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50th anniversary
Korean War remembered

Letter No. 181 | June 25, 2000

Hello again, Jon,

June 25, 2000 marks the 50-year anniversary of the start of the Korean War, when Communist-backed North Korea invaded South Korea. It is important that all Americans commemorate this date for the suffering, the cold, the pain, and the horror endured by the American fighting men and the bravery they displayed during this war, and that the veterans of this war not go unnoticed.

A commemorative service is planned in Washington DC with President Clinton attending and extending thanks to those who served in one of history's most brutal but often-ignored conflicts. The United States lost 54,000 lives (34,000 in combat and 20,000 in related accidents) during this conflict. The American military deployed 1.8 million men in the Korean campaign.

The leaders of North and South Korea met recently for the first time in 50 years, inspiring hope for improved relations. The United States remains cautious and slightly optimistic about these meetings. On June 25, 1950, several young friends and I were riding in a car on a hot Sunday afternoon when the radio announcer interrupted his program to announce the news of the North Korean invasion. Having just graduated from high school in the previous month, each member of the group knew he was eligible for the draft. Half joking about it, we realized this was news that could easily affect our lives.

After World War II, The American people were weary of war and sacrificing their youth. President Truman purposely reduced the military forces. Some of America's military leaders and politicians believed that this country's enemies would be deterred by America's superior nuclear capability, and that land wars were obsolete. This theory soon proved false.

For some historical background about the Korean War: at the end of World War II the Japanese gave up control over Korea and the peninsula was divided at the 38th Parallel. The Soviet Union occupied the North and the United States the South. Both occupying forces withdrew in 1949, leaving military advisors and two opposing governments. The South was led by Syngman Rhee and the North by Kim Il Sung who wanted to unify both Koreas by invading the South. The Soviets prevented North Korea from invading the South because they knew it risked World War Three with the United States.

One theory is that President Truman, in a January 1950 speech, specified that the US would make no move to defend Taiwan should it be attacked by Communist China. This noninterference doctrine was explicitly extended to Korea in public speeches at the same time by Dean Acheson, Secretary of State. This gave the North Korean Communists the idea that the US did not care about Korea, and hence they launched their attack with Soviet approval. (An excellent website on which to learn about the Korean War is http://korea50.army.mil/).

The North Koreans captured Seoul, the South Korean capital, within 72 hours of their invasion. In the following days, they continued to push back the United Nations forces to the Pusan perimeter, where it looked like they would drive the United Nations forces off the peninsula. It was then that General Douglas MacArthur staged a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon, a port city on the west coast of Korea and behind enemy lines, that sent the Communists in retreat. This military maneuver continued successfully with the Allied forces moving northward into North Korea all the way to the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. General MacArthur and his UN forces had soundly defeated North Korea and it appeared the war was won. MacArthur wanted to continue into China, but President Truman then relieved him of his command. Truman did not want to engage in a larger-scale war with the possibility of a nuclear confrontation with the Russians.

Suddenly, in support of the North Koreans, Chinese Communist forces numbering 100,000 entered the war and began driving the UN troops southward, in the bitter winter of 1950. The name of Chosin Reservoir now gained fame in US military history. The Chinese, who greatly outnumbered the American forces, attacked constantly and tried to block the retreat down narrow roads through mountainous terrain, but the Americans kept moving and inflicted heavy enemy casualties. Temperatures dipped to 20 to 30 degrees below zero, and the wind chill was 100 below.

They were marching to reach Hungnam, a North Korean eastern port city, where ships and cargo planes waited to rescue them. Finally, they did succeed in reaching Hungnam. Troops with frost-bitten feet shuffled heavily onto cargo planes, ready to evacuate them. Amphibious craft carried other troops to the safety of larger ships stationed off the coast. In July 1952, armistice talks began with the Communists to end the Korean War. The war essentially reached a stalemate along the 38th Parallel, but this did not end the war for another year. Battlefield sites named Heartbreak Ridge and Pork Chop Hill became familiar names. To obtain strategic advantage, the UN and Communist forces waged heavy battles at these sites with a huge loss of American lives. Both sides finally agreed on an armistice on July 27, 1953, that has remained unsteady for the past 50 years.

Another significant happening occurred during the Korean War. Although President Truman enforced a presidential order in 1948 directing racial integration for the nation's military, his order went quietly unnoticed until the Korean War. It was at the outbreak this war, out of combat necessity, that integration was enforced.

Soldiers from Nanty Glo that I recall who lost their lives in the Korean War were Jack Phillips, Frank Sanderson, and Ken Burkhart of Mundys Corner. Albert Strapple, a Nanty Glo resident, once related to me his Chosin Reservoir experience. Mike Bzdyl, my uncle, and Rome Rudolph (now deceased), the 1950 Nanty Glo High School class president, served in Korea. It would be interesting to hear about other local servicemen who served in this theater.

Best Regards,
Frank Charney

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