One Fishtown veteran wants to include a plaque on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in honor of the first Philadelphian to die in the war — a Port Richmond man.
This Memorial Day, on Monday, May 27, another year will go by without widespread recognition of the name of an important Philadelphia veteran.
Fishtown native and Korean War veteran John J. Plenskofski said he won’t attend services at the Korean War Veterans Memorial this Memorial Day, because he’s still hurt over a 10-year-old slight that left a plaque for a fellow veteran out of the memorial.
“I was raised in an Irish neighborhood with a Polack name,” said Plenskofski, 86, who grew up in Fishtown. “I ain’t a tough guy, but I don’t back down.”
Plenskofski is a former teamster and Fishtown native who once met Jimmy Hoffa. He fought in World War II and reenlisted to fight the Soviet Union in Korea. The son of a Philly cop who died in the line of duty after being hit by a trolley in August 1937, Plenskofski fought in the 5th Regimental Combat Team before taking a bullet in the arm from Chinese soldiers at the Yalu River in October 1950. He later received a Purple Heart medal.
For years, he’s claimed that he was “tricked legally” out of heading plans for the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which today stands at Front and Dock streets at Penn’s Landing. Part of the memorial plans, Plenskofski claims, called for a large bronze plaque in honor of the Port Richmond man who was the first person from Philadelphia to die in Korea – Private First Class Stanley A. Gogoj.
“Pfc. Gogoj has the dubious distinction of being the first man from the Philadelphia area to be killed in the Korean War,” said Plenskofski, who is president of the Philadelphia Korean War Veterans Chapter No. 38.
Gogoj lived on East Clearfield Street and attended North Catholic High School. Plenskofski never knew him, but he heard that Gogoj used to play with Philadelphia’s Polish American String Band. Gogoj died on June 30, 1950, in Korea along with 22 other soldiers when their Skymaster transport plane was bombed by North Korean soldiers while it sat on the airport tarmac, five days after war broke out. He was 20.
Nearly $2,000 in memorial funds went toward a plaque in honor of Gogoj. It was intended for public viewing, but now only collects dust in Plenskofski’s storage unit in Doylestown, where he now resides.
“We were misled, manipulated and deceived by lawyers,” Plenskofski said. “We went through hell. People did what they wanted to do, and they took over.”
In 1987, Plenskofski first cooked up the idea of building a memorial for soldiers from the Philadelphia area who lost their lives defending South Korea from the North. His group, Chapter 38, was recognized as the founders of the memorial by City Council Resolution 1154 in 1991, and received a permit in 1992 from the Fairmount Park Commission to use the Front and Dock streets site. Plenskofski’s name is also on a copy of plans with a Pennsylvania copyright stamp from 1992.
“John Plenskofski spent a lot of time and effort and gave his all to that memorial. Chapter 38 was the sole founder of that memorial,” said the Rev. Charles Knappenberger, a Chapter 38 member.
But during the fundraising process, Chapter 38 had to legally incorporate a new group, Philadelphia Korean War Veterans Memorial, Inc., for fundraising purposes, which opened the door to several new members who took a controlling interest in the project.
The funds Chapter 38 had raised, as well as their architectural plans, became property of the new group. The new members stopped keeping Plenskofski in the loop long before the memorial was erected in 2002, he said.
“We founded it. They wanted all the credit. They took the credit. I came up with the idea,” Plenskofski said.
Fellow Chapter 38 member Jack Green backed up Plenskofski’s story.
“Everything we suggested, they knocked down. Anything we wanted to say, they wouldn’t listen,” recalled Green, a former taxi driver who was a corporal in Korea, of the new members who got involved in the project.
A representative of the Friends of the Korean War Memorial which formed in 2004 to administer a restoration grant at the memorial — the Friends group is also comprised many of the members of the Philadelphia Korean War Veterans Memorial, Inc. — declined to comment on the rift with Chapter 38 members. The group did not respond to further e-mail requests for comment.
One member did say the group was not aware of any plans for a Stanley A. Gogoj plaque.
A representative of the Philadelphia Veterans Administration declined to comment on the situation.
This year, as he does every year, Plenskofski will celebrate Memorial Day at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the Sunday before Memorial Day, when he knows the men who took control of the memorial he founded won’t be there.
As for what could be done to get Gogoj’s name on any sort of memorial, that’s up to independent groups or individuals who could go through the process of creating a memorial from scratch. Or, Plenskofski could use the Gogoj plaque, which is his property, in some other, new memorial.
“All I want to do is honor the soldiers who died,” Plenskofski said. “All I know is I did my duty.”
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.