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Music About the Korean War: 1950-1954

Music About the Korean War
Songs about the Korean War are fairly rare, at least when compared to other American Wars, and were dominated by four main themes: patriotism, the soldier in battle, faith, and emotional pain. A few songs expressed discontent about the war, but none of them opposed it outright . In this context, Korean War songs represent a transitional phase between the patriotic and sometimes naive songs of World War II, and the anti-War songs of the Vietnam era. Most Korean War songs came from the country music genre, just a few years before the advent of rock 'n' roll.
One of the earliest Korean War songs was also one of the most popular, Jimmie Osborne's "God, Please Protect America." Osborne recorded the song on July 26, 1950, just a month after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 83, approving the use of force against North Korea. One day later President Truman would commit US Naval and Air support to South Korea. Osborne combined faith with patriotism with these lyrics:
Oh people let's start prayin', as we never prayed before
We need the hand of God, to lead us through this war
Give us vic'try in Korea, and save our boys so fine
God please protect America in this troubled time
The song first appeared on the Billboard charts on October 7, just as the escalation phase of the war was nearing its conclusion, and peaked at number 9.
"God Please Protect America" by Jimmie Osborne
sound "God Please Protect America" by Jimmie Osborne
Wilif Carter recorded a tune in the vein of the patriotic "saying goodbye" song that was so popular during both of the World Wars. In "Good-bye Maria, I'm Off to Korea," the narrator is a corn farmer from Iowa who had married an Italian girl during his first tour overseas, presumably during WWII. Now it's the "same old story" and he is back in the service to "win another fight for liberty. Jimmy Dale also recorded a version in 1953.
"Good-bye Maria (I'm Off to Korea" by Wilif Carter
sound "Good-bye Maria (I'm Off to Korea" by Wilif Carter
"Goodbye Maria (I'm Off to Korea" by Jimmy Dale
sound "Goodbye Maria (I'm Off to Korea" by Jimmy Dale
"Thank God For Victory In Korea" by Jimmie Osborne
sound "Thank God For Victory In Korea" by Jimmie Osborne
"Korea, Here We Come" by Harry Choates
sound "Korea, Here We Come" by Harry Choates
Jimmie Osborne followed up the success of "God Please Protect America" with "Thank God For Victory in Korea." Recorded on October 2, 1950, Osborne seems to have reacted to the successful Inchon landings in September, and the subsequent successful push-back of North Korean troops. This musical declaration of victory would prove to be premature, however, as Chinese forces entered the fray only three weeks later, fundamentally changing the character of the war.

Another patriotic song addressing the Korean War was "Korea, Here We Come" by Harry Choates, a Cajun fiddler whose career was tragically cut short in 1951. Choates recognizes the sadness once again felt by American mothers as their sons go off to yet another war, but then follows up with, "They've done made us mad. Korea, Korea, Korea, here we come!"
With the Chinese Intervention in Korea in October 1950, UN and South Korean forces suffered a series of shocking setbacks, including the failed Home-by-Christmas UN Offensive, the decimation of the US 2nd Infantry Division, the strategic retreat of US Marine forces at Chosin Reservoir, and the expulsion of US Eighth Army from northwest Korea. On December 15, 1950, UN forces re-crossed the 38th Parallel back into South Korea. Americans began to question whether President Truman would once again authorize use of the atomic bomb. A song by Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers titled, "When They Drop the Atomic Bomb" enthusiastically anticipates the use of the atomic bomb by General Douglas MacArthur, and the effect it will have on the evil commies:

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sound "When They Drop The Atomic Bomb" by Jackie Doll & his Pickled Peppers

There'll be fire, dust and metal flying all around
And the radioactivity will burn them to the ground
If there's any Commies left they'll be all on the run
If General MacArthur drops an atomic bomb

General MacArthur is supposed to have wanted to use 50 atomic bombs and lay down a permanent radioactive belt along the Yalu River. President Truman, however, decided not to use the atom bomb again. MacArthur made a series of statements, in defiance of Truman's stated war policy, in which he threatened to escalate hostilities with China. Truman fired him for insubordination, a decision later supported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Old Soldiers Never Die" by Gene Autry
sound "Old Soldiers Never Die" by Gene Autry
Several patriotic songs were written specifically about President Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur in 1951. Republicans in Congress made a hero out of MacArthur and invited him to address a Joint Session of Congress. Not surprisingly, country music artists sided with the Republicans and canonized the general in song, including "Old Soldiers Never Die" (based on MacArthur's famous line from the speech that "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away"). The song recounts the general's World War II career, especially emphasizing how he promised to return to the Philippines and then did, bringing peace to the Pacific region. The song does not mention anything about his performance in Korea. Gene Autry recorded the first version the day after MacArthur's speech, and it appeared on the country charts on June 9, 1951. Other artists who covered it included Vaughn Monroe and Jimmy Wakely.
Jimmy Short recorded another MacArthur tribute, "They Just Fade Away," with the near identical flip-side, "MacArthur speaks, and Roy Acuff offered a recording of Earl Nunn's "Doug MacArthur." The latter contains this gushing chorus:

Doug MacArthur is a name
That will light the halls of fame
Through the ages there will be no man above him
Just a soldier brave and true
To the old Red, White and Blue
And a hundred million hearts will always love him
"They Just Fade Away" by Jimmy Short
sound "They Just Fade Away" by Jimmy Short
"MacArthur Speaks" by Jimmy Short
sound "MacArthur Speaks" by Jimmy Short
"Doug MacArthur" by Roy Acuff
sound "Doug MacArthur" by Roy Acuff
"The Voice of Free America" by Jimmie Osborne
sound "The Voice of Free America" by Jimmie Osborne
By the fall of 1951, American and U.N. forces were locked in a bloody stalemate, epitomized by the battle of Heartbreak Ridge (described below). Meanwhile, the Cold War continued unabated. In this gloomy atmosphere, Jimmie Osborne released "The Voice of Free America," a rallying cry to Americans as the world's shining example of a free society:

Oh, the voice of free America, it beams throughout the world
Tells the honest way of life to man and woman, boy and girl
Let's thank God for all our freedom, He's been good to you and me
Let's unite the willing nations and keep the whole world free

Osborne openly fears atomic annhiliation of the human race, but is confident such a fate can be avoided through prayer.
"There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" by Jack Boles
sound "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" by Jack Boles
"There's Peace in Korea" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
sound "There's Peace in Korea" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Recording new versions of old war classics is a time-honored tradition in American music. For the Korean War, these are extremely rare. Jack Boles recorded a new version of the WWII hit "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere." This classic is about a crippled boy who still wants to do his part to defeat the enemy. The original version include the lines, "Let me show my Uncle Sam what I can do, sir! Let me help to bring the axis down a peg." For the update, Boles simply changed the word "axis" to "enemy". The rest remained the same.

Finally, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's upbeat song, "There's Peace in Korea," celebrates the end of the war while giving credit to President Eisenhower for fulfilling his campaign promise to end the war.
The Soldier In Battle
The jingoism reflected in the songs of previous wars slowly gave way to a more sobering account of the reality of combat toward the end of the WWII songs, and this trend continued during the Korean war. A number of songs touched upon the hardships of American soldiers on the front lines. "Rotation Blues," for example, tells the story of a soldier who longs for his time on the front lines to end. Composed by a soldier named Stuart Powell, the song is about the American policy of rotating units in and out of combat zones. Powell's narrator longs for rotation to "set him free," and comments on how the Far East Command (abbreviated as F.E.C.) "is too far East for me." In a nod to enlisted men whose rear-echelon duties included burning the fecal waste of latrines, Powell writes, "the honey pots in Korea started smelling
"Rotation Blues" by Elton Britt
sound "Rotation Blues" by Elton Britt
"A Brother in Korea" by Sonny Osborne
sound "A Brother in Korea" by Sonny Osborne
"Heartbreak Ridge" by the Delmore Brothers
sound "Heartbreak Ridge" by the Delmore Brothers
good to me." Sonny Osborne's "A Brother In Korea" laments that American soldiers are off to fight another war. He seems to suggest that, sadly, people just aren't happy without a war.

Some battle-related songs, however, remained at least moderately patriotic. One of the more popular songs of the war was "Heartbreak Ridge," a song that takes place in the aftermath of the long and bloody fight that ended in a costly UN victory in mid-October 1951. Casualty figures in that battle were estimated at over 3,700 American and French and an estimated 25,000 North Korean and Chinese. The song's narrator views the conflict as a struggle between good and evil: "We fight the Reds trying to win, to rid this world of hatred and sin." He reflects on the heroic sacrifice of a buddy from down the street in his hometown. Yet, standing atop the ridge, he takes in the enormous destruction: "On Heartbreak Ridge I stand tonight, with nothing but wounded and dying in sight."
One of the oddest soldier in battle songs was "Korean Mud," recorded by Elton Britt, about an American soldier dying in battle who could be saved if there was enough blood for him. With a rather macabre appeal to the listener to "give, give, give, give more and more of your blood," Britt's recording was surely intended to be part of a blood donation drive. The flip side of this recording contains Britt's "The Unknown Soldier," a powerful song about a dead soldier who, from beyond the grave, fears that he will have died in vain:
My grave is a promise you did not keep
My wreath is a ribbon of pain
and though I am dead, I shall never sleep
If I know I have died in vain
"Korean Mud" by Elton Britt
sound "Korean Mud" by Elton Britt
"The Unknown Soldier" by Elton Britt
sound "The Unknown Soldier" by Elton Britt
"The Old Family Bible" by Jimmy Osborne
sound "The Old Family Bible" by Jimmy Osborne
"Weapon of Prayer" by Louvin Brothers
sound "Weapon of Prayer" by Louvin Brothers
Despite the hardships and doubts that would dominate later Korean War songs, the war provided an opportunity for some song writers to reaffirm their faith in a just God. Many of the songs already presented have religious references, but these songs have dominant religious themes. In "The Old Family Bible," Jimmy Osborne responds to America's troubles overseas in 1950 with these lyrics:
In these gray restless days, with the clouds overhead
And the rumble of the thunder far away
I can find peace of mind in that wonderful book
For it tells me there will be a brighter day
"Weapon of Prayer" by Louvin Brothers was another popular song from the war. Charles Louvin served in Korea, and perhaps that had something to do with the song advocating for more direct involvement in the war by average Americans. The song encouraged those on the homefront to contribute to the war effort through prayer:
In that land across the sea, there???s a job for you and me
Though our presence there may not be found
We must stay each night and day on the battle line and pray
We must never lay our weapons down

We don???t have to be a soldier in a uniform
To be of service over there
While the boys so bravely stand with the weapons made by hand
Let us trust and use the weapon of prayer
In "The Korean Story," Jimmie Osborne took the opportunity to correct his earlier assumption that, following the initial UN successes, the war was over: "China entered in, MacArthur was dismissed, there was no chance to win." Finally, the narrator in the song thanks God again that the war has finally ended, and humbly prays for everlasting peace.

In "The Red Deck of Cards," the truce of 1953 and the resulting POW swap has returned a soldier to the American side where he is resting in a Red Cross tent. There he interrupts a card game with a tale of how the Communist guards used playing cards to try and teach them their "false doctrine" of godlessness:
"The Korean Story" by Jimmie Osborne
sound "The Korean Story" by Jimmie Osborne
"The Red Deck of Cards" by Red River Dave
sound "The Red Deck of Cards" by Red River Dave

And this "TREY" stood for three religious superstitions that the Reds would soon destroy,
The Catholic, the Protestants and the Jewish...
The Heart stood for Christ's blood, all shed in vain.
The Diamond signified the real precious jewel, the communist party.

The POWs kept faith, however, and were immune to the Red propaganda. After the soldier tells his story, he rips up a deck of playing cards and heads off toward a Korean chapel.

"I Changed My Mind" by Eddie Hill
sound "I Changed My Mind" by Eddie Hill
Religion and faith intersected in yet another POW tale in Eddie Hill's "I Changed My Mind," recorded in 1954 after the war was over. In this song, the narrator was captured after the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, and because of his weariness he fell victim to Communist brainwashing. He had resigned himself to experimenting this this new lifestyle when a letter from his mother asked him to pray on it. The narrator is told that there are no churches, and he realizes that Christianity was one of the things he had been fighting for. So, he changes his mind (again), and decides to go home:
I changed my mind and I'll go home again
To the ones who wait and pray for me
I was so blind, but now I'll find
The way to peace and happiness
I changed my mind
Emotional Pain
"Uncle Sam Has Called My Number" by Arkie Shibley
sound "Uncle Sam Has Called My Number" by Arkie Shibley
"When I Get Back" by Kay Kellum
sound "When I Get Back" by Kay Kellum
"I'll Be Waiting For You" by Joni James
sound "I'll Be Waiting For You" by Joni James
Many of the remaining songs about the Korean War are about some form of emotional pain. In these songs, soldiers fear that their loved ones will not remain faithful (Arkie Shibley's "Uncle Sam Has Called My Number", and Kay Kellum's "When I Get Back"), despite assurances from their women that they would be (Joni James' "I'll Be Waiting For You"), and they mourn the loss of relationships that were beyond their control to save.
In "A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge," the narrator misses his girl, as well as the love letters that never came. He wonders if she still waits for him faithfully. He is heartsick and lonely, a far cry from the jingo narrator that went off to fight so many other wars:
"A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Ernest Tubb
sound "A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Ernest Tubb
"A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Wesley Tuttle
sound "A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Wesley Tuttle
"A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Ken Marvin
sound "A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Ken Marvin
"A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Gene Autry
sound "A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" by Gene Autry

I???m a heartsick soldier on Heartbreak Ridge
Across from the river of sighs
Where the shells burst around me
And cover the sound of a poor lonely heart when it cries

Will my prayers be answered on Heartbreak Ridge?
Will the one that I love still be true?
Does she count the hours until I return?
My poor heart could rest if I knew

"A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge" was recorded by Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry, Wesley Tuttle, and Ken Marvin.

And love-sick songs weren't confined to just Country Music. Blues artist L.B. Lenoir recorded similar sentiments in his song, "I'm in Korea." Here the narrator wonders, while sitting atop one of the nameless, numbered hills in Korea, whether his girl remembers his admonition to "don't let nobody lay their head down in my bed."

"I'm In Korea" by J.B. Lenoir
sound "I'm In Korea" by J.B. Lenoir
"A Dear John Letter" by Shepard & Husky
sound "A Dear John Letter" by Shepard & Husky
The most popular song to come out of the Korean War was an emotional pain song by Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky called "A Dear John Letter," recorded on May 3, 1953. "Dear John" appeared on the Billboard country charts the week of July 25, just a two days before the truce at Panmunjom was signed. This coincidence may have helped prompt sales, given that one of the lines in the song reads, "For the fighting was all over and the battle had been won." The song is about a soldier who has received a letter from his sweetheart, notifying him that he has been jilted by his lover, who has wed not just another man, but his brother Don. The term "Dear John Letter" had been used since WWII as a term to describe such breakup letters. "A Dear John Letter held the number 1 spot on the country charts for six weeks, and remained on the charts for twenty-three weeks. It had a big impact on the music careers of both Shepard and Husky.
"A Dear John Letter" inspired two sequels, each written independently and after the truce had been signed. The first was "Dear Joan" by Jack Cardwell. This might be considered a kind of saving face song. In "Dear Joan," the narrator is actually happy to have received the "Dear John" letter from the previously unnamed Joan, for he actually still pines for Joan's sister Sue. Now he's free to pursue that other relationship. The second sequel, called "Forgive Me John," was written by Shepard and Billy Barton, and Shepard and Husky reprised their roles as vocalists. In this rendition, the author of the original letter sends a follow up in which she explains that she still loves him. She asks for his forgiveness, but John rejects any notion of reconciliation and instead expects to lead the soldier's life of solitary loneliness.
"Dear Joan" by Jack Cardwell
sound "Dear Joan" by Jack Cardwell
"Forgive Me John" by Shepard & Husky
sound "Forgive Me John" by Shepard & Husky
"Missing In Action" by Ernest Tubb
sound "Missing In Action" by Ernest Tubb
"Missing In Action" by Jimmy Wakely
sound "Missing In Action" by Jimmy Wakely
"Missing in Action" by Ken Marvin
sound "Missing in Action" by Ken Marvin
"Returned From Missing In Action" by Jim Eanes
sound "Returned From Missing In Action" by Jim Eanes
An even more tragic romantic situation for the soldier of song was to return from the war only to find that your wife, who believed you to be dead, married someone else. (These situations did happen in reality, though they were extremely rare). Such is the situation in "Missing In Action," written by Arthur Q. Smith. The narrator, who escaped after being wounded and held prisoner, realizes that it would be wrong to intrude upon the happiness his wife has found after presumably mourning his "death". He leaves the house, knowing his life will be forever lonely without his true love:
A vagabond dreamer forever I'll roam
Because there was no one to welcome me home
The face of my darling no more I shall see
For Missing in Action forever I'll be
Jim Eanes first recorded "Missing In Action" in early 1951. It was then covered by Ernest Tubb, Ken Marvin, Jimmie Osborne, and Jimmy Wakely. "Missing In Action" inspired an answer song, recorded only by Jim Eanes, for those listeners who couldn't live without a happy ending. In "Returned from Missing In Action," the wife sees her former husband walking away. She realizes what has happened and she runs outside to catch him and explain that she still wants to be with him. The new husband dutifully bows out so that the original lovers may rightfully be together.
The emotional pain of loss was another theme explored in several Korean War songs, especially during the latter months and in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. In 1953 the Louvin Brothers recorded "From Mother's Arms to Korea," about a mother who receives her son's unfinished diary in the mail, "an unfinished diary that she once gave her darling son." The diary ends abruptly at the front lines, and the final entry is filled in by "his buddy, from a foxhole to a mansion on high."

"Searching For You, Buddy," recorded by Red River Dave in 1954 is the ultimate buddy tribute. The narrator was wounded in his first battle, presumably taking him out of action, but his life was saved by his un-named
"From Mother's Arms to Korea" by Louvin Brothers
sound "From Mother's Arms to Korea" by Louvin Brothers
"Searching For You, Buddy" by Red River Dave
sound "Searching For You, Buddy" by Red River Dave
buddy. Later in the war, that friend was listed as missing in action. It's a few years later and, though the narrator is home and has started a family (naming his son after his buddy), in his dreams, the narrator still searches for his best friend.

Carl Sauceman's "A White Cross Marks the Grave" also seems to be taking stock of the situation following the Korean truce. He reminds Americans that they enjoy daily freedom because so many gave the ultimate sacrifice in Korea. He then urges we not forget them:

May the ones who have gone on be remembered here back home
In the hearts of those whom they will see no more
They will wait until that day when they hear the trumpet play
Then they'll march again upon that golden shore
"A White Cross Marks the Grave" by Carl Sauceman
sound "A White Cross Marks the Grave" by Carl Sauceman
"A Prisoner of War" by Jim Eanes
sound "A Prisoner of War" by Jim Eanes
Several other Korean War songs contained prisoner of war themes. Jim Eanes recorded "A Prisoner of War," a POW song in which the narrator endures horrible conditions by thinking about his beloved:
Here in this stockade with guards all around
Shackled with irons deep into the ground
Darling I'm weary and heartsick and sore
Bound in this prison, a prisoner of war
If by some good fortune this letter gets through
Darling you know that my thoughts are of you
With love and kisses forever I'm your
Heartbroken soldier, a prisoner of war
"The Iron Curtain Has Parted", recorded by Don Windle in 1953, seems to be a topical song about one of the two POW swaps that took place between opposing forces. Operation Little Switch brought home 149 Americans, while the larger Big Switch returned 3,597 Americans, many in deplorable condition. In the song, the narrators is a POW who's joy at finally being released is tempered by thoughts and prayers for those of his comrades who were left behind:
Thank God the Iron Curtain has parted, and I am a prisoner no more
I now can enjoy home and freedom that never meant so much before
And when I???m home with my loved ones, ???twill surely be Heaven to me
I???ll pray for the boys left behind me, ???til each mother???s son is set free
"The Iron Curtain Has Parted" by Don Windle
sound "The Iron Curtain Has Parted" by Don Windle
"No Longer a Prisoner of War" by Hank Snow
sound "No Longer a Prisoner of War" by Hank Snow
"Fuzzy-Wuzzy Teddy Bear" by Lone Pine
sound "Fuzzy-Wuzzy Teddy Bear" by Lone Pine
"Sioxu Korea Memorial Song" by Oglala Sioux Singers
sound "Sioux Korea Memorial Song" by Oglala Sioux Singers
Lone Pine's "Fuzzy-Wuzzy Teddy Bear" does a fine job of depicting the sorrow of a grieving father, prompted by the discovery if his son's favorite childhood toy. The father is "proud he died a hero, but no joy prevails tonight." The song concludes with the image of the teddy bear sitting all alone and sharing "the bitter truth so brave."

A rare recording produced by Canyon records some time around the end of the war reminds us that America's wars are fought by a diverse people, each with their unique cultural traditions of memorializing an event. In this recording, the Oglala Sioux Singers give us the "Sioux Korea Memorial Song." Although the lyrics are in Lakota, it's not difficult for non-Natives to feel the emotion being conveyed.
"Forgotten Men" by Don Reno & Red Smiley
sound "Forgotten Men" by Don Reno & Red Smiley
Finally, Don Reno and Red Smiley produced "Forgotten Men" in 1956. Released a few years after the end of the Korean War, and more than a decade after the cataclysm of WWII, the song is a lament about the fickle nature of human memory, and it admonishes its Americans listeners not to forget those who sacrificed and lie far away in forgotten graves:

Forgotten men who lie asleep across the ocean waves
Who fought and died for the flag that waves across their lonely graves
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Last modified July 18, 2012