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Photos show glimpse into first steps of alliance

May 23, 2023 - 15:19 By Kim So-hyun
Dominick Spina (Courtesy of Stephen Spina)

When 23-year-old Dominick Spina was drafted into the US Army in January 1953 and arrived in South Korea’s Chuncheon as a soldier of the 40th Infantry Division in August that year, his mother was constantly worried about him.

So he wrote to her often, hoping to quell her nerves.

The Korean Armistice Agreement had just been signed in late July, bringing an end to the hostilities of the 1950-53 Korean War, and Dominick was grateful there was no fighting.

In October 1953, he was assigned to the photography section, or the Public Information Office, which meant nicer quarters, better food and electric lights, which he did not have in the infantry camp.

“He said he went from sleeping on the ground to cots,” Dominick’s son, Stephen Spina, told The Korea Herald over the phone from Massachusetts. Dominick Spina passed away in 2019.

He took photos of nearby villages that the troops helped rebuild as well as famous figures who visited the infantry, such as South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, and American actress and singer Marilyn Monroe.

South Korea's first president Syngman Rhee and his wife Francesca Donner at the farewell review of the 40th Infantry Division on May 8, 1954. (Courtesy of Stephen Spina)

Dominick Spina’s private collection of photos of Korea in 1953-54 will be exhibited at the Herald Corp.'s May 24 forum to celebrate The Korea Herald's 70th anniversary.

In his letters to his mother, Dominick wrote about what he saw in the small villages he visited -- houses with thatched roofs and mud or clay walls; how the women would carry babies on their backs and heavy items on their heads; how the men “must have backs of iron” as even old men would carry “a pile of wood five feet high on their backs.” It's possible the villagers had never seen an American up close before.

“He enjoyed talking of the children -- they were not so different from young children in the US despite very different living circumstances,” his son said.

Some of the photos he left with his family show children playing games in schools during their free time. Photos show children of different ages learning together in small schools.

“There were not a lot of resources for the children like schoolbooks, writing materials and desks, but the teachers did a lot with what was available,” Stephen said, citing his father.

As for Monroe who visited Korea in February 1954 to stage shows for the American soldiers, Dominick wrote that he was “about 15 feet away from her and got a good look at who (US baseball player) Joe DiMaggio married.”

Dominick also wrote how excited he was about a trip to Busan in May 1954, where a ship was bringing in donated clothes for Koreans. He was on an assignment to photograph and film how the clothes were passed out to people.

“I’m happy about going because I’ll be traveling more than most guys do in Korea. It will be more like a vacation than work, so please don’t worry about me,” he wrote in a letter.

US soldiers pose with children at a ceremony where relief clothing from the US was delivered to Koreans in need on May 29, 1954. (Courtesy of Stephen Spina)
Koreans gather at a ceremony in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi Province, on May 29, 1954 where relief clothing from the US was distributed to Koreans in need. (Courtesy of Stephen Spina)

His son said he knows from conversations that his father did not get to travel much, but he did take some trips to Seoul in the summer of 1954.

He and his friends enjoyed shopping, trying out some restaurants there, seeing the city and its people bargaining in outdoor markets and older Koreans wearing traditional clothing, which he had never seen before.

After his service in the army, Dominick worked as an offset pressman. He was always interested in any news related to Korea, according to his son.

Dominick’s family wishes to donate the photographs to the Korean government or a museum here after they are exhibited.

The 40th Infantry Division, currently headquartered in Los Alamitos, California, fought in the Korean War, participating in the battles of Sandbag Castle and Heartbreak Ridge.