The Korean WarTHE KOREAN WAR
The Korean War is often referred to as the forgotten war. There exist no monuments in Washington D.C. to acknowledge the thousands of American soldiers who fought valiantly and died for their country’s political interests. There are no annual parades, and little information in text books to shed light on the war. Korea was a bloody war. The United States sustained over 140,000 casualties with 33,000 killed in action, yet the U.S. never formally honored its fallen soldiers.1 The war was another chance to indirectly overpower communism in the beginning of the Cold War. Interestingly it was fought on Asian soil through Asian politics. The lack of interest by the American public following the war reflected a national desire to forget the events of the war as quickly as possible. However, the Korean War must be remembered in order honor those whose who died for their country’s political convictions.
For hundreds of years Korea was dominated by the Chinese empire. During World War II, Japan seized Korea from the Chinese and used its natural resources to fuel its war effort. After Japan was defeated by the allies, Korea became occupied by the Russians in the North and the Americans in the South. Both the U.S. and the Soviets realized Korea was a strategic country; it was important to occupy because it lay in-between China, Japan, and the Soviet Union. North and South Korea was divided by the 38th parallel, it evenly split the country into two regions. Both Russia and America became politically involved in Korea, therefore, each set up strong military and governmental ties.2 The United States wanted Korea to be held under democratic rule, while the Soviets wanted communist rule. They took these conflicting views to the United Nations (UN.) which had just been set up to prevent another world war and help with international elections.3 The UN. decided that both sides of Korea should have their own elections. The elections were held on January 12, 1948.4 Since North Korea favored communism, the people elected the Russians and Kim Il Sung, a former guerrilla leader. South Korea favored democracy and formed the Republic of Korea (ROK) under U.S. educated, Dr. Sygman Rhee.5 The Soviets withdrew from North Korea in 1949. They left a communist dictatorship with a well trained, well armed, North Korean-Soviet army. In fear of the North Koreans newly developed strength, the U.S. left South Korea with some small arms and military advisors. American troops left Korea at the end of 1949.6
Both the North Koreans and the Russians wanted to overthrow South Korea to expand their empire. Above all, Russia had a chance to oppose its economic and military rival, the United States. North Korea, armed with Soviet tanks, boats, planes, and guns, planned a surprise attack across the 38th parallel into South Korea. Late Saturday evening on June 24, 1950, president Henry Truman got a urgent phone call. Truman was informed that a well organized and many pronged invasion of South Korea by the North Koreans was under way. The U.S. was obliged to defend South Korea.7
The invasion of South Korea was prompted by the Soviet Union, therefore, the invasion was a direct challenge to the United States. For many years before Korea, the U.S. and the Soviets were in competition for the number of countries backing them. This was known as the Cold War. In the Cold War, neither the U.S. or Russia dared to directly oppose each other because both were nations with atomic weapons. Both countries used economic, political, and small military victories using other countries to fight their battles.8 Communist North Korea’s invasion of South Korea altered the Cold War situation. Now, by backing with South Korea, the U.S. had a chance to oppose the Soviets in force.
With support from the United Nations, the U.S. ordered North Korea back over the 38th parallel because they had violated international peace agreements. North Korea disregarded the demand, and pushed further into South Korea. With this, Truman ordered General MacArthur to send two American divisions to assist South Korea in repelling the invasion. As conflict infused, the UN. and South Korean forces were all put under command of Gen. MacArthur. The Unites States was aware that if North Korea succeeded, it would be a huge gain for communism and could possibly generate genocide of the South Koreans because of their democratic beliefs.9
The North Koreans achieved complete strategic surprise with the timing, as well as the scale, of their invasion. They raced across the thinly guarded 38th parallel, and simultaneously launched a series of amphibious attacks on the east coast. Panicking, the ROK began to blow-up most all the bridges leading into South Korea in order to slow down the North Korean advance. MacArthur, seeing his troops overwhelmed by the on rushing invasion, sent urgent messages to the White House demanding more troops and supplies. Unseasoned troops were sent from U.S. bases in Japan, and within a week, the allied forces were being mauled by a fierce North Korean invasion. As the allied situation became more dire, fifteen nations, mostly the Atlantic allies, sent armed forces to fight in Korea. The Korean police action had now become the Korean war.10
The U.S. and allied forces had been pushed back all the way to Taejon, where they held an indefinite position. The allies held Taejon for five days and allowed much needed troops and supplies to arrive at Pusan*. When the troops that arrived at Pusan, they created a defensive perimeter to hold back the North Koreans from capturing the entire country.11 The success of the North Koreans was an partly a cause of the allies underestimating their military ability. This was commonly known as Gook Syndrome where the Koreans were thought to be inferior, and as a result, the allies made many careless mistakes.12 MacArthur, realizing the severity of the allied situation, decided to land an army to the North, behind Pusan to cut off the North Korean retreat. This was known as Operation Chromite. The plan was to land the allied forces at the coastal city of Ichon*, were nearly 100,000 North Koreans forces were stationed. Attacking Ichon from the sea was an enormous gamble, yet the cities strategic position was key in winning the war. Ichon was heavily guarded by
* see map
artillery and mines, so the allies mustered up 200 ships and countless aircraft to partake in the assault. On early September 15, 1950, after extensive air raids on the North Koreans, the allied forces
stormed the beaches at Ichon.13 After eight hours of heavy fighting, the North Korean forces retreated out of the city. It was a spectacular victory for the UN., and was considered the most successful amphibious assault in military history.14
Once the UN. had a firm hold on Ichon, armored units raced inland and prepared to attack Seoul, the capitol of South Korea. Seoul was heavily reinforced from the 50,000 North Korean forces who had retreated from Ichon to aid in holding the city. Seoul was bombarded by the allies for three days with little result. On the fourth day, the allies rushed the city. Street to street guerrilla warfare insued, and both sides took huge loses. After the twelfth day of bitter fighting, the badly wounded North Korean forces retreated back across the 38th parallel.15
With a chance to put the kill on the North Korean forces, MacArthur commanded his troops to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea. There was a risk of communist Russia or China entering the war, but MacArthur found it unlikely. With a speedy push, UN. troops arrived at the North Korean city of Pyongyang. A small skirmish took place in the outskirts of the city, but within one day, the city was won over to the allies. MacArthur’s troops moved swiftly, and with little fighting captured most of North Korea in one month. The UN. forces received little resistance and the remaining North Korean troops were seen crossing the Yalu River into China.16 With a hope to overtake some of the retreating North Korean troops, MacArthur ordered the UN. forces to move north to the Manchurian border between China and North Korea. This command was in direct defiance of presidential orders, because encroaching on the Chinese border could cause China or Russia to enter the war.17 Yet, MacArthur dismissed the threat, and pushed forward.
China feared the UN. would attack them, and they needed to protect valuable hydroelectric power plants on the Yalu River. They massed 300,000 Chinese soldiers on the Manchurian border to wait for the UN. to arrive. On November 8, 1950, the UN. troops moved deeper into the mountainous Manchurian region. The Chinese troops lay coiled like a viper, and as the UN. pushed forward, they encountered Human Waves of Chinese troops.18 Combined with poor equipment and the brutal North Korean winter, the UN. forces had no choice but to retreat. The allies retreated back 130 miles to the North Korean border. Along with the UN. retreat, followed millions of North Korean refugees trying to escape China’s assault. The situation was described by one G.I., There were literally millions of North Korean refugees blocking the roads by sheer mass, the silent columns moving without hope, shelter or food, avoiding other’s tragedies of death, loss of total possessions. There were those who simply sank to the ground, too tired and defeated to move, the tossing of babies, born on their mothers’ backs and now frozen to death.19
As the UN. forces moved out of the Manchurian region, the U.S. air force and special forces were called to the task. They pounded the advancing Chinese troops with missiles, and made the already treacherous mountain roads even more dangerous. Yet, the sheer numbers of the Chinese troops overpowered the obstacles in their way. All allied troops were swiftly with drawn from Pyongyang on December 4, 1950, in order not to be overrun by the well equipped Chinese armies. By Christmas Eve, 105,000 U.S. troops, 91,000 refugees, and 17,500 vehicles had been evacuated from Hungman Harbor back to South Korea.20
The Chinese forces moved swiftly through North Korea, and within two weeks they had crossed the 38th parallel and moved into South Korea. They took Seoul, and then met a strong line of American defense about 25 miles outside the city. The geography of the region is extremely hilly, and was named the Punchbowl by the Americans. The U.S. was prepared for the Chinese, and had dug trenches and tunnels, a form of fighting which would become popular during Vietnam.21 The fighting for the next two years resembled the trench warfare of World War I. What took place on the ridges of the Punchbowl was repeated hundreds of times over the next two years. Famous offensives like Heartbreak Hill, Old Baldy, Pork Chop Hill, and Bloody Ridge took thousands of men on either side. The landscape seemed nightmarish, and was blackened from all the napalm and phosphorous shells dropped. Burnt trees, bodies, and vehicles lay strewn in the muddied ground. The soldiers moral began to plummet; no one wanted to be there.22
Meanwhile in Washington, President Truman had become enraged at how Gen. MacArthur had been handling the war. Truman found MacArthur would not carry out direct orders, and found him to be extremely arrogant. Truman could not see how he and MacArthur could work as a team. Truman wanted to fight a limited war in Korea. MacArthur wanted to take the war beyond Korea and overthrow China’s communist government. MacArthur also wanted to block China’s harbors and possibly use atomic weapons to end the war. Truman feared this would lead to World War III. MacArthur had sent an ill-clothed, unprepared army at the Chinese, and ignored all signs of China even entering the war. Above all, MacArthur could not see eye to eye with his U.S. command. On April 11, 1951, Truman removed MacArthur from command and replaced him with General Ridgeway.23
General Ridgeway restored confidence and built up an aggressive spirit in the allied troops. Ridgeway was tough, flamboyant, and was known to wear two hand grenades on his chest. Thus, he got the nickname “Old Iron Tits”. He established the idea of R and R, (rest and recreation) in which troops rotated on a five day vacation to Japan in order to rest their bodies and minds. The allied troops became revitalized, and inflicted heavy loses on the weary North Korean troops.24 On January 16, 1951, allied troops began a slow, methodical, offensive north, in hopes to end the war. Although the offensive moved slow, it was organized, not like the uncoordinated, speedy offensive led by MacArthur. In the next six weeks, allied forces took Seoul and moved again into North Korea.25
During the Korean War, the first battles between jet aircraft occurred. Unlike in the beginning of the war when the North Koreans used minimal aircraft, toward the end of the war U.S. transport planes were being shot down regularly by Soviet supplied Mig-15 fighter jets. The U.S. quickly countered, and began to mass produce F-86 Saber jets. Dog fights became important to protect the allied transport planes. For the first time, helicopters were used to carry troops in and out of battle. With the new high powered jets, the air force killed over 100,000 communist troops and shoot down over 5000 North Korean planes.26
As the allies pushed father into North Korea, peace talks started at the North Korea city of Panmunjon. The allies wanted two neutral Korean states, but the communists would not consider the negotiations until all of the communist prisoners were freed. Not accepting the communist’s request, a deadlock occurred on all armistice negotiations at Panmunjon. In an attempt to change the communist’s minds, Ridgeway was ordered to launch a full-scale air, navy, and land attack in order to destroy the communist hold in North Korea. UN. war ships bombarded and blockaded North Korean ports. Allied air force worked on destroying communist supply lines day and night. Wave upon wave of allied troops attacked communist strongholds day after day.27
In 1953, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected as President of the United States . He threatened that if the armistice was not signed by the communists, the U.S. would start to use atomic weapons to end the war. With the death of Joseph Stalin in March of 1953, the standpoint of the Russians towards the peace treaty was drastically affected.28 Now the Soviets were not under as much communist pressure and wanted a peaceful settlement in Korea. However, the peace talks still dragged on with the speed of a stiff concrete mix as thousands of soldiers died on each side. Finally, during June of 1953, both sides established the Neutral Nations Reparation Commission to over see the return of POW’s.29 The U.S. returned 6,670 communist prisoners and received 684 sick or wounded allied troops. After the reparation was made, the guns fell silent over Korea on July 27, 1953 as the armistice was signed. The U.S. and the allies signed the “Declaration of Sixteen” which did not hold them responsible for the cause or the cost of the war.30 Korea remained divided at the 38th parallel, and there was a twenty mile wide demilitarized zone enacted between the two states. Both North and South Korea agreed not to increase military strength and the terms were enforced by the Military Armistice Commission.31
The economic and human expenses of the Korean War were immense. The U.S. alone spent 67 billion dollars to keep South Korea independent. The entire allied war effort cost approximately 129 billion dollars. The damage in North Korea was labeled at 49 billion dollars, while South Korea’s damage was seemingly less. China sustained one million military casualties. South Korea had 300,000 military casualties, and 200,000 civilian casualties. North Korea sustained a total of two million military and civilian casualties.32 The United States had over 142,000 military casualties, while the UN. had only 17,000 casualties. Over two million Koreans were left homeless, and the allied bombings left many parts of Korea a wasteland.33
The Korean War was a failure both for the military and political leaders in the U.S.. The United States never calculated the costs involved. If the conflict had ended at the 38th parallel in 1950, it could have been considered a stunning victory. But MacArthur and the UN. dreadfully underestimated the result of their actions. The UN. failed to understand that communist China would not tolerate UN. forces on its borders. The anti-communist hysteria in the United States during and after the war, made the U.S. leaders stockpile nuclear weapons. The Soviets responded by stockpiling their own nuclear weapons, thus creating a “Balance of Terror”.34 The world became much more dangerous after the Korean War because of the volume of nuclear weapons produced. High taxes were imposed upon the American people to keep up the nuclear race with the Soviets. Within a year or so, America had turned its back on the Korean War. No one wanted to remember a war which cost so much to accomplish so little. The dead were just simply forgotten in the fast modern world. The lessons of the war were also forgotten. As the last troops left Korea, another conflict started in a nearby Asian land, Vietnam. If we had learned from W.W.II, we would not have fought the Korean War. If we had learned from the Korean War, we would have not fought Vietnam.