Joseph Irving Hess, a Private First Class in the United States Army who served in the Korean War, met his wife Rosemarie, a nurse at the Presidio’s military hospital during the war, more than six decades ago under the San Francisco sky.
And that’s how their marriage will forever be commemorated.
“This Wounded Soldier and His Nurse Fell in Love under These Skies,” reads the plaque set to be unveiled Monday as part of the first major monument on the West Coast dedicated to the early 1950s conflict.
The Korean War Memorial in the Presidio, which will be revealed to the public in an opening ceremony Monday, honors the nearly two million servicemen and servicewomen of the United Nations who fought to protect South Korea’s freedom during the war.
“My father was not a storyteller,” said Sandra Hess, 55, of her father Joseph in a recent phone interview. “He never really talked about his experiences hardly at all. But I’m going to take [this] to be true.”
As the story goes, Joseph Hess was severely injured late in July 1952, when a bomb exploded one day before he was scheduled to return to the U.S. from Korea, following two years in the Army.
Hess was among six men injured in the explosion, but a doctor there had just a single pint of blood plasma, enough for one person. The doctor gave the blood to Joseph, the only soldier who survived.
When Joseph returned to the Army base in the Presidio, he spent nearly a year recovering at the Letterman Army Hospital. Doctors pulled shrapnel from Joseph’s eyes with magnets, and he had a steel rod and six pins inserted in his right arm, rendering him permanently disabled.
His nurse, Rosemarie, provided comfort during Joseph’s recovery.
“My mom was a real firecracker, real cheery and always quick with cute little things to say and batting her eyelashes,” Sandra Hess said. “That’s everything when you really have no other exposure to people [in the hospital] and you’ve just been in the Army for two years.”
Once he was released from the hospital, Joseph proposed to Rosemarie on their first date. She declined, and the two dated sporadically for seven years before she finally accepted his proposal.
It was in the Presidio where Joseph and Rosemarie fell in love and raised their family — Sandra Hess recalled her family did their “grocery shopping at the commissary, we bought our products and clothing at the PX, we went to the little movie theater when my parents had date night.” And that’s where their love will be immortalized on the Korean Memorial Wall.
In 2012, Rosemarie died at age 89; Joseph died in October at 86.
“He never talked about his war experiences … but it meant so much to him,” Sandra Hess said of her father.
Long known as the “Forgotten War,” the Korean War between South Korea and North Korea lasted from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. Twenty-one members of the United Nations helped to defend South Korea, and the U.S. provided 88 percent of the troops.
The Bay Area was chosen for the memorial site because it was the point of embarkation and return for many of the servicemen and servicewomen during the conflict, said Gerald Parker, executive director of the Korean War Memorial Foundation.
“Very few people, especially millennials and children, know anything about the war,” Parker said. “It’s not covered in our history books, maybe a sentence. Part of what we’re doing is to change that.”
The memorial site is situated at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Sheridan Avenue. Two stone walls border an entrance to the memorial plaza, along with a circular bronze plaque inscribed to acknowledge the U.N.’s contributions to the war.
Upon entering, a path opens into the main memorial plaza, which features a large oval space with a curved 10-foot-tall wall, inscribed with iconic images from the Korean War and descriptive text. There’s also a more intimate area recognizing veterans and their families.
In addition to using the site as an educational tool, leaders with the foundation have been in talks with the San Francisco Unified School District in recent months to consider adding or expanding curriculum about the Korean War to The City’s public school classrooms.
“We’ve done this with many, many [subjects],” said Board of Education commissioner Jill Wynns, pointing to lessons about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, LGBT studies and the Armenian genocide as other supplemental curriculums in the school district.
“This is part of our commitment to inclusiveness and sensitivity to all the communities that are involved and part of SFUSD,” she added.
Quentin Kopp, a retired judge and longtime San Francisco politician who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, is the president and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Korean War Memorial Foundation. He recalled spending time at the Presidio Officers Club during the war and how it was customary for soldiers to have a drink on the night before they shipped out at the Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins hotel.
“San Francisco was a special and specific place for Army, Marine, Air Force and Navy troops,” Kopp said.
Specifically, The City’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge served as a symbol of departure and entry for soldiers heading to and returning from the Korean War, according to Michael Boland, acting executive director of the Presidio Trust, which aids veterans through a number of programs.
“So many veterans came and left their active duty under the Golden Gate,” Boland said. “The first thing they saw was the Golden Gate, the last thing they saw was the Golden Gate.”
The Presidio served as a U.S. Army base until 1994, when the land was transferred to the National Park Service. But the military’s longtime presence there makes the Presidio an ideal spot for the Korean War Memorial, Boland noted.
“It felt like a natural fit,” he said. “The Korean War was part of the Presidio’s history, and, quite frankly, we felt like there was no better place to honor the Korean War than here.”
Richard Friedman, a Sergeant First Class in the 2nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army during the Korean War, plans to bring a booklet to Monday’s ceremony celebrating the opening of the memorial called “Lest we forget,” which includes biographical sketches of Lincoln High School students who lost their lives in wars.
“It made me so proud to be able to defend my country and serve my country,” said Friedman, 83, a Lincoln High alum who volunteered for the military along with 16 of his high school friends after they graduated. Friedman still lives in San Francisco.
Friedman also volunteered to go to Korea in 1952, and was there when the war ended on July 27, 1953. He was 20 at the time.
“I told everybody I ended the war,” Friedman recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not a person who tells war stories, but I was proud to have served with foreign countries.”
Friedman said about 30 minutes before ceasefire was called the day the war ended, an incoming round hit the bunker next to his.
“One of my buddies lost an eye,” he said. He continued, “I lost friends, but I was honored to have been with them.”
Another veteran, Larry Ulibarri, served in the Army during World War II and the Marines for the Korean War. Ulibarri, 90, was a squad leader of machine gun crew in Korea and remembers the frigid temperatures that gave him frostbite, leaving him permanently disabled.
“We had layer after layer after layer of clothing and still froze,” Ulibarri said in a phone interview from his home in Livermore. “We were out in the open all the time. We used to have these shoe packs. They were made out of plastic, and you put your feet in [them]. It was heaven. It was so nice and warm.”
Ulibarri, like Friedman, is reluctant to discuss many details of the war. “Most service men don’t like to talk about what happened,” Ulibarri said.
Sandra Hess remembers her father Joseph the same way.
“He wouldn’t brag at all. I had to dig deep and ask questions,” she said. “I learned after his death that he got records from the Department of Defense … to help put people together who had served together and were looking for an old buddy.”
She continued, “He was so quiet about it. I don’t even get to brag properly about my dad.”
Now, with the Korean War Memorial plaque for Joseph and Rosemarie Hess, their life and love for each other will speak for itself.
IF YOU GO
Opening Ceremony of the Korean War Memorial
When: Monday, Aug. 1; 10 a.m. to noon
Where: San Francisco National Cemetery, 1 Lincoln Blvd., S.F.