by Larry Palletti
The War We All Forgot
I drove along some
of those narrow mountain roads, now paved and fairly smooth but little
more than pig-sty quagmires fifty years ago.
I walked the rock-strewn
hills that seem even now to echo the screams of the dying.
I trooped the line along
the DMZ, the barren Demilitarized Zone that today still divides the peninsula
into North and South along the 38th Parallel. As they have done
for nearly a half-century, guns still bristle from the firing slits of
concrete bunkers; soldiers still keep a wary lookout for signs of enemy
The place is Korea. My time
there was a relatively peaceful one, with no shots fired in anger, no villages
aflame, no refugees scrambling to keep out of the paths of angry armies
that chased each other around the tortured land.
My Korea was of 1980.
The Korea I remember today
is of 1950.
WE TEND TO FORGET
Korea and the war we refused to call a war. A "United Nations police action"
is the way we described it in the Fifties.
Today we pay little attention
to the Americans of 50 years ago, those who left life and limb in that
sad Asian appendage dangling so precariously between China and Japan.
The numbers bore us. We’ve
The veterans who came home
in one piece, more or less, are resigned rather than militant. They hold
few parades and reunions; they maintain no powerhouse lobbies in the Congress
and in the state capitals. They don’t thrust their medals into our faces,
nor do they prance about in fond memory of their gallantries and conquests.
They don’t prey upon our
collective conscience, bitterly laying blame for their problems and shortcomings
on an uncaring nation.
Yet no one has a better right
to do those things than the veterans of the Korean War.
HERE ARE THOSE boring
numbers: 33,270 dead Americans; 103,284 wounded.
Of the 10,218 US soldiers
who were captured by enemy forces, only a third ever came back. The rest
died at the hands of Chinese and North Korean captors, deprived of the
food and medical care that would have kept them alive. Many were simply
Our United Nations allies
suffered no less. Nearly 85,000 friendly troops lost their lives; another
161,000 sustained battle wounds. Almost 93,000 Allied soldiers became prisoners
No one has ever come up with
an accurate count of South Korean military losses. Their units were mostly
ragtag affairs whose numbers changed with the tide of battle. But we can
count 70,000 killed, 150,000 wounded, 80,000 captured.
AND IT WAS NOT just the soldiers
who suffered and died in the bloody three years of the Korean War. Some
three million South Korean citizens were left dead as a direct result of
the hostilities. The survivors found their homes gone, their lands ravaged,
their families shattered beyond recovery.
The struggle brought to an
end any remaining thought that civilians are somehow to be insulated from
the savagery of warfare. Perhaps inured by the barbarisms of Shanghai,
Coventry, Lidice and Dresden, we shook our heads and clucked our tongues
as we read of the rape of Seoul.
Then we turned to the sports
pages to see if that kid Willy Mays had won another one for the Giants.
The Korean War toughened
us up for future wars. In many ways, it prepared us for the care-less attitudes
we would assume a decade later, when Vietnam would intrude so ungraciously
into our minds.
THE WAR WENT poorly
for us in its early days. Then things were spectacularly better for a time,
then terribly poor again. Like the troops themselves, we at home took an
unholy roller-coaster ride from the depths of defeat and despair to the
high rush of jubilant victory.
Then all the way back down
When the war finally petered
out in a tired truce, we were left with a feeling only of unfulfilled nothingness.
We bled, we died, only to
be told that there would be no winner and no loser. After all those millions
of deaths, we were back where we had started three years before.
The politicians crowed about
halting the spread of Communism. But to the men and women who were sent
to fight that war, the facts were abundantly clear:
They were the victims of
political tomfoolery that had wasted another 33,000 American lives.
They would not be the last.
ON A QUIET DAY in
early summer of 1950, communist North Koreans raced across the artificial
dividing line that separated them from the democratic South.
Poorly organized and equipped
soldiers of the Republic of Korea buckled under the onslaught. Within days
they found themselves backed into a corner in the extreme southeast of
American aid was fast in
coming, for President Harry Truman was a man of action. Arriving US troops
bolstered the flagging ROK Army units, establishing a rough perimeter around
the port city of Pusan. The line stabilized near Taegu, and a nonstop battle
of attrition began.
The northerners pounded away
at the crush of Allied soldiers on their precarious beachhead, nearly pushing
them into the sea. And as they did so, their own supply lines became badly
Then came the brilliant stroke
of Inchon. General Douglas MacArthur’s complex secret plan to land American
troops near Seoul, back near the 38th Parallel, succeeded beyond
anyone’s wildest dream.
The North Koreans found their
forces cut in half, their supply lines severed. The US command reclaimed
the South Korean capital, at the same time breaking out of the Pusan Perimeter
and heading north. The chase was on.
The enemy was caught completely
off its guard. Unable to shift from offense to defense, the North Koreans
ran in utter panic – straight into the buzz saw of newly-landed US forces
who had taken Inchon and Seoul.
THERE WAS NO stopping
the Americans. They rolled across the 38th Parallel and through
the cities and villages of North Korea, piling on like maddened street
Their advance was unstoppable;
their victory was total. But then the tide turned again.
China entered the war.
Not officially; not openly.
They did it with millions of "volunteers" who poured across the Yalu River,
overwhelming the American lines.
MacArthur asked permission
to bomb their bases in China. Truman said no; the political risks were
The general asked that demolition
teams and heavy bombers be permitted to destroy the Yalu River bridges,
thus stopping the flow of enemy troops into Korea.
Truman said no.
MacArthur sought permission
to chase enemy fighter planes back to their Chinese bases.
THE CHINESE THRUST
was inexorable. In human waves they came, one after another, cheaply trading
lives for tactical advantage. American units were cut off, trapped in Korea’s
frigid mountains. And once removed from their logistical support, they
were chopped to pieces by the onrushing Communist forces.
Nature’s assault was no more
merciful. The vicious cold of winter hit the hapless Americans like a ton
of kimshi. Our men died in droves. The ravages of frostbite cut down tens
"Frozen Chosen," the Americans
called it, after the Koreans’ own name for their country.
Other names today mean only
bitter cold and a desperate struggle for survival for the veterans of the
North Korean debacle – names like the Iron Triangle, Porkchop Hill, the
Punchbowl, the Hwachon Reservoir, Kuni-Ri, Hungnam.
An emergency evacuation got
most of them out. But by the thousands, Americans were buried in the heartless
mountains of Frozen Chosen.
In the annals of American
warfare, few veterans have suffered more.
Today they try to forget.
If there is remembering to be done, the rest of us must do it for them.