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Korea—how Many Died?

June 2024
1min read


The historian Allan R. Millett has taken us to task for stating last year, in Stanley Weintraub’s anniversary essay on the Korean War, that it “cost the United States of America 54,246 lives.” Writes Millett: “the war is unsatisfying enough without making our losses worse than they were.” He then sets the record straight in a condensation of an essay he wrote on the subject for the immense (1,240 pages!), recently published Encyclopedia of the Korean War (Spencer Tucker, editor; ABC-Clio, $275):

“The 54,246 figure, which routinely appears on monuments and in textbooks, became accepted through its use in the Statistical History of the United States , a compilation that has appeared in various editions for decades under the sponsorship of the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

“Battle deaths, as you might expect, have been tabulated very precisely, and the total for the Korean War is well established at 33,686. The difficulty lies in the subcategory ‘other deaths,’ which by 1960 had become fixed at 20,617. Someone should have been suspicious, since this figure was much too close to pre-World War II patterns for the American armed forces, when ‘other deaths’ commonly approached or exceeded battle deaths. Yet the service personnel in the Korean War did not endure a major epidemic (like the Spanish flu of 1918–19), nor did they suffer thousands of deaths, as in Vietnam, from helicopter crashes. When the Department of Defense went back to the Korean Warera records in the 19905, it determined that its ‘other deaths’ were actually 2,133, and that the number including all the other services should be 2,830.

“How does one explain a difference of almost 20,000 lives? It appears that the Department of Defense’s figures for “other deaths” included all noncombat deaths throughout the armed forces, worldwide, during the entire Korean War era (1950–57). The official figure for in-theater casualties for the United States armed forces in the Korean War is now 36,516.”

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