by Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle – Friday, June 4, 2021
The Korean conflict is known as “the Forgotten War,” but one veteran who never forgot it was Lt. Col. John R. Stevens, U.S. Marine Corps.
Lingering pain from frostbitten toes were a regular reminder of his part in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, fought in minus-40 degree weather in 1950.
Stevens earned a Bronze Star in Korea, a war that technically never ended. After his retirement, he got involved in another war seemingly without end — the long slog to get a Korean War memorial built in San Francisco.
He spent seven years fundraising, working alone in a windowless office on Van Ness Avenue, before the $4 million monument overlooking San Francisco Bay was finally dedicated in 2016.
Every year after, Stevens marked the anniversary of the start of the war, on June 25, by giving a speech at a ceremony there and laying a wreath on the memorial wall. This year’s ceremony will be more somber than the others: It will be in memory of Stevens himself. He died May 25 at his home in San Francisco. He was 100.
“The Korean War Memorial would never have happened without John,” said Don Reid, who also served in Korea and co-founded the memorial foundation with Stevens. “He was a true Marine, the total package. He stood for pride, commitment, dedication, virtue, honesty, loyalty and patriotism.”
Stevens was also on the ground during the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the eventual defeat of Japanese combatants at Okinawa. For his valor under fire, he received his first Bronze Star.
“John was at Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Okinawa, the Pusan Perimeter, Inchon Landing, the liberation of Seoul and the Chosin Reservoir,” said Gerard Parker, executive director of the Korean War Memorial Foundation. “From the beginning of World War II through the first crucial year of the Korean war, John had a knack for turning up in these key battles.”
Through it all, Stevens was soft-spoken, modest and dry, using no more words than the setting required. Once asked by an interviewer what it was like to be surrounded by 100,000 enemy troops at Chosin, he responded, “Lots of targets.”
After 23 years in the Marines he went on to work 35 years in business, mostly in telecommunications and information technology companies. He started as a systems engineer at IBM and went on to start four companies. One of these, Centex, went public in 1987 and became a case study at Harvard business school, as an example of “how to run a successful IPO,” said his son, John R. (Steve) Stevens II of Lafayette.
“My father was an inspirational leader who touched many individuals over his long life,” said Stevens, who is CEO at Jopari Solutions, a Concord health care IT company that was another of his father’s ideas. “He was kind, ethical, humble, and he always finished what he started. He said he was going to live to be 100 and he finished that, too. He made it by a month.”
John Richard Stevens was born April 22, 1921 in Butte, Mont., where he grew up. The gloom of the Great Depression hit by the time he was a teenager, and after working stints as a baker, lumber jack and fire fighter, he caught a train to Salt Lake City, hoping to join the U.S. Navy for the steady pay. He failed the eye exam and was headed to the train home when a recruiter for the Marine Corps spotted him.
“A man in a blue uniform with a red stripe on the leg caught me by the arm,” he recalled in an interview for the Korean War Memorial newsletter. “I didn’t know what the Marine Corps was, but I didn’t want to go back to Butte. The rest is history.”
Assigned to the 1st Defense Battalion, Stevens was a 20-year-old sergeant on duty at Pearl Harbor when Japanese bombers made their surprise raid on Dec. 7, 1941. After three years in World War II, he’d made captain, assigned to the 1st Marine Division Signal Company where he worked with Navajo code talkers.
On April 1, 1945, Stevens arrived on the island of Okinawa as part of the largest amphibious landing of the war in the Pacific. Two months of fighting cost more than 12,000 American lives but the island stronghold was wrestled from the Japanese.
Five years later, North Korea invaded South Korea and Stevens was the commanding officer of Able Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. Assigned to the Pusan perimeter, his unit came under attack at the Battle of Obong-Ni, nicknamed “No Name Ridge.” Stevens led his men in a counterattack and again earned the Bronze Star. “His outstanding display of personal courage, devotion to duty and leadership was an inspiration to his command,” reads the Bronze Star citation.
He was pulled from the front lines to prepare for the secret amphibious landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950. Arriving by landing craft, Stevens managed to lead his rifle company off the beach and over the seawall under steady fire.
Stevens went on to lead troops as they fought in the streets of Seoul. He survived that and the Chosin Reservoir Campaign, and was finally sent home in late November of 1950. In two wars in the Pacific, he’d been in six of the biggest battles, many in command of a rifle company which made him a preferred target. He earned 14 service awards and medals and got out with only three frozen toes on his right foot.
Those toes bothered him the rest of his life, but not as much as the fact that there was not a memorial to the Korean conflict in the city where he’d made his home and built his business career.
One day in 2009, Stevens was having lunch at the Marines Memorial Club with Reid and Man J. Kim, a Korean American restaurateur, when Stevens asked in a voice barely above a whisper, “Why don’t we have a memorial here?” No one had a good answer and by the time they walked out to Sutter Street, the Korean War Memorial Foundation had been started.
They already had an office, the one where Stevens did consulting work. He cleared off his desk and got started. Reid was the treasurer and Stevens was the secretary. They knew they needed a bigger name to serve as president, and for that they recruited former Rep. Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism leading a platoon in six bayonet charges in Korea. Stevens tracked down McCloskey on his tractor at his farm in Rumsey (Yolo County).
“Pete joined the memorial board as president because of John,” said Reid, a retired banker at Wells Fargo. The Presidio Trust offered them a site across from the San Francisco National Cemetery. The promontory has a view of the Golden Gate, through which marines sailed when returning from the war before disembarking at Ft. Mason.
The Korean War Memorial, which received major funding from the government of South Korea, was dedicated on Aug. 1, 2016, and Stevens was back at his desk the next morning. Now that the memorial was in place, he had to get people to visit and he had to continue raising funds for its upkeep. He kept that office until his death and was working there until a few months ago.
The memorial includes images of the war laser-etched onto a granite face. The dominant image depicts a platoon in Stevens’s command going over the Inchon Wall. The platoon leader fell on a grenade to protect his Marines and Stevens made sure that he received the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Last year there was no anniversary ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Stevens went alone to lay a wreath at the wall. This year the anniversary will return at 11 a.m. on June 25, with the public invited. Stevens’s widow, Jody, and Reid will place a wreath at the wall, in honor of all who served and sacrificed in the Forgotten War, especially Stevens.
“John is gone,” said executive director Parker, “but the memorial he built will last forever.”
Survivors include his wife of 47 years Joanne (Jody) Stevens of San Francisco; daughters Carole Anne Clark of Great Falls, Mont., and Sherry Wilson of Colfax; sons Mitch Stevens of Benicia and Steve Stevens of Lafayette; seven grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@samwhitingsf