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Gordon B. Hinckley Unexpectedly Finds Himself in a War Zone

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 12, 2010

Since its establishment in 1948, the Republic of Korea, with its capital at Seoul, has survived a high level of volatility in its government. The Korean War of the early ’50s resulted in a division between North and South, and the republican form of government, interrupted by various (sometimes violent, sometimes non-violent) student revolts, military coups, and other revolutions, has evolved into its present Sixth Republic. Despite it all, the Church, introduced into Korea during the 1950-53 war by American servicemen, has grown steadily.

In May 1961, Gordon B. Hinckley – then an Assistant to the Twelve, a position which would now be the Quorum of Seventy – toured Korea with Mission President Paul C. Andrus of the Northern Far East Mission. They met with servicemen’s branches and local congregations, offered instruction to local leaders, and in general assessed the progress of the Church there. On Sunday, May 14, they met in Seoul, working with 158 priesthood holders in their morning priesthood session and addressing 500 members in an afternoon meeting which resulted in the organization of three branches. They spent most of Monday, May 15, working with the new branch presidents. On Tuesday, May 16, they planned to fly to Tokyo to continue their tour of the mission.

Those plans were altered overnight.

Elder Hinckley was asleep in his room on the 8th floor of the Metro Hotel in downtown Seoul. “At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, I was awakened by a terrible crackling noise which seemed to be right outside my window. The thought crossed my mind, ‘What a crazy hour for a Chinese wedding!’”

He didn’t realize that he was listening to the sound of automatic rifle fire until President Andrus, whose room was on the 7th floor, knocked on Elder Hinckley’s door and told him that he and Sister Andrus had seen tracer bullets outside their window.

The Mormons, along with other hotel guests, gathered in the hotel corridor, uncertain of what was happening until a hotel employee, listening to the radio, informed them that Major General Park Chung-hee and the armed forces of the Republic of Korea were staging a coup d’état against the government of Premier Chang Myon.

“A Korean with a portable radio translated a broadcast saying that the ROK Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force had taken over the government and the radio station,” wrote Elder Hinckley in a special report to Church leaders, air mailed as soon as conditions permitted.

From the window of President Andrus’ room we noted the broken windows and counted 26 pockmarks in the masonry where bullets had hit during the 46 minutes [of the firefight]. Apparently the battle between the military and the police forces had been taking place in the street below our windows and bullets had been flying past while I had my head out the window looking for a Chinese wedding.

The entire takeover by the military went much faster and [more] smoothly than I would ever have thought possible. After the big burst in the early morning, all was relatively quiet and normal. I hope it will continue that way. The Korean people have seen so much of sorrow. They need peace and good government to permit them to get on their feet politically and economically.

All air flights into and out of the country were canceled, so the visitors were forced to remain in their hotel rooms rather than proceeding to Tokyo. Elder Hinckley watched the next day as Koreans went about their normal business, despite the presence of armed military patrols. “These people have seen so much of war and suffering that a revolution did not seem to disturb them.”

The telephone system was still working, and President Andrus contacted the missionaries, instructing them to stay at home for the time being, and to obey all curfews and other laws imposed by the revolution.

The Church leaders were soon able to resume their tour of the Far East Mission. Assistant Hinckley became Apostle Hinckley in December 1961. The military junta ruled South Korea until December 1962, when its leader, Gen. Park, was elected as president of the country. He governed through peaceful times and upheavals (and through the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics) until he was assassinated in 1979. The Church has grown to some 80,000 members in Korea, and Seoul is home to a temple.



6 Comments »

  1. *sigh*

    I don’t know how this got posted with the comments turned off. They’re on now, if anybody wants to come back and say anything. Sorry.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  2. Exciting stuff! This resembles a 20th-century version of the Wilford Woodruff graphic history series.

    And I enjoyed reading some of President Hinckley’s own words; his witty comments about a Chinese wedding made me smile. Also, I note that his habit of using “of” before nouns evidently didn’t start when he was in the First Presidency:

    “The Korean people have seen so much of sorrow”

    and

    “These people have seen so much of war and suffering.”

    Thanks to Ardis for letting all us readers enjoy so much of drama, and so much of excitement, through these posts. [wink] Love it.

    Comment by Hunter — January 12, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

  3. I am feeling so much of supernal gratitude that you commented, Hunter — and laughing because I honestly hadn’t noticed that speech pattern here, maybe because it sounded so normal when I read those words with his voice in my brain.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 12, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

  4. Ardis – great post and reminder of how volatile things can be without any notice. One slight correction: The country was divided in 1948 along the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union occupying the north and the USA occupying the south. The separate nations were given their present names of North Korea and South Korea.The president of South Korea was Lee Syung Mon (Syngman Rhee to Americans).

    The Soviet Union armed the North with T-34 tanks and trained 90,000 troops in secret preparation for an invasion of the South. It was June 25, 1950 when the well-equipped and comparatively massive NKPA (North Korean People’s Army), under Soviet direction, swarmed across the imaginary border and with a few weeks had overrun Seoul and half of the lower peninsula. Harry Truman almost immediately ordered General MacArthur to use the forces in his command to aid the South. I was awaiting discharge from the army as my 24-month enlistment was about up.

    Discharges were immediately frozen and after special training in mines and booby traps, I “joined” an Engineering Intelligence Team headed for Korea. I saw much of the peninsula, with even a short and unwelcomed stay in Pyongyang. Because of my early arrival in the war zone, I was among the first to be “rotated” stateside and my discharge was effective just three years after my 1948 enlistment date. I saw only one evidence of LDS presence when we were temporarily camped near an air base and heard of a group that met there occasionally. I attended one Sacrament Meeting – Many Air Force officers and a few enlisted men.

    This experience was a distant memory until November 2003 when my grandson departed for the Seoul West Mission. In an unbelievable twist of fate, his older sister received her call six months later to the same mission. Her parents called the Missionary Department to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. Their missions ended the same day and their parents traveled to Seoul to accompany them home. During their short stay their, my son, his wife and the two missionaries had dinner with one of the bishops and his family. My son mentioned my service in the country long ago. The bishop, a veteran of the South Korean army during the war, couldn’t get over it and expressed his gratitude for the Americans giving service to keep their land free. Hearing those expressions quickly erased the bad memories of mud, cold, K-rations and general discomfort I grudgingly endured during my tour. I wish all those who suffered more injury than me in that war could hear what was related to me.

    Comment by Curt A. — January 12, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

  5. Thank you, Curt. You are definitely da man in a conversation like this.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

  6. Older South Koreans, those usually 45 and over, are still very grateful to the US for saving them from communist takeover. The younger generation, not so much. Even those born during and for some years after the Korean War (er, “conflict”) inherited the gratitude from their parents and their society in general.

    It used to be that way with the Philippines, for the US having liberated them in WW II from the brutal Japanese occupation. But the generational memory of that wasn’t passed on like it was in Korea. Japan was pacified and was no longer a threat, so the Philippines didn’t have a constant reminder like South Korea had.

    Comment by Bookslinger — January 12, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

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