SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Half a century has passed since a 17-year-old Joseph F. Shearer fought a war in a country he had never heard of before. Still, it was tough coming back to Korea this week.
''It brought a lot of memories,'' Shearer, 64, said during a ceremony Saturday. ''You don't want to think about bad things. ... A few of my friends got killed here.''
The Korean War veteran from Cleveland, Ohio, said that seeing South Korea prospering as a democratic country was worth the trip - and the sacrifices he made for this Asian country.
The Seoul-based charity Kwang Sung Foundation International invited Shearer and 12 other veterans from a dozen countries that contributed troops to U.N. forces to help South Korea fight Chinese-backed communist North Koreans during the 1950-53 war.
In the coming months, South Korea will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of the war with wreath-laying ceremonies and battle re-enactments involving up to 1,000 veterans from the United States and other countries.
On Saturday, the graying veterans, chests covered with medals, were greeted by a brass band of South Korean veterans in a ceremony in front of a national theater at the heart of Seoul.
School children presented flowers and sang songs.
''On behalf of all South Koreans, we welcome you and thank you. We know it was late, but we are happy to be able to host you before you pass away,'' said Lee Wan-taek, head of the charity group.
Shearer served 18 months in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division. He suffered shrapnel wounds in his stomach and legs and received disability discharge in 1956.
''I am honored to have served here. Whatever I did, however small it was, I thought it was worth the sacrifices, especially when I saw the children today,'' the ex-sergeant said.
Photographs from the war were on display for pedestrians, and the national flags of all 14 U.N. allied nations that fought the war on South Korea's side flapped in wind.
The veterans will review a military parade Monday and have a car parade Thursday in Pusan, the south coast port where they first arrived for the war.
''This morning, when we visited an elementary school, all the children were looking at us as if we were God,'' said Retired Lt. Col. Serge-Louis Bererd, 73, from Poitiers, France. A French infantry battalion fought in the war.
Veterans were happy that the peasant country they fought to protect from communism was now the world's 12th largest economy.
''When I landed here in November 1950, I was appalled because the people were so poor. They had no place to sleep and no food to eat,'' Bererd said.
Like other veterans of the ''forgotten war,'' Bererd had his disappointment. ''We are not being properly recognized in France. A little angry for that,'' he said. In France, the Korean War has always been obscured by the country's war in Indochina, he said
James Dempsey, 72, from Halifax of Canada's Nova Scotia, had a sticker on his wallet that gave the Canadian casualties of the war: ''516 Killed. 1,255 Wounded. 26,971 Served.'' He also had a Korean War tattoo on his right arm.
''Everybody says it's a forgotten war. But it's not. It's not brought up enough,'' said the Canadian ex-private.
The war started on June 25, 1950 when North Korea attacked South Korea. It ended in an armistice, not in victory, in 1953. More than 33,000 Americans were killed in the war, as were thousands of troops from allied countries. South Korea lost 175,000 soldiers in the war, and civilian deaths in both Koreas are estimated at 2 million.
The two Koreas are still divided and their border is sealed.
''I see the great devastation the war caused by dividing the families over 50 years. ... Some of them will never see their relatives,'' Shearer said.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il are scheduled to hold the first-ever summit between the two Koreas on June 12-14 to discuss reconciliation.
''I hope to see a unified Korea some day,'' Shearer said.