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Remembering the "Forgotten War" in Korea


Robert Johnston, 5th Regimental Combat Team
"I'm sorry, I can't talk about it yet," came the emotional voice on the other end of the phone. "Someday I hope I'm able to, but right now...I'm sorry, I just can't." I hung up the phone sadly. I wasn't upset that my interview hadn't been granted, that was the least of my worries. I felt badly because I'd brought up a painful subject for a veteran who has spent the past fifty years dealing with nightmarish memories of his service in the Korean War.

I had the name and number of another Korean War Veteran, but I wasn't sure I would use it. I was torn. On the one hand, I certainly did not want to chance reopening any wounds for a Veteran who had already been through enough. On the other, I believed in the power of history. I felt that the best way for me to write about the Korean War was to share with you the story of someone who had lived it. It seemed essential to me that we learn from our Veterans, who are a precious source of living history, so that the horrors they lived through in the Korean War may be avoided in the future.

So I dialed the second number.

Robert Johnston answered the phone, and quickly agreed to talk with me about his two tours of duty in Korea. His pain, too, was still fresh, and he choked back tears in our first few minutes on the phone. But Robert had begun to heal, and he knew that his story was too important not to tell.

I met Robert the next day in Fullerton, CA, ready to listen and learn. We talked about his experiences in the Korean War and about his feelings on America's involvement there. It has taken hospitalization, a ruined marriage, eight years of anti-depressants and 40 years of self-healing, prayer, love and humor for him to be able to share this information with others.

His story follows:

In 1946, Korea was a tiny peninsula in Asia that most westerners had never heard of. It had been under Japanese control for 35 years until United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan to surrender. With Japan defeated, its territories were up for grabs. Rather than give one country the upper hand in influence around the world, the United States and The Soviet Union decided to share control of Korea until the small country could create its own political system and govern itself. Within the next 4 years, however, Korea would officially split into two independent countries along an imaginary border: the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union backed Communist North Korea, and the United States supported Democratic South Korea. The geography of the situation was too close for comfort, and both sides dreamed of a reunified Korea, under their own particular form of government.


She lines it up; she banks it in, and she scores!

When the North Korean Army poured over the parallel in 1950 to gain control of the south, the two Koreas went to war. President Truman and the United States government felt that this was a Soviet-backed attack on democracy, and since South Korea did not have enough military strength, Truman decided that the US had to intervene, or lose all of Korea to the communists. Small, unknown Korea would soon become famous as the Cold War's first battleground for the heavyweight title of "Superpower of the World".

As American democracy stepped into the ring to face off against Soviet communism, Robert Johnston volunteered for duty. At 17, Robert felt invincible. He entered the military because he didn't have the money for college, and enlisting was a legal way for him to get out of his parents' house. Besides, his family had a long and honored history in the military. Twelve of his uncles served in WWII, and an ancestor had received one of the first purple hearts ever issued by General George Washington in the Revolutionary war. Since he was an avid reader, a history buff, and he loved to travel, it was only natural for him to enlist. And since he held the cocky teenage belief that nothing could kill him, he didn't think much about the risk.

When he arrived in Korea, Robert quickly learned that the cold could kill. The temperatures reached 20 and 40 degrees below zero, but the soldiers weren't issued any extra equipment for the extreme temperatures. More US soldiers died of frostbite in the first year than of casualties by the enemy. Sleeping at night meant death. As your body sleeps, your circulation slows down. So Robert learned to live on two to three hours of sleep, stolen in the middle of the day when the sun offered a bit of warmth. Their food would freeze so that they stuck their knives in their food cans and pulled out the contents to eat like a Popsicle. Their water would freeze, leaving them to chance the dysentery-causing bacteria in the local streams. These hastily trained troops entered Korea unprepared for the freezing winter, and unprepared for the strength of their North Korean foes.

A memorial dedicated to Korea's California Veterans
These overwhelming conditions made the US and South Korean forces easy targets for the North Koreans. They were pushed back all the way to a tiny piece of land at the southern tip of Korea called the Pusan Perimeter. The North Koreans must have felt that victory was now easily within reach, but the war wasn't over yet. Far from it! At this point, the US forces under the command of General MacArthur (a WWII hero) tried a dramatic amphibious landing at Inchon, just south of the 38th parallel. They were incredibly successful, and were able to rally, retaking all of South Korea and forcing the North Koreans back north of the original boundary line. And then they kept going. General MacArthur pushed the US forces all the way into North Korea, almost to the Chinese border. Communist China was worried that the US wouldn't stop with North Korea, but would invade their country too. As the US neared the Yalu River, which divided North Korea from China, the Chinese Army joined the North Korean army, committing thousands more troops to the already bloody war.

Robert's regiment was a mere six miles from the Yalu River at the time, and they were the first to encounter the new Chinese soldiers. For some reason however, General MacArthur couldn't believe that the Chinese had joined the North Koreans, and waited three days before issuing orders to do something about it. By this time, it was too late, and the US forces had to retreat south of the 38th parallel once again. The fighting that followed was some of the bloodiest and most horrifying that Robert encountered.

Korea's American Victims:  We remember.

One day of battle brought the Chinese soldiers into the US trenches. In the midst of the chaos, Robert came face to face with a large Chinese soldier. Robert emptied six rounds into him before running out of ammo completely, but the soldier kept coming at him, with two others close behind. At that moment, Robert heard "Johnston, drop!" and he did. Next to him, Sergeant Green opened fire. He killed the three Chinese soldiers, and gave up his own life in the process. Sergeant Green was black, Robert was white. Any prejudices that Robert had grown up with were destroyed that day as Robert was overwhelmed by the heroism of Green's last act.

The armies would go back and forth across the 38th parallel 4 times before a cease-fire was issued. In three years, 54,000 US soldiers died. This was nearly the same amount that died in the ten years of fighting in Vietnam! 8,000 US troops were declared MIA (Missing In Action) in Korea, compared with 2,000 in Vietnam. Yet today, this "police action" is barely covered in history courses anywhere, and the status of the "Forgotten War" deeply hurts the soldiers that served their country fighting it.

Rather than ignore the Korean War, there are lessons to be learned from it. Most importantly, we need to recognize that "War is hell." Few people know this better than Robert. He told me that most Veterans won't talk about the war to civilians, because they couldn't possibly understand what the Veterans have been through. Even with all of the graphic and disturbingly realistic movies that document war, (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, etc.) Robert believes that audiences can only feel 10% of the horror that a soldier actually lived through. "If politicians had to actually fight the wars that they start," he told me, "there'd never be any wars."

Why do we go to war
Robert's story is unique in its details, but it is also universal. Several years ago he met a man in front of his brother's home. The man was a black Veteran from the Vietnam War, and his size and shape in the early evening light played tricks on Robert's eyes. The Veteran looked just like Sergeant Green to him, the man who had given his life to save Robert's in the trenches so many years ago. Robert embraced the man, crying and thanking him, overwhelmed with gratitude for Green's sacrifice. Although he'd never met Robert before, the Vietnam Veteran knew his own pains of war. He hugged Robert back, and sympathetically said, "I think I know what this is all about. But why don't you tell me your version?"

So after three years of death and pain, and a lifetime of emotional scars for those involved, who won the war in Korea? Both sides claim victory, but did anyone really win anything? The artificial border remained at the 38th parallel. North Korea remained under the Communist Control of Kim Il Sung, and South Korea remained under the democratic government of Syngman Rhee. Robert strongly believes that the US did win this war, and was victorious in stopping the spread of communism. He assures me that if we hadn't intervened in Korea, countries around the world would have fallen like dominoes under Soviet pressure to institute communism, spreading their brutal form of government until the United States was the only democracy left. Although I hear his point, I'm a pacifist at heart. After listening to Robert's terrifying tale, I still can't help but wonder if we overreacted to the threat of communism in this case. Was the loss of life, on both sides, really worth it?


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


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