The American Legion Magazine
September 2000
Alan W. Dowd

It was all a misunderstanding - a potentially deadly misunderstanding. James Paek, a Korean War veteran, was sentenced to death for desertion. But, as it turns out, Paek had served two combat tours in Korea. He's no deserter.

At the beginning of the Korean War, James Paek was in the South Korean navy. Today, he's an American citizen and a U.S. Army veteran. In the intervening 50 years, this double veteran was sentenced to death for deserting the very war in which he served two separate tours in two separate militaries, pardoned and given the opportunity to start a new life in America.

A Long Road Home. Paek's troubles began when, as a South Korean sailor, he was sent to San Diego to train with the U.S. Navy. On the day before his deployment back to Korea, he was given leave. Paek decided to visit his aunt in Fresno. Not knowing how large the state of California was, he bought a bus ticket and headed north, certain he'd make it back to San Diego before the ship set sail for Korea.

What he thought would be a one-hour excursion turned out to be an all-night trip. After arriving in Fresno the next morning, Paek raced to catch another bus south, but he never made it back to his ship. An acquaintance urged Paek to go to the U.S. military and offer to serve. He took the advice and was soon headed across the Pacific as an interpreter with the U.S. Army.

He finished out the war and went on to serve six more years in Korea, at which time he was honorably discharged.

But James Paek's story doesn't end there. Wanting to set things right, Paek explained his circumstances to the Korean Naval Authority, which still had him listed as a wartime deserter. The penalty for desertion was execution, and the Korean authorities wasted little time in sentencing him.

"I asked them, 'Why would a deserter join the U.S. Army and return to fight?' I begged them to spare me, but they didn't listen," Paek recalled. He spent the next six months in prison, a victim of circumstance and his own innocent mistake.

As the execution date approached, Paek's ordeal took an almost-biblical turn. While Paek had been fighting on the seas with the Korean navy and in the trenches with the U.S. Army, his half-brother was rising through the ranks of the Korean military. "He was a major general in the Korean army," Paek explained. "When he heard of my situation, he used his influence and power to get me out. I was literally waiting to die," Paek remembered.

Pardoned by the Korean government, Paek returned to America in 1973. He now lives in Starke, Fla., and is a member of Legion Post 56.

"This is the best country in the world," Paek declared. While we hear that phrase often from politicians and new immigrants, it means a little more coming from the "deserter" who fought the communists under two different flags.