The Forgotten War (Remembered)
June 25, 2000
By Alex Tizon
Gerald Foley, a crinkly-eyed, stooped-over old veteran, sips his latte at the local Starbucks, trying hard not to talk about the time he killed four men with a shovel. They were enemy soldiers who were trying to kill him. Foley won. He earned a Bronze Star. But he won’t talk about it right away. He must ease into it. And he must be cautious these days when talking about killing of any kind, even in the context of war, and especially in the context of an ambiguous war, which the Korean War most certainly was.
It began 50 years ago today when North Korea invaded South. The fighting lasted 1,127 days, and resulted in nearly 5 million dead or wounded, half of them civilians. Of the dead, nearly 37,000 were Americans, and 528 were from Washington. In the end, America did not win, and did not want to talk about it. Korea has been called “the forgotten war,” which does not much bother the crinkly-eyed veteran from Bothell who would just as soon keep his own mouth shut, except to joke.
“The more you talk, the bigger the war gets, and the bigger you get,” he says. “The last time, I won the war all by myself.”
In his three decades as an inspector for the Seattle Engineering Department, Foley told virtually no one about his experiences in Korea. People knew he was a veteran, and that he was proud of it: once a Marine, always a Marine.
His co-workers would have been amazed to learn that this gentle, lumbering, soft-spoken man with the Andy Rooney eyebrows could be capable of such holy violence. He now walks with a cane and speaks with a slight wobble in his voice, the result of 73 years of life and a couple of battles with cancer. He has only one kidney but three Purple Hearts. He earned all three half a century ago in the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, a battle that defined the rest of his life, and in some ways defined the entire Korean conflict. Chosin changed America’s military stature in Asia, and presaged another war that America would not win: Vietnam.
The whole Western world was caught by surprise early that Sunday morning when North Korean tanks rumbled across the 38th parallel into South Korea. Only five years had passed since the end of World War II, and America was not in the mood for another war. The Korean peninsula, a former Japanese colony, had been divided, with the Communist Soviet Union taking control of the north and the Americans, the south. U.S. leaders saw the invasion as a Communist first step toward its goal of world domination.
President Truman, leader of the so-called Free World, felt compelled to “contain” the Communists and called on the fledgling United Nations to do the containing. It was the first modern attempt at collective security, and the first shooting conflict in what would be called the Cold War. American leaders, though, avoided the “W” word, instead playing it down as a “U.N. police action.” Fifteen other nations sent token forces against the North Koreans, but it was essentially a U.S. effort, and despite the euphemisms, what was taking place on that little knob of land in the Far East was full-scale war.
In the first weeks, North Korea nearly overtook the South, but the U.S. intervened, and after a disastrous start, American combat units, with helter-skelter force, dispersed the North Korean army and eventually advanced deep into North Korean territory.
“Most of us had the idea it was going to be easy, that we’d be over this in a hurry,” said Leroy Roberts Jr., 78, of Tacoma. Roberts, a Tuskegee airman, flew 106 missions in Korea. “We were dead wrong.”
Like Roberts, the American public, at least the narrow slice that paid any attention at all to the war, thought it would be a routine, in-and-out procedure. After all, the U.S., with its nuclear nightstick, was the supreme power on Earth going up against a backward little Asian nation. By early November, only four months after the start of the war, American troops were marching toward the Yalu River — North Korea’s northern boundary — thereby occupying and reuniting the entire peninsula.
“Home by Christmas!” was the battlefield cry. But little North Korea had big Communist friends. The Soviets gave tanks and planes. China, threatened by the American advance toward its own border, offered up its enormous army. Unknown to the advancing Americans, China was secretly arraying 300,000 fighting men along the Yalu River.
Foley, at the start of the war, was 24, working in a sawmill and playing baseball for the Marine Reserves in Seattle. He had a good enough swing to consider trying out for the Seattle Rainiers. He and a childhood buddy, Jack Colman, were called up to active duty. The two had met in second grade at Dunlap Elementary School in the Rainier Valley. They worked at the same sawmill, played on the same baseball team, and became part of the same Marine division.
Colman, a tidy, upright, straight-talking Marine, says he and Foley could easily have ended up “deader than hell.”
They landed on the peninsula in mid-September and two months later, as U.S.-led forces advanced toward the Yalu River, the two found themselves at the Chosin Reservoir, an elongated, oddly shaped body of water in the foothills of the Nangnim Mountains. On Nov. 27, on the east side of the reservoir, 120,000 Chinese soldiers hiding in the mountains swooped down on 19,000 U.S.-led troops, about 15,000 of them Marines. It was the first-ever full-fledged battle between Chinese and American troops. The U.S. advance was violently halted.
Foley and Colman found themselves encountering and fighting Chinese soldiers at the same time on adjacent hills, separated only by a narrow valley.
“We were just overrun,” Foley says. “You know the scene in `The Ten Commandments’ where the people of Israel, this giant mass, are crossing the river? That’s what we saw coming right at us.”
What followed was frenzied battle, shooting at close range, hand-to-hand combat with bayonets and rifle butts, exploding grenades, with tens of thousands of refugees streaming through the countryside, running into crossfire, clogging up the roads, begging for help. Enemy soldiers often mixed with refugees, and sometimes used them as human shields. Both sides killed civilians during the war, intentionally or inadvertently, as revealed in last year’s reports about the massacre at No Gun Ri. “War is war. Both sides do atrocities,” says Colman. “In war, there is no safe spot.”
The fiercest enemy at Chosin was the Korean winter. Temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero — enough to freeze blood and sweat. Soldiers froze to death in their own perspiration. Frostbite devoured feet and hands. Both sides used frozen corpses as barricades. Early in the battle, Corporal Foley led a team of four soldiers to a wooded knoll, where they tried to knock out a sniper nest at the top of a hill. They fired shots nonstop for an hour. Suddenly a platoon of enemy soldiers came rushing down on them. What followed was corroborated by witnesses and officially recorded by the Secretary of the Navy:
Foley’s team was overwhelmed in hand-to-hand combat. Two members of the team were killed. The third was wounded and ran off. Foley, slashed by a bayonet in the right arm, desperately reached for his rifle but instead got hold of his folding shovel. He swung in terror and instinct borne from years of swinging at small white balls flying toward him. He does not remember how long he swung — a long time, back and forth with fury. When he stopped, four enemy soldiers lay dead around his feet.
He and another Marine who wandered into the area broke down the enemy’s weapons and scattered them, and Foley made his way to an aid station. He would be wounded two more times, but it was the cold that finally beat him. On Dec. 8 he was flown back to the U.S., where he spent two months recovering from acute frostbite. His tour of duty lasted less than three months.
His friend Colman was also wounded. While standing on a ridge, reaching for a cigarette in his shirt pocket, a bullet ripped through the base of his neck on the left side, knocking him 20 yards downhill. Colman says when he reached into his pocket, it shifted the hood of his parka just enough so that the bullet, which pierced the center of the hood, missed his head, the obvious target. He takes pleasure in saying “a cigarette saved my life.”
The U.S. stand at Chosin would turn into a full retreat, with Chinese forces attacking all along the way. The path of withdrawal was a single narrow corridor that led to the coastal town of Hungnam, where allied ships awaited to take the soldiers out of North Korea. It became one of the most famous fighting retreats in history. The Marines took out all their wounded, most of their dead, and 90,000 Korean refugees who would have been killed by the war or the cold.
The Battle at Chosin lasted roughly two weeks, and yielded 17 Medals of Honor and 70 Navy Crosses – more than for any single U.S. action in the war. The allies suffered 2,400 dead and 10,000 wounded. In return, the U.S. killed or wounded an astonishing 40,000 Chinese.
Nevertheless, China drove the U.S. out of North Korea and deep into the south. For a time, the U.S. appeared on the brink of defeat. But the tide would change several more times as truce talks dragged on until July 1953. The fighting ground down to an ugly stalemate, almost exactly where it first began, at the 38th parallel, an ending foreshadowed at Chosin.
Chosin was among the defining battles of the 20th century, according to military historian Patrick Roe, of Lopez Island. Roe was a Marine intelligence officer at Chosin and has written a book about the war: “The Dragon Strikes” (Presidio Press).
America, restrained from using its nuclear arsenal by the threat of worldwide condemnation, found itself unable to win a limited conventional war — a reality that became clear after Chosin. And, Roe says, “Chosin taught the Chinese that America was not invincible.” Even though it lost nearly a million soldiers in the course of the war, “the Chinese saw the truce as a great victory.”
That poor nations could match superior technology and firepower with indigenous ingenuity and sheer volume of manpower was a lesson the North Vietnamese would apply a decade later. In Korea, and again in Vietnam, America came face to face with the superpower dilemma: It could not overpower with nuclear force, and yet anything short of complete victory was a loss.
“We got so used to people surrendering to us,” says Paul Hosoda of Bellevue, a member of the 442nd regimental combat team, the legendary Japanese-American fighters of World War II, and an Army intelligence officer in the Korean War. “In Korea, we lost because we had to negotiate peace.”
Still, the many apologists for the war say the U.S. accomplished its original goal of containing the Communist North. “It wasn’t glamorous; it didn’t capture the American imagination,” says Reed Jarvis, of Issaquah, who served on the battleship USS Wisconsin, “but we did what we were supposed to do, we did a good job, and we’re proud of it.”
Veterans from the Chosin campaign were so bonded in their struggle that, after the war, they formed an exclusive group called the Chosin Few, of which Foley and Colman are loyal members. The group numbers 5,000 across the country and about 100 in Washington. They meet next in December in San Diego.
The frostbite Foley suffered at Chosin has tormented him for 50 years. His fingers have no feeling, and he walks as if his legs are still frozen. He must wear special steel-braced shoes. The killings he witnessed and committed sometimes float through his mind.
“The worst question is, `How does it feel to have killed?’ “Foley says somberly. “My answer is `awful.’ Awful to have done it, and awful to be asked about it.” But the ethic of battle, which every Marine accepts, came down to an inescapable fact: “It’s either him or me.”
He is happy it was he who survived. And that his buddy Colman survived. To add to their long list of parallel experiences, the two friends from second grade each came away from the war with three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. They received their Bronze Stars on the same day, and each keeps it in a glass case near his living room.
It does not bother either of them, nor any other veterans interviewed for this story, that Korea is the least known of America’s wars, although all are glad for the attention being paid its 50th anniversary. “You have to remember,” Colman says, “these vets who went to Korea, they came up through the Depression. They didn’t have anything, didn’t expect anything, didn’t ask for anything. It was a different generation.” They were asked by their country to fight, and they did. If the public did not appreciate or remember it, they still had life and they had each other, which in their eyes was plenty.