Thousands of veterans of the Korean War and from the United States and 20 other allied countries are visiting South Korea this year at the government's invitation. Seoul wants to pay tribute to the United Nations troops who repelled a North Korean invasion six decades ago. Special honors are going to an American woman who carried a notepad rather than a weapon to the front lines.
South Korea on Thursday awarded, posthumously, one of its highest honors to Marguerite Higgins. In a ceremony in the capital, her daughter and grandson accepted the Heunginjang - a national medal. The award cites Higgins' bravery in publicizing South Korea's struggle for survival in the early 1950's.
Higgins' coverage of the three-year war for the New York Herald Tribune was credited with raising international sympathy for the South Korean cause. It also earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1951.
Higgins' daughter, Linda Vanderbleek, says her mother's story recently came to the attention of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who read a new Korean translation of Higgin's war memoir. "She's not known outside of journalism circles. I did not know that the book had gone to President Lee and that he had requested us to be invited," she says, "It meant a tremendous amount to myself, my brother, to my family."
When Higgins began covering the war, days after it began, a U.S. Army commander ordered her out of the country, saying women did not belong on the front-lines. But she successfully appealed to General Douglas MacArthur.
Vanderbleek says she has heard, over the years, from many veterans who recall her mother on the battlefield. "They just thought it was amazing that she was out there on the front lines with them, sleeping on the ground and she had fleas like the rest of them. She was almost their mascot," she said.
Vanderbleek and her 20-year-old son, Austen, are on a six-day visit as guests of the South Korean government. They are touring war-related sites, including the Demilitarized Zone, the buffer between the two Koreas, which have never signed a peace treaty.
Vanderbleek says her mother would be awed by South Korea's recovery from ruin to become a vibrant democracy and the world's 15th largest economy. "She did see the end of the war and she did see democracy start and continue, but I don't think she could have imagined this," she adds, "I am very touched to see the results of what she and the veterans were able to help keep."
Higgins, while covering the Vietnam War, contracted a tropical disease that led to her death in 1966. She would have turned 90 on Friday.