Love Beyond Measure: Pega Crimbchin
Late one evening while mourning her late husband, Pega Crimbshin (nee Ock Soon Lee), 81, of Cabot, Pennsylvania, found a box that he had handcrafted and shown to her in January 1954. He had informed her that they contained important papers.
Unable to read or write, Mrs. Crimbchin had not opened the box for nearly six decades. When she discovered dozens of letters and photographs inside, she brought them to her oldest daughter, Katie Schell, 59, of Irwin, Pennsylvania. They were letters that her husband, Frank Crimbchin, had written to his parents while serving in the Korean War.
Despite numerous barriers, Frank Crimbchin returned to Korea ten months after ending his tour of duty, after saving up money to fulfill his promise of bringing Pega to the U.S. as his wife.
It is a story of resilience and strength, a love story between a Korean woman who was born into poverty and an American soldier who met her during the Korean War.
At age five, Mrs. Crimbchin’s father died, and she was sent to live with her grandmother. A year later, her mother died, and she became an orphan. At age seven, she was sent to live with a foster mother and was raped by a carpenter. Two years later, when the foster mother became ill, they moved in with her adopted son and his family, which included nine children. When the foster mother passed away, Crimbchin became the family’s servant and survived ongoing rape, abuse, and suicide attempts.
At fourteen, she escaped to a different village where she was taken in by another family and abused by their son, who was set to be her future husband in an arranged marriage. After escaping to Seoul, she was taken in by a family to help raise their grandsons. When the Korean War broke out, she walked a hundred miles from Seoul to Taejon with the family while enduring extreme winter conditions and starvation.
Desperate, she headed to Nonsan to try to seek work doing laundry for American soldiers. Unable to find work, she was taken in by a family who found her sleeping in their outhouse. After two weeks, her host forced her into the streets to engage in sex work to pay for her boarding fees. American soldiers had continued to pour into the country and offered one of the few sources of potential income.
Frank Crimbchin, during a night out on the town with his soldier buddies while stationed in Nonsan at age 24, found himself face-to-face with a sobbing, terrified, and malnourished Korean teenager.
“I think my father saw the state that my mother was in and took pity on her,” says Schell. Mr. Crimbchin took the young woman to the house of an army friend’s Korean girlfriend, so she could shower. He provided her with clothes and food, paid her rent, and continued to check on her as the weeks passed. Eventually, they fell in love.
In September 1952, as his tour of duty was ending, Frank Crimbchin realized that, due to legal and bureaucratic obstacles, he would not be able to finalize the paperwork to bring the woman he intended to marry to the U.S. with him. Worried that they would lose contact after he left Korea, he secured housing for Pega in a Catholic orphanage. At the time, Pega was approximately 19 years old (as is common among many Koreans of her generation, she does not know her exact birthdate). Every month, he sent the priest money to educate Pega in addition to boarding fees. Instead, the priest used the funds to operate the struggling orphanage. Pega was assigned as the caretaker for the numerous children at the orphanage.
Frank regularly mailed letters and gifts to Pega at the orphanage, yet communication was difficult. Frank’s letters were written in English, and Pega could not read or write in Korean or English. One of the orphanage staff began to reply to the letters on Pega’s behalf and, without Pega’s knowledge, regularly asked Frank to send extra money.
When it became apparent that Pega was pregnant, orphanage staff threatened to take the child away. In May 1953, she ran away and delivered the baby outside without any assistance. A female staff member at the orphanage continued to respond to Frank’s letters without giving any indication that Pega was no longer residing there.
After ten months of battling the bureaucracy and the law to arrange their marriage paperwork, Frank returned to the U.S. to reunite with his soon-to-be-wife. He brought with him $500 that he had saved to live in Korea for three months, the time he estimated that it would take him to get his fiancée and newborn son out of Korea.
When he arrived to the orphanage in July 1953, he discovered that his fiancée had disappeared. He was able to find Pega through the assistance of a Korean woman. Frank, Pega, and their newborn son lived together in a rented apartment while he continued to struggle to get them out of the country. After a long battle, the couple and their baby boy finally arrived to the U.S. on January 4, 1954.
Today, Mrs. Crimbchin is the mother of seven children (five daughters and two sons) and has twenty grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The baby boy, Donald Crimbchin of Butler, Pennsylvania, is now a retired machinist who is married with four children and one grandchild.
“What kept me going is my children,” she says. “I wanted to have a big family. I put all my energy into my children, taking care of them and cooking for them. I couldn’t take care of them the way I should, the way Americans do, helping with homework and all that stuff, but I concentrated on my family.”
In 2004, Mrs. Crimbchin’s four daughters took her on her first visit to Korea since she left in 1954. After returning to the U.S., she began experiencing flashbacks. “She remembered seeing dead American and Korean soldiers lying all over the streets. She doesn’t want to go back again,” says Schell.
Frank Crimbchin’s death prompted his daughter Katie to begin recording her family’s history. “There were a lot of family dynamics and I felt I needed to start recording my family’s history,” says Schell. In August 2013, Schell self-published “Love Beyond Measure: Memoirs of a Korean War Bride,” detailing her mother’s story.
“When I was a young girl, my mother would tell me stories from the Korean War,” says Schell. “I remember crying. She told stories of how she walked over a hundred miles to Taejon to escape Seoul and how mothers left babies behind in the snow, unable to carry or feed them. It broke my heart.”
A registered nurse with a background in human resource management, Schell decided to enroll in an online writing course. She worked three to four twelve-hour days a week as a nurse and reserved the remaining days for writing. Determined to get the story on paper, she also wrote early in the morning prior to going to work. Piecing together the story from the letters and knowing which format to use was challenging, and in addition, it was an emotional book to write.
“I was crying a lot while writing it,” says Schell. Eighteen months later, the book was finished.
“One word at a time, the writing instructor said. And that’s what I did,” says Schell. She felt driven to complete the book as quickly as possible due to her mother’s age, as she wanted her mother to see the book published.
Schell began by searching for the cassette tapes her mother had given her thirty years ago in which she recorded herself telling her life story and wrote down her mother’s words. Several months later, she asked her mother how her father had gotten her out of Korea.
“My mother had no idea. My father was not a talker but a quiet man. He just said it was very difficult to get my mother out of Korea,” says Schell.
One week later, Mrs. Crimbchin called Schell, excited. She had found the wooden box filled with dozens of letters her husband had written to his parents while serving in the Korean War. The box also contained correspondence with a senator and photographs of army buddies in Korea, labeled with their names.
Schell contacted the president of the 76th Engineer Construction Battalion, who sent her the roster of soldiers who were stationed with her father in Korea. She was able to find two of the men in the photographs and interviewed them to gain insights into her father’s past.
In the beginning, Mrs. Crimbchin was surprised and a bit hesitant when she learned that her daughter was planning on writing her story. However, as her daughter read aloud each chapter to her, she came to realize the importance of the book.
“I felt very sad and cried when I listened to Katie read aloud the story. In America, we have everything. Many American people don’t understand how others were forced to live. I want people to know how difficult it was.”
Mrs. Crimbchin bursts with praise about her late husband Frank. “I want everyone to know what a good man my husband was. Nobody would do what he did to return to Korea and bring me to the U.S. It was so hard for him, and people gave him a hard time. I was just a peasant, but he never treated me like a servant girl. He loved and respected me. He took care of all of his children. I don’t know how to drive, so everywhere my seven children needed to go, he took them. There is no man like him.”
Mrs. Crimbchin has held over 50 speaking engagements at veterans’ organizations, libraries, churches, and book clubs to promote her book. “Veterans appreciate the story very much, as it’s told from the perspective of a Korean peasant rather than a U.S. soldier,” says Schell.
Crimbchin adds, “Veterans went through terrible things that they don’t want to talk about. I tell my story, and they open up about themselves, how hard it was during the war.”
Schell hopes to find a publisher and translate the book into Korean, so the story can reach wider audiences. Over 2000 books have been sold, and $9000 from book sales has been donated to Women of the Wells. Two wells have been drilled in Nigeria, one in Cambodia, one in Laos, and the latest well has been commissioned in Liberia.
“I don’t know where this book will take me,” says Mrs. Crimbchin. “Some people say it should be made into a movie. I’m just where God leaves me. I’m a strong believer. Without Him, I wouldn’t be here today. He helped me to survive.”
“Love Beyond Measure: Memoirs of a Korean War Bride” is available on Amazon. Ten percent of book sales will benefit Women of the Wells, as Pega Crimbchin is sensitive to the needs of communities living without access to clean water.
To arrange a speaking engagement for Pega Crimbchin, contact Katie Schell at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katieschell.org. 100% of honorariums from speaking engagements will benefit Women of the Wells.
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Watch a 30-minute documentary on Pega Crimbchin on Moon Commission Access Television (MCA-TV).
Born in Seoul, Grace Jahng Lee is a writer of prose and poetry based in New York City.