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For U.S. veterans of the Korean War, a solemn anniversary

John Merrell, center with American flag tie, was part of a group of veterans who fought in the Korean War under the United Nations flag who visited the Korean National Cemetery in Seoul on Friday.Jung Yeon-Je / AFP – Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea – It was a solemn and low-key ceremony. 

The American veterans Friday walked slowly along a broad path lined by flag-bearers at the National Cemetery in Seoul. They stopped in front of a Memorial Tower where 80-year-old John Merrell, wearing a dark suit and stars and stripes tie, placed three pinches of incense into a furnace in memory of those who died during the Korean War.

The 25-strong American contingent are among 200 veterans from 21 countries who fought under the banner of the U.N. and have returned to Korea – some for the first time since the war – for the 60th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended hostilities.

Unlike in the North, where the anniversary will be marked Saturday with a massive military parade, the South sees little to celebrate, preferring to mark the occasion by remembering the dead and thanking the surviving veterans.

Merrell, from Knoxville, Tenn., had served as a corporal and then lieutenant in the 8th Field Artillery of the Army's 25th Division between August 1951 and June 1952.

He was been part of a smaller group of veterans whom we joined earlier this week as they toured the DMZ and some of the battlefields that claimed 34,000 American lives in combat in just three years of what's often called the "Forgotten War."

John Merrell, an 80-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., pays tribute to those who died during the Korean War during a ceremony at the National Cemetery in Seoul on Friday.NBC News

Merrell had shrugged his shoulders as he looked out from an observatory overlooking the green and deceptively peaceful no-man's land that now divides the two Koreas.

"North Korea, huh!" he said. "It seems so strange. There weren't any trees when I was here. It’s all grown up now."

The area we traveled through was known as the Iron Triangle, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Our bus passed by modern-day tank traps and check points as Jamie Wiedhahn, who runs the Korea Revisit Program, provided a running commentary.

"Again, on our right, we have an active mine field, as indicated by the red triangle," he said.

Bob Hnizval looked out across what are now lush paddy fields: "As a 20-year-old kid here we had no comprehension of what we were doing or why we were doing it," he said.

Hnizval, now 85 and living in Arizona, served as a corporal with the Observation Battalion of the 1st Field Artillery from November 1952 until February 1954. He told me he'd never wanted to return, but curiosity got the better of him.

Dan Peters had been promoted from private when he came to Korea in March 1953 to sergeant first class in the 17th Infantry Regiment of the 7th Division by the time he left a year later.Courtesy of Dan Peters

"I think that probably with the Korean War we prevented World War III," he said.

During a break at a hotel in Chorwon, a town close to the border and overlooking a steep valley and raging river, I sat down with Dan Peters, who'd been promoted from private when he came to Korea in March 1953 to sergeant first class in the 17th Infantry Regiment of the 7th Division by the time he left a year later. He explained the drudgery, but also the horrors of trench warfare.

"Sometimes it was plain boring, for days on end," he said. "But when the attacks came, there would be bodies everywhere."

By the time he was in Korea, the Americans were fighting the Chinese, who'd come to the aid of the North.

"That's where the Chinese were," he said pointing at a map of a warren-like complex of trenches. "They were within 300 yards of us. They didn't show themselves, and we didn't show ourselves either."

Old photos showing Peters and his comrades smiling from the trenches, seem to belie the horror of it all.

Peters took part in the battle for Pork Chop Hill, the first phase of which was depicted in a movie starring Gregory Peck. 

Today it seen as a pretty aimless battle over just 30 acres of land, now marooned in the DMZ. The battle was fought largely for leverage at the negotiating table. But the attrition rates were astounding. The hill was eventually lost to the Chinese.

Dan Peters, right, and his brother David outside the remnants of the Communist Party headquarters near Chorwon, South Korea. The two were part of a group of U.S. veterans who returned to Krea – some for the first time since the war – for the 60th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended hostilities.Ian Williams/ NBC News

"Company after company went up to try and take it back, but didn't get the job done," he recalled. Eventually the Americans pulled back and air force pulverized the place.

After the war, Peters worked in the forests and mountains of Colorado for 25 years, and looks nowhere near his 81 years.

After a visit to one observatory, curious South Korean soldiers approached our group, breaking out into broad smiles as soon as they realized they were meeting veterans.

"I can't find the words to thank you so much," said one of the South Korean soldiers, speaking through an interpreter.

The soldiers then removed stars from their uniforms, pressing them onto the shirts of the Americans.

"Thank you so much. You're doing good," said Hnizval.

Another of Peters’ photographs showed a bullet-scarred building in Seoul, which he photographed on a journey though the capital near the end of the war. "It was the tallest building I saw standing," he said.

The new bustling and prosperous Seoul has come as a shock to all of them. "It's changed so much. Oh yeah!" Peters said.

And to these American vets, that's a vindication of all they fought for.