Korean War Death Stats Highlight Modern DoD Safety Record
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 8, 2000 A recent clarification by Pentagon officials about Korean War deaths spotlighted just how far DoD has come in providing a safe atmosphere for U.S. service members.
Historians have said for a generation that 54,246 service members died during the Korean War. Most Americans assumed that's how many died in combat in Korea. Not true, DoD officials said this week. The death toll from 1950 to 1953, the time period encompassing the Korean War, is correct. But that figure includes all service members who died on active duty for any reason, not just those killed in battle.
DoD changed its reporting procedures in 1993 and divided the total into 33,686 battle deaths, 2,830 nonbattle deaths in Korea, and 17,730 other deaths DoD-wide, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley in a press briefing June 6. The breakdown isn't new, but with the 50th anniversary of the Korean War raising the issue in the national consciousness, Pentagon officials thought it prudent to clarify the numbers.
That figure of 17,730 other deaths caught reporters' attention. "Isn't that a fairly large number?" one asked.
Quigley's quick reply: "You're used to the figures we have been enjoying in recent years, with the services' emphasis on safety, training safety, attention to detail around the world."
But are those figures really that high? The 1950s tally averages nearly 6,000 deaths a year, not counting any of the thousands that were dying in Korea. Compare that to the 813 service members who died in 1998. Even considering the Korean War military -- 5,720,000-strong -- was four times larger than today's, the death rate then was still about double today's.
Quigley attributed the dramatic drop to the commitment of the services to take care of their troops. Safety is the watchword of modern military operations. Service members receive safety briefings at every step in an operation or exercise and before departing for leisure activities; leaders are responsible for anticipating where possible safety hazards may occur and preventing them; and safety and responsibility are taught to service members at every level of their training.
"If you take a look at that time in history, in the early 1950s, the services simply did not have that focus that we have in recent years on trying the absolute best that we can to keep (deaths to a minimum)," he said. "We have made incredible strides in reducing the number of non-combat accidental deaths, training deaths, and things of that sort in recent years."