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Korean War Armistice Commemoration

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Arlington National Cemetary, Friday, July 27, 2012

Thank you very much Admiral Winnefeld for that very kind introduction.  Ladies and gentleman, distinguished guests, dignitaries from the Korean government, government officials, America’s veterans.  It is a real honor for me to be here with all of you as we commemorate America’s participation in the Korean War and we honor our veterans who served in that war – many of whom are with us today.

This is an opportunity to remember and to pay tribute to the 54,246 U.S. service members who lost their lives [during] the Korean War.  It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the heroism, the sacrifices, the sheer grit, the determination, and the bravery of thousands of Americans who fought in the Korean War.  It’s a chance to thank them, to thank you, for your service, for shipping off to a distant land to fight in a noble cause, to put your lives on the line for this country, and to make the world a safer place. 

I distinctly remember, more than 60 years ago, as a young boy in Carmel Valley, California, listening to the news as it came across the radio that the United States was entering the war in Korea.  And I can remember the concern of my immigrant parents who had lived through World War II, that the United States was possibly entering another world war.  And I can remember later serving in the Army in the sixties and serving with many of those who fought so bravely in Korea.

For three long, bloody years American troops fought and they died in difficult conditions, where the country’s mountainous terrain and the unrelenting cold of winter were bitter enemies in themselves. 

As one veteran put it, “on the other side of every mountain, was another mountain.”  At times the winter cold was so cold that it froze the oil in GIs weapons so they couldn’t fire, and thousands suffered from crippling frostbite. 

Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson would later say: “If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location to fight this damnable war politically and militarily, the unanimous choice would have been Korea.”

It was an uncompromising war where capture by a vicious enemy often meant summary execution.   In Korea, American troops and their allies were always outnumbered by the enemy, awaiting the chilling sound of the bugle and horns that would signal another human wave attack. 

Those who were there will never forget the tough, the brutal battles fought in Korea’s mountains, at Massacre Valley and Bloody Ridge, at Chosin Reservoir and Pork Chop Hill – battles that became synonymous with the heroic sacrifice and the grim determination of the American fighting man. 

The Korean War caught America unprepared.  The mighty military machine that had liberated Europe and conquered the Japanese Empire had been rapidly demobilized.  Only a few years of serious cuts and under-investment had left us with a hollow force. 

The American soldiers and the Marines initially sent to Korea were poorly equipped, without winter clothing, without sleeping bags, with insufficient ammunition, inadequate weapons, including bazookas that weren’t strong enough to stop a North Korean tank. 

But those green troops sent to stem the communist onslaught and fought bravely, because they became savvy combat veterans.   What those young servicemen weren’t taught before they faced the baptism of fire, they quickly learned on the unforgiving battlefield. 

They learned the battle know-how a soldier picks up as he survives fight after fight, battle after battle.  What one war correspondent called, “the simple things the books have always taught, but no soldier ever learns until he’s been shot at.”  Lessons such as: keep off the skyline, dig in deep, keep your socks dry and keep your weapons clean, hold your fire until the enemy is close enough to kill.

Those GIs soon became a battle hardened force that fought from one end of Korea to the other, halting repeated drives to capture the entire peninsula, and in the process inflicted massive casualties on their enemies. 

As we honor our Korean War veterans we must also remember the more than 7,900 Americans missing in action.  I want you to know that the Department of Defense is dedicated to the search to identify and locate the remains of our fallen service members missing in action in Korea.  We leave no one behind.  Let me assure you that this sacred mission, going after those who were lost in battle, will continue until all of our troops are accounted for. 

The Korean War, as others have said, has long been regarded, as one book title called it, America’s “forgotten war.”   But that simply is not the case.  Today, thanks to the service and sacrifice of our veterans six decades ago, South Korea has grown strong and independent.  South Korea is a trusted ally, an economic power, a democracy, a provider of security in the Asia-Pacific region, and other parts of the world.  To the veterans of this war: your sacrifice made a difference.

Contrast that progress with the bleakness of North Korea, which remains a dangerous and destabilizing country that is bent on provocation and is pursuing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction while its people are left to starve. 

As we honor the service and sacrifices of America’s Korean War veterans, I believe it’s important that we remember a crucial lesson from that war.  Too many American troops paid a heavy price in Korea because they were not provided with the necessary training and the right weapons.  They were sent into a tough fight with little preparation.  Only a few short years after World War II, dramatic cuts to the force made us lose our edge – even though the world remained a dangerous place. 

That is a mistake that we will not make again.  And that's why today, coming out of a decade of war, we have put forward a strategy-driven defense budget to meet the challenges of the future.  The world remains a dangerous place, and America must maintain the decisive military edge.  We must remain the most powerful military power on the face of the earth.  With this strategy, we will not only have the strongest military, but make no mistake: we will be ready to deter aggression – anytime, anyplace, anywhere. 

Another lesson is in the contributions that a generation that bled on the battlefield can make back here at home.  Earlier we heard from Korean War vet David Mills – what an impressive story.  In April, seventeen year old Private Mills was one of the lone holdouts against an attack that all but wiped out his entire company.  He was wounded nine times and finally captured. 

He was repatriated four months later.  After he left the Army, he went on to graduate from Wharton School with an MBA and became a successful manager of medical centers in New York and Florida and Pennsylvania. 

Some 60 years ago, a generation of Americans stepped forward to serve in Korea to defend those in need of protection and to safeguard this great country.  America is indebted to you, for your service and for your sacrifice.  Sixty years ago, the bugle sounded, and you responded.  You are America’s patriots.  And America will never forget you.

After 9/11, the bugle sounded again, and another generation stepped forward to fight, and yes, to die;  to lead, and their strength and their dedication made very clear that no enemy attacks America and gets away with it. 

And they are the hope of the future.  Over the past decade of war, this new generation, like yours, has done all this country asked of them and more.  They take their place alongside all of you – another greatest generation of heroes and patriots that exemplifies the very best that America has to offer.  Our nation is great because generation after generation after generation, when the bugle sounded, our warriors responded to fight and yes to die, so that our children could have a better life. 

As we commemorate this war, let us always remember that sacred call to duty – and renew our commitment to honor and to never forget those who have fought, who have bled, and who have died to protect our freedoms and our way of life. 

God bless you, and God bless the memory of all who have fought and died in Korea and on distant shores to defend the United States of America.  

Thank you.

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