Korea; A Game Changing Legacy

June 25, 1950 dawned cool and cloudy like the day before and the day before that at the 38th parallel, an invisible but very real line across the Korean Peninsula. Like the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, seasons in Korea change smartly. In October, the Manchurian

Map of the Korean War

Map of the Korean War

and Siberian gates open, releasing bitter cold and icy winds from the northwest. In May and June the winter gates are forced shut by the southerly monsoon flows and Korea becomes hot and humid. In June the days are mostly cloudy and 98 percent comfortable, except for June 25, 1950, when the North Koreans swept across the 38th parallel and caught almost everyone by surprise. The North Korean invasion heated up the South Koreans and the remaining U.S. forces. In two days, the North Koreans were knocking on Seoul’s back door.

Gaining the reigns of Korean War history and legacy approximates the challenge of bringing a run-away 24-mule team back under harness. Everything—Korean Peninsula historical context, foreign policy, post WWII military mission re-alignments, Communist hysteria, egos, and politicians—played into the complexity. Once the U.S. finally decided the Korean situation was serious and it really, really wanted to contain the ‘communist’ threat, it came very close to having its hind-quarters kicked courtesy of politicians passing the general-for-a-day card around a table.

Historically, the poor little Korean Peninsula has been on somebody’s ‘to occupy’ list for centuries but it has been a tough nut to crack. It always amuses me to read about China’s lack of imperial ambition. Imperial ambition is why China’s boundaries are in place and it still fights for more. The Sui, Tang, Ming and Manchu Dynasties of China all had eyes on the Korean Peninsula and tried, with various degrees of success, to take it. Japan recognized the strategic value of Korea as a buffer from and path to conquer China. In the late 1500s, Hideyoshi mounted Japan’s first effort at Korean conquest. Through the centuries, Japan’s Yamato emperors, who still rule today, also tried at various times to occupy Korea. Japan, in fact, had control of Korea at the end of WWII in the Pacific. Japan was ousted by the allies and Korea was divided roughly according to the two ancient original Korean countries and is the North and South Korea we know today. In 1950, North Korea was ruled by the government the Soviet Union had enthroned. South Korea had held a successful elections and the U.S. was on its way out.

The U.S. considered Korea a victim of Japan, not an ally. The United States, China, and Great Britain issued a joint statement in December 1943, after the Cairo Conference, which said: “The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”[1] As a victim, South Korea was assisted back to independence. The South Korean army was built to a point the U.S. considered adequate for self-protection and, beginning in 1947, the U.S. military began to withdraw to its home with the 8th Army in Japan. The Soviet Union went a different direction in North Korea and by 1947, the Soviet’s hand-picked leader, Kim Il Sung, had violently suppressed any opposition. The U.S. did not view Korea as a strategic area but it knew that Russia did. Korea, like many countries freed from the Germans or Japanese, was at risk of becoming a political football in the rising tide of American-Soviet interests, which was apparent well before WWII ended.[2]

U.S. foreign policy was in the shop for a major overhaul in 1950. The Truman administration was re-tooling for the Cold War (1947-1991). The primary mechanics were George C. Marshall and Dean G. Acheson under the direction of Truman. Their work was mostly focused on the perceived Communist threat to Europe but they also had an opinion or two on Asia. Right up until June, 1950, the folks ‘in the know’ were convinced the U.S. would not defend South Korea in the event of an attack by North Korea.

“The decision to intervene in Korea grew out of the tense atmosphere that characterized Cold War politics. On the eve of the North Korean invasion, a number of events had made Truman anxious. The Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949, ending the United States’ monopoly on the weapon. In Europe, Soviet intervention in Greece and Turkey had given rise to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, which funneled aid to war-torn Europe in the hopes of warding off communist political victories. In early 1950, President Truman directed the National Security Council (NSC) to conduct an analysis of Soviet and American military capabilities. In its report, known as “NSC 68,” the Council recommended heavy increases in military funding to help contain the Soviets.”[3]

The U.S. Military was in transition in Japan as well as in Korea on that fateful June day in 1950. Kim (don’t forget last names are first in Korea) had asked Papa Stalin for permission to invade South Korea many times before he received the two thumbs up in 1949. Stalin had waited for the U.S. to withdraw the last of its ground troops before approving any aggression. In support, Stalin sent significant amounts of both supplies and ‘advisors’ to support Kim. The U.S. was of the general opinion that the Soviets would not risk WWIII over the likes of Korea. The U.S. was wrong.  The U.S. was also of the general opinion that it could not lose, militarily. The U.S. was almost wrong; it was close.

The North Koreans were well supplied. Kim, in possession of a Soviet invasion plan, controlled an

A member of the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion at the 38th Parallel in Korea. (Courtesy of George Brooks)

A member of the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion at the 38th Parallel in Korea. (Courtesy of George Brooks)

invasion force of 135,000, about half of whom were trained veterans. He also controlled eight complete divi­sions and two half-strength divisions, an armored brigade with 120 Soviet tanks; and 5 border constabulary brigades. The Soviets also supplied 180 Soviet aircraft, mostly fighters and attack bombers, and a few naval patrol craft. However, Stalin drew the line at permitting the Soviet advisers to accompany the North Koreans once they crossed the 38th parallel.

The South Koreans, on the other hand, controlled an Army of 95,000 men, which was a light infantry force. Its artillery totaled eighty-nine light 105-mm howitzers, which could shoot farther than North Korea’s artillery, which is handy. Unfortunately, South Korea had no tanks or antitank weapons that could have countered the Soviet tanks. While the North and South Korean navies were fairly evenly matched, the South Korean Air Force had only a few trainers and other light airplanes. “U.S. equip­ment, war-worn when furnished to South Korean forces, had deterio­rated further, and supplies on hand could sustain combat operations no longer than fifteen days.”[4]

The ranking U.S. officer in South Korea was Major General William F. Dean and, according to

Major General William F. Dean

Major General William F. Dean

military historians, he fought gallantly as the U.S. rushed to fortify the south. Eventually, he was wounded and captured. General MacArthur’s Pacific survey showed he had limited capacity to respond. He would be able to muster the “1st Cavalry Division and the 7th, 24th, and 25th Infantry Divisions, all under the Eighth U.S. Army in Japan, and the 29th Regimental Combat Team on Okinawa”, according to the military records. It took until about the middle of July to even mount a faint-hearted counter attack.

Meanwhile back at the United Nations, UN, fifty three countries ratified United Nations Security Council Resolution 82 on June 27th, 1950 clearing the way for an internationally sanctioned military response. Twenty nine of the approving countries offered a variety of types of support that ranged from medical and logistical support to full military support. The Soviets could have blocked the resolution with a veto but did not do so because they were, at the time, boycotting the UN. Truman was in a tough spot. Senator Joseph McCarthy was ramping up his anti-communist rhetoric. Then, too, the Alger Hiss espionage trial was fresh. Truman certainly didn’t want to come across as ‘soft’ on Communism and, like Stalin, he did not want a third world war. Both leaders danced. Stalin refused to have his Soviet troops cross the 38th parallel and Truman stopped just short of saying the Soviets were behind the June 25, 1950 invasion. Instead, the invaders were labeled ‘communists’ and the Soviets were never directly blamed.

The Korean War’s legacy continues to define today’s conflicts. It was a political war fought to ‘contain’ an enemy; not to win. Today Korea looks very much like it did 60 years ago. The 38th parallel still cuts the country in half, including the road and railway infrastructure and over 50 rivers. There has never been a peace treaty so the war never officially ended and no one ever won; the Soviets were not out by the end of 1950, the Koreas were not united, and the U.S. did not significantly impede the progress of ‘communism’. A Kim ruled North Korea and repeatedly made threats, eventually carrying one out. A Kim still rules North Korea and repeatedly makes threats but, so far, has not carried any out. Political wars fought with political egos playing general-for-a-day do not accomplish anything except the loss of American service members. Over 50,000 died in Korea. The U.S. maintained in Korea but lost in Viet Nam, and accomplished little in Bosnia. The U.S.failed in Nicaragua and the Congo, and broke even in Panama and Grenada. At the moment the U.S. is engaged in another political war it has no intention of winning, just fighting. So far, the U.S. has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade with no end in sight and little progress. The only difference is the technology. Now the politicians can ‘see’ what each soldier ‘sees’ and direct the soldiers’ actions on a moment-by-moment basis without ever leaving the comfort of the command center. As John Wayne would say, “that is a helluva way to run a railroad.”



[1] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, Dept., of State Publication 7187 (Washington, 1961), p. 448.

[2] American President: A Reference Resource; http://millercenter.org/president/truman/essays/biography/5

[3] National Archives; Teaching With Documents: The United States Enters the Korean Conflict; (Originally published in Social Education, the Journal of the National Council for the Social Studies).

[4] The US Army Center of Military History; Chapter 8, the Korean War; http://www.history.army.mil/

Poseidon Smiles

Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, loves Hawaii and smiles on her shores. The sea is the best thing about working in Hawaii because travel time to cross it reduces corporate visits. It simply takes too much time out of the schedule of very busy corporate folks to fly to Hawaii. If the operation is working smoothly, profits stay good, government audits reflect appropriate behavior, and personnel are properly managed, then a manager can count on one program visit a year. The bad thing about working in Hawaii is that the east coast starts to work in the middle of the night and one is expected to answer the telephone. Of course, by noon, one is free to complete the paperwork as the east coast begins to shuffle home. With this schedule, my usual lunch hour was three minutes; time to gulp a sandwich and some fruit juice. The staff hung a sign on my door warning people that I was out to lunch and would be back in two minutes.

One bright, sunny day, however, I received an offer I couldn’t refuse; lunch on the sea wall at Pearl Harbor. I loved the Pacific Ocean and watched it every chance I got. In the middle of lunch and a budget strategy discussion with the finance manager, we had the experience of a lifetime. About 1,000 yards out of the harbor in open ocean, a Los Angeles class fast attack submarine breached. I mean that puppy came out of the water at a steep angle, showed at least half of the hull and splashed down. It was the craziest thing I had ever witnessed and, based on newspaper accounts the next day, it was a career buster for the Captain.

The Cold War (1947-1991) incubated and grew the largest submarine fleet the world has ever seen. Twenty-eight different classes of submarines glided under the water, through the mountain ranges and canyons of the world’s oceans playing tag with their counterparts and training war games with the fleet. Adjusting the count to remove the ten classes of submarines with only one vessel does nothing to the claim in the first sentence; the fleet was the largest the world had ever seen. Diesel submarines were used during the Cold War but only for the duration of their life cycle although, some lasted into the 1980s. The nuclear submarine came into its own during this time. The heavy lifting was done, and continues to be done, by two classes of nuclear submarines; the Los Angeles class fast attack submarines and the Ohio class ballistic missile submarines and guided missile submarines. According to the Navy, fifty-one of the Los Angeles class and eighteen of the Ohio class boats remain in service.[1] [2] The submarine fleet is also among the most under-appreciated piece of Cold War infrastructure.

The submarine, no matter how glorious, and it is truly awesome to behold, is a simple container, a platform to deliver goods and services. The brilliance happens because of the talent and teamwork of the individuals who operate and use the vessel. The Los Angeles class, for example, has been used for mining, search and rescue, intelligence gathering, and inserting forces. If needed, it can also fight other submarines. The Navy touts the Ohio class subs as “…virtually undetectable undersea launch platforms of intercontinental missiles.”

Submariners are a breed apart. I cannot imagine living for 70-days cooped up in forced association with people I may or may not respect. I feel tremendous admiration for the service they perform with so little acknowledgement. Life Aboard A Submarine[3] is a very humorous, illustrative, twenty-nine point essay prepared for the Submarine Centennial. What follows is a random selection using everyday examples we can all understand to explain how it feels to be a submariner:

  • Sit in your car for six hours at a time with the motor running. Keep hands on the wheel. But don’t leave your driveway. Log readings of your oil pressure, water temperature, speedometer and odometer every 15 minutes.
  • Every so often, yell “EMERGENCY DEEP!” run into the kitchen and sweep all pots, pans and dishes off of the counters onto the floor, and then yell at your wife for not having the kitchen area “Stowed for Sea!”
  • Put on the stereo headphones (don’t plug them in), go to the stove and stand in front of it. Say (to no one in particular) “Stove manned and ready” stay there for 3 to 4 hours. Say (once again and to no one in particular) “Stove secured”, then role up your headphone cords and put them away.

Once the tears of laughter are wiped away, spend a moment pondering how it would feel to be one of these service people. Acceptance into this service is completely voluntary and applicants undergo extensive, rigorous and psychologically painful testing.

A public historical milestone was met in 1953 when the U.S.Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, reached the North Pole beneath the ice. The tactical Cold War achievement was laying bare and vulnerable thousands of miles of the Soviet Union coastline. The Soviets were no longer untouchable. These great boats and their crews patrolled the U.S. shores and played touch and go with their counterparts in the old soviet Union for forty-three years. They provided an umbrella of protection that could be rapidly configured and reconfigured because submarines are agile beasts. Submarines gathered most of the precious little solid intelligence the U.S. had and most of the rest of the ‘good’ intelligence was provided by the air force. It is safe to say that the exploits and the missions of submarines during the cold war will not be declassified anytime soon and the service members don’t talk much. I am sorry to see this piece of Cold War infrastructure degrade.

The U.S. has lost all of the diesel electric boats and the vast majority of its nuclear submarines. Most of the nuclear boats have been lost at the refueling station. Nuclear submarines only have to refuel once every thirty or so years (wish I could get that kind of mileage) but when they do refuel it costs a bunch of money. It seems the budget just can’t handle the challenge so the boats are retired. Their reactors have, since 1986, been buried in a trench at the DOE Hanford site. I worked at Hanford for a brief time and the burial of a submarine reactor is quite a feat that takes several years to achieve. It is an ugly, sad job.

While the U.S. is busy downsizing its submarine fleet, Russia is cashing in on selling its new, improved SSK Kilo Class (Type 636) submarines around the world. The Kilo class subs are quiet and dangerous both to other submarines and surface vessels like the U.S. battle groups. So far the new, proud owners include Venezuela, Iran, China, and Indonesia. These countries are not our friends. For me this is news. I do not care that OJ Simpson is in court today, which is the Fox News the headline. I want to know why the devil Venezuela needs a SSK Kilo Class (Type 636) submarine that can carry armaments sufficient to and has the stealth to kill a carrier. I hope the few submarines we have left can patrol all seven seas because we need them now.

Poseidon must also love the company of the submariners that hunt and play in his seas. Their lives are hard and the humor unique. They give the old god some interesting times and make him smile.



[1] SSN Los Angeles Class Nuclear Submarine, United States of America; http://www.naval-technology.com/projects/la/

[2] SSBN / SSGN Ohio Class Submarine, United States of America; http://www.naval-technology.com/projects/ohio/