This is an edited version of the Korean War article published previously on this blog. It was published Memorial Day 2012 in the Gainesville (FL) Sun. The publication is my way of saying thank you to Marty, Jim Butcher, David Cardenez, and all the Korean War vets who have gone, or went, far too long without recognition for their heroic service.
Five years after the end of World War II, during a time of postwar rebuilding and relative peace, a small country on a peninsula approximately the size of Florida was invaded by its northern twin across the 38th Parallel.
Intent upon stemming the spread of communism, the United States led United Nations forces into war in Korea. By the time they entered the fray the war was nearly lost, with the North Korean communists pushing South Korean forces into the narrow Pusan corridor in the south.
American Gen. Douglas MacArthur gambled with a counterstroke, landing troops at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950. His forces pushed the communists back across the 38th Parallel. MacArthur proclaimed he would “crush” the enemy forces.
On Oct. 1, MacArthur broadcast a message to the North Koreans demanding immediate surrender. Two days later communist Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai warned: If U.N. (U.S.) troops crossed the 38th Parallel, China would intervene.
MacArthur refused to take the Chinese threat seriously and commanded the troops to keep pushing north. On the morning of Oct. 9 American troops crossed the 38th Parallel. Chinese leaders declared that the “American war of invasion” had been a serious menace from the beginning and by crossing the 38th Parallel on a large scale, forced Chinese intervention. North Korea’s Kim Il-sung commanded his troops to fight to the last man.
MacArthur assured President Truman that Chinese intervention was unlikely and opined that North Korean resistance would end by Thanksgiving. Several days later MacArthur announced from his Tokyo headquarters that the war was definitely about to come to an end.
Neither did the Central Intelligence Agency take the Chinese threat seriously, reporting to the president that there were no “convincing indications” of full-scale Chinese intervention in North Korea.
At that time, moving largely at night and undetected by the U.N. command, large elements of the Chinese Fourth Field Army were swarming across the Yalu River into Korea.
Threats of Chinese intervention were apparently not taken seriously by anyone in the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, or the White House. MacArthur’s chief of intelligence continued to disregard reports from troops on the ground of massive build-ups of Chinese communist regular army troops, insisting there were only between 15,000 and 30,000 “political advisers” in all of Korea. By that time, approximately 300,000 Chinese troops had surrounded the American Army-commanded X-Corps, including the 1st U.S. Marine Division.
The Chosin Reservoir campaign was to become famous in the annals of military history. The men who fought their way out of that terrible net against both enemy forces and Army command ignorance would experience some of the worst conditions in the history of modern warfare. Many Marines who fought through the South Pacific in World War II reported that this was worse.
Men faced temperatures of 25 degrees below zero and human-wave attacks that left the ground covered with corpses. American losses were terrible; Chinese losses were exponentially worse.
The battles in the north could have gone far worse. The Americans under Marine Gen. Oliver Smith and his commanders in the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marine Regiments and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing fought heroically and defeated the Chinese armies surrounding them in northeast Korea in November and December 1950.
The war dragged on for three years, during which, political peace talks bogged down while thousands died and thousands more were maimed.
Ironically, terribly, some of the worst losses came as the war drew to a close. In the battles at Pork Chop Hill — “Hell’s outpost” — over 77,000 rounds of artillery fell; the greatest number of shells in history. Casualty rates in some platoons reached or exceeded 70 percent.
American GIs fought heroically, losing more than most of us can ever understand. Then the politicians decided the hill was ultimately not worth keeping and simply gave it up.
Finally, on July, 27 1953, at 22:00 hours, a cease-fire was declared. In three years of war, American KIA losses paralleled the numbers killed during eight years in Vietnam.
Upon their return home, Korean War veterans were met by silence. The war was largely minimized or ignored. Veterans were quietly ushered home and expected to get on with their lives with no fanfare, parades or public gratitude.
That the Korean War has come to be known as the “forgotten war” is abominable. Those who fought in Korea never forgot; many still remember it every day.
This Memorial Day, while we welcome home and embrace veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and belatedly acknowledge the veterans of the Vietnam War, let us remember to express our thanks, respect and gratitude to the veterans of the Korean War — the war that must not be forgotten.
Tom Dikel lives in Gainesville.