Vivid war memories still lingerThe JoongAng Daily today presents the second installment of a four-part series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953. Today’s article looks at the remembrances of South Korean war veterans, as well as civilians who were caught up in the fighting.
Subsequent articles in the series, which began yesterday and runs through Saturday, will provide a close-up look at the Demilitarized Zone, and focus on the shifting attitudes of South Koreans toward the North, particularly noting the differences in views between the younger and older generations. Yesterday’s article presented the experiences of anti-Communist soldiers in the North Korean Army who were held prisoner on Geoje Island.
Order of Series
1. North Korean Army prisoners on Geoje island
2. Remembrances of war veterans
3. A look at the DMZ
4. Shifting attitudes among South Koreans
Fifty years after the armistice ending the Korean War was signed, Yang Chang-sik still has mixed feelings about it. “I was glad that the war was over. I had lost many friends and being young and all that it was not easy to overcome the grief and sorrow that I felt,” he says. But he adds in a firm voice, “Still, on the other hand I felt like it was unfinished business.”
For those, like the 75-year-old Mr. Yang, who fought on the front lines of the war, the vivid memories seem never to fade. After the truce, which led the two Koreas on different paths, individuals pursued their own careers, each trying to make a living as South Korea slowly began to rebuild itself from the ruins.
Nevertheless, the war influenced Mr. Yang so much that he chose to stay in the army. “In the back of my mind I never trusted the armistice. I don’t trust the North Koreans even now,” he says. “We were caught with our pants down. I said to myself that that would never happen again and that’s why I stayed on as a soldier.”
Lim Jong-sik, 74, who retired as a full colonel in the early 1970s after also fighting in the Korean War, stresses that another war could break out at any time. “People don’t believe nowadays that war is a possibility on the peninsula. For me, I would not be surprised when it happens again,” he says, adding, “I am not a warmonger but I say that we have to be ready.”
Armistice or not, for people like Mr. Yang it is all the same. His vow not to be caught off guard again stems from personal experiences that he had to endure at the outbreak of the war.
During the Vietnam War, the average life span of a freshly-minted second lieutenant out of the academy was said to be measured in minutes or hours. Young officers were rushed to the battlefield. Many would not return home.
The South Korean forces had their own combat history in which the lives of young officers vanished like the morning dew from a wildflower. In one particular case during the Korean War, the casualty rate for young officers was extremely high. In one week, the Korean Army lost 151 young officers after its leaders decided to form a fighting unit of cadets at the Korea Military Academy and threw them into battle in the initial stage of the war.
Mr. Yang was one of the young cadets who survived.
Although he retired as a brigadier general in 1979, Mr. Yang comes to the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan-dong, Seoul, each June to refresh his memories of his fallen comrades.
His gray hair betrays Mr. Yang’s age, but he still walks with a straight back, taking large steps just like a soldier on parade.
As he walks past the stone shrine where the names of the fallen are inscribed, including some 53,000 foreign soldiers, the old man shakes his head from time to time as if he can’t believe he has survived while so many other lives have vanished.
Halting in front of a shrine, skimming down the list of fallen soldiers, Mr. Yang does not utter a word for a while. Then, looking off into the distance in front of the museum where scores of middle school students have come for a field trip, he lets out a big sigh and manages a small smile. “See those kids?,” he says. “After all, it was worth it. I just hope when they leave they have learned something.”
Over all the years, Mr. Yang’s memories of the Korean War have not faded. In particular, he does not forget the first week of the war, in which 65 classmates and 86 underclassmen, all cadets at the Korea Military Academy, were killed through what he perceives as a mistake by the commander of the South Korean forces at the time, General Choi Byung-duk.
With half the soldiers on leave and most field grade officers above the level of lieutenant colonel attending a party the day before North Korea unleashed its troops across the 38th parallel, Korea’s top command gave orders to the military academy to form a fighting unit composed of around 630 cadets that included 300 underclassmen. They had worn a uniform for only 25 days.
“As far as I know, the only time cadets were thrown into battle en masse was when Napoleon invaded Russia,” Mr. Yang says. “Cadets are the backbone of the army. You don’t put them into a whole group and send them out and risk losing two whole officer classes to a single bombshell.” All the while, he stresses he was not afraid to put his life on the line, but that the move appeared irrational to him and many other classmates.
Suddenly raising his voice with a trace of bitterness, he adds, “Those who made that decision deserve a court martial!”
Shin Gyeong-chul, a retired lieutenant colonel and graduate of the Korea Military Academy who wrote his thesis on the topic, agrees that the decision was a flawed one. “Many believe that General Choi Byeong-duk didn’t fully understand the impact of that decision as his background was that of a logistics officer,” he says.
Mr. Shin added that following the war’s outbreak, the South Korean top command erred by sending forces to the battlefield piecemeal instead of concentrating them at one location and committing them to a decisive battle.
On June 26, 1950, without close air support, artillery or reserve forces in place, the cadet unit engaged in combat at Pocheon, in Gyeonggi province, against the 9th Regiment of North Korea’s 3d Division, which was composed of battle-hardened soldiers with experience in the Chinese and Soviet armies during World War II and which had beaten the 7th Division of the Korean Army.
Ahn Jung-il, 70, who once served in the 19th Regiment of the North Korean Army’s 13th Division as a communications specialist but chose to stay in South Korea after being imprisoned, says that the initial stage of the war ran largely according to the North’s plan.
“My division was not a line unit. We were formed four months prior to the invasion to serve as reservists, but those line units were crack troops,” Mr. Ahn says. “When they overran the South’s positions we were ordered to follow through. I was surprised that everything went according to our predictions.”
Mr. Yang remembers how he kept on feeding the ammunition belt as part of a machine gun crew. “The attack started around 4 in the morning and the ground around us just kept shaking as the enemy rained down its initial bombardment on our positions to soften us up. Then they came.”
After fierce fighting, the order to withdraw was finally given. Mr. Yang and his unit left their position, but they were not pulled back to safer ground nor dispersed among other units as they should have been ― they were thrown back into action several more times, including the Battle of Suwon.
It was only on July 2, when UN forces joined up, that the cadet unit was pulled off the battlefield. On July 10, in front of Daejon’s City Hall, a short service was held to pin officers’ bars on Mr. Yang and his comrades who had survived the initial stage of the war.
Mr. Yang remembers that time vividly. “It was a sad day. To your left and right familiar faces weren’t there anymore. Those officer bars felt heavier than ever because every one of us felt like he was carrying the load of our fallen comrades.”
Those underclassmen who were sent into battle after only 25 days in uniform and were lucky enough to survive until they were pulled off the battlefield never returned to the academy to complete their officer training. They were transferred to another military institution.
To this day, they are not recognized as academy graduates. Only Mr. Yang’s class is recognized as the 10th graduating class of the academy since they had nearly completed their training when war broke out.
Mr. Yang’s career as a soldier continued after the war. He next saw combat 15 years later, when he participated in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1969 as a regimental commander.
Every June 25, the remaining 90 classmates from the 10th graduating class of the Korea Military Academy travel to the village of Bupyeong for a memorial service honoring their fallen comrades. Starting last year, current cadets at the Korea Military Academy have attended the service as well.
To Mr. Yang and his classmates, recognition is most important. “Fight we did. But it never should have happened the way it did. Hopefully, there will be no more war and no incident like this.”
According to the U.S. Army’s Office of the Chief of Military History, the Korean War resulted in an estimated 142,000 casualties for the United States, including prisoners and missing personnel. South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense estimates South Korean casualties at more than 621,000.
During the 37-month conflict, total casualties are estimated at 900,000 for the Chinese and 600,000 for North Korea.
The war, which marked the first open conflict of the Cold War era, was fought for its last two years around the 38th parallel, where it began. The largely deadlocked warfare during this period resulted in bloody battles over the hilly terrain.
Strategic high points often became the scene of savage fighting, their ownership changing frequently, and gave rise to such names as Pork Chop Hill or Baekma Hill, which were outposts of the defensive lines drawn by both sides.
One of the most contested areas during this stalemate was a triangular region north of the 38th parallel connecting Cheorwon, Kumhwa and Pyeonggang, also called the “Iron Triangle.”
The Baekma Hill battle, which occurred on the evening of Oct. 6, 1952, marked one of the war’s bloodiest encounters. Ownership reportedly changed 24 times, with an estimated 300,000 shells fired on both sides that ultimately altered the shape of the hill into that of a horse lying down. Hence, baekma means white horse in Korean.
Commanding an important part of Gangwon province and guarding the main support lines from Seoul, the hill’s possession was seen as crucial to both sides.
The battle, lasting nine days, engaged 40,000 Chinese soldiers against 20,000 South Korean forces from the 9th Division under General Kim Jong-oh. The Korean forces had substantial support from American and Korean artillery units, and the effective cooperation between the infantry and artillery units ultimately won the battle for the Koreans.
The Chinese left an estimated 10,000 soldiers on the field, while 3,500 South Koreans fell during the battle.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. estimates that in the Vietnam War (1955-1975), as many as 58,200 Americans were killed in action.
The relatively short length of the Korean War and the protracted Vietnam War that followed may help explain why the Korean conflict is called “The Forgotten War,” but people like Mr. Yang emphasize that the war is not over yet.
“People tend to forget that it is only a ceasefire that separates South and North Korea,” he says. “We were caught with our pants off. It should not happen again.”
In contrast to the veterans’ ambivalence, some civilians are happy just to have survived the war.
Lee Myeong-sun, a civilian who lost both her legs below the knee after being hit by shrapnel during a bombing raid, says that the armistice brought an end to everything that was wrong. “During the war, my family moved up and down the country. It was just chaos,” says Ms. Lee, 78, whose immediate family members include two brothers, a younger sister and her parents. “For a time, we lost sight of each other but through a miracle we found each other again.” She has never married.
“Look at where we are now. At least we don’t have to worry about where to sleep. There is enough to eat and there is a roof over our heads.” Waving her hand in a dismissive gesture, she adds, “After the armistice, we all could go on with our life. But when I see the news these days it seems nobody has learned a thing from the past.” Pointing to her legs’ stubs, she says, “This is all war brings.”
by Brian Lee