Mother, daughter share story of an immigrant Korean War bride

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

After her father died last year, Katie Schell decided it was time to finally commit to writing her mother's story of surviving as an orphan in South Korea during the Korean War.

Over the years, Schell and her six siblings had heard snippets of the story from their mother, but they never had heard the complete tale of how Pega Crimbchin went from being an illiterate servant in a war-torn country to the smitten wife of an American G.I.

In fact, Crimbchin, herself, didn't know the full story of how she became one of the lucky few Asian women granted U.S. citizenship at a time when the immigration of Asians was limited.

She found out when she peeked inside a wooden box that her Korean War Army veteran husband had kept for nearly six decades.

Missing her husband a few months after his death, she lifted the lid on the box and discovered the “special papers” that Frank Crimbchin said he kept in there.

Pega Crimbchin had never learned to read well, so she never probed the documents. But with her husband gone, she asked Schell to read them to her.

Crimbchin heard for the first time the notes he wrote from back home in McKees Rocks during their 10-month separation after his tour of duty had ended. She heard his reassurances that he was coming back for her; correspondence from government officials about her chances of becoming a U.S. citizen; and the sometimes flowery, sometimes embellished messages written by English-speaking Koreans whom she recruited to write to her stateside love.

“It was really remarkable all those years later for her to hear what they said,” commented Schell, 58, of Harrison City. “She was stunned. She literally almost fell off the couch.”

Those long-hidden letters, combined with an oral history Crimbchin recorded on cassette tapes three decades ago, helped to provide the basis for a book Schell self-published called “Love Beyond Measure.”

For Schell, the process of researching and writing the book — especially going through the letters — helped her to better understand her father, from whom she was estranged.

Schell said she hopes that telling her parents' story will give people thoughts of hope and courage.

“I think this book shows when somebody loves someone what they really go through for them,” she said.

It's a story that follows the couple's meeting in January 1952 when Frank Crimbchin gave a shivering young woman then-named Ock Soon Lee his coat through the soldier's and his family's persistent scrutiny of restrictive immigration laws.

In 1954, Crimbchin was one of one 116 Korean women who entered the U.S. as the wife of an American. There were only 12 Korean women admitted into the country in 1950 and 1951 combined.

Together, mother and daughter are starting to tell Crimbchin's story to veterans groups, women's clubs and churches.

Crimbchin, who lives in Cabot in Butler County, was invited to speak at the April reunion for the 76th Engineer Construction Battalion, for which her husband served.

Last week, the pair spoke publicly for the first time at a Beaver County session of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a nonprofit group that encourages veterans to share their stories.

The group's executive director, Todd DePastino, said he is impressed by both Crimbchin's willingness to tell her story and Schell's skill in writing it.

“The story is raw and honest and provides a rare, on-the-ground view of the Korean War from two angles: that of an American G.I. who hated the war and just wanted to go home and that of a Korean civilian caught up in a catastrophic conflict she didn't understand but had to survive,” DePastino said.

All these years later, Crimbchin said, it has been difficult to relive some episodes, such as the time she nearly was hit by a bullet while pumping water during the Second Battle of Seoul. But she calls her husband her “savior” and is quick to credit God for connecting her with him and his family.

“My husband was one of a kind,” Crimbchin said. “Nobody would go through that for me. He went through so much problems.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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