Horace Underwood III, called Won Il-han by his Korean name, poses in front of the statue of his grandfather, Horace Underwood I, on the campus of Yonsei University in Seoul in 1982. / Korea Times file
By Andrew Salmon
When it comes to Korean icons and influencers, family names can be problematic: Dozens of Kims, and as many Lees and Parks, have been key players in the peninsula’s modern history. Things are less problematic with foreigners: After all, only one Ito, one MacArthur and one Mao have significantly influenced this land.
The exception to this rule is that American dynasty of missionaries and educators, the Underwoods. Making things more complicated, the first name is not necessarily a help in identifying who is who. As a family tradition, the most famed of the Korea-related Underwoods have all taken the same Christian name — Horace.
Four Horace Underwoods have played roles in modern Korean history. The man we address below was born in Korea in 1917, and was both the son and grandson of Horace Underwoods.
The first Horace Underwood had set foot in Korea in 1885, a Presbyterian missionary who also had a talent for business. This he shared with his brother John Underwood of the famous Underwood typewriter company.
Horace I was a key figure in early missionary activities in Korea, and was instrumental in the translation of the Bible into Korean. He also founded an educational institution, Chosen Christian College, in 1915, that would become known in Korea as Yonhi College, named after the hilly western Seoul neighborhood it was located in.
The second Horace Underwood was born in Korea in 1890, and made education his career. In turn, Horace II’s son, Horace III and the subject of this article, was born in Korea in 1917.
Korean childhood and Pacific War
Horace Underwood III grew up in Korea under Japanese rule — a rule that his father, a missionary and educator approved of. Like many resident westerners, he expected the Japanese colonists to drag Korea into the 20th century. However, as the years passed, and Japan descended into militarism and ultra-nationalism, it would be the Western-style educational and religious institutes that would breed much of the resistance to Tokyo’s increasingly harsh rule.
Even so, Horace III would later describe his early days as “golden years.” There were the secluded foreign compounds, the small, close-knit community, and the adventures of living in Korea. These included climbing the mysterious Mt. Baekdu; summers at Daejeon Beach; and sailing the family boat, “The Black Duck.” On several occasions he went hunting in the winter with his father in the northern provinces — during one such trip, one of his bearers was gored by a wild boar.
As Japan and Korea moved inexorably toward war, the bucolic existence of the expat community would come to an end. While his father continued working in an educational capacity at the institution his own father, Horace Underwood I, had founded, Chosen College, Horace III became a missionary in 1939.
The family declined to evacuate Korea with other Americans in 1940, and in December, after the Japanese naval attack on Pearl Harbor, were detained by the Japanese authorities. In 1942, the Underwood family, along with other interned U.S. citizens from Japan and China, were repatriated via Mozambique under the auspices of the Red Cross.
Upon arrival in the United States, Horace immediately joined the U.S. Navy, where he served in the greatest engagement in naval history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The end of World War II found him as a member of the occupation force in Japan, then sent him on minesweeping duty to the Korean coast.
Demobilized, he returned to his adopted home and Chosen Christian College where he resumed missionary and educational work.
But Korea was not at peace. Joseon had gone forever, and the Japanese colonial period, followed so soon by U.S.-Soviet rivalry, had bred acute polarities and murderous animosities. Horace’s mother Ethel was shot by a communist terrorist in 1949: 3,000 people attended her funeral. A year later, Horace II, demoralized by his wife’s death and in despair at Korea’s situation, passed away from a heart attack.
War comes to Korea
In 1950, the Korean situation exploded onto the world’s consciousness. When Kim Il-sung’s blitzkrieg surged south on June 25, Horace III and other Americans escaped Seoul. The American found himself — once again — donning his country’s uniform. He rejoined the U.S. Navy for the duration.
His fluent Korean and knowledge of the battleground were obvious assets. He took part in the September 1950 Incheon landings which took a desperate North Korean People’s Army deep in the flank, and joined a U.S. Marine reconnaissance patrol as counterattacking U.N. forces advanced upon Seoul.
He was also present at the fierce fighting for the North Korean main line of resistance in the city’s college district. After the smoke cleared, he discovered that the enemy had beheaded the statue of his grandfather and the family home had been laid waste.
Following the rout of Kim’s forces, Horace and his brother Richard were attached to U.N. units heading into North Korea for the liberation of that country. The liberation proved short-lived. In winter 1951, Chinese forces struck south, en masse, with shock suddenness. U.N. units, shattered on the verge of victory, retreated in disarray to the south.
Heavy fighting raged throughout winter and spring of 1951 as both sides struggled for mastery of the waist of the peninsula.
In July, with both contenders battle-shocked by the mass casualties of maneuver warfare, the two Underwoods were called upon to work as interpreters under U.S. Admiral C Turner Joy at the Armistice Commission at Gaeseong and later Panmunjeom.
Interpreting for the tortuous armistice talks was a serious and demanding task, but had its lighter moments. Horace once used pan-mal (the lowest form of spoken Korean) back at an enemy general who had been using the same form at him, causing a minor breach of protocol. He was backed to the hilt by Turner Joy.
He also interrogated enemy POWs, many of whom he was surprised to learn did not wish to return home.
Though many U.N. troops were overjoyed when the armistice was signed in July 1953, ending the slaughter, Horace — noting the bitterness of the Koreans, who had realized that the armistice meant that their nation would remain divided for the foreseeable future — did not attend.
Turmoil and peace
Following the armistice, Horace undertook graduate studies in the United States and returned to Korea in 1955 with his wife Joan and three sons in tow. He worked at the university his grandfather had founded, and rebuilt its hospital, Severance. In 1957, the institution’s name was changed, by combining the name of the college — Yonhi — with its affiliated hospital — Severance.
Horace worked as a professor of education and later headed up the library. He also oversaw the expansion of student enrollment, and the nascent internationalization of the campus.
During the post-war years, Horace’s position granted him a grandstand view of the struggle for democracy, for the campus would became a favored battleground of riot police and student demonstrators.
He was not always sympathetic to radical students, however. He expelled three who had broken up lectures; in return, radicals trashed the Underwood home. But Horace continued as a member of the university board, and was also active in the Fulbright program, the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the Korean American Association and the Seoul USO.
When this writer was granted an interview with Horace for a book in 2003, it was impressed upon me by those who set it up that I was most privileged to be granted an interview with the most respected member of Seoul’s foreign community. I began the interview with something close to trepidation, but it became clear almost as soon as we began talking, however, that Horace was not just a genuinely fascinating man, but also a gentleman of the old school who put me immediately at ease.
In May 1999, Horace had exhumed the body of his grandfather, Horace I, from New Jersey and reburied him in the Seoul Foreign Cemetery in Mapo, where the body of his father, Horace II, rested. In 2004, Horace III joined them both there.
The same year, his eldest son — inevitably, also named Horace — announced that he would be retiring from his position at the Fulbright Commission and leaving Korea for the United States. The departure of Horace IV ended over a century of Underwood service to Korean education.
The family’s legacy lives on. The college founded by Horace Underwood I still stands: Yonsei University is one of Korea’s top three tertiary education institutions. The statue of Horace I and the Underwood family house, both severely impacted by the 1950 fighting, have been repaired.
Moreover — and despite 2004 reports in the vernacular press to the contrary — a last Underwood does, indeed, remain in Korea.
Horace III’s third son Peter is a Seoul resident — in fact, he lives in the restored Underwood home on the Yonsei campus. However, he is not an educator. He is a director at Industrial Research and Consulting, where much of his work is advising foreign businesses entering the Korean market. Like his father before him, Peter is one of the best informed, best known, best connected and well-liked members of the much expanded expatriate community.
Four generations of American Underwoods have lived in and dedicated themselves to Korea. Who was the foremost among them may be argued over, but it is Horace III who lived through what the Chinese archly call “interesting” times. Having been born at the height of the colonial period, he survived World War II and the Korean War, then helped expand and guide his grandfather’s university through the tribulations of the authoritarian years and into the modern era.
Given this, Horace Underwood III is not just the scion of a famed family and a notable representative of Korean-American relations, but also — given the roles he played in both war and education — a significant influence on this country.
Andrew Salmon is a reporter and the author of three works on modern Korean history: “U.S. Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 — “the Present,” “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951,” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”