went through fighting in Korea.

The memorial comprises nineteen, stainless steel, larger-than-life sculptures of patrolling servicemen, designed by Frank Gaylord. The sculptor’s achievement, in showing the fear, the weariness, the terror in the soldiers’ faces, is truly remarkable.

Adjacent to the soldiers, a highly polished granite wall reflects the sculptures, making it seem that there are thirty-eight, thereby evoking the 38th parallel, along which the war was fought and which divides the two Koreas to this day.

Although I have photographed the memorial before, I have wanted for some time to photograph it under the cover of snow, to try to evoke the hardship endured by the troops fighting the war in winter.  I finally got my chance during the recent record snowfall in Washington. The memorial is always haunting but, when covered in snow, it looks even more poignant.

The Korean War Memorial offers a great lesson in the value of the 360o approach to photographic shooting, by which I mean walking around the subject and viewing it from all angles before starting to photograph.

D800-Korean War Memorial-0990-2014-03-04Most people do the obvious thing, walk up to the front of the memorial and photograph it standing before the front solider. That’s a perfectly valid way to shoot the memorial and can produce good images. But I have found that, walking round to the back of the memorial produces a much more interesting composition, as seen in the lead image.

By shooting from this position, the photographer can create for the viewer the illusion of being part of the patrol, of holding up the rear, of protecting the back of the last soldier from sniper fire. Plus, all the servicemen are seen as marching towards the American flag.

Once I had taken this shot, I concentrated on photographing some of the individual soldiers, using a very shallow depth of field – f2.8 or f4, depending on the lens I was using – to isolate the main subject and to frame the composition so as to include a blurred second soldier in the background, thus retaining the feel of the patrol.

This required patience as, even on a snowy, bitterly cold morning, there were a lot of tourists milling around and I had to wait several minutes before taking some of these images, in order to ensure the background was clear of people and maintain the illusion of a winter foot patrol in Korea in 1950.

D800-Korean War Memorial-0991-2014-03-04Perhaps the most memorable aspect of my visit was that I got talking to a middle-aged man from Texas, whose father had fought in the Korean War. He followed me around for about half an hour and was quite frank with me that he could see I was finding some good compositions, so he just stood next to me and took the same photographs! I didn’t mind at all.

He told me that his Dad seldom talked about the war but the only story he did pass on to his son was that the winters were so cold that, when his colleagues were killed in combat, their bodies froze so stiff that they used to stack them one on top of the other, like pieces of firewood.

Such a poignant story. As if the Korean War Memorial weren’t poignant enough.D800-Korean War Memorial-0988-2014-03-04

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15 Comments

  1. Rachael March 10, 2014 at 1:37 am #

    Wow they came out really well! The statues look so lifelike with the snow and everything.

    • shaunmoss March 10, 2014 at 3:02 am #

      Thank you, Rachael. How about we go out and take photos together sometime? Seeing as I failed miserably to teach you guitar, maybe I can teach you a little bit about photography…

      • Rachael March 10, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

        Ok that sounds good, as long as we can wait til the weather warms up a bit? I can’t promise I’ll stick to this hobby either by the way!

        • shaunmoss March 10, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

          Deal, Rachael! What a thrill it would be for me to have you come out with me on one of photography outings!

  2. Irv Freedman March 10, 2014 at 1:55 am #

    Well written and interesting article. Excellent photography as well. Keep it up. The Korean war was my war – four years in the US Navy.

    • shaunmoss March 10, 2014 at 2:55 am #

      Irv: You’re a bona fide hero, my friend. And thank you for your continued encouragement and companionship.

    • shaunmoss March 10, 2014 at 2:56 am #

      Thanks. Ray, for this this thoughtful feedback. I really appreciate your taking the time and always value your opinion.

  3. Ray March 10, 2014 at 2:05 am #

    Wonderful blog post Shaun. It captures everything one would look for with a subject like this. First the history regarding the subject, second, a real-life story and last but not least, images that put you right in the middle of it. Great documentary contribution my friend!

  4. Karen Messick March 10, 2014 at 2:42 am #

    Love this post Shaun and the images are terrific, in the snow adds such a dimension! Thanks Irv for your service!

    • shaunmoss March 10, 2014 at 2:54 am #

      Thank you so much, Karen. You know how much your opinion counts with me. I’m glad you liked the words and the images. You always inspire me to improve.

  5. Victoria Porter March 10, 2014 at 2:49 am #

    Awesome images.. This memorial has become my favorite to photograph.. It really touches me and is definitely evocative of what I imagine war to be like. I wish I’d thought to go down and photograph it in snow.. Your images are awesome and B&W is perfect!

    • shaunmoss March 10, 2014 at 2:53 am #

      Thank you, Victoria. Next time it snows, let’s go together. But let’s hope it’s not for another 10 months or so…

  6. E. David Luria March 10, 2014 at 3:11 am #

    Great work, Shaun! A very moving and accurate account of the most photogenic memorial in Washington DC!

    • shaunmoss March 10, 2014 at 3:18 am #

      Thank you, David. You are my first and most influential mentor. As you well know, my approach to photographing this memorial comes largely from you, my friend.

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