The ancient kingdom of Korea had been annexed by Japan in 1910, and it remained under Japanese control until the end of World War II. At that time, Korea was occupied by American and Soviet troops, the Americans in the south and the Soviets in the north. As a presumed temporary measure pending unification, the dividing line between the two occupying powers was established along the 38th parallel. The unification did not happen. The communist Peoples Korean Republic was established in the north, and the democratic Republic of Korea soon controlled the south. The leaders of both North and South Korea still wished to establish a united Korea, and there was continual friction between the two states.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops, heavily armed with Soviet supplied equipment (including heavy tanks) attacked South Korea. The South Korean forces were seriously outgunned and were soon in full retreat. The United States immediately condemned North Korea’s aggression and got United Nations approval for direct intervention. Fortuitously, the Soviet representative was boycotting the UN when the decisive vote was taken by the Security Council, and the Soviet Union could not exercise its veto.
By President Truman’s order, American troops were already on the way to help. General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge, and troops stationed in Japan were transported to the Korean peninsula. Our Japanese occupation troops were ill-prepared for combat. The first American divisions to arrive, the 24th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division, were nearly overwhelmed, One of the 24th Division’s regiments, the 34th Infantry, was totally destroyed, and the 24th Division commander was captured. Nevertheless, the Americans and the surviving Korean units managed to hold on, and they built a defensive perimeter around the port of Pusan. Gradually, they began to build up their strength. Allied air power played a huge role in blunting the enemy’s offensive thrust.
In September 1950 MacArthur launched a surprise amphibious assault on the port of Inchon, far behind North Korean lines. With the threat of encirclement, the enemy was soon in full retreat. The United Nations troops (consisting now of soldiers from many nations but predominately American) drove north, recaptured Seoul, and thrust deeply into North Korea. With total victory for the Allies now in sight, the Chinese entered the war. Overwhelming numbers of Chinese soldiers attacked the advancing UN troops in October and November. Fighting in the bitter cold and snow around the Chosin Reservoir, American marines wrote a brilliant chapter in Corps history. Elsewhere, other UN soldiers fought bravely and fiercely to avoid encirclement. Nevertheless, the sheer weight of numbers drove the Allies back to the south. During the next few months Seoul was lost and recaptured again, and by early 1951 the front was finally stabilized near the old 38th parallel dividing line. China and the Soviet Union continued to support North Korea, the former with troops and military hardware, the latter with materiel and air power. The United States and its allies still backed South Korea. General MacArthur wanted to do anything necessary to win the war and was in favor an attack on mainland China. On the other hand, the Truman Administration was determined to contain the conflict. The President wished to avoid a land war in Asia and seemed to be more or less content with a division of Korea along pre-war lines. MacArthur pushed his own aggressive concept so hard and so openly that it led to his dismissal in April 1951.
Over the next two years there was little change in the front lines. The Chinese mounted an offensive from time to time, and a United Nation’s counter offensive would then push them back. Casualties were much heavier among Chinese and North Korean troops, and they were continually harassed by our air power. On the other side, Soviet MiG pilots engaged our bombers and fighters over North Korea in a bitter air war. Both sides wanted a way out. Armistice negotiations began in 1951, but the return of captured enemy troops became a sticking point. Many if not most Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war did not wish to return to their homeland. Finally, a compromise was reached, and peace negotiations were successfully completed a few months after Dwight D. Eisenhower became President. The fighting stopped on July 27, 1953.
On a personal note, I joined the 24th Infantry Division in Japan in March 1953. The division had been returned to Japan in January 1952 to be reconstituted after its heavy losses in 1950-51. In early July 1953 the division was rushed back to Korea, in part as a response to another Chinese offensive. On July 18th I and other members of a division advance party were on our way to the battlefront. We proceeded about half-way to our destination only to be turned around and sent back to our starting point. We later learned that the armistice negotiators had finally agreed to terms, and no one wished to upset things by putting another American division on the line.
Sixty-five years later Korea remains a divided country. South Korea has a vibrant economy under a representative democratic government North Korea is mired in poverty under a brutal dictator.
It was a bloody war.
Chinese and North Korean war dead 800,000 est.*
Chinese and North Korean war wounded 700,000 est.
North Korean civilian deaths 1,500,000 est.
UN and South Korean war dead 200,000 est.
UN and South Korean war wounded 566,000 est.
South Korean civilian deaths 1,000,000 est.
U.S. war dead 35,000 est.
U.S. war wounded 103,000 est.
- The proportion of Chinese/NK war deaths to wounded appears out of kilter, but under prevailing conditions in North Korea care for the wounded was problematic.