BUSAN, South Korea – The first time Boyd L. Watts came to Busan, he was an 18-year-old American boy with a war to fight. The last time it was spring, the war long past, and at 78, he had a different agenda in mind. His hope is to secure a final resting place in Busan’s United Nations Memorial Cemetery, the only UN cemetery in the world. For him, it’s not simply a matter of taking rest with his brothers in arms — Busan has become his second home.
I met with Watts on the first truly warm day of spring to take a walk through the cemetery and talk about his life. We wandered through the finely cut landscaping, past grave sites of fallen soldiers and beneath blooming spindle and rose trees. He talked about his time in the Army, his connection to Busan, and his feelings about the war.
Watts has seen many changes in Korea over the past 60 years. When he first arrived at Busan’s Pier 5 in December of 1950 for military assignment, he said he had no knowledge of the city or the nation. He was quickly directed to join the Army’s 7th Division, 31st Infantry Regiment at the Taegu Perimeter. “We held a river there at Taegu,” Boyd said. “That was the best spot to be because (UN forces had) blown all the bridges. There was no way for them (North Korean soldiers) to come across.”
Although it was only six months into the war, a lot had happened by that time. North Korea had taken over Seoul and quickly moved south. United States and Republic of Korea units held the North Koreans at the famed ‘Pusan Perimeter.’ This gave UN Commander-in-Chief, General Douglas MacArthur, time to ship reinforcements and supplies into Busan. It also enabled him to sneak up to Incheon and launch one of the most celebrated invasions in military history. Over the next few months, UN forces would re-take Seoul and push the northern forces almost to the Chinese border before being pushed back below the 38th Parallel in a brutal counteroffensive aided by a mass of Chinese conscripts.
This was the setting in which Watts arrived. It was a period of low morale for UN soldiers. His 31st Infantry went on patrols, but Watts didn’t see much action in his area. “There wasn’t much but sniper action,” he said. “We made a forced march one time up the side of a mountain. There was a valley beyond the mountain and there were supposed to be Chinese down there. But when we got there, there wasn’t a soul.”
Watts didn’t get the opportunity to see any action beyond that. Due to a bitterly cold winter, he developed health problems and was sent to Busan to recover. “I had some problems with my kidneys because of the cold, so they sent me to the Swedish hospital here in Busan.” Watts remained in Busan for the next nine months. It was his first extended stay in the city, but what he experienced then was limited to views through a military vehicle window.
Sanitation and security were major problems throughout Korea and he was forbidden by his commanding officers from integrating with Korean life. “I couldn’t experience life with the local people at all,” he said. “You could drive down the main street only, from one post to another. I couldn’t go to restaurants; I couldn’t go anywhere. I could see it, but I couldn’t touch it.”
Watts’ experiences with Korean culture were limited to what the Army allowed. First were the NCO Club “floor shows,” which were arranged entertainment for the troops. Watts remembers seeing the Kim Sisters, a singing group that went on to enjoy some fame in Las Vegas. Then there were the Korean military advisers. “We were able to meet what they call KATUSAs, which are Korean military who spoke English and are assigned with your unit,” he said. “So what I learned about Korea back then, I learned through them.”
Watts served out the remainder of his regular service in Japan with the 1st Cavalry Division. He later re-enlisted and was again sent to Korea in 1957, but this time with the 51st Signal Battalion at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu. The area made famous as the setting for the TV show M*A*S*H, was nestled right between Seoul and the DMZ. His main task then was to drive the much needed water trucks along the military posts. “At that point, everything was still off-limits. You still couldn’t go out into the town. You could only travel the main route to go to another post.” Watts said there were curfews because the security situation was tense, with North Korean soldiers trying to sneak across the border.
After serving in the U.S., Germany, South Korea again, and back to the U.S., Watts retired in 1970. But his connection to the country refused to be severed. While living in El Paso, Texas in 1971, Watts met a Korean woman who would eventually become his wife. She had come from Busan with her 13-year-old son to make a life in America. Much later, in 1991, Watts returned with his son to Korea for the first time in 24 years.
“Then, in 1991 everything had changed,” he said. “It was a different world. I remember just trying to make my way around after not being able to integrate before. In a few short years, they really built a country here. That’s the amazing part to me—they’ve done it in such a short time.”
Watts currently calls Las Vegas home. But after that first visit, he returned to Busan at least once every year over the next 20 years.
“I’ve learned to love it just from being here so many times. The people here have changed. They’re all really friendly now. The young people have changed their way of thinking. It’s more like how Americans think. If you want to do something, you have more freedom to do it.”
As we walked past the Wall of Remembrance at the UN Cemetery, I asked Watts what he felt seeing all the names of the fallen. “There are a lot of names here,” he said. Then he stood silent and cast his eyes across the wall before continuing. “I’m glad I didn’t see much action. It just so happened that the cold affected my health and I had to do most of my service in other ways. Someone had to do what I did. I just got lucky. Otherwise, I might be one of these guys on this wall.”
While U.S. soldiers made up roughly 90 percent of the total UN deaths, only 16 percent of the interred at the UNMC are US military. All 36 of them are military personnel who survived the war and later expressed a wish to be buried there. Watts would like to join them. He submitted a request to the UN Council and is currently awaiting word.
“We’re working on it now. They got a lot of us old fogies buried out there. It’s the best kept cemetery I’ve seen anyplace. I’d like to be a part of it.”