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33,600 Reasons Never to Forget

By Theodore Sares

Someone recently asked me why I sometimes write pieces involving military conflicts. I responded with a question of my own to wit: how many kids at Kennett High or any other high school across the land do you think know anything about the two World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam? His head shake provided his answer. If just one high school history instructor would let his or her students read one of these essays, my objective would be more than achieved.

Case in point, the Korean War (June 1950 - July 1953), which many Americans under the age of 30 only remember from watching MASH on television. The Korean conflict is fast becoming a footnote in our history and that's a shame to those who fought and died in that brief but highly intensive and deadly conflict. Many of my classmates, teammates and friends in college were veterans of this war and they made me feel like a boy among men. As they say, it was a growth experience. Some of these vets suggested the conflict might be conveniently forgotten by politicians because it ended in a stalemate and was fought for what some believed were questionable reasons. None of them believed that. At any rate, from a military standpoint, it was an incredible seesaw of action that was analogous to a boxing match featuring ebb and flow action. It can be divided into four segments, though many of the individual battles could be told as stories in their own right.

This War was referred to by some as a "proxy war" because it was fought during the beginning of the cold war period and the overriding principals were the U.S. and the global Communists powers. Also, and to be technically precise, the conflict was termed a "police action" in the U.S. in order to remove the necessity of a Congressional declaration of war, though I am certain any wounded soldier would say that a bullet or bomb does not make such fine distinctions. Similarly, to avoid officially declaring war on The US, The UK, France and other UN members, China forces were named the People's Volunteer Army (PVA) instead of PLA (People's Liberation Army). Thus, the principal combatants were, on the one side, North Korea, supported by the People's Volunteer Army of Communist China, and later Soviet advisors and aircraft pilots (who flew MIGS). On the other side was South Korea, supported principally by the U.S., the United Kingdom, and troops from many, many other nations sent under the authority of the United Nations.

1) THE INITIAL INVASION - June-September 1950

In the early morninhg hours of June 25, 1950, North Korea sent a force across the 38th parallel into South Korea. These forces rapidly advanced southward against the poorly-equipped ROK (Republic of Korea) defenders. In just three days, they captured the Southern capital of Seoul. The United Nations quickly condemned the attack. The Soviet Union, Pyongyang's close ally, was fortunately boycotting the U.N. Security Council at the time -- and thus was not able to veto the council's condemnation. A U.N. Force was immediately composed to help defend South Korea. This immediately resulted in heavy military and naval involvement by the United States. But the fact is, the U.S. led the U.N. Forces against North Korea, and while no one believed this military challenge against communist aggression would be easy, few expected it would last as long as it did. Unknown at the time, however, was that another and far more formidable aggressor was beginning to mass and was about to become involved.

Several U.N. Divisions rushed to the Korean peninsula to stop the Northern attack but could do little against a superior force,and The U.N. Forces were soon forced back to a holding pattern around the southern port city of Pusan by early August. North Korea was on the offensive and had the U.N. Forces on the ropes. But these forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur and others, had some defensive moves up their sleeves which quickly turned things around and put them 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) THE COUNTERATTACK - September-October 1950

U.N. Forces, under the command of General MacArthur, landed at the port of Inchon near Seoul on September 15, 1950 in a brilliant and daring strike the telling of which could be the subject of an entire book. The Inchon Landing cut off much of the North Korean army, which was attempting to force its way into the Pusan Perimeter to the South. U.N. Forces, breaking out from Pusan and moving North and troops coming south from Inchon, were able to squeeze and overwhelm the Northern troops in South Korea. It was a great military chess move..........and Seoul was retaken by U.N. Forces on September 26.

After taking Seoul, U.N. Forces punched their way north of the 38th parallel, capturing the Northern capital of Pyongyang on October 19. Even though China warned that it would not accept the presence of U.N. Forces in North Korea, MacArthur continued to move northward -- with the announced intention of unifying the Korean peninsula. Some U.N. Forces even reached the Yalu River -- the border between North Korea and China -- on October 25.

3) CHINA'S INTERVENTION - October 16, 1950

In mid-September 1950, the aforementioned amphibious invasion at Inchon had dealt the North Koreans a mortal blow from which they would never recover. In the following two months, U.N. Troops pushed swiftly through North Korea and there existed the euphoria of an apparent total victory in plain sight, though this may have contributed to a degree of overconfidence. At any rate, China intervened on behalf of their badly defeated fellow Communist neighbor to the South. Major Chinese forces entered Korea on the night of Oct. 16 1950, when a unit of the 42d army of the 13th Army Group crossed the Yalu. On Oct. 18, Chairman Mao issued the final order for four armies and 3 artillery divisions to enter Korea on Oct. 19. The Chinese massed for a counter attack. Though less well armed than the UN armies, the Chinese armies were much larger, carried less equipment, moved faster on foot, and, amid the frightening blowing of bugles and noises from loudspeakers, routed the UN forces in wave after wave type attacks. Some 40,000 U.S. Troops were cut off by the advance and evacuated from near Wonsan in mid-December 1950. Incredibly, Seoul was retaken by the Chinese as they pushed south. This time, the Communist forces were stopped about two-thirds of the way down the peninsula and were not able to push to Pusan.

A second UN offensive began in late February 1951, which pushed the Chinese back north of Seoul again. The UN advance stopped near the 38th parallel. Then, a second Chinese offensive was launched in April. Once again, wave after wave of Chinese soldiers cut off and destroyed advance UN troops. But this time the Chinese armies stopped north of Seoul. The UN military was thrown back midway into South Korea. Then, early in the new year, the Chinese army was again contained and forced to retreat. And the incredible seesaw of battle continued as each army took its turn making an offensive move and then being stopped and then starting up again.

4) TRUCE - January 1951-July 1953

Thus, U.N. Forces once again reoccupied Seoul in March 1951. From that point they were able to advance slightly north of the 38th parallel. At that time, General MacArthur -- who had openly disagreed with President Harry S.Truman over how to conduct the war -- was relieved of his command by the President despite a public outcry. MacArthur saught complete victory in Korea and argued for attacking bases inside the China mainland that were supporting forces in North Korea. There was even talk of crossing the Yalu and chasing the Chinese troops back into mainland 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 stage was thus set for arduous truce negotiations which began on July 10, 1951. By then, the war had become a stalemate -- neither side having made any real advances. The talks went on for another two years. And during this time, the war became a back and forth series of savage fire fights from both sides along a heavily defended battle line on the 38th parallel the location of which changed only slightly.

Finally, on 27 July 1953, with a new regime in Russia and the successful pushing back of one last Communist offensive, truce talks concluded and the fighting ended. As part of the cease-fire, 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 showed no significant gain for either side notwithstanding that when the armistice was finally signed in 1953, there had been four million military and civilian casualties, including 33,600 American, 16,000 UN allied, 415,000 South Korean, and 520,000 North Korean dead. There were also an estimated 900,000 Chinese casualties. But, to repeat, there had been no significant gain for the invading communist forces.

There are many sub plots to the Korean War. Ones that could be the subject of separate and lengthy essays. Giving rise to these are names like General Walton Walker (who was killed in a jeep accident in December of 1950) and Matthew Ridgeway. Names like Task Force Smith, the Chosin Reservoir, Hill 303 Massacre, Chipyongni, the Twin Tunnels Ambush, the May Massacre. Also the Battle of Bloody Ridge, the Battle for Heartbreak Ridge, the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, the Punch Bowl (famous for a hand-to-hand fighting during during a lack of ammunition), Battle of the Hook, the Koje-do prision camp riots. Each featured bitter and vicious fighting, sometimes in unbearably cold weather.

If one visits Seoul today, he or she can take a bus to the 38th parallel, walk through the tunnels used by the North Koreans, visit the negotiating rooms which are still fully furnished, stare at the menacing North Korean guards who stare back, hear music from North Korea's "City of Paradise," which is nothing more than Hollywood-type billboards depicting a city which ostensibly beckons South Koreans to cross over the DMZ and "come home." What one perhaps does not grasp is the terrible loss of life incurred by so many to prevent this aggressive Communist action from succeeding. In my mind, that was never a "questionable reason" for becoming involved in this war. Older South Koreans are forever grateful to the U.S troops who saved them from Communism. Could anything be more honorable than that? In my mind, the success of the Korean War should not be assessed on our ability (or inability) to invade China or to overrun North Korea; it should be measured by our ability to contain communism. For that accomplishment and 33,600 other reasons, the Korean War should never be forgotten.

"[Korea is] the clearest test case that the United Nations has ever faced. If the United Nations is ever going to do anything, this is the time, and if the United Nations cannot bring the crisis in Korea to an end, then we might as well wash up the United Nations and forget it." Senator Tom Connally, of Texas, summing up Congressional opinion of the Korean crisis three days after the invasion.

About the Author:
Ted Sares, PhD, is a private investor who lives and writes in the White Mountain area of Northern New Hampshire with his wife, Holly and Min Pin, Jackdog. He writes a bi-weekly column for a local newspaper, is a regular contributor to the NH Business Review, and many of his other pieces are widely published.
His works focus on issues and themes dealing with socio-political topics, business and economics (in which he advocates a free market approach to capitalism), patriotism, and matters dealing with individual freedom.They are frequently inspirational in nature and sometimes reflect the Objectivist philosophy of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand.
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