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A day for remembering

Korea vets look back on bloody conflict; Petaluma Museum unveils exhibit

Paul Lewis of Petaluma served in the Army during the Korean War. Lewis salutes during the National Anthem during the Korean War Remembrance Day ceremony held Saturday at the Petaluma Museum, where an exhibit called "Korea, the Forgotten War" is on display until Dec. 16.

(Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)
Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012 at 10:02 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 14, 2012 at 10:02 a.m.

Life was good for Paul Lewis in 1952 — the fourth-generation Petaluman was just out of high school, had a girlfriend and drove a 1939 Chevy with the best twin pipes in town.

But even as Lewis reveled in youth, hints of his future came to him through Korean War newsreels at the movies. Then, when some of his older high school buddies started dying in Korea, the war hit home.

Lewis, a country boy with a sharpshooter's eye, was eventually drafted and sent to Korea in 1953 just before the July armistice. During "mop up" operations, Lewis endured hours of patrols, shelling and a battle in which he and a soldier from Chicago survived an attack by about 20 inexperienced Korean "insurgents."

With the cease-fire in place, that fight brought the the wrath of his superiors, and he remembers being told "soldier, it never happened." A photo of Lewis taken that day, shortly after the combat, is on display in the Petaluma Museum, part of a new exhibit called. "Korea, the Forgotten War."

"If you look at it real close, you can almost see the horror in my eye," said Lewis, who is among a number of local Korean War veterans who loaned the exhibit a treasure of war memorabilia that includes photos, newspaper clippings, military weapons and equipment.

On Saturday, Lewis, 79, and other Korean War veterans attended a ceremony on the steps of the Petaluma Museum to commemorate the opening of the exhibit and honor the veterans for their service.

Lewis, with his cane resting on the podium, read the names of his three high school friends who died in the war: Robert Bover, Joey Mendoza and George Poe, all 1952 graduates of Petaluma High.

There were 54,000 Americans who did not get a chance to grow old or use a cane like the one he now carries, Lewis said.

Museum president Joe Noriel told those gathered that, "The Korean War is often referred to as the Forgotten War, but on this day in Petaluma, it's remembered."

A city proclamation was read by City Councilwoman Tiffany Renée. It established Oct. 13 as Korean War Remembrance Day in Petaluma.

In attendance was Sungho Yang, consul of the Korean Consulate in San Francisco, who said he was pleased to see that American veterans were proud of their military service in Korea. Without it, he said, South Korea could not have achieved the freedom and prosperity it has now.

Robert Fleak, 82, of Rohnert Park was with the 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, during the war. He arrived at Inchon in the spring of 1951 and was in Korea for 11 months. Fleak provided a number of the museum pieces, including a type of a-frame backpack made of bamboo and wood used by Koreans for carrying heavy loads.

Fleak also loaned photos, newspaper clippings, a Soviet-made "Burp gun" that was standard issue for North Korean forces, and the Browning automatic rifle he carried for 18 months. He remembers how his finger froze on the trigger during a fight.

"When it gets down to 40-45 below zero, it gets cold," he said.

Fleak said he was pleased the Petaluma Museum and the city were honoring those who fought in Korea.

"I was just one of the guys over there that was lucky to get home," he said, as he rested in a chair next to some of his memorabilia. "There were a lot of heroes over there."

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)

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