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Our Nation honors
Her Sons and Daughters
Who Answered the Call
To Defend a country
They Never Knew
And a People
They Never Met.
The Korean War Memorial in the US capital has those words on it; words that capture the debt owed to the many who served in that war in the early 1950s. One of the veterans in the production sums up the feelings of those who served when he observes "It's hard to talk to a civilian about the experience." Here on Vancouver Island there is another memorial to be seen on a hill on the west coast of the Island in the Pacific Rim Park. A radar station was located on this hill during World War II. Little remains of the old installation but the short trip to the top is well worth the climb as the panoramic views of the ocean, inlet and mountains can be found nowhere else in the national park reserve. Look for the Kap'yong Memorial that commemorates the involvement of the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry during the Korean War. This national park is twinned with Hallyo Haesang Sea National Park in Korea. The memorial reads in part: The actions of 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, A Company 72nd U.S. Heavy Tank Battalion and, ultimately standing alone, 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, prevented the Chinese Communist Forces from exploiting their breach of United Nations lines. These three units under UN Command were each awarded a United States Presidential Unit Citation. [Source]
All in all there were some twenty nations which sent troops to defend the South Koreans when they were attacked in 1950 in an extension of the spread of communism in the post second world war era. "Is it a forgotten war? Of course, it is," says another of the veterans early in the program. This production opens with several vets being interviewed about their experiences in the war. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine survivors tell their stories -- stories that are supported by photos and footage from the time. Remember that in one month the North Korean forces had captured 90% of the south and were holding on to it as one more communist country. The United Nations had different plans however and passed a resolution to defend the South Koreans.
Many Americans thought we should not be there. The "war" was not popular. General McArthur was given command of the forces and in a brilliant surprise landing at Inchon the US Marines pushed the North Koreans back and re-captured Seoul in a two week battle. The tide has turned. But then when McArthur wanted to push the enemy all the way back to the border with China the Chinese reacted by sending hundreds of thousands of troops into the fray.
The war raged on with staggering casualties on all sides. Words and phrases describing the battle sites are now a part of our joint memories: Pork Chop Hill, Hill 206, and the Chosin Reservoir. Shortly after the People's Republic of China entered the conflict, the People's Volunteer Army 9th Army infiltrated the north-eastern part of North Korea and surprised the US X Corps at the Chosin Reservoir area. A brutal 17 day battle in freezing weather soon followed. In the period between 27 November and 13 December 1950, 30,000 United Nations (UN) troops (nicknamed "The Chosin Few") under the command of Major General Edward Almond were encircled by approximately 60,000 Chinese troops. Though Chinese troops managed to surround and outnumber the UN forces, the UN forces broke out of the encirclement while inflicting crippling losses on the Chinese. The evacuation of the X Corps from the port of Hungnam marked the complete withdrawal of UN troops from North Korea.
The Chinese attacks at night were particularly unique, with screaming, bugles blowing, and hundreds of soldiers intent on destroying the UN forces. In April of 1951 because of the severity of the fighting and the concern about the Chinese participation the USA authorized the use of atomic weapons and indeed bombs were sent to Okinawa to be used when necessary. In the meantime armistice talks were begun (and I use the passive voice intentionally) -- talks which are still going on today.
PBS does an excellent job with this program. Merging pictures from the time, news reels, and interviews with veterans produces a sense of reality that will have you feeling all of a range of emotions that are still in the minds of the vets. Coming home to no welcoming parades these veterans often faced real difficulties of no jobs, no understanding from the public and a definite sense that they were forgotten. And yet there is a touching story told by one veteran who took a cab from the bus terminal to his home where he was met by his sister who came running out of the house to greet him as the cab pulled up and he got out. The cabbie watched this homecoming, and when the returning vet offered to pay, the cabbie refused saying, "the least I can do for you is give you a ride home."
© 2011 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia and a USMC Korean Veteran.