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STEMMING THE RED TIDE: Cpl. James W. Rezek of South Dakota (rear) keeps a lookout for communist sharpshooters, while Sgt. First Class Ralph I. Rubic of Alabama ducks down to change positions in their trench on Korea’s central front in 1952.
Associated Press
STEMMING THE RED TIDE: Cpl. James W. Rezek of South Dakota (rear) keeps a lookout for communist sharpshooters, while Sgt. First Class Ralph I. Rubic of Alabama ducks down to change positions in their trench on Korea’s central front in 1952.

Remembering The Forgotten War

History | On its 60th anniversary, aging veterans make their final plea for Americans to remember the fruit of the Korean War, and their sacrifices

Issue: "Blind exiled brave," Aug. 10, 2013

The cold kept William Weber from dying before his 26th birthday. It was 30 degrees below zero on a February 1951 night when the airborne rifle company commanded by Weber attacked a series of enemy-occupied hills in Korea. Assaulting at dusk through snow and artillery barrages, the company took the first two hills. But the 152 men in the Army unit ran into a Chinese battalion of more than 600 on the last objective: Hill 342.

Weber’s team took the hill sometime after midnight and dug in for the counterattack. At about 2 a.m. a grenade blast severed Weber’s right arm. The cold congealed the blood as it poured out of his wound. His men bandaged the stump, gave Weber a morphine shot, then handed him a carbine to shoot with his left hand. Ninety minutes later a mortar round took most of Weber’s right leg just below the knee, knocking him unconscious.

That ended Weber’s fight. But the battle remained too fierce for evacuating the wounded. Chinese soldiers broke through the lines, fighting until killed. Then, after a brief quiet, more of the enemy launched themselves at the Americans with lethal suddenness.

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The battle continued all night. Weber’s men wrapped him in ponchos, blankets, and overcoats. The sub-zero cold congealed the blood around what was left of his leg, its lower half hanging by the tendons, the bones exposed.

Knowing that the wounded became targets in the daylight, Weber’s men risked the firestorm to carry him back to the battalion aid station 500 yards behind the front lines. But the rear wasn’t safe. A Chinese shell struck, the shrapnel slamming into Weber’s right hip. Of 152 men who went up on Hill 342, 47 became casualties, including 12 dead.

“That was the nature of combat in Korea,” Weber, now 87, said recently from his Maryland home.

The war continued until July 27, 1953, when the combatants signed an armistice agreement re-establishing the demilitarized zone that to this day divides North from South Korea.

The fighting may have ended 60 years ago this summer, but the battle for recognition by veterans of the Korean War had just begun. Sandwiched between the “greatest generation” of World War II and the more vocal veterans of the Vietnam War, the Korean War veterans served in a conflict nicknamed The Forgotten War. Those who dodged bullets and shells and saw friends die—or lose limbs like Weber—have spent decades bristling at the notion that this was only a “police action,” as President Harry Truman once called it. Today the war’s veterans are in their eighties. Many feel they are running out of time in their struggle to get the nation to fully grasp the defining moment of their lives—and the significance of the conflict. 

“It is a three paragraph war in the history books at the high school level,” said Weber.

When the war began on June 25, 1950, with communist forces in the north invading the south, most Americans asked the same question: Where is Korea?

“It is a country you have never heard of over a land that doesn’t have any paved roads,” said Melinda Pash, author of In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War. “How do you sell that to the American public? ‘There is nothing there, but we are going to fight this war. It is a civil war, but we are going to get involved.’ It is hard to drum up any kind of support for that.”

For the most part Americans wanted to enjoy the good life in the 1950s. The middle class was growing. More and more Americans could buy homes and cars. Few wanted to be bothered with a war and few were: Americans didn’t endure rationing as in the 1940s. While 16 million served in World War II, only 1.8 million served in the Korean War theater.

“Even in the war time itself it was really easy, kind of like the wars now, to pretend no war was going on,” Pash said.

When the fighting stopped, Americans couldn’t see what had been accomplished: all of Korea was not saved and the peninsula’s buffer zone dividing the two Koreas remained along the same 38th parallel established in 1945.

“The guys from Vietnam, somebody threw rocks at them, so at least they got some kind of recognition even if it was negative,” said Leo Ruffing, 81, a Pittsburg native who served in Korea with an army mortar company: “We got nothing.”

Pash said some VA hospitals turned away men with service-related injuries because they were not classified as war veterans. Congress only later designated the police action a war.

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