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by William H. Benson

July 27, 2006

     Following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the allies had divided the Korean peninsula into two halves: north and south.  The Russian army controlled the north and the Americans the south.  An American military officer had looked at a map, pointed at the 38th parallel and said, “Why not there?”  The idea believed by both sides then was that the line was only temporary, that the Russians and Americans would eventually leave once the Korean people had set up a government that would reunify the country.

     But the Russians supported a communist government, headed by Kim Il Sung, and the Americans fostered a republican government under Syngman Rhee.

     On Sunday morning, June 25, 1950, in a heavy rain, North Korean Forces crossed the 38th parallel and attacked Rhee’s forces, which collapsed and fell back all the way to a perimeter around Pusan, on the tip of the peninsula.  President Truman immediately sent in American troops to support South Korea.

     General Douglas MacArthur engineered an amphibious landing at Inchon on the west coast on September 15, 1950.  Troops broke out of the Pusan perimeter, and soon North Korean troops faced two fronts.  This time it was their turn to run, and they did, all the way north across the 38th parallel and through North Korea to the Yalu River, the traditional border with China.  The UN forces now controlled the entire peninsula.

     MacArthur dismissed the notion of a Communist Chinese counterattack, and in that judgment he was wrong.  The Chinese came in waves, poorly trained, lacking adequate clothing and weapons, but in huge numbers.  During that bitter cold winter of 1950-1951, some 200,000 Chinese soldiers drove UN forces south until General Mathew Ridgeway’s troops firmed their position and marched north again up to and beyond the 38th parallel.

     After a year of fierce fighting up and down the five-hundred-mile Korean peninsula and thousands of casualties, the war stalled at where it had begun—at that 38th parallel.

     At the ground level it was a brutal, bruising, physical war, fought on mountainous terrain, in temperatures that ranged from a 100 degrees in summer to 50 below in winter.  One soldier described it: “I don’t remember being afraid.  I don’t remember fear, ever.  I just wanted to sleep.  An hour’s nap.  Half an hour.  You’d give anything for just a little sleep.  You can be cold, you can be hungry, but I think the need for sleep is the most overpowering human need.”

     Truce talks began in October of 1951, but they drug out for two years, neither side willing to budge.  They stared at each other across the table as the war droned on.

     What happened during those two disturbing years is, as one historian said, “difficult to write and read about; it is what accounted for the remarkable civilian death toll of more than two million.  By 1952 just about everything in northern and central Korea was completely leveled.  What was left of the population survived in caves, the North Koreans creating a life underground, in dwellings, schools, hospitals, and factories.”

     From bases in Japan, the American jets carpet bombed huts, villages, and cities across North Korea daily.  One eyewitness, Tibor Meray, a Hungarian correspondent, said, “Everything which moved in North Korea was a military target, peasants in the field often were machine gunned by pilots. Every city was a collection of chimneys.  I saw thousands of chimneys and that—that was all.”

     On June 20, 1953 the New York Times reported that planes had bombed dams at Kusong and Toksan in North Korea, causing floods that caused great damage and immense numbers of deaths through the valley and fields below.  “The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of [rice] has for the Asian.”

     A month later, on July 27, 1953, 53 years ago today, North and South Koreans, Russians and Americans, signed the truce that set the line at the 38th parallel.

     Today, the North Koreans endure a Communist dictator, Kim Jong Il, who laughs at President Bush’s inability to intimidate him: on the fourth of July he launched his own missiles, a defiant act that terrified the Japanese.

     But after the truce South Korea became an economic miracle, which would never have happened if not for American soldiers who fought at places, like Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy, Punch Bowl, Sniper’s Ridge, Triangle Hill, and Heartbreak Ridge.