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.
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.
“I’ve never called it the forgotten war,” said Birney Dibble, a military doctor during the war now living in Wisconsin. “I’ve called it the unknown war. You can’t forget something you never knew about.”
The brutal nature of the combat is not something the war’s survivors will forget. Korea’s terrain and its undeveloped road network made it an infantry war. Masses of men moved through forests, valleys, and hills in the dark, squaring off, sometimes eyeball to eyeball, and with shoulder-fired weapons, mortars, and artillery. Tanks mainly operated in support of troops, and the fighting devolved into the trench warfare more common in World War I.
Americans lost more than 36,500 soldiers killed and more than 103,000 wounded in 37 months of fighting. That’s an average of more than 988 dead and nearly 2,800 wounded each month. Just over 8,000 American soldiers are still listed as missing in action.
“Imagine picking up the newspaper today and seeing those kind of casualties,” Weber said.
Wayne Winebrenner, 18 years old when deployed to Korea, still hears the bugle blows the enemy used as a signal for their hidden troops to rise and attack. “When we got hit I felt like Custer wondering where in the devil all the Indians came from,” said Winebrenner, who now lives in Hagerstown, Md.
During one attack, the enemy came dressed in uniforms taken from dead or captured U.S. Marines, almost wiping out an entire company near Winebrenner’s unit. In the winter the enemy wore white, so what looked like snow suddenly came alive at the bugle calls. Sometimes just the enemy soldiers in front carried weapons. The ones behind them would snatch rifles from their dead comrades while advancing.
Dibble spent 16 months in combat as a 25-year-old surgeon with the First Marine Division. He’d work nonstop for days at makeshift aid stations with no tents or bunkers, treating men who stepped on landmines or had up to 40 pieces of shrapnel covering their bodies. Working on his knees in the dark and the snow, Dibble used a penlight to locate wounds—turning on a flashlight would invite an enemy attack. Once a single enemy got through the guards and invaded an aid station, the spray of bullets from his machine gun killing Dibble’s aide and the wounded soldier they were working on. After one Chinese offensive, Dibble counted medical tags and found that 1,004 cases had arrived at his company in three days.
Sixty years later the memories of such carnage are fresh, and many veterans are striving to make sure the sacrifices of the Korean War’s fallen are not forgotten. Weber wants the names of the dead added to the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. In 1987 Ronald Reagan appointed Weber to the advisory board overseeing the building of the memorial. The final product, featuring 19 steel statues in combat gear representing a squad on patrol, Weber believes remains unfinished: “The memorial reminds people that someone served, but it doesn’t remind them that someone sacrificed.”
He’s testified before Congress and gotten lawmakers to write bills. But the current version of legislation to add the names has only 40 supporters in the House.
On a local level, members of Antietam Chapter 312 of the Korean War Veterans Association have had more success. In June they dedicated a monument in Hagerstown, Md. It bears the names of the 32 Korean War dead from surrounding Washington County inscribed on a stone tablet. The chapter raised $40,000 for the project, with local governments supplying an additional $60,000. Dozens came to the unveiling ceremony, where a bell rang once for each of the dead.
The memorial also honors living veterans like John Koontz, whose oldest son was nearly 19 months old before Koontz first saw him. At 82, his left foot still tingles from the frostbite he got six decades ago in Korea. The monument also honors Jesse Englehart, 81, who had his helmet shot off his head twice running up a hill at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and survived a grenade landing 10 feet from him. And John Jackson, 84, who earned a Bronze Star driving an M4 tank in combat with only one week’s rest during 13 months of fighting.
“Lord knows how many people I ran over with that tank,” said Jackson, whose unit won six battle stars. “You are moving day and night and you don’t know where you are going. I do think about it to this day. It takes something out of you.”
Jackson can’t resist driving by the Hagerstown memorial every time he goes to the supermarket. “I like to go by there at night. With the lights you can see everything. I rub my hands on it. It is just so smooth. It’s beautiful.”
IT’S BEAUTIFUL: Englehart, Koontz, Winebrenner, and Les Bishop, Commander of the Antietam Chapter 312 of the Korean War Veterans Association, at the new monument. (Lee Love/Genesis Photos)
Other veterans have found their own ways to make sure their war is not forgotten. For the last 12 years, Dibble, the surgeon, has lectured classes of medical students about his battle experiences. James Butcher taught for 38 years at the University of Minnesota, enduring campus protests over Vietnam and other wars while many of his students and fellow faculty members never knew he was a veteran. Butcher’s unit lost 19 men during the Battle of Pork Chop Hill in April 1953. At 18, the newly promoted sergeant had to force his men to advance under a massive artillery barrage: “I was basically pushing people to their death.”
Butcher wrote about his experiences not long after returning, but never intended to publish the work. With the 60th anniversary approaching, he decided he had been silent long enough: In April he published Korea: Traces of a Forgotten War, surprising many of his former university colleagues.
“So many of my buddies had died I felt like it was my duty to say something about it.”
It’s not just veterans on the front lines in the battle for remembrance. This summer the Midland Korean Baptist Church in Texas invited area Korean War veterans to come to a thank-you service. The 70-member church gave each of the 23 veterans who attended a flower, served them Korean food, and performed traditional Korean music and dances.
“I don’t know about other wars, but at least for the Korean War I wanted to assure them their sacrifice was worthy,” said pastor Hongnak Koo. “Without their sacrifices the blessings of South Korea would not have come.”
Koo’s own life was changed by the war. Before the communist invasion, Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, was called “Jerusalem of the East” for its large population of Christians. But the communists killed or expelled many Christians. Koo grew up in the village of Kongju in South Korea, where he could pursue a pastoral calling that led him to a Texas seminary.
Koo remembers one place where the war has never been forgotten. Since 1975 the South Korean government has subsidized trips for veterans to revisit the land where they fought. By the end of 2011 more than 28,000 veterans had made the journey. The program pays for half of the veteran’s airfare and all of accommodations and meals once in Korea. Drivers chauffeur them to battle sites where they can see firsthand how the nation has been transformed. A place they remember as a primitive country full of straw-thatched houses, ragged children, filth, disease, and poverty now boasts skyscrapers, and one of the world’s largest economies with multinationals like Samsung and Hyundai.
“You go there and close your eyes and open them and you could be in London, New York, or Tokyo,” said Dibble, who has made two trips back to Korea. “And it wasn’t just the old codgers like us who remembered when the Marines were there. The younger people would come up to us and shake our hands.”
Winebrenner returned to Korea in 2011. His conclusion: “If we had not stopped communism in Korea it probably would have spread throughout Asia and the South Pacific.”
On the Korean Peninsula, more than 988 U.S. soldiers died and nearly 2,800 were wounded each month over 37 months of fighting.
- 36,516 American soliders killed
- 103,284 American soldiers wounded
- 8,075 Americans soldiers listed as missing in action