Reminders of the Korean War, 60 years later

Published 9:50 am Saturday, June 26, 2010

They still call it the “forgotten war,” a military action that started 60 years ago on the Asian mainland in an obscure place called Korea. Before this war ended three years later, a total of 33,629 Americans were listed as combat deaths. And as a result of this conflict, 11 more names of Freeborn County servicemen were etched into the war memorial at Graceland Cemetery.

The invasion of South Korea by the more powerful North Korean forces on June 25, 1950, caused most area citizens and other Americans to ask three questions. First, just where was this place called Korea? Second, how come the place was divided into north and south? Third, was this new military action going to be the start of World War III and full-scale warfare with the Soviet Union (now Russia)?

Once called the “Hermit Kingdom,” the ancient nation of Korea is located on a peninsula in the Orient. The somewhat isolated land is bordered on the Asian mainland by Manchuria, a Chinese province. The Korean Peninsula is also fairly close to Japan and the Siberian part of what’s now Russia.

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From 1910 to 1945, the once independent Kingdom of Korea was an unwilling part of the Japanese Empire and ruled with brutal efficiency. With the defeat of Japan in the fall of 1945, an agreement was made based on the 38th parallel which divides the Korean Peninsula almost in half. North of this line, Russian troops disarmed the Japanese forces. To the south of the parallel, American forces liberated the Koreans from the hated Japanese.

By 1950, the American and Soviet (Russian) occupation forces had withdrawn. The Soviets left behind a puppet North Korean government under Kim Il Sung and a powerful force of Communist military veterans. The former American zone had its own government under Syngman Rhee and a mostly inexperienced army.

Within a few days, President Harry Truman had committed American military forces to the battle to save South Korea from Communist oppression. However, the United States had nearly demobilized its armed forces and cut back to the barest essentials after World War II. The nation just wasn’t ready to fight another war.

Korea, a once obscure nation in the Orient, became the main news topic and concern in Freeborn County during the last part of 1950. And the news six decades ago reported the details of a near defeat, near victory, and an unexpected retreat (or withdrawal) by the nation’s armed forces in what’s still called the “forgotten war.”

President Truman decided that the invasion of South Korea by the Communist forces of North Korea which started on June 25, 1950, had to be stopped. However, the nation’s armed forces weren’t ready for any real war in mid-1950. Many of the units were understrength, the training was sketchy, and much of the equipment was inadequate. Thus, for about a month, occupation troops in Japan were sent to Korea in futile attempts to slow down the advancing North Korean forces.

Seoul, South Korea’s capital, fell within a few days, as did its seaport city of Inchon, in the North Korean advance to conquer the entire peninsula.

In Albert Lea and elsewhere, individual armed forces reservists were called back to active duty. The Selective Service System (the military draft) was activated again to supply military manpower. Two local military units were also mobilized.

By mid-September, American and United Nations forces were desperately trying to hold a small perimeter based on the South Korean port city of Pusan. Some thought the Korean military action would end in defeat and evacuation from the peninsula.

Then on Sept. 15, 1950, Gen. Douglas McArthur, the commander in the Far East, executed the equivalent of an end run in football. U.S. Marines conducted a surprise amphibious operation and quickly recaptured the cities of Inchon and Seoul. Within several weeks, the North Koreans were in full retreat and American forces had crossed the 38th parallel. On Oct. 19, 1950, U.S. troops took Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. One Army unit even advanced to the Yalu River, the border between Korea and China. Some Americans at this point thought the Korean adventure was nearly over.

However, powerful Chinese Army units went into action, in part to protect the Yalu River power plants. By the start of 1951, American, South Korean and United Nations forces were withdrawing to the south of Korea. Pyongyang, Seoul and Inchon fell to the Chinese.

It took a change in command (McArthur being replaced by Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway) and tough fighting to stop the Chinese, retake Inchon and Seoul and eventually stabilize the fighting lines somewhat to the north of the 38th parallel by mid-1951. Then for two years the Korean War became a costly stalemate until a truce agreement was signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953.

Freeborn County’s contribution to the armed forces during the Korean War period (1950-53) was more than 710 individuals and two military units that were recalled to active duty. And as a result of this war, 11 county citizens lost their lives.

The figure of 710 is based on a statewide estimate made in 1989 of members of the armed forces who served during the Korean War era.

Some of the county’s citizens who served during this era were also veterans of World War II, which had ended just five years earlier. Others enlisted in the armed forces or were drafted through the Selective Service System. Still others were members of the military reserves or Army National Guard that were recalled to active duty.

In September 1950, Battery B of the 793rd Field Artillery Battalion with about 44 members left Albert Lea for Camp McCoy, Wis. This unit was organized after World War II as part of the U.S. Army Reserve and consisted mainly of men from the Faribault and Twin Cities area. Battery B remained at Camp McCoy until 1952, but many of the unit’s members served elsewhere in the world — including Korea.

After World War II, Albert Lea’s Company G of the 135th Infantry Regiment was reorganized as a national guard unit and became a part of the new 47th “Viking” Division. In 1950, six national guard divisions were recalled for active duty. One of these was Minnesota’s “Viking” Division.

In mid-January 1951, Company G reported for duty at Camp Rucker, located between Enterprise and Ozark, Ala. During the two years of active duty, one unit’s history says, “Rather than go to war as a unit, the division trained its own troops, and other recruits brought in from throughout the United States. From here, after being trained, they were sent to other units in the United States, West Germany, and Korea.” (Note: Company G was redesignated as Company A after the Korean War. The designation of 47th Division was replaced with the 34th “Red Bull” Division in 1991.)

In 1947, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars dedicated a memorial at Graceland Cemetery to honor the Freeborn County men who died during the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. As a result of the Korean War, 11 more names were etched on the memorial. They are: Roger D. Ackland, David Dudley, Richard D. Grabow, Daniel E. Healy, Sylvester L. Jensen, Ronald L. Lien, Mildon H. Loge, Marlin O. Madson, Dale D. Monson, Gerrit R. Spiering and Edward A. Tews. In the main entry of the Albert Lea National Guard Armory is a wall plaque which lists the 80 men of Company G that went to Alabama in 1951. Two of these names are designated with stars to honor a pair of local guardsmen who never returned to Freeborn County.

Sgt. Marlin Madson, 24, of Emmons, was killed in action on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 1951, in Korea. He was buried on Feb. 12, 1952, in the Lime Creek Lutheran Church Cemetery near Emmons. (He is also listed on the sign in front of the veterans’ memorial in Arlington Park, just to the north of the post office in Lake Mills, Iowa.)

PFC David Dudley, 18, Albert Lea, was killed in action on Feb. 4, 1952, in Korea. He was buried in Graceland Cemetery on April 4, 1952.

What took place in Korea six decades ago may still be called the “forgotten war.” But the events on a distant Asian peninsula are still a part of our nation’s heritage that can’t be forgotten.