Korea: The Forgotten War
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Summer of 1953,
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Question and answers

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 20, 2003

Q. What caused the war?

A. The Korean War came about in the midst of the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union were fighting for global influence.

Japan - which had controlled Korea since the late 1800s - surrendered at the end of World War II, and U.S. and Soviet forces moved into Korea. They divided the country at the 38th parallel. Soviet troops occupied the north; American troops the south. Ultimately, separate governments were created, with both Korean regimes claiming the entire country. Korean troops from both sides skirmished near the border several times from 1948 to 1950. In 1949 the United States pulled its troops from Korea and in 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson indicated that Korea lay outside the vital U.S. defense perimeter. Communist North Korea, with backing from the Soviets, saw it as the right time for an invasion of the south.

Q. When did the United States declare war?

A. War was never declared. President Harry S. Truman ordered American troops to the conflict, which he labeled a "police action," on June 27, 1950. Congress supported Truman's actions but did not formally declare war.

Q. How did the United Nations get involved?

A. At the United States' urging, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the North Korean halt fighting and retreat to the 38th parallel. When the north continued its invasion, the full U.N. authorized military action.

Q. What was the United Nations' contribution to the war?

A. Fifteen U.N. countries, in addition to the United States, sent troops to help the South Koreans. The United States provided about 90 percent of the troops, military equipment and supplies.

Q. What other countries sent combat forces?

A. The other countries that made up the U.N. Command were Australia; Belgium; Canada; Colombia; Ethiopia; France; Greece; Luxembourg; the Netherlands; New Zealand; the Philippines; South Africa; Thailand; Turkey; and the United Kingdom. Including the Americans and the South Koreans, there were 932,964 troops making up the U.N. Command facing 260,000 North Korean and 2.6-million Chinese troops.

Q. How did China get involved?

A. After the landing at Inchon in September 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur determined U.N. forces could push all the way to the Yalu River, the border with China, without risking Chinese or Soviet intervention. He was wrong. As U.N. forces neared the border, they had no clue that nearly 300,000 Chinese soldiers were waiting for them. Saying the U.N. troops posed a threat to China, Mao Tse-tung in November ordered his forces to attack.

Q. How many Americans died in the war?

A. There were 33,741 U.S. battle deaths among the U.S. service members serving in the war theater, according to Defense Department figures as of March 15, 2003. Another 2,835 died of non-battle causes, bringing the total dead to 36,576. Another 103,284 were wounded. The figure for all U.N. troops was more than 95,700 killed and more than 200,000 wounded, more than two-thirds of them South Koreans. On the communist side, more than 400,000 Chinese soldiers and nearly 215,000 North Korean soldiers were killed.

Q. What about civilian casualties?

A. About 4-million Koreans, nearly one-tenth of the whole peninsula's population, were killed or wounded, and another 5-million became refugees.

Q. How many U.S. soldiers were taken prisoner?

A. The number of American P.O.W.s was 7,140, of which 4,418 returned, 2,701 died in captivity and 21 chose to remain with their captors.

Q. Was everyone accounted for?

A. More than 8,100 American servicemen were never accounted for. Many of them presumably died in battle and their bodies were never recovered. For others, especially P.O.W.s that never came home, there has been speculation, based on documents later found in the Kremlin archives, that hundreds of U.S. servicemen were secretly held against their will. They were to be used as political pawns by the Chinese or Soviets or to be used for medical experiments, according to a report in Newsweek magazine.

Q. What about people from west-central Florida?

A. As with any war, tracking down precise numbers is difficult. Nearly 90 people from the five Suncoast counties lost their lives in the war, according to documents from the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration. One from Citrus, three each from Hernando and Pasco, 30 from Pinellas and 52 from Hillsborough.

Thirty men from those five counties were never accounted for, according to a list from the government's Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. Most of them, 17, came from Tampa or Hillsborough County. Ten listed St. Petersburg or Pinellas County as their home.

Q. Did President Truman desegregate the military during the war?

A. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 calling for the equal treatment and opportunity for all within the armed services without regard to race. Truman's ultimate intent was desegregation, but it was not ordered. Not long after the war started, manpower shortages plagued all services and segregated units only aggravated the manpower situation. As replacements arrived in Korea, it was administratively and logistically labor intensive to maintain segregation. In October 1951 the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment was disbanded, essentially ending segregation in the U.S. Army. By the war's end, more than 600,000 African Americans had served in the armed forces.

Q. Was there a massacre of Korean civilians at the village of No Gun Ri by American troops?

A. In September 1999, an Associated Press article quoted former American soldiers and Korean survivors who said U.S. servicemen, reportedly acting on orders, machine gunned refugees in July 1950 under a bridge near the village of No Gun Ri. In response, the Defense Department and the South Korean government released a joint report in January 2001 that said U.S. soldiers killed "an unknown number" of refugees 50 years ago near the village of No Gun Ri. But the report said investigators found no proof the troops were ordered to fire. The investigation concluded that the American soldiers involved were "young, undertrained, under-equipped and new to combat" and under the command of leaders with limited combat experience. The report also said U.S. soldiers feared the North Korean military had infiltrated their lines and posed as refugees.

Q. Why is it known as the "forgotten war?"

A. For several reasons. It came right after the success of World War II and unlike then, victory was never declared. With the signing of the armistice, on July 27, 1953, the fighting ended and both sides returned to their countries on either side of the 38th parallel. There is still no peace treaty, so in effect, the war never really ended. Soldiers didn't return to victory parades. Finally, the specter of Vietnam was already looming and it would soon overshadow the conflict in Korea.

Compiled by Ron Brackett with information from World Book Online, Smithsonian magazine; Newsweek magazine, PBS online; National Geographic; the Defense Department's Directorate for Information Operations and Reports; the Department of Veterans Affairs; and the Defense Department's Korean War Commemoration Web site.

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