Known as the “Forgotten War,” the Korean War started 70 years ago with North Korea invading the South on June 25, 1950. Ultimately, nearly five million civilians and soldiers were left dead, including nearly 37,000 American servicemen and an additional 7,800 classified as missing in action.
The fighting ended 67 years ago this week with the cease-fire and signing of an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953. The war was brought to a halt, but it was not over and Korea remains divided today.
Veterans of that war say the sacrifices made then should never be forgotten despite the conflict being remembered as the “Forgotten War.”
“Of the 25 of us that first went over, eight didn’t come back. That’s one out of three,” said Herbert Lum, a Waimea resident who served a year at the outset of the bloody years-long conflict and was among those first 25 elites sent to the peninsula. “They never recognized there was a Marine Corps Reserve unit in Hawaii. They never recognized that 250 Hawaii men and boys were called to active duty. It wasn’t just the war that was forgotten.
“We were all forgotten,” he continued.
Korea was a small country sort of stuck between Russia, China, and Japan.
“For centuries, it has had to compete against these other countries economically, punitively, and have been subjugated by Japan and China off and on over the years,” said Kona resident Ron Cole, a veteran enlisted during the Korean War who didn’t see combat.
Cole recounted Japan had taken over the country over before World War II and kept Korea under its iron heel for years. As the war was winding down, and Japan was almost prostrate in front of the Allies, Russia jumped into the Pacific Theater, breaking its neutral position toward Japan per an agreement signed at the 1945 Yalta Conference.
After the end of World War II, the victors split their spoils (the Korean peninsula). Russia occupied North Korea and established a communist government there while the U.S. installed a democratic government in South Korea.
“We never realized the significance of the communists in the north after World War II,” said Lum.
Lum recalled that a few months before the start of the war in 1950, then Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a comment to the effect that the United States had no vital interest in Korea. But that changed when the Russians gave North Korea the go ahead, and an attack commenced on South Korea.
The South Koreans turned the United States for help, but the Americans only had one division in the area: occupation troops in Japan. Lum said many of those men had never fired a rifle.
South Korea also appealed to the United Nations. The UN was established at the end of World War II to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations and promote social progress, better living standards and human rights. It had five voting members at the time, including the Russians and the Americans.
“We had problems with the Russians in the UN at that time and they would frequently walk out of the meetings,” recalled Lum. “They walked out just one day before South Korea asked for help and the Security Council agreed. The UN became an active member in the Korean War with 27 nations joining forces under U.S. leadership.
“It became a United Nations war,” he continued.
Lum, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve in 1948 after graduating from high school on Oahu, was stationed at Pearl Harbor when his 250-man unit got the active-duty call in June 1950. The first round to go was 25 Marines considered the best trained and ready to go.
“We wound up in Korea a month later without ever going to boot camp,” said Lum. “We had on-the-job training.”
Lum was assigned as a combat intelligence man among servicemen from around the nation and all different walks of life.
Being from Hawaii, Lum said, whether people were Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Caucasian, they never considered themselves anything other than Americans.
But, he recalled overhearing one of the officers questioning if it would be a good idea to have Lum in the unit, being that the Chinese were the enemy.
“The commanding officer said ‘Listen. Lum is an American and a he’s a Marine,’” Lum said, tearing up at the memory. “For the first time in my mind I ever had any thought that anyone thought I was anything other than American. That changed my perspective. An Asian Marine was a rarity. The reserve unit was the first unit where there were there was a multitude of different nationalities in the Marine Corps. That kept my mind alert to an issue I never had given any thought about.”
Within a couple months of the war’s start, U.S. and UN troops found themselves pushed all the way to the southern city of Pusan. That was when Gen. Douglas MacArthur invaded behind the North Koreans, 125 miles behind the front, cutting off the northern troops. An amphibious landing at Wosan on the east coast of North Korea allowed U.S. and UN troops to advance to the Chosin Reservoir, both within reach of the Manchurian border. This resulted in Communist China entering the war in November 1950. At the time, U.S. intelligence did not believe the Chinese were in Korea.
But, Lum said, Chinese soldiers were being found on the Korean side of the line.
On the night of Nov. 2, Lum took his first Chinese prisoners.
“Apparently they were scouting us,” he said.
The first prisoner died; however, the second one was not responding to interrogation by a Chinese language specialist, who spoke Mandarin.
“I noticed that some of what the prisoner was saying rang familiar with me. The guy was speaking Cantonese,” Lum recalled.
The interpreter picked up a stick and started writing on the ground and the prisoner responded in writing. Although the spoken language was different, the written language was understandable between dialects.
The prisoner told them that he was a soldier in the Chinese National Army when his commander surrendered the entire unit to the communists. He contended he was not a communist.
“The interrogation covering several hours provided an enormous amount of strategic and tactical intelligence, which I believe gave us revealing insights into the Chinese Communist forces capability, intentions, operations and facts not previously known,” said Lum.
Combat continued until a cease-fire was proposed in June 1951 followed by the start of truce talks that dragged on until 1953. The negotiations, which included 765 rounds of meetings, were the longest in world history.
With the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement 67 years ago this week, the war was brought to a halt — but was not over.
Negotiations in 1954 produced no further agreement, and the front line, known as the DMZ, or Korean Demilitarized Zone, has been accepted ever since as the de facto boundary between North and South Korea.
According to government archives, 407 Hawaii residents were among the 37,000 Americans who died in the war.
“Of the 37,000 U.S. soldiers killed, Hawaii is the region where the largest portion died,” said National Unification Advisory Council Secretary General Seung-Hwan Lee.
Francis Park, president of the Hawaii Chapter of the National Unification Advisory Council, said in a 2020 commemorative publication for Hawaii’s Korean War Veterans that for the people of Korea, it was the war that tore families apart.
“We are unable to forget the war,” Park said. “And also, we are unable to forget the work and sacrifice you made so many thousands of miles away from your home.”
Lee said after the war, one of the world’s poorest countries became a powerhouse thanks to U.S. aid and alliance.
“Korean War veterans, you are and always will be our heroes,” said Park.
Lum believes part of the reason so many forget the Korean War is because Americans were “sick of World War II.”
“But on the bright side of things, the Koreans have never forgotten,” he said.
Each year, the National Unification Advisory Council holds a Korean War Veterans Appreciation Night to honor Hawaii veterans. However, this year, on the 70th anniversary of the start of the war, the event was canceled due to the COVID-19.
While the event may have been canceled due to concerns over the novel coronavirus, the veterans’ service was still recognized via a special commemorative publication. And, recently, the Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veteran Affairs donated 500,000 masks to American Korean War veterans.
Cole, the Kona resident who never saw action in Korea but was enlisted at the time, was the recipient of 250 of those masks and donated them to the Hawaii Police Department.
Last year, a memorial dedicated to Hawaii Island military members who died during the Korean War was dedicated at the Wailoa State Recreational Area in Hilo. The memorial honors 52 Big Island service members killed in action and five who died of noncombat causes during the conflict.
On Thursday, the memorial stood tall under Hilo’s blue skies with a potted plant and flowers left to honor those who didn’t come home.