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U.S. Victory Lost in History
The News and Observer  |  November 07, 2005
Ron Rice crouched in a trench on a sweat-popping July afternoon, shaking off a long, dirt-kissing crawl to escape the crossfire of two North Korean machine gun nests.

A supersonic zip of air brushed his ear. The mud-streaked squad leader took a swat at what he assumed was a blood-sucking fly, then heard the distinctive automatic chatter of an AK-47 assault rifle, the Cold War gun of choice for communist soldiers.

Slugs struck a hard-charging captain with the surname of Scripture. Rice and five other members of his squad zig-zagged the officer to safety as bullets kicked up dirt at their feet.

"The only thing you think about is getting through that -- no fear," said Rice, 61, who lives in Advance, near Winston-Salem. "Fear wasn't part of the equation -- that came later."

As he contemplates the approach of Veterans Day on Friday, Rice has firefight memories that come from the Korean peninsula, but not the Korean War. His taste of combat came in 1967, 14 years after an uneasy cease-fire ended that conflict in 1953.

While the U.S. was sharply escalating military action in Vietnam -- the definitive war of his generation -- Rice and other American soldiers were fighting elite North Korean troops in sharp, small-unit battles along the demilitarized zone that still divides the two Koreas.

Dubbed the Second Korean Conflict by historians and veterans, this undeclared and relatively unknown border war lasted 37 months from late 1966 until late 1969.

But if the Korean War is America's "forgotten war," then the Second Korean Conflict is its forgotten echo.

Few know about this successful defensive campaign against North Korean infiltrators who hoped to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. Fewer still realize that the fighting along the Korean DMZ marked an American military victory that offers bedrock lessons for the counterinsurgency campaigns against the irregular forces fighting American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It turned out differently than the Vietnam War, but nobody knows about it," said Army Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, author of the most detailed comprehensive historical analysis of the Second Korean Conflict and commander of the team training the new Iraqi army. "It was a success. It's like Sherlock Holmes -- the dog that didn't bark. When you hold the line against bad things and you do what you're supposed to do, you don't get special credit for that."

Context for conflict

The attention of North Carolinians was focused on Korea this past summer with the return of Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins to visit his mother and his Northampton County hometown, Rich Square. Jenkins, a squad leader pulling his second tour of duty in Korea, abandoned his men on patrol in the DMZ in January 1965 and spent more than 39 years in North Korea.

Other Americans remember the signature event of this mostly forgotten campaign: the seizure of the USS Pueblo, a Navy electronic spy ship, in January 1968 by North Korean patrol boats.

The Pueblo attack took place in international waters just a week before the thunderous start of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. One American sailor was killed, and 82 others were taken hostage and held in North Korea until December.

But few recall the conflict that provided the bloody context for the Pueblo crisis and Jenkins' desertion.

That doesn't matter to North Carolina veterans of the Second Korean Conflict -- men such as Rice, John Cosgrove of Clemmons and David Benbow of Statesville, a lawyer who patrolled the DMZ in 1968 and 1969 with the Army's 2nd Infantry Division.

"I'm proud of what we did -- we kept the peace in Korea," said Benbow, 60, who also heads the DMZ Vets Association, a grass-roots organization with 750 members nationwide. "It doesn't diminish what we did, the fact not many people know about it."

While American soldiers and Marines were getting killed at the siege of Khe Sanh or the brutal street fighting in Hue, American and South Korean soldiers were dying near places known only to the veterans of this smaller conflict -- Guard Post Jane, Guard Post Gladys, Ambush Alley.

North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung hoped to create a guerrilla uprising in the south similar to the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam, a goal ultimately frustrated by the allies' savvy tactics and the South Koreans' animosity toward their northern neighbors.

But as the North Koreans pressed their attacks with increasing ferocity in 1967 and 1968, the outcome was unclear. Service north of the Imjin River, the geographical boundary for the American sector of the DMZ, became a nerve-fraying and sporadically lethal business.

In barracks bombings, ambushes, firefights, booby traps and other attacks, 75 U.S. soldiers, sailors and air crew members were killed and 111 wounded.

South Korean forces, defending a far longer stretch of the 151-mile DMZ, had a longer casualty list -- 299 soldiers killed and 550 wounded.

Those casualties were eclipsed by the far bloodier fighting in Vietnam, where American forces were losing an average of 1,190 soldiers a month in 1968. That larger and ultimately unsuccessful war deeply divided the United States and overshadowed military success in Korea.

Overlooked case study

Vietnam is the primary reason few historians or military academics have bothered to study the Second Korean Conflict, despite an effort by American military officials to dust off lessons learned from other "small wars," unconventional conflicts and counterinsurgency campaigns.

The Army's Cold War focus on fighting a big, conventional war against the Soviet Union also created a lingering reluctance to study the lessons of smaller conflicts.

However, the insurgency in Iraq, raging for more than two years now, has created a renaissance for the study of past low- intensity conflicts and unconventional wars among American military officials.

But the Second Korean Conflict is again a forgotten echo, its lessons largely ignored or deemed too specific to the circumstances of Korea to serve as a case study for officers headed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I haven't seen Korea playing a part of that," said Army Lt. Col. Robert M. Cassidy, a veteran of the conventional phase of the Iraq war who has also served in an Army working group that called for more counterinsurgency training in December 2003. "If it's got lessons, I'll look at it."

Those lessons are there, said Bolger, the Army brigadier and expert on the Second Korean Conflict, thanks to the shrewd strategy and tactics of a tall, thin, third-generation West Point graduate with a frosty, patrician air and a roguish eye patch -- Gen. Charles H. "Tick" Bonesteel III, a four-star American commander who also had operational control over South Korean forces.

Bonesteel was a career staff officer with no combat experience, Bolger said. But he was also a skilled politician and brilliant analyst whose winning strategy relied on three evergreen tenets: He restricted the use of airstrikes and artillery, he emphasized aggressive patrols and other small-unit infantry tactics and he relied heavily on South Korean forces and integrated their officers into his command structure.

Bonesteel also fought a decidedly low-tech war. He built an 18-mile chain-link fence along the southern border of the American sector of the DMZ, a 10-foot-high barrier topped with razor-sharp concertina wire and festooned with pebble-filled beer cans that rattled with wind and the touch of a deer or North Korean soldier.

The fence was backed by a line of foxholes, trenches, guardposts and minefields.

Soldiers such as Benbow and Cosgrove knew the deadly potential of night patrols and ambush duty north of the fence.

"It was real serious business," Benbow said. "It was a free-fire zone. If you saw a North Korean in the DMZ, you shot him."

Tension was a constant in Korea, said Cosgrove, 58, who served as a medic with a 2nd Infantry Division company patrolling the DMZ in 1968 and 1969. This was particularly true during the Pueblo crisis, when this brushfire war threatened to turn white-hot.

"You never knew if you were going to get ambushed at night, attacked during the day or the next phase of the Korean War was going to start," Cosgrove said. "If they decided to invade again, most of the troops up on the DMZ would have been wiped out."

The Second Korean Conflict started Nov. 2, 1966, just two days after President Johnson arrived in Seoul for a state visit, with the ambush of an eight-man American patrol less than a mile south of the DMZ. Six GIs and a South Korean soldier serving with them were killed.

In late October 1968, North Korean commandos landed along the east coast of South Korea, aiming to start a guerrilla movement among peasants and small farmers. South Koreans rejected their overtures, and South Korean soldiers killed 110 commandos.

In the wake of that failure, Kim Il Sung purged his command and ended attempts to start a guerrilla movement in South Korea. Attacks along the DMZ continued through 1969, although they weren't as frequent.

Bonesteel had won.

Shouldering doubt

For years, veterans of this undeclared war have had to weather the caustic doubt of people who didn't believe they saw combat.

"If you told somebody something, they thought you were lying, so you got to where you just didn't say anything at all," Rice said.

They also had to be content with small tokens of appreciation that meant something only to them. These include the Imjin Scout patch, given to soldiers who served north of the Imjin River and patrolled the DMZ.

Only recently has there been official recognition that veterans such as Rice served in harm's way. In June, the higher threshold they faced for the Combat Infantryman Badge was reduced to the same requirements faced by Vietnam veterans and soldiers of earlier wars.

Agent Orange claims by Korea DMZ veterans are also being granted, though not as freely as those filed by Vietnam veterans.

Benbow said medals and badges don't matter. Reconnecting with his DMZ buddies does.

It helps ease the bitterness of forgotten service and erase the pain of a July night in 1968. A six-man patrol from Benbow's company eased through the barrier fence to set up an ambush inside the DMZ.

Instead, North Koreans ambushed the American patrol, wounding three GIs and a South Korean soldier serving with the squad. Michael "Riggs" Rymarczuk, a radio operator from Philadelphia, was killed just a few days before he was to meet his wife and a baby daughter he had never seen.

Benbow, a clerk who volunteered to fill a rifle company's thin ranks, usually teamed up with Rymarczuk on night ambushes but wasn't picked to go on that patrol. When the squad got hit, Benbow was in a foxhole south of the barrier fence. He heard the muffled boom of grenades and watched tracers light up the night -- red from American machine guns, green from North Korean weapons.

Daylight came. So did three short words on the company radio: "Riggs got zapped."

He felt the guilt of a survivor.

Rice, a soldier in the Army's 2nd Infantry Division who prowled the rugged, brush hills of the DMZ before Bonesteel built his barrier fence, battled guilt of a different kind -- getting sent to Korea instead of Vietnam. That ended when bullets struck the Jeep that was carrying him north of the Imjin River for the first time.

Like other veterans of the early phase of the Second Korean Conflict, he never received combat pay and never got the Combat Infantryman Badge.

He's an old soldier now, with memories of that running firefight in July 1967 that started with the after-midnight killing of three American soldiers near Guardpost Jane.

Rice led his squad into the DMZ later that day, searching for North Korean bodies. Crossfire from two machine guns forced them to crawl to safety. No one was hit.

Scripture, his former company commander, packed a pearl-handled pistol and a riding crop, just like Gen. George S. Patton. He was perched on the sandbags of Rice's trench when he got shot and wanted his picture taken as he bled.

"He said, 'Get my camera!' I said, 'No sir, I'm going to try and get you out of here,' " Rice said.

Rice remembers foxhole nights listening to the blare of North Korean loudspeakers. Those speakers often carried the voice of Jenkins, the North Carolina deserter, urging GIs to join him in a cushy people's paradise.

Rice stayed focused on leading his squad and surviving five firefights in this forgotten echo of the Korean War.

"I told new guys coming in, 'If you listen to me, I'll get you home,' " he said. "I did my best, and all of them went home in my squad."

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