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Thursday, July 2, 2009 08:52 pm

Korean War National Museum comes to downtown Springfield

Temporary exhibit and gift shop open in anticipation of permanent site

Members of the Honor Guard present the colors as the St. Andrew’s Society of Central Illinois Pipes and Drums prepares to perform. You can visit Denis J. Healy Freedom Center in the Old State Capitol Plaza. The museum is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. $5 adult

Springfield resident Larry Benson served in the Korean War, working first as a radarman and then for a chaplain. Last Friday, Benson joined dozens of other veterans from central Illinois and around the nation on the Old State Capitol Plaza to celebrate the grand opening of the Korean War Museum’s exhibit in the old Osco storefront.

After the ceremony, Benson and other attendees were invited into the site’s Denis J. Healy Freedom Center, a 10,000-square-foot space acting as the Korean War National Museum’s temporary home until an $18 million facility can be built across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The current exhibit features artifacts, photographs, and text. Executive director Larry Sassorossi says plans are underway to add interactive video games, one of which will let users try their hand at landing a helicopter in a MASH unit.

Benson says the day was “quite a thrill” for him. “We are the forgotten war, and now people will realize that we were involved in something significant,” he says. Milton Miner agrees. Also from the Springfield area, Miner spent his entire 32-year career in the Army and was a sergeant in Korea. “I’m happy there is genuine interest. This will help put the war in context for many people,” he says.

The museum is a long time coming. In fact, efforts started more than 12 years ago when a group of central Illinois vets realized that no such museum existed in the country. After first opening in a small Tuscola, Ill., storefront, an organized push commenced in 2004, including heavy fundraising and letter-writing campaigns. The project received support from well-known veterans like Buzz Aldrin, James Garner, Ed McMahon and Clint Eastwood, and museum planners were invited to set up shop at the former Air Force base in Rantoul.

Sassorossi and his colleagues chose Springfield over 22 other potential sites, passing on opportunities near Chicago’s Navy Pier. “Our mission is very simple,” Sassorossi explains, “We want to educate people about the historical significance of the Korean War, and when people come to Springfield, they come to be educated.”

Ward 5 Alderman Sam Cahnman, Judge Richard Mills, General (ret.), and Consulate General Sung-hwan Son participate in the ribbon cutting ceremony as war veterans and other dignitaries observe.

North Korea invaded its southern neighbor on June 25, 1950. American forces succeeded in preventing the spread of communism to South Korea, but the cost was high. There were 33,665 Americans killed, with another 8,176 missing in action and 7,140 made prisoners of war.

Sassorossi hopes the museum helps people realize the sacrifices and accomplishments of the war. “The victory is not in this museum, the victory lies in looking at South Korea today,” he says. The thriving democratic republic is the world’s 15th largest economy and America’s seventh biggest trading partner, as well as a political ally.

Museum staff plan to break ground on the permanent Korean War National Museum site in June 2010 to coincide with the war’s 60th anniversary. Construction will last a year or more.

The project, Sassorossi says, will help make a forgotten war remembered. “Right now, history jumps straight from World War II to Vietnam, and textbooks devote just two paragraphs to Korea. People who come to our museum will see that a significant war changed the course of history. Korea showed that democracy works. South Korea is a bastion of democracy in that part of the world. That was achieved in the Korean War, and it is worth remembering.”

Contact Zach Baliva at zach.baliva@gmail.com.


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