[Heroes from afar] U.S. vets memorialized by Korean War Project
Sprawling database details experiences of thousands of soldiers
"[Capt.] James Van Fleet [Jr.] was a B-26B Invader pilot in the 13th Bomber Squadron, 3rd Bomber Group, at Kunsan Air Base," Arthur Barondes, a member of the class of 1948 at the United States Military Academy (USMA) and president of the association of the class, wrote to the Korea JoongAng Daily on Oct. 11.
Capt. Van Fleet, also a member of the USMA class of 1948, was the son of Gen. Van Fleet, commander of the U.S. 8th Army in Korea from April 1951 to February 1953. The younger Van Fleet was a pilot, assigned a mission to invade the enemy's territory and attack any lights or gunfire that they could identify.
Though the father and the son could only meet infrequently during the war, special occasions like the general's birthday created rare opportunities for them to reunite.
The war raged on however, and next month Capt. Van Fleet flew out on a night mission, his fourth combat mission during the war.
“While on a night intruder mission, Van Fleet Jr.’s aircraft crashed near Haeju, North Korea,” Barondes said of the captain's April 5 disappearance. “He was listed as Missing in Action [M.I.A] on March 31, 1954."
His remains were never recovered.
“Losing Jim was particularly personal for his father, Gen. James Van Fleet," Barondes said. “Jim is memorialized on his parents’ gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery."
But in Dallas, a pair of brothers have for decades worked to help veterans' families connect the dots and find missing links. Hal Barker founded the Korean War Project in 1995 with his brother, and continues to help maintain the website's extensive database.
“We have several thousand interactive webpages that allow visitors for the last 20 years to input stories, photos and other information,” Barker said in a Sept. 19 written response to emailed questions. “Tens of thousands of veterans and families have used these pages to make contact.”
To date, the project contains about 700,000 pages of records, and over 1,000 maps in digital format showcasing locations of battles.
More than once they have helped a family of a veteran who went M.I.A. during the war.
“In 1999, the Department of Defense asked my brother and I to help find families of missing Americans from the Korean War,” Barker said. “We created a database and online presentation as a public service and made contact with thousands of families and provided those links to the Department of Defense. […] Our volunteer job was to create a bridge between the families and the military.”
One M.I.A. soldier concerned Private First Class Willie Earl Blue, who was a young soldier from New Orleans who fought in the 2nd Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Regiment.
“On the night of Aug. 31 — Sept. 1, 1950, the North Koreans attacked and Pfc. Blue was declared missing in action," Barker said. "His remains were later discovered but could not be identified.”
It was in January 2006 that Donelle Humphrey, Blue's niece, got in touch with the Korean War Project. The Barkers told her about the DNA program at the Defense Department, prompting them to submit their DNA samples.
They heard back in 2017 that the department had found a match, allowing for the soldier's long-awaited return.
“We were treated as heroes by the family,” Barker said. “We were only doing the job we felt was needed. It is a very, very small world.”
Major Edward L. Barker of the U.S. Marine Corps served in the Korean War for one year, beginning in September 1951.
“In 1973, after graduating and finding no work as a historian, I became a carpenter building homes and commercial buildings,” Hal Barker said. “During this time I repeatedly asked my father if he would tell me about his time in World War II and Korea, and he told me to never ask him again or he would disown me immediately."
It was only after he wrote to the Marine Corps in 1979 that he found out his father was awarded the Silver Star for action at Heartbreak Ridge. The medal is awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces for their "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.”
When the Korean War broke out with the invasion of North Korean forces into the South on June 25, 1950, the United States' participation was an outgrowth of its larger national security strategy to contain the rise of communist influence in the region.
The United States committed 1,789,000 troops to the Korean War (1950-1953). At one point during the war they accounted for about 40 percent of all allied troops on the ground, including the United Nations forces and the South Korean forces, and led the UN forces fighting against the North Korean and Chinese troops.
But as the stories shared on the Korean War Project show, American participation in the war was a very personal experience for the veterans, including a group of cadets who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) in 1948 and headed to the battlefront in Korea just two years later.
“Most of the 112 ‘Class of 1948’ graduates who served in the Korean War had harrowing and hazardous combat experiences,” Barondes said. “Indeed, 17 gave their lives in combat. Twelve of the 75 Army officers — one in six — died in combat. Five of the 37 Air Force officers — about one in seven — died.”
The battles on the ground were rough, especially in the first months, when the North Koreans continued to push the allied forces southward. Members of the USMA class of 1948 recall this well.
The regiment was understrength and ill-equipped for combat, lacking “a tank company and anti-tank capability,” with old ammunition and limited medical support, according to Barondes.
“Losses were horrendous,” he said. “After two months in Korea, only 168 of the original 1,968 men [in the regiment] remained.”
But the troops persevered, according to the records of James Ruddell, Barondes’ classmate and a company commander in the 24th Division at the frontlines near Daejeon in July 1950.
“[O]n 16 July […] the enemy […] penetrated the Kum River Line, and overran the forward positions,” reads Ruddell’s Distinguished Service Cross citation. “Lieutenant Ruddell personally rallied small fighting groups and organized them into a defensive team. […] He constantly exposed himself to heavy fire in organizing and fighting the delaying action. […] His delaying action prevented encirclement.”
Being taken captive was one thing they all wanted to avoid, recalled Robert Mathis, a fighter pilot and a classmate of Barondes, Ruddell and Caldwell III.
“I hit with a thud and lay momentarily on the ground,” wrote Mathis in his book, “Korea: A Lieutenant’s Story,” which he published in 2006. “There were a number of people around me speaking in what to me was completely unintelligible language. […] My mind was now racing and I knew that I had to do something very soon or I would become a prisoner of war. […] I had read accounts of people who had been captured, particularly by the North Koreans, and it really wasn't fun. […] I quickly decided that if I were to go down, it would be fighting all the way.”
By the time the armistice was signed in July 1953, 33,686 Americans had died.
Whilst many of these individual veterans’ stories are at least 70 years old, their importance has not faded with time, said Harry Harris, ambassador of the United States to Korea.
“As you can imagine, there are fewer and fewer veterans still around who fought in the Korean War — the youngest of them would be in their mid-80s today,” Harris wrote to the Korea JoongAng Daily on Oct. 8. “It is important to honor them for putting their lives on the line to protect people on the other side of the world in the way they did.”
In 1953, the United States signed a mutual defense treaty with South Korea and today maintains around 28,500 troops south of the inter-Korean border.
A set of unprecedented inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits have taken place, however, since the onset of the Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea. Harris, who began his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Korea in 2018, has been a close witness.
“The issues we deal with here as an alliance affect the entire world,” Harris said. “As you alluded to, President Trump has taken a new approach toward engagement with the DPRK. While we hope for diplomacy to be successful, hope in and of itself is not a course of action. U.S.-ROK Alliance activities and training are designed to support peace on the peninsula and in the region, while ensuring we maintain readiness.
“And while the political climate has certainly improved, we cannot let our guard down,” he added. “There are ample historical examples of what could happen, including what happened on that fateful day 70 years ago, if we’re not ready.”
“Here we are, 70 years later, and we are the closest of allies — our Alliance is the linchpin of stability and security in East Asia, and our relationship has grown to encompass many dimensions, including trade and investment, people-to-people ties, and cooperation across a broad range of disciplines,” Harris said. “We share the same values, work closely with each other in pursuit of the same goals; we work as partners, and we celebrate one another’s victories.
“South Korea’s transformation into a prosperous and thriving democracy could only happen with the hard work and commitment of the Korean people, and the iron-clad security relationship with the United States and 21 other sending states,” he added. “Together we fought for these values 70 years ago, and together we defend them today.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Beginning with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the United States committed 1,789,000 troops, including forces who fought on the ground, in the air and in the sea. They were the largest contingent among the United Nations forces. The war claimed the lives of 33,739 Americans, while another 103,284 were wounded and 7,140 were taken captive, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Of those captured, 2,701 died in captivity.
The United States’ generals led the UN forces’ war effort in Korea from 1950 to 1953. They included Douglas MacArthur, Matthew B. Ridgway and Mark Wayne Clark. Following the arrival of U.S. air and naval forces in Korea just two days after war broke out, the American forces were engaged in most battles throughout the war, from the Battle of Osan in Gyeonggi in July 1950, the first battle in which U.S. forces engaged the enemy on the ground, to the Battle of Kumsong in what is now North Korea, from June to July in 1953, one of the last battles of the war.
The United States also led the efforts to repatriate prisoners of war after the armistice was signed in July 1953. It maintains about 28,500 troops in South Korea today.
This series is a weekly publication in cooperation with the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.