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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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?
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Daphne - Up, up and away in an airplane museum in Berlin