Seventy years ago today, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, invading South Korea. I was ten years old, but my father would send me up Front Street in Philly to get the Inquirer or Bulletin. I think it was five cents in those days, fifteen on Sundays. Pa would split the paper with me.
I knew the details intimately and followed the battle lines faithfully that summer, when U. S. troops intervened in large numbers.
And then came MacArthur’s superbly executed amphibious Inchon invasion behind enemy lines that fall, reigning in the North Korean forces. Boldly, we marched into North Korea. It turned into a protracted war, however, with the intrusion of vast numbers of Chinese soldiers into the conflict in a colossal failure of U. S. intelligence that would cost many lives. I remember GI’s telling me how the bodies of charging waves of Chinese would pile-up in front of their machine guns, preventing clear fire.
Truman dismissed MacArthur, who returned home to a hero’s welcome. He had wanted to hit China. The bridges across the Yalu were never touched, allowing the Chinese free access. I remember the Chinese encirclement of our marines at the Chosin Reservoir, their desperate retreat after seventeen days of protracted battle amid sub-zero temperatures in what became America’s version of Dunkirk.
The war would continue unabated into election year, 1952, with an unpopular Truman bowing out. Eisenhower would be swept into office, pledging to end the conflict, which he did by intimating nuclear intervention. The enemy got the message and in 1953, an armistice was signed. It provided for prisoner exchange. The sad reality is it never fully happened, some 7,800 American POWs unaccounted for. All told, more than 50,000 Americans perished, 100,000 were wounded. Five million Koreans, North and South, died, the vast majority civilians.
The war proved to be the opening salvo of the Cold War, foreshadowing Vietnam. As a little boy sprawled out on the floor reading the war accounts, I never imagined I’d be part of an occupying force four years after the war’s end, safeguarding the Republic of South Korea from the North. I spent thirteen months there, initially as a seventeen year old. I remember naked, hungry children begging, adults living in holes covered over with sheet metal, bullet shredded walls.
Today, North Korea remains a rogue state, menacing not only the Republic, but with its increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal, the U. S. mainland as well. We are at a loss for answers.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find anniversary accounts of the conflict in today’s press, understandably consumed with the pandemic, economic turndown and, not least, Donald Trump. Still, the Korean War has long been called America’s forgotten war. It hasn’t been that way for me. More like a shadow I can’t escape.