Some call it the Forgotten War.
But to the men and women who lived it more than 65 years ago, the Korean War is hardly forgotten.
Jack Fields was called up as a 20-year-old reservist while working for Northwest Bell Telephone Co. in Omaha, Neb. “Korea, it’s something I’ll never forget,” the 88-year-old Army vet from Mineola said. “It was hard times.”
The Korean Peninsula broke out in war five years after the end of World War II. Almost immediately after Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, the United States and its wartime ally, the Soviet Union, carved Korea into separate zones of control along the 38th parallel.
In the early stages of the Cold War, the Soviets and China’s new communist government vigorously supported Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s communist leader. The United States’ backed the south and democratically-elected Syngman Rhee. Each country claimed sovereignty over the entire Korean Peninsula. Backed by China and the Soviet Union, North Korea invaded the south on June 25, 1950. The initial weeks of the war did not go well for U.S. and international troops, which had intervened on behalf of the south under a United Nations mandate.
Fields was called up in 1950 and attached to the 32nd Engineers, 8th Army. They were stationed in Japan until the tide of the war changed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s sea landing at Incheon.
“Our primary purpose was to build the infrastructure; they didn’t have any whatsoever,” he said of South Korea. “We had to go in and widen the roads because you couldn’t get tanks, you couldn’t get Jeeps or anything through. So that was our primary purpose, to build up the infrastructure.”
His main job was that of a lineman, in which he helped keep lines of communication open. He characterized his job as difficult, but one he was grateful for. “I did not see any front line action, and I didn’t want to,” he recalled.
He did, however, experience the brutal Korean winters. “I was born and raised in Nebraska so I know what cold winters are, but I have never been so cold in my life as over in Korea. It was nasty,” he said. Winter temperatures plunged to 10 to 15 below zero at night in Wonju, where he was stationed. “Up further north it got even worse.”
After the landing at Incheon, U.S. and U.N. troops began to push deep into North Korea. But the tide of the war changed again when the Chinese invaded in October of 1950. The communists pushed American and international troops out of North Korea and drove into the south. After ferocious fighting, the advance was blunted and the final two years of the war were a stalemate.
“It was a vicious war,” Fields said, recalling one particularly unpleasant detail he and four others undertook. “We helped to load up body bags. That wasn’t much fun. That was a three-day assignment, and I don’t know how many we moved. They were coming back from the front. There’s an awful lot of guys who went through hell over there.”
According to the Pentagon, 36,914 Americans died in Korea, and another 92,134 were wounded in a conflict termed “a police action,” by former President Harry Truman.
The fighting stopped on July 27, 1953, with an armistice dividing North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel. But no peace treaty was ever signed, and reverberations of that bloody conflict are still felt today as North Korea wields nuclear weapons.
The Korean War has been called the Forgotten War primarily because it followed on the heels of World War II without nearly the same impact on the home front. Fewer troops were involved and millions of Americans enjoyed domestic tranquility in the post-World War II economic boom. There were no mass celebrations for returning Korean War servicemen.
“When we came home it was a little disheartening,” Fields said. “We came home on a troop ship and there wasn’t anyone there to greet us.” No parades. “Not even a welcome sign.”
Still, Fields is proud to have served and believes the war was worth waging.
“We accomplished what we went over there for, and it wasn’t easy at first,” he said. “The one thing people don’t understand – they say ‘What was the purpose of that war?’ You look at South Korea now and ask me.” Today, democratic South Korea is modern economic powerhouse.
“South Korea, how they have accomplished what they’ve accomplished since 1953 is absolutely amazing,” Fields remarked. “They are a wonderful people, and they are the only people that I know of that are extremely grateful for what the United Nations and the U.S. has done for them.”
Today, Fields serves as treasurer of the East Texas Korean War Veterans (ETKWV), LeeRoy Baty Chapter 286. The local chapter, which has 47 members, helps at military funerals and conducts a Medal of Honors Day every March in which a ceremony is held for a Medal of Honor recipient.
Fields notes that the ranks of the ETKWV are becoming thinner every year.
World War II vets “are far and few in between, and we’re right behind them,” Fields said. “Like World War II, our time is coming now. Every year we end up with less members.”
This Veterans Day, like all those in the past, “means quite a bit to me,” he said, noting that he has little patience for people who constantly gripe about the nation. “I tell them, why don’t you go overseas and try some of those third world counties and see how fast you want to get back here.”
Fields is proud that he did his duty in service of the nation.
“I have never regretted my time in the military. I have to admit, I wasn’t very happy when they called me back. I knew I was going to war, and I wasn’t happy about it. But the Lord has watched over me pretty good.”