Op-Ed: The Silent Generation of the Forgotten War

Korean War veterans speak to South Dakota Air and Space Museum visitors June 25 to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the start of the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan)
Korean War veterans speak to South Dakota Air and Space Museum visitors June 25 to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the start of the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan)

The Rev. Jack Keep is the national chaplain of the Korean War Veterans Association.

As a grade school boy during World War II, I followed news reports on the progress of the war, as did many others. The whole nation was involved in one way or another.

Many of the men of our family were in the "service," as it was called then. They were, and still are, our heroes. I had a love for the sea and, from my youth, I wanted to be a sailor.

On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans swept across the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The following year, I turned 17 and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy. I was assigned to the USS Gatling, a Fletcher-class destroyer. For the next year and a half, we trained and operated throughout the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Then in early 1953, we were sent to Korea.

Our duty off the coast of the Korean peninsula was largely with Task Force 77, the fast carrier operation supporting ground troops and destroying the communist supply lines. The "Tin Cans" screened the larger ships and had plane guard and search-and-rescue responsibilities. Later, with TF95, we operated in Wonsan Harbor. Then on July 27, 1953, the cease-fire was signed.

For the next few months, we patrolled the coast. We eventually continued our "around the world" journey and returned to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for an overhaul.

I remained in the Navy until the end of September 1955, when I returned to civilian life. Although there was a cease-fire, the war was not over, as later events would prove. And it is still not over. As a matter of fact, from July 1953 through January 2011, North Korea violated the armistice 221 times, including 26 military attacks. The most publicized of these were the attack and capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968 and the "axe murder" incident in 1976.

The veterans of Korea did not receive the welcome home that greeted the WWII warriors and, for many years, were not welcomed into the membership of the major veterans organizations, because President Truman had dubbed it a "police action" rather than a war. This despite the fact that one out of 10 combatants were killed or wounded in action, as opposed to one out of 15 for WWII and one out of 17 for Vietnam.

In addition, 51 percent of prisoners of war died in captivity as opposed to 9.6 percent for WWII and 18 percent for Vietnam. In fact, most Americans hardly knew what was going on over there.

Korean vets came home to find that their friends had no idea where they had been. When my eldest daughter reached adulthood, she asked me, "Dad, how come you never talked about your life in the Navy and going to Korea?"

My answer was, "No one ever asked, and no one was interested in listening."

Melinda Pash, in her excellent book "In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation," calls us the "Silent generation of the forgotten war."

There are a number of reasons for this. For many who experienced the worst horrors of combat, the memories were too painful. Two friends of mine spent almost the entire war as POWs. The suffering of these men included unspeakable experiences of torture, starvation, cold, disease and pain. One of my friends dealt with the memories by not talking about them. The other found some solace in telling his story, and yet he would often break down and weep as he recalled his years as a prisoner of war.

For most of us, there was a sense of frustration that somehow we had failed, and that the general public looked on us that way. WWII vets came home proud that they had accomplished a victory, but those who fought in Korea felt that, after the loss of more than 37,000 killed in action and more than 8,000 still missing in action, there was not a lot to celebrate. Most Americans, if they thought about it all, viewed it as a stalemate.

Because Korea was sandwiched between WWI, WWII (the good war), and Vietnam (the bad war), it became known as the "Forgotten War." Consequently, there was little interest over the next 40 years in Korea or the young men who fought there.

In 1985, the Korean War Veterans Association was formed to draw these forgotten warriors together. About the same time, the Republic of Korea became an economic power and today has the 11th greatest economy in the world. In many ways, Korea has demonstrated its appreciation for what these forgotten veterans accomplished 66 years ago.

We are frequently approached by Korean people who say to us: "Thank you for saving our country!" The "forgotten war" was really a "forgotten victory."

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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