Military history


The Stony Road

Toward Stalemate

While the British 29 Brigade stood on the Imjin, Van Fleet hastened to create a reserve position north of Seoul—the “No Name” line—where the Eighth Army had no difficulty holding the Communists, the momentum of their offensive spent. Yet the Chinese continued to reinforce failure. On May 15, Marshal Peng launched a new assault with twenty-one Chinese and nine North Korean divisions. Once again, III ROK Corps collapsed, as it had done with monotonous regularity throughout the war. The Communists pushed forward as much as thirty miles in some places. The ROK 5th and 7th Divisions gave way. But on the right, the ROK I Corps held its ground. Despite sustaining some 900 casualties, the U.S. 2nd Division also stood firm. One of its batteries fired more than 12,000 rounds of 105-mm ammunition in a single twenty-four-hour period. The 38th Infantry stemmed repeated attacks on the night of May 16. “Artillery, crashing into the ground forward of the lines, took a terrific toll of the attackers,” recorded the divisional history, “while other hundreds died in the minefields checkered with barbed wire. The groans of the wounded, screams of the attackers and the blast of bugles mingled with the clattering roar of battle as waves of Chinese pushed against the lines. . . . Searchlights were turned on to illuminate the battle area and aid the defenders in locating and slaughtering the onrushing Chinese.”1 The divisional commander, Major General Clark Ruffner, played a prominent front-line role in organizing the defense and concentrating his units for counterattacks, surviving a helicopter crash as he flew between positions.

The U.S. 3rd Division and the 187th Airborne RCT plugged the gap on the right of the 2nd Division opened by the ROK collapse. By May 20 the Chinese offensive was spent, and the UN was estimating that it had cost the Communists 90,000 casualties. Even if this figure was exaggerated, like so many “guesstimates” on the battlefield, there was no doubt that the enemy had been decisively worsted. The U.S. Army, above all the 2nd “Indianhead” Division, had displayed heartening determination in holding the line. On May 22, Van Fleet opened his own counteroffensive, designed to exploit the exhaustion of the Chinese. The ROK I Corps moved up the coast against negligible opposition and gained the town of Kaesong. The 187th RCT and 1st Marine Division reached the Hwachon Reservoir. On the left, I Corps regained the old Imjin line, including the positions from which the British 29 Brigade had withdrawn in April.

There was little doubt that, had the political will existed, the Communist front now lay open. The morale of the Chinese armies in Korea was shattered. After all their exhilarating successes of the winter, they were now compelled to confront the new face of the UN armies, the careful deployment of men and firepower which the Communists could no longer break through. But Washington and its allies possessed no inclination to press the crumbling enemy northward, to extend the UN front and put at risk all that had been gained. The objective declared by the Joint Chiefs was to bring about “an end to the fighting, and a return to the status quo; the mission of Eighth Army was to inflict enough attrition on the foe to induce him to settle on these terms.” In the words of a British gunnery officer, “Everybody could see that we had reached stalemate, unless someone started chucking atom bombs.”2 Ridgway wrote, “We stopped on what I believe to be the strongest line on our immediate front.”3 In the first half of June, Van Fleet mounted limited operations to consolidate his positions—an exact repeat of the movement Ridgway began in April but which was frustrated by the Chinese spring offensive. This time, “Operation Piledriver” successfully gained Chorwon and Kumwha, the base line of the “Iron Triangle.” The X Corps cleared the “Punchbowl,” another important Communist fortified zone. On the new front, give or take a few miles at various points, the United Nations would hold its ground for the remainder of the war.

The Chinese were compelled to concede stalemate. At vast cost in lives, they had demonstrated their inability to break through the revitalized divisions of the Eighth Army, whatever local gains they could still achieve against the vulnerable ROKs. However limited the war aims of the Chinese in November 1950, there is no doubt that their early triumphs opened up, in the eyes of Peking, illusory visions of absolute military victory in Korea, of an all-embracing Communist success. Now, once again, the prospect open to Mao Tse Tung had narrowed dramatically. Chinese hopes of unifying Korea had died. The economic cost of the war to China was proving crippling, with the Russians insisting upon payment for the arms and ammunition which they supplied to Marshal Peng’s army. The West had convincingly demonstrated its determination to defend South Korea, at whatever cost in lives and treasure. Yet, from a Western perspective, the war had thus far proved an unhappy and divisive experience. America’s relationship with her allies had been deeply strained by the behavior of MacArthur, the real fears in Europe that American desperation might provoke the use of nuclear weapons and even a third world war in defense of another “faraway country of which we know nothing.” As a leading political historian of the period has written, “Alarm that Britain might be dragged into war sharpened anti-Americanism, always latent in the Labour Party, and as a study of the Press shows, soon began to undermine confidence in American leadership.”4 Many Westerners in Korea, above all many Europeans, were dismayed by the brutal injustice and corruption of Syngman Rhee’s government, which they were being asked to uphold, and of which more will be said below. “We felt a great hatred of being there, of the country,” said Captain St. Clair Tisdall of the 8th Hussars. “We seemed to be doing nothing very useful.”5 The cost of rearmament, above all for Britain, was proving almost insupportable. Even the modest British contingent in Korea was a very serious financial burden.

On June 1, 1950, the UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie declared his conviction that if a cease-fire could be achieved roughly along the 38th Parallel, the resolutions of the Security Council would have been fulfilled. The next day Dean Acheson made a speech in which he reaffirmed the objective of a free and independent Korea, but he spoke of the prospects for peace resting upon the defeat of Communist aggression and the creation of suitable guarantees to prevent a repetition of that aggression. On June 7 he told a U.S. Senate committee that UN forces in Korea would accept an armistice on the 38th Parallel. The world was learning to live with an acknowledgment of changed military and political realities in Asia. On June 23, when Jacob Malik, the Soviet delegate to the United Nations, proposed a cease-fire in Korea, his olive branch was received with overwhelming relief in the Western world. The Peking People’s Daily endorsed the Russian initiative. At last the end seemed in sight. Some compromise could be agreed, and the armies could go home. “I . . . believe,” Ridgway had concluded a report to the Joint Chiefs on May 20, “that for the next sixty days the United States government should be able to count with reasonable assurance upon a military situation offering optimum advantage in support of its diplomatic negotiations.” On July 10, Communist and UN delegations met for the first time in the town of Kaesong to open cease-fire negotiations. It was fortunate for the peace of mind of the governments of the West that they had no inkling of the two years of struggle and bloodshed that still lay ahead. The Communists were about to teach the world yet another bitter lesson in Korea: that war can be waged as doggedly and painfully at a negotiating table as with arms upon the battlefield.


From the outset Ridgway urged upon his government the toughest possible posture toward the Communists in negotiations: “To sit down with these men and deal with them as representatives of an enlightened and civilized people,” he wrote to Washington, “is to deride one’s own dignity and to invite the disaster their treachery will bring upon us. “6 If the UN Commander’s remarks would have been considered embarrassingly bellicose had they been known to some of America’s allies, they were bleakly justified by the events that began to unfold at Kaesong.

At the front, on the first day of talks with the Communists, sixteen men of the UN forces were killed, sixty-four wounded, fifteen missing. In Seoul, Western correspondents provoked a near riot because of the UN Command’s initial refusal to allow them to attend the truce meetings. Ridgway himself had to leave his headquarters to pacify them. Floyd Park, the Pentagon’s Chief of Information, issued a defensive statement: “Arranging for an armistice during the progress of actual fighting is one of the most delicate negotiations in human affairs and must necessarily be conducted in strictest secrecy. Moreover, ultimate success must depend in some measure upon the willingness of the public to await concrete results, and especially to refrain from violent reaction to incomplete or unfounded reports and rumors.” Yet within weeks all these sensible considerations would be buried without a trace as the peace talks began their rapid deterioration into a public circus.

The UN Command perceived no special import about the Communists’ proposed choice of a site for talks until these began on July 10. The UNC delegation was led by Vice Admiral Turner Joy of the U.S. Navy, the Communist group by the North Korean General Nam Il. The significance of the fact that Kaesong was firmly in Communist hands became rapidly apparent: the Chinese and North Koreans were not seeking the give-and-take of armistice negotiations. They had come to receive the UN’s capitulation, or at least to score a major propaganda triumph. It had been agreed that the UN party should fly to the talks under a white flag, which the Westerners regarded as an emblem of truce. They quickly discovered that the Communists were presenting this symbol to the world as a token of surrender. Joy’s delegation found that, across the conference table, they had been seated in lower chairs than their Communist counterparts. Every speech from the North Korean and Chinese team was punctuated with propaganda phrases about “the murderer Rhee,” “your puppet on Formosa.” Every exchange was delayed by interminable adjournments demanded by Nam Il’s delegation. Every procedural detail, the most basic discussion of an agenda, was dragged down into a morass of ideological rhetoric and empty irrationality. One of the most urgent UN demands, for the Red Cross to have access to prisoners in Communist hands, was unhesitatingly brushed aside. A low point in negotiations was attained on August 10 when the two delegations stared across the table at each other in complete silence for two hours and eleven minutes, a Communist gesture intended to display their rejection of the preceding UN statement. An extraordinary catalog of ludicrous, indeed often fantastic, complaints was presented against the UN Command.

By August 22 the talks had gotten nowhere. The Communist delegation had wrung every conceivable propaganda advantage from the meetings, while talking for long enough to see that the UN delegation had not the slightest intention of yielding on acceptable terms. Nam Il therefore broke off the talks, claiming that UN forces had attempted to murder his delegation by air attack.

The Communists had gained an immensely useful breathing space. Ridgway’s forces had passively held their positions during the five weeks of talks, and the Chinese were able to reinforce their formations strongly with artillery. The UN battle for its next important objective, the Hwachon Reservoir, which provided both water and electricity for Seoul, proved bitter and costly. The names of Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge, dominating the reservoir, entered the unlovely vocabulary of the campaign. These features changed hands again and again between August and October. But on October 14 they fell to the U.S. 2nd Division for the last time. Meanwhile, farther west, UN forces advanced up to nineteen miles north of the 38th Parallel. Chinese casualties were enormous. There was little doubt that the tide of war had turned once more against the Communists. On October 7 they proposed a resumption of negotiations. This time there seemed little doubt that the military pressure was forcing them to parley in earnest.

Talks began once more on October 25, 1951, at the genuinely neutral site of Panmunjom, in no-man’s-land between the armies. On November 12, Van Fleet, Eighth Army’s commander, was ordered to desist from major offensive action and restrict his forces to the defense of their existing front, to be known as the MLR—main line of resistance. Local attacks were still permissible, but no operation in greater than battalion strength could be mounted without authorization from Ridgway. This was the prelude to a striking negotiating bid by the UN delegation at Panmunjom: if the Communists signed an armistice within thirty days, Joy’s group told the Chinese and North Koreans, the existing front could be frozen into the final demarcation line between the two sides.

This was a move designed to show the Communists, and the world, that the UN had no interest in further territorial gains in Korea. It was also intended, of course, to hasten Peking and Pyongyang toward a rapid ending of a war of which Western opinion was becoming increasingly weary. The Communist negotiators hastened to ratify the proposal on November 27. Then for thirty days they talked empty nothings at Panmunjom. And while they talked, immune from major UN military action, on the mountains their armies dug. Day by day, yard by yard, they sank their trenches and tunnels into the hillsides. For 155 miles from coast to coast of Korea, through December 1951, they created a front of defensive positions, manned by 855,000 men, almost impregnable to artillery fire and assault. Successive lines were interwoven into a fortified belt from fifteen to twenty-five miles in depth. By December 27, when it was amply apparent at Panmunjom that the Communist delegation had merely been playing for time, their armies were dug into the positions that, with only minor variations, would form the final armistice line nineteen months later. The Communists could feel entirely satisfied with their progress. They were well aware of the growing war-weariness with Korea among the Western democracies. Granted that they had been compelled to forgo the immediate prospect of a military takeover of South Korea, they could hold their existing positions confident that it was most unlikely that the governments providing the UN contingents would tolerate the casualties that would be necessary to break the Chinese line. Peking and Pyongyang, facing the real risk of complete defeat in June 1951, had now achieved a virtual no-lose position. They could settle down at Panmunjom with a sense of time on their side, to wear down the fragile patience of the democracies, with only occasional injections of offensive action on the front to keep up the drain of casualties and maintain pressure on the UN.

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Yet if the December semi-truce had been an error by the UN, throughout this period their military commander remained undeceived by and unyielding toward the Communist strategy. The secret communications between Washington and Matthew Ridgway, which have now been released for historical scrutiny, underline the American general’s qualities. Unlike MacArthur, Ridgway never allowed his rhetoric to descend into bombast. But he displayed a commitment and sense of purpose of the highest order at a moment when the public will in the United States was being visibly sapped by the frustration of stalemate.

“Already in the press and radio [he wrote to the Joint Chiefs in July 1951], such expressions as the following are beginning to appear: ‘Let’s Get the Boys Back Home’ and ‘The War-Weary Troops.’ I can hardly imagine a greater tragedy for America and the free world than a repetition of the disgraceful debacle of our Armed Forces following their victorious effort in World War II. We can never efface that blot on the record of the American people on whom the responsibility squarely rests. Within my authority and in the light of common sense and my best judgement, I shall seek to the limit of my ability to eliminate among all U.S. military personnel in this theatre the type of thinking indicated by the use of such expressions. If this be ‘Thought Control,’ then I am for it, heart and soul. To condone it would be a cowardly surrender of everything for which we have fought and plan to fight. It would coincide completely with the line the Communists would wish us to take.”7

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But if Washington’s patience and resolve were being tested by events at Panmunjom, in Tokyo Ridgway remained certain that there must be no indication of weakening will. “I have a strong inner conviction,” he wrote in September, “admittedly based on the Korean as contrasted with the world situation, that more steel and less silk, more forthright American insistence on the unchallengeable logic of our position, will yield the objectives for which we honorably contend. . . . With all my conscience I urge that we stand firm.”8

Yet between July and the end of November 1951, the United Nations Command had suffered almost 60,000 casualties, more than 22,000 of these American. Communist resistance in the air was strengthening, with the appearance of the first Tu-2 light bombers. The war in Korea had entered its longest and most frustrating period—of stalemate on the ground and sterile attrition at the negotiating table. The United Nations Command had renounced any military objective beyond the defense of the MLR and spasmodic local operations designed to sustain morale and demonstrate its army’s continuing will to fight. For many months the airmen had been urging the Chiefs of Staff in Washington—as airmen so often urged commanders throughout the twentieth century—that they could pursue the allies’ strategic objectives at far lower cost in lives by a sustained bombing campaign. From the last months of 1951 until the end of 1952, while the negotiations at Panmunjom dragged interminably on, the U.S.A.F. waged a massive campaign to bring pressure upon the Communists by bombing, of which more will be said below. Yet by December 1952 the Communists had been able to increase and supply forces in Korea that numbered 1,200,000 men of seven Chinese armies and two North Korean corps. And through all those weary months, on the mountains of Korea the UN armies alternately baked and froze, fought fierce little local actions, whiled away the weeks in their foxholes and bunkers—in the name of a cause whose meaning and purpose had long been forgotten by those “at the sharp end,” if they had ever understood it.

The Cause

From beginning to end of the Korean conflict, most United Nations soldiers found considerable difficulty in reconciling the ideals that they were alleged to be fighting for with the unattractive conduct of the regime of Syngman Rhee. As early as July 18, 1950, the British Minister in Korea, Henry Sawbridge, wrote to the Foreign Office from Pusan:

“It appears from here that this war is being fought inter alia to make Korea safe for Syngman Rhee and his entourage. I had hoped that I might find it otherwise. I may be wrong, but I fancy that the inexperience, incompetence, and possibly corruption of the present regime are in some measure responsible for this crisis.”9

“Nor is there any real soul to this war [the Australian Richard Hughes wrote in the London Sunday Times on September 5]. No powerful sympathy or even warm liking exists between the Americans and the South Koreans. The soldiers of the United States and Britain notoriously have little abstract opinion or articulate comment on why they are fighting, but they can usually detect in any war a menace to their country or their homes. They can perceive nothing of that sort in this war.”

Through the months that followed, American and British soldiers constantly witnessed dreadful acts of brutality by the South Koreans toward their own people. One man, a Private Duncan, wrote to his MP: “40 emaciated and subdued Koreans were taken about a mile from where I was stationed and shot while their hands were tied, and also beaten unnecessarily by rifles. The executioners were South Korean military police. The whole incident has caused a great stir and ill-feeling among the men of my unit. We have heard of lots of other occasions of the same happening. I write to tell you this, as we are led to believe that we are fighting against such actions, and I sincerely believe that our troops are wondering which side in Korea is right or wrong.”10

In the spring of 1951 a wave of outrage swept through the ranks of the British 29 Brigade following the publication in the London Sunday Times of a statement by Syngman Rhee denouncing the alleged British role in the dismissal of MacArthur and declaring, “The British troops have outlived their welcome in my country.” This was one of Rhee’s notorious tantrums. He told an Australian Embassy official, “They are not wanted here any longer. Tell that to your government. The Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and British troops all represent a government which is now sabotaging the brave American effort to liberate fully and unify my unhappy nation.”11

British diplomats in Korea sighed, and sought to take refuge in an urbane view of Syngman Rhee’s deficiencies. After the British Minister in Korea had seen the President, he wrote to London on June 16:

“The South Koreans—as is perhaps to be expected at their stage of national development—are going through one of the more acute stages of the ‘awkward age.’ It is their misfortune, and their allies’, that this should coincide with the obligation to fight for the survival of their newly-acquired independence. When they show themselves, as they often do, uncomprehending and intolerant of other people’s views, their extreme inexperience is an extenuating circumstance that has to be taken into account when evaluating the irresponsible statements made by people in prominent positions. Chief among these is the President himself.”12

This line of reasoning, of course, offered little consolation to the men on the line. And even some UN officials took a far less sanguine view than the British Minister of the South Korean government’s behavior. “At least many hundreds [of alleged Communists] have been shot,” reported the Australian delegate to the UN Commission for Korea, John Plimsoll, on February 17, 1951. He described how the prisoners had been compelled to dig their own graves, then “rather clumsily and inexpertly shot before the eyes of others waiting their own turn.” In fairness to the Seoul regime, Plimsoll pointed out the immense bitterness and yearning for revenge among South Koreans for the dreadful atrocities committed by the Communists during their occupation: “The members of the Korean government and the Korean police are literally fighting for their lives. Any one of them or of their families who fell into enemy hands would be killed. They therefore do not take quite the detached view of the situation that persons overseas can take. . . . Even allowing for all this, the executions remain shocking. The picture is not a pretty one, even when due weight is given to the special conditions of war and of a relatively primitive country.”13

It was made even less pretty by such scandals as the creation of the so-called National Defense Corps by the South Korean government in December 1950. This was intended to act as a paramilitary militia. In the months that followed it became evident to foreigners in Korea that something was going wrong when they glimpsed bodies of starving beggars in the streets, and when it was learned that thousands of wretched members of the NDC were dying of cold and exposure, kept confined in barracks unfed and deprived of warmth. Even the Seoul government could not indefinitely resist demands for an investigation. It was discovered that the NDC commanding officer, Kim Yun Gun, had embezzled millions of dollars intended to clothe and feed the militia. He and five of his officers were shot outside Taegu on August 12, 1951. Yet every allied government knew that this case was only the tip of the iceberg of official corruption.

Throughout the war Rhee conducted his own dictatorship without reference to allied sensibilities, almost indeed as if the war did not exist. The National Assembly fought a long series of political battles with him . . . and lost all of them. The last, and most dramatic, came in May 1952, when the Assembly voted to overrule Rhee and lift martial law in the Pusan district. On May 27 the Assembly building was surrounded by military police. Some fifty assemblymen in shuttle buses were towed by army trucks to a military police station. Four were jailed, although their arrest in mid-session was blatantly illegal. Rhee then wielded power as if the legislature did not exist. “Spontaneous” demonstrations were organized in his support. Coercion of anti-Rhee assemblymen became outrageous. At midnight on July 4, eighty were dragged into the Assembly hall under police guard to prevent their escape. None were allowed to leave until constitutional amendments had been passed, placing all effective power in South Korea in Rhee’s hands. Thus armed, he called a presidential election on August 5 at which he was declared elected with 72 percent of the vote. Thereafter, official corruption in Korea ran entirely unchecked, and meaningful political debate was at an end. The United States and her allies were deeply embarrassed. Rhee made it plain that he could not care less.

Captain Ves Kauffroth arrived in Korea in December 1950 from New Orleans to serve as an air traffic controller. Driving toward Kimpo, “the truck was stopped by Korean police while a procession of Korean prisoners marched across the road directly in front of us. The procession was led by a long line of men wearing pointed, conical hats that even covered their faces. The long lines were four abreast and were followed by women who were also roped together. The women’s heads were not covered, and several looked up to us in the truck in a most beseeching manner as they were dragged along. I asked the driver what was happening, and he said they were Communists being taken away for execution. He said that now the Chinese had entered the war, all Communists were being ‘gotten rid of.’ ”14

Here was a pattern that was to become bleakly familiar in Indochina: of two opposing authoritarian regimes, each waging war à l’outrance, each committing acts of extraordinary brutality by Western standards. In Seoul, as in Saigon later, it could be argued that the scale of atrocities committed by the anti-Communist forces was far less great than that attributable to the Communists. Yet nothing could change the fact that the process of law scarcely existed in Seoul, any more than in Pyongyang. The vengeance of Syngman Rhee and his officials upon their perceived enemies was quite as casual and ruthless as that of Kim Il Sung. The Communist guerrilla activity in South Korea, which remained a constant feature of life there until the end of the war, required unceasing military activity to contain it, and provided the Seoul regime with an alibi for all manner of brutalities to its own people, “suspected of assisting the enemy.” Western soldiers were struggling to believe that they were fighting in Korea to defend certain principles of justice and freedom, which they witnessed daily being flaunted, indeed trampled underfoot, all around them.

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Throughout the first year of the war, Washington conducted a tireless diplomatic offensive to broaden to the utmost the participation of foreign contingents in the struggle. If the concept of the war as a United Nations crusade, rather than a narrow pursuit of American national interests, was to remain plausible, the member nations of the UN must be seen to contribute on the battlefield. Yet the very insistence of the Washington Administration that the Korean War must be regarded as one front in the worldwide struggle against communism made many nations reluctant to flock to the standard. It might have been easier to persuade them to fight against North Korean aggression than to participate in a confrontation in which, they were told, Pyongyang was merely acting as the tool of Moscow and Peking. In the first year the towering shadow of MacArthur, together with his pronouncements, deterred some governments. It was embarrassing enough to be invited to send troops to fight as subordinate partners of the American Army. But when there was also serious doubt whether the Washington Administration could control its own theater commander, when the specter of a third world war hung heavy over the battlefield, even greater fears came into play. Many nations were still in deep economic difficulties in the aftermath of World War II. Their men in the field had to be clothed, armed, equipped, ammunitioned, even fed by the United States. Each country repaid the U.S. government $14.70 per man per day in the field—for some reason, in the case of the Canadians, it was $16.50. Individual nations also paid for some of their supplies. Once when a Filipino artillery battery was called upon to lay down a heavy barrage in support of the Turkish Brigade, it is claimed that the following morning the Filipino commander protested to his American divisional commander about the cost to his poor country of all that ammunition. Yet, for all the great and sincere efforts that were made by senior Americans to cloak their effort in Korea in the mantle of the United Nations, from beginning to end the conflict could never be other than Washington’s war, to which other states provided token contributions chiefly for the diplomatic appeasement of the United States.

Among the most prominent contributors, the Turks sent a much-respected infantry brigade, whose men were evidently uninterested in higher tactics or sophisticated military skills, but possessed much rugged courage and willingness to endure. The Philippines, Thailand, Holland, Ethiopia, Colombia, Belgium, and Greece each contributed infantry battalions with some supporting elements. South Africa provided a fighter squadron. The more cautious Indians, Scandinavians, and Italians provided medical units. The French, whose military resources were strained to the utmost in Indochina and North Africa, provided a token infantry battalion which was exceptionally well regarded. The French unit, like those of all the other small nations, was incorporated into an American formation. But by far the most important non-American contribution was that of Canada and other nations of the British Commonwealth. The major Commonwealth countries all provided significant air and naval forces. Canada dispatched three destroyers and an air transport squadron soon after the outbreak of war and maintained a significant naval presence until the end. In addition, on the ground the British provided two infantry brigades, an armored regiment, and supporting artillery and engineers. The Canadians sent a reinforced infantry brigade. In June 1950 their armed forces totaled only 20,369 men of all ranks, and thus assembling a contingent posed great problems. Their initial unit, the 2nd Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, proved to include much unsatisfactory material, many men who had to be sent home. But after the initial shakeout, the “Princess Pats” were welded into a fine fighting unit. The Australians also sent two exceptionally good infantry battalions, the New Zealanders, an artillery regiment. In July 1951 all these elements were combined to form the Commonwealth Division, under the command of Major General James Cassels. In the two years that followed, the formation achieved an outstanding reputation in Korea. “There was enormous enthusiasm for the ideal,” said the division’s first artillery commander, Colonel William Pike. “There was tremendous competition between the units, because nobody wanted to be thought less good than the others.” The genuine excitement within the division, about proving that the experiment of an integrated Commonwealth fighting force could work, gave its senior officers, if not its men, reasons for being in Korea that seemed to many more worthwhile than defending the regime of Syngman Rhee. “You must remember that at that period, we still assumed that the Empire would go on,” said Pike.15

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And among all the UN formations fighting in Korea, there were the Koreans themselves. The decision to provide a contingent of “Katousas,” Korean Attached Troops, to every allied subunit was partly a desperate expedient to bring some UN formations up to strength and partly a reflection of the High Command’s lack of confidence in the ROK troops’ ability to fight in formations. Thus almost every American and Commonwealth platoon possessed its handful of Koreans. Some were adopted as much-beloved mascots, some were respected as memorable comrades. Others were treated with callous contempt. As a system of reinforcement, it left much to be desired, because few Koreans became sufficiently integrated into the units to which they were attached to be fully accepted and trusted. Meanwhile, the ROK Army’s formations continued to cause chronic concern to the commanders of the Eighth Army. Faced by a Communist offensive, they collapsed with monotonous regularity. Knowing themselves to be untrusted by their foreign sponsors, the Koreans repeatedly showed themselves militarily untrustworthy. Until the end of the war the worst excesses of corruption were commonplace in the ROK Army. Officers neglected their men, sold their rations on the black market, paid phantom soldiers to line their own pockets, neglected even to give the men in their ranks the pittance of pay to which they were entitled. The only consolation for being a ROK soldier was that, for some men, life was marginally more endurable than for their civilian counterparts. The South Korean people, from beginning to end of the war, suffered an eternity of hardship and injustice, modified only by the efforts of foreign refugee organizations who did their best to feed and clothe the worst sufferers. “The whole country seemed to have become a quagmire,” said Lieutenant Chris Snider of the Canadian Brigade. “Everything had been beaten down to the lowest level. There seemed no society but peasant society. The place was a huge armed camp, strewn with homeless children and devastation.”16 To foreigners, the poverty was almost unbelievable. President Rhee’s official salary was $37.50 U.S. a month; that of a ROK army colonel, $10.75. The Bank of Korea claimed that the average salary of a Korean was $5.00, yet the average spending in a family of 4.6 adults was $32. The Koreans claimed, denying the vast influence of the black market, that the difference was made up by families selling odd valuables, putting children in street stalls, and “calling on Confucius for aid.” The equation was distorted by foreign largesse: every Korean employee of EUSAK was paid $17.50, and the average houseboy received $30 to $60. It was a web of hardship interwoven with corruption and foreign free-spending, which was to wreak equal havoc with the moral fabric of Vietnamese society a decade later.

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Suk Bun Yoon, the fourteen-year-old schoolboy who had twice escaped from Seoul under Communist occupation, was living with the remains of his family as suppliants upon the charity of a village south of the capital in the spring of 1951. A government mobilization decree was suddenly thrust upon the village: twenty able-bodied men were required for military service. Suk’s family was offered a simple proposal by the villagers: if the boy would go to the army in place of one of their own, they would continue to feed his parents.

An American army truck bore him and the other bewildered young men first to Seoul and then on up the dusty road toward the front. They spent a night in an old station warehouse, where they were given chocolate and a can of corned beef. It was the first meat the boy had tasted for six months, and was impossibly rich. He was sick at once. Next morning, after five hours on the road, he and a cluster of others were deposited at the camp of the Royal Ulster Rifles. He was not to be a soldier, but a porter under military discipline. He found himself joining a unit of some forty porters attached to the battalion. His first job was to carry a coil of barbed wire up to the forward positions. It was hopeless. He was too young and too weak. The corporal in charge took pity on him. He was assigned to become a sweeper and odd-job boy at the rear echelon. Yet life remained desperately hard. Each night the porters were confined to their hut, yet they were sometimes awakened amid the sound of the gunfire to carry ammunition or equipment forward. One day they found themselves hastily ordered back to a new position. Suk scarcely understood what was happening, beyond the confusion of retreat. Gradually he and the others understood that there had been a battle and heavy casualties. Around half the porters had disappeared, been captured, or killed.

After the battle the porters’ conditions seemed to improve. Suk became more accustomed to the life and determined to educate himself. As he learned a little English he questioned the soldiers incessantly: What was the longest river in the world? Which was the highest mountain? How was England governed? Since in later life he became a professor of economics, this experiment could not be considered a complete failure. The soldiers called him “Spaniard” because he had a reputation for a hot temper. Yet when the Ulsters were relieved and he found himself attached to the Royal Norfolks, conditions deteriorated again. He was caught scavenging for food, roughly handled, and sent for a spell to a barbed-wire cage. He was then sacked from his job as a porter at battalion headquarters and sent to the pioneer platoon, where he spent several more months.

“I was very homesick,” he said. “By February 1952 I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. The only letter I had sent to my family was returned undelivered. I was missing them desperately.” That month he was given leave to go to Seoul. He reached the capital determined not to go back to the front. He contacted some of his old schoolmates and in April was able to arrange to return to school—a school without books or desks. His only asset was a strong command of the English language he had acquired on the hills behind the Imjin.17

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The men of the UN Army sometimes behaved with dreadful callousness toward South Koreans. Eighth Army was compelled to issue a forceful order of the day in the summer of 1951: “Many soldiers seem to take a perverse delight in frightening civilians by driving very close, and then suddenly blaring their horns at the unsuspecting. Others make repeated attempts to drive the Koreans off the roads and into ditches. Americans are notably impatient, and too often drivers direct vile and belittling profanity toward those who slow their progress. Swearing at the driver of an oxcart will not make the ox move faster. It will cause the owner of the cart to resent the impertinent discourtesy of the soldier who curses him. We are not in this country as conquerors. We are here as friends.”18

Some of these “friends” were gentle and generous to Koreans, adopting and educating orphans, raising large sums for Korean charities, giving all the food and clothes they could spare from their units. Yet many never overcame their chronic suspicion of “the gooks” and carried this to savage limits in moments of stress. One morning in February 1951, Private Warren Avery of the 29th Infantry was out on “chicken patrol” with a handful of other men in a local town, searching for fowls for the platoon pot. They were stopped at a Korean military police checkpoint: “One of them said something to Gibson, and they all put a round in the chamber. We didn’t know whether to believe they were South Korean or North Korean. When I heard a bolt snick, I just turned around with the BAR and wiped them off the f***ing crossroad.”19 There is no reason to doubt the truth of the story, for such episodes were commonplace. “Unless you were an anthropology student,” said Marine Selwyn Handler, “Koreans were just a bunch of gooks. Who cared about the feelings of people like that? We were very smug Americans at that time.”20 Talking of the Eighth Army’s treatment of refugees approaching the UN lines, Lieutenant Robert Sebilian of the 5th Marines said, “We probably shot some people who were innocent—but how could you know which side they were on? The military problem was simply: Do you let these people filter through?”21 The answer, very often, was a ruthless negative.

UN soldiers’ sense of alienation from the Koreans was intensified by observing their brutality toward each other. “One had a hard time thinking of them as civilized human beings,” said Major Gordon Gayle, executive officer of the 7th Marines. “I was impressed by their absolute absence of Christian spirit. The ROKs thought it was funny to see some other guy over the hill being shelled.”22 Americans were told not to interfere when the ROK CIC were interrogating prisoners. “We found it hard to watch a man being beaten to death,” said Major Ed Simmonds of the 1st Marines.23 When Sergeant William Norris was sent to join the KMAG training mission, he was horrified by the Korean Army’s discipline: “I saw a deserter shot; a kid who lost a rifle—an $87 rifle—was made to stand in a barrel of water all day in January. Men were beaten with pine saplings. Whole cities were roped off to collect people for the draft. And Americans could do nothing about it. You have to understand the Asian way.”24 The young Canadian, Chris Snider, complained about one of the Korean Katcoms (Korean Attached Troops with Commonwealth forces) in his platoon who persistently fell asleep on duty. The Korean liaison officer came down from battalion headquarters to deal with the matter. Snider was awakened to be told by one of his men that the visitor, along with a Korean senior NCO, had taken the offender out and ordered him to dig a grave. The man was shot before the Canadians could intervene. The liaison officer and NCO were replaced, but the episode had a traumatic effect on the whole platoon. The Canadians were astounded that men of any society could behave in such a fashion to each other. Yet almost every UN veteran of Korea saw South Koreans do such things to each other. Indeed, arbitrary execution appeared the foundation of ROK army discipline. The South Korean army officer, wrote a KMAG adviser—Lieutenant Colonel Leon Smith of I ROK Corps—in a scathing report to the Pentagon, “in almost all cases had no love or respect for his superiors—only homage—and no love, respect, nor sense of responsibility for his subordinates. He will browbeat his juniors, steal from all. He spends his time and effort on ‘eyewash,’ rather than the actual correction of conditions. He works hard at building his own ego to the point where he believes himself infallible, but when times really get rough, he comes back to his adviser for strength and decision.”25

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Upon such a foundation of mistrust and contempt for the nation in whose interests the war was being fought did the UN seek to make the ROK Army an effective instrument and South Korea a viable political entity.

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