Hughes’ story from Korean War about expectant father is part of president’s speech on Armistice

       President Obama's speech commemorating the 60-year anniversary of the Korean War Armistice July 27 used a true story originally told by Westside resident Dave Hughes in a letter home in December 1950, when he was a U.S. Army lieutenant on the front lines.

Dave Hughes, then a lieutenant, shown during the Korean War.
Courtesy of Dave Hughes

       The president's words, intended to show how hope was possible in the midst of wartime hardship, were scripted by speechwriter Terry Szuplat, who had spent an hour on the phone with Hughes several days before.
       Describing a discouraging retreat at that time of the war from Hughes' perspective, the speech reads, in part, “Marching through the snow and ice, something caught his eye - a young lieutenant up ahead, and from the muzzle of his rifle hung a pair of tiny baby bootees” - and here the text directly quotes from Hughes' letter - “ 'swinging silently in the wind… like tiny bells.' ”
       The “young lieutenant” was Richard Shank, whose wife was pregnant. The bootees were as close as he could get to going home.
       Hughes' family submitted his letter to the Ladies Home Journal, which printed it as an article in 1952.
       Although the president's speech did not mention Hughes by name, “I was flattered to be so recognized,” he said afterward. “Szuplat found my piece in the first place and said he was really moved by it... and asked could he use it. I said yes, and I further said he did not need to put my name in it (though my kids were disappointed that I was not named as the author, only being referred to as a soldier of the 7th Cavalry) because it really is about Lt. Shank, not me.”
       In his letter from 1950, Hughes explained that the bootees had been sent to Shank by his wife: “I also learned that when the baby came it would be announced by a new piece of ribbon on the boots - blue for a boy, pink for a girl.”
       Days of fighting followed, with heavy casualties, including rumors that Shank was among them.
       “Then in the black despair of uselessness in a second-page war I looked up as a passing figure brushed against my inert shoe-pacs,” Hughes wrote in 1950. “There walked young Lt. Shank up the Korean road, whistling softly, while every waking eye followed him to see the muzzle of his battered Springfield rifle. Swinging gaily in the first rays of the morning sun were Shank's bootees, and fluttering below them was the brightest, bluest, piece of ribbon I have ever seen.”
       The president's speech went on to note that Shank survived the war, “held his baby boy in his arms” and is now an 84-year-old grandfather in Gainesville, Florida.
       Because the president could diverge from the speech text if he chose to, Hughes listened July 27 to see if the Shank reference would stay in.
       Afterward, the military veteran, whose career went on to include the Vietnam War, Fort Carson (where he was chief of staff) and attaining the rank of colonel, e-mailed the following: “It's ironic that the story survived many White House rewrite changes to the original speech draft. I didn't vote for Obama (they didn't ask). But apart from such political matters, the speech as a whole really did justice to the memory of aged Korean War veterans of that 'forgotten war' where 40 of my West Point classmates were killed in action, a classmate I know was a three-year POW, my own rifle company lost 67 dead and [overall] 7,000 soldiers are still 'missing in action' and 34,000 soldiers were killed in action. A very bloody war.
       “But the last hill I captured [named “347”], still stands, 60 years later, separating a free and prosperous South Korea from the dictatorship of the North. I would do it again.”

Westside Pioneer article