70 Years Later: National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day

Every year, on July 27th, the United States recognizes the more than 5.5 million veterans of the Korean War, including those who paid the ultimate price to protect our freedoms and the freedom of those abroad. 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of this conflict, which cost the lives of thousands of American troops. Often called “the Forgotten War,” this conflict has received little attention from the general public compared to other major wars, including World War I and II and Vietnam.

The U.S. faced more than 36,000 combat casualties, and more than 103,000 service members were injured in action. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, there are just under 7,500 personnel unaccounted for, many of whom have been designated as “non-recoverable,” meaning that after a rigorous investigation, the DPAA has determined that the individual perished but does not believe it is possible to recover their remains.

The Korean War lasted three years, from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. Cold War tensions meant the Soviet Union wholly supported North Korea’s invasion of its southern neighbor. Alarmed and wishing to halt the spread of communism, the United States deployed troops to defend South Korea and wear down communist forces. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, effectively ending the brutal conflict.

Like previous wars, it was the stage for a number of fierce battles, including the Inchon Landing, attacks on Hagaru-ri, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and the Second Battle of Seoul. Government data shows that approximately 848,000 Korean War veterans also served during other war periods. Of these, 171,000 served in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, and 404,000 served only in World War II. Many were enlisted in the Marines or Army, both of which took massive casualties throughout the conflict.

The war ended with Korea in the same state as before, divided along the 38th parallel, except that the US had taken severe losses in defending it. This conflict received less media attention than previous wars, too, meaning that many veterans of this war have often been overlooked in favor of the more well-known World Wars and the Vietnam War.

Tensions Before The War

Shortly after World War II, Japanese forces were ousted from the southern part of the peninsula with help from the United States. This left the Americans and Soviets, who were also interested in Korea, to decide what to do with Japan’s former imperial holding. By August 1945, the two growing superpowers chose to split the peninsula in half along the 38th parallel. Soviets would occupy the area north of the line, and the U.S. would occupy the southern half.

The Cold War brought tensions to the peninsula, with a communist regime forming in the North, backed by the USSR, and a democratic government developing in the South, supported by the United States. These tensions broke when, on June 25, the Northern Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in an attempt to unify the peninsula once again, this time under communist rule.

The Start Of the Korean War

Backed by the Soviet Union, the North Korean army’s invasion alarmed US officials, who were caught off guard by North Korea’s bold attack. They feared it was more than just a border skirmish between two new and unstable regimes; this conflict could serve as a means for the USSR and China to spread their communist ideals. Many political officials of the time felt there was no other option but to declare war against the aggressors in the hopes of containing communism and communist expression. Air, ground, and naval forces combined with the United Nations forces to assist the Republic of Korea in its defense, becoming part of the United Nations Command (UNC).

The first months of the war were characterized by armies advancing and retreating up and down the Korean peninsula as the two sides fought to gain ground. North Korean soldiers were ruthless as they fought against South Koreans and their American allies. They were well-trained, disciplined, and had the necessary equipment to win any battle. On the contrary, South Korean troops were afraid to join in the fighting. They fled when they could, and battles often left them confused and afraid. American soldiers were also at a disadvantage. They did not know the land and drank diseased waters, leading to many people suffering from intestinal and other related diseases.

By the end of the summer, President Truman and the commander in charge of the UNC, General Douglas MacArthur, decided on a new set of war aims. Rather than focus on protecting the Republic of Korea, their goal was offensive: to liberate the North from the communists. This strategy initially proved successful, with the Inchon Landing pushing the North Koreans out of Seoul and back to their side of the 38th parallel. Unfortunately, this began worrying the Chinese, who bolstered the North Koreans with troops from the Chinese Army and warned the US to keep away from the Yalu boundary unless it wanted full-scale war.

Negotiations, The Armistice, And Repatriation

In early 1951, the Chinese offensive lost its momentum, and South Korean and US forces were able to take back Seoul and push the North Koreans to the 38th parallel. From July 1951 onward, the fighting became a stalemate. The Truman Administration abandoned all plans to unite the peninsula and decided to pursue limited goals to avoid further escalation of the conflict into a possible World War III involving the Soviet Union and China.

Newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower took over the plan from the exiting Truman administration and, in 1952, concluded that it was not viable to remain locked in a stalemate. Both sides were willing to accept a ceasefire that maintained the 38th parallel boundary but could not decide whether prisoners of war should be forcibly repatriated. Issues of returning unwilling soldiers to countries they had turned against made it difficult, especially when both South Korea and the United States realized that defectors from the other side could serve as helpful propaganda against the spread of communism.

Many South Koreans had also been kidnapped and forced to fight for North Korea at the start of the war, which would have made them eligible to return to North Korea rather than South Korea. Efforts to disrupt the screening process, in which POWs were asked about their preference for North or South Korea, also complicated the efforts. Finally, after more than two years of negotiations with China, both countries signed an armistice on July 27, 1953. This agreement allowed POWs to stay where they liked, and a 2-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” was created and still exists today.

Unfortunately, upon receiving the list of POWs currently held by Chinese-North Korean forces, US officials realized that many of their POWs had died, either from poor treatment at the hands of their captors or on the battlefield as they were captured. After the Korean War, many South Korean POWs were also given up to the North Korean government, sent to work in the lowest caste system, and watched by the North Korean State of Security forces.

The Effects Of The Korean War

Despite only lasting three years, the Korean War had devastated both sides and failed to achieve any of the goals initially set forth by both parties. The 38th parallel was maintained and the peninsula remained divided. This division continues even today. History, however, could have turned out much differently if the United States had chosen, as some politicians initially favored, to stay out of the conflict. Without assistance from the American military and its presidents, many fear the Republic of Korea would have fallen to the communists, facilitating the spread of communist power throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Today, American troops are recognized at the Korean War Veterans Memorial near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. There is also a memorial in Fullerton, CA, that lists approximately 40,000 names of those lost during the Korean War. Despite being overshadowed by larger conflicts, the Korean War and its veterans are still worth remembering.

Though it may be known as the Forgotten War, Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial also features many Korean War veterans’ plaques. Approximately 60 of our plaques honor those who served during the conflict, some of whom served in World War II as well. It is no surprise, then, that the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association was founded in April 1952. Its efforts throughout the 50s and 60s were bolstered by many World War II and Korean War veterans who wished for a place to remember their service and those lost. To this day, our duty has always been to remember and honor those who sacrificed their lives for the nation.

Posted In - Korean War