Remembering the Forgotten War: Korea, 1950-1953


Conditions Leading to the Korean War

Following World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States divided control of the Korean peninsula, formerly a Japanese colony. From 1945 until an independent government could be established, the two countries agreed to a dual administration with the Soviets above the 38th parallel and the Americans below it. The arbitrary split created problems from the start, only made worse by the ideological differences of the controlling countries. Also, the Korean people despised it, occasionally resorting to violence to protest decisions in which they played no part.

The United Nations established a commission to oversee a national election that would allow an end to the partition, but the Soviets refused to allow it in the north. When the South elected the pro-western Syngman Rhee in May 1948, North Korean Communists countered by electing Kim Il-sung. The Soviet government approved the choice and began building up the North's military strength while proposing that all foreign military forces be withdrawn from the country by early 1948. They kept to their deadline, but the United States did not withdraw until a year later, leaving a weak South Korean army with only around 500 military advisors for support. Meanwhile, troops dug in on both sides of the 38th parallel and regularly traded shots. On June 25, 1950 the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel in a full-scale invasion, destroying or pushing back any resistance in its path.


Invasion and Counterinvasion

In the first month of the war, North Koreans had pushed South Korean and American ground forces into a very small area on the Pusan peninsula of southeast Korea. In order to break out, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief of the United Nations Forces, conceived a plan to encircle the North Koreans by making an amphibious invasion at their rear. Inchon harbor was chosen as the landing site, partly because of its proximity to the capital at Seoul. The harbor city fell quickly on September 15, 1950, and from this foothold the Allied forces pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel and up the peninsula within a matter of weeks.

Following the Inchon invasion, Allied forces chased the North Korean army to within a few miles of the Yalu River, the border with mainland China. Mao Tse Tung, fearing that an invasion of Manchuria would follow, joined the war on the North Korean side. Men and materiel began pouring across the Yalu River. The reinforcement allowed Communist forces to strike back, surprising the Allied army, which had committed the same error of overextending its resources in moving north that the North Koreans had in moving south.

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Herbert C. Hahn #53
Colored pencil, 1950s

Because Inchon harbor was so shallow and muddy, the timing of the invasion had to be synchronized precisely with the autumn high tides so landing craft could make it to the shore without running aground on the mud flats. In addition, Wolmi-do (Wolmi Island) provided defenders with a strong garrison flanking the harbor. In spite of intelligence warning of the attack, the overextended North Korean army was unable to maintain a strong defense. The city fell with Allied losses of only 20 dead and 179 wounded.


Gate to the City Seoul, Korea
Hugh Cabot #122
Pencil, 1951

Battered from the onset of the war, Seoul, the capital of the south, was a valuable prize for both sides. It changed hands several times, to the North Koreans in June 1950, back to the Allies in September, retaken by Communist forces the following January, but finally regained by the Allies in April.


Displaced Persons
Hugh Cabot #106
Colored pencil, 1951

Displaced Persons, or "DPs," waiting for evacuation to the South. Long miles of travel, cold, and hunger make this period only a breathing space on the long road to safety.


Task Force
Herbert C. Hahn #18
Pencil, 1950s

Corsairs return to the fleet after strikes against targets in North Korea. Attacks on reinforcements and supply convoys behind enemy lines helped keep Chinese and North Korean armies perpetually short of men, food, and ammunition. The effort eventually ended the massive Communist offensives into South Korea.


Herbert C. Hahn #26
Pencil, 1950s

Planes of Task Force 77 pass over the fleet in the bright waters of the Japan Sea.


Herbert C. Hahn #57
Colored pencil, 1950s

The battleship U.S.S. New Jersey arrives off Korea to join Task Force 77.


Cover Fire
Hugh Cabot #43
Watercolor, 1953

Patrol makes contact. Sniper fire heavy; mortars bursting close. The man firing cover is as important to this isolated operation as the supporting artillery. This trained fire team, its timing and coordination, make this a fast-moving "kill."


Hugh Cabot #42
Watercolor, 1953

Under constant mortar and artillery fire, the company command post has the war at the bunker door. The shortest distances that must be covered in the essential jobs of laying communications, bringing in needed supplies and treating the wounded must be covered on the run. When it's incoming, there's no time to think and barely enough time to duck. No home, no hole is more welcome than the inside of a Marine-made bunker.

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