On July 27, 1953, the guns fell silent in Korea. An armistice was signed and remains in effect today; a peace treaty has never been signed. More than 36,000 Americans were killed, 103,000 wounded and more than 7,000 captured. Forty percent died in POW camps; 7,921 still are missing.
As we observe the 60th anniversary of the war’s end, it may be instructive to review the events leading up to the war and to its eventual end three years later.
In June 1871, a U.S. fleet of five warships arrived in Korea to ascertain the fate of the American merchant ship General Sherman and establish diplomatic relations. Korean shore batteries fired upon this fleet, and 650 Americans landed and captured several forts. Korea still refused to negotiate with the United States. We learned later that the General Sherman had hit a sand bar, was destroyed and the crew killed.
Methodist and other missionaries had arrived and established hundreds of schools and missions, and in 1882, with Japan beginning to modernize and expand into other nations, the Korean king asked the United States to send a diplomatic and military training mission. Japan finally annexed Korea in 1905 after destroying the Russian Far East fleet with a surprise attack. The United States had annexed the Philippines in 1898, so we could hardly object.
The Soviets invaded both Manchuria and Korea on the day we dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, and to prevent them from overrunning the entire country, America offered to accept the surrender of the Japanese south of the 38th parallel while the Soviets did north of it. To our surprise, the Soviets accepted. But American troops could not reach Korea before Sept 8, 1945.
The Soviets frustrated every effort to unite the country with free elections and created a North Korean Army of 100,000, complete with tanks, artillery and combat aircraft. In the South, we established a lightly armed South Korean Army of 90,000 with no tanks, artillery or combat aircraft.
In the spring of 1950, the chief of the U.S. Military Advisory Group in Korea, Brig. Gen. Lynn Roberts, began a publicity campaign to convince the world, the Soviets, the North Koreans and the U.S. Far East Command that South Korea’s army was a superb fighting force. Staged demonstrations fooled the best American reporters and senior officers. The June 5 issue of Time magazine touted it as the best in Asia. But the North Korean invasion of June 25, 1950, revealed the hoax. The south’s army fled in disorder; the capital city of Seoul fell in three days. Yet, the U.S. secretary of defense had boasted that the United States could respond to any attack in one hour.
The U.S. Eighth Army in Japan was appallingly unprepared; 43 percent of its soldiers ranked in the bottom 40 percent of the Army General Classification Test. Units lacked a third of their manpower, most of the equipment had been worn out in World War II, spare parts were non-existent. Most officers were 10 years older than normal for combat assignments; only three of 15 regimental commanders had seen combat duty. It was a hollow Army.
Task Force Smith, the first unit sent to Korea, consisted of 450 troops: two rifle companies, an artillery battery and support medical and signal personnel. Its mission was to slow down a 10,000-man North Korean division equipped with 40 tanks and artillery and supported by combat aircraft. In a matter of hours, 185 men were killed, wounded or captured. It took another five days to round up the others to form another combat unit.
Additional U.S. and UN forces arrived, and the war continued for another 37 months, until July 27, 1953 . President Eisenhower threatened to use atomic weapons, and the Chinese had also suffered massive casualties and wanted an end. There were huge losses as U.S. forces retreated south and established a solid line across the narrow neck of Korea, which also brought about the removal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur from command. He had advocated the invasion of China and use of atomic weapons. With a massive Soviet Army threatening Western Europe, Korea was described by Army Gen. Omar Bradley as “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
The question is often asked, was it worth it? Consider that we saved South Korea, today a strong American ally on the continent of Asia. The per capita income in South Korea is $32,400, compared to North Korea’s $1,800. The typical South Korean is eight inches taller than his North Korean counterpart and has 10 more years of life expectancy.
For me, the answer is “Yes, it was.”
Columbia’s Col. Perri served 11 months as an Army officer in Korea and completed two tours in Vietnam; contact him at PerriAngelo@aol.com.