Author shines light on his father’s shadowy past
By Ronnie Sansome
Daniel Molitor/Submitted Photo
When Daniel Molitor’s father died in 2014 at the age of 84, he left behind a dark secret.
“As far as I can remember, he never talked about it, ever,” Molitor says.
“It” is his father’s experiences in the Army during the Korean War, when the wide-eyed enlistee and former Catholic schoolboy found himself assigned to radio reconnaissance and signal intelligence for the Army Security Agency (ASA). He was stationed first for over a year in Japan and then for eight months on the Korean Peninsula.
“Something happened to him during the last couple of months,” Molitor continues. “He did something, the sort of thing a soldier often has to do, but nonetheless something he obviously regretted. It messed him up pretty bad.”
That never-talked-about event, Molitor explains, cast a very long shadow, not only over his father in the immediate aftermath of the war but over his father’s family, his work and, years in the future, his son.
Now, looking back on his own career as a writer and creative director in the themed entertainment industry, Molitor, a 20-year resident of Pasadena, is surprised by how little he knew about his father’s past. The process of uncovering what happened during that bitter cold Korean winter of 1952 is set down in Molitor’s graphic novel, “Burying Cheng,” released by the independent press Dynasty XVIII and available at Vroman’s.
“It sounds egotistical, I know,” Molitor confesses, “but after dad died I realized I couldn’t tell his story without telling part of my own. I didn’t know any of the stuff that’s in the book until I started digging through the old memorabilia he’d kept hidden away for quite literally half a century. Uncovering and understanding my father’s journey through life became a quest of my own.”
Among the hidden treasures found on that quest was an old wooden cigar box his father had kept hidden on a high shelf at the back of his closet. The box was filled with tiny black-and-white photographs taken with a vintage 35mm camera identified as a product of occupied Japan. The photos were largely unmarked.
“I had one image of a group of soldiers taken in a beer hall in Kyoto,” Molitor says. “That one had the names of some of the men written on the back. Most of the rest were blank.” He was able to match some of the faces to later images taken in Korea, but many of the soldiers remained anonymous. “A few of the men, the ones who survived, stayed together pretty much through the whole war,” he says. “They were buddies, and a couple of them turned out to be major players in the events that led up to the incident in Uijeongbu.”
The ‘incident’ in the territory above what was then a small village 30 miles north of Seoul was the key to unlocking his father’s long-hidden mystery. Molitor used old Army records and ASA documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to trace his father’s movements. “After shipping out from Japan and arriving in Busan in the south of the Republic of Korea,” Molitor relates, “dad and his unit traveled by train up to Seoul, then did their first recon work north of Chuncheon, where the UN forces were preparing for heavy fighting around the infamous Punchbowl region.”
It was there that Dick Molitor first came face to face with the reality of war.
“His assignment in Japan had been pretty sweet,” Molitor says. “That was something he actually talked about once, how much he and his buddies enjoyed Kyoto. I think that made what happened next that much more horrible.”
Molitor says he hesitated at first to write about what happened at Uijeongbu but felt compelled to tell his father’s story, if for no other reason, to help himself understand what made him tick. “Dad and I had a difficult relationship,” Molitor says. “Like many of his generation, he couldn’t talk about the dark stuff that had happened to him, but it really did have an impact on me and the rest of our family. He was a scarred man.”
One event, in particular, Molitor says, typifies how memories of the war affected others, not just his father. It was a tough scene to put down on paper, but his mother, who passed away in 2020, insisted it be included. “Mom told me the story of dad’s nightmares and how they sometimes spilled over into the real world. Dad’s reactions very nearly ended their nascent marriage. And like everything else having to do with Korea, he could never bring himself to talk about them, let alone get help to finally put them to rest. Sadly, that’s a thread that ran throughout his entire life.”
Nightmares, misplaced loyalties, a succession of jobs, and a secret life that led from the ASA in Korea to the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C., and ultimately to undercover work for the National Security Agency in the little town of Yakima, Washington, where Molitor grew up, all are threads woven into the personal history that is “Burying Cheng.”
“I was alone with dad when he died,” Molitor says. “A lot of his old Catholic schoolboy fears had recently risen up to haunt him. Despite his macho bravado, I think he was genuinely scared of what might be coming next.”
After learning what happened to his father in Korea, Molitor recognizes the source of those fears and realizes, hopefully, that even the darkest of tales can have a happy ending.