Lack of Funds May Force Korean War Museum to Surrender Its Land

Floor plan for new potential Korean War National Museum in Chicago's Navy Pier.

Floor plan for new potential Korean War National Museum in Chicago's Navy Pier.  (Korean War National Museum)

A ground-breaking ceremony for the Korean War National Museum in Springfield, Ill., will no longer be taking place this summer – because the museum doesn’t have enough money even to start construction.

According to the museum website, the museum is “well short of financial and operational goals to break ground” due to “the recent economic downturn,” as well as leaders it says were “too optimistic” about their ability to raise funds.

Organizers are now desperately trying to fund the initiative to honor the aging vets before it is too late.

“It’s an effort and an organization that goes back to 1997,” Korean War National Museum Executive Director Ryan Yantis told

That was when Robert Kenney, the first president of the board, and his wife, Lorraine, opened up a small storefront in Tuscola, Ill. 

"They had, as I understand it, been promised some funding from the state which didn’t materialize," said Yantis, a Korean War veteran. 

Still, the museum gained enough private donations of items and artifacts that it outgrew the small town and was moved to the former Chanute Air Base in Rantoul, Ill.

“It was a nice little museum. The problem is, where’s Rantoul?" said Yantis. "It’s another small town, out in the middle of that southern central portion of Illinois. Difficult to find, difficult to get to, not in a heavily touristed area.

"So in 2008 they decided as they were growing in items and influence that they would move to Springfield and that they would get a plot of ground there and build an $18 million facility, and in the meantime they would open up another storefront museum, and that’s the Dennis J. Healy Freedom Center.”

The Freedom Center went up quickly and is open for business in Springfield with about 6,000 square feet of exhibits, but plans for the larger museum went south.

“Every other tourist aspect of Springfield focuses on Lincoln, and the Korean War National Museum planners figured we’ll move there and the half a million or so tourists a year that come to visit the Lincoln museum will get to see something else; we’ll be another offering,” Yantis said. 

“But there’s not that cognitive link between Abraham Lincoln and the Korea War. And Springfield is also primarily a summer season tourist destination; they don’t have a robust attendance in the November-March months.”

Add a crumbling economy and some controversial management decisions and the project collapsed. But now, with a new board and a new plan in place, Yantis says the organizers hope to build a world-class national museum in his -- and other vets’ -- lifetimes, so they can see their story told.

"We term it not the forgotten war… it’s the forgotten victory,” Yantis said. “The Korean War fit between World War II, which many considered to be a good war, and Vietnam, which a lot of folks really didn’t like. And Korea was this conflict in-between. 

"President Truman sent troops over on an executive order, and when asked if it was a war he said, ‘no, no it’s a police action.’ ”

As a result, Yantis said, troops returned from heavy combat to a public that was barely aware of the conflict.

“There was also some resistance from various organizations and even the Veterans Administration. The Korean War veterans would go in and say, ‘Hey, I’m a combat injured vet.’ Well, earlier on, VA said not really, it’s not a war."

All the while, Yantis says, the country was enjoying the fruits of their sacrifice.

South Korea was this very feeble, embryonic democracy … but it emerged in the late '80s as a democratic and economic powerhouse in Asia -- it’s the 14th largest economy today, it’s a very vibrant democracy,” he said. “The South Korean government, the South Korean people that we've interfaced with, have been very supportive and very appreciative of that success. Forty million people are living in a democracy that wouldn’t have happened, and we’re seeking to help tell the story of that success here.”

Yantis hopes the story can be told at a newly planned facility in the heart of Chicago.

“Right now we’re waiting on a decision from Chicago at Navy Pier, and if we get that bid we’re going to put together a world-class facility there, because Navy Pier is a huge tourist attraction and Chicago is a destination city. Our thought is that Chicago is a base that would support a world-class museum.”

But getting the location approved isn’t the only obstacle in the new museum’s way.

“We understand that Congress and the government have other challenges, but the Korean War National Museum, to our understanding, is the only national museum that’s not receiving support by the federal government,” Yantis said.

Yantis plans to go to Washington, D.C., next month in hopes of garnering government support, but says the museum won’t be waiting around for a bailout. The new board has already made inroads with the South Korean government, private donors and even major companies, he said.

"There needs to be a combination of the people and the government. Previous fund-raising efforts have been on the backs of the veterans. Now it's time for the corporations that have benefited from 60 years of peace to say 'we believe that this is a great story to tell.'"

For the people who served,  it seems that opportunity can't come soon enough.

"It would be nice to have a national museum dedicated to the Korean War. It would have been much nicer had the museum been in place 10 years ago when more Korean War veterans would have enjoyed it," Korean War Veterans Association Director Glen Thompson told "Korea War veterans are all about 80 now, and physical impairments will keep many of us away."

Korean War veteran Frank Metersky agreed that the museum is "long overdue, like anything else having to do with the Korean War," but said he supports any venture that aims to relay the veterans' message. 

"Anything that they do positive related to the Korean War, particularly with the 60th anniversary of the war is terrific, " Metersky, a lead activist for Korean War MIA issues, told“You know, as Colin Powell said, it’s a victory forgotten, and anything that focuses on that and brings it into proper perspective is fabulous." 

Yantis says aging veterans make it increasingly vital that they get the museum up as soon as possible. But even if it doesn't happen, he said, it's important that their story will be told long after they are gone.

"When the war started, 36,000 people gave their lives, over 100,000 were wounded, all to keep from being taken over by the communist north," Yantis said. "…Understanding why we committed troops on the ground and what their purpose was and understanding in a total sense the victory is a very important thing."

Click here for information on how to donate to Korean War National Museum.