Historian Paul M. Edwards tells us that soldiers entered the Korean War singing tunes by Glenn Miller, and came out singing Elvis songs. The early nineteen fifties were times of profound and rapid changes. One of these changes was a different kind of warfare.
While World War II was known far and wide, a war fought just 5 years later, by the younger brothers and sisters of those WWII veterans, was hardly mentioned in the daily news of the day, and has been spoken of little since it ended. If it weren’t for the popular television series MASH, many Americans wouldn’t have known a war was fought on the Korean Peninsula.
We thought it might be a good idea to find out what our history classes didn’t teach us about the Korean War –and some of the major changes it wrought.
The Nation of Korea was split into North and South Korea at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union occupied the North, and the United States stayed in the South. What was once one nation was split in the middle, along the 38th parallel.
The Korean War began in 1950 when the North decided to “unify” the country under communism, and attacked the South. The U.S. eventually decided that fighting communism should be a priority, and engaged the United Nations in its first military action – to push the Northern forces out of the South.
It was a dirty war, and battles devastated the entire terrain, from the south to the north and back again.
More than 3 million Korean civilians were killed, along with 55,000 America soldiers.
8-thousand American soldiers are still listed as Missing in Action.
After three years, in the summer of 1953, a cease fire was signed. The war ended about where it began, with a communist government in the North, and a democratic one in the south, split along the 38th parallel.
As with most wars, necessity was the mother of invention. There were many ‘firsts’ during the Korean War.
There were some differences in strategy fighting this war.
This was the first war the U.S. fought in conjunction with the United Nations.
- First use of helicopters for evacuation of wounded personnel.
- Medical units were set up near the front lines for triage and emergency surgeries, but those needing further treatment were sent to war ships.
- First use of jet fighters and fighter-bombers leading to the first aerial combat between jet aircraft. Some of those jets were manned by Soviet pilots for the training experience and hence the first time US pilots fought Soviet pilots.
- In the U.S., the draft was re-instated, but exemptions favored the more affluent and more cosmopolitan young men. The war was fought mainly by blue-collar and farm workers.
Perhaps because of the rules of conscription, Iowa did play a large part in this war.
- Iowa sent approx. 8,000 soldiers to Korea during the war. More than 500 were killed.
- 70 Iowans are still listed as Missing in Action.
- 5 Iowa Units were sent, from Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Sioux City, and Cedar Rapids.
- One Iowan was given a Medal of Honor - Dean Edwards from Indianola served in the 2nd infantry division and was killed at the battle of Ching Pon in January of 1951.
- And, the state’s namesake battleship, the U.S.S. Iowa was used in this battle.
There were some social and medical firsts in the Korean War.
- The military became truly integrated. Units were made of individuals from all over, and of all cultural backgrounds. Just 5 years earlier, World War II was almost completely segregated.
- The military also developed better cold weather clothing for its service personnel due to the bitterly cold temperatures of Korean winters.
- Medical advances were made in the use of vascular surgery, and veins were transplanted from both living and deceased donors.
- Kidney dialysis machines were used successfully with soldiers, confirming its place in medicine.
- Additional medical advances were made using blood plasma, not just ‘whole’ blood.
- And, America’s role in world affairs changed drastically.
The U.S. took a stand against communism, beginning the cold war.
- The U.S. learned about a ‘limited warfare’ strategy – and that all wars didn’t need to end with nuclear weapons.
- The U.S. took a major step towards becoming the ‘police officer’ to the world.
- The U.S. military budget has gone up every year since then – with no rest periods - unlike the first half of the 20th century.
- The U.S. has a continual presence in South Korea to this day. There was no exit strategy, and there still isn’t one!
- The North Koreans and Chinese haven’t forgotten the war – and that affects U.S. relationships with the entire region to this day.