Remembering the “Forgotten War”
By Terri Hendry
(Las Vegas, Nevada)- The date was June 25, 1950 when tanks from North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, the man-made boundary marking the territory of South Korea. History shows it took a couple of days before the United States realized the scope of what had happened. According to Time Magazine, President Harry Truman was visiting friends in his home state of Missouri when he received a telephone call from Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. Another day passed as the situation in Korea continued to escalate. American civilians were evacuated as the South Korean military tried to hold the line. As for that line, at the time, one State Department official admitted the 38th parallel was an entirely arbitrary line. Time Magazine noted, “It was chosen by the World War II victors in Potsdam with no consideration for the geographical, economic or political realities of the country. But it was the border and it had been crossed.”
Stage is set
U.S. leaders, including military leaders, were stunned by North Korea’s aggression, but a series of events set this stage a year prior. In 1949, Congress dragged its feet in considering a $150 million dollar aid bill to South Korea. U.S. leaders feared giving South Korean President Syngman Rhee too many weapons as Rhee often talked of invading North Korea. In response, America made sure South Korea was only sent rifles, bazookas and light artillery. Weaponry such as tanks and airplanes were held back. Also in 1949, most the U.S. military had moved out with advisers remaining. In January of 1950, the House defeated the Korean Aid Bill by a single vote. While the South Koreans had little heavy military equipment, historians note the North Koreans were armed with Soviet T-34 Tanks, which some say had a substantial psychological effect on South Korean forces because they had never seen a tank before. Following the North Korean attack, the U.S.’s path into this conflict was far from straight forward. While the U.S. had already taken a side and promised to help South Korea, unfortunately, U.S. leaders struggled in deciding “how” America would help. South Korean President Syngman Rhee stated publicly he was disappointed with the American response saying, “Our soldiers are very brave. They sacrifice themselves against the tanks.” He added, “Korea is very hard up because aid was slow. It is too little and too late.” All the while, North Korean radio was urging the South to surrender.
A decision is made
Two days after the attack, on Tuesday, June 27, 1950, President Truman and his advisers came to a decision. Rather than asking for a declaration of war from Congress, Truman opted to claim he was sending ships and planes at the request of the United Nations Security Council. This allowed Truman, rather than Congress, to take credit for responding to the Communist threat. Here is Time Magazine’s account of what happened on that day; “Shortly after 11:00 a.m., the U.S.’s political and military policymakers began to arrive at the White House from the State Department, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. By 11:30 a.m. they had closed the high doors of the Cabinet Room behind them. Outside 100 reporters thronged the executive lobby and stood by telephones in the adjacent press room. Exactly at noon, Presidential Secretary Charles Ross stirred them into a whirlwind as he passed out the text of the gravest, hardest-hitting answer to aggression that the U.S. has ever made in its peacetime history.”
The President’s statement, as reprinted in the magazine began: “In Korea the government forces, which were armed to prevent border raids and to preserve internal security, were attacked by invading forces from North Korea. The Security Council of the United Nations called upon the invading troops to cease hostilities and to withdraw to the 38th parallel. This they have not done, but on the contrary have pressed the attack. The Security Council called upon all members of the United Nations to render every assistance to the United Nations in the execution of this resolution. In these circumstances I have ordered United States Air and Sea forces to give the Korean government troops cover and support. The attack upon Korea makes it plain beyond all doubt that Communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war. It has defied the orders of the Security Council of the United Nations issued to preserve international peace and security. In these circumstances the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to United States forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area.”
Three years, tremendous sacrifice
The Korean War lasted three years, ending July 27, 1953. The Korean peninsula is still divided today. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the conflict, including 36,914 Americans.
The country’s frigid winters, blistering summers and endless ridge lines provided for miserable conditions. In addition to the casualty rate, statistics show of the more than 7,000 confirmed POWs, only 4,400 made it home alive. American prisoners were forced to endure death marches, little food or water, extreme conditions and harsh punishments. Some historians say American POWs in Korea experienced a level of torture and abuse largely absent from previous wars.
Korean War becomes “Forgotten War”
Korea is known as the “forgotten war.” Some historians have noted, that much like the soldiers in Afghanistan, the 1.8 million Americans who fought in Korea rotated in and out of the war zone without attracting much attention. Recognition might have followed the armistice, but in 1953 Americans, even the veterans themselves, widely regarded the Korean War as anything but a victory. The long shadow cast by WW II’s “greatest generation” shaded Korean vets from public view until veterans of the Vietnam War took center stage, rendering the veterans of Korea even more invisible.
Efforts underway to “Always Remember”
Today, Southern Nevada Korean War veterans and members of the Korean community are working with the Nevada Department of Veterans Services (NDVS) to make sure those who served in this conflict are remembered and honored. They are raising funds and working on approvals to build a Veterans Memorial at the Nevada State Veterans Cemetery in Boulder City.
NDVS is also working with Nevada Public Radio reporter Doug Puppel to help spread the word about this fundraising effort.
Click here to read Puppel’s full report: https://knpr.org/knpr/2017-06/korean-war-veterans-last-mission-build-memorial-forgotten-war