- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2000

The Korean War erupted 50 years ago today, drawing over a million American troops into a bloody, three-year conflict that raced up and down the divided peninsula until it ended in stalemate where it began the 38th parallel.

Prodded by Josef Stalin and aided by China, North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung unleashed 70,000 soldiers and 300 T-34 tanks across the parallel at 4 a.m. on June 25, 1950. Mr. Kim's aim was to forcibly unify Korea under his Communist regime, after Russia and the United States ended Japanese rule in 1945 and split the country into two sectors.

Within a month, the United States came to South Korea's rescue, at first sending in Task Force Smith to blunt the shock-wave invasion. China and Russia eventually dispatched troops, too. For three years, Korea was the scene of horrendous fighting, much of it played out in sub-zero weather and mountainous terrain, where frostbite was just as likely as a bullet to claim an ear or foot. Washington worried that the warring convergence of superpowers might bring on World War III.

But retired Marine Corps. Col. Mike Cerreta, then a 20-year-old private hauling 100 pounds of weapons and gear as he fought the Chinese, remembers one man and one unit trying to survive.

"I had two tours in Vietnam. I've got to say my tour in Korea was decidedly more difficult," says Col. Cerrata, 70, of Fairfax. "When I get in a dry bed today, I say a prayer of thanksgiving because I go back to my experience in the war in Korea and how miserable it was for an infantryman living on the ground. When I came back I was a young man in good shape to start when I came back, I was an old man. I had aged so much because of those conditions."

Kim's blitzkrieg nearly succeeded in vanquishing South Korea. It gobbled up the capital, Seoul, forcing beaten defenders into a last-stand in Korea's southeast corner, the Pusan Perimeter.

In war-weary Washington, President Truman decided to make a stand against communist expansion amid a nascent international face-off called the Cold War. "By God, I am going to let them have it," the president told an aide after rushing back to Washington from Missouri.

The United Nations sanctioned its first war against an aggressor. The burden fell on a demobilized United States, whose four divisions of occupation troops in Japan were ill-trained and poorly equipped for the type of brutal land warfare awaiting them across the Korea Strait.

"That was kind of a ragtag outfit we had," says retired Air Force Gen. Russ Dougherty, who recalls flying in American troops one day, then flying out many of the same soldiers a few days later wounded.

Letting U.S. defenses lapse was not the country's only mistake. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had provided a "green light" for Mr. Kim the previous January, declaring that America's line of defense in Asia stopped at Japan.

"We paid the price for intemperate remarks by Dean Acheson," says Richard Hallion, chief Air Force historian.

By fall, American forces were pouring into the peninsula. They reversed the invasion, then boldly pushed north, all the way to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Alarmed, China entered the war, sending 200,000 Manchurian-based troops across the Yalu River. United Nations forces retreated. Again, Seoul fell. Mr. Truman openly contemplated employing nuclear weapons. He then publicly shot down his own trial balloon, fearing World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union, the world's two nuclear powers.

The alliance regrouped, fought back and retook Seoul. The enemy withdrew across the 38th parallel, where the fighting concentrated for the next two years in gory battles with names like Heartbreak, T-Bone and Pork Chop. The casualty-filled stalemate wore down both sides. The North agreed to an uneasy truce on July 27, 1953, signed at Panmunjom along a demilitarized zone. The armistice but no permanent peace treaty exists today.

The 'forgotten war'

The U.N. euphemistically labeled the hostilities a "police action." Critics lambasted Mr. Truman for waging a "limited war" that avoided attacks on Manchuria, the base for Chinese military operations. It later became the "forgotten war," overshadowed by the allied defeat of global fascism in World War II and by decades of hand wringing over Vietnam.

Still, the Korean War did achieve two major goals: the South's freedom and a brake on international communism in one corner of the world. Today, as Washington plans a series of events to commemorate the war and those who served, South Korea stands as a robust, free-market democracy. Pyongyang's continued bellicosity requires the presence of 37,000 American troops in South Korea and a Pentagon war plan to annihilate the North should it invade again.

During those same 50 years, Mr. Kim instituted a repressive, isolated regime. Its military soaked up large shares of a meager gross domestic product to build a one-million-man army perched at South Korea's door. The strategy produced economic ruin and a famine in the late 1990s that killed millions. The country's gross domestic product languished at $14 billion in 1998, according to London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. The free-market South's topped $425 billion.

"What we accomplished was we stopped the first real communist aggression after World War II," says retired Lt. Gen. Arnold Braswell, who piloted what was then the Air Force's new, million-dollar jet, the F-86 Sabrejet.

"We stopped the first one we had a chance to stop," he says. "We were able to protect the South Korean nation and therefore we drew a line in the sand for the Cold War. It sort of set the tone for our containment policy and determined policies from then on. We saved South Korea, which eventually turned out to be a prosperous and democratic nation."

Saving South Korea brought enormous human cost. Over 1.7 million Americans served in the Korean War theater. Of those, 36,916 died and 103,284 were wounded. Of 7,245 American prisoners of war, 2,806 died in captivity, some during a Bataan-style death march as North Korean forces fled the South. South Korea lost 59,000 troops, with 291,000 wounded.

More than 500,000 Chinese and North Korean combatants died in action and over 1 million were wounded.

To judge the war's ferocity, one can compare the death toll with Vietnam. In nine years, 47,378 Americans died in battle in Southeast Asia. Korea lasted just one-third the time, yet claimed 33,667 "battle deaths," 70 percent of Vietnam's death count.

Korea marked a number of "firsts" in addition to being the United Nations' inaugural war. The U.N. coalition included Americans, South Koreans, British, New Zealanders, Australians, Turks and Canadians.

For the first time, Americans fought against communist Chinese soldiers and Soviet pilots. It was the first jet war. It was America's first war with racially integrated squadrons, platoons and ships' crews.

In firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur for challenging the White House's refusal to attack China, Mr. Truman sacked the first commander in chief since Abraham Lincoln took a similar action during the Civil War.

Retreats, attacks, stalemate

When Col. Cerreta arrived in Korea in April 1951, the war had bogged down into a series of "hill battles" along the 38th. The Marine private joined up with the 7th Marine Regiment and deployed to a unit that set up defensive positions in the mountains to stop enemy incursions.

"I remember we were on this ridge," he says. "We started to dig in very rapidly. We didn't know exactly from where the attack was coming. We heard a bugle sound. We returned fire. We were just firing at flashes down the hill in the dark. The next morning there were dead bodies. Chinese."

The hill battles were preceded by four distinct phases played out in lightning-fast invasions and counterattacks that flowed up and down the peninsula.

The North's invasion started the war. U.S. troops had vacated South Korea after a post-World War II occupation, leaving defenses to an impotent indigenous constabulary. Two months after the assault, Pyongyang's soldiers had captured Seoul and shoved defenders into a relatively small pocket defined as the Pusan Perimeter.

Mr. Kim's land grab thrust upon Mr. Truman his most important moment since the decision to drop two atomic bombs on warring Japan and his move to bolster postwar Western Europe against a Stalinized Eastern bloc.

"If the communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threats and aggression by stronger communist neighbors," Mr. Truman later wrote. "If it was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a Third World War, just as similar incidents had brought on the Second World War."

The United States rushed in reinforcements. Air Force F-84 fighter-bombers targeted supply lines and troops to buy time while MacArthur figured out a counteroffensive.

"We were almost pushed off the peninsula," says Gen. Braswell, now in his 70s and living in McLean. "We were not well equipped. Luckily, we had enough guys with some World War II experience and brave guys who went in there and did their best to help stop them."

Retired Army Col. John C. Chapman of Richmond remembers being among the first American soldiers to enter Korea from a Japan occupation force in July 1950 as part of the 25th Infantry Division, an 8th Army component.

"We basically were just trying to blunt the attack. That was the best we could do," recalls Col. Chapman, 76, then a first lieutenant and forward artillery controller. "It was just hit-and-run is all we were doing in the early days."

"The North Koreans at that time were seasoned veterans. A lot of them were veterans of the 'Long March' with the communists in China… . We hadn't any field training in Japan hardly at all. By 1950, essentially all of the people who had been in World War II combat had been replaced by draftees in the States, with a few NCOs who volunteered to stay behind," Col. Chapman says.

Gen. MacArthur's grand plan began Phase 2. Commanding troops from a Tokyo headquarters, he devised a daring amphibious landing behind enemy lines, far north of the fighting, at the port of Inchon, west of Seoul. On Sept. 15, 1950, over 260 ships disgorged 70,000 Marines and soldiers in a mini-Normandy invasion designed to shock the victorious North Koreans. Simultaneously, the 25th Division, now reinforced by the 2nd and 3rd Army divisions, broke out of the Pusan Perimeter.

The gambit worked. U.N. forces liberated Seoul in vicious street-to-street fighting. Within two days, Gen. MacArthur's men drove north of the 38th parallel.

"The battle for Seoul became a source of lasting controversy and deep revulsion to some of those who witnessed it," says historian Max Hastings. "It was passionately argued by some correspondents and not a few soldiers that the civilian casualties and wholesale destruction could have been avoided by an effective enveloping movement, rather than direct assault, supported by overwhelming air and artillery support."

At that point, Gen. MacArthur and Mr. Truman, his commander in chief, made a momentous decision. They opted to continue the counterattack all the way to Pyongyang, to go for an all-out victory that would free Korea of communist rule.

The drive brought an unpredicted response from China and produced another major turning point in the war in just four short months. In October, Beijing entered the conflict in full force. More than 200,000 troops marched over the Yalu, scattering the far-flung U.N. armies. In all, China poured a half-million troops into Korea, initially some front-line fighters, then young conscripts as casualty rates soared.

American scouts ran across the first trickle of invaders, but U.S. intelligence headquarters in Tokyo in a major war failure dismissed those reports, as well as air reconnaissance that showed Chinese mobilization. The result was that U.N. troops deployed all over the North, instead of positioning themselves along the Yalu to blunt the impending attack.

"Our units were in echelons going north, one up in this valley and another up that valley," says Col. Chapman, who recalls sitting in a tank 10 miles from the Yalu when the invasion started. "They weren't anticipating running into a force of 500,000 Chinese… . Once the units up north started getting clobbered, it became pretty much 'get your vehicle and get the hell out of here.' "

The Chinese entered an evacuated Pyongyang, where U.S. soldiers blew up tons of ammo, creating a spectacular fireworks exit. The 7th Army Division and 1st Marine Division attempted a courageous stand at the Chosin Reservoir, a hydroelectric facility southeast of Pyongyang. The U.S. infantrymen were outnumbered 11-1, but fought valiantly, destroying 10 Chinese divisions before finally being ordered to retreat back below the 38th parallel in late December. At one point, the Chinese surrounded the Marines, who had to fight their way out.

Korea's Siberian-style winter had set in. Of 12,000 allied casualties at the Chosin Reservoir, 3,000 suffered frostbite. At that time, nearly one in five GIs hospitalized suffered frostbite. Seoul was again in communist hands. MacArthur faced anew the possibility of defeat.

The U.S. military stood unprepared for a war in cold, rugged Korea. Some cold weather gear they issued was better suited for stationary duty in Alaska, not rock climbing along the 38th parallel. Trucks could not reach men with fresh supplies. Only a few helicopters operated.

"In Korea," Col. Cerreta says, "We were on the go all the time. We climbed some of the most horrendous mountains you ever saw. You were bathed in sweat with all this heavy equipment and clothing… . We went literally months without a shower. I remember at one point I went down to a river and broke the ice just to get the bugs off me. Lice. You get dirty and dirt stays on you."

The fourth phase of the fighting began with the appointment of Army Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway as top ground commander. A veteran of the bleak conditions U.S. soldiers endured during the frozen "Battle of the Bulge" in the Ardennes, Gen. Ridgway immediately moved to boost morale. He provided soldiers with new weapons and protective clothing. He instituted field surgical units known as MASH. Perhaps more important, he reorganized his demoralized army for yet another counterattack.

"Ridgway was a much more hands-on commander," says Col. Chapman, who remembers seeing the four-star general visiting units. "He was a field commander. Ridgway was a paratroop commander in World War II. One of his trademarks was he rolled around in a jeep, with two grenades strapped to his harness. He was an extremely good field commander."

By March, 1951, U.N. troops again controlled Seoul, the forth time the capital had changed hands in eight months. Gen. MacArthur pressed for attacks against China and was fired by his president. Gen. Ridgway, Gen. MacArthur's replacement as supreme commander, had no desire to march again to Pyongyang. He set up a 115-mile coast-to-coast perimeter to protect the South.

Fighting against the Chinese and North Koreans remained fierce. In his book, "A History of the Twentieth Century," Martin Gilbert recounts the heroism of one American.

"On the night of April 24/25 a Japanese-American soldier, Cpl. Hiroshi H. Miyamura, from Gallup, N.M., protected his squad from an attack by vastly superior numbers of Chinese, killing more than 60 attackers with his machine gun and, when his ammunition ran out and he was severely wounded, resorting to hand-to-hand combat, with bayonet, thereby enabling his fellow Americans to withdraw. His citation for the Medal of Honor described how, when last seen, he was fighting ferociously against an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers."

By May, the war's final and longest phase began with a succession of give-and-take battles near the 38th that would last until the truce at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953.

The new Air Force

Korea was a coming-out party for the U.S. Air Force.

Only three years old as an independent service, the Air Force was given two main tasks for its new war gizmo, the jet fighter. First, its fliers delivered close-air support for forces pinned in the Pusan Perimeter, and later bombed supply routes and military targets up north.

And, its first generation of jet aces flew in spectacular dogfights in "MiG Alley" between Sukchon and Sinuiju, north of Pyongyang. Their job: intercept Russian- and Chinese-piloted MiG-15s out to down American bombers.

The F-86 Sabrejet was a simplistic machine by today's standard of computer guided, supersonic fighters whose avionics can spot and kill an enemy plane at long range with launch-and-forget missiles. But to Korean aces, the F-86 was the hot new fighter. It was the Air Force's first swept-wing jet, enabling the fighter to reach near-supersonic speeds. And its six 50-caliber machine guns could chew up a MiG from 2,000 feet.

"I think Korea was extremly important for the Air Force," says retired Lt. Gen. Earl Brown, an F-86 pilot who arrived at Kimpo Air Base a 24-year-old second lieutenant. "The Air Force doctrine was being developed and the doctrine of air superiority as the first requirement of any battle was being established. Until you establish air superiority none of the other functions of the military services can really be carried out successfully. By establishing air superiority in Korea, the Air Force doctrine was given a big boost."

The Air Force won its glory in MiG Alley, the scene of daily dogfights matching up the world's first operational jet fighters. Groups of 30 F-86 Sabrejets would leave Kimpo, arrive in the alley 30 minutes later and wait for MiGs to enter from Manchuria.

Gen. Brown, now 71 and a resident of Fairfax County, flew 125 missions, mostly as a wing man, sort of a human radar screen looking for approaching MiGs. He got shot up once, but returned to Kimpo safely. He damaged one MiG, which got away.

It was an age before cockpit radar, air-to-air missiles and grounded-based anti-aircraft missiles. The air duels were strictly mano a mano, machine-gun fire at close range.

The official Air Force scorecard: 792 fallen MiGs to 78 downed F-86s, a 10-1 ratio.

Pilots soon discovered they enjoyed one big technological edge: while the MiG-15 was lighter and more maneuverable, at speeds approaching Mach 1 (the speed of sound) the Soviet-designed jet was uncontrollable. The Sabrejet's hydraulic flight control system held up much better.

"We listened to their radios and we knew when a lot of them were getting ready to take off," says Gen. Brown, then a member of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing. "The principal tactic was to first see the MiG. The guys with the best eyes were the ones who could engage and get the kills. Second, you had to close and maneuver against the MiG. A MiG could outclimb the Sabre but it had a disadvantage at high speed."

While the F-86s flew north, the F-84 Thunderjets flew along the 38th, hunting Chinese and North Korean forces.

Gen. Braswell recalls one mission to punish enemy soldiers hunkered down on T-Bone ridge. "We put bombs and rockets on communist Chinese troops who were occupying the ridge there," he says. "We put a lot of ordnance down. We put our rockets in the tunnel. We were later told our mission was very successful in causing casualties to enemy troops."

The lack of accuracy in air-to-ground attacks planted the seeds for the development of laser-guided bombs used effectively decades later in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo.

"We learned we needed precision weapons and bombs," Gen. Braswell says. "More bombs missed the target than actually hit the target. It's not easy hitting a small target with an unguided bomb."

Gen. Brown went on to fly 100 missions in Vietnam in the F-4 Phantom, was one of the Air Force's first black officers to achieve three-star rank and retired in 1985 after commanding NATO air forces in southern Europe.

"It's like a strange lottery," he says today. "We all sit side-by-side in the briefing room. Some of us come back. Some of us don't."

Was it worth it?

Korean war veterans, whom the country honors today, talk proudly of what they accomplished in Korea. They disagree with historians who judge the war a draw.

"I think we sent a message to the Soviets, who were our principal adversaries and who were very much involved with our opponents," Gen. Brown says. "There was a line they could not cross without opposition. They had to evaluate their plan to dominate that part of the world as well as other parts of the world."

Says Col. Cerreta: "The Korean War was the first war we didn't try to win. MacArthur tried to win it. MacArthur wanted to win it, but Truman wouldn't let him. He fired him… . It's absolutely inexcusable to send American citizens to fight a war you have no intention of winning. This is the highest kind of crime, to command people to go lose their lives or their limbs for something you're not intending to win. It's wrong. You cannot do that.

"What did we accomplish? We accomplished saving South Korea from becoming North Korea. I think that's a pretty big accomplishment. Look at South Korea and North Korea today. Does anyone have any doubts what it would be like living under the communist regime in South Korea?"

Says Ike Skelton of Missouri, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee: "The war told the communists that we would stand our ground. It told the communists that we valued democratic institutions and it helped create one in South Korea. It was not in vain."

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