Marty O'Brien's Casualty Book

Chapter One - The Korean Conflict: Conflicting Theories



The Korean War, officially styled as the "Korean Conflict" raged in Korea from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953, the date of the signing of an armistice between the United Nations Command (UNC) and the military forces of the North Korean Peoples Army (NKPA) and the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF).

After the truce was signed, 641 more U.S. service members died from hostile actions through January 31, 1955, mostly Air Force; since February 1, 1955, 98 Americans have died from hostile and combat-related action. 132 more have been wounded along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separates the two Koreas.

The truce in Korea still is in effect. The military representatives of both sides meet periodically to discuss alleged violations of the long-standing period of relative peace in that troubled land which continue to this day.

Origins of the War

Why was there a Korean War in the first place? The causes of the war remain murky and shrouded in political secrecy.

Retired USAF Colonel Fletcher Prouty, a writer and researcher who for years was the Pentagon’s liaison to the CIA, believes that both the Korean and Vietnam wars were hatched at the Teheran conference of December 1943 between Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Chiang Kai Shek; with Winston Churchill in disagreement. He said that plans called for the de-colonization of Southeast Asia as well as independence for Korea.

A Long History of Conflict

For centuries, Korea’s three powerful neighbors—China, Japan, and Russia—have competed for its control. By 1910, Japan ruled over Korea until Japan was defeated in World War II. Seven days before Japan surrendered, the USSR declared war on Japan. By agreement, the Soviets accepted surrender of Japanese troops north of Korea’s 38th parallel, while the U.S. accepted surrender of Japanese troops in the south.

Many of the Japanese who surrendered to the Russians never got to go home and were sent to prison camps in the Gulag system in Siberia where they perished. The Soviets quickly sealed off the border and soon the government was run by Soviet-trained Communist officials. The new government was proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with Pyongyang as its capital.

Initially, the U.S. maintained a military government in the south; then in 1947, after a period of unrest, democratic elections were held and Syngman Rhee was chosen president. A National Assembly was formed and the new democracy was named the Republic of Korea. By 1948, Soviet forces began to withdraw from North Korea, leaving behind a well-trained Communist regime and a well-trained and equipped North Korean Army.

The Stage Was Set

United States occupation forces withdrew in 1949, leaving a shaky government and an army lacking cohesion, air power, tanks and artillery. In the following months, South Korea resisted North Korean attempts at subversion and successfully fended off Communist-supported guerrilla activities and border raids.

If the Teheran plan called for a period of struggle, during which time war profits would be made by suppliers on both sides, resulting in a unified Korea and later a unified Vietnam, then 1950 was the time for action. Early in 1950, North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, decided on war to achieve the goal of Korean unification under Communist rule. One can only speculate if the Teheran plan approved of the unification of Korea under Communist rule—as later happened in Vietnam.

Prouty believed, at least, that both wars were designed to continue the vast expenditures demanded by the military-industrial complex in the aftermath of World War II. Although there is a lot of truth in that belief, another probable theory is that the Korean War primarily was a post-World War II "squabble" between the victorious World War II allies over the hegemony of land, ports, industry, oil, precious minerals, hydroelectric power, and other natural resources on or in the Korean peninsula—a battle for the spoils of war, and political and economic influence in Asia and world power.

If you’re going to have a conflict of interests why not make some money in the process? Perhaps the real reason for the name "Korean Conflict."

A Costly Squabble

In any event, the war would cost millions of lives and millions more would be wounded or incapacitated—mostly Asian civilians—before it ended shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. As a result of the three-year plus war, large areas of North and South Korea were laid to ruin; millions of people perished, more millions suffered from wounds, injuries and diseases.

The war resulted in a stalemate and an armistice which continues to this day. It was not a war that either Josef Stalin or Harry Truman—World War II allies—could be proud of. A war that even those who honor Truman’s legacy today would like people to forget! Thus, "The Forgotten War?"

On April 12, 1995, the Harry S. Truman Library Institute held fund-raising dinners to benefit the library in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington. In Los Angeles, the theme was U.S. recognition of Israel; in Chicago, the focus was on the Marshall Plan; and in Washington, the event centered on Truman’s reorganization of the military and the creation of NATO. No mention anywhere of the Korean "Police Action."

Nor was it a war that China could be proud of; after the war Mao Tse-tung rounded up every book that was written about the Korean War and had them destroyed, except a limited few in archives. Having suffered a humiliating defeat, both on the battlefield and the aftermath of the war when most of the Chinese POWs chose freedom rather than return to China and Communism, they too wanted the Korean War to be a "forgotten" one.

In retrospect, to those on the UN side who served, fought and bled in the war to keep South Korea free from Communism, the war against the expansion of Communist power in Asia in the 1950s largely was successful—from both military and moral perspectives, and worth the sacrifice in human capital.

The United Nations

During World War II, the Allied Nations fought the Axis nations of Germany, Italy and their confederates in Europe as "The United Nations." As a formal body, the UNITED NATIONS was formed in 1945 by the "Big Five" World War II powers. Ostensibly, the UN was established as the primary instrument for establishing and maintaining international peace, and to prevent war by settling disputes between nations.

By 1950, the UN Security Council had been formed consisting of 15 members. The Council had five permanent members: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China (Taiwan). [The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) was not a permanent member in 1950. It was admitted to the UN in 1971, replacing Taiwan.]

A Body Disunited

The Korean War would be the first time in the post-World War II period that members of the world body found themselves politically and militarily disunited (and that proposition is open to speculation)—at least in the public eye—and on opposite sides of a bloody war in Asia.

There are historians who argue that Korea was just a battleground of competing economic interests—an Anglo-American bloc on one side and a Soviet-bloc on the other, a disagreement between socialist friends over the control of resources on the Korean peninsula. Others, like Prouty, believe that the war was contrived for the benefit of the military-industrial complex. Others argue that the Korean War was a contrived "conflict," artificially engineered by competing interests in the UN to legitimize the involvement of the formal United Nations in foreign disputes--one of a series of global hot spots which would be created by the international body to pave the road to global government.

Whatever the reasons—perhaps all three pertain—the United States, Britain and France for political reasons rallied to the defense of South Korea and the majority of the members of the UN SECURITY COUNCIL voted to send troops to Korea.

Help on the Way

Within hours after the invasion of South Korea began, the Council called for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of North Korean forces from South Korea. Predictably, North Korea ignored the resolution. Two days later, the Council urged UN members to assist South Korea in repelling the invaders.

Both resolutions passed because the USSR, as the story goes, was boycotting Council meetings. Had the Soviet delegate been present, supposedly he would have vetoed the measures. One must say "supposedly" when reviewing the events leading up to the Korean War; while keeping in mind that in politics, if something happens, it probably was planned that way.

Just as predictably, the Soviet Union supported its puppet, North Korea. In essence, the UN technically found itself on both sides of the conflict, both winning and losing at the same time. That pattern of involvement would repeat itself in all of our post WWII conflicts throughout the world--a pattern of involvement in which the word "Victory" was not a consideration.

Differing Opinions

However, in the opinion of many historians, the combined FORCES OF FREEDOM won an unparalleled military and moral victory in Korea by successfully withstanding an array of immoral and political pressures brought to bear against them from all sides. And in the process they saved South Korea from Communist rule and oppression.

That victory was achieved thanks to a strong, tenacious—often non-compliant—American military leadership, and the patriotism and tenacity of South Korea’s President Syngman Rhee, as well as the heroic efforts of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, the U.S. Armed Forces, and the forces of the Allied Nations who came to South Korea’s assistance in her darkest hours.

In the United States another war raged between those who wanted victory and those who wanted "containment," - a number of whom, it was suspected, secretly worked for a policy of a re-unified Korea under Communism.

In the end, however, the policy of containment won out, and the political war at the negotiating table resulted in less than a complete victory for the South Korean people—to the extent that their countrymen once again were abandoned to Communist rule in the North.

In Vietnam, the generals were unable to withstand the overpower, immoral and political pressures arrayed against them and lost the war—despite the heroic efforts of the U.S. fighting forces, who reportedly never lost a battle there. Thus in Vietnam, the FORCES OF FREEDOM, in the larger sense, lost both militarily and politically—and in the process, the whole of Vietnam was abandoned to the forces of military—industrial exploitation and Communist domination—and again, in the post-war period, to economic exploitation.

The United Nations Command

The war in Korea would be the first time since the formation of the UN that a structured UNITED NATIONS COMMAND would attempt to carry out the "peace" mandates of the UN CHARTER. The war itself, however, was not run by the UN; that role was left to the United States—a superpower and the major financial contributor to the war.

Early in July 1950, the UN asked the U.S. to appoint a commander for all United Nations forces in Korea. U.S. General Douglas A. MacArthur, an American hero of both World Wars, was designated to command the UNIFIED UN FORCES as Commander-in-chief, United Nations Command (CINC, UNC); thus rendering the UN presence in Korea largely nominal and symbolic.

The Communist forces were supplied by the Communist bloc of nations—which ironically, in many instances, were in turn being supplied by the United States and the United Kingdom. In addition to the United States, 22 other nations would come to the aid of the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The Unified Forces

The Far East Command (FECOM), established on January 1, 1947, was the entity in place on June 25, 1950 when the war broke out. Shortly thereafter, FECOM became the UNITED NATIONS COMMAND under General MacArthur; it had operational control over all Republic of Korea forces, all UN battle forces, 8th Army, the independent X Corps until December 1950 when General Matthew Ridgway took over from General MacArthur and unified 8th Army and X Corps.

The Far East Air Force (FEAF) operated as a parallel command; it had operational control over the 5th Air Force, Bomber Command, plus Navy air in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. A third entity, Naval Forces Far East (NAVFE), also operated as a parallel force. It controlled 7th Fleet and the rest of the ships in the area. All three commands operated independently until October 1952, when General Mark Clark unified the three organizations.

The United States and the Republic of Korea provided most of the combat and combat-support troops; as well as major command, control and direction for the conduct of the war. The Republic of China (Taiwan) would not be permitted by the United States to participate in the fighting in Korea, ostensibly out of a fear by the U.S. government that such an action would widen the war to mainland China and ultimately involve the Soviet Union. But it was more believably because of UN and U.S. policy which did not support the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which sought to retake the mainland, and a global policy which tilted toward rapprochement with China in the post-Cold War era.

The Communist Forces

On the Communist side, the Soviet-backed North Korean Peoples Army and Chinese Communist Forces backed by the Peoples Republic of China provided most of the military manpower and equipment in support of North Korea’s aggression; China also supplied the manpower to run the brutal Communist prisoner of war camps. Some Soviet and Soviet bloc ground and air units also participated in the fighting in North Korea.

The North Korean Invasion

Hostilities began on June 25, 1950, when the Soviet-trained NKPA—consisting in large part of seasoned veterans of years of fighting in China against the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War and later during the Chinese Civil War—rolled across the 38th parallel and attacked South Korea in force. The United States immediately sent troops to the aid of the embattled South Korean republic. On June 26, 1950, U.S. air and naval forces were directed to support South Korean ground units and safely evacuate U.S. civilians and supply weapons and ammunition ROK forces.

Two weeks after U.S. jet fighters were committed, the North Korean air force ceased to exist as a viable unit. Later Russian pilots would take to the air, but generally the UN air forces were able to establish air superiority during the entire course of the war. The Russian-built jets, equal or superior to the aircraft flown by the UN, proved no match for the skill of better-trained UN pilots; the kill ratio was 14-1 in favor of the UN.

At sea, North Korea’s small navy consisting of a few patrol boats met a similar fate in short order. After the fall of Seoul, the North Koreans stopped their southward drive to regroup; South Korean forces resisted bravely, but were pushed back steadily.

The Pusan Perimeter

Initially, U.S. forces were committed to the battle in piecemeal fashion, relatively untrained for combat and inadequately equipped and supplied. They consisted of elements of three U.S. divisions, 24th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, and the First Cavalry Division (Infantry).

During the first several months of combat, U.S. forces suffered severe battle losses; but their quick reaction to the crisis, however, saved South Korea from being totally overrun by the Communists. By late July, U.S. and South Korean units were holding a small, roughly rectangular area, Taegu to the north and Pusan to the south, called the "Pusan Perimeter"—a line roughly 150 miles long.

September Surprise

While the North Koreans continued their attack on the south, General MacArthur was planning an amphibious assault in the enemy’s rear at the port city of Inchon, northwest of Taegu. On September 15, elements of the First Marine Division and the Army’s 7th Infantry Division hit the port defenses after intense naval and air bombardment.

Simultaneously, Eighth Army forces broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and raced north to join up with the amphibious forces in Seoul. By the end of September, 1950, as additional U.S. and other UN forces, equipment and supplies arrived to reinforce the UN presence, the tide of battle had reversed dramatically. The NKPA had been thoroughly defeated and routed on the field of battle—utterly destroyed as a fighting force, its remnants had retreated above the 38th parallel. The UN forces were driving north.

North to Betrayal

Bloodied and demoralized, North Korea indicated that it was ready to accept restoration of the 38th parallel as the border between the two Koreas. Syngman Rhee and Harry "the buck stops here" Truman decided to reunite the Korean peninsula under Syngman Rhee; to the chagrin of certain officials deep in the bowels of the government in the U.S., U.K. and France who were opposed to that policy—officials who favored a policy of "containment" at least, possibly reunification under the Communists at best.

In the coming months, the spy apparatus in the three nations’ capitals, of those who sympathized with the Communists, swung into full gear, resulting in the undermining and betrayal of General MacArthur’s conduct of the war. In addition to severe restrictions on his command, MacArthur’s instructions and orders somehow would find their way into CCF hands via certain UN circles. In addition, MacArthur began to receive unreliable and conflicting intelligence information about enemy troop strength and dispositions, which caused him to make faulty judgments about the tactical situation on the ground. MacArthur was fighting two enemies, the CCF and his "friends" in high places.

In explaining the unprecedented and unconscionable restrictions placed upon him, MacArthur said: "I realized for the first time that I had actually been denied the use of my full military power to safeguard the lives of my soldiers and the safety of my army. To me, it clearly foreshadowed a future tragic situation in Korea, and left me with a sense of inexpressible shock."

MacArthur said: "Brigadier General Walton Walker continually complained to me that his operations were known to the enemy in advance through sources in Washington." Later, with reference to the so-called "peace" talks, General Mark Clark said: "I could not help wondering and worrying whether we were faced with open enemies across the conference table and hidden enemies who sat with us in our most secret councils."

Strong stuff! After the war, Red Chinese General Lin Piao made this shocking admission: "I would never have made the attack and risked my men and military reputation if I had not been assured that Washington would restrain General MacArthur from taking adequate retaliatory measures against my lines of supply and communication."

Until October 1950, the drive north met with light resistance. In mid-October, elements of the First Cavalry Division and supporting troops had taken the North Korean capital of Pyongyang; shortly thereafter, elements of other units reached the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. United Nations forces had advanced northward in two columns, the Eighth Army in the west and the X Corps, an independent unit, in the east. The units were separated by some 50 miles by mountains and rugged terrain, thus dispersed and open to attack.

Enter the Chinese

By October, units of the CCF began to cross over the Manchurian border into North Korea to face the UN advance. Ostensibly, United Nations air patrols detected no sign of them. Contact with CCF units began in late October and early November; several elements of the 24th Infantry Division and First Cavalry Division came under heavy attack, resulting in the loss of several companies.

Russian-built MiG-15 fighter jets began to appear in early November. Due to faulty intelligence, MacArthur’s UNC woefully underestimated the strength of the Chinese forces. In late November, the CCF, consisting of several field armies, struck hard at the UN line, overwhelming the main line of resistance and inflicting heavy casualties on UN troops.

Strategic Withdrawal

Although the CCF also suffered high casualties, their numerical superiority worked in their favor and slowly the UN was forced to withdraw to positions in the south. As their drive intensified, the Chinese continued to suffer tremendous losses in manpower—even as they drove the UN forces before them.

There also were heavy UN losses; in the west, the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division got trapped at Kunu-ri, suffering thousands of casualties. In the east, X Corps units battled their way south to Hungnam and Wonsan where they were evacuated; surrounded far inland, the 1st Marine Division engaged the CCF in one of the great fighting withdrawals in history, inflicting tremendous casualties on the Chinese attackers before they were withdrawn by sea.

By the end of December, the UN had been pushed back to a position just south of Seoul; by January, the UN once again abandoned the South Korean capital and withdrew south to more open terrain. The UN continued to withdraw slowly, exacting a terrible toll on the advancing CCF. By mid-January, the front stabilized along an undulating line close to the 38th parallel.

Truman Gets Cold Feet

The entry of China into the war caused the U.S. administration to increase draft calls and impose emergency and economic controls at home in order to sustain the war. Despite the fact that the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan were ready, willing and able to assist Gen. MacArthur in the battle against the CCF, the Truman administration nixed the idea because, supposedly, it did not want to broaden the war.

By late January 1951, the Eighth Army had reformed in strength and organization under General Matthew B. Ridgway and was ready to advance against the CCF and NKPA forces in front of them. The time was ripe to deal the CCF in Korea a crushing and humiliating defeat; far from home with little or no line of supply for food and equipment, the CCF was a sitting duck.

Thrusts of infantry and armor were supported by vastly superior UN artillery and air power. Where the CCF chose to fight, they were slaughtered; in one action alone, 6,000 Chinese were killed, another 25,000 wounded. By mid-March, Seoul had been recaptured and the battle line ran roughly along the 38th parallel.

Again, the Truman administration backed off from delivering a coup de grace against the Chinese because they said it would mean widening the war, and it would cost too many American lives from a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Any hope by Stalin and others for the re-unification of Korea’s wealth under Communism had disappeared. It began to appear to "containment" diplomats on both sides of the struggle that it might be time to wind down the family "squabble." This resulted in a new U.S. policy, backed by the UN; MacArthur would repel China from South Korea, but would not seek to retake the north.

MacArthur Sacked

After the loss of millions of lives to rid the Korean peninsula of Communism once and for all, Harry Shipp Truman caved in to those around him who, for their own reasons, did not want to widen the war. Not only did Truman, a World War I artillery captain, put the brakes on administering the final coup against the CCF; he ridiculed and held to disgrace one of America’s greatest fighting generals in the process.

MacArthur was enraged at the new policy and felt betrayed once again; he called for an expanded war against the CCF, including attacks on political "sanctuaries" north of the Yalu River in Manchuria. His campaign to buck the powers to be failed and on April 11, he was replaced by General Ridgway as CINC, UNC, who had commanded the Eighth army since the accidental death of General Walton H. Walker on December 23, 1950.

Command of the Eighth Army passed to General James a. VanFleet. After General MacArthur addressed the Congress on April 19, 1951, a speech which probably was one of the most politically important events of the Korean War, a sneering President Harry S. Truman contemptuously referred to it as "nothing but a bunch of bullshit."

Two Years of Talk and Blood

In April and May, CCF and NKPA forces once again hurled raw manpower against highly defended UN lines. In response, General Van Fleet used the now familiar tactic of withdrawing, while at the same time massively punishing the attackers with superior firepower.

By late May 1951 the CCF, their lines of supplies once again cut off, had suffered tremendous losses; at that point General Van Fleet counter-attacked and drove the Communists above the 38th parallel. The CCF attempt to eject the UN from the Korean peninsula once again had failed.

Reeling from horrendous personnel and equipment losses, the CCF, and the remnants of the NKPA, were forced to sue for peace. Truce talks opened on July 10 at Kaesong, near Seoul; it was agreed that hostilities would continue during the negotiations—both sides strengthened their forces. While the truce negotiations went on, so did the war, further enriching the coffers of the suppliers of the war.

Late in august, the site of the "peace" talks moved to Panmunjom, east of Kaesong; the Communists broke off the talks and General Van Fleet went back on the attack. By mid-October, having unsuccessfully tested UN resolve, the Communists rejoined the negotiations.

For two additional years, a war of stalemate replaced the fluid war of maneuver which characterized the first year of the war—and in the process created a lot more Gold Star mothers in the United States, North Korea and China. However, no more major offensives were conducted during the war.

What the Communists could not win on the battle field, they attempted to win at the truce table; they made every attempt to delay, embarrass, humiliate the UN delegates, and to force concessions through intransigence, propaganda and delay. If the first year of hostilities resembled the war as it was fought in Europe in World War II, the second and third years saw fixed front lines and trench warfare which resembled the scenes of battles in France during World War I; the final two years also saw outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever.

Much of what the UN forces had won in battle in 1950 and early 1951, the politicians lost in the subsequent "peace" negotiations. The war, which should have ended in July 1951, dragged on until July 1953 causing tens of thousands more deaths and suffering.

An Armistice is Signed

Finally, on July 27, 1953, after two unnecessary years of hard, protracted warfare, the combatants signed an armistice at Panmunjon. Josef Stalin was dead; the "family squabble" was over.

Prisoners on both sides were repatriated; on the U.S. side only 21 men refused to come home, although most of them did come home later on. On the Communist side, thousands chose to remain in South Korea rather than return to Communism, and undoubtedly the Soviet Gulag system. Nearly half of all POWs held by the UN and three-quarters of the Chinese did not wish to return to Communist rule.

After the truce was signed on July 27, 1953, the opposing forces each withdrew two kilometers from the truce line, creating a narrow demilitarized zone.

A Moral Victory

While the military-industrial complex made a whole lot of money during the three-year period of the war, millions were given away in foreign aid to our friendly "enemy," the former Soviet Union. Romancing the thugs, as it were!

And while the war raged in Korea, Great Britain, in preparation for the post-war era of reconciliation, unabashedly traded with China, while British troops died on Korean battlefields and rotted in Communist prison camps.

Politically, the Korean War ended in stalemate and no appreciable territorial gains were made by either side; essentially, the war ended where it had started—along the 38th parallel. In the following months, through January 31, 1955, 641 more Americans, mostly Air Force, would die in actions attributed to the Korean "conflict" chasing "bandits" in the air and up and down the peninsula.

Although political accommodation triumphed in Korea, the "Cold War"—the continuing struggle for world hegemony between the world’s "superpowers" continued in other quarters of the globe. Militarily, the war resulted in a significant victory for the rank and file troops who fought in Korea.

Although a complete military victory over the Communists was not to be, South Korea at least was saved from the terrible specter of Communism, thanks to the South Korean and UN forces who fought, bled and died there. If there was a secret plan to reunite the entire peninsula of Korea under Communism—it failed miserably! In that sense, the war ended in a moral victory--thanks largely due to the stubborn will power of the American generals, many of whom had fought and won in World War II and would not permit a total military defeat of American arms in Korea to occur.

They would have preferred total victory; witness the remarks of General George E. Stratemeyer, Air Force Commander, Far East, in a Congressional hearing after the war: "You get in war to win it. You do not get in war to stand still and lose and we were required to lose. We were not permitted to win." In the end, though, the best that those who plotted in secret in London and Washington could hope for was that the memory of the war be erased from historical memory—a "Forgotten War."


A horrendous price in blood and suffering was paid for that victory, however.


Back to O'Brien Table of Contents
Chapter 2 - The Korean War: A Terrible Toll


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