Archive for Sunday, July 27, 2003

Korean War veterans mark 50th anniversary

July 27, 2003


— No one ever called them the greatest generation.

For a half-century, veterans of the Korean War have lived with the stigma that they were the first American fighting men not to come home winners.

"Like everybody else, I guess, I just tried to forget it," recalls Bill Hosler, 72, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., who was wounded in a mortar attack.

The three-year-long Korean War, which dragged to a close on July 27, 1953, has long been viewed as a stalemate at best, an American defeat at worst.

It was a grinding, ugly kind of war, in which U.S. forces did some of their most courageous fighting in retreat. When it ended, the foe was still standing and the battle lines were about where they had started, on the 38th Parallel.

Rethinking conflict

But, now, a decade after the Cold War's end, historical opinion is turning. Scholars see Korea as the place where the United States first sent the message that it would expend blood -- including 37,000 lives -- to stop the spread of communism.

That message, later reinforced in Vietnam, might have deterred aggression on a global scale, including Soviet incursion into Western Europe or Chinese assault on Taiwan.

"It was a victory." That is the succinct judgment of British scholar John Keegan, a leading military historian.

Retired Temple University professor Russell F. Weigley, foremost historian of the American Army, puts it this way: "The communists, after Korea, never again challenged us with an open military aggression."

All of which makes a guy like Bill Hosler feel pretty good.

The Korean War generation wanted to live up to the standard set by the older brothers and cousins who had won World War II.

Hosler, a small-town boy of 13 when GIs stormed the Normandy beaches in 1944, still remembers the images of the invasion on the news.

"The World War II guys were my heroes," he said.

No one had expected another war, not so soon.

Unexpected war

By 1950, the American juggernaut that defeated Germany and Japan had melted into civilian life. Active-duty Army strength had dropped from 8 million to fewer than 600,000.

The only sizeable body of soldiers within reach of Korea was in Japan, where the 24th Infantry Division -- including 19-year-old Pvt. Hosler -- was on low-key occupation duty.

"After World War II, everything was laid-back," Hosler recalled. "I guess they figured, 'The war is over; there won't be any more.' Training was not up to snuff. ... We had leftover equipment."

But on June 25, 1950, when North Korea's Soviet-backed communist regime launched its attack to crush the South, President Harry Truman immediately saw it as a threat to vital U.S. interests.

His decision to send troops was a clear declaration of what had become the Truman Doctrine: The United States would oppose the advance of communism at all times in all places. It was a key Cold War decision and set a course presidents would follow for decades.


When peace finally came, there was no burst of joy, as when the Germans and Japanese surrendered in World War II. There was only relief.

MacArthur had warned that leaving North Korea as a Soviet puppet state and failing to force a showdown with China would only put off a day of reckoning. He predicted that the United States ultimately would have to take on both.

Now, 50 years after the armistice-signing, 37,000 U.S. troops remain on duty in South Korea, engaged in armed standoff with North Korean troops on the opposite side of the demilitarized zone that roughly marks the 38th Parallel.

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