At 10:00 AM, we joined approximately 300 Korean citizens to do something they had not been able to do in over 100 years, walk across the land that has been known at Camp Hialeah. With little fanfare, Busan city officials quietly unlocked the large front gate to what was once a bustling US Army Base. Long gone were the armored hummers and tanks, replaced with walking paths winding through what felt like a military ghost town.
Camp Hialeah had been under US control since the Korean war, closing only recently in 2006. Like most bases on Korea it more or less resembled a small self-sufficient town. There was the commissary (grocery store), Post Exchange (small Target equivalent), the gas station, the post theater, the school, the chapels, and small neighborhoods of quaint 1950's era homes.
Before it was home to so many military families, it gained notoriety under Japanese occupation as horse racing grounds. It went on to serve as the headquarters for the Imperial Army, before coming under US/UN command during the Korean War.
As part of a land hand over, turing US military facilities back over to the Korean government, Camp Hialeah was closed in August 2006. For the next three years it would sit in limbo, slowly deteriorating as the US Army and the Korean central government engaged in a series of negotiations about the return of the land. When we first arrived in Korea, working with the military and the Busan city officials was a major hot issue for Tyler at work. After many environmental studies, and clean-up efforts, the land was formally returned to the Republic of Korea, and then immediately to Busan City on January 27, 2010.
From the end of January, until now, Busan city has kept the land tightly secured, making renovations in preparations to share the militaristic feel of the land with the citizens of Busan. The goal is to give the citizens the chance to view the land as it was under US command. The park will remain open in this fashion through the end of September, after which it will again be closed as it is completely renovated and turned into a massive park in the middle of Busan.
Though the renovations were relatively minor, they went far in providing a park like atmosphere to the formerly bustling base. Removing all vehicular traffic leaves visitors free to wander and explore the base, taking pictures as they go. Select structures were even cleaned up, and opened to the public, allowing a rare, true inside peek at life on the military base. Visitors are free to stroll through residences, the school, chapel, officers quarters, and base command buildings.
For most visitors it marked the first time setting foot on the land, and represented for many their first glimpse of American life. Following our fellow adventurers through building it was fascinating to watch them open cupboards and drawers, explore closets, and marvel at the shape of the bathrooms. For us, something so familiar and so American feeling, was so fascinating to Koreans experiencing the differences.
At the end of the exhibit the base theater had been converted into a historical display featuring old photographs of the camp, as well as plans for the future park that will reside there.
It was a strange experience for me. Having lived in base housing in Seoul, it felt a bit surreal and ghost-town like to wander what I could imagine were once busy streets. I could still picture kids on bikes, and see the footprints of what were once playgrounds. Even the old clothes lines served as a reminder of the daily living that happened on that base. Many a child grew up living there, and I found myself wondering how different our life in Busan would have been when the base was still operating. I could picture myself shopping at the commissary, cooking in my American kitchen, and walking my girls to school. At the same time, looking at the dilapidated buildings gave me a sense of hope and pride for Busan, knowing that this space would be turned into something that so many would be able to enjoy and appreciate.
I am so glad we had the unique chance to watch this huge base be turned over to the Korean citizens again, and so appreciative of the historic chance we had to wander the base, exploring it for the first time (at least for me, Tyler had been several times) with the Korean's who will now be able to fully enjoy it.
At the entrance, checking out a map (entirely in Korean) of the base layout, and the walking trails.
Emily in front of one of the homes.
Some really pretty trees.
Heading in to explore the house.
Old clothes lines and chimneys. A reminder of what life was once like.
A really old, rusted out shed.
Historic roof of the old officers club. The red and white is the rising sun of the Japanese empire, painted by the Japanese when used as a horse racing grounds, and later as a headquarters for their Imperial Army. When the US took command, the 8th Army seal (with the red stars) was placed in the center of the sun). A true tribute to the occupation and use of this historic ground.
Juxtaposition of the old vs. the new.
Korean ladies picking dandelions and other "weeds." They use them particularly in teas. . . the base was filled with ladies pillaging what we would long consider weeds.
Former bus stop, now being used to advertise the new opening of the park.
Seal on the floor of the school gymnasium.
Hannah striking a pose in an old classroom.
At the end of the trail, chalk had been set out for children to do sidewalk drawings. Drawings and written messages filled the street, proclaiming excitement over Camp Hialeah's return.
Our little graffiti artists at work.
Notice the Korean writing surrounding Emily, all well wishes and greetings.
Signs advertising the opening of the Camp Hialeah exhibit.
Old base theater, now home to the exhibit chronicling the history of Camp Hialeah.