The Forgotten War - KOREA

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Cold War Background. The Korean War is often called "The Forgotten War." Wedged between America’s biggest war, World War II, and Vietnam, our longest war, Korea sometimes gets overlooked. That’s unfortunate. Because much needs to be remembered about the conflict that began 50 years ago this June.

Even before World War II had ended, the United States and the former Soviet Union, previously allied against Nazi Germany, had grown increasingly suspicious of one another’s motives. The "Cold War," as it would later be known, gained momentum in 1946 and 1947 with a series of local conflicts in Eastern Europe, Iran, Greece, and Turkey. The Berlin Crisis in 1948 in particular led many to fear a major East-West conflict was unavoidable.

In the midst of this increased tension and international uncertainty, the Soviets, in August 1949, exploded their first nuclear weapon. Six months later the Communists under Mao Tse-tung took control of mainland China. The Truman Administration responded by formally committing the U.S. to a policy of containing the spread of communism.


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In Korea the lines had already been drawn. With Soviet-backed forces in the north, and U.S.-backed forces in the south of the peninsula, ongoing United Nations (UN) efforts to peacefully reunite the country stalled. Then, in May 1948, the South Koreans elected Syngman Rhee president of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The Soviets soon after created and recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea. The line separating the two countries was the UN-sanctioned 38th parallel.

By early 1950 some 500 U.S. military advisors were in South Korea aiding President Rhee’s newly created national army of about 65,000 troops. President Kim Il Sung had risen to power in the north and amassed a small but capable army of 135,000 troops – bent on reunifying Korea by force. Almost immediately the two sides commenced sparring along the border.

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War Begins.  At 0400 hours on Sunday, June 25, 1950, artillery shells fell on Kaesong, the ancient Korean capital. North Korean forces followed with a full-scale invasion across the 38th parallel into South Korea. Hours later, in an emergency session at the United Nations, the Security Council passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire and immediate withdrawal. The North Korean Army ignored the resolution and continued its rapid drive toward Seoul – as shattered South Korean units fell back or were captured.

A second UN resolution called for international support and direct military involvement to restore the peace. U.S. President Harry S. Truman wasted no time in responding. On June 26 he authorized General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the Far East Command in Tokyo, Japan, to launch air and naval attacks on the Korean peninsula and to deploy U.S. ground forces to the port of Pusan on the southern-most tip of the peninsula. Four days later (on June 30) MacArthur was granted authority to blockade the peninsula and to use all available forces in the region to expel the North Korean invaders.

Delay and Hold. Most of the troops in the region fell under the command of Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, Commander, U.S. Eighth Army. The ground forces included the 1st Cavalry Division, and the 7th, 24th, and 25th Infantry Divisions, plus the ROK Army and the UN member nations who were in the process of mobilizing international support. The suddenness of events quickly revealed General Walker’s main problem – the striking unpreparedness of U.S. troops about to go into combat.

Five years of occupational duties in Japan, military budget cuts, and rapid demobilization following World War II, had left these units seriously understrengthed, poorly trained, and inadequately armed. Yet into the breach went elements of the 24th Division – known as Task Force Smith – with the mission to block the North Korean drive until Allied reinforcements could arrive. They were forced to retreat with heavy losses, but managed to delay long enough for a foothold to be established.

By the end of July, General Walker was orchestrating a last-stand defense along a 140-mile line known as the Pusan Perimeter. Through courage, skill, and sheer determination they held the line through mid-September. As the logistical situation improved, plans were being formulated for a counteroffensive.

"If the best minds in the world had set out to fund us the worst possible location to fight a war, the unanimous choice would have to have been Korea."

Dean Acheson
Secretary of State

UN Offensive. Against the advice of many, General MacArthur came up with a daring plan to break out of Pusan with a turning movement, resulting in a surprise amphibious landing at the port of Inchon just west of Seoul. It was a tremendous gamble and involved immense difficulties (not least of which was getting the necessary logistics).

Launched on September 15, the gamble paid off. Inchon marked a stunning success. In the days that followed the port was secured, Seoul was liberated, and North Korean forces cut off from their own base were being defeated by United Nations troops on many fronts.

By the end of September 1950, the North Korean Army in the south was virtually shattered, and the border along the 38th parallel had been restored. During the month of October, UN forces continued their drive northward toward the Yalu River and the Changjin (Chosen) Reservoir, North Korea’s major industrial and communications region. The question was how far might they go without prompting either the Soviets or the Chinese to intervene directly, on the ground in Korea. The answer became known on October 25, with fighting in the ROK sector around Unsan. The first Chinese Communist soldier was captured. With that, the whole nature of the Korean conflict had changed fundamentally. The U.S. and its allies were faced with an entirely new war.

Chinese Intervention. The Chinese launched devastating attacks throughout the month of November around the Yalu and Chosen, forcing the Allies to retreat toward the port of Hungnam. As the weather grew bitterly cold and the fighting more intense, Allied losses (both in terms of casualties and loss of equipment) grew, as did the swelling numbers of South Korean refugees.

The spring and summer of 1951 saw both sides settling into a routine, a stalemate of sorts, with intense fighting for strategic positions. Places with unusual names, such as Heart Break Ridge, Old Baldy, and Pork Chop Hill. In July of that summer, as the fighting continued, the first peace talks began in Kaesong, North Korea.

The talks continued at a frustratingly slow pace for another two years, until an agreement was reached in the spring of 1953. On July 27, the Armistice was signed and the guns fell silent. Bringing to a close the Korean Conflict.

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