From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Search for “Shorts”

It was the height of the Korean conflict, and nine-year-old Kim Jun Hawn, walking down a road near Taegu with his parents, had become accustomed to a country at war. As the steady drone of a fighter plane drew closer and closer, the mad dash for cover he made was automatic. And when, after the roar of the plane’s guns had ceased and he could not find his parents again, his assumption was only natural: They were dead.

My father, Alan H. Stewart, was the supply sergeant in the 151st Combat Engineers in Korea from June 1951 until April 1952. When he came upon the little Korean boy, he felt an immediate attachment to the tiny, lonely figure. It was a bitterly cold winter, and my dad, feeling sorry for the boy, allowed him to live in his tent with him on the front lines, where Kim slept and ate for the duration of my father’s tour of duty.

The soldiers nicknamed the little boy “Shorts,” and his broad smile and tiny, bustling figure soon became a beloved sight in the unit. Every day, dressed in the military fatigues the soldiers gave him, he hurried about, doing errands and carrying water. He even did the men’s laundry, squatting on the rocks of a nearby river. Occasionally, the soldiers gathered chestnuts from trees in the area and roasted them. Shorts helped to pass around the special treat with a huge, happy grin.

All the soldiers loved him, but my father was the one who was generally acknowledged to be his special protector and guardian. Dad even wrote home for schoolbooks so he could teach Shorts some English, and, eventually, Shorts was able to deliver mail to the right soldiers.

As my father’s time of service drew to a close, he grew increasingly concerned for Shorts. Of course, Dad had known all along that he would not be able to take care of the little orphan forever—it was impossible to take Kim with him—and he worried how he and Shorts would handle the separation.

His worst fears were confirmed. Dad never was able to forget the day he left Korea, looking back at Shorts as a military jeep drove him away. Shorts cried and ran after him till he was out of sight. Dad felt as if someone had wrenched his own child away from him. Shorts was an orphan, again.

When he returned home, my father found out that the Korean government had gathered up all the children like Shorts and taken them to an orphanage in Seoul. It was what Dad had expected.

As a child, I loved to have Dad tell me the story about the little Korean boy called Shorts, but as I grew older, I realized that it hurt my father to talk about it; he would always leave the room with tears in his eyes. So I stopped asking Dad to talk about Shorts, but neither of us forgot about him.

Many years later, in November 1983, I watched a segment on the television show 20/20 on the reuniting of Korean families who had been separated during the war. What a shame, I thought, that I can’t reunite my father with the little Korean boy he’d loved, too.

But it had been more than thirty years. Shorts could be anywhere. Friends and family felt the same way: Don’t even bother, they advised. It’s impossible.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the right thing to do. Undaunted, I sat down and wrote letters to the Korean embassy, the U.S. embassy in Seoul and the National Red Cross Tracing Service in Seoul. In each letter, I outlined all the information I had on Kim—which was precious little—and included a small photograph of the boy sitting on my father’s knee. I knew it was a shot in the dark.

In the months that followed, I received the expected response: a few false leads, and then silence.

A year later, my father’s phone rang in the middle of the night. Groggily, he picked it up, but for a moment couldn’t understand the operator’s garbled speech. Suddenly, Dad sat up; she was speaking Korean. There was a pause, and then a man’s voice: “Sergeant Stewart, this is Shorts.”

My father was speechless for a moment. Then the two men began to talk. Kim spoke in broken English, explaining the miracle of how he had happened to open the Seoul newspaper that he subscribed to and stumbled across the tiny picture of my father and himself embedded deep in the classifieds. The conversation was punctuated with long silences as both men, overcome with emotion, tried to find the words to describe their feelings. Before they said good-bye, Kim promised to send a letter soon.

When the letter arrived, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we had found Shorts. He recalled events and people in the letter that only he and my father would know about. Kim’s unknown life after the war unfolded for us. He had gone to Seoul as an orphan, only to discover that his parents had survived the airplane’s gunfire on the road after all. They were reunited, and Kim was now a “successful man in my society and a schoolteacher at a middle school in Seoul.” He sent pictures of his family—he had a wife and two daughters—and he wrote how much he would like the families to meet.

Two years later—thirty-three years after Dad drove away from Shorts—he was reunited with his “first son.” As my father and mother came off the plane in Korea, a small, smiling man named Kim was there to meet them. They laughed and cried as they marveled at the changes the years had brought, and how circumstances had brought them back together.

One evening during their stay in Korea, as my parents were unwinding at their hotel, they heard a knock on the door. Opening it, they were greeted by a beaming Kim holding out a bag of fragrant roasted chestnuts. “I know Sergeant Stewart likes these,” he said.

Taking the bag from Shorts and shaking his head, my father said, “You remembered that?”

“I remember everything,” Shorts answered.

“So do I,” my father said softly. “So do I.”

There would be no more tears about the lost Korean boy. Despite a war that had been painful in so many ways, Shorts and my father had created memories that—at last—made them both smile.

Marta J. Sweek
Submitted by Jessie L. Stewart

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