*Note: this column was originally published on my "Out of (Cyber) Thin Air" website on June 24, 2000. It has been updated for release in advance of the 60th anniversary in 2010, without apologies; only thanks to those about whom I now repost*
Time again for a little history.
At appropriate moments in our history, we commemorate -- and rightly so -- moments grand and glorious in this nation's founding and maintaining of. One such regularly-celebrated epic is World War II. Remembered with statues, movies, books, museums, and lots of words from a lot of folks who owe a rapidly-dwindling few, more thanks than we can ever give them. Referred to as "The Greatest Generation", it isn't hard to want to simply cede them that accolade, when one reads and studies just what was asked of that generation, and what it cost them to defend our freedom in a two-front war of global proportions.
The question's been asked more than once: could we, or the generation that follows us, rise to the occasion, if needed, as our grandfathers did? Needless to say, asked and answered: we need look no further than the generation that answered the call on the morning of September 12, 2001, after another "day of infamy", the morning before. And continues to answer it, to this day.
Thank you, and God Bless every last one of you.
Another milestone is upon us, and one that seems to pass with a great deal less fanfare than World II. Four months from now is the 60th anniversary of the onset of the Korean War. It has been, over the years, referred to as "the forgotten war". It lasted a little over three years, and cost over 2 million lives, including over 50,000 Americans (33,000 of which died in combat).
It was a different kind of war, the impact of which was not clearly understood by either side at that time. In summary: on the morning of June 25, 1950, the armed forces of North Korea -- Soviet-trained and equipped -- launched an all-out offensive across the 38th Parallel, with the objective of overrunning South Korea, and unifying the peninsula by force, under Communist dominance.
They would come within an ace of success: what was left of the South Korean Army (ROK) -- American-trained and equipped -- reinforced by ill-prepared American and gradually other United Nations forces, were forced back into a small perimeter outside of the port city of Pusan. From there, ghastly battles -- fierce as any seen during World War II -- raged in the oven-like hills and valleys, as the Allies strove to hold the line, while building their forces for a counterstroke. A World War II hero and controversial figure -- General Douglas MacArthur -- then staged a risky amphibious landing on the western port city of Inchon in mid-September, in an effort to cut the North Korean supply lines, and relieve the Pusan Perimeter. Not long after the landings, near-defeat of UN forces became a rout of North Korean forces, and they were driven back across the 38th Parallel.
Then came yet another controversial decision: urged on by South Korean President Rhee and General MacArthur -- and ignoring promises of intervention by Communist Chinese forces -- President Truman decided to unleash US, and in effect, UN forces, to push north from the 38th Parallel, and do to the North Koreans, what they had tried and failed to do: reunification of the Korean Peninsula by force. After all, they -- the North Koreans -- were the aggressors; defeat and surrender were their only option.
At least, so believed MacArthur, and others of the old school brand of warfare.
With promises of going home by Christmas ringing in their ears, American troops pushed on north, taking the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, and moving ever closer to the Yalu River, and the Manchurian border. Several South Korean and one American unit, would actually stand on the banks of the Yalu, before disaster struck: disaster in the form of 300,000 Chinese, out of seemingly nowhere, in late November.
Whole divisions of ROKs were overrun and destroyed; the US Army's 2nd Division was caught in a "gauntlet" near Kunu-ri, losing much of their equipment and over 4,000 men. The US Army's 7th Division lost the bulk of "Task Force MacLean/Faith" on the east side of Chosin Reservoir in the northeast; but on the west side of that same reservoir, elements of the US 1st Marine Division -- strung out in combat elements between Yudam-ni and Funchilin Pass, a distance of roughly 60 miles -- made an epic stand, outnumbered as much as 6 to 1 or more, and fought their way out of a fate similar to that of the ROKs and the US 2nd Division. Surrounded and embattled until they cleared Funchilin Pass, the Marines, surviving US Army 31st/32nd Infantry units, and an elite British 41st Commando unit, "simply attacked in another direction", and fought their way to the sea and safety, inflicting staggering casualties on the Chinese.
By the summer of 1951, UN forces had regrouped south of the 38th Parallel, and after inflicting unimaginable casualties on the Chinese during a series of Communist offensives -- who were, at that time, willing to spend men against firepower, without counting -- drove them north of the 38th Parallel by the end of June, 1951.
Peace talks began in July of that year, first at Kaesong, and later at Panmunjom, and dragged on for more than two years. Meantime, the war degenerated into a World War I-style of man-eating stalemate, with ground taken and lost, more to provide negotiating 'chits', than to conquer and hold ground. Finally, on July 27, 1953, an uneasy armistice was signed, and the guns went silent that midnight, after more than three years of a rain of death on the peninsula.
The merits of the war in Korea, and our involvement in it, have been argued ever since. We had an uneasy, and somewhat unwanted ally, whose country was largely destroyed in the fighting, and remained ideologically and militarily divided afterward; we had an enemy, bloodied and savaged, but unbending and unbowed, and unwilling to let go of their dreams of domination of the whole by any means, if another opportunity offered. And we had our own country divided over the cost of having fought a war, not to victory, but to a seeming stalemate. We hadn't 'won' the war in the eyes of many; certainly not in the same fashion as we identified with World War II. Many of the people -- including a number of those who fought -- were left wondering, "it was for what?".
Not all could see, then or even later, that Korea was something of a turning point in the newly-dawned Atomic weapons age: the necessary-to-world-survival changes in the rules of the "game", were slow to register with many, and harder to explain to many more.
The rules are still hard to fathom, even today. More on that later.
As a reader and ponderer of history, I'm not here to discuss the pros and cons of the Korean War, save for an opinion I'll venture at the end here; suffice it to say that better writers than me have taken up many of those issues in excellent and well-researched accounts, and are available to those who seek them. Include in your reading lists In Mortal Combat by John Toland; This Kind of War by T. R. Fehrenbach; Breakout, by Martin Russ, among many others.
To paraphrase the words of Fox News, "they researched and wrote; you decide".
No, my purpose here is to pay belated and eternal recognition to those who served and sacrificed in the hills and valleys, in the 110 degree heat and -30 below blizzards, of the unforgiving Korean terrain. To remember places and names of battles that were no less honorable and horrific than Tarawa or Omaha Beach, and yet are nowhere near as heralded as Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima or Bastogne. Battles that, in their own scope, were as decisive as Midway or D-Day.
Names and places you should know of, and remember.
Places like Obong-ni Ridge, the Naktong Bulge, Taejon and the Pusan Perimeter. Inchon and Seoul. Hell Fire Valley, Hill 1282, Toktong Pass, Kunu-ri. Gloster Hill on the Imjin River. Chipyong-ni. Bunker Hill. The Soyang Valley. Hagaru. East Hill. Wonju. Bloody Ridge. Heartbreak Ridge. Porkchop Hill.
And beyond the famous men of the Korean War, there were the men who were on the ground, in the trenches, battling heat, arctic cold, deprivation and the enemy: men like Ray Murray, Ray Davis, Paul Freeman, Francis "Ike" Fenton, Robert Taplett, John "Blackie" Cahill, Walter Phillips, Joe Clemons, John Yancey, Jesse L. Brown, Chew-En Lee, Robert Gault, Henry "Gunny" Foster, Theodore Hudson, Joseph Owen, Baldwin Frank Myers, James Mount, Ed Reeves, Fred Davidson, Attilio Lupacchini, George Crotts, Preston Parks, Frank Munoz, Edward Schmitt, and countless thousands of others.
Men like my father.
He joined the US Marine Reserve in 1949, and was called to active duty in September, 1950. When he arrived in Korea in the spring of 1951, he was posted to his unit as an 81mm mortar gunner, and experienced the fury of the last two major Chinese offensives, as well as the massive UN counteroffensive that pushed the Chinese and North Koreans back north of the 38th Parallel.
On July 31, 1951, his war came to an abrupt end, as his buddy -- PFC Chester L. Corrello, Lima, Ohio -- stepped on a 'Bouncing Betty' land mine. Corello was killed; my father was badly wounded, and would spend the next year in and out of hospitals, recovering.
Whatever else he did and didn't do, he carried his Purple Heart proudly, to the end of his troubled life.
So I take this opportunity, as I did ten years ago, to pay tribute to the men of the Korean War. Men who served with honor in a war, like and unlike any they or their fathers had fought before. Men who answered a call to duty and did what they had to do, like it or not, and not always knowing the why, or the sense of it. Men who fought, died and held the far frontier in a new, little-understood kind of war between conflicting ideologies, ideologies that knew the rules of the game had to change in the Nuclear Age, but couldn't reconcile themselves to a better solution, because one side wished to compete for domination, and the other had to compete, or surrender.
And the surrender of liberty, to tyranny and oppression, is simply not an option. Not if what we cherish is worth having and worthy of passing on to the children of the next generation.
These men didn't return home, viewed as the World War II veterans were; nonetheless, they served and sacrificed every bit as much as our revered "citizen soldiers" of WW II did, and as all of our soldiers have, from the Revolution's Bunker Hill, to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Besides, and in the humble opinion of this writer -- an opinion born and formed of much reading and review of history, then and since -- it is clear today, at least to me, that they won the Korean War. For those who argue contrary, I simply suggest that they take a good hard look today at the quality of life and differing degrees of freedom and prosperity, south and north of the 38th Parallel. Freedom and prosperity is victory. Find that for me, north of the 38th.
Nothing more need be said.
So I mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War thus, and almost 59 years after his service ended there, I remember my father -- PFC Wayne L. Bay, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division -- and his fellow veterans, living and dead.
Again, and always, thank you, and God Bless you all.