An American infantryman, his buddy killed in action in the Korean War, weeps on the shoulder of another GI on Aug. 28, 1950, in Korea. A corpsman, left, goes about the business of filling out casualty tags. (Al Chang / AP)
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Six decades after the POWs were freed and the troop ships sailed back through the Golden Gate, the veterans of Korea have new reason to reconsider whether theirs is really, as they’ve long complained, “the Forgotten War.”
On this 60th anniversary of the cease-fire that was supposed to end that conflict, it’s hard for any American to forget Korea or the bloody war that left the peninsula as bitterly divided as it was when fighting began three years earlier.
In the past year, North Korea has test-fired missiles near South Korea; launched a rocket with its first space satellite; detonated its third atomic bomb; renounced the armistice it signed July 27, 1953; and threatened the United States with a pre-emptive nuclear attack.
In response, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the U.S. will beef up its missile-defense system to protect the West Coast.
“I thought things had died down,” says Solomon Jamerson, a decorated Korean War veteran who lives in Los Angeles. “Then all of a sudden you hear they’re firing missiles.”
The war’s veterans have regarded such news with anger, amusement, resignation, frustration or fear.
“I get to wondering, ‘Have they advanced that far that we’d be afraid of them hitting the West Coast?’” says Lou Bauldoff, who was a target spotter with an artillery unit. “I get the feeling every time I read about what’s going on over there that North Korea won’t be satisfied until they rule the entire country.”
He’s 84, living in retirement in Fenelton, Pa. He thinks about the 36,000 Americans and almost 2 million Koreans and Chinese killed over issues that, 60 years later, remain essentially unsettled. He asks himself, “You risked your neck then, and it’s still going on?”
“It makes me angry to feel that now somebody else might have to go back and do it all over again,” he said.
Most Korean War veterans say that they’re not seriously worried by the saber-rattling; that it’s the latest in a long series of bids for attention; that even North Korea isn’t suicidal enough to push the U.S. too far.
“It’s strictly propaganda — doesn’t worry me,” said Bill Norwood of Cleveland, Tenn., a former infantryman who spent two years as a POW. “That joker in there now” — Kim Jong Un, grandson of the leader who invaded the South in 1950 — “is a nut.”
That’s what worries Jamerson — “a tantrum” by an inexperienced leader. And Warren Wiedhahn, a former Marine colonel who fought all over the Korean Peninsula, says mistakes don’t have to come from the top. “My biggest fear is a trip-wire accident” leading to war, he said. “Privates can do some dumb things.”
Whatever their feelings, few veterans deny that the confluence of North Korea bellicosity and the war’s 60th anniversary raises this possibility: that the only thing worse than a war no one remembers is a war that never ends.
'Like a cobra'
Korea was really two wars. The first, the last in which great powers battled each other toe-to-toe, was fought with the tactics and weapons of World War II. The second was a necessarily limited and ultimately inconclusive skirmish in the Cold War.
The conditions for war were created when Japan surrendered in 1945. Southern Korea was under American control, and the northern half of the peninsula was under Soviet occupation. Unable to agree on elections, the former allies divided the country along the 38th parallel.
The Soviets wanted a unified, communist Korea. It was not clear, even to themselves, what the Americans wanted.
In 1947, the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed South Korea was not worth fighting for, and two years later Gen. Douglas MacArthur described a Pacific defense line that did not include it. In early 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, apparently referring to Korea and Taiwan, said certain nations would have to defend themselves in case of invasion, at least at first.
Meanwhile, South and North Korea both repeatedly declared their intention to unify their country, by force if necessary. But North Korea’s army was twice as large, more experienced and better equipped.
By 1950, North Korean patrols regularly crossed the border. In March, the CIA predicted an invasion in June. On the 25th, as MacArthur later put it, “North Korea struck like a cobra.”
North Korean armies overwhelmed their southern counterparts. The Truman administration — which had suffered the political consequences when China fell to the communists the previous year — now felt it had to intervene.
Because the Soviets had previously walked out of the United Nations Security Council to protest an unrelated matter, the U.S. and its allies were able to make their military effort a U.N. operation.
But it was not a war — at least Truman wouldn’t call it that. Asked at a news conference if it could, then, be described as a “police action,” the president said yes. The tag stuck.
The North Koreans pushed the South Koreans into the southeastern corner of the peninsula, where they were joined by U.S. forces from Japan under MacArthur’s command.
After stabilizing his position, MacArthur executed what Gen. Omar Bradley, a key architect of the Normandy invasion in 1944, later called “the riskiest military proposal I had ever heard of” — an amphibious landing at Incheon, on Korea’s west coast, far behind North Korean lines.
The North Korean invaders were cut off and set to flight. U.N. forces pursued them back across the border and north toward China. The U.N. goal, which had been the liberation of South Korea, now became the unification of Korea.
The Communist Chinese viewed the Americans’ northward movement with alarm. By October, hundreds of thousands of battle-tested Chinese troops had massed across the Yalu River in Manchuria. Many others had slipped over the border into North Korea.
This was unknown to MacArthur, who was so confident of victory by Christmas he didn’t even issue the troops winter uniforms.
In the last week of November 1950, the Chinese attacked, reversing MacArthur’s “end-the-war” offensive and recapturing the capitals of North and South Korea before U.N. forces could recover and counterattack.
MacArthur still was determined to win the war, which now meant broadening it. He prompted a constitutional crisis by questioning Truman’s authority as commander in chief and by demanding permission to hit bases in China, possibly with atomic bombs. On April 11, 1951, Truman fired him.
Things then settled into what historian William Manchester would call “a long, bloody stalemate which would end only when the exhausted participants agreed to a truce.” In the atomic age, anything else was too risky.
Finally the sides agreed to a cease-fire that established a Demilitarized Zone near the 38th parallel (where it all started) that was, in fact, one of the most militarized places on the planet.
By then, 1.8 million Americans had served in Korea. About 8,200 were listed as missing in action, which for the most part meant their remains were not recovered.
Still obscured in public's mind
Korea was first called the “Forgotten War” as early as October 1951 (by U.S. News & World Report). Today, says Ted Barker, co-founder of the Korean War Project, an online history site, “it’s a cliché that a lot of the guys hang onto.”
To such veterans, nothing has changed: Korea is still obscured in the public mind by World War II and Vietnam. Lacking the martial glory of the former and the political impact of the latter, it gets overlooked in school and on Memorial Day.
The youngest Korean vets are nearing 80. “When we’re gone,” Norwood, 83, said of himself and his comrades, “it’ll be forgotten for good.”
Other Korean War vets say public memory of the conflict has revived since dedication of the Korean Veterans War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington in 1995.
With more than 3.5 million annual visitors, it’s the fourth most visited memorial administered by the National Park Service, after the Lincoln, Vietnam Veterans and World War II memorials and ahead of the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore.
“Somewhere along the line we’ve got to stop calling this the Forgotten War,” Jamerson said. “If you talk about it enough, you haven’t forgotten it.”
His opinion may be influenced by personal experience; on New Year’s Day, he and other vets rode on a float in the Rose Parade that featured a replica of the National Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Whether or not the war is forgotten today, historians generally agree that it was — even as it was being fought.
Melinda Pash, a historian who wrote “In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought in the Korean War,” offers some reasons why Americans long paid so little attention to such an epic struggle:
■ They didn’t understand it
Korea was a mystery to most Americans. Wiedhahn was at a bar in San Diego when the bartender said war had broken out in Korea. “Where’s Korea?” asked a fellow officer.
Americans had trouble connecting Korea to their national security. An inscription on the Korean Veterans Memorial alludes to that: U.S. troops defended “a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
■ They were disappointed by it.
The U.S. victory in World War II — total, unconditional — was a historical aberration, but the winners didn’t think so. How, they asked, could we conquer Germany and Japan, but not North Korea?
In the late summer of 1950, after the North Korean invaders had been repulsed and driven back over the border, two-thirds of Americans said they supported the war. Six months later, after the Chinese invasion, the same percentage described the war as a mistake.
“Americans don’t like sad stories,” Pash says.
■ They didn’t feel it or see it.
When the war began, people braced for shortages and massive conscription, as in 1941. But, in part because of Reserve call-ups, the draft took only about 1.5 million men in three years. Veterans say it was common for acquaintances to ask them after they got home, “Where ya been?”
The nation’s inattention to the war was one reason that Donald Mendoza, an aimless young man who’d never left Riverside County, Calif., says he decided to enlist — it didn’t seem anybody else would.
■ They didn’t even argue about it.
Although Korea was a frustrating, unpopular war, there was no protest movement like the one during the Vietnam War to make it a partisan political issue.
Aside from a few folk songs and protest rallies, the anti-war movement didn’t exist. A rally in Times Square on June 25, 1951, failed to garner much attention. In three years, out of 1.5 million draftees, only 9,000 were convicted of draft dodging.
Although the horrors of Korea were as great or greater than Vietnam, they weren’t televised nightly and nationally.
By the 1970s, all many Americans knew about Korea was what they got from the TV series M*A*S*H — which was made during, and was really about, Vietnam.
Bringing out the bodies
If some Americans have lost memory of the Korean War, the Rev. Earl Green has not. Recent news from Korea just makes it stronger.
He was drafted in 1950 and sent to Korea the following year with the segregated 585th Medical Ambulance Company.
A fellow medic, Willie Foreman, had a girlfriend at home in California. He told Green he was going to get married, go to school under the GI Bill and have kids. “Then they moved him up to the front,” Green said. “A mortar round got him on his way to his post.”
Green says that when he reads about trouble in Korea now, “that’s what goes through your mind, the blood that was shed.”
He would know. He helped carry bodies — hundreds in the course of a year — to the military’s burial unit.
He’s 86 now, a great-grandfather, still the pastor of a church in Springfield, Mass.
The scenes in the morgue then are as clear to him as the ones from North Korea are today: “There was bodies to the left of you, bodies to the right of you. I’d think to myself, ‘Some mother’s cryin’ now.’ ”