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Comments 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 purpose.

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 seen bigger.

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 murdered.

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 of war.

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 again.

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 the peninsula.

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 overextended.

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 brawlers.

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 too great.

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.

Again, no.

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 of thousands.

"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.

Don’t skimp.

Just who is Larry Palletti?

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