DoD Salutes Korean War Vets' Wartime Service, Sacrifice
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 28, 2003 Fifty years ago on July 27, the signing of an armistice ended three years of bloody fighting on the Korean peninsula - a conflict in which almost 37,000 U.S. service members gave their lives.
On July 26, the Defense Department paid tribute to the fallen troops and the war's survivors in a gala event at the MCI Center here. That event would be an entertainment venue to the official commemoration the next day at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall.
North Korea's campaign to forcibly subjugate its southern brethren under a communist regime was stopped in its tracks as a result of the 1950-53 Korean War. United States' troops and those from 19 other United Nations countries and Italy, a non-U.N. member at the time, fought North Korean and Communist Chinese forces to a military draw.
The result: South Korea to this day remains a prosperous, free and democratic society. In contrast, North Korea's economy is nonexistent - since most resources are directed to the military - and its impoverished people regularly experience famine and other hardships caused by their Stalinist-styled government.
Veterans attending the salute to their wartime service looked back on their service 50 years ago. Roland Gendron, 70, was one of hundreds of U.S. Korean War veterans present.
The North Koreans invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. Gendron recalled that he had arrived in Korea in the fall of that year as a 17-year-old enlistee in the U.S. Marine Corps. The then-private first class noted that Gen. Douglas MacArthur's September 1950 amphibious landing at Inchon had netted a good portion of the invading North Korea army, while driving the remaining North Korean forces into retreat.
U.S. and allied troops closely pursued the fleeing enemy northward into North Korea, noted Gendron, a bulldozer driver who then served with the Marines' 7th Motor Transport Battalion.
"We were hauling howitzers - and everything - up to the line," he explained.
In November 1950, Gendron said his unit was about six miles south of the Chosin Reservoir - news reports at that time predicted hostilities would be over by Christmas.
However, the Communist Chinese, worried about United Nations' troops nearing their border, had other ideas. The Chinese decided to enter the war in support of North Korea and were about to launch mass assaults on the U.S. and allied troops.
Attacking U.S. forces around Chosin Reservoir the night of Nov. 27, the Chinese troops had "split the line open" by early December, he noted, "and we had to come south."
A brutal, 11-day, 70-mile, wintertime retreat ensued, Gendron said. "The conditions were horrible - it was 35 degrees below zero - and we were not dressed for it."
Frostbite ran rampant among the troops, he recalled, adding, "it was so very cold ... mind-numbing; you couldn't think straight."
Gendron attributed his survival to luck and "faith and my training in the Marine Corps - we never give up and we never quit."
MacArthur, who wanted to expand the war into China, was relieved from duty as overall U.S./U.N. commander in Korea on April 11, 1951, by President Harry S. Truman. U.S. and other U.N. forces eventually beat back the Chinese assault and the war continued back and forth for another two years, with major hostilities ending with the July 27, 1953, armistice.
The Korean War is sometimes referred to as "the forgotten war," according to veterans who attended the MCI Center event. Some pointed out, for example, the absence of large victory parades following the armistice.
Some veterans observed that the South Koreans had been saved from communism, but the fighting had ended in stalemate. And, according to Gendron, the war occurred not long after the conclusion of World War II, a much broader conflict that claimed many more American service members' lives.
"They tucked Korea under the carpet for a while," acknowledged Gendron, who today lives in New Bedford, Mass.
Yet, Gendron, a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6643 in Freetown, Mass., noted, "We went over there and did our job."
And regarding the Korean War vets salute, Gendron noted: "I am absolutely impressed and so very, very happy to be here ... . I can't believe that we were thought of (in) this way."
Paul H.E. Wallace, 72, recalled being drafted into the Army and arriving in Korea in November 1951 as a 23-year-old private first class, trained as a heavy weapons operator.
He noted, however, that he spent his time in Korea as a truck driver. Wallace, an African-American, also noted that he remained at that rank during his year- plus Korea tour, while other soldiers were being promoted to sergeant. Such circumstances, he observed, smacked of "injustice."
Yet, Wallace, who retired from the Army as a sergeant first class after 20 years of duty, declared that he was proud of his military service. During his day, he said it was the duty of every male American citizen to spend some time in the military.
Today the Washington, D.C., resident observed that he'd departed Korea in February 1953 before the armistice was signed.
Dermot Ryan, a 74-year-old New York City native, recalled that he was also drafted into the Army as a young man, eventually showing up in Korea in 1951 as a heavy weapons infantryman with the 187th (Airborne) Regimental Combat Team.
Ryan was relatively subdued about his time in Korea, but he did say he was proud of his 12 years of service in the Army.
"I'm a patriot," he declared.
Television star Ed McMahon, himself a Marine Corps pilot during World War II and the Korean War, was the master of ceremonies. Other participants included Korean folk dancers dressed in colorful costumes and performances by country singer Randy Travis, and '50s and '60s groups such as the Cornell Gunter Coasters, the Elsbeary Hobbs Drifters and the Platters.
McMahon also introduced vintage black and white film clips of comedian/entertainer Bob Hope with U.S. troops in Korea during the war. Little did anyone imagine that the legendary figure would die the next day, July 27, at age 100.
The event's host, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi, noted, "We gather to express America's love and thanks to all who stood for right and justice" during the Korean War, adding that those "men and women whose rightful pride in their service in that far-off land is shared by their countrymen and all who live in freedom throughout the world.
"And today," the veterans affairs secretary added, "we also celebrate the memory and honor the sacrifice of the nearly 37,000 young Americans who gave our country the last full measure in devotion while serving in Korea."
Retired Army Gen. Edward C. Meyer, a former Army chief of staff and Korean War veteran, read the famous order by Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who replaced MacArthur, to the troops explaining why U.S. forces were fighting in Korea.
And actor and author James McEachin, who had served as an Army infantryman during the Korean War, shrugged off an illness to read narratives about the war and a salute to America's military.
The courage of U.S. troops fighting in Korea fifty years ago "helped to preserve the Republic of Korea as it is today - a beacon of freedom powered by the human spirit," Principi noted.
For more information about the Korean War, see the DoD Commemoration of the Korean War Web site, at http://www.korea50.mil/history/factsheets/overview.shtml.