Just two months after enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserve, a raw recruit named Clyde H. Queen Sr. found himself disembarking with thousands of other U.S. servicemen at the South Korean port of Inchon. The September 1950 landing put U.S. troops behind enemy lines and led to one of the first important U.S. victories in the Korean War -- the retaking of the South Korean capital of Seoul.
Two months later, Queen found himself in less successful combat: the Battle of Chosin Reservoir deep in North Korean territory near the Chinese border. U.S. forces, virtually surrounded by Chinese troops in weather so cold that rations and blood plasma froze, fought their way south to safety. But some 3,000 Marines were killed or wounded in the action, the United States' first contact with Communist Chinese forces.
Queen, of San Pedro, Calif., recounts his experiences on a Web site maintained by the Defense Department committee commemorating the 50th anniversary of the war's start.
But most Americans seem to have forgotten about the three-year, United Nations-authorized “police action.” Veterans call it “the forgotten war.”
“A lot of Korean War veterans feel bitter,” says Army Lt. Col. Jim Fisher, director of operations for the 50th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee. “They feel they never received the 'atta-boys' and laudatory comments that a lot of World War II veterans received.”
The commemoration officially begins on June 25 with a ceremony at the Korean War Memorial in Washington. President Clinton will be the keynote speaker.
“We want to ensure that our Korean War veterans receive the proper recognition for their service and sacrifice,” Fisher says. South Korea will launch its own commemoration the same day. The official U.S. party will include two of the eight Korean War veterans in Congress: Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
The three-year war began with the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, and ended in an inconclusive armistice signed at the border village of Panmunjom. Technically, the two Koreas are still at war. Many Americans viewed the war as a failure since the communists remained in power in North Korea, and President Harry S. Truman had refused Gen. Douglas MacArthur's request to take the war into Communist China. But David Kaiser, a historian at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says the United States, in fact, won the war.
“We preserved an independent, non-communist South Korea,” says Kaiser, author of a new book on U.S. policy-making in the Vietnam War. “We got into big trouble” by drawing the Chinese into the war by approaching the Yalu River border, Kaiser continues, “but eventually we were able to win the original objective despite the Chinese intervention.”
Despite ample warning, the war came as a surprise to U.S. military and diplomatic officials alike.
North Korea's leader, Kim Il Sung, wanted to unify all of Korea under his communist regime. In the South, Syngman Rhee similarly wanted a unified Korea with himself as president. Kim, a disciplined communist dependent on Moscow's support, sought permission for the attack from Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Stalin initially refused but relented after the communist victory in the Chinese civil war. “I am ready to help him in this matter,” Stalin wired the Soviet ambassador in Pyongyang in January 1950.
North Korea began with daunting military advantages. “The North Korean military was larger and better trained, and it had tanks and the benefit of a rather large network of Soviet advisers,” says retired Army Gen. Robert Sennewald, who fought in the Korean War and served in the 1980s as commander-in-chief of the South Korean-U.S. military command.
By contrast, South Korea had “a pathetic small force that had not been through any training and had no equipment,” according to Katy Oh, a Korean-American and a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses. In addition, Sennewald notes, South Korea “had just finished a very divisive war inside their boundaries against communist forces. It wasn't until 1948-49 that the last communist enclave was defeated in southwest South Korea.”
Initially, the war went badly for the South Koreans and for the United States. “In the first 120 hours of the war, the South Koreans lost one-third of their officer corps and one-third of their enlisted personnel,” Sennewald says. U.S. forces also fared badly because of poor leadership and overconfidence.
Fighting a determined foe on unfamiliar, mostly mountainous terrain, U.S. troops -- who made up the bulk of the United Nations command -- suffered a series of losses and defeats until finally establishing a defense perimeter in August 1950 outside the port city of Pusan. A month later, though, MacArthur -- the World War II hero designated by Truman as the United Nations commander in chief -- brought the Americans their first cause for cheer with an amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Inchon.
After retaking Seoul, MacArthur directed the U.N. forces across the 38th parallel despite warnings that the move would invite Chinese intervention. Pyongyang fell on Oct. 19; the U.N. forces continued northward, closer to the Chinese border. The Chinese responded in massive numbers in November, forcing the U.N. troops back south of Seoul by January 1951. MacArthur responded by calling for aerial bombardment and a naval blockade against China. Defying a presidential directive, he expounded his views in public statements in February and again in March. Truman responded by firing MacArthur on April 10 -- provoking public outrage. MacArthur returned to Washington and a joint session of Congress as the politically handcuffed advocate of “no substitute for victory.”
With MacArthur gone, Truman sought a truce. Cease-fire talks began in July 1951 and dragged on for two years -- delayed by North Korea's insistence that its POWs be returned home, willing or not. The war also dragged on. Some memorable battles remained to be fought, including Heartbreak Ridge and Pork Chop Hill. But, as Kaiser notes, there were “no major movements of the front.” “The objective of most of the soldiers was to serve 12 months and go home,” Sennewald says.
The war provided chastening lessons on the limits of presidential power. Truman's popularity never fully recovered from his dismissal of MacArthur. The Supreme Court's decision barring Truman's seizure of struck steel mills still stands as a legal barrier to unilateral presidential action in wartime. And Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1952 victory over the Democratic candidate for president -- after pledging to go to Korea if elected -- demonstrates a president's difficulty in maintaining political support while waging an inconclusive war.
For Koreans, the war left a bitter legacy: the lasting political and ideological division of their once unified country. “Koreans fought and killed each other,” says Oh. “The war provided a foundation for real mistrust and hatred toward each other.” Toward the United States, South Koreans have “a deep feeling of gratitude,” Oh adds, but tinged with some resentment of the outside assistance.
Americans were ambivalent about the war -- and remain so to this day. World War II is remembered in popular culture through scores of epic films. The Korean War is remembered through the movie and later television series “MASH,” with its decidedly unglamorous and unheroic depiction of war and military valor.
But Sennewald says we won the war, and that a celebration is warranted. “The legacy is a free country, a country that is economically robust, and a good ally of the United States,” he says. “Any veteran of that war should take a lot of pride in that.”