No, this isn’t a story about the current situation with North Korea. It’s about another kind of unbelievable story — a story exhibited in a museum run by the U.S. Air Force that is so far-fetched that it is completely impossible to believe.
On October 17, the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute (AFEHRI) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama posted some new photos on its Facebook page of an exhibit at its Enlisted Heritage Hall, a museum showcasing the history of the service, accomplishments, and sacrifices of enlisted airmen through the decades.
The photos were of an exhibit in the museum’s Korean War section, consisting of a mannequin of an airman standing next to a Christian chapel flag, with a framed sign explaining the purported historical significance of this flag. This was the story on the sign:
“This Christian Flag is significant because it was rescued from the ruins of an American Chapel that ultimately found itself situated in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. In 1960, a young A1C Luke Holcomb, was assigned to the post along the Demilitarized Zone. From his duty section he could see what remained of the chapel and was fascinated by the site [sic] of the U.S. and Christian flags leaning against the rear corner of the building. One night, he and three friends swam across the river separating them from the chapel, and at the risk of death, they liberated the flags. It was his wish that this flag be displayed in dedication of the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen who risked their lives during the Korean Conflict.”
After the photos of this exhibit were posted on the AFEHRI’s Facebook page, emails began coming in to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) from airmen and others who were very disturbed that an exclusively Christian flag was being displayed in a military museum in dedication of all service members who served in the Korean War — service members who, just like those today, would have been of a variety of religions as well as no religion.
The first of these emails included the photos that had been posted on Facebook, and as someone who works for MRFF, I was of course attentive to the constitutional issue of the manner in which a government-run military museum was displaying this Christian flag. But as someone who, in addition to working for MRFF, has spent well over a dozen years debunking and exposing historical myths and lies, my historical bullsh*t detector was also immediately triggered. Why? Because of the condition of the flag. As you can see in the photo above, the flag appears to be in mint condition, something that would be absolutely impossible.
According to the story on the exhibit’s sign, this flag was supposedly retrieved from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in 1960, after having been left outside, leaning against the corner of an alleged chapel, when the DMZ was created. The DMZ was created in 1953. That would mean that this flag was left outside in the elements for seven years, which in Korea means harsh winters and torrential rains during the yearly typhoon season, with an average rainfall of 14 or 15 inches a month in the months of July and August. A flag made of natural fibers like cotton or wool, as a flag of the era would have been, would begin to rot after only two summers of being left outside in those weather conditions. After seven years, whatever would be left of it wouldn’t even be recognizable as a flag. And yet the flag in the exhibit, supposedly retrieved after being subjected to these conditions for seven years, is not only recognizable as a chapel flag, but is in pristine condition, right down to the fringe.
Now, say by some act of divine intervention, this chapel flag, as well as the U.S. flag that the young airman Luke Holcomb and his friends supposedly retrieved, did miraculously manage to survive those seven years of being left outside. Well, there are still a number other problems with the story.
As was pointed out to me by people much more knowledgeable about the geography, terrain, and history of the DMZ than I am, either from having spent time there or from their study of its history, the problems with the story include, among other things, the fact that of the handful of enlisted airmen who might have been at one of the U.S. Army camps in the region at the time, none would have been anywhere even remotely close enough to the DMZ to be able to see the area where it would even have been possible for someone to swim across the river, let alone see across the river and spot the ruins of an alleged chapel. These camps were miles south of the DMZ.
Even the type of flag seems wrong. The flag in the exhibit is an indoor chapel flag — the type of flag that is displayed inside a chapel building along with a U.S. flag. Whatever chapels were located in what became the DMZ, which was the front line when the DMZ was created, would most likely have been tents or other temporary structures (picture M*A*S*H), and the flag used in a war zone would not have been the large indoor chapel flag shown in the exhibit, but the smaller chaplain’s flag — the two by three foot flag used by chaplains in the field to mark where a religious service is being held and displayed in front of the chaplain’s quarters the rest of the time to mark where the chaplain can be found. So why would an indoor chapel flag, along with a U.S. flag, have ended up outside leaning against the corner of a building? And beyond that, it’s extremely hard to imagine that any U.S. troops would have shown such disrespect towards a U.S. flag that it ever would have just been sitting outside leaning against a building, let alone left there when the building was abandoned.
Because of the obvious implausibilities and outright impossibilities of the story, I decided to call the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute and ask what documentation they had for it. I was told to email the museum’s curator, so I sent him an email saying that the story was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to believe, and requested whatever documentation or other information they had about the story’s origin.
A few days later I received a response from the director of AFEHRI, CMSgt Emily E. Shade, in which she wrote:
“As a result of your inquiry and after looking at the framed wording, I concur that the dates and story seem inaccurate. We have removed the photo of the wording from the exhibit, as well as from our Facebook page.”
So, score one for historical accuracy. The sign telling the almost certainly fictitious story of this Christian chapel flag being rescued from the DMZ in 1960 has been removed from the museum’s exhibit.
But, switching from my historian hat back to my MRFF hat, the problem now is that all they removed was the sign, making what remains now almost worse — a display of an airman standing next to a large Christian flag for no apparent reason at all. The exhibit is now nothing more than a promotion of Christianity by the Air Force, which was the reason MRFF was contacted with complaints about it in the first place.
As MRFF’s founder and president Mikey Weinstein pointed out in a letter to Lt Gen Steven L. Kwast, the commander and president of Air University, under whose command the AFEHRI falls, “factual or not, the exhibit in question violates not only the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, but also Air Force Instruction [AFI] 1-1.” (Weinstein’s letter was written prior to being notified that the sign containing the dubious story had been removed, but now, with the sign having been removed but the flag still remaining, the violation is even more conspicuous.)
And, as a final note, a point that was raised in some of the emails regarding the AFEHRI’s highlighting of this Christian flag story on its Facebook page: Is it really the brightest idea in world for the U.S. Air Force to be promoting a story, fictitious or not, on social media hailing a U.S. service member’s incursion into the DMZ as an heroic act at a time when our country’s relations with North Korea are … shall we say … just a bit tense?