How To Remember The Forgotten War


When Harry Truman determined to fight, and secured United Nations backing (possible because Stalin was boycotting the Security Council), Ambassador David K. E. Bruce in Paris hurried to inform Robert Schumann, the French foreign minister who was energizing European economic cooperation. “Thank God,” said Schumann, his eyes welling with tears as he thought of the craven response at Munich just twelve years earlier. “This will not be a repetition of the past.” In some ways, however, it was. As before, war caught us unprepared.


Visitors to the Korean War Memorial on the Mall in Washington see representations of our troops trudging along what I as a consultant suggested to the first designers (they were largely overruled) should resemble a dry creek-bed. The final design, a concession to the memorial committee’s pride, shows a platoon of smartly outfitted GIs, bearing ponchos and walkie-talkie radios. I thought they should have been grungy-looking, as we were. Few troops had walkie-talkies, and ponchos were mostly used to wrap the dead. Airmen lacked grid-overlay maps with coordinates to make targeting more than guesswork, but early in the war MacArthur’s chief of staff, Edward Almond, wanted bombs “put on the ground in the narrow corridor between the 38th parallel and Seoul, employing any means and [even] without any accuracy.” One infantry lieutenant, among the first Americans in Korea, broke into a village schoolhouse with his regimental commander to tear “a large map from a geography book that had the branches of the two roads south of Chonan on it.”

American draftees just out of basic training were airlifted to Korea to augment understrength units, and Korean levies shanghaied off the streets by the national police also found themselves theoretically bolstering American units. One nineteen-year-old Marine corporal reporting at Camp Pendleton in Southern California said his reservist experience consisted of three summer camps, “where we mostly goofed off.” His records were marked CR: combat-ready. He landed in Korea on September 21, 1950, one month to the day after he had left civilian life in Minnesota. (With no Army reservist training whatever, I was in Korea seven weeks after learning how to salute.) Fortunately, the core of the 1st Marine Division had World War II amphibious experience. It made the difference.

Fortunately, the 1st Marine Division had World War II experience.

Veterans of Korea will protest that many of them were well trained and equipped and evidenced no end of heroism. Agreed. Unfortunately, our troops were often undermined by poor generalship, poor equipment, poor preparation, poor replacements. Food supplied by Army commissaries was often as old as the Occupation itself. A check of stockpiled K rations of World War II vintage revealed that the ham-and-egg component had turned black. The rations went anyway. There was no replacement tentage, nor wire, radios, combat boots, or vehicle spare parts. Weapons condemned as inoperable during an inspection the previous February had not been replaced. Jeeps could not be offloaded in Pusan because the gantry cranes there were inadequate to lift them.

Since no one had expected a war, the litany of inadequacies was enormous, and would get worse. The first soldiers in action found the situation hopeless, as Republic of Korea troops, for the most part, bolted. One American “heavy-weapons company” had no armor-piercing shells. When several GIs scurried out of firing range and reached for cigarettes, an irate officer yelled after them, “What the hell are you doing?”


“We’re having a smoke.”

“You’re about to die!”

“Yeah,” one said, “we’re havin’ our last smoke.”

It was not easy to bring order and discipline to bear, and by the time that occurred, abetted by hurried-out reinforcements from the States and better weapons, the United Nations forces—mostly American—were backed up dangerously in the Pusan perimeter, the southeast corner of the peninsula. What prevented a Dunkirk was a brilliant, if hazardous, operation designed by MacArthur: a massive amphibious landing above occupied Seoul by a force based upon the 1st Marine Division, mostly professionals with officers and noncoms seasoned by Pacific combat. The earlier disorder quickly forgotten, MacArthur in mid-September 1950 was a hero. Seoul was retaken and Syngman Rhee’s government restored there; tens of thousands of North Koreans were trapped in American pincers and forced to surrender; and before long there were few communists below the thirty-eighth parallel not in prisoner-of-war stockades.