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Arnold Silverman broke his 60-year silence about the Forgotten War. Now Laguna Beach has the opportunity to honor him.

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Arnold (Arnie) Silverman was 80 years old before anyone knew he fought in Korea. He kept his secret for nearly 60 years, even from his wife (a woman he met only a few years after the war, and with whom he’s shared 63 years of marriage). But ten years ago, Arnie decided it was time to shine a light into the shadows and tell his story.

Arnold Silverman close up

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Arnold Silverman, Honored Patriot of the Year for Laguna Beach’s 53rd annual Patriots Day Parade

Like most war stories, it’s full of paradox – fear and bravery, valor and shame, patriotism and anti-Semitism, intense friendships and tragic loss. In some ways, those paradoxes still linger. “When they asked me to be the Patriot of the Year, I was a little intimidated by it,” Arnie says. “I told them, ‘Guys, this is not me.’ I’m not the guy waving a flag in front of my house.”

Despite that, Arnie is the guy who – at 90 years old – still fights for veterans nearly every day. He mentors them at the Orange County Combat Veterans Court in Santa Ana. He regularly volunteers at the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). He assists recovering active-duty Marines at the Wounded Warriors Battalion at Camp Pendleton. In other words, Arnie may be too busy being a patriot to spend time talking about it. 

Arnie is recognized as Patriot of the Year for Laguna’s 53rd annual Patriots Day Parade. It’s an honor he may be reluctant to accept, but proud to have achieved. And it allows us a rare glimpse inside Arnie’s long-hidden story.

Arnold Silverman with Hanke

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Arnie poses with Edward Hanke of the Parade Committee

The reluctant soldier

Arnie never intended to be a soldier. He held a degree in accounting from Rutgers University. He sold shoes in the evenings to pay his tuition, and worked as a waiter in the Catskills during the summers. Arnie was the student who refused to take Military Science as part of his college requirements. War was the last thing on his mind. 

But the draft came for him nonetheless, in 1951, two months after graduation. “I didn’t want to serve,” he says. Arnie even considered graduate school, but who was he kidding?

Initially trained in counterintelligence and sent to Tokyo for what promised to be a relatively safe position, things soon heated up on the front lines. Because Arnie had operational specialization in heavy weaponry, he was a necessary commodity in Korea.

Sentenced to the front lines

In his privately published memoir, My War and Other Stories, Arnie shares a detailed account of how he got a “front row seat” to the action. One night, suffering through a frigid evening of guard duty, Arnie heard a suspicious noise. He found his exceptionally drunk Company Commander lying down in a ditch, covered in his own excrement. Helping the Commander out of the hole and back to his barracks, Arnie soon experienced the old adage “no good deed goes unpunished.” The Commander decided he couldn’t risk his embarrassing night getting retold. Misreading the kind of man Arnie Silverman is – and the ethical code that guides him – and fearing Arnie’s potential disloyalty, the Commander sentenced him to fight on the front lines.

Arnold Silverman with hat

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Arnie was sent to the combat infantry battalion of the 35th Regimental Combat Team of the 25th Division where he was assigned as a forward observer for an 81mm mortar platoon. It was a dangerous job. There, he endured brutal days of bitter cold, the weather as formidable as any enemy. He recounts vicious battles with the North Koreans and Chinese, of severed communications lines, and heavy artillery bombardments. Arnie suffered all the indignities of war, as well as the sting of anti-Semitism from his own men. Throughout those brutal 13 months, Arnie lost many close friends, a good portion of his hearing, and ultimately his youthful innocence. But after seven months of intense battle, he was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge and transferred off the front lines.

The prisoners’ dilemma

Arnie was reassigned to the prison island of Koji Do, south of Pusan, to rebuild a prison camp once seized by North Korean and Chinese prisoners. In his memoir, Arnie provides a harrowing account of one experience the public will never hear elsewhere.

Because American forces feared communist ideas might infect Korean youth, troops were ordered to separate women with children from other women. But enemy propaganda proved efficient. The communists intentionally mischaracterized the operation, leading civilians to believe that Americans planned to separate women from their own children. Once the order came down, the women went insane. 

“We marched in with bayonets drawn. Pandemonium broke out immediately. Screaming hysterically, women with children scattered helter-skelter. Guys were bashing women with their rifle butts, beating them up,” Arnie says. “I told my men, ‘We do not want to be a part of this. Stay away and get out.’” The whole operation, Arnie says, was a disgrace.

For compassionate men like Arnie, forced into acts of brutality, moments like these must be excruciating. Not every mission, even if successful, ends in pride. Arnie’s decision to break his silence and share these experiences is perhaps his most important act of bravery. Telling painful truths allows other vets to feel less alone. Because these are the kinds of events, with all their difficult details, that isolate soldiers and start the cycle of post-traumatic stress.

When Arnie came home in 1953, he buried his past. He took a job as an accountant a week after his return and tried to leave the war behind. “I made a serious error,” he wrote recently. “Not realizing the impact of the Korean experience on me.”

The forgotten war

Because Korea followed so closely on the heels of WWII, and because it had an ambiguous outcome – ending in a truce instead of a decisive victory or defeat – it’s the war many Americans forgot.

The Korean War differed from both the glory of WWII and the shame of Vietnam. “Those Vietnam guys were abused. I never had rocks thrown at me. I never had anybody spit on me. But I was ignored,” says Arnie. “When you go to a Memorial Day service, they’ll talk about World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They always leave out Korea because people forget about it.”

Arnie returned from the war full of ambivalence, not eager to talk about his time. “I never told anyone I was in Korea,” he says. “When I hit 80 – ten years ago – I thought I’d better tell somebody. At that point, I’d been in the VFW. I saw the juxtaposition of North and South Korea, and I thought maybe we did some good.”

Time puts things in perspective, allowing a man to see his past with a certain clarity and context. That’s what those decades did for Arnie and the time he spent in Korea.

Born into a divided place and at a difficult time 

To the extent people are shaped by the time and place they were born, Washington DC and 1929 are a potent mix.

Born a Jewish boy during the Great Depression in what was then considered a small southern town laboring under Jim Crow, Arnie’s interest in politics seemed certain. “In those desperate Depression times, even as a kid, I was very moved by the long lines of people looking for any kind of work, or just lining up for a bowl of soup and bread,” Arnie wrote in a recent piece. “Even as a young boy, I committed myself to helping others in such distress.” 

Arnie’s satisfaction has always come from giving. “I get such pleasure out of helping others succeed,” he says. “That’s probably hurt me financially over the years.” Although enjoying a successful career in sales and marketing – working for over 40 years in software solutions and mainframe computer companies – Arnie’s priority has always been on volunteerism and giving back.

Tikkun Olam

If the measure of a man’s life lies in his good deeds, Arnie is a giant among men. Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept, defined by acts of kindness performed to help repair the world. This, Arnie says, is the code that governs his days. “That’s my basic philosophy,” he says. “I live by that. Though I’m not religiously affiliated anymore.”

Arnie joined the VFW and American Legion when he retired from his career at age 70. Since then, he’s held every office in the VFW, including Commander. He visits VA hospitals, assists at the Wounded Warriors Battalion at Camp Pendleton, supports homeless veterans in need, helps Homefront America with its support programs, and various other activities. One of his favorite volunteer posts is reading to elementary school children in Orange County. Let’s just say, it’s not entirely easy for Arnie to fit you into his schedule.

Arnold Silverman with Quilter

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Arnie thanking Charles Quilter for the Patriots Day honor

But perhaps one of his most rewarding roles is working as a mentor at the Orange County Combat Veterans Court in Santa Ana. “It’s a fantastic thing to learn about,” Arnie says. In 2008, Judge Wendy Lindley saw a need to assist veterans who were struggling – with drugs, DUIs, domestic violence convictions, weapon violations, and other crimes – instead of sentencing them to prison terms. After one of Judge Lindley’s cases ended in suicide, she looked for a way to help the problem instead of exacerbate it. The court created a 14-month rehabilitation program for veterans trapped in the system.

“Some men fight it in the beginning,” says Arnie. “But when they graduate, you don’t recognize them. They’re not the same people.” The recidivism rate, Arnie tells me, is only ten percent. Gratifying work, indeed. 

Arnie is also a prolific and talented writer, contributing to the VFW newsletter, local papers (including Stu News), writing his memoir, and poems. He seems busier now, at 90, than most men I know in the prime of life. Perhaps that’s precisely where Arnie is at the moment. 

Family man

Arnie met his wife, Myrna, on a blind date arranged by a friend. This year, they celebrate 63 years of marriage. Myrna, he says, is a mean bridge player. The couple have three successful children. Meryl, their only daughter, is a marketing director for Trojan Battery and lives in Orange County. Robert is an anesthesiologist in Atlanta, and Donald a pilot for Delta Airlines. They also have six grown – and also successful – grandchildren. 

Arnold Silverman Myra

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Arnie and Myrna at their home in Laguna Niguel 

A heart full of poetry, a mind full of memories

Arnie’s memoir is filled with affecting poetry – on war, on aging, on politics. He seems a man at peace with himself, and at peace with his past. He suffers the ails most nonagenarians suffer, but doesn’t let them get him down. He is, after all, still taking care of others more than they’re taking care of him. 

Many of Arnie’s poems stand out. He recounts his first night patrol in Korea, full of fear and braced against the cold. He reflects on the meaning of Memorial Day. Some pieces are filled with ambivalence, others with nostalgia, all of them reflective. But one seems particularly appropriate today.

Passing Parade

He joins those in the passing parade

Who served when call to arms was made;

Who filled their lives with service pride;

Who carried on as comrades died.

His name is called, but silence looms.

Thoughts of his passing fill the room.

As our line falls to precious few,

And bugle sounds for those we knew, 

We stand resolved to remember all

Like him who answered when country called.