The forgotten war

As we approach Memorial Day a great deal of reflection will be placed on service men and service women who had given their lives in defense of our country. It will not be surprising that much of the attention will be devoted to the WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as it should be. Little attention will be devoted to the Korean War. It was a war that lasted three years and had casualties that were almost 5 times that of our country's last two wars.

The following was originally published by the Manchester Journal on June 1, 2000, noting the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. It is still relevant as we approach the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice.

In June 1950, America was celebrating the fifth anniversary of the end of World War II. The country's military for the most part was on a peacetime status, a fraction of the size it was only five years before. And while the United States was celebrating the hard-fought peace, many parts of the world were in upheaval, largely due to the result of newly gained independence - from Japanese rule and from centuries of colonial domination by Spain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Great Britain. Nowhere was this more evident than in Korea.

Korea, after 37 years of occupation by Japanese troops, became free in 1945 - the occupying army was banished and in its wake left a Korea divided, the north and the south separated by the 38th parallel. In 1945 the United Nations had intervened and brought stability to the peninsula and by doing so had to accommodate two ruthless leaders, each with a different mandate for Korea - Syngman Rhee and Kim IlSung. The former took control of all lands south of the 38th parallel and Sung Il to the north. On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung with the indirect support of the Soviet Union and tacit support from communist China directed his country's invasion of South Korea. The citizens and army of South Korea and a small detachment of American troops were pushed to the sea near Pusan in southeast Korea. What took place militarily over the next six months was incredible and catastrophic.

The United Nations response was quick and decisive. The United States was requested to lead the counterattack that was to stop the onslaught. General Douglas MacArthur led the campaign and an army from 20 countries.

Within months, MacArthur, with reluctant approval of his superiors in Washington, landed the 1st Marine Division at Inchon in central-western Korea. To the experts a military landing at Inchon would be impossible. It was a fact that Inchon had the greatest tides in the world - 27 feet. However, to MacArthur an invasion here would cut the North Koreans off, trapping those already in the south and allowing his army to recapture Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

The landing was successful and trapped the North Korean invaders. Instead of ending the conflict, MacArthur took it to North Korea and, in doing so, told the American people that the troops would be home for Christmas. It never happened. His 8th Army went up the east side of the Chosin Reservoir and was never able to link up with the 1st Marine Division, which had been committed to go up the west side, creating a pincer that was intended to trap the remaining North Korean army.

The People's Liberation Army of China - all 60 divisions - came in front and to the sides and, in effect, trapped the Allies. What was to take place next represented one of the darkest chapters in the history of the U.S. Army. It retreated, leaving the 1st Marine Division to fend for itself. In Martin Russ's award-winning book, "Breakout," published in 1999, he describes in detail the misery, the pain and death that was to overtake the trapped Marines. It took place in an environment that was so cold that most of the Marines could do little to keep their equipment functioning. Nevertheless, they did and while completely surrounded began in December 1950 the withdrawal to the sea from the mountains surrounding the Chosin Reservoir. For the next two and a half years, hostilities would continue. In between, calls for cease-fire arrangements came and went. An Armistice did take hold in July 1953 and is still in effect. There has never been an official ending to the conflict.

During the next six decades experts in the field of foreign affairs have debated endlessly as to what exactly the Korean War was - was it a war at all?

The United States Naval Institute's Naval History Magazine devoted 10 pages in its April 2000 issue to a conference held at Annapolis in March 1999 on "Remembering the Forgotten War." During the conference it was noted that in early 1950 to many in the U.S. State Department, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Korea was a civil war. To the U.S. military leaders and especially Gen. Douglas MacArthur, it was a war to contain communism. President Truman saw it like MacArthur - bring an end to the domino effect that communism was achieving in Malaysia, China, Vietnam and Korea. It was to be the first time that U.S. forces, actually fought against China and the Soviet Union - allies in World War II.

Regardless of what the war was to be called, to the loved ones of the 33,000 American troops who lost their lives in Korea, it was a war. And for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who were engaged in the Korean War it should not make any difference what words are used to describe the conflict where men and women gave their lives. What is important is that we remember.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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