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Korean War

(See Main Section: Korean War)

The Korean War was the first and largest major battle of the Cold War, as proxies of the United States and Soviet Union took up arms to defend ideologies that clashed repeatedly over the next several decades. Fought between 1950 and 1953 (and still technically ongoing since the two sides never completed formal peace talks), it was war between North Korea, with the support of China and the Soviet Union, and South Korea, primarily supported by NATO and the United States.

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A Brief History Of The Korean War

Korean War In-Depth: From Beginning to Armistice

(See Main Article: Korean War In-Depth: From Beginning to Armistice)

Context of the Korean War

1. Post-WWII

Japanese in Korea, 1904

Japanese troops in Korea, 1904

For centuries, Korea had been within the Chinese sphere of influence. In the 1870s, Japanese pressure began to force Korea away from China and toward more cooperation with Japan. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea outright, colonized it, and suppressed Korean culture. When Japan invaded China in 1937 they forced hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians to labor for the Japanese war machine throughout the empire. Meanwhile, the peninsula was stripped of much of its food and natural resources, forcing additional Korean immigration to Japan. As a result, about 25% of the casualties from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were Koreans. Japanese dominion over Korea ended with their acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration on August 15, 1945.

Allied Leaders at Potsdam

Allied Leaders at Potsdam

Map of Korea

Map of Korea

The Japanese surrender and withdrawal from Korea created a power vacuum there. Weeks earlier at Potsdam President Truman had gotten Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to commit to declaring war on Japan, including attacks against the Japanese in Korea.  With the Japanese withdrawing, nothing stood in the way of the Soviets taking over the entire peninsula. The Americans, trying to limit Russian gains, hastily proposed a division of Korea between Soviet forces in the north, and US forces in the south, with the 38th Parallel as the dividing line, picked by some junior officers who thought it looked roughly in the middle, where the peninsula narrowed.  The US was lucky that Stalin agreed to the division.  Even as Russian troops stopped at this artificial dividing line, American units were still a month away from arriving in Korea.

The US was totally unprepared for administering a free South Korea.  The American in charge, Lt. General John R. Hodge, instantly disliked the Korean people.  After accepting the Japanese surrender, Hodge put key Japanese colonial administrators back in charge, much to the dismay of the Koreans.  When Hodge finally turned to Koreans for help in administering their own country, it was to those who had collaborated with the Japanese. Hodge refused to permit democratic elections, and at one point, martial law was declared.

2. North and South Korea in the Korean War

Syngman Rhee

Syngman Rhee

The US eventually created a government, The Republic of Korea (South Korea), headed by Syngman Rhee, a nationalist who had fled the Japanese occupation decades earlier and had lived in exile mostly in the United States.  He spoke English well, held 3 degrees from American universities, was anti-Communist, and he had not collaborated with the Japanese.  But Rhee was a dictator who frequently arrested anyone who disagreed with him.  Perhaps most problematic, Rhee frequently voiced his desire to invade the North.

Kim Il-Sung, 1950

Kim Il-Sung, 1950

Russian Troops in Korea

Russian Troops in Korea

Meanwhile, the Soviets oversaw the creation of the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), led by Kim Il-Sung, a former anti-Japanese guerilla fighter; a communist who had fought alongside the Russians at Stalingrad. The North Korean leader was even worse than his South Korean counterpart; Sung often had his political enemies executed.

By the end of 1948, the Korean peninsula was divided into two different nations, each with a leader who boasted about conquering the other, each supported by their ideological counterparts. The Soviets withdrew from North Korea, but US withdrawal from South Korea was repeatedly delayed to allow time for Rhee to improve South Korea’s security situation.

By 1949, the US was disengaging from Korea in every way. On January 12, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson told the press that South Korea was not a vital part of the US defense perimeter in Asia. By June only 500 American military advisors remained. Congress had become nervous that if too much aid were given to South Korea, Rhee would use it to invade the North. They sent light arms and armor, but withheld tanks and aircraft.

In January 1950, when aid to South Korea was up for renewal the US House defeated the bill, thereby cutting off all aid to South Korea. The fate of Korean aid had become intertwined with the desire by many Americans to get on with the business of their own lives. Having survived both the Great Depression and World War II, it was time to go to college on the G.I. bill, get a job, buy a home in the suburbs, and start families. Consequently, America’s mighty war machine was being quickly disassembled.

By 1948, the US army was down to 677,000 men. By May 1949 it was at 630,000 and shrinking. By June 1950, with the military budget cut to the bone (supported by both Republicans and Democrats), there were only 591,000 men in the army. Additionally, its most-experienced troops were gone, and its equipment had been allowed to deteriorate. In short, the US was in no position to fight a war that no one in America wanted anyway.

These actions by the United States were a signal to Kim Il-Sung that he could unite the Korean peninsula without American intervention. Unlike their Southern counterparts, the North Korean military was disciplined, well-trained, and well-armed. It was made up of ten divisions, some 135,000 men. Many of its officers had fought alongside Mao Zedong’s Communist Chinese forces during the Chinese Civil War. Most significantly, the Soviets had left behind 150 T-34 tanks, a model that had proved very effective against German armor in World War II. On June 25, 1950, after probing border forces for several weeks, Kim Il-Sung launched a full-scale invasion across the 38th Parallel.

3. Phase 1 of the Korean War: North Korean Attack & UN Intervention (6/50-9/50)

Outmatched in every way, the South Korean army broke ranks and ran. Within a day, North Korean forces reached the outskirts of Seoul, the South Korean capital. In the ensuing panic, a key strategic bridge was blown up with the South Korean army on the wrong side of it, and while 500 people were still crossing it. Seoul was taken on the 28th. Even as the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the invasion, the Truman administration wrestled with what to do about it. Politically, Truman understood that to do nothing would open him up to attack from the conservative right. The President assumed that the Soviets were behind the attack, and seems to have believed that WWIII had begun. But he made up his mind that America would take a stand. Korea may have been of little to no strategic importance to the United States, but it had enormous psychological value. Communists had crossed an internationally recognized line. They would have to be “contained,” but Truman wasn’t sure how.

 

Truman turned to the United Nations, where it just so happened that the Soviet Union was boycotting Security Council proceedings in protest of what they felt was UN preference for the Chiang Kai-Shek’s government on Taiwan (the loser in China’s civil war) over the mainland communist Chinese government. Without fear of a veto from the absent Soviets, the Security Council approved Resolution 83, recommending military assistance to South Korea. Shortly thereafter, the UN put these forces under American command.

 

How 20K Marines Held Out Against 300K Chinese Soldiers At The Chosin Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle

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The American commander who would lead the charge to contain communism was none other than America’s most popular military figure, General Douglas MacArthur. 70 years old in 1950, MacArthur was one of the heroes of WWII. Although he had underestimated the Japanese military during the early stages of WWII, he subsequently displayed fine strategic skill and was especially good at predicting Japanese strategy.

He was a strong proponent of air power, preferring to pulverize fixed Japanese positions from the air rather than risking direct frontal assaults. He had been on-hand to accept the official Japanese surrender and then had been in charge of US-occupied Japan. But MacArthur was also a supreme egotist who had spent so much time in the Pacific that he had come to see himself as both invincible and above any other authority. Truman had twice summoned him home to receive America’s thanks for his role in the Pacific victory, but twice MacArthur had turned him down.

Truman rightly suspected that MacArthur was planning a triumphant return just in time to challenge the Democrats in the 1952 presidential election. To that end, MacArthur had quietly made strong ties with conservative Republicans in Washington. In the coming war, MacArthur would achieve his greatest success, and because of his flaws, his greatest failures as well. His ego would ultimately prove his undoing.

Right off the bat, MacArthur exceeded his authority by bombing North Korean airfields.  But this did not stop the North Korean advance, and when MacArthur returned to Tokyo after inspecting the situation, he reported that the only way to stop them was to introduce American troops.  Truman authorized the divisions MacArthur asked for, without seeking congressional approval, but he was wary of things escalating.  He tried to downplay his actions.  At a press conference on the 29th, he insisted that the United States was not at war. A reporter then asked, “Mr. President, would it be correct, against your explanation, to call this a police action under the United Nations? ”  Truman replied, “Yes. That is exactly what it amounts to.”

Very few of the American troops sent to Korea were combat-ready.  Only one in six had even seen combat. The American G.I. had grown soft while serving in Japan as an occupation force.  One of the top American generals in Korea later stated they had become “fat and happy in occupation billets, complete with Japanese girlfriends, plenty of beer and servants to shine their boots.”

Of the four American divisions stationed in Japan, the 24th Infantry Division was the least combat-ready. Yet they were extremely confident as they rolled into the theater of operations that the North Koreans would run away at the sight of American troops.  This fallacy was based on judging the enemy through the lens of racism, the dangers of which the American should have learned from WWII.  The North Koreans were good.  They were disciplined, they used camouflage effectively, and they had no trouble leaving the main roads and hiking overland.  They used battle tactics learned from the Chinese communists, which included infiltrating behind the American lines with small units that made the Americans think they were surrounded.  They attacked at night and engaged in close combat in order to reduce the effectiveness of American airpower.

On the morning of July 5, 540 men from the 24th Infantry Division moved north and took up a position north of Osan, where they soon encountered North Korean forces for the first time.  The Americans attacked North Korean tanks, but their small mortars and recoilless rifles proved useless against the T-34. Some brave bazooka men closed to within 30 yards and fired, but that weapon too was ineffective.  Only with a howitzer did they manage to knock out a few of the tanks, but the rest plowed right through them.  When the order to retreat was given, many of the Americans threw aside their weapons and ran away.  It took five days to round them all up.  Of the 540-man task force, 180 were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, all of whom had to be left behind. An American colonel later wrote about the pathetic condition of his fellow troops:

They’d spent a lot of time listening to lectures on the differences between communism and Americanism and not enough time crawling on their bellies on maneuvers with live ammunition singing over them. They’d been nursed and coddled, told to drive safely, to buy War Bonds, to give to the Red Cross, to avoid VD, to write home to mother—when someone should have been telling them how to clear a machine gun when it jams.

Now, these troops were in a desperate fight for survival, in a place most Americans had never heard of and didn’t want to hear about, in brutally hot weather with no water.  Many of these soldiers became sick from drinking water directly out of muddy holes and paddies without first purifying it.

By the end of the first week, two divisions had been badly mauled, suffering some 3,000 casualties.  General MacArthur drew up a massive wish-list, most of which was approved, and some emergency equipment was rushed to Korea to help stop the North Korean tanks.  But each time the 24th regrouped and took a stand, they were hammered again.  By the end of the 3rd week they were at half strength.  After a fierce three-day struggle, the Americans withdrew from Taejon. Although they had failed to stop the North Korean advance, they had delayed it long enough for the other American divisions to establish a defensive perimeter around Pusan further south.

It was here the Americans would make their last stand.  But even as the Battle of Pusan Perimeter was about to being, there were signs that things were turning.  Fresh troops and better equipment continued to arrive.  The Americans cracked the relatively simple North Korean code, providing advanced notice of the enemy’s battle plans.  And by then the North Korean supply line was stretched thin.

The Battle of Pusan Perimeter began in August and ended on September 15, during which the Americans withstood numerous North Korean attacks. The United States Air Force interrupted enemy movements by destroying 32 bridges and bombing convoys, and they hammered anything that might be of material value to the North Koreans. Meanwhile, United Nations troops and material continued to pour in. By late August, the Americans in the Pusan Perimeter had some 500 tanks, while the North Korean tank force had been reduced from 150 to 40.

By early September 1950, South Korean and UN Command forces outnumbered the North Koreans by 180,000 to 100,000. As MacArthur planned his next move, a special representative of President Truman’s met with him in Tokyo to make sure he understood the administration’s intent to not widen the war by provoking Chinese intervention in Korea or possibly a Chinese takeover of Formosa. MacArthur responded that if the Chinese were to do such a thing, he would “deliver such a crushing defeat it would be one of the decisive battles of the world—a disaster so great it would rock Asia, and perhaps turn back Communism.” He went on to say that he prayed nightly that the Chinese would try something.

Korean War Aircraft: An Evolution in Flight

(See Main Article: Korean War Aircraft: An Evolution in Flight)

When communist North Korea’s forces smashed southward across the thirty-eighth parallel on June 25, 1950, U.S. naval aviation was caught in a period of decline. What five years previously had been the most powerful Navy ever to sail earth’s oceans had now been reduced to a fraction of its former glory. Korean War aircraft needed a quick build-up.

That month the Navy possessed fifteen active carriers: the three Midways with four Essexes, four light carriers, and four escort carriers. The Midways were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, anticipating that their heavy airpower might be needed against the Soviet bloc. Overall, the Navy counted 10,400 pilots for its 9,422 combat aircraft. Relying heavily upon the Reserves, by 1953 the aviator pool had increased to 18,200 while thirty-four carriers of all types were in commission. However, Korean War aircraft attrition was a constant concern.

When the armistice took effect in July 1953, Korean War aircraft in terms of naval aviation was six hundred combat planes short of the prewar number. Meanwhile, nine Essex-class carriers were returned to fleet service during the war. Thirteen escort carriers were recommissioned from 1950 to 1952, including five employed in Sealift Command. Four deployed to Korean waters, providing close air support (CAS) and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

Close Air Support (CAS): Its Korean War Origin

(See Main Article: Close Air Support (CAS): Its Korean War Origin)

In the wake of World War Two, the value of carrier aviation was proven repeatedly, to the benefit of hard-pressed ground troops who needed close air support (CAS)—defined as air action by aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces, and which requires integration of each air mission with fire and movement of these forces.

From early August 1950, allied forces were compressed into the shrinking perimeter around Pusan, occupying barely 10 percent of South Korea’s land area. Of the U.S. Air Force’s nine fighter and medium bomber air wings available during 1950, only one remained in Korea through year-end, with another rotating in and out. Just to reach the Korean coast, Japan-based squadrons flew at least 250 miles round trip.

Korean War Summary: 1st Military Act of the Cold War

(See Main Article: Korean War Summary: 1st Military Act of the Cold War)

This Korean War summary is an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding’s book A Brief History of the Cold War It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Many events led up to the war, but to offer a short Korean War summary, it primarily came down to Cold War politics. In January 1950, while discussing vital U.S. security interests in the Pacific area, Secretary of State Acheson spoke of a “defensive perimeter” that ran along the Aleutians to Japan and the Ryukyu Islands and then to the Philippines. He described these islands as “essential parts” of the Pacific area that “must and will be held.” Because he did not specifically mention Korea, many observers (including the communists) assumed that the United States would not come to its aid if attacked. They should have read what Acheson said at the conclusion of his remarks “about the military security of other areas in the Pacific”: “Should such an attack occur . . . the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations.”

Eager to take advantage of what he wrongly perceived to be American indifference to Korea’s security, Kim Il Sung pressed Stalin hard for permission to “liberate” South Korea. In February, Stalin ordered the preparation of a “Preemptive Strike Operations Plan” and on June 10 gave Kim the final go-ahead. The Soviets prepared a cover story: the United States was allegedly developing an attack plan against North Korea to be executed in the summer of 1950 by some one hundred thousand South Korean troops armed by the United States. There was in fact no such U.S. plan.

Korean War Summary — The North Korean invasion

On June 25, 1950, a large North Korean army invaded the South and soon controlled most of the lower part of the Korean peninsula. As we now know from documents in the Kremlin archives, Stalin not only approved the invasion but provided substantial military and economic assistance to Kim, including up-to-date Soviet motorized equipment, artillery, aircraft, and manpower.

The communists expected no American interference in their imperial plans. But when informed of the invasion, Truman said to Acheson, “Dean, we’ve got to stop the sons-of-bitches no matter what.” He ordered an emergency session of his military and foreign policy advisors, who decided South Korea had to be defended both for the sake of its people and because of its strategic position across the straits from Japan. In accordance with NSC 68’s philosophy that a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere, the president ordered General Douglas MacArthur, based in Japan, to counter the communist tide; he also asked for action by the United Nations Security Council.

The council ordered North Korea to desist and called on all UN members to come to the aid of South Korea. Ten members, led by the United States, eventually did. Since January 1950, the Soviet representative had been boycotting meetings of the Security Council because China’s seat was still occupied by the Republic of China (Taiwan). The Soviet Union could not therefore veto Truman’s moves to commit the UN to the defense of South Korea.

Truman placed the fighting in Korea in the broader context of “the struggle between freedom and Communist slavery.” While not playing down the military aspect of the Cold War, the president talked at a White House conference on children and youth about the moral and spiritual dangers of communist ideology: “Communism attacks our main basic values, our belief in God, our belief in the dignity of man and the value of human life, our belief in justice and freedom. It attacks the institutions that are based on these values. It attacks our churches, our guarantees of civil liberty, our courts, our democratic form of government.” The president wanted the American people to understand, as fully and deeply as they could, the larger meaning of the Cold War.

Under MacArthur’s leadership, UN forces began a counteroffensive that by mid-November had brought its forces deep into North Korea and close to the Yalu River and the Chinese border. To MacArthur’s surprise, the People’s Republic of China launched a massive counterattack, sending two hundred thousand Chinese troops across the Yalu River against the outnumbered American forces.

Forced to retreat, the American army was soon once again below the thirty-eighth parallel. By mid-March 1951, however, with heavy reinforcements and naval command of both coasts and under a new field commander, General James Van Fleet, the U.S.-UN army recaptured Seoul and recovered South Korea to just above the thirty-eighth parallel, a return to the status quo before the North Korean invasion.

For Douglas MacArthur, however, there was no substitute for victory. Ignoring a presidential order to make no public statements, MacArthur personally wrecked a U.S. armistice initiative by threatening that if the Chinese did not withdraw at once, they would be “forced to their knees.” With the concurrence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his secretary of state, Truman on April 11, 1951, dismissed General MacArthur, a great American general with an even greater ego.

Armistice negotiations between North Korea and the United Nations began on July 10, 1951, and continued until March 1953, when the North Koreans finally agreed to an armed truce. No formal peace treaty has ever been signed. Regarding the repatriation of North Korean prisoners, the UN command rejected the communists’ demand that all of them be returned to North Korea. Every prisoner was allowed to decide his destination. Three out of four elected to stay in the South, a damning indictment of the communist regime.

To conclude this Korean War summary, some historians have described the outcome of the Korean war as a “tie,” but the eventual remarkable economic success and vibrant democracy of South Korea suggest strongly that it was a war worth fighting.

#2: How a Horse Became a Sergeant in the Korean War — Robin Hutton

(See Main Article: How a Horse Became a Sergeant in the Korean War — Robin Hutton)

How a Horse Became a Sergeant in the Korean War — Robin Hutton”

For the full “History Unplugged” podcast, click here!

The story of Reckless—a pack horse in the Korean War who was a beloved household name in the 1950s and the only animal in U.S. history to officially achieve the rank of Sergeant—is one of the strangest, most inspiring, and (sadly) unknown stories of the 20th century.

In battle, Reckless made 51 trips—on her own—through 35 miles of rice paddies to deliver ammunition and supplies to her fellow Marines. She was trained to step over communications lines, get down at the sound of incoming fire, and ignore the noise of battle. She carried wounded soldiers to safety and was injured twice herself during the war, earning her two Purple Hearts. Not only was Reckless a great war hero, she fit in with her comrades like any other Marine—regularly swilling beer with the other Marines and inserting herself into group activities.

When Robin Hutton discovered her tale in 2006, she was so inspired by the little mare’s story that she was determined to reintroduce Reckless to the world.

To rediscover the story of this heroic horse, Hutton interviewed seventy-five Marines who served with Reckless and uncovered over 200 photos, spanning her war days and beyond. Sgt. Reckless reveals heartwarming and hilarious anecdotes about Reckless’s feats and antics, bringing to life the touching story of how a young Korean man’s horse became one of the greatest Marine wartime heroes of all time.

Here are other astounding facts about Reckless:

  • In just one day of battle, Reckless made 51 trips carrying 386 rounds (almost five tons) of ammunition, walking over 35 miles through rice paddies and up steep mountains with enemy fire coming in at the rate of 500 rounds per minute.
  • Reckless also carried wounded soldiers away from battle, and she herself was wounded twice, earning two Purple Hearts.

  • Reckless ate anything and everything—but especially scrambled eggs and pancakes in the morning with her morning cup of coffee, along with beer in the evening with her comrades.
  • The Marines loved Reckless so much that in the heat of battle, they threw their flak jackets over her to protect her when incoming fire was heavy, risking their own safety.
  • On April 10, 1954, Reckless was officially promoted to sergeant—an honor never bestowed, before or since, on an animal.

How did the Korean War End?

(See Main Article: How did the Korean War End?)

“The Cold War — Not WW2 — Was Arguably the Defining Event of the 20th Century

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The Korean War was fought between North and South Korea, between 25 June 1950 and 27 July 1953. The United Nations, with the U.S. at its lead was aligned with the South, while China fought on the North’s side, with help from the Soviet Union. The war started because of the division of Korea, as well as the tension that already existed between countries during the Cold War.

End of the Korean War

Although the United States immediately intervened when North Korea started to invade South Korea on June 25, 1950, North Korea and China only retaliated and started heavy assaults against the U.S. and South Korean armies. Eventually, the war only became a battle of attrition and although peace talks have started by July 1951, it ended in a stalemate, with neither side backing down. Dwight D. Eisenhower was very critical about the way President Truman was handling the war in Korea and promised that he would go visit Korea to see how he could change things. After evaluating the situation, he started to pressure the South Korean president to compromise a bit and let go of some demands in order to speed up peace talks. He also publicly hinted at using nuclear weapons if the war doesn’t end soon. By July 1953, all countries that were involved in the war finally agreed to end the bloodshed and signed an armistice on July 27. The prisoners of war were allowed to choose which side they wanted to live on and yet a new border was drawn between South and North Korea with a demilitarized zone in between.

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