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How To Remember The Forgotten War

June 2024
12min read

The Korean conflict erupted fifty years ago this June. Many Americans still believe that it began in debacle (which is true) and ended in a humiliating compromise that changed nothing (which is not).

Only by coincidence does the fragment of a map of Korea along the fateful thirty-eighth parallel that is part of the jacket art for my book MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero include the town of Chunchon. That was as far north as I got during the war. My commission as an Army second lieutenant had come on April 18, 1951, exactly one week after President Truman dismissed Douglas MacArthur as commander in chief in the Far East. As I prepared to go on active duty, MacArthur’s four-engine, dramatically named plane, Bataan, was about to touch down in San Francisco. Just after noon the next day, speaking to a joint meeting of Congress, the general delivered his farewell to military service, quoting a line of a nineteenth-century ballad, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” And like that old soldier, he declared in his slow, mesmerizing voice, he too intended to just fade away.

Actually, he intended to propagandize for a widening of the war and to run for President. Had the occasion been a quadrennial party convention, he might very well have been nominated by acclamation. Overcome listeners sobbed; some raced to their telephones to shout imprecations at the White House switchboard. The Republican representative Dewey Short, of Truman’s home state of Missouri, announced, “We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God.” At my Philco I thought I had managed a triumph of timing: I would don my khaki just when MacArthur’s replacement would wind down the war.

I hadn’t wanted to soldier as a private if I could do better. I had been a year too young for the draft when World War II ended and knew I’d be high up on the list for the next call-up. I aspired to be an officer and a gentleman, but neither the Navy nor the Air Force wanted me: I had no college math. The Army wanted to know if I was a scientist. A special regulation left over from the last war authorized direct commissioning of scientists; the recruiting officer at the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia was very positive on that point. I tried a dumb question on him: “Does a Bachelor of Science degree qualify someone as a scientist?”

“Why, sure,” he said, handing me the application form. Armed with my B.S. in education, I received my ticket to Korea. I was also far from the only green second lieutenant.

Although each war reminds Americans yet again that neglecting our readiness is more costly than investing in it, we do it every time. Before World War II engulfed the United States, George Patton on maneuvers in Louisiana had to go to a Sears, Roebuck store and pay from his own pocket for bolts to keep his tanks operating. After the war many tanks were junked where they were, and newer weaponry hardly existed when the Korean War began. For many months the war was fought with what hardware had survived from the last one, and troops on Occupation duty in Japan—the first to cross to Korea—tended to be far more knowledgeable about whorehouses than howitzers.

MacArthur’s shogunate in Japan—his reward for turning defeat in the Philippines into glorious return—had been an inspired decision by Washington. The imperial MacArthur style was, for the Japanese, a nearly seamless transition from rule in the name of the emperor. Five years into his routine, running the Occupation from the Dai Ichi Building, across a street, a moat, and a stone wall from the Imperial Palace, he knew about as much of Japan, and the state of his Occupation army, as the Great Oz might have. He never left Tokyo to inspect his divisions. He never materialized at field exercises, where pampered and poorly trained garrison soldiers often could not figure out how to break down a rifle, dig a foxhole, or maintain themselves in any way without paid indigenous assistance. His chief of staff blamed the poor quality of Occupation troops on peacetime recruits and their disdain for discipline. The tame correspondents on the Tokyo beat remained as reverential to the boss as were his staff officers. It was the good life.

Few troops had walkie-talkies, and ponchos were mostly used for the dead.

The idyll ended with unexpected suddenness on June 25, 1950, although the warning signs had been up and unread for a long time. The leadership in both parts of divided Korea—the southern half of which MacArthur had visited once, ceremonially, declaring at the time that he would defend it as he would California—lusted after unification, each side on its own terms. To prevent South Korea’s dictatorial and provocative president, Syngman Rhee, from crossing the thirty-eighth parallel, which politically divided the peninsula, Washington denied him both armor and aircraft. Kim Il Sung, installed by Stalin to the north, had similar ambitions, and early in 1951 he secured the Kremlin’s permission to invade, assuming an easy victory while the United States dithered. Korea, however, had strategic value that Washington downplayed to the public. In communist hands at the height of the Cold War, it could destabilize Japan and upset the precarious armed postwar détente worldwide.

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.

For MacArthur, however, victory meant not merely the restoration of the border but the destruction of the enemy and the reunification of divided Korea. That Chairman Mao’s Chinese might not want us on their borders was not a consideration to MacArthur. He saw the advance northward to the Yalu River, and Manchuria, as easily accomplished: The North Koreans were decimated and disorganized; the Chinese, too busy consolidating their country after the long civil war, would make noise but would not intervene, and if they did, they would lose and perhaps make it possible for Chiang’s exiled legions in Taiwan to return to the mainland of Asia.

With the amphibious victory at Inchon still fresh, MacArthur sold at least the first part of his proposition to Washington. Few paid attention to the threats from China or to the shaky military logic of MacArthur’s division of his forces for the pursuit north. For Inchon he had already created a separate entity from his 8th Army, X Corps, commanded by his court favorite, Maj. Gen. Edward Almond. He disliked his 8th Army commander, Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, who had been foisted on him by the Pentagon, and wanted Almond to play the leading role. MacArthur proposed to keep Walker plodding north while Almond with his men would reboard their ships and sail around Korea and up on the other side to make another landing and pinch off the remaining communists—and most of Korea.


The new operation drained fuel and equipment from Walker’s army, which could not hurry north, and wasted a month in reloading and transporting the X Corps armada to Wonsan, where, it turned out, the landing could not be made until thousands of mines were swept, and there were no minesweepers in Korean waters. MacArthur’s toadyish intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, hadn’t known about the mines. By the time MacArthur got his men ashore, Bob Hope, flown over to entertain the troops in the X Corps, was waiting on the beach for them. And the Chinese had been given the opportunity to slip tens of thousands of troops unnoticed across the Yalu River. Moreover, winter had blanketed the north. Up at the frozen Chosin Reservoir in the northeast to hand out medals, Almond assured the Marines, “We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu. Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.”

The laundrymen, the weather, bad intelligence, worse planning, and the delays in the advances on both fronts were turning victory into defeat. Abandoning their newly delivered weapons, the 8th Army in the northwest retreated even before they saw any of the tough, tenacious Chinese; over the mountains to the east, the X Corps was stalled in the snow and forced into a fighting withdrawal on foot and an evacuation by sea all the way south to Pusan. It had come almost full circle. MacArthur’s War was effectively over, and with it his reputation. Walker was killed in a jeep accident, and the Pentagon sent Matthew Ridgway to take over.

After Ridgway’s arrival, MacArthur vas effectively finished as a commander.

Ridgway was even better at public relations than MacArthur, who was seventy-one and had been left, tired and depressed, with his burst balloon. Ridgway arrived in Korea wearing his World War II combat uniform with his trademark grenade fastened to the right shoulder strap of his paratroop gear and a first-aid kit attached to the left. Impressed GIs immediately began calling him Old Iron Tits.

With Ridgway’s arrival, MacArthur, although still ensconced in Tokyo, was effectively finished as a commander. In any case he had never been a hands-on general in Korea. Save for following the X Corps into Inchon, he had been on Korean soil for only a few hours at a time, landing in his big four-engine bird for photo sessions with the press and taking off again for dinner in Tokyo. All he could do was to work on Washington to widen the war into an anticommunist crusade, which Harry Truman’s UN cohorts resisted. So did Truman, who did not want to mire American forces indefinitely in Asia. While MacArthur attempted to sabotage negotiations to end the war approximately in place, Ridgway began taking UN forces back to, and across, the thirty-eighth parallel. Truman had to keep warning the Supreme Commander not to step over the line into political insubordination. He did anyway. In April 1951 MacArthur was relieved. He came home, and I went to Korea.

It was an interesting and revealing time. The shooting hadn’t stopped, but there wasn’t much movement. Only casualties. Soon truce talks were initiated as the war went on. While more men got killed and wounded, the frustrating negotiations dragged on and on as the communists attempted to eke out, at the least, a no-loss peace: the thirty-eighth parallel restored as the frontier, as if there had never been a war of their making, and a complete exchange of prisoners—the practice in past wars. As I soon learned, however, this was not like past wars. Now that communism, dreary at best, has imploded in the former Soviet Union and been reversed or modified into some form of capitalism elsewhere, including China (with the intransigent exception of North Korea and perhaps Cuba), we can understand why tens of thousands of communist prisoners of war did not want to be repatriated. A second front in Korea finally did materialize: a war inside the prisoner-of-war camps for the bodies and souls of communism’s victims. For China and North Korea to lose any POWs through their own troops’ refusal to go home threatened to become a Cold War propaganda defeat difficult to explain not only in a Third World still up for grabs but in the communist bloc itself.

We discovered deadly kangaroo courts operating under cover of night in the POW camps, in which both sides brutally coerced captives. Soon there were outright mutinies, orchestrated from outside through covert POW communications networks, to prevent UN forces from screening prisoners to separate those who wanted to return from those who rejected communism. We had to use force to create a situation in which independent choice became possible. I recall a surreal nightmare march of sixteen hundred fanatic POW amputees, some on crutches, some in plaster casts, some walking grimly on wooden-pylon prostheses, others merely plodding on stumps, all armed with makeshift weapons or bearing blood-red banners. They had to be halted by tear gas and concussion grenades. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t in the newspapers.

In the end the communist negotiators and their stubborn surrogates in the camps had to be worn down by the reality that we would never again condone the inhumanity that had resulted when the Western Allies reluctantly, in 1945, returned to Russia its own countrymen—many former prisoners of the Germans—who did not want to go back to Stalinism. Some committed suicide en route home; others were murdered by the Soviets when they got there. The Western dilemma then was not only that the Russians were our wartime allies but that they held men of our own retaken from the Germans or interned in the Far East before Russia had entered the war against the Japanese. Our principles had been held hostage. This time we hung tough. The human tragedy would not be repeated.

On every front, the Forgotten War ended in victory.

I was in the middle of the Pacific early in March 1953, returning after seventeen months in Korea, when the troopship’s radio reported that Stalin had died. I realized that the war could end now; a deal could be brokered. A change of leadership had also occurred in Washington. Dwight Eisenhower had been elected to succeed Truman and, upon returning from a highly publicized pre-inauguration trip to Korea, had let it be known that if necessary he would approve the use of nuclear weapons to end the stalemate. Some see that as having made a difference, but as long as Stalin lived, it had not. The other side knew that the United States could not afford the world opprobrium that would result. The Chinese, in fact, had long before discussed that eventuality when MacArthur made similar threats. Gen. Nieh Yen-jung, a Mao intimate and a veteran of the Long March, had told a questioner then, “They may even drop atom bombs on us. What then? They may kill a few million people. After all, China lives on the farms. What can atom bombs do there? Yes, our economic development will be put back. We may have to wait for it [to recover].”

Some face-saving gesture was in order during the post-Stalin transition, and we accepted one on the sensitive prisoner-of-war issue. Pragmatism also drew the Chinese back to the consolidation of their revolution, which had been overtaken by the draining of scarce resources in an un-winnable war. The shooting stopped that June. No prisoners were forced back, but a diplomatic compromise to let Third World representatives, led by India, oversee repatriation delayed freedom for most until January 1954. In the end 21,805 POWs chose not to return to China and North Korea; 23 Americans opted to remain behind. (A few of these latter were communists; a few had been brainwashed; the rest evaded, that way, court-martial for collaboration.)

The cease-fire I hadn’t remained to experience was the public relations defeat that the communists had kept the conflict going many months in hopes of fending off. Yet even today the Korean War is considered at best an ignominious draw. It was not. It did cost America 54,246 lives. Thousands more are still missing. But enemy losses were at least ten times our own, and the communists were rolled back beyond the thirty-eighth parallel. South Korea thrives while the ideologically obsolete North survives as a backward pariah behind one of the few iron curtains still hanging. A booming Taiwan, which Mao’s China might easily have swallowed up had it not intervened in Korea, remains beyond reach. And the principle of voluntary repatriation of war prisoners, a propaganda blow to Cold War communism, stands. On every front, the Forgotten War ended in victory. We may have blundered into it, but we proved up to it.

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