'Forgotten War' Remembered After 50 Years

Soldiers reflect on war they didn't win


It was the war that nobody wanted to remember or recognize.

They called it a "conflict" and a "police action." "The forgotten war." "The war that nobody won."

But for the brave American soldiers who fought it, including more than 20 who now make their homes in the Rim country, the Korean War is etched indelibly in their memories. And now, on the 50th anniversary of that epic struggle, those who have only read about it in history books might finally come to understand what the Korean War was about, and what those who participated in it endured.

War and remembrance

On Sunday, June 25, a three-year commemoration of the beginning of hostilities will commence with an international ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, and a national ceremony in Washington, D.C. President Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation to Seoul, and Vice President Gore will host the national event.

Through these and the events that will follow, the U.S. and the rest of the world will try to come to grips with what has proven to be the most physical skirmish in the long, drawn-out battle between Communism and Democracy.

It happened in a place that Korean War veteran and Parade magazine columnist James Brady called "a stinkpot little country in Asia."

The Japanese had annexed Korea back in 1910. With Japan's defeat in World War II, an agreement was reached whereby the Russians occupied the northern half of Korea and the U.S. the southern half, with the 38th parallel serving as the boundary.

The war began on Sunday, June 25, 1950, when 135,000 North Korean soldiers, backed by 200 Russian-built tanks and planes, stormed across the 38th parallel into South Korea.

It ended three years later on July 27, 1953, in a stalemate a cease-fire just a few meters north of the 38th parallel where it began. But without a peace treaty, Melinda Liu recently wrote in Newsweek magazine, "the demilitarized zone between North and South became one of the tensest, most heavily defended strips of land in the world."

The U.S. still has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea, most near the embattled demilitarized zone.

Casualty count

In the three years and 32 days that the war lasted, some 37,000 American soldiers were killed, 7,000 were taken prisoner, 8,000 were reported missing in action, and another 103,000 were wounded. The 20 members of the United Nations who were our allies suffered another 40,000 casualties.

After 50 years, the U.S. death toll was revised downward from 54,000 to 37,000. The Defense Department attributes the higher count to a clerk's error.

But numbers don't begin to tell the story of the Korean War. It was, by all accounts, a brutal and ferocious war. Rim country resident Donald J. "Jerry" Parker, who was wounded in the fighting, was facing his first combat.

"I had nothing to compare it to," he said. "But I was told by many of the World War II vets who were in the reserves and were called to active duty that the battles we were in were as nasty or nastier than anything they had been in during that war."

Surprise invasion

On that fateful Sunday half a century ago, the North Korean People's Army took advantage of ground fog and thick drizzle to steamroller their South Korean counterparts in a blitzkrieg that seemed unstoppable.

Half a world away, the United States was still recovering from the war that was supposed to end all wars. In the five short years since the end of World War II, our military strength had been allowed to slip so badly it was necessary to mobilize large numbers of reserves to join the fray in Korea.

Rim country residents Jim Stewart and Bill Speer were among those called to serve.

During World War II, Stewart had conducted submarine patrols as a member of the Civil Air Patrol. "I lied about my age," he admitted.

By the time the Korean War broke out, he had become a marine reservist and the assistant manager of a clothing store. He would soon be flying T-28 combat missions over Korea.

Speer got married in September 1950, and was drafted into the U.S. Army in April 1951. He arrived in Korea in July and was seriously wounded in October after spending just three months there.

"We went first to Japan for one day," he said. "They ran us off the ship into Camp Drake, gave us our shots. Then they put us in an auditorium and told us what to do if we became prisoners of war. Then they gave us an M1 rifle and one clip of ammunition and put us back on the ship, and away we went to Korea. We were short a lot of stuff over there."

The mean season

Meanwhile, Parker had joined the Marine Corps in January 1949.

"There was no threat of war whatsoever," he said. "Everybody was still breathing a sigh of relief that the second world war was over and that it ended the way it had. When the war broke out in 1950, I was still stationed in Long Beach, Calif. I arrived in Korea Dec. 7, a few months after the war started."

When Parker got there, he found the fighting fierce and the climate abysmal. Korea was the first bayonet engagement for American forces since the Civil War, and he belonged to a rifle company. The weather ranged from searing heat to a bone-chilling cold that often reached 40 degrees below zero.

"The winters in that country were terrible," Parker said with a shudder. "A normal day during the winter would be 40 below. Then you get a wind like a gale that blows right out of Siberia, so the wind chill would be 60 below zero."

Frostbite was a major problem.

"They set up warming tents with a big oil stove in there," he said. "Maybe every three or four hours you'd be relieved to go spend five minutes in one just to get your blood circulating."

Stewart, who also was wounded in the war, said it was the coldest place he's ever been.

"We'd lay in the bunkers at night with the fires out so we wouldn't be seen and listen to the five gallon water cans freeze and expand. We'd wake up in the morning and the rectangular cans had become round."

Gaining ground

Although Parker arrived just months after hostilities commenced, the war had almost been lost, won, and lost again by the time he got there. By August, just two months after the war began, the North Korean blitzkrieg had reached the southern port of Pusan.

But inch by treacherous inch, the allied forces fought back. Then, with a brilliantly executed amphibious landing at Inchon, the last great amphibious landing in the annals of military history, victory seemed to be in sight.

In October, United Nations forces swarmed across the 38th parallel, routing the North Koreans en route to the Yalu River, the boundary between North Korea and Manchuria.

That's when the Chinese entered the fray, swarming across the border in the dead of a November night to trap American troops, who were outnumbered 10 to 1, behind enemy lines.

With the allies' supply lines cut, the only way out was straight through seven Chinese divisions.

In what Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-NY) called "one of the bravest battles ever fought by American troops anywhere in the world," three U.S. Marine regiments spent 11 days and nights fighting their way to safety in blinding snow over frozen terrain that was barely passable.

The Marines suffered 4,000 casualties in the process, but the Chinese took a devastating hit, losing 25,000 men. It would be three months before they would again be able to take to the battlefield.

But take to the battlefield they did, and as truce negotiations droned on, American soldiers endured another 22 months of brutal warfare.

Forgotten on the front

Even worse was the apathy at home.

"Can you blame our troops for low morale?" VA Administrator Donald Johnson asked. "They are dying and shedding their blood in a hopeless war, while they are forgotten at home."

As a member of the 7th Marine Regiment, Parker said he saw "more than my share of combat. At one time, we had a record 71 days straight on the front lines with no showers, no hot food, just eating those damned old C rations."

Parker said he remembers the battle where he was wounded like it just happened.

"We were pretty well worn out," he said. "But to get to this area we had to cross this river during flood season. We had to lock arms three men abreast to get across the river. Two of our machine gunners got washed away and drowned.

"All through the mountains were these paths that had been there for centuries, and the Chinese had them crisscrossed with machine guns, and if you jumped off the paths, there were mines on either side. So we crossed the river and got to the top of this hill as it got dark.

"We had just settled in when the Chinese attacked. They hit us with artillery, mortars and small-arms fire, and I got hit then. We beat the attack off, and the next morning I was evacuated. I heard when I was on the hospital ship that another company in our outfit moved through us and knocked the Chinese out of that entire area."

Stop-and-go surgery

Speer was hit by an artillery shell in a famous battle for a place called Arrowhead Hill.

"I was part of an intelligence outfit, and we had been up there over a month," he said. "We were coming off the hill after being relieved when I was hit. I was pumped full of shrapnel and lay in a ditch for almost three hours with both my hips broken.

"You've seen M.A.S.H. on television. Well I was choppered to a M.A.S.H. hospital on the other side of this hill. There were so many casualties, they lined us up to wait for surgery. They'd come by every once in a while and give you a shot of morphine. Each time somebody went in, they'd move you up a little, just like stop and go on the freeway.

"Finally, after three hours, I went into surgery, and when I woke up I was in a full body cast. The only thing I could see were my arms and toes.

"When they hung me in traction, they told me I'd spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, and I said, 'That's not acceptable.' I spent eight months in the hospital, but here I am walking."

A hollow homecoming

For Stewart, Parker and Speer, the war had ended with a bang. But for the U.S., the end was more like a whimper. President Truman refused to let General Douglas MacArthur pursue a total victory, opting for a limited war of containment.

When MacArthur begged to differ, he was relieved of his duties, and a cease-fire was eventually signed on July 27, 1953. The war was over, but there were no celebrations; no heroes' welcomes. A nation accustomed to winning its armed conflicts did not know how to react to a draw.

Some even went so far as to criticize American soldiers.

"The eventual stalemate of the Korean conflict contributed to an inverted placement of blame for the war's unsatisfactory outcome," military sociologist Charles Moskos observed. "The American soldier himself was held up to question."

That argument was belied by the awarding of 131 Medals of Honor and more than 50,000 medals for valor to American soldiers who acquitted themselves with heroic bravery.

And finally, after half a century, the rest of the 1.5 million men and women who saw duty in the Korean War are beginning to get their due. In 1995, a memorial to those who served and died in the Korean War was dedicated in Washington, D.C., and last year Congress passed a bill officially changing the "Korean Conflict" to the "Korean War."

Lessons learned

Speer, who was at the memorial dedication, recently pointed out one of the many ironies surrounding the war.

"The memorial includes a platoon of soldiers in full battle dress," he said. "Funny thing is, they're wearing rain ponchos. We didn't wear ponchos in Korea, at least our outfit didn't. When they get wet, they squeak, and you can't be on patrol behind enemy lines and have your poncho squeak."

The three-year observation that begins June 25 is intended to provide the American public with a clearer understanding and appreciation of the lessons, history and legacy of the Korean War.

What did we learn from Korea? According to Parker and Stewart, a better question might be, "What should we have learned?"

As Stewart put it, "It was a political war. If there is a lesson to be learned, it's that we should have left MacArthur alone to do what he wanted to do. If we had, Vietnam never would have happened."

"Truman wanted to draw a line in the sand against Communism," Parker said. "Maybe that was a wonderful thing, but the jury's still out on that. I think Communism would have collapsed under its own weight."

Peace on the 38th parallel?

In an era when the Cold War has been all but forgotten, the 38th parallel still serves as a reminder. But earlier this month, the leaders of the two Koreas signed an agreement to reduce hostilities and eventually reunify the peninsula, hopefully ending the 50-year standoff that began with the signing of the cease-fire.

The meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was the first between the two countries' leaders since the peninsula was divided at the end of World War II. The Clinton administration responded by lifting a broad set of economic sanctions that have been in place against North Korea since that nation's invasion of the south a half century ago.

The U.S. also hopes to finally resolve the status of soldiers missing in action or captured during the war. An agreement has been reached with North Korea to begin a new search for remains on the June 25 anniversary, and China has agreed to open its records to researchers in hopes of learning the fate of some 44 Americans known to have been in Chinese custody during the war.

Stewart, Parker and Speer said they are watching these developments with interest, but remain skeptical.

"It's good to finally see them get together," Stewart said, "but I'm sure they each have their own agenda. We'll have to see how it all works out."

"They can sign all the papers they want to," Parker said. "It doesn't mean a thing until it happens."

Duty and dignity

If there are any positives in war, one that emerged in Korea was the use of new technologies like the helicopter and body armor, allowing more soldiers to come home in one piece than ever before.

And while the lack of a clear-cut victory left the country less than enthusiastic about the returning soldiers, historians now believe the Korean War accomplished two very important objectives. As Parker mentioned, it marked the first time the U.S. stood up to creeping Communism by force of arms.

And perhaps more importantly, it served as a warning that the United States should never again neglect its military preparedness.

Now that America is finally recognizing its Korean War heroes, how do Stewart, Speer and Parker feel about the way they were treated?

"It never bothered me," Stewart said. "I don't really know why. It just didn't. We went about our business."

Speer's reaction was similar.

"We went in the service. Did our job. We got out, and we just blended back into society. That's just the way it is. I'm here. I'm walking."

"My reaction," Parker said, "and the reaction of most of the guys who came home was: 'To hell with it. They called us in. We did a job. The job's over. We're home. We're in one piece. Let's forget about it.'"

Perhaps the example of humility and patriotism set by a generation of American soldiers who performed a difficult but necessary duty without complaint or expectation will become the ultimate legacy of this 50-year-old war.

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