Killed in Korea: The Untold Story

For 40 years, the real number of Americans killed in Korea during the war was buried in a misleading statistic. It is about time the full story is told: 36,574 Americans died there-not 54,246. By Richard K. Kolb.






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Publication: VFW, Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine
Author: Kolb, Richard K
Date published: June 1, 2010

Reprinted from June/July 2000

Just take a look at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The number is engraved in stone: 54,246. There is only one major problem - nearly onethird of the Americans included in that figure did not die in Korea!

As it turns out, of the 20,507 nonhostile deaths originally attributed to Korea, only 2,835, or 14%, actually occurred in the war. Some 17,672 of those deaths occurred outside the war zone - anywhere from California to the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. The vast majority - with the exception of 63 killed in shoot-downs by the Soviets and Red Chinese - died in accidents.

"This is a mind-boggling figure!" wrote VFW member Walter S. Larsen. "It is about the equivalent of an entire fullstrength U.S. Army infantry division of that period. It is curious so many nonbattle deaths would go unnoticed by the press and the public for so many years.

"Certainly, a further explanation by the Department of Defense concerning these disastrous losses is in order. Maybe even before the press stumbles onto this remarkable story."

Fighting for Accuracy

Marty J. O'Brien of Augusta, Maine, readily agreed. That's why he started trying to get to the bottom of this vast discrepancy years ago. He was puzzled when he arrived at a breakdown of the initial numbers - all outside the Korean theater of operations - killed: 7,277 soldiers, 5,532 airmen, 3,844 sailors and 1,019 Marines.

Burt Hagelin of Dover Foxcroft, Maine, and a vet of A Co., 9th Inf., 2nd Inf. Div., was on the same trail. These same numbers were supplied to him by the Pentagon's Manpower Management Information Division as early as Jan. 12, 1993. He even wrote a paper on them.

In fact, the Pentagon published the corrected figures (thanks to Hagelin), after new and reclassified numbers were tabulated, in its Selected Manpower Statistics, Fiscal Year 1994 in Table 2-23 on page 1 12. It provided a precise breakdown of the 3,262 (later revised) nonhostile deaths in Korea: Army=2,452; Marines=339; Air Force=298; and Navy= 173.

Yet according to the Army's Office of the Surgeon General, "no records exist" to verify non-hostile deaths sustained elsewhere during the Korean War era.

Hagelin thinks a mistake was originally made by the Pentagon. "Many Korean War Veterans Association members wanted names on a wall," he said, "but the government vehemently opposed engraving individual names. One wonders why."

The late Gen. Richard G. Stilwell, the first chairman of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board, made it a personal crusade to get the record corrected. He used all his influence to persuade the military branches to re-check the numbers. One-third of the U.S. deaths directly attributed to service in Korea were indeed sustained elsewhere in the world.

Stilwell told this writer that he was overjoyed that Reader's Digest had consented to print a closer estimation to the actual number in its July 1990 issue in the article "Veterans of a Forgotten Victory" by Ralph Bennett. Unfortunately, the general died before his personal project was completed and several years prior to the memorial's dedication.

Cold War: Distinct Casualties

Some argue that any uniformed Americans who died during the entire era anywhere in the world should be included in a total figure. That was appropriate for WWI and WWII- conflicts in which troops were recruited specifically and exclusively for those wars. However, a far more fitting precedent was set by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which included only Americans killed in the war zone.

Vietnam and Korea were wars fought within distinct geographical parameters. While they were waged, the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its proxies was ongoing in Europe. Indeed, the Cold War had several fronts, and America had to meet multiple and simultaneous global military commitments. These other fronts rate recognition, too.

During the Korean War era, 1.6 million Americans actually fought in the war zone. More than 4 million more served worldwide. That 73% majority, whether drafted or enlisted, was put into uniform to combat communism in two distinct theaters - Asia and Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of GIs would have served in Germany and other parts of Europe between 1950 and 1953 even if there had not been a Korean War.

On March 12, 1947, America officially declared "war" on Soviet Communist expansion in Europe. The Truman Doctrine proclaimed containment.

"Europe First" was the pillar of America's postwar defense strategy. The draft was renewed on June 24, 1948 - two full years before the Korean War erupted.

An army, four air forces and a fleet were all mobilized to protect Europe. In 1951, four Army divisions were sent to Germany to bolster NATO against a belligerent Kremlin. By 1954, 352,644 U.S. troops were stationed in Europe - 50,000 more than were on the ground in Korea at war's end. All of these military moves would have been made regardless of Korea. Europe, indeed, was a separate confrontation from the one in Asia.

Some 1.7 million men were drafted during the Korean War era, but many served outside of Korea in support of Cold War objectives elsewhere or simply in defense of the nation.

A clear distinction was made between Korea and other areas. That's why a Korean Service Medal (KSM) was awarded only to actual war vets and a National Defense Service Medal to all others. If an American who died would have qualified for a KSM, then obviously he should be counted among the war's casualties.

For the Sake of Posterity

The massive movement of troops on an emergency basis, accelerated training and extended maneuvers created unlimited opportunities for lethal accidents-on the ground, on the sea and especially in the air. Significant numbers of these accidental deaths occurred in the European Theater thwarting Soviet communism.

Submerging and thus disguising their deaths among others is an injustice. The best way to honor their memories is to educate the public about their service.

Their sacrifices are certainly worthy of recognition - but for posterity sake it must be in a historically correct context.

A memorial to all the Americans who died during the Cold War - distinct from the Korean and Vietnam memorials - is the answer. It would confirm in the public's mind that the Cold War was indeed real. And not a figment of the imagination as the politically correct would have us believe.

Such a Cold War memorial would cover all the other actions in which 382 Americans were killed in hostile situations, not to mention many thousands in training, maneuvers and operational missions. For accounting purposes, the Cold War clearly deserves its own category.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial cast the mold for casualty inclusion. Recognizing that the death of an American in Germany was part of the Cold War, its founders nonetheless realized that that loss could not justifiably be attributed to the war in Vietnam. Like Korea, the mobilization during that era was worldwide, too.

If the Vietnam Memorial had included all that era's deaths, it would have an additional 19,644 soldiers' names on it. According to the Pentagon's Combat Area Casualties Current File, 16,004 of these Army personnel died in the U.S. and 2,329 in Germany from 1965 through 1975, for example.

Once and for all, let's set the record straight: 36,574 Americans died in, over or offshore Korea during the war, which lasted from June 25, 1950, until July 27, 1953 (the era extended to Jan. 31, 1955, for VA benefits). Ofthat number, 33,739 were killed as a result of hostile action; 2,835 died due to non-hostile causes such as accident and disease.

The least we can do for their legacy is to ensure that their record of service and sacrifice is historically - if not politically - correct. After 60 years, it's time.

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