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Posted : 2017-11-06 17:10
Updated : 2017-11-07 16:52

US Marine's love in the time of war

George Lampman and Lee Sook-ei in the 1950s / Courtesy of Robert Neff collection

By Robert Neff


Recently, The Korea Times had the opportunity to interview George V. Lampman who, as a young Marine, was assigned to the American Embassy from 1949 to 1951. Despite being 90, Lampman has a youthful, if not mischievous, twinkle in his eyes, and is quick to smile as he recalls his time in Korea.

He arrived in Korea on Jan. 9, 1949, as part of the security detachment of the American Embassy in Seoul. It was a relatively easy assignment ― checking identification at the entrance of the embassy (located in the Bando Hotel, now the site of downtown Seoul's Lotte Hotel) and staying out of trouble. The first part was easy but the second part was a little more difficult.

But things changed when Lee Sook-ei, a young Korean woman working in the communication section of the embassy, caught his attention. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. In the beginning their meetings were rather controlled: "Maybe a once-a-week dinner at a close-by Chinese restaurant and an occasional conversation in the Embassy lobby while we were both on breaks. But never a date between just the two of us."

Eventually their attraction to one another overcame the potential disapproval of her mother and they began dating. But this was cut short by the evacuation of the embassy when the Korean War started on June 25, 1950.

Lampman was transferred to Saigon but returned to Seoul in mid-October 1950, after the city was liberated and the American Embassy returned to its location on the fifth floor of the Bando Hotel. The hotel had been badly damaged during the previous months when a large bomb had struck next to the building and "penetrated under the boiler room, and blew out one corner of the building's interior up to the fifth floor without any damage to the exterior structure" other than blowing out all the windows. Fortunately, the side on which the embassy was located still had the main elevator, lobby, water and electricity and could continue to operate.

According to Lampman, "The Marines' security function was intensified, reflecting the reality of great numbers of North Korean stragglers holed up in Seoul and being hunted in every conceivable venue." The Marines were responsible for keeping an armed guard in the lobby and another at the ambassador's door 24 hours a day.

During the North Korean occupation of the city, a large number of people suspected of working for the American government or being anti-communists were executed. It was with great relief that Lampman discovered Sook-ei had survived (she had found refuge in Pyeongtaek) and had resumed working at the embassy's switchboard.

As Lampman fondly recalls, "we were meant for each other" and on Dec. 19, in a traditional Korean Family Register Ceremony held at her home, they were married. Their married life in Seoul was short-lived.

Throughout December the streets of Seoul were awash with refugees fleeing the north and with straggling soldiers. Despite General MacArthur's "thundering proclamations" the tides of war had changed.

On Jan. 3, 1951, the embassy was ordered to evacuate to Busan. There was no real organized plan ― merely each man for himself ― and Lampman told his young bride to gather up her family and return to the embassy. It was his intention to drive them south in an old Russian truck he had obtained some months earlier.

Lampman, his wife, and a young American named Wabash rode in the front while squeezed in the back were 18 young women ― all embassy switchboard employees. Everyone in the city was making for the one bridge crossing the Han River ― pandemonium ruled.

"Altercations, broken-down vehicles that were already out of gas, overloaded carts and wheelbarrows, and Japanese trucks actually tipping over and dumping their loads in the street impeded our progress."

Once across the river, the traffic changed. Long lines of pedestrians ― desperate to reach safety ― clogged the roads. Many of the Japanese trucks broke down or ran out of fuel and were then pushed off the side of the road but Lampman's Russian truck had few problems and these were often eased with his gifts of alcohol or fuel.

Not all had been as lucky:

"From time to time, we would come upon small groups of bodies on either side of the road. Yes, four, five, or six, in their state of eternal rest. These little, most probably family groups had left the southward surge to give their cold, hungry, exhausted bodies a short rest and were overpowered by the exotica of eternal rest. The vast majority, it was later learned, had been walking for many days, trying to keep ahead of the Chinese People's Army, which was endeavoring to recapture Seoul for the North Korean Army, which was, by then, virtually destroyed."

Lampman and his wife remained in Busan until December 1951 when he was transferred. But, because their marriage was not recognized by the State Department, he was forced to leave her behind. He promised to return and did so in March 1954. In the following year they were officially married in Seoul by the mayor.

In 1956 they left Korea and over the years she eventually became a naturalized American citizen and he retired from the military. Korea has had an enormous impact on their lives; their marriage began and ended here. In October 2015, the couple's visit to Korea was marred with sadness when Sook-ei passed away shortly after their arrival. Lampman hopes to honor his wife's memory by placing a plaque at her old school, Midong Elementary School, stressing that "Education is Essential" to the future.



Robert Neff is a historian and columnist for The Korea Times. He can be reached at robertneff103@gmail.com.

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