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The 1950s weren't such a peaceful time
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The '50s - that nostalgic decade of peace and tranquility - well, sort of. Author David Halberstam in his riveting book, "The Fifties," contends that it was a restless, pivotal decade that permanently changed America.

Those of us who lived through that decade did not have school lunches, the vast choice of athletic programs, or many other opportunities available to today's students. But all the entrances to our schools remained open all day. We may never see that day again. We have lost more than our innocence.

And tranquil? Veterans of the Korean War, the "forgotten war," don't think of the '50s as peaceful. Many young viewers of that long-running TV series M*A*S*H believe it to have taken place in Vietnam rather than Korea. Viewers who can recite those scripts from memory would be hard put to find Korea on a blank map.

Korea was not a high priority during post World War II strategic military planning. But immediately after V-J Day, Pentagon officers noted Soviet troops moving from Manchuria into North Korea. Available American troops were scarce and it appeared that Korea would be Stalin's for the taking.

The Assistant Secretary of War ordered a demarcation line established in Korea. A colonel with experience in the Far East explained the difficulty, "Korea is a social and economic unit. There is no place to divide it."

Never mind. It had to be done and the task fell to two colonels, one of whom was Dean Rusk, a future Secretary of State. As the colonels studied the map, they noted that the 38th parallel divided Korea roughly in half.

The proposal was presented to the Soviets and they surprisingly accepted it. The 38th parallel would be Korea's 50-yard line.

Each side set up their own dictator. Our dictator would be Syngman Rhee whose main appeal was that he sat out WW II in America in exile, and hence, had not collaborated with the Japanese. Besides, he was sufficiently anti-Communist - our kind of dictator.

Their dictator was Kim Il Sung. In contrast to Rhee, Kim had spent much of his life fighting the Japanese, giving him some credibility among the Koreans, at least for a while. He reportedly fought along side the Russians at Stalingrad. He was a natural choice for the Soviets.

Autumn 1948, the Russians and Americans would each withdraw their troops from Korea, leaving behind what amounted to proxy armies. We left behind an unloved government with a weak Republic of Korea (ROK) army. The Soviets left behind the real thing, the North Korea People's Army composed of ten divisions of 135,000 men commanded by battle tested officers who fought along side the Chinese Communists in their historic defeat of Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist Army. For good measure they left behind 150 T-34 tanks, of the model that was so effective against the Germans in WW II.

Rhee and Kim each made noises about taking over the entire peninsula. But only Kim had the army to back him up. In an ominous sign of things to come, he probed the ROK lines in 1949 and earl 1950.

Early June 1950 - a kid from small town Iowa, who would one day be my chiropractor in New Mexico, quit high school to join the Army. Hey Doc, great timing.

June 24, 1950 - it was haymaking time in Wisconsin. The pungent smell of drying alfalfa drifted through the warm summer air as I returned from a Saturday night movie at "the Goetz." I turned on the radio and caught the news before drifting off to sleep.

It was already June 25 in Korea with a heavy rain falling along that 50-yard line. As his howitzers opened up, Senior Col. Lee Hak Ku lowered his upraised arm, signaling the advance of wedges of Soviet T-34 tanks. As warplanes winged toward Seoul 90,000 disciplined North Korean troops commanded by battle-tested officers swarmed across the parallel. The ROKs, out-manned, out-gunned and helpless against the T-34s quickly broke. The retreat became a rout.

President Harry Truman, already hammered for having "lost China" - never mind it was never "ours" to lose - saw no option but to make a stand. Chair of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Omar Bradley, saw Korea offering "as good an occasion for drawing the line as anywhere else."

General Douglas MacArthur was dispatched to Korea for a first-hand look. His party witnessed the aftermath of the ROKs blowing of a bridge crammed with over 500 panicked civilians fleeing Seoul. MacArthur was infuriated at the retreating ROK soldiers, many without their weapons - a cardinal sin in combat.

It was clear. If South Korea were to be saved, it would take American troops. But of the available Army troops, only the elite 82nd Airborne was combat-ready. Early units from the Army's 24th and 34th Divisions drawn from occupation duty in Japan were ill equipped, including having only 2.36-inch bazookas that were useless against Soviet tanks. An American regimental commander later wrote that it was "rather sad, almost criminal that such under strength, ill-equipped, poorly trained units were committed." An unvarnished history of the early stages of the Korean War is truly depressing reading - among the most tragic chapters in American military history.

By September 1950, high school classes of 1954 were beginning their freshman year. In Korea, MacArthur had traded "space for time" in consolidating his limited forces and was defending the southeast corner of Korea known as the "Pusan Perimeter." But he already had in mind a daring complex military operation that would dramatically change the course of the war.

To be continued. ...

- Monroe resident John Waelti can be reached at