For nearly 50 years, Eddie Ko didn’t tell a soul about the integral role he played during the Korean War.
“Not even my wife or my children,” the now 80-year-old said.
But for the past 15 years, the Tampa resident has gladly shared the experiences he had as a 14-year-old spy, helping the United Nations throughout the “Forgotten War.”
He began sharing his story in 2002, after he began organizing an annual golf outing for Korean War vets at his golf club — the Quail Hollow Golf Course in Wesley Chapel.
The outings — held until he sold the course in 2012 — encouraged vets to share their wartime experiences with family and friends.
“Most of the Korean veterans who were in combat — they don’t want to talk about it, even though they are heroes,” Ko said. “Just remember, they were only 18 (years old) or 19 years old, and they had to kill somebody in order to survive.
“But…it’s my opinion that I feel better when I talk about it and get everything off of my chest,” Ko said.
In June of 1950, about 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army invaded Ko’s homeland of South Korea. They wiped out thousands of civilians, including his Christian missionary parents.
“That really hurt my heart,” Ko said. “That day forward, I decided I was not going to be accepting of the (North Korean) army.”
His anger possessed him to join the Student Volunteer Army, an anticommunist group of 12 teenage spies spearheaded by a South Korean officer with ties to the U.S. military.
“At 14 years old, you don’t really have patriotism — you have ‘revengism.’ The revenge of mine was so mad that I really wanted to help the Americans,” Ko said.
For three years, he penetrated enemy lines, and relayed valuable information to U.S. Navy Lt. Eugene Clark.
Working as a teenage spy, Ko was the first to discover that Chinese Communist Forces had crossed the border into North Korea to join the fight against the United Nations. That tip prevented U.S. Marines from walking into an ambush of nearly 120,000 Chinese soldiers.
“They didn’t even know that the Chinese were involved,” Ko said. “The lack of intelligence was the biggest fault during the Korean War.”
Nearly 34,000 Americans were killed during the Korean War.
“A lot of Americans died because they didn’t even know where they were, and who they were fighting,” he said.
To gather intel, a young Ko lurked alongside enemy commanders, asking seemingly innocent questions: How many soldiers are here? Are more reinforcements on the way? Where are the heavy tanks?
Ko would report his findings to American forces either via radio communication, or in person.
“Many times it was very risky,” Ko said.
He used faith to help him handle the stressful moments and constant anxiety.
“I became very, very religious at the time and very, very confident in myself,” Ko said. “That’s what helped me survive for three years.”
The Korean War came to an end after an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. North and South Korea remain separate and occupy almost the same territory since the war began.
After the war, Ko left South Korea to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. He attended high school in East Orange, New Jersey, and subsequently volunteered for the draft in 1956.
He served three years in the U.S. Army, working in counterintelligence and civilian affairs in South Korea.
“I thought wearing a U.S. uniform, I could help the Korean people more. I’m so proud I did that,” Ko said.
He became a successful businessman, and owned three golf courses in Florida before selling them.
Ko now serves as the chairman for the Korean War monument at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301 in Tampa.
He often visits the 20 Korean War veteran’s association chapters throughout Florida. He tells his story, and gives out copies of the book, “Korea Reborn: A Grateful Nation Honors War Veterans for 60 Years of Growth.”
Ko presents the book — which is a retrospective look at the Korean War and the prosperity that followed — to help uplift Korean War veterans.
“They should be proud of their service,” Ko said. “After 80 percent of Korea was destroyed, now 50 million Korean people live in peace, and it’s one of the strongest economic countries in the world.”
Published August 10, 2016