Korean Service
Purple Heart

THE 38TH PARALLEL - (KOREA , 1950-1953)

Olwyn Green

"The Vagrant Winds" was the title chosen for the Korean War exhibition for it symbolises the vagaries not only of war but of life just as the soldier experienced the vagaries of the wind indiscriminately blowing the stench of death from dead bodies over enemy and ally alike, at the site of the last battle on the 38th parallel. Their only respite, he wrote, lay with the vagaries of the Korean winds.

"A Lively Life," John Bineham, ex 3RAR.

On June 25th 1950, a sudden roar of guns shattered the pre-dawn silence at the 38th Parallel. The Korean War had begun, a war that was essentially a show-down between Communism and the West. Unfortunately for Korea, a nation that had enjoyed centuries of intact culture, it became the site of a war by proxy which left the country devastated.

It is inconceivable that a war of such global importance should be overlooked by history. Epithets given to the Korean War indicate why amnesia surrounds it: " forgotten;" "unknown;" and the misnomer, "police action," which is attributed to the United States President, Harry Truman.

A reason for amnesia is that the war dragged on, only to exact considerable sacrifice . The total death toll is estimated at 5 million. The United Nations' battle casualties1 clearly show the burden of the war was borne by the Republic of Korea which lost 46,000 troops killed, and the USA which lost 33,629 killed, and another 8000 who remain missing. The enemy figures were higher: China 402,000 troops killed and North Korea 215,000 killed. When the guns stopped firing, there was no victory to celebrate. There was only an armistice and a still-divided Korea.

It is not surprising then that such a bloody, destructive and indecisive war has not inspired great literature, stories or images to ensure it a place in history or in the collective memory. All we have are the American M.A.S.H. characters Hawkeye and Hot Lips. However, 50th anniversary events, the Dedication of a Memorial to the Korean War in Canberra in April 2000, and the Exhibition, The Vagrant Winds at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre from 8th April to 28th May, should serve to remedy our own national amnesia.

At The Vagrant Winds, visitors will be able to rescue the missing Korean chapter of the Anzac Story, and also discover stories from other participating United Nations' countries. Viewing the images and entries will make the war so much a reality, the "forgotten war" will become part of our consciousness.

To better appreciate the stories from the Korean War, an overview is given to provide the context:-

Despite Communist propaganda to the contrary, it was Kim Il Sung's North Korean Army that began the Korean War by attacking the South on 25th June 1950. Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong had both supported the invasion, for the Communists believed they could swiftly reunite Korea, and that neither America or the United Nations would intervene.

That was a miscalculation. President Truman, for both strategic and philosophical reasons, took the "hardest" decision of his office when he decided to "go in." That was a miscalculation, too, for it was not anticipated that China would react. Also, the Americans were confident in their ability to execute a quick rebuff to the ambitions of the Communists.

The United Nations (with the Soviets absent) declared the North Koreans aggressors and called for member nations to provide military support to repel the invasion. Twenty one countries responded and were included in the composite UN army put under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, the "hero" of the Pacific War.

The war having begun, crisis piled upon crisis. The first crisis was resolved so brilliantly, it raised confidence to unrealistic heights. The defence of South Korea was near collapse by August 1950, before MacArthur effected his brilliant, risky manoeuvre at Inchon. The US Marines' amphibious landing on 15th September enabled them to encircle a far-too extended North Korean army and send it into disarray. MacArthur, with the United Nations' Security Council approval, pursued the advantage and began immediately to push the North Korean Army before him to the Yalu River on the Manchurian border.

However, Mao Zedong, as he had warned, declared the crossing of the 38th Parallel an "invasion", to which he responded. But the UN intelligence failed to detect that Mao had moved a huge Chinese Peoples Volunteer Army, estimated at 300,000 into North Korea in October 1950, led by Peng Dehuai. By 1st November, the UN force faced strong resistance from the Chinese who appeared, and then mysteriously seemed to disappear. MacArthur, denying the presence of the Chinese, launched on 24th November what he believed would be his coup de grace: a reunited Korea and the boys "home by Christmas."

Reality confronted MacArthur within two days. As a harsh winter set in, Peng reacted on 26th November with the Chinese Second Offensive. The Communists hit with such force MacArthur was compelled to ring alarm bells and pronounce that "a new war" had begun. The UN faced their major crisis as the Communists laid on pressure with successive mass offensives. UN forces lapsed into disorderly retreat (the big bug out), except some, like the US Marines at Chosin, who engaged in heroic withdrawals. On 15th December, the Communists were again south of the 38th Parallel, creating enough anxiety for Truman to declare, on December 16th, a National Emergency.

The UN and President Truman, urged by the British, soon recognised the need to seek through a UN "Ceasefire Group" an end to an unwinnable war. MacArthur, on the other hand, publicly urged there was "no substitute for victory." He was not alone in wanting to use atomic bombs to secure absolute victory, bringing the world dangerously close to nuclear and global war. Truman, to contain the situation, recalled MacArthur on 11th April 1951, and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway.

Ridgway, called Iron Tits - he wore hand grenades on his chest - immediately began restoring the fighting spirit of the 8th Army. He was so successful that when the Chinese launched their last shot at victory, the Fifth Spring Offensive on the 22nd April 1951, the UN army was capable of halting it. But both armies were spent. Ridgway then set about securing a strong defence line at the original border, the 38th Parallel, for Truman realised victory could not be pursued. It must remain a limited war with limited objectives.

Consequently, at the 38th Parallel, truce talks began on 10th July 1951. For two years the war of words remained bogged down in crucial ideological issues like the voluntary repatriation of prisoners of war. Little regard was given to soldiers dying in futile trench warfare, or the thousands of war prisoners suffering in barbaric conditions.

On 4th November 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the new President of the United States on the promise he would end the Korean War. Stalin died on 5th March 1953. On 27th July, 1953 the impasse was ended with the signing of an Armistice. However, no peace treaty followed to formally end the war.

In 2000, the Korean War can be viewed more objectively. The United Nations' collective action provided a precedent and hope for the world; Communist aspirations were temporarily thwarted; and South Korea thrived and evolved into a modern democracy. The North Koreans, on the other hand, remain in a time warp, deluded and confined behind the line that is the most heavily guarded on earth: the 38th Parallel.

1 The author recognises that casualty figures vary from source to source. The figures used here are from a recently published history:
"The Korean War: The West Confronts Communism 1950-1953" by Michael Hickey, John Murray, London, 1999.


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