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Korea, the forgotten war

DAVID BALLINGRUD
Published July 20, 2003

The northbound train ride from Pusan at the southern tip of Korea toward Seoul was of no great concern to the U.S. Army's 34th Infantry Regiment that day in early July of 1950.

Sure, a North Korean invasion force had flooded into South Korea in the pre-dawn hours of June 25 and had quickly overrun Seoul, the capitol of the South. It was also true that they were continuing to push southward.

"But no one was particularly worried," said Henry Oppenborn, then a young second lieutenant and rifle platoon leader in the 34th Infantry. "Our mission was to make our presence known. It was thought this alone would encourage the North Koreans to leave."

At that time, he said, no one thought much of the North Korean army. Even Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in charge of U.S. forces in that part of the world, would later say he hoped that the presence of U.S. troops might cause the North Koreans to "turn around and go back."

Wishful thinking, as it turned out.

The mood of the northbound troops soured a bit, Oppenborn recalled recently, when their train encountered another train heading south, its flat cars stacked with oddly shaped, covered objects. "We weren't sure what they were until a South Korean officer finally told us they were bodies of South Korean soldiers," he said.

But nothing could have prepared them for what they encountered a day later.

On July 6, the 2,000 officers and men of the 34th Infantry Regiment, among the first U.S. troops committed to battle in the Korean War, were under a crushing assault from a larger, better equipped and better trained enemy. "We began a withdrawal that was continuous for over a month," said Oppenborn, who now lives in Citrus County.

Six weeks later, 1,816 of the 2,000 men of the 34th Infantry would be dead or wounded, Oppenborn among them. The unit was so shattered that its colors were retired, and U.S. and South Korean forces had been pushed nearly into the Sea of Japan.

Thus began the so-called Forgotten War, a three-year "police action," a sideshow to the Cold War in Europe, a bloody conflict that surged up and down the Korean peninsula, killing and wounding more than 2-million soldiers and civilians. President Harry Truman used the term "police action" to avoid making the American public deal with the more uncomfortable term -- war.

Soldiers on both sides knew what it was.

The Korean War began with the armed forces of Communist North Korea driving across the 38th Parallel that had divided the two Koreas since the end of World War II. It ended 50 years ago this month, not with peace, but with a frustrating armistice, or temporary truce, signed on July 27, 1953, in a tiny village called Panmunjom. Technically, North and South Korea remain at war today.

In those three years, famous battles earned their places in history -- Pork Chop Hill, Heartbreak Ridge, Inchon, to name just a few.

When the final casualty report for the 37 months of fighting was prepared, U.S. losses numbered 142,091, including 36,576 killed, 103,284 wounded and 5,178 missing or captured. Enemy casualty figures are less reliable, but the number is thought to have exceeded 1.5-million, of which 900,000, almost two-thirds, were Chinese.

A quick look at Korea's history turns up a few reasons for the war. For centuries, China, Japan and Russia wrestled to control it. Japan colonized the peninsula and held it until being defeated in World War II.

At that point, Korea was divided for political reasons. The Soviet Union accepted the surrender of Japanese units above the 38th parallel; the United States took the surrender of the Japanese south of that line. A broad demilitarized zone, or DMZ, separated north and south.

Western nations, especially the United States, were surprised by the invasion. Although intelligence suggested it was possible, most thought it was unlikely. The North Koreans were sponsoring an insurgency in the south, and it was thought they would stick to that tactic for a while.

But the North Koreans, and their Chinese and Soviet allies, made an even more crucial miscalculation. They were certain the United States and the United Nations would not intervene.

The Soviets in particular dropped the ball. In protest against the U.N.'s refusal to seat Communist China on the Security Council, the Soviets had boycotted council meetings since January 1950 and were not present to veto any council resolutions against North Korea. Truman thus had no trouble obtaining a resolution on June 27, 1953, authorizing a military response to the attack, and the United States, Britain and other nations were quick to send troops.

Ultimately, three years of blood and suffering changed very little.

The 38th parallel still divides the two nations, and the atmosphere is still tense. Earlier this month the two sides exchanged gunfire in the DMZ. The South is still vastly more prosperous, while the North remains poor, isolated, pugnacious and unpredictable. There is one important difference, though. Today North Korea has expanded its arsenal to include a least a few nuclear weapons.

Unprepared; overwhelmed

Henry Oppenborn is now 78 years old. He retired as a Dade County Court judge in 1993 and moved to Citrus Hills, a development in unincorporated Citrus County. He remembers being a bit confused the morning of July 6, 1950.

A few days earlier he had stayed up until midnight in a small officers' club in Japan, listening to President Truman announce that no U.S. ground troops would be committed to the war. The president okayed limited use of naval and air power, but at that point nixed the ground troops.

So far so good.

"We all went to bed and rested easy . . . until there was a tapping on my door at 5 a.m.," he said, "followed by a voice telling me that the C.O. wanted me packed and ready to go to Korea by daybreak. We had only a few hours of sleep."

By July 2, the 34th Infantry was ashore in Pusan, South Korea, and by July 6 they were dug in about 40 miles south of Seoul. Their task was simple: do whatever possible to slow the North Korean advance.

Like all the troops available to Gen. MacArthur in those early days of battle, these were, "by any measurement," unprepared for battle, according to Army historians. U.S. armed forces and equipment had been reduced since the end of World War II, and the whole nation was weary of war.

Oppenborn remembers looking down the road toward Seoul and seeing a column of troops advance toward his position, four abreast -- "the longest line you ever saw." At first, he said, he wasn't sure who they were.

The answer came quickly. "Suddenly the columns split," he said. "Two went off one side of the road and two off the other." Russian T-34 tanks then roared to the front of line and began firing high-explosive rounds into U.S. positions.

The Russian T-34 was one of the best tanks in the world at the time, perhaps the best, and they quickly overwhelmed the U.S. forces. "We had nothing to take them on," said Oppenborn. "Our World War II rocket launchers (bazookas) and recoilless rifles were completely ineffective."

A rout was on. In the next few weeks, American casualties rose above 6,000 and South Korean losses reached 70,000. By the beginning of August, U.S. and South Korean forces were pinned down inside a small piece of southeastern Korea, backs to the sea, behind an imaginary 140-mile line called the Pusan Perimeter.

MacArthur pushes back; China enters battle

U.S. and South Korean forces were in a bad way. But the North Koreans had become vulnerable, too, and MacArthur knew it. Their casualties were mounting and their supply lines had become overextended.

On Sept. 15, MacArthur launched a counterassault that sent the North Koreans reeling. His X Corps made an amphibious landing at the South Korean harbor city of Inchon, near Seoul, far behind North Korean lines. These forces moved quickly inland, cutting the North Koreans' line of supply.

"With dramatic ceremony," Army historians say, MacArthur returned the capital city of Seoul to South Korean President Syngman Rhee on Sept. 29. MacArthur was a brilliant soldier but a mercurial personality. Ultimately, Truman fired him because he couldn't manage to keep quiet about his commander in chief's policies.

U.S. forces followed the Inchon surprise with an attack out of the Pusan Perimeter the following day. A week later the North Korean forces broke and retreated to the north. By the end of September, the North Korean People's Army was out of the South altogether, and the war had taken on a decidedly new look.

On Sept. 27 President Truman authorized then-still-employed MacArthur to send his forces into North Korea, as long as there were no Chinese or Soviet troops there or planning to come. This MacArthur did, and by November he had not only all of North Korea under his control, but was almost on the banks of the Yalu River, North Korea's border with China.

The war seemed to be going well, and the military outcome seemed certain. Then, in late October, "unexpected developments" once again turned the battlefield upside down.

While interrogating some new captives, South Korean troops discovered a Chinese soldier among them. But was he regular Chinese Army or a volunteer? They soon learned the worst. Their captive was one of 300,000 well-disciplined Chinese troops that had secretly crossed the Yalu into North Korea and were now fully committed to the war.

Throughout November the Chinese troops pushed the U.N. forces back toward the 38th parallel, despite suffering tremendous casualties. "We face an entirely new war," MacArthur notified Washington on November 28.

With both combatant armies back on their respective sides of the 38th parallel, a year into the conflict, the Soviet Union floated a truce balloon.

On June 23, 1951, Jacob Malik, the Soviet delegate to the United Nations, announced during a broadcast of the U.N. radio program called The Price of Peace that the USSR believed the war in Korea could be settled. When Communist China made a similar public statement, Truman okayed the beginning of armistice talks.

The end of the war, however, was still two long years away. Negotiations moved ahead in fits and starts, interrupted by brief, violent battles and disputes over issues such as prisoner repatriation and borders.

Finally, at 10 a.m. on July 27, 1953, the armistice was signed, and 12 hours later the fighting stopped.

But not before each side threw a final punch.

For an hour before the armistice took effect, each side rained high explosives on the other as fast as their big guns could be loaded and fired.

Norman Parsons lives in Seminole now, but at the time was a member of a tank battalion in the 3rd Infantry Division. He remembers that the ground shook until 10 p.m., and that suddenly everything was quiet.

"A muster (meeting) was ordered for all troops at 11 a.m. that day to announce that the armistice had been signed," he said. "We were a little surprised (by the signing), because they had come close so many times before.

"At 9 p.m. on July 27 the sky lit up like you have never seen. . . . I was next to a big gun that fired every minute during that last fight. The earth would rumble and sparks would fly when it fired. The war ended with this final blast."

Two nations, still at war

"The Korean War is a forgotten war because we veterans allowed it to be," said Jere Crise, president of a struggling group called the Korean War Veterans National Museum and Library. "When I came back in November of 1953, it was still being called a police action. And it was called that until 1955, when Congress finally identified it as a war.

"It was too close to World War II; people were tired. And frankly, we had a poorly educated military at the time. Many when they returned home just slipped back into the hills of Tennessee or Georgia or whatever small town they came from. Only about 15 percent of those who went to war ever went to college."

Crise is trying to get the 4-million or so living Korean War vets to contribute to the museum and library his organization wants to build on 22 acres of land it owns in Tuscola, Ill., but he said the going has been hard.

"It's hard to get cooperation on things," he said. "It drives me wild."

Truman later called his decision to enter the war the hardest of his days in office. But he believed that if South Korea fell, Communist leaders soon would be making mischief closer to U.S. shores.

"We like to say we stopped the progression of communism in that part of the world," said William F. O'Brien, first vice president of the veterans group trying to build the museum and library.

A complicating factor for the North Koreans and Chinese during the war was the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and this nation's demonstrated willingness to use it.

In his Korean War Almanac, retired U.S. Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. notes that "until the Soviet Union exploded its own device in September 1949, the United States had a total monopoly on such weaponry and thus had no fear of a reprisal in kind."

The use of nuclear weapons was given serious consideration a number of times during the war, according to Summers, especially as a means to stop the advancing Chinese after their entry into the war in 1950. Further, the Eisenhower administration, which came to power in November 1953, talked openly of using nuclear weapons, not only in North Korea but in China.

As he would write later, Eisenhower decided to let Communist authorities know that if satisfactory progress toward an armistice was not forthcoming, "we intended to move decisively without inhibition in our use of weapons, and would no longer be responsible for confining hostilities to the Korean peninsula."

This story was assembled with information from a number of sources. Foremost among them: the U.S. Army's Center of Military History. In addition, information was taken from The Korean War by Max Hastings; A Short History of the Korean War by James L. Stokesbury; National Geographic and St. Petersburg Times interviews.

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