Remembering the Forgotten War: Korea, 1950-1953

Though some insist it should be referred to as the "Korean Conflict" or a police action because the participants never officially declared "war," there are few veterans who would disagree that the fighting in Korea between 1950 and 1953 was as bitter as any war. In recent years, the Korean War has been called "The Forgotten War," because it has been overshadowed by the more immediate memories of Vietnam, Desert Storm and the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of World War II. With four million casualties, however, the war that President Truman declared a testing ground in the conflict between communism and democracy has left an indelible imprint on the history of the twentieth century.

The Korean War

The division of Korea into two parts dates from the end of World War II. Prior to that time, since around 1910, it had been a colony of Japan, though the Korean people continually worked to regain their freedom. Their dream finally came within reach when the Allied powers of World War II pledged independence -- though they failed to specify the details effecting the establishment of a government.

When Japan surrendered, the Allies ordered Japanese commanders in Korea north of the 38th parallel to surrender to Russian forces, and south of the parallel to surrender to United States forces. The division was supposed to be temporary, until a national election could be held. The United Nations established a commission to oversee an election in 1948, but the Soviet Union refused to allow participation in the north. Instead, the North Korean Communist Party elected Kim Il-Sung, who had spent several years in exile in Moscow, as its leader. The south elected Syngman Rhee, who had spent years in exile with the Korean provisional government in Shanghai, as speaker of the National Assembly.

At the same time, the Soviet government proposed an end to foreign troops on the Korean peninsula in 1948. The United States agreed, but it was another year before it had its troops out. In withdrawing, it promised to help build up South Korea's army, but its first grant of aid was scheduled for 1950. In the meantime, troops dug in on both sides of the 38th parallel and regularly traded shots.

The North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel on the night of June 24-25, 1950. In the first few hours, South Korean sentries believed that it was another minor border skirmish, but they soon realized that a full scale invasion was underway. The light arms with which they were equipped were no match for the Soviet-made tanks and artillery of the North Koreans. Within four days the Communists captured Seoul. Within another month, the remnant of the South Korean army and the arriving United Nations troops were contained within a small area in southeast Korea around the city of Pusan.

As they grew in strength, the Allied troops along the Pusan perimeter began gaining ground, but with the luxury of being able to concentrate all of their effort against a small area, the Communists came dangerously close to forcing the Allies off the peninsula altogether. General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief of the United Nations Forces, decided to open up a second front, one that would force Kim Il-Sung to split his resources and at the same time hit the army around Pusan at a weak spot. He chose to invade at Inchon, a small city on the west coast of South Korea. The invasion was scheduled for September 15, when the tides would be high enough to carry landing craft across the harbor's mud flats. Despite being informed of the invasion, Kim Il-Sung did not reinforce the city and it fell quickly with little loss to the Allies.

The Corpsman
Hugh Cabot #38
Watercolor on paper. 1952
Navy Art Collection

Two U.S. Marine Corps tanks pinned down by artillery have suffered casualties and are coming under serious enemy VP fire. Under fire, the corpsmen go in to evacuate the injured, wounded and dead. He is helped by frontline cooks, bakers and ratings generally considered non-combatant in his effort to administer life saving forward aid to the combat man.



The Inchon invasion cut the already overextended supply lines of the North Korean army. Communist soldiers fled up the peninsula, pursued by United Nations forces. There was a brief hesitation at the 38th parallel before the Allies crossed it, and within a month they had forced the North Korean army across the Yalu River into China.

Meanwhile, the Chinese under Mao Tse Tung decided to join the war. Mao believed that the Allies would not stop in Korea, but would continue across the Yalu River into Manchuria and attempt to overthrow communism in mainland China. With its nearly inexhaustible supply of men, Chinese troops quickly turned back many of the gains made by the Allies. By May 1951, the battle line had returned to roughly its starting point at the 38th parallel, where the war became a standoff. From then until the signing of the armistice agreement, few gains would be made by either side.

A Man With One Leg
Hugh Cabot #86
Pencil drawing, 1953
Navy Art Collection

Waiting for the doctor to have a look, this man smokes his first American cigarette and looks at the men working on the receiving lines at Freedom Village during Little Switch.




Task Force
Herbert C. Hahn #18
Pencil drawing
Navy A Collection

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.



Peace talks originally began in Kaesong in April 1951, but deadlocked and broke off. They reconvened in July and dragged on for two more years as soldiers tried to annihilate each other from entrenched positions. Three issues stalled the talks. First was the position of the border between North and South Korea. The North Koreans wanted the 38th parallel restored, while the Allies insisted on the battle line. Second, the communists wanted all foreign troops out of Korea. Third, and the most difficult issue to resolve, was the repatriation of Chinese and North Koreans who did not wish to return to their countries.

The Wheels
Herbert C. Hahn #86
Colored pencil drawing
Navy Art Collection






The combatants finally reached an agreement in July 1953. It established a demilitarized zone along the final battle line with a commission to maintain it, and allowed communist prisoners to choose to return to their original country, Taiwan, South Korea, or a neutral country. Because it did not provide for a united Korea, Syngman Rhee refused to sign the armistice, although he pledged South Korea would abide by its points.

Navy Combat Artists in the Korean War

The paintings and drawings that appear in this exhibit are products of the Navy's Combat Art Program, which had been established in World War II as a way to document history as it happened. The images created more than paid for themselves with the massive public interest they created. Artistic images have more impact than ordinary photography. By manipulating the image, an artist can give his work an emotional message that is often clouded by unnecessary detail in photographs. In the Korean War the Navy was fortunate to have two artists in uniform: Herbert C. Hahn and Hugh Cabot.

At the start of the war, the Navy called many reservists into action, among them Herbert C. Hahn. Assigned to USS Boxer as a photographer, he began making drawings of ship personnel and activities during his spare time. Some of his work was sent up the chain of command until it reached the desk of the Secretary of the Navy, Francis P. Matthews. At his request, Hahn was reassigned to the Public Information Office, Tokyo, as a combat artist.

Hugh Cabot volunteered to join the Navy soon after the start of the war, and due to his civilian background as an artist, he was assigned to the Office of Naval Personnel as a Journalist-Seaman. He went to Korea as a combat artist and spent the duration of the war observing action with various ships and units.

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