OP-ED by Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes: The Forgotten War, Korea

The following is an op-ed piece submitted by Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes in recognition of National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day:

On June 25, 1950, less than five years after the signing of the treaty ending World War II in the Pacific, North Korean troops supported by Chinese and Soviet “advisers” and materiel crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the Republic of Korea. American troops in Korea and Japan were unprepared. The U.S. was in the process of demobilization, winding down from the World War, and was not anticipating a new conflict. The bulk of the occupation troops had returned home. Most remaining units were understrength. The remaining few must have been counting the days. Equipment was worn and deteriorated. Munitions and clothing were in short supply. At one point the Army even had to take tanks that were on display at Fort Knox and refurbish them for combat.

This weakened condition of the U.S. military in the East and the declaration by a Foreign Service officer before the Washington press corps that Korea was “outside the U.S. defensive perimeter” precipitated a North Korean-led attack that rolled relentlessly toward the capital city of Seoul. In fact, Seoul changed hands four times during the early phase of the war. After two months of unrelenting combat, the U.S. and allied forces were confined to an area in the South known as Pusan Perimeter, a small sector around the port city of Pusan where remaining U.S., Republic of Korea and British units made a last stand, holding out heroically against all odds until the enemy’s offensive collapsed.

There were three adversaries in the war: the U.S.-led United Nations Coalition; the North Korean/Chinese/Soviet force and the weather. Rations froze, weapons jammed and even gunpowder lost potency. Siberian winds turned the 30-degree-below-zero country into a frozen wasteland in the first year of the war. In the summer months the heat and humidity were unbearable. Under these conditions, a war of attrition ensued in which the North Korean allies were forced back to the Chinese border. Then a massive infusion of Chinese troops pushed the U.S.-led forces back to the 38th Parallel where the war stalemated. The adversaries were in a standoff at the position where the war had first started.

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed ending hostilities. No treaty ever was signed to end the war. Called a “Police Action,” the Korean War was the first proxy war where Eastern and Western blocs engaged in conflict with each other without direct Great Powers confrontation. From the U.S. point of view, the military was constrained by diplomatic and political considerations. Thus, the conflict was inconclusive and, to this day, is not entirely resolved.

Absent a clean “victory,” Korean War veterans were not given the heroes’ welcome home that their World War II predecessors had. Despite sustaining more than 54,000 dead, 103,000 wounded and maimed plus 8,000 missing in action, Korea became the “Forgotten War.” The Korean War memorial constructed in 2000 next to the Atlantic City boardwalk is one of only nine Korean War memorials in the U.S. Australia has 17 such memorials.

Decades too late, July 27 was declared National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day celebrating not an end to the war but simply a suspension of the killing. At first, Korean War veterans did not receive the full range of benefits available to those who served in declared wars as opposed to the Korean “Police Action.” Injuries attributable to the cold, however grievous, were not recognized by the Veterans Administration. Today, Korean War veterans and their families are aging and becoming less numerous. While we can, we must add their names to the scrolls of honor of those who served thanklessly, those who gave their last full measure in sacrifice for their country and those who waited at home in fear for their beloved in arms.

On National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, we pause to remember the forgotten, honor the overlooked and at long last give our nation’s gratitude and respect to those who served in the “Police Action” that was a brutal war.

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