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‘Under Five Flags’ stretches from Korea to America

U.S. doctors, other friends paved way for emigration from Asia

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In “Under Five Flags” by Hackchan Rhee and Marta L. Tullis: From a small farm town in what is now North Korea, an ambitious 13-year-old boy named Sungchun started out in winter to walk “through mountain trails, crossing rivers from sunrise to sundown,” to the large city of Pyongyang, about 30 miles distant. The year was 1915 and he hoped to find employment and an education, as well as relieving his desperately poor parents of the need to feed and house him. Pushing through a snowstorm, he came across a farmhouse, where he was taken in, warmed and fed — and ended up staying and working until spring.

In Pyongyang, he first found a job with a Japanese watchmaker and attended a Japanese middle school — “gymnasium.” It was a time of unrest in Korea (a brief bit of national history is inserted here that gives some insight on today’s situation.) Water department job, marriage and a family followed and some success with buying and selling houses. There are descriptions of family life — including the upbringing of his son, the author of the book — and schooling in the Japanese era, (no Korean history allowed), food and religious education.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union occupied North Korea and eventually, the United States occupied the south part of the country, per agreement of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. Hackchan Rhee attended a teachers’ college in North Korea, developed some skills in art, then taught a Communist-approved curriculum from fall 1949 to summer 1950. Teachers and students were also responsible for teaching illiterate adults. When American bombs started falling, the schools was damaged and closed.

In December 1950, with Chinese troops closing in, Rhee, his brother and a friend decided to head south and try to rejoin the American medical unit they had become acquainted with previously, the 101st FOB. Doctors and other friends he made there eventually smoothed the way to go to America, although it took several years to accumulate the required signatures (more than 30). He cleaned, translated and did what was requested, plus extra work like laundering the doctors’ clothes, to earn extra money, which he traded for gold rings, kept in a bag around his neck. During this time, GIs encouraged him to improve his English and come to America.

Rhee mentions various doctors who supported him and later helped him in America, including Elet Wagner, who got him a scholarship to attend Hastings College in Nebraska, where his family had connections. His visa was finally granted in early 1954 and he left on a cargo ship (the cheapest possible fare) and was seasick much of the way to Seattle. He visited his friend Dr. Atkinson in San Francisco, then traveled to Nebraska, where the Wagner family fed and housed him and helped him find jobs until it was time to start college.

Since Hastings did not offer the technical courses he needed to become an engineer, he found help from another doctor friend named Philpott and transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He had a scholarship and a job as lab technician. He studied hard and visited several other friends, including Frank Welty in Estes Park, Colorado, where the mountains reminded him of his former Korean home.

Eventually, he went to work for Martin Marietta, now called Lockheed Martin, where he worked on the Atlas V and other projects until retirement.

The book is available from Dorrance Publishing Co. in Pittsburgh, online at dorrancebookstore.com

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