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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 21, 2004

Museum sheds light on Korean War

Kyle Kopitke, near statues of former South Korea President Syngman Rhee and current leader Roh Moo-hyun, calls Hawai'i a logical site for a Korean War museum, citing the many Hawai'i soldiers killed and wounded during the war.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Visitors explored the National Korean War Museum in Wahiawa yesterday on its opening day. The facility's 38 galleries offer hundreds of posters, photographs and pieces of memorabilia, including war medals, foot lockers, combat gear and statues.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

There were no crowds, brass bands, dignitaries or flowery speeches for the official opening of the National Korean War Museum in Wahiawa yesterday afternoon.

There were only Kyle and Annie Kopitke, along with a couple of volunteer helpers, escorting a handful of well-wishers and curious stragglers through the museum, which is in a 200-foot-long, 1940s-era Quonset hut at 235 Kellog St.

But what the opening lacked in pomp and circumstance was more than made up in passion and conviction by Kopitke and his wife, who started and operate the museum without pay as a labor of love.

"This is the first and only national Korean War museum," said Kopitke, 46, a former Peace Corps worker and suicide prevention counselor. "There have been more than 30 attempts to build one over the past 50 years."

Kopitke said those well-meaning attempts never panned out because they were grandiose, multimillion-dollar concepts for which money could never be raised.

By contrast, he said the board of trustees for this nonprofit operation pays the building owners a dollar a year for the space. The museum has been put together by hard work and volunteer help, and virtually all the building materials and exhibit pieces have been donated.

Kopitke said the museum will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and the price of a ticket is $10 — $20 for a lifetime pass. Hawai'i is the logical location for such a facility, he said, because it had the highest percentage of soldiers killed and wounded in the war.

It was obvious that this attempt to remember what has been called the "Forgotten War" was incomplete. Naked water pipes protruded from unfinished sections of floor. There were stacks of bricks in one corner, framed pictures leaning against walls, ladders and tools amid the 38 galleries — a number of which still had a makeshift appearance.

"We do have some technical challenges," Kopitke said.

But there were also hundreds of posters, photos and pieces of memorabilia; there were war medals, foot lockers, combat gear, statues, historic explanations and a 58-foot mural by artist Andy Pak.

A 58-foot mural by artist Andy Pak depicts scenes from the Korean War — in which 33,000 Americans died in three years of fighting.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

In a way the museum reflects the less-than-glorious position history seems to hold for the horrific three-year war in which 33,000 Americans were killed but which the country refused to call a war until after the guns stopped firing on July 27, 1953. It was known as "the Korean conflict."

Korean War veterans didn't get the welcome-home parades, or the same financial or educational benefits that World War II veterans received, Kopitke told those who showed up yesterday. He added that they never got the recognition they deserved.

"My best guess as to why is that World War II had just ended and people were so sick of war that they just didn't want to think about it," said history buff Adam Lipka, 28, who permanently loaned the new museum his vintage 1952 Willys Jeep that saw service in Korea.

When he can, Lipka, a Honolulu police officer, also donates his time. He does it for the same reason as the Kopitkes: Because he wants those who fought in Korea — whose veterans are dying at nearly the same rate as World War II veterans — to understand there are people who care.

"It's a work in progress," Lipka said of the National Korean War Museum. "But it's time to get it open. There's enough of an exhibit there to give it a start. I think we're long overdue to honor and pay tribute to those veterans — while they are still alive."

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.