Happy Birthday to the Soldier Who Never Left
Happy Birthday To The Soldier Who Never Left
By Ned Forney | February 17, 2018
John Nowell in 1983
Stepping off the bus in January 1965, US Army Private First Class John Nowell, a 22-year-old California native who’d been drafted the year before, immediately knew Seoul wasn’t the place for him. The impoverished city of 3.2 million, with few cars, an abundance of ox-pulled carts, spicy food he didn’t like, and people he couldn’t understand, was, as he described it years later in an interview for 10 Magazine Korea, a “godforsaken” place.
But people and places change, and over 50 years later, he’s still in Korea. It’s his home. John has come to love the country as if it were his own and has made a career out of promoting Korean-American friendship and building partnerships between the US Army and the citizens of Seoul.
Among the many jobs he held during his years in the military, his favorite was serving as the Public Affairs Officer, or PAO, for the US Army. He worked tirelessly in the billet, one that was perfect for him and his outgoing personality, and eventually became known as “Mr. Yongsan,” the unofficial spokesman and face of the American military at USFK (US Forces Korea) Yongsan, a huge Army base, or garrison, located in the heart of Seoul.
Although it is now almost totally closed and its soldiers have been relocated to a new base, Camp Humphreys, Yongsan brings back fond memories for John and hundreds of thousands of other US servicemen and women who were stationed there throughout its proud history. The base was their home away from home, a slice of American pie in downtown Seoul.
John Nowell and Jackie Park
John Nowell with his friend Jackie Park reminiscing about pictures taken at Yongsan. (Photo courtesy of Coco Cugat. Special thanks to Jon Dunbar at The Korea Times for the article in which this photo first appeared).
John Nowell is the type of guy who’s never met a stranger. He’s always willing to help – I know firsthand how much he’s done for me and countless others in Seoul – and is a likeable and enthusiastic “ball of energy,” the perfect person to represent the US military overseas. He’s a true American diplomat who loves his job.
From serving at Yongsan and volunteering with People to People International (PTPI) and numerous other non-profit organizations, to promoting Korean businesses and cultural events, Mr. Nowell has made a significant and lasting impact on his adopted country. And although he turns 76 today, he’s not slowing down.
He recently joined the Yongsan Legacy Project (YLP). Founded by husband and wife team Daniel Oh and Coco Cugat, the non-profit works to “preserve the invaluable treasures of Yongsan Garrison.” Members of the organization are now busy collecting and sharing “historical facts and personal stories and memories of people who served and lived on the site.” It’s an honorable and worthy undertaking. For most Americans who served in the ROK, Yongsan Garrison was an integral part of their Korean experience, and it will soon be gone, transformed into the largest urban park in Seoul.
In the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin,’ and John Nowell, having watched Seoul evolve into one of the great capitals of the world, knows about change. He’s seen it all.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Nowell, and here’s to many more years of service to the country you never left.
To hear John’s full story, check out this recent podcast by Arius Derr at Settlers of Seoul.
John Nowell at 21
John, 21, in California before being drafted and sent to Korea. (Photo courtesy of John Nowell)
John Nowell in 2017
John Nowell in 2017. (Photo credit: Tom Coyner)
Map of Yongsan Garrison
A 1964 map of Yongsan Garrison, or “Reservation.” It looks nothing like this today. (Photo credit John Nowell and Sunny Murphy, Chief Librarian at the old Yongsan Library.)
Yongsan Legacy Project website
Yongsan Legacy Project website: http://yongsanlegacy.org