We left off last week talking about the short-lived Memorial Board/Wall for those who fought in World War II. We continue our chronological study of veterans’ memorials with an article on the background history for one of America’s less-known conflicts before moving into Suwannee County’s contributions in next week’s article.
The end of the Second World War left much of the globe in shatters, or at least in a different state. Not only were many major industrial countries ravaged by destruction and/or invasion (including Germany, Japan, much of Italy, and parts of China, the Soviet Union and France), but a new “Cold War” had begun between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. These two opposing forces of Democracy versus Communism/Socialism would parry for control of the world for the next half-century until democracy emerged as the clear winner.
In addition to the political changes, many former “colonies” found themselves liberated or reallocated to victorious countries. One of those lands was Korea, which had seen repeated military conflicts with Japan in the last half of the Nineteenth Century before being formally annexed in 1910. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, Korea was divided at the 38th Parallel into two countries, with North Korea being administered by the Soviet Union and South Korea being administered by the United States. North Korea quickly became a Soviet-style socialist republic while South Korea had a Western-style democratic government. The differences in the governments were numerous, leading to skirmishes along the border as both sides saw themselves as the legitimate rulers of the entire Korean peninsula.
On June 25, 1950, only five years after the end of the Second World War, North Korea invaded South Korea. Backed by the Soviet Union and China, North Korean forces quickly pushed deep into South Korea. The United Nations, established after World War II to maintain international peace and security, authorized military force to combat the North Korean invasion. Twenty-one countries participated in the defense of South Korea, with the United States providing 90 percent of the personnel. The conflict is often called the Korean War, or Korean Conflict (as no formal U.S. declaration of war was given).
In five years, the United States military had gone from being larger and more powerful than the rest of the world combined to a mere shadow of itself (while still powerful), the result of the post-war drawdown and focus on nuclear weapons. Not having anticipated the invasion and a limited war, American forces were scattered throughout the rest of the world. The initial UN forces in South Korea were outgunned and outnumbered, and they fought a series of rearguard actions until they were hemmed into a small corner of southeast Korea near Pusan. Within three months of the beginning of the war, 90 percent of South Korea had been captured by North Korean forces.
The invasion of South Korea brought more local Suwannee County military personnel into the fray as part of the general call-up of troops, including many National Guard units, as well as those who had volunteered for other services. In September 1950, United Nations forces in the Pusan Perimeter, augmented by tens of thousands of fresh troops and equipment, broke through North Korean lines the day after a major amphibious invasion at Inchon (also spelled Incheon) opened a second front in Korea behind the main North Korean forces. The two groups of UN troops pushed back the North Korean invaders, and within two weeks had crossed into North Korean territory. By the end of October, 1950, UN forces had overrun most of North Korea and were preparing to end the conflict.
However, neighboring Communist China, wary of UN and democratic influence so close to their borders, decided to come full-force to the aid of North Korea. Using guile, some 250,000 Chinese troops moved across the Yalu River into North Korea, the first of some 3 million Chinese military and civilian personnel who served in North Korea by 1953; by the end of the war, 70 percent of China’s army had been involved in the conflict. They surprised and quickly pushed UN forces south past the 38th Parallel. By February 1951, Chinese forces had recaptured the South Korean capital of Seoul. It was during this period of initial Chinese intervention between October 1950 and February 1951 that most of Suwannee County’s Korean War deaths occurred.
UN forces redoubled their efforts and pushed back the Communist forces to the 38th Parallel by April, and the front lines more or less stabilized around the original border of the two countries. Chinese forces, having overextended their supply line, received military and logistical help from the Soviet Union. The result was a stalemate as both sides refused to fully commit military forces in an attempt to avoid a full-scale war that could have easily gone nuclear. Instead, protracted peace negotiations began that lasted until July 27, 1953, when an armistice (but not peace treaty) was signed by most of the major powers. Technically, the war has never officially ended, and repeated border incidents have plagued the region. Furthermore, in 2013, North Korea ended the 1953 Armistice and declared that it had entered “a state of war” with South Korea, although no invasion has taken place. Peace negotiations continue today.
More on Korean War veterans’ history next week.
Eric Musgrove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 386-362-0564.