Sunday, October 15, 2006
Korea on their minds... Were the Korean War vets allowed to suffer from PTSD?
Major General Wayne C. Smith of the US 7th Infantry Division decorates my father with the Silver Star for Bravery in Action - April, 1953
They say that the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea is the “scariest place on earth”. I believe it. North Korea, of course, has been in the news lately for their recent nuclear weapons test. Every time Korea is in the news, it reminds me of my father, who was a Korean War veteran. My father passed away at the young age of 49. I was only 18 at the time. One of the things that saddens me the most is that I never really had the chance to have an adult conversation with him. One of the things that I regret the most is that I don’t feel I impressed upon him enough how much I loved him. Sometimes I dream that I’m having short conversations with my father; conversations that I’d give almost anything to have in reality.
My father served in Korea during the last year of the war. He was an army artillery officer, a Second Lieutenant. He didn’t spend all of his time, however, studying maps and calling out orders from behind the howitzers. He did a lot of his work in “no man’s land” as a Forward Observer (FO). For those who don’t know what an FO does, his mission is basically to creep up as close as he can to the enemy lines and call down artillery strikes upon their positions, nearly on top of himself. It is one of the most dangerous jobs there is in the military.
He fought in the ferocious Battle of Pork Chop Hill, the last major engagement between the opposing forces before the truce was signed, and he was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action in connection with another incident (see the citation further down below).
The Korean War is often called America’s “forgotten war”, a stalemate sandwiched in between WWII and Viet Nam, but it was an exceedingly brutal war, with over 47,000 US soldiers killed in three years of combat. The number of North Korean and Chinese soldiers killed was over a million, and the combined number of South Korean soldiers and Korean civilians killed was probably more than double that. After the first year, which saw the opposing armies moving in a wild see-saw action down and up and down the peninsula, the last two years were largely a static affair, with the armies dug in across the width of the country. In that respect it resembled the trench warfare of WWI more than the mobile warfare of WWII.
The war also had an eerie, spectral, spooky quality to it, particularly after the Communist Chinese entered the conflict. The road-bound, mechanized units of the UN forces were in constantly in fear of being encircled by hordes of hardy peasant soldiers who seemed to be able to cover snow-bound mountain passes overnight on foot or on Mongolian ponies.
Much of the fighting was done at night, with the freezing, snow-covered hills illuminated by flares as the Chinese attacked the entrenched UN troops in human waves to the sound of bugles, whistles and gongs. The fighting was brutal and hand-to-hand, often coming down to individual fights with close range weapons like burp guns, hand grenades, and even bayonets.
Here is the description of the action for which my father was awarded the Silver Star.
7th INFANTRY DIVISION
29 April 1953
AWARD OF THE SILVER STAR.--By direction of the President, under the provisions of the Act of Congress, approved 9 July 1918 (WD Bu1. 43, I918), and pursuant to authority in AR 600-45, the Silver Star for gallantry in action is awarded to the following-named officer and enlisted man:
Second Lieutenant JOHN W. CONNORS, 02265280, Artillery, United States Army, a member of Battery C, 49th Field Artillery Battalion, distinguished himself by gallantry in action near Songhyon, Korea. On 5 March 1953, Lieutenant Connors, as a forward observer, accompanied an infantry combat patrol when the friendly patrol was suddenly ambushed by the enemy. As the ambush commenced, Lieutenant Connors fearlessly rushed from the support element to the front and delivered deadly and accurate fire upon the enemy forces. Without hesitation, Lieutenant Connors moved through the impact area to a vantage point completely exposed to the enemy fire and proceeded to rake the right flank with devastating protective fire, thus stopping the enemy. During the heavy bombardment of enemy mortar fire, Lieutenant Connors organized litter teams to evacuate the wounded and led them back to the friendly Main Line Of Resistance.
The gallantry displayed by Lieutenant Connors reflects great credit on himself and is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service. Entered the Federal service from Massachusetts.
At this point in my life, I am exploring the possibilities of Christian pacifism…. but I have to say that growing up, we were always extremely proud of our father’s service, and for the honor that he had won. In fact, I am still proud of him. I cannot imagine myself at his age (or any age) having the guts to do such a thing. I just can’t see myself in that situation at all, other than curled up in a ball in the fetal position. As proud as we were, however, it never really occurred to us to deeply ponder what his own memory of the incident was like. As clear as it was that he saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers, he also killed people. As far as I can tell from what the incident sounded like, he killed lots of people. How did this sit on his mind? What affect did this have on him over the ensuing years? If there were times when my father like to spend time alone in the basement on weekends, and to have a few drinks, perhaps we could have cut him a little more slack, or at least made an attempt to be more solicitous and understanding.
It’s difficult for me to get an accurate read. When I was a kid, he would never talk about the war with us. I’d ask him what he did in the war, and his terse, self deprecating reply would be “I hid” (I suppose there was a bit of truth in that, considering his role as an FO). He was consciously careful never to glamorize any of this stuff for us. He didn’t allow us to watch TV shows like ‘Combat’ and Garrison’s Guerrillas” that dramatized war in Hollywood fashion for popular entertainment. The sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” would make him furious... If he ever caught us watching that, it wasn’t pleasant. “What, do you think living in a POW camp was a funny? Do you think it was some kind of joke?”. On the other hand, he rarely ever missed an episode of * Mash *, because it was in Korea, and I suspect, because the attitude of the characters was one of cynicism and skepticism regarding the war. He was a staunch Democrat, opposed to the war in Viet Nam and openly contemptuous of Richard Nixon.
Since my father passed away so young, it has been left for me to try to glean an opinion from the impressions of others. According to my mother (who also passed away quite young), my father had a certain gentleness and sweetness to him that was gone when he came back from Korea. He’d adopted the stern, no-nonsense demeanor of an officer. In her conversations with him, he’d related that he was struck by the wastefulness of war in its wanton destruction of young lives. In one telling anecdote, she mentioned his sorrow and revulsion at dispatching enemy soldiers by bayonet, saying to them and to himself - “I have nothing against you.”
According to my aunt, the impression he left was how much he hated the bitter winter cold of Korea, and how much he wanted to come home if for no other reason than to get warm.
A couple of years ago, I was relating these conversations to my uncle, my father’s younger brother. He listened all the way through politely with a wry smile on his face. Then he said to me, “Your father loved it. He was a good soldier and he never felt more alive than when he was doing a soldier’s job. There was a certain colonel who had it in for him for what he perceived as his insubordination. This colonel thought he was punishing my father for making him serve as an FO, but my father thrived on it, because he liked doing that kind of mission. He enjoyed the danger and the excitement.”
What to believe? Was that an older brother’s bravado to a competitive younger brother? An unwillingness not to discuss a soft side that he’d be willing to reveal to a wife? Is it possible that both sides of the story are true? I think the issue is complicated. He’d probably say that he’d consider all of this concern of mine to be to be soft. To be crap.
I don’t know if combat had any affect on my father, but it is hard for me to imagine that it had none whatsoever. In more extreme cases, the affects of stress under fire are well-known. In WWI, they would call is Shell shock. In WWI they would call it Battle Fatigue. After Viet Nam, they would call it PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). What about the Korean vets?
During America’s forgotten war, the WWII vets would say to the returning troops, “We plastered the Japs and the Krauts. What’s going wrong in Korea? What the hell is wrong with our army over there?” Many of their sacrifices were unappreciated. Have their traumas been unappreciated as well?