Tom Comshaw was just 17 when he arrived in Korea in 1954. The cease-fire agreement halting the Korean War had been signed months earlier, but plenty of work remained.
Comshaw spent a year in Korea as part of an Air Force ground crew maintaining the weapons systems of six F86 Saber jets.
Six decades later, Comshaw is on a different mission: to educate younger generations on what soldiers fought for, to share the experience of life in a war zone, to keep the conflict from receding into the mists of history.
“People, when they think of Korean veterans, World War II veterans, Vietnam, they think of old men. We were kids,” said Comshaw, who lives in Greenville and works with the Korean War Veterans Association’s Tell America program.
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Sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean conflict has faded from the collective memory, to the point that it’s often labeled the Forgotten War. But the war’s ripple effects are evident in the tension on the Korean peninsula, the barren minefield that separates the two Koreas, the threats of nuclear obliteration posed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Upcountry History Museum is working to reignite memories of the war and to shed light on its role in shaping the world’s current political climate.
The museum’s new exhibit, “The Forgotten War: Korea 1950-1953,” spotlights the conflict that began in the shadow of World War II.
The exhibit, presented in conjunction with the U.S. Navy Art Museum and the Naval History and Heritage Command, features 40 original pieces from the U.S. Navy art collection, along with artifacts from South Carolina. The Greenville show marks its national debut.
The paintings and sketches, created by several combat artists serving in Korea, depict soldiers and sailors at work and rest, as well as raids, battles, evacuations and scenes of the Korean landscape.
It tells “the narrative of the war,” said Kelly Smith, the museum historian who worked on the exhibit. “So we start immediately on why there is a border between North and South Korea, sort of the evolution. ... The United Nations, their first act as a power, was to begin the war.”
A fight against Communism
The three-year war, fought to halt the spread of Communism, was significant for a number of reasons, Smith said.
“Korea is the first war fought with a political motive, not for a territorial one,” she said.
The Korean War’s roots reach back to the pre-World War II era, when Korea was part of Japan’s empire. In the aftermath of World War II, Korea was split at the 38th Parallel, with the Soviets occupying the northern half, the United States the southern half.
In June 1950, soldiers from North Korea invaded South Korea, and the United States, under the auspices of the United Nations, stepped in. Soon after, the Chinese government sent troops to North Korea, opening the frightening possibility of an all-out war.
North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, was seen as a war hero, Smith said.
“He’d stood up against Japanese resistance since the 1930s. He was in exile in China for a long time, so they really viewed him as this national symbol of someone who cared about Koreans, and that has a lot of popularity,” she said.
The Americans backed South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, chosen because he had ties to the United States, including a doctorate from Princeton University.
Rhee not only undermined negotiation efforts, he also “just purged everyone and killed anyone who spoke out against him. So you had Kim Il Sung, who we as Americans see as this horrible dictator, but he’s a national hero because of what he did during World War II and the immediate aftermath,” she said.
The possibility of a third world war was terrifying, especially in the still-new nuclear age. Russia had developed its own nuclear weapons, and Chinese leader Mao Zedong proposed using nukes “like you would use a regular bomb,” Smith said.
The war ended in July 1953 without a peace treaty, just an armistice that officially divided Korea into two separate countries near the 38th Parallel, leaving a two-mile wide demilitarized zone.
The DMZ, which remains a dangerous minefield, is “the most heavily guarded and defended border in the world,” Comshaw said.
The cease-fire meant that “essentially we lost” the war, Smith said. Sixty-two years later, the armistice remains in effect, but the two Koreas are still technically at war against one another.
Relations between the two countries began to thaw a bit in the 1980s, under the rule of Kim Il Sung, who remained in power until his death in 1994.
“Korea was in a much better spot even 20 years ago than it is today,” Smith said. “As of the late 1980s, there had been a real movement between the North Korean and South Korean governments to have more of a neutrality between the two of them. They allowed families that had been separated since the war to go back and forth across the border to meet with one another.”
After Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il took over, and “all talks ceased between both countries,” Smith said.
A support mission
Comshaw and his fellow airmen were sent to Korea to help support the South Korean government in the months after the cease-fire.
As a teen who volunteered to go to Korea, Comshaw expected a fun experience and lots of action, not a ticket to a war zone. “When you’re 17 years old, you’re not mature,” he said.
For younger generations, the TV series “MASH,” with its wisecracking doctors, is one of the few cultural frames of reference for the Korean War, but the reality was far different, Comshaw said.
It was a hard, brutal war, fought during scorching summers and subzero winters so cold that blood from a wound would freeze as it flowed from the body. Comshaw recalls the winter he spent in a Quonset hut that was heated by two stoves, which barely put a dent in the chill. He slept under five wool blankets, but mornings were bitterly cold, so frigid that he defrosted his fatigues by tossing them on top of the stove.
The U.S. military brass were so confident of easy victory that they hardly prepared at all for the war, Comshaw said.
“We suffered 33,000 personnel killed in action in three years, and most of it was because, as a nation, we were unprepared,” he said. “We fought with World War II weapons, World War II C-rations, with all the grease sitting on top of the cans ... ammunition that was left over from World War II that was improperly stored, that caused a lot of stoppages. Men died because of that.”
And even now, many soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict are still unaccounted for, their bodies never returned to their families for burial.
That’s changed in recent years, as DNA testing has allowed for more precise identification.
Since the 1990s, the Dallas-based Korean War Project has worked with the U.S. military on locating and identifying those remains, and providing closure for family members, said Ted Barker, web administrator for the organization.
“It’s become a very valuable process, even though there have not been very many identifications,” Barker said. “Each identification means something to the men and women who served and all of the family members who have survived, and it gives them hope, even if it’s faint hope, to the (families of the) thousands who have not been identified.”
Spotlighting a ‘forgotten’ conflict
The Upcountry History Museum’s exhibit comes on the heels of last year’s popular Vietnam War showcase.
The Korean War was largely absent from the permanent displays at the museum, but that’s about to change. In addition to “The Forgotten War,” the museum is restarting its oral history program, which collects and archives veterans’ personal stories, said Elizabeth McSherry, director of programs and marketing for the museum.
“It’s our attempt to recognize another part of American history that, as with the title of the exhibit, is often forgotten,” McSherry said. “It’s very much kind of glossed over in social studies standards, which is one of the reasons why the veterans doing their outreach project is so important. Because there really isn’t enough time dedicated to it in classroom.”
Eighth-graders typically learn about American history, but very little is taught about the Korean War era, Barker said.
That’s been the case for decades, even in the years just after the war, he said.
“Even though I had eighth grade on a U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune, which is the largest Marine Corps base in the world, back in 1958, there were only a few paragraphs on the Korean War,” he said. “And here I (was) surrounded by thousands upon thousands of veterans. And I don’t think that’s really changed, as far as the history books. Even in the universities, survey courses just make a very small reference to it.”
While World War II looms larger in American culture, and employed a far greater number of military personnel, the Korean War also affected a significant portion of the population, Barker said.
“There were over 5 million men and women that were under arms during that period of time, 1950 to 1953. So it had a great impact, but not like the 21 million that served during World War II,” he said.
Its effects can still be felt in today’s multiracial armed forces, which were integrated by President Harry Truman during the Korean War, Smith said.
South Carolina has 30,982 surviving Korean War veterans, according to statistics from the Veterans Administration.
Comshaw hopes that future generations can learn from the mistakes that were made during the conflict.
“The thing that I want to get across to the American public the most is that because of our unpreparedness and the attitude that we were superior, we underestimated our enemies, and a lot of good men died needlessly because of that,” Comshaw said.
There were casualties among the Americans and the Koreans, but civilians often fared the worst, said Comshaw, who remembers sharing C rations with hungry Korean kids and “doing what we could” for children who were orphaned by the war.
In the 60 years since he came home from Korea, Comshaw has never wanted to go back for a visit. But the pride he feels in his service and that of his fellow Americans is planted deep in his soul.
“We made a difference,” Comshaw said, “and that makes it all worthwhile.”
If you go
What: “The Forgotten War: Korea 1950-1953”
When: Through Jan. 31
Where: Upcountry History Museum
How much: $4-$6
Location: 540 Buncombe St., Greenville
Info: (864) 467-3100