Korea: America's forgotten war

Korea: America's forgotten war

Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2003

This Veterans Day marks the end of the period set aside to celebrate the signing of the armistice, 50 years earlier, that brought about a cease-fire on the Korean Peninsula. This armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.

The war began June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People's Army, without warning, attacked the Republic of South Korea. It lasted three years one month and two days, seven months shorter than World War II and seven years shorter than Vietnam.

The cost was high 33,629 American lives were lost, about one-third of the entire WW II Pacific campaign, in which approximately 91,000 Americans died, and more than two-thirds of the much longer Vietnam War, in which 47,244 Americans died. Those numbers represent only those killed in action, not total deaths.

There were 7,140 U.S. prisoners of war taken; 38 percent died in captivity, a higher rate than POWs held by the Japanese in WW II. There are more than 8,100 still missing in action. Five of the seven divisions deployed to Korea suffered more killed in action than any of the 26 divisions of the entire WW II Pacific campaign. Six of these same divisions incurred more killed in action than they did in WW II. One division, the U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division, incurred more killed in action than any of the 68 divisions deployed in the European theater during WW II.

While most people remember WW II and Vietnam, the Korean War is almost unknown by the general population today. It is sometimes referred to as the Forgotten War, but not by the men who fought and bled there or the families of those who died.

It was a clear victory. Communism was stopped at the South Korean border, and it is still free today. Most of the final armistice line is north of the 38th parallel, the old border. It could have been a much greater victory had the political will existed to continue the offensive for a few more months, probably at a lower cost.

By June 1951 the North Korean People's Army and the Chinese communist forces were being soundly defeated and were being steadily pushed north with heavy loses. At this point, they agreed to peace talks. A crucial mistake was made by stopping our winning offensive before a peace agreement was signed.

We could have pushed on to the narrow waist of North Korea slightly north of a line from Pyongyang to Wonsan and at a lower cost than we ultimately paid during the two years of peace talks.

The armed forces were at an all-time low at the start of the Korean War. The Army had dropped from a force of nearly 100 well-trained and equipped divisions at the end of WW II to nine. Even these were poorly trained, under-equipped and under-strength, operating at about two-thirds normal strength. There was only one division, the 82nd Airborne, which could be considered combat ready.

Equipment was badly worn and in short supply, consisting of leftover WW II gear and ammunition. The Navy and Air Force also were reduced to unrealistic levels. The military fought against these cuts, but were overruled. Our troops would pay dearly for those savings.

Four of the nine Infantry Divisions were stationed in Japan: the 1st Cavalry, 7th, 24th and the 25th Infantry Divisions. Three of these four would be committed as soon as they could get to Korea, not an easy task in 1950. The fourth, the 7th Infantry Division, was stripped to flesh out the first three but would be committed to combat within two months. There would be no time for an orderly buildup during this war.

Six C-54s were flown in. Some regiments had to commandeer freighters, rusting landing ship tanks and other means of transportation to get there. One commander remarked, "This is a hell of a way to go to war."

It was believed that the only way to keep a foothold in Korea was to commit these troops as soon as possible. Even with this effort it was all these three divisions and what was left of the Republic of South Korea's army could do to hold the Pusan Perimeter until reinforcements arrived.

On June 27, 1950, U.S. air and naval forces were ordered to protect and assist in the withdrawal of U.S. military and civilian personnel and try to stop the North Korean People's Army from overrunning South Korea. It soon became apparent that air and naval power alone could not stop the North Koreans or even slow them down by any significant amount.

On June 30, ground troops were authorized. By 10:45 p.m., the first unit was alerted, and within four hours, started its long journey to Korea. Thus began the long delaying action back to the Pusan Perimeter. By late July, three badly battered divisions were on line and with the remnants of the South Korean army held the line till reinforcements could arrive. Gen. Douglas MacArthur launched the Inchon landing and now started a rapid collapse of the North Korean People's Army falling back to near the northern border at the Yalu River. The Chinese communist forces infiltrated a 300,000-man army deep into North Korea undetected and attacked our forces driving them back south.

The Eighth Army fell back to a line south of the Han River by early 1951. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway, now commander of the Eighth Army, began a campaign to rebuild the army and get it moving back north again. During the spring of 1951 the Chinese communist forces launched four more major offensives in their attempt to dislodge the United Nations forces from Korea. All failed, and the U.N. forces continued to move north. By late June 1951, the battle lines were near the final armistice lines agreed to after an additional two years of peace talks. However, there was much more fighting and dying left to be done.

During the peace-talk period, there were 12,300 Americans killed in action, resulting from deadly artillery duels, patrols and attacks to take unknown hills some of which were later abandoned. Some of the many battles were Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, Operation Commando, Old Baldy and Porkchop Hill. The battles during the peace-talk period were costly, resulting in 46 percent of U.S. casualties for the entire war. The Chinese communist forces' artillery and mortar fire was, in fact, more intense during this period.

All veterans opt for peace and not war as they are the ones doing the fighting and dying. The more recent wars have been fought at a much reduced cost, but one life lost is too many.

Let's all hope that if we must have future wars they also are conducted at this same low cost. The Korean War was the most costly war of the 20th century on a per capita basis except for World War I. We don't need any more of these wars.

The high cost paid during the Korean War was due to reduced funding for the military, resulting in an under-equipped, under-trained and under-strength armed force. After World War II, the nation was tired of war and thought one plane caring one A-bomb could stop any enemy. This would be proven wrong. The military would eventually be rebuilt, better-trained, better-equipped and larger as it is today.

All Korean War veterans can be proud of their service in the Korean War.

Paul Elkins has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for more than five years. He retired from the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico in 1990. He is a Korean War veteran, having served with the 45th Infantry Division in the Chorwon Valley area. He rose to the rank of master sergeant in Korea and commanded a rifle platoon in combat on or near such sites as T-Bone, Alligator Jaws, Old Baldy and Pork Chop Hill. The photo of him was taken in February 1952 on Hill 324, which is just south of Alligator Jaws and southeast of T-Bone.

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