Korean War veterans keep their stories alive

Nassau County chapter of veteran’s association celebrates 25th anniversary

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“Who will speak for those who lay so silent?”

The line comes from a pamphlet of poems collected by Bernard Hoffman, 85, of Merrick, referring to the lives of soldiers who were killed fighting overseas. As Director of the Nassau County chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association, Hoffman shared the poems with fellow members over a plate of rice and chicken. On April 17 the organization celebrated its 25th anniversary at Ayhan’s Shish Kebab in Baldwin.

Like Hoffman stitched together his book of poems, members of the KWVA said that being part of the organization allows them to stitch together their war stories with those of their comrades. This happens when they meet people who may have served at the same time or even in the same regiment as them, explained Harold Prummel, 86, of Carle Place.

One member, Buddy Epstein, 86, of Long Beach, remembered his teenage years watching World War II films and imagining himself in the boots of the soldiers on-screen. “I was young, immature and thought it would be glorious,” Epstein said. “Real war is nothing like [the movies].” As a combat soldier in the Third Infantry Regiment, Epstein lived through one of the coldest winters in the history of South Korea in which he saw more casualties from frostbite than gunshot. He spent some time living in a foxhole to avoid the latter. Epstein said that those years were the scariest of his life, but that he will always be proud to say that he lived through them.

The Nassau County chapter of the KWVA was formed in 1992 and began hosting its meetings in a spare room at American Legion Post 1711 on North Jerusalem Road in Levittown. In 2001, the chapter built and dedicated a Korean War monument in Eisenhower Park. Three years later they “spoke for those who lay silent” by inscribing on the monument the names of over 100 soldiers who were killed in battle.

From 1950 to 1953, conflict raged in Korea between the democratic South and the communist North. American soldiers helped prevent the North from taking over the South by creating a demilitarized zone alone the 38th parallel, which still exists today and is guarded by roughly 50,000 troops. Hoffman served as a combat soldier in the 31st Infantry Regiment and worked for a heavy weapons company. He spent three years firing mortars and rifles, which eventually impaired his hearing. He said that he found solace in writing letters to Florence, who was his girlfriend at the time. After he mentioned this, Florence recalled a specific letter in which he wrote that he would come home, marry her and they would raise a family. When he came home, he kept his promise.

Although the conflict is sometimes called the “Forgotten War,” Hoffman said that he feels anything but forgotten as a Korean War veteran. “The Korean people really appreciate what we did for them,” he said, adding that he experienced their gratitude firsthand when he traveled to the country in 2010. Hoffman and his wife, Florence, took the trip as part of a U.S. delegation of combat veterans to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the war. The South Korean government covered half of his travel expenses and fronted the bill for a five-star hotel in which Hoffman and Florence stayed.