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33,600 Reasons Never to Forget
Someone recently asked me why I sometimes write pieces about military conflicts. I responded with a question of my own: how many kids do you think at Kennett High School or any other high school around the world know about the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam? A shake of his head gave the answer. If only one high school history teacher would allow her students to read these essays, my goal would be more than accomplished.
An example is the Korean War (June 1950 – July 1953), which many Americans under the age of 30 only remember after watching MASH on television. The Korean conflict is fast becoming a footnote in our history, and it is a shame to those who fought and died in this short but extremely intense and deadly conflict. Many of my classmates, teammates, and friends in college were veterans of this war, and I felt like a boy among men. As they say, it was a growth experience. Some vets have suggested that the conflict can be conveniently forgotten by politicians because it has become a stalemate, and some say it was fought for questionable reasons. None of them believed this. In any case, from a military point of view, it was an incredible seesaw, akin to a boxing match with an ebb and flow. It can be divided into four parts, although most of the individual battles can be told as independent stories.
This war has been called a “proxy war” by some because it was fought at the beginning of the Cold War period and the main leaders were the United States and the global communist powers. More technically, the conflict was called a “police action” in the US in order to avoid the need for a congressional declaration of war, although I’m sure any wounded soldier would tell you that a bullet or a bomb are not such fine distinctions. Likewise, to avoid formally declaring war on the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other UN members, Chinese forces were named the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) instead of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army). Thus, the main combatants were on the one hand North Korea, supported by the People’s Volunteer Army of Communist China, and later Soviet advisers and aircraft pilots (who operated the MIGS). On the other side was South Korea, supported mainly by troops sent from the United States, the United Kingdom, and many, many other nations under the auspices of the United Nations.
1) THE INITIAL INVASION – June-September 1950
In the early hours of June 25, 1950, North Korea sent troops across the 38th parallel into South Korea. These forces quickly advanced south against the poorly equipped ROK (Republic of Korea) defenders. They captured the southern capital of Seoul in just three days. The UN was quick to condemn the attack. The Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s close ally, was fortunately boycotting the UN Security Council at the time – and thus could not veto the council’s condemnation. UN forces were immediately deployed to defend South Korea. This immediately led to heavy US military and naval involvement. But the fact is that the United States led the UN forces against North Korea, and while no one believed that this military challenge to communist aggression would be easy, few expected it to last this long. However, unknown at the time, another and far more formidable aggressor began to gather and soon became involved.
A number of UN divisions rushed to the Korean Peninsula to stop the North’s attack, but could do little against the superior forces, and UN forces were soon reduced to a holding pattern around the southern port city of Pusan by early August. North Korea was on the offensive and UN forces were on the ropes. But these forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur and others, made some defensive moves that quickly turned the tide and went on the offensive. And the incredible seesaw continued. Indeed, in the first year alone, Seoul, in the middle of the greater Korean peninsula, changed hands four times!
2) ELLENHÁM – September-October 1950
On September 15, 1950, UN forces under the command of General MacArthur landed at Inchon Harbor near Seoul in a brilliant and daring strike that could be the subject of an entire book. The Inchon landings cut off most of the North Korean army attempting to penetrate the southern Pusan district. UN forces breaking out of Pusan and moving north, and troops coming south from Inchon, were able to pin down and overwhelm the North’s troops in South Korea. It was a great military chess move……..and Seoul was retaken by UN forces on September 26th.
After capturing Seoul, UN forces pushed north of the 38th parallel and captured the northern capital of Pyongyang on 19 October. Despite China’s warning that it would not accept the presence of UN forces in North Korea, MacArthur continued to advance north — with the stated intention of unifying the Korean peninsula. On October 25, some UN forces reached the Yalu River – the border between North Korea and China.
3) CHINA’S INTERVENTION – October 16, 1950
In mid-September 1950, the above-mentioned amphibious invasion of Inchon dealt the North Koreans a fatal blow from which they would never recover. Over the next two months, UN troops quickly pushed through North Korea, and there was euphoria of apparent total victory, although this may have contributed to a degree of overconfidence. In any case, China intervened for its badly defeated communist neighbor to the south. A large Chinese force entered Korea on the night of October 16, 1950, when a unit of the 13th Army Group’s 42d Army crossed the Yalu. On October 18, Chairman Mao issued the final order for four armies and three artillery divisions to enter Korea on October 19. The Chinese rallied for a counterattack. Although less well-armed than the UN armies, the Chinese armies were much larger, carried less equipment, moved faster on foot, and routed the UN forces in wave after wave of attacks amid the terrifying booms and blares of loudspeakers. About 40,000 American troops were cut off by the advance and evacuated near Wonsan in mid-December 1950. Unbelievably, Seoul was recaptured by the Chinese as they pushed south. This time, the Communist forces were halted on two-thirds of the peninsula and were unable to advance towards Pusan.
At the end of February 1951, the second UN offensive began, which again pushed the Chinese back north of Seoul. The UN advance stopped near the 38th parallel. Then, in April, the second Chinese offensive began. Again, wave after wave of Chinese soldiers cut off and destroyed the advancing UN troops. But this time the Chinese armies stopped north of Seoul. The UN army was thrown halfway back into South Korea. Then, at the beginning of the new year, the Chinese army was again curbed and forced to retreat. And the incredible see-saw of battle continued as each army took turns and made an offensive move, then they were halted and then started again.
4) Armistice – January 1951 – July 1953
Thus, UN forces occupied Seoul again in March 1951. From then on, they were able to advance slightly north of the 38th parallel. At the time, General MacArthur—who openly disagreed with President Harry S. Truman on the conduct of the war—was relieved of his command by the president despite public outcry. MacArthur sought total victory in Korea and argued for attacking bases within mainland China that supported North Korean forces. There was also talk of crossing the Yalu and chasing the Chinese troops back to China. However, President Truman and other UN leaders feared that attacking China would lead to a larger conflict that could plunge the world into another world war.
The ground was therefore prepared by the arduous armistice negotiations, which began on July 10, 1951. By then, the war had reached a stalemate – neither side had made any meaningful progress. Negotiations continued for another two years. And during that time, the war became a series of back-and-forth firefights from both sides along the heavily defended 38th parallel battle line, with little change in location.
Finally, on July 27, 1953, with the new regime in Russia and the successful repulse of the last communist offensive, armistice negotiations were concluded and the fighting ended. As part of the ceasefire, both sides agreed to withdraw 2 kilometers along the final battleground and establish a demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the armistice line – a zone that still exists today. The final cease-fire line did not bring much improvement for either side, despite four million military and civilian casualties when the armistice was signed in 1953, including 33,600 Americans, 16,000 UN allies, 415,000 South Koreans, and 520,000 North – a Korean victim. dead. There were also an estimated 900,000 Chinese victims. But I repeat, the occupying communist forces did not gain a significant advantage.
The Korean War has many subplots. Ones that could be the subject of separate and lengthy essays. Names such as General Walton Walker (who died in a jeep accident in December 1950) and Matthew Ridgeway gave birth to them. Names like Task Force Smith, Chosin Reservoir, Hill 303 Massacre, Chipyongni, Twin Tunnels Ambush, May Massacre. Also, the Battle of Bloody Ridge, the Battle of Heartache Mountain, the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, the Punch Bowl (famous for hand-to-hand combat during a shortage of ammunition), the Battle of the Hook, the Koje-do prison camp riots. Each involved desperate and fierce fighting, sometimes in unbearably cold weather.
If one visits Seoul today, one can take a bus to the 38th parallel, walk through the tunnels used by the North Koreans, visit the still fully furnished meeting rooms, stare at North Korean guards staring menacingly back, hear. music from North Korea’s “City of Paradise,” which is nothing more than Hollywood-style billboards depicting a city ostensibly encouraging South Koreans to cross the DMZ and “come home.” Perhaps one does not understand the terrible loss of human life that so many suffered to prevent the success of this aggressive communist action. In my opinion, this was never a “questionable reason” for me to participate in this war. Older South Koreans are forever grateful to the American troops who saved them from communism. Could it be more honorable than that? In my view, the success of the Korean War should not be judged by whether we can (or cannot) invade China or overrun North Korea; it should be measured by our ability to curb communism. For this achievement and 33,600 other reasons, the Korean War should never be forgotten.
“[Korea is] the clearest test case the United Nations has ever faced. If the United Nations is ever going to do something, now is the time, and if the United Nations can’t end the Korean crisis, we might as well wash the UN and forget about it.” Senator Tom Connally of Texas summarizing the views of Congress on the Korean crisis three days after the invasion.
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