Someday No One Will Remember the War in Iraq...

Discussion in 'Politics & Religion' started by Pabst, Apr 5, 2006.

  1. Pabst


    Selling `forgotten war'
    In Downstate Rantoul, a fledgling Korean War museum wages an uphill battle to raise conflict's profile and to spur donations

    By E.A. Torriero
    Tribune staff reporter

    April 5, 2006

    RANTOUL, Ill. -- To veterans who served in Korea and hear that some 300 of their aged combat buddies die every day, the "forgotten war" of the 1950s has become a forgotten memory in America.

    Two fledgling museums--one in this small central Illinois village and another in Nebraska--are emblematic of the veterans' fight for recognition.

    Barely 2,000 people in the last year visited the Korean War Veterans National Museum and Library, tucked away in a barracks of a defunct Air Force base here. The museum has no curator. It runs at an operating deficit of about $100,000, and its spartan exhibits are mostly mementos from old soldiers. Some 650 miles to the west, a separate Korea-era museum is foundering too, after three moves in three years.

    Museum operators in Illinois would like to change America's longstanding indifference to the sacrifices of the 5.7 million Americans who served during the conflict, including 1.5 million who fought on Korean soil. Despite two failed construction attempts in rural Illinois, organizers are nonetheless looking to build an $8 million to $10 million, state-of-the art museum complex in Springfield.

    "We compare what we're doing to those guys in Korea going up Pork Chop Hill," said Larry Sassorossi, the museum's executive director, alluding to a Korean battle site. "They didn't make it to the top the first time. But they kept trying until they made it."

    The museum has raised about $325,000 from a nationwide mailing that netted more than 47,000 donors, Sassorossi said. He expects at least a windfall of some $480,000 this year from donors--enough, he said, to make a down payment and woo bankers even as the museum struggles now to stay afloat.

    But Sassorossi, 72, a peripatetic fundraiser who previously worked in Chicago's Italian community and on a revitalization project in suburban Highwood, is facing an uphill road and many skeptics, museum experts and war veterans said.

    "It's virtually impossible to move to a highly sophisticated operation from a small collection without an endowment and lots of government money," said Michael Devine, director of the Truman Museum and Presidential Library in Missouri.

    Near the Truman, at Graceland University in Independence, Mo., the Center for the Study of the Korean War barely survives on free rent and the $100,000 in grants and donations it takes to keep its 120,000 war-era documents archived. In its 16 years of operation, it has been visited mostly by academics.

    "How in the world anyone is going to build a major Korean museum is beyond me," executive director Paul Edwards said.

    No hero's welcome

    From 1950 to 1953, millions of American forces aided South Korea in a fight against the communist North. More than 33,700 Americans died there before Korea spilt into two nations. Those who returned found not the hero's welcome of World War soldiers. They were seen as part of a failed American police action that let communism grab a foothold on the Korean peninsula.

    Today, American veterans are fading at a rate of 1,885 per day--about two-thirds of them having served either in World War II or the Korean War, according to federal statistics.

    But in Washington, a salute to the Korean War stands in the shadow of more visited memorials to World War II and the Vietnam War. Some 3.4 million visitors come annually to the Korean War Veterans Memorial site, dedicated in 1995, near the Lincoln Memorial, compared with 4.7 million visitors a year to the World War II site, which opened in 2004. Park Service officials say the Korean memorial is often an afterthought for visitors even though it is just a 150-yard walk from other memorials.

    For years, efforts to mark the Korean War-era service with a museum have been met with meager donations and public neglect. Both the non-profit museum in Rantoul--and a for-profit one that also claims a national designation in Nebraska--have checkered histories of money problems, acrimony and grand plans that fizzled.

    "We want so badly for our memory to live on, especially before we all die off," said William MacSwain, 75, who has monitored building efforts for the Korean War Veterans Association, which has 17,000 voting members nationally and loses about 1,200 of them to death every year.

    "But we're a little jaundiced that these museums have never shown progress," said MacSwain, who was an Army platoon sergeant in Korea and now lives in Texas.

    In Nebraska, a Naperville native has struggled for years to run a for-profit Korean museum.

    Kyle Kopitke, a former suicide-prevention counselor turned museum entrepreneur, opened his National Korean War Museum in a metal Quonset hut on Oahu, Hawaii, in 2004. But by year's end, the museum shuttered as the building went into foreclosure, with some angry veterans taking back their donated memorabilia.

    After scouring the country, Kopitke reopened his museum with much fanfare last April in a converted nursing home in Oxford, Neb., population 876. But after Labor Day, Kopitke was again on the move, leaving an unpaid utility bill to the town and arrears in rent payments.

    Kopitke now plans to reopen this spring in another small Nebraska town, Edgar, in an abandoned schoolhouse that he bought from the municipality for a dollar. Kopitke, too, hopes soon to open a "Trail of American Military Museums" in empty schools across Nebraska.

    "He's just a farce," said George Kucera, 74, a Korean War veteran from Nebraska who spoke at last year's opening ceremony at Kopitke's museum and now regrets it. "He's just using us veterans to try to make a buck, and he's not doing much good for us or himself."

    Illinois' Korean War museum, too, has a contentious past.

    The effort began in 1997 in Tuscola, a small town south of Champaign, after a curator at a county museum collected stories from local Korean-era veterans. That led to an exhibit and later the formation of a Korean War museum.

    After moving to an outlet mall, the museum broke ground in 2003 for a $12 million building and an $8 million replica of a battlefield over 22 acres. Financing was based mostly on the hollow promise of a state Illinois FIRST grant that never materialized, organizers said.

    "It was incredibly ambitious idea that just fizzled," said J. Drew Hoel, Tuscola's city administrator.

    By 2004, after board members split over its direction, the museum moved 43 miles north to Rantoul on the grounds of the former Chanute Air Force Base. The museum hoped to piggyback on visitors to an aerospace museum that in one year drew more than 15,000 tourists.

    Last summer, after 200 veterans marched in an annual town parade, the museum broke ground for the first of three rotund buildings in Rantoul. But plans quickly faded when initial bids came in higher than the board anticipated.

    Now museum organizers are sure they can't survive in Rantoul. The museum takes in barely $27,000 from admissions, dues and bookstore proceeds. That's less than half of what it takes to pay director Sassorossi's $59,000-plus yearly salary. In all, it costs about $180,000 annually to run the current museum, Sassorossi said, leaving it in red by at least $100,000 after revenues and donations.

    "They have the beginnings of a museum but not much else," said Reed Burger, Rantoul's economic development director.

    New Illinois site

    Still, museum operators are banking that if they build it in a high-traffic area elsewhere in Illinois, tourists will flock.

    They are looking at a site near Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum that has drawn more than a half-million visitors to Springfield since opening in April.

    So far, officials in Springfield are willing to listen to the museum's pitches. This time, though, Sassorossi promises no more fanfare until a new museum finally open its doors.

    "Then, and only then, can we celebrate," he said.


    Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
  2. Ricter


    The wargamers will remember. Best thing about war, gives us material.