PHILADELPHIA — Every year, William DeBiase, OFM, travels to the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial to pray outside of its black granite pillars.
A veteran himself, William served in the Korean War in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1954 as part of the 32nd regiment, 7th infantry. He has been visiting the memorial in Philadelphia, where he is stationed at St. Francis Inn, since the memorial was unveiled in 2002.
But during a trip this past weekend, he and Walter Liss, OFM, of Loudonville, N.Y., made a surprising discovery — a photo of William etched into one of the pillars, accompanying information about a battle.
The image shows two soldiers supporting an injured comrade during the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, which took place from March to July 1953. William is the man on the left.
“I was 21 years old. There were a lot of wounded, there was very intense fighting, and we had to get the wounded to an aid station,” he said. “Do I remember that photo being taken? No. During that time, there were a lot of combat photographers who took photos when there was fighting.”
William said it was coincidence that led him to the photo on the memorial, which, in addition to the names of local servicemen who died in Korea, contains the war’s history.
“I go to the memorial every year and I usually sit on a bench and pray,” he explained. “This year, I went and looked at the information for the first time. I saw the photo and said, ‘Hey, I think that guy is me!’ I had no idea it was there.”
The discovery came the day before National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day – July 27 – that marks the 62nd anniversary of the signing of the treaty that ended the Korean War.
Several years ago, while he was visiting a friend, William stumbled across that particular photo in a book.
“My friend had a book called ‘Korea: The Forgotten War.’ It was one of those coffee table books,” he recalled. “I started flipping through it out of curiosity and I saw that photo and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, there I am.’”
A native of Middle Village, Queens, N.Y., William graduated from high school on the day the Korean War started — June 25, 1950. After working for several months, he enlisted in March 1951 at age 18.
He spent several months in the signal corps and the OCS before he was stationed with a ranger battalion in Fort Benning, Ga. He joined his outfit in Korea on Dec. 1, 1952, where he served as part of the strategic reserve. He saw action at Old Baldy and Pork Chop Hill.
The Philadelphia Korean War Memorial at Penn’s Landing was dedicated in June 22, 2002.
Several years ago, William shared his memories of the war and his life afterward with The West Point Center for Oral History. He professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1960 and returned to Asia in 1966 to minister as a missionary in Japan for 30 years. He felt drawn to Japan after serving as a GI there during the Korean War. “I always felt a tug to return back there,” he recalled as he marked 50 years as a Franciscan friar in 2010.
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.
- “My Franciscan Journey” by William DeBiase, OFM – Spring 2008, The Anthonian
- “Jubilarian Profile: Missionary, Chaplain Marks 50 Years Professed” – June 9, 2010, HNP Today
- “Modern-day Missioners Bring Franciscan Message to Thousands” – April 25, 2012, HNP Today