In late June, we began the observance of the 50th Anniversary of the
Korean War. The initial ceremony, while highlighted in the media, was
quickly eclipsed by the 4th of July celebration. Too quickly the public and
press forget that combat is duration. Spoiled by "Desert Storm," the media
is forgetting that wars are fought for years, not days, hours or minutes.
The irony is that this forgotten celebration is for the "Forgotten War". From a follow-on generation, I always thought that the "Forgotten War" was
an odd reference to Korea. Perhaps luckier than most, I was educated
to the nature of the fight. But as with so many history courses, I was
taught of national interests and strategy and not of the hardship of battle and subsequent sacrifice of the men on the front. For too many veterans
in Korea, it was "our time in Hell."
Korea was the Forgotten War. It was forgotten because of the errors
that lead to it and surrounded it. These were not errors of men, but of
policy. "There were heroes. There were a lot of heroes, a lot of medals,
justifiably so," said RADM William T. Thompson USN (ret), at a plaque
dedication ceremony at Ichon, June 25, 2000. The United States was not prepared. In 1950, we had not yet fully adjusted to the role of world leadership that was thrust upon us following the destruction and loss of human lives in World War II. Our diplomatic vision was not yet global, as we were reconstructing Europe and Japan. The new defense policy announced by Secretary of State Dean Acheson on January 12, 1950 placed South Korea outside the American defense perimeter in the Pacific. This encouraged the Soviets to support North Korea ambitions for invasion. On June 25, 1950, news flashed around the world that North Korean hordes had crossed the 38th parallel to attack South Korea. In quick response, President Harry Truman committed the United States armed forces to stem the tide of the enemy attack. But the United States was not prepared for the fight.
America had greeted the end of WWII with relief and dreams of peace. Weapons into plowshares; the United States military had been downsized. On June 25, the U.S. Army combat units nearest the scene were the four infantry divisions performing occupation duties in Japan. The Seventh Fleet, only a shadow of its former size and power, was scattered throughout the western Pacific and in no position to provide an immediate response. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Seventh Fleet comprised a single aircraft carrier, one heavy cruiser, eight destroyers, and a handful of submarines and support ships. On June 25, 1950, reduction-in-force notices were rescinded, and affected individuals were recalled to active duty.
But in a little more than a week after the war began, aircraft
carriers operating in the Yellow Sea were able to launch strikes against
strategic targets. U.S. Navy units destroyed the small North Korean Navy, and within two days the North Korean control of the air was destroyed. The Royal Navy augmented U.S. Naval forces, with a light carrier, two cruisers, two destroyers, and two frigates. The navies of Canada, Australia, and
New Zealand made other ships available. These were used for blockade duty.
Yet for the first month of the Korean War, the Army of the Republic of
Korea, supported only by U.S. air and naval forces, was unable to halt
the North Korean aggressors. By the end of the fourth day of combat, the
city of Seoul had fallen. By 5 July, U.S. ground forces joined the battle. Intelligence was incomplete. U.S. Army units rushed to Korea from occupation duty in Japan were learning that they were facing no rag-tag force, but a highly trained and well-equipped foe. "We were told we had a few armed Korean civilians and North Korean soldiers with old Japanese rifles, pitchforks and spears…"recalled former Pvt. John Kirby of Apple Valley CA.
The U.S. Army combat units were thrown piecemeal into the battle to
slow Communist advances. These divisions, seriously under strength and
only partially trained and equipped for fighting, provided the troops that
were initially committed. At first only two reinforced rifle companies were
committed to battle, then a battalion, then a regiment, then a division,
finally the Eighth Army and the reconstituted ROK Army. They fought a
desperate and heroic delaying action, buying time until the United Nations
forces could attain the military strength necessary to take the offensive.
Against them was the might of the initially victorious North Korean Army.
The forces were on the defensive side until September 15 when the
American forces, under the command of General MacArthur successfully landed on Inchon. The landing allowed the U.N forces to break through the Pusan
perimeter, to retake Seoul, and to cross the thirty-eighth parallel by
September 30. Gradually, United Nations troops from many parts of the world entered the war, usually in small numbers. But in the case of Great Britain the force rose from two battalions to a Commonwealth division. When that
offensive was launched, it quickly crushed the North Korean forces.
In the second phase of the Korean War, KPA forces were in retreat. In
two days, the Southern forces were approximately 25 miles north of the
parallel. Within a week, they captured Wonson, located on the eastern side of North Korea. Thereafter, they marched toward the Yalu River with almost no resistance from the Northern (KPA) units. The U.N. Forces were to be met with the massive intervention of a more formidable adversary, Communist China. The unexpected decision of China to enter into the war in early October again turned the tide of the war.
The Northern units, consisting of Sino-Korean troops, sent the U.N forces
retreating again. On December 6, the Communist forces retook Pyongyang. And
by the end of December, they recrossed the parallel and retook Seoul.
The United States military and the United Nation troops were not
prepared for operational retreat. Not since the Civil War had an U.S. Army
retreated. The tactics in World War II had been offensive. Move ahead;
yard by yard from France to Germany, or island by island to Japan. Our
soldiers had not been properly trained or mentally prepared to dig in
and defend, especially against human wave tactics. When counter-attacked
by the Chinese, the United Nations forces withdrew, fell back, and gave
ground. Our forces felt demoralized and betrayed.
But Northern forces were not as successful as their first attack
because by the end of January 1951, the U.N forces were back on the Han river and by March 14, they were able to retake Seoul from North Korea's hands. The conditions in Korea during this time were one of desperation. One can only imagine the chaos not only in Seoul, which exchanged hands four times, but also in every city in both North and South Korea. During the months of May and April of 1951, there was a sort of "see-saw" fighting along the thirty-eighth parallel with neither units really advancing beyond the parallel. By summer of 1951, talks for an armistice began.
Throughout mid-1951 to 1953, negotiation for peace treaty stalled and
reopened. Fighting continued with intensified guerilla warfare during
the armistice talk. Aerial bombing in North Korea also intensified as the
In the period between June 1950 and July 1953, 550,000 UNC forces were
committed to battle, and of that 95,000 were killed in action. Total
estimated casualties of the invading North Korean and Chinese forces are
said to exceed 1,500,000. Over 5,700,000 Americans served in our armed
forces during that period 1.8 million served in the Korean Theatre.
Of these 33,686 died in battle and 92,134 were wounded in action.
Furthermore, 7,245 military were declared captured and 4,245 missing in action. To some, the military operational art in Korea was best forgotten.
Too little attained, at too high a cost. But instead the actions taken in
Korea were heroic and were pivotal to the United States, setting a new
direction for its future. Korea was in actuality one of America's most
significant conflicts. The wars impact include:
A. It was the first full-scale exercise of Truman's policy of
containment, the Cold War strategy aimed at controlling the spread of Communism.
B. It was the demonstration of the United States acceptance of its
role inworld leadership.
C. A consequence of Korea was the Cold War been the USSR and U.S.
D. By Truman immediately involving the United Nations, he validated it
as an international organization.
E. The Korean War triggered the buildup of U.S. forces in the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
F. It began American involvement in the Vietnam War.
G. The Korean War served as the very model for America's wars of the
H. Today, South Korea remains free, one of the most westernized
countries in Asia. Before the Korean War, it had been occupied for 750 years.
I. And lastly, as Historian and Korean War combat veteran T.R.
Fehrenbach wrote in his classic This Kind of War: "Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it, and wipe it clean of life--but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for
civilization, you must do this on the ground the way the Roman legions did,
by putting your young men into the mud."
UNITED STATES ARMY IN THE KOREAN WAR: SOUTH TO THE NAKTONG: NORTH TO
THE YALU, (June-November 1950) by Roy E. Appleman, Center Of Military
History United States Army Washington, D.C., 1992
KOREA's EARLY DAYS: CARRIER AIR POWER'S PROVING GROUNDS, by Marc D.
Bernstein, Naval Aviation News, July-August 2000, pg. 10
KOREA REMEMBERED, by George Merlin Gallagher, Purple Heart Magazine,
May-June 2000, pg. 22
INTERPRETING KOREA, By LTC Kenneth Wu, MOWW Officer Review, June 2000,
THE KOREAN WAR: A FRESH PERSPECTIVE, By Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr.,
U.S. Army (ret.), internet