A difference in perspective almost 70 years later
When Leonard Bernhardt of Beaverton was drafted into the Army, he was unhappy.
He was 21. He had just married Georgene Gullickson, and looked toward taking over the family farm he was running near Taylor, North Dakota.
Then he was drafted to fight in a war overseas.
"My attitude was this: I did not want to go to war," Bernhardt recalled. "The Korean War was unpopular; nobody wanted to get involved in that fight. Nobody knew where Korea was, because it wasn't in our geography books, so what were we doing over there?
"Everybody looked down on the GIs coming back from Korea because they thought that was a waste of time and nobody said thank you. I hated it just as much."
But a decade earlier, Bernhardt said, his uncles fought in World War II. The United States emerged triumphant four years later, only to be thrust in the postwar role of resisting the spread of Communism and the invasion of Soviet-backed North Korea into South Korea.
"I told myself I am going to go, like my uncles did, and do my job for my country because I felt I must support my country," Bernhardt said.
After undergoing basic infantry training, Bernhardt went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to learn how to drive a tank. Then he was shipped off to Korea, where he spent the final months of the war around the 38th Parallel — then and now the dividing line between south and north. He didn't have to drive a tank, but he learned how to operate in four other positions within a tank — and to drive Army M35 trucks that carried soldiers, mail and cargo.
"I was lucky in that I did not get hit or injured in any way," he said. "Guys got hurt and guys got killed, but it wasn't a hundred at a time in the area I was in. It was not unusual that we lost 200 men in one day in one battle — but either you were in heavy stuff (combat) or light.
"I'd seen enough, heard enough, and was there long enough to know what it was like — and what has to be done."
After both sides signed a truce on July 27, 1953, Bernhardt remained in what is known as the Demilitarized Zone for nine more months
"It was lonesome and boring," he said. "It was not comfortable; it was not home."
But when Bernhardt got home to North Dakota, he encountered more difficulties.
"I couldn't get a job, I got kicked off the farm and my dad didn't help me," he said. "I was one of those guys in the forgotten war, and nobody cares. I thought this was no good. Why did I have to do that? But Georgene was always there."
They packed up what they had into their 1954 Ford and headed west to Portland.
The farm went three years later to a younger brother, who with five of Bernhardt's six sisters now benefit from payments for the oil underneath the farm.
"But today, I can buy the whole bunch of them out in cash," he said.
Back in 1957, Bernhardt began what is now Bernhardt Golf, which built not only golf courses but athletic fields and practice facilities throughout Oregon. One of his sons, Darryl, is in charge now.
Decades later, Bernhardt was in Washington, D.C. While waiting for a Metro train, he met a woman with a U.S. flag and two children who were en route to a funeral for her husband and their father, who died in Iraq.
He introduced himself and told his story.
"I told her I used to think I wasted my time and we were there for all the wrong reasons," he said. "But today, I feel differently. I feel I can say to you that if your husband was here right now, he would say it's OK, he died for a good cause because he died for your freedom now. She thanked me for it, as did the kids, and they felt better."
South Korea has emerged as the world's 11th largest economy, and one of the few genuine democracies in East Asia. Bernhardt said he has returned several times on expense-paid trips by a grateful Korean people.
"They are happy we came and saved their freedom," he said.
He has told his story on video for his 22 grandchildren — he has cancer of the esophagus — and he is a frequent visitor to high schools.
There is still no formal peace treaty ending the Korean War.
"But I think someday it will happen," Bernhardt said. "Trump is working on it. He wants that in his legacy — and that would be good for both peoples."
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