The Korean War

Background

In 1945, World War II came to an end with the surrender of Germany and Japan. In eastern Asia, the war left many of the nations that Japan had invaded and occupied unstable. The small peninsula of Korea was divided between a communist government, supported by the Soviet Union in the north, and a government supported by the United States in the south. Both the government in the north and the government in the south claimed that it alone was the valid government of all of Korea. The army of North Korea, however, was larger, better equipped and better trained. The South Korean army was weak.

Korea was part of a world-wide struggle called the Cold War. It was called the "cold" war because while both the Soviets and the West (the United States, Great Britain, and western Europe) maintained large armies, no direct fighting broke out between the two sides. However, sometimes smaller conflicts broke out between nations backed by the two sides. The Soviet Union claimed that communism would one day rule the world, but Western democracies were determined to prevent that.

In 1949, a civil war in China ended with a victory for the communists. All of mainland China, then home to a half-billion people, came under communist control while the pro-Western army fled to the nearby island of Taiwan. Americans were worried that communists were planning aggression against other nations in eastern Asia.

The War Begins

These fears were confirmed in June, 1950, when the army of communist-led North Korea crossed the border and invaded South Korea. For the next few months, they pushed the small South Korean army south to a port city of Pusan.

The United States and other Western nations determined to resist communist efforts to expand. They passed a resolution in the United Nations, a peace-keeping organization formed at the end of World War II, condemning North Korean action and demanding that the communist army pull back. The United Nations authorized its members to send troops to Korea. While sixteen nations sent some troops, the United States supplied 90 percent of United Nations soldiers, and the American general Douglas MacArthur commanded all UN forces.

With the arrival of the United Nations soldiers, the course of the war turned. After landing an army at Pusan, Gen. MacArthur made a surprise move. The Navy transported a large force to the city of Inchon on the west coast of Korea, behind of the enemy lines. This forced the North Korean army to retreat, taking heavy casualties and losing equipment. Pursuing the fleeing army, MacArthur crossed the former boundary and captured territory in North Korea.

At this point the United States had to make a decision. What was its goal in fighting the war? Was it to restore the South Korean government? Or was it to eliminate North Korea entirely and unite the entire peninsula into one nation?

Communist China Enters The Conflict

The presence of Communist China on Korea's northern border complicated the picture. Across the Yalu River that divided Korea and China stood a huge Chinese army. The Chinese threatened to fight United Nations' troops if they approached the Yalu River. China did not want to have hostile forces on its border with Korea. Gen. MacArthur did not believe the Chinese would actually fight. He thought they were bluffing. He persuaded United States President Harry Truman to let him continue moving his army north to defeat the North Koreans.

Gen. MacArthur was wrong about the Chinese. They were not bluffing. On Nov. 26, 1950, tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers attacked advancing the United Nations divisions and drove them back. Many American soldiers were killed or wounded in the retreat as the bitterly cold Korean winter began. The United Nations troops were able to halt the communist advance along the original boundary between the two nations. Bitter fighting continued but neither army was able to gain an advantage.

Fighting during the war was intense, made even more difficult by snows and bitterly cold temperatures during the winter. Staff Sergeant Carroll G. Everist from Mason City survived some of the hardest fighting. When he and his unit were dug in to a position known as Hill 174 along the Naktong River, enemy fire killed five of his fellow soldiers. He recalled that one of his buddies promised: "If I ever get out of this, I'm going to go to church every Sunday." They both survived the attack, but Everist doesn't know if his buddy kept his promise.

Another Iowan to serve in the Korean War was First Lieutenant Gary Sparks from Keokuk. His job was to take pictures of North Korean targets before and after UN planes bombed them. First, his plane would lead the raid fly low and mark the target with rockets or machine gun fire. Then the bombers would follow. His plane then circled around and, after the bombers had left, flew in to get a picture to assess the damage the bombs had done. To get a good photo, his plane had to fly straight and level, maintaining a constant speed. If the bombs had knocked out all of the enemy guns, his plane was a target for North Korean anti-aircraft weapons. For his risky and difficult mission, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal.

The USS Iowa Battleship Plays An Important Role

The USS Iowa was one of four battleships that served in Korea. On April 6, it replaced the USS Wisconsin and was on active duty for about six months during some of the heaviest fighting. Neither the North Koreans nor the Chinese could challenge American naval power so the United Nations forces had control of the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula. They could prevent enemy ships from landing troops or supplies to their ground forces. Furthermore, because the guns on board were so powerful and American ships controlled both the east and west coast, they could bombard targets nearly everywhere on the peninsula. Guns on board ships played an important role in attacks on enemy positions on the ground. The USS Iowa was stationed along the east coast of North Korea.

A Cease-Fire But No Peace Treaty

The war in Korea was unpopular with Iowans, as it was with the rest of America. As more and more soldiers were killed, Americans were not sure what our goal was in Korea. The conflict was called "Mr. Truman's War", and the President's popularity fell sharply. In the election of 1952, the war was a major factor in the defeat of the Democrats, President Truman's party. The Republicans nominated a hero from World War II, Dwight David Eisenhower. Gen. Eisenhower promised that he would end the war in Korea. Eisenhower won the majority of votes in Iowa, and piled up a big majority across the nation to become the next President.

On July 27, 1953, the United Nations and North Korea signed a cease-fire agreement. This was not a peace treaty, but only an agreement to halt the fighting. It established a boundary between North and South Korea that was approximately the same line that had originally divided them. It stretched for 151 miles across the Korean peninsula. Both sides were forbidden to enter a demilitarized zone that extended one mile on either side of the line or to fly planes across it.

An End To Racial Segregation In The Army

The Korean War was the first war where American soldiers were not segregated into different units by race. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the military to end the practice of separating black and white soldiers. It took three more years to implement, but after 1951, African-American soldiers served alongside their fellow citizens in Korea.

The Forgotten War Remembered

A headline summed up the feelings of many Americans at the end of the Korean War: "The Bitter War Which Nobody Won." More than 33,000 American soldiers had been killed, including 507 Iowans. And the cease-fire line was approximately the same boundary that had originally separated North and South Korea. However, communism had not been allowed to advance, and the United States had avoided an all-out war with China.

The Korean War is sometimes called "The Forgotten War." It was confusing to many Americans who did not understand what the United States was fighting for. When America did not "win" but only achieved a cease-fire, some blamed returning soldiers for "losing" the fight. They did not give these soldiers the same honor and reception that they had for WW II soldiers.

It took a class of junior high school students to start the drive to honor Korean War soldiers in Iowa the way soldiers of other wars had been. In 1984, students from Harding Junior High School in Des Moines wrote a letter to Governor Terry Branstad asking why there was no memorial at the Iowa Capitol to Korean War soldiers. The idea caught hold. On May 28, 1989, the Korean War monument was dedicated on a site south of the Capitol. It is a 14-foot tall pillar surrounded by eight six-foot tablets that tell the story of the war, including pictures, words, and maps.

By Tom Morain, Graceland University

 

 


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