They once fought to defend South Korea. 70 years later, these foreign veterans are choosing to be buried there

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(CNN) — For more than 30 years, British veteran James Grundy made an annual 5,500-mile journey to South Korea, to visit the graves of bodies he had recovered as a young man thrust into war.

Grundy was just 19 when he joined the Korean War in 1951, according to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK). As part of a recovery unit, he recovered fallen soldiers from battlefields across the Korean peninsula and transported them for burial at the cemetery, located in the southern coastal city of Busan.

The cemetery remains the only UN cemetery in the world — and for many, a final site of reunion between veterans, widows and loved ones lost in the Korean War.

It was established in 1955 after the South Korean government offered the land for the UN’s permanent use, to honor the troops and medical personnel sent from 22 countries under the UN flag during the war.

The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK) in Busan on August 21.

Jessie Yeung/CNN

Though most of those countries repatriated the bodies of their fallen, more than 2,300 people from 11 nations are currently interred there, according to UNMCK.

Many of those soldiers were later joined by loved ones who wished to be buried together, including their widows and other family members.

Today, the cemetery is an idyllic 35-acre stretch of green grass and water features, with a memorabilia hall, monuments dedicated by various countries that participated in the war, and a remembrance wall engraved with all the names of UN troops who died during the conflict.

Whenever Grundy buried the bodies he recovered, “he promised, ‘I’ll come back to you. I won’t forget you,'” said his adoptive granddaughter, Brenda Eun-jung Park. “That’s why he came back to Korea every year, to keep his promise.”

Starting in 1988, he made annual trips to the cemetery — until the pandemic halted travel. In May, though Grundy was battling cancer and growing weaker, “he insisted to come to Korea” for a final visit, Park said.

James Grundy, affectionately called “Uncle Jim,” and his niece Sharon Hewitt.

Sharon Hewitt

“It was the only pleasure… (in) his life,” she added. “He wanted to come back once more.”

Grundy died in August in the UK. His ashes will be flown to the UN cemetery where he will be interred, as instructed in his will. “He wanted to rest in peace in the cemetery with his comrades,” Park said.

A quick history

The Korean War — sometimes referred to as “the Forgotten War,” despite the millions of lives lost — broke out in June 1950 after North Korean troops invaded South Korea.

The United States called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which decided just two days after the invasion to send troops to Korea — the only time in the organization’s history that combat troops have been dispatched in the name of the UN.

The 22-nation “United Nations Command” helped turn the momentum of the war, with US-led forces advancing toward China’s border with North Korea. But Chinese troops intervened, pushing the UN back down the peninsula.

Both sides reached a stalemate along the 38th parallel, where the border between the two Koreas sits today. An armistice signed on July 27, 1953, stopped the conflict. However, the war never officially ended because there was no peace treaty — and its impact lingers to this day.

An American corporal watches as a 9-year-old Korean girl places a bouquet of white roses on the grave of one of his fallen comrades at a UN memorial near Busan, South Korea, in 1951.

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For some veterans, the UN cemetery represents both the cost of the war, and the deep ties they forged with other soldiers and with South Korea itself.

Boyd L. Watts, an American veteran who joined the war at 18 years old, told the Korean publication Haps Magazine he had been visiting Busan at least once a year since 1991.

It amazed him how much the country had developed in just a few decades, he said — a theme also underscored at the cemetery. At a memorial service hall, a video for visitors highlights South Korea’s transformation from a war-torn nation into a flourishing modern metropolis — made possible by the sacrifice of UN troops, it said.

South Korean honor guards carry flags of the UN allied nations during a memorial ceremony for UN veterans of the Korean War, at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan on November 11, 2020.

Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

Other veterans who made return visits to Busan have echoed the sentiment.

Johan Theodoor Aldewereld, who served as a private first class and fought hand-to-hand against North Korean soldiers, returned to South Korea in 2016 — his first time back since he was discharged during the war. According to a report by South Korean news agency Yonhap, Aldewereld said he was profoundly moved by the country’s economic revival.

He died the following year, and was interred at the cemetery — following his will, which stated he wanted his ashes “buried in the Republic of Korea where my comrades lie in eternal sleep,” according to Yonhap.

Final resting place

As the small group of surviving veterans age, a growing number — hailing from places around the world — have asked to be buried at the cemetery, beside friends and fellow comrades in a foreign country they had once fought to defend.

Watts, the American veteran, told Haps Magazine in 2010: “They got a lot of us old fogies buried out there … I’d like to be a part of it.” His wish was granted after his death in 2020, with family, friends and representatives of the US military and embassy attending the ceremony.

Another US veteran, Russell Harold Johnstad, served in the Military Police during the war and was buried at the UN cemetery in 2020.

The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea on August 21.

Jessie Yeung/CNN

“Mr. Johnstad was at first opposed to the idea of his being buried at the UNMCK, saying he felt he was not as deserving as others who lie there, but his wife and family were able to persuade him to change his mind,” said the UNMCK in a statement on its website.

The most recent overseas veteran to be buried at the cemetery is John Robert Cormier from Canada, who died in 2021 and was interred in June this year. He was just 19 when he arrived in Korea for the war, returning to the battlefield even after suffering a life-threatening injury, according to the UNMCK.

It had been his “adamant wish” to be interred at the cemetery, said the UNMCK after his ceremony, adding: “He would have missed his 380 (Canadian) comrades who waited for him here, and today they are once again together.”

Today the cemetery, located not far from the coast, remains a popular destination for war history travelers, accessible by bus and subway. Free to enter, it also holds a UN flag raising and lowering ceremony every day, with special events to commemorate key dates like the outbreak of the Korean War.

Top image: The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea, located in Busan, on August 21. Credit: Jessie Yeung/CNN