Killed In Korea: The Untold Story
|A VFW Magazine feature by Richard K. Kolb
Reprinted from the June/July 2000 issue of
VFW Magazine with permission
|JUST TAKE a look at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The number is engraved in stone:
54,246*. There is only one major problem—nearly one-third of the Americans included in that figure did not die
As it turns out, of the 20,617 non-hostile deaths originally attributed to Korea, only 3,262, or 16%, actually
occurred in the war. Some 17,355 of those deaths occurred outside the war zone—anywhere from California to the
Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. The vast majority—with the exception of 63 killed in shoot-downs by the
Soviets and Red Chinese—died in accidents.
"This is a mind-boggling figure!" wrote VFW member Walter S. Larsen. "It is about the equivalent of an entire
full-strength U.S. Army infantry division of that period. It is curious so many non-battle deaths would go
unnoticed by the press and the public for so many years.
"Certainly, a further explanation by the Department of Defense concerning these disastrous losses is in order.
Maybe even before the press stumbles onto this remarkable story!"
Fighting for Accuracy
Marty J. O’Brien of Augusta, Maine, readily agreed. That’s why he started trying to get to the bottom of this
vast discrepancy years ago. He was puzzled when he arrived at a breakdown of the numbers—all outside the Korean
theater of operations—killed: 6,977 soldiers, 5,586 airmen, 3,870 sailors and 922 Marines.
Burt Hagelin of Dover Foxcroft, Maine, and a vet of Co. A, 9th Inf., 3rd Inf. Div., was on the same trail. These
same numbers were supplied to him by the Pentagon’s Manpower Management Information Division as early as Jan.
12, 1993. He even wrote a paper on them.
In fact, the Pentagon published the corrected figures (thanks to Hagelin), after new and reclassified numbers
were tabulated, in its Selected Manpower Statistics, Fiscal Year 1994 in Table 2-23 on page 112. It provided a
precise breakdown of the 3,262 non-hostile deaths in Korea: Army=2,452; Marines=339; Air Force=298; and
Yet according to the Army’s Office of the Surgeon General, "no records exist" to verify non-hostile deaths
sustained elsewhere during the Korean War era.
Hagelin thinks a mistake was originally made by the Pentagon. "Many Korean War Veterans Association members
wanted names on a wall," he said, "but the government vehemently opposed engraving individual names. One wonders
The late Gen. R.G. Stilwell, the first chairman of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board, made it a
personal crusade to get the record corrected. He used all his influence to persuade the military branches to
re-check the numbers. One-third of the U.S. deaths directly attributed to service in Korea were indeed sustained
elsewhere in the world.
Stilwell told this writer that he was overjoyed that Reader’s Digest had consented to print a closer estimation
to the actual number in its July 1990 issue in the article "Veterans of a Forgotten Victory" by Ralph Bennett.
Unfortunately, the general died before his personal project was completed and several years prior to the
Cold War: Distinct Casualties
Some argue that any uniformed American who died during the entire era anywhere in the world should be included
in a total figure. That was appropriate for WWI and WWII—conflicts in which troops were recruited specifically
and exclusively for those wars. However, a far more fitting precedent was set by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
which included only Americans killed in the war zone.
Vietnam and Korea were wars fought within distinct geographical parameters. While they were waged, the Cold War
against the Soviet Union and its proxies was ongoing in Europe. Indeed, the Cold War had several fronts, and
America had to meet multiple and simultaneous global military commitments. These other fronts rate recognition,
During the Korean War era, only 1.6 million Americans actually fought in the war zone. More than 4 million more
served world wide. That 73% majority, whether drafted or enlisted, was put into uniform to combat communism in
two distinct theaters—Asia and Europe.
Hundreds of thousands of GIs would have served in Germany and other parts of Europe between 1950 and 1953 even
if there had not been a Korean War.
On March 12, 1947, America officially declared "war" on Soviet Communist expansion in Europe. The Truman
Doctrine proclaimed containment.
"Europe First" was the pillar of America’s postwar defense strategy. The draft was renewed on June 24, 1948—two
full years before the Korean War erupted.
An army, four air forces and a fleet were all mobilized to protect Europe. In 1951, four Army divisions were
sent to Germany to bolster NATO against a belligerent Kremlin. By 1954, 352,644 U.S. troops were stationed in
Europe—50,000 more than were on the ground in Korea at war’s end. All of these military moves would have been
made regardless of Korea. Europe, indeed, was a separate confrontation from the one in Asia.
Some 1.7 million men were drafted during the Korean War era, but many served outside of Korea in support of Cold
War objectives elsewhere or simply in defense of the nation.
A clear distinction was made between Korea and other areas. That’s why a Korean Service Medal (KSM) was awarded
only to actual war vets and a National Defense Service Medal to all others. If an American who died would have
qualified for a KSM, then obviously he should be counted among the war’s casualties.
For the Sake of Posterity
The massive movement of troops on an emergency basis, accelerated training and extended maneuvers created
unlimited opportunities for lethal accidents—on the ground, on the sea and especially in the air. Significant
numbers of these accidental deaths occurred in the European Theater thwarting Soviet communism.
Submerging and thus disguising their deaths among others is an injustice. The best way to honor their memories
is to educate the public about their service.
Their sacrifices are certainly worthy of recognition—but for posterity sake it must be in a historically correct
A memorial to all the Americans who died during the Cold War—distinct from the Korean and Vietnam memorials—is
the answer. It would confirm in the public’s mind that the Cold War was indeed real. And not a figment of the
imagination as the politically correct would have us believe.
Such a Cold War memorial would cover all the other actions in which 357 Americans were killed in hostile
situations, not to mention tens of thousands in training, maneuvers and operational missions. For accounting
purposes, the Cold War clearly deserves its own category.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial cast the mold for casualty inclusion. Recognizing that the death of an American in
Germany was part of the Cold War, its founders nonetheless realized that that loss could not justifiably be
attributed to the war in Vietnam. Like Korea, the mobilization during that era was worldwide.
If the Vietnam Memorial had included all that era’s deaths, it would have an additional 19,644 soldier’s names
on it. According to the Pentagon’s Combat Area Casualties Current File, 16,004 of these Army personnel died in
the U.S. and 2,329 in Germany from 1965 through 1975.
Once and for all, let’s set the record straight: 36,913 Americans died in, over or offshore Korea during the
war, which lasted from June 25, 1950, until July 27, 1953 (the era extended to Jan. 31, 1955, for VA benefits).
Of that number, 33,651 were killed as a result of hostile action; 3,262 died due to non-hostile causes such as
accident and disease.
The least we can do for their legacy is to ensure that their record of service and sacrifice is historically—if
not politically—correct. After 50 years, it’s time.