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Every Memorial Day, Korean War veteran David Epstein remembers a special friend

This photo of David Epstein was taken in 1952 after he completed boot camp. He was shipped to Korea in 1953.

A member of the Korean War Veterans Association in Overland Park (Chapter #181), David Epstein, 84, is proud for his armed service in South Korea between April 1953 and February 1954. He has collected boxes full of albums containing photos, binders with certificates of appreciation and medals he received from the Korean government, and copies of Graybeard Magazine published by National Korean War Veterans in Washington, D.C.

 

From April 1953 to February 1954, he served at the Command Post Security as a Marine for 10 months near the 38th Parallel, 2 miles south of Panmunjom, a tiny village almost invisible on the map of Korea. But some six decades ago this place was under the spotlight of the world media, where the representatives of the U.N. and China met more than 1,000 times between June 1951-1953 to end the war with a peace treaty but only settled with the ceasefire agreement on July 27, 1953. This village was where the Bridge of No Return is located, the bridge through which the POWs of both sides were exchanged, and the reporters from all over the world had congregated for a short time to get then the “hottest” news.

Was he afraid that North Koreans might attack, being near the 38th Parallel?

No, he said. “There was only one air raid during the entire time I was there. Compared to those who were in Korea earlier, my days were easy.”

He then talked about his friendship with then 1st Lt. Irvin B Maizlish, who had been on the front line from 1952 until the end of the war.

In 1952, the 21-year-old Epstein was a corporal at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Infantry training camp in California, not knowing that his neighbor and friend Irvin was there as an officer in training. One day, while Epstein was on kitchen duty, wearing an apron and peeling potatoes, a commotion erupted at the entrance and someone shouted that an officer was coming in. The kitchen crew stood motionless.

As a rule, no officer ever visited the steamy hot and messy kitchen. The officer then walked in and called out, “Is PFC David Epstein here?”

Epstein stepped forward, announcing, “I am he, sir!” Unexpectedly the officer came over and gave him a bear hug, saying, “Hey, David! I heard you were here!”

Epstein recalled: “An officer hugging a PFC in public never happens in the Marines. And I was holding a kitchen knife! Seeing the officer embracing one of them, the kitchen crew relaxed and some laughed. It turned out that Irvin’s mom and my mom were talking one day, over coffee, and discovering that I was at the camp, his mom wrote to Irvin to look for me.”

Months later, in early 1953, Maizlish and Epstein were in Korea — Maizlish on the front line at the 38th Parallel as a platoon leader, and Epstein at Command Post Security 2 miles south.

The strip of land along the 38th Parallel known as the “Demilitarized Zone” was in fact most heavily militarized area in the world and still is; with land mines, check points, and watchtowers. But as a fearless young Marine, Epstein didn’t worry about his own safety. On his off-duty days, he visited his friend at the front line, on foot, and had a good time. Later, Maizlish would give him ride in his officer’s jeep to the Command Post Security office.

“Though it’s a small favor a friend can do to another, in wartime in Korea, Irvin’s gesture of friendship meant so much to me,” Epstein said. “Back in Kansas City, after the war ended, our friendship continued — he building a successful real estate business and I working in the insurance business.”

Irvin B Mailzlish died in 1997 by a natural cause.

For Epstein, every Memorial Day has been the day to remember the 11 months he served in South Korea, his friendship with Maizlish and all those who saved South Korea from perishing from the face of the earth more than six decades ago.

Therese Park, a retired musician, is a native of South Korea. She has written columns since 2006 and is the author of three historical novels about Korea.