Via another reader tip from ROK Head John comes the below article from the August 21, 1950 edition of LIFE magazine. I highly recommend everyone with an interest in the Korean War to take a few minutes and read the article in its entirety. This may be the best article I have read that so eloquently sums up the type of war that Korean War era veterans were asked to fight back in 1950.
Report from the Orient: Guns Are Not Enough
Korea Teaches Us That To Save Asia We Must Know About the People
By: John Osborne – LIFE Magazine August 21, 1950
This is a story that no American should ever have to write. It is the ugly story of an ugly war, perhaps the ugliest that Americans have ever had to fight. Because there is so much to tell that is sorrowful and sickening, let the story begin with a few good and heartening thing that also can be said about our war in Korea.
The American effort and the American soldier in Korea are magnificent. In the first weeks of defeat and retreat, the weeks when companies of Americans were fighting regiments of North Koreans, it was easy to think that once again the US was caught, as it had been at the start of the all its wars, without arms and perhaps without the will to use what little we had. Nothing could be further from the truth. Doubtless we could and should have been better prepared than we were when the North Koreans attacked. But the more important fact is that never before in all our history have we been so nearly prepared at the start of any war as we were at the start of this one. Today after only a few weeks of the war, we have in Korea more men and more arms than we sent to the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, 11 months after Pearl Harbor.
Already, though still outnumbered, we have the greater weight of arms, on the ground and in the air and at sea. We know how to use and coordinate the arms, as we did not know for many months after the start of World War II. It is a wonderful and thrill thing to see, as I have just seen, infantry in action with the support of fighters from the Air Force, bombers from a naval carrier and, if the field commander had wanted it, bombardment from warships standing offshore. It is wonderful and thrilling, too, to ride the pipeline into Korea. The C-54s, the C-16s, and 47s stream into the airports of Japan, laden with everything from battlewise noncoms to dismantled artillery. And the ships – commandeered freighters from Japan, transports and freighters from America – bring on a mounting store of men, equipment, and arms. We might yet be pushed out of Korea. But the build-up of American power has been achieved at a pace and on a scale that would never before have been possible so early in a war so far from home.
Then there are the soldiers. They are boys, most of them, in their teens and early 20s, many of them lately trained only in the softening and vitiating duty of the occupation in Japan. They were scared. At first, in some places, they abandoned positions that seasoned troops might have held even against the odds facing them. But all that counts for nothing. In a land and among a people that most of them dislike, in a war that all too few of them understand and one of them want, they became strong men and good soldiers – fast. Quite literally overnight they learned all there is to know about sticking, fighting, killing, and dying. The business of soldiers is not to die but to live and they are learning to do that too. I have seen boys who by rights should have been freshmen in college transformed by a week of battle into men wise in the terrible ways of this especially terrible war.
I say that this is an especially terrible war. It is so for many reasons which every American must understand if we are to grasp the extent, the nature and the immense complexities of our problem in Asia. No American after seeing the actualities of war in Korea, could ever call it a “police action” or could dismiss it as merely the first of many “dirty little wars” that we must learn to take in our stride. Much of this war is alien to the American tradition and shocking to the American mind. For our men in Korea are waging this war as they are forced to wage it and as they will be forced to wage any war against the Communists anywhere in Asia. There is one qualification. Our soldiers will continued to be forced to war in this fashion – until our political and military leaders acquire and apply an understanding of war in Asia that they have not as yet displayed in Korea. Above all, our leaders must grasp one quite simple fact: war against the Communists of Asia cannot be won – not really won – by military means alone. To attempt to win it so, as we are now doing in Korea, is not only to court final failure but also to force upon our men in the field acts and attitudes of the utmost savagery. This means not the usual, inevitable savagery of combat in the field but savagery in detail – the blotting out of villages where the enemy may be hiding : the shooting and shelling of refugees who may include North Koreans in the anonymous white clothing of the Korean countryside, or who may be screening an enemy march upon our positions, or who may be carrying down broken-down rifles or ammunition clips or walkie-talkie parts in their packs and under their trousers or skirts.
And there is savagery by proxy, the savagery of the South Korean police and (in some sectors) South Korean marines upon whom we rely for contact with the population and for ferreting out hidden enemies. I am not presuming to issue righteous indictments – or to ignore the even greater savagery of the North Korean army. I am simply stating the elementary facts of war in Korea. The South Korean police and the South Korean marines whom I observed in front line areas are brutal. They murder to save themselves the trouble of escorting prisoners to the rear; they murder civilians simply to get them out of the way or to avoid the trouble of searching and cross-examining them. And they extort information – information our forces need and require of the South Korean interrogators – by means so brutal that they cannot be described. Too often they murder prisoners of war and civilians before they have had a chance to give any information they may have.
The Cost In Lives
All that is said here is based either on what I myself have seen or on the first hand testimony of men who participated in the episodes described. It all adds up to a grave conclusion; if our forces had been accompanied into Korea by an adequate staff of political officers who could talk to the people of Korea, many American soldiers who are dead today would be alive. Our men would have been spared some of the terrible necessities that have been forced upon them, and the American record need not have been blotted by our reliance on, or passive acquiescence in the murderous habits and methods of our South Korean helpers. Let it be understood that I do not refer to the South Korean army, which has fought with great bravery and effectiveness, but only to the South Korean police and marine units which I have seen in action behind our lines.
In some parts of Asia we would with the best and most intelligent will in the world, be hard put to find enough Americans who can speak the language and who know the ways of the country concerned. But this is not so in South Korea. We occupied it for nearly three years and in this time we should have accumulated a considerable staff of military and civilian officials who came to know the country, the people, the language. We have in Japan officials, civilian and military, who speak and understand Japanese. Because the Japs occupied Korea for so long, Japanese is the second language of the country. We could have assembled and can still assemble a staff adequate to put our field forces in effective communication with the people of South Korea.
Why haven’t we done it? I know of only one reason. It is that, with all our experience in Europe in and after World War II and all our postwar experience of occupation in Japan and Korea, we and our leaders still have not recognized the union of politics and arms in war. We still think of war and of “politics” as two separate things, the one to be waged by simple soldiers and the other to be handled, if it is handled at all, by civilian specialists who have nothing to do with the war itself. We laugh at the “commissars” whom the Communists take good care to have with their military forces, and we refuse to see that with our enemies the “politics” comes first, the fighting second. We in short persist in thinking of political wafare as something to be practiced by rear-area pamphleteers and tolerated by the fellows doing the real fighting. All this being so our military organizations in Korea and elsewhere naturally do not have, as integrated parts or even as detached complements to the regular staffs sufficient personnel equipped to deal with the people of the country, to explain to them and to our own men why we happen to be fighting there. During World War II in Europe the consequences of this attitude and these lacks were obvious enough. However we may face again in Europe with our chronic neglect of the political aspects of war, we cannot get by with it in Asia. That is the lesson of Korea.
It is true that many of the American civilian officials who were stationed in Korea before the war are there now, some of them at General Walton Walker’s Eighth Army Headquarters and with division headquarters. But I saw none of them at work in the field and I saw no American division, regiment, battalion, or company in the field that was adequately staffed to deal with and talk to the people of the country.
This Is A Guerrilla War
In Korea today our military and political positions are intimately interwoven. For this is a guerrilla war, waged amongst and to some extent by the population of the country. For proof of this and all that is said here, come with me now to South Korea and see with me some of the scenes that I have lately witnessed or heard of at firsthand.
Come first to an important headquarters city in South Korea. On a luminous sunny morning we are driving from the city southward toward our lines. Our jeep has to halt in the city street; in its path is a long, long file of refugees from the fighting areas. Watching them, I understand all that I have just been hearing, and hardly believing about the danger of mass enemy infiltration even here at this time a good 40 miles from the nearest fighting. There are old men, and women, and young girls and young children in the line. But there are also many young men, indeed in this particular column they seem to outnumber the others. Most of them carry packs apparently of extra clothing. They plod by, eyes down, backs bent, legs pumping up and down in the stiff and universal fashion of the burden bearers of Asia. At some point in theory, they will we screened by Korean authorities and placed in temporary camps. But when? Where? Sitting the jeep, watching them march by without escort of any kind, I knew the constricting doubt and fear that every American in Korea comes to know as he watches those silent strangers to whom he cannot speak, filing down the roads, across the paddies, and through the cities of the south. And this particular column is remembered a few days later when I hear that North Korean guerrillas have unaccountably turned up far behind our lines and are fighting within a few miles of the city.
Come now on a hilltop in southwest Korea. The hillside falls steeply to a river and a valley of paddies. Just across the valley is a schoolhouse, now the forward command post of an American infantry unit. Twice on this day, just before our arrival this post had been attacked by hundreds of North Koreans who emerged without warning from the hills and very nearly overran our position. From the hilltop where we now stand, soldiers of an American machine gun squad had seen the repulsed enemy retire beyond range and then in plain sight of our men calmly change from the green uniforms of the North Korean army to the white trousers and blouses of Korean peasants. And then they had walked back into the hills, looking like any of the lines of refugees who on this and every other day come down from the hills, across the paddies and along the roads past our lines and command posts. The soldiers watching from the hill do not forget, they remember the tiny figures in the distance, changing from green to white every time they see a column of peasants coming toward them and they reach for their guns and sometimes they use their guns.
Face to Face With – What!?
It is 6 o’clock on another morning at another place. But the scene is almost the same: our command post in a village at the foot of a valley, our men disposed across the rusty hills 2,000 and 3,000 yards beyond the post and now in the half light of early morning, distant figures in white walking down a road from the hills.
A few GIs tired after a harassing night of intermittent alarms and firing go taut, take up their rifles and walk stiff-legged toward the end of the village street nearest the oncoming people in white. One of the GIs says, “Christamighty, look there,” and points across the paddies to our right. Another group, not in column but scattered in one and threes and fives, is walking down the little paths which intersect the paddies. An old man with a stick in his hand leads the column on the road. Other men, not young, seem to be leading their families across the paddies. Are they fleeing from the enemy? Or are they – and precisely this has happened to these particular GIs in the street of our village – being driven toward us by the enemy behind, to confuse our men and tempt them to hold their fire as the enemy rises from the deep grass of the paddies? All this is in the minds of our men as the two groups, the column on the road and the people in the paddies, walk steadily toward us.
Even at this place and in this moment, my heart tightens. For they are evidently in their Sunday best – small white blouses, black cotton trousers on the boys and skirts on the little girls standing out loke little dots from the all-white clothing of the men and women. Some of the boys have small packs on their backs and already – they are 3, 4, 5 years old – their legs move in the piston motion of the Asian coolie. Now they stand, halted for the moment, looking with the bright interest of any children anywhere at the GIs who also stand, stiff with rifles at the ready. Here there is none of the camaraderie of GI and child found everywhere else that the American Army has gone. Here on our side, there is only a palpable fear, almost, a hatred of the unknown and unknowable. It taints the air of this sweet blue morning and lies in a cloud over the village street. Behind the column on the road the groups from the paddies have coalesced into another column and are walking toward us, ignoring the shouts and waves that are supposed to divert them to the leftward road. They to pass the fork, and now within 100 yards of us there are perhaps 300 strangers.
A GI mutters, “Where in hell are the goddam gooks?” meaning the South Korean policemen who should be here to handle the refugees. (“Gook” is the universal GI word for any and all Koreans.) The have been sent for but are as yet nowhere in sight. For what seems to me to be a full minute, but must have been a matter of seconds, the thin file of soldiers and the still, dumb hundreds of refugees stand in the road facing each other across the chasms of language, and tradition that divide them. Then the moment is broken, the danger passes. A sergeant walks up to the old with the stick, puts a hand on his shoulder and wheels him around, not roughly. The old man starts to turn back and the sergeant wheels him around once more and points urgently down the road to the left. At last the old man abandons his chosen route through our village and turns about, speaking rapidly to the people behind him. The women break into a quick protesting chatter and some of them move as though blindly, down the road of their choice, toward us. The old man lifts his stick and waves imperatively, and slowly the column turns and the people take the road that, quite evidently leads to nowhere for them.
All morning they come by the hundreds down the valley, some on the road and some across the paddies. Around 8 o’clock a detachment of South Korean policemen turns up and an electric change comes over the people in white and the children in the little black skirts and trousers. Now as the police approach and halt them and order them to stand and then to move on, they leap at every command with a livid and unmistakable fear. I am reminded of some show horses I once saw in training beaten into a chronic submission that could never be forgotten. So did these people move, literally jumping across the road when the police motioned them from one side to the other and trotting ahead in tortured little half-jumps when they were waved on down the road. Seeing all this, I believed what I had been told by many of our soldiers of their finding clumps of civilian dead back in the hills, shot where they had been caught out of sight of our units.
“I Want Them Alive”
We visit still another village post. Two small brown men, stripped to the waist are standing in the noon sun. The hands of one are tied behind his head; of the other, behind his waist. Three South Korean policemen and two GIs hold rifles on the two prisoners who have just been taken by the police in the nearby paddies. The police want to take them away from the village, interrogate them and then return with whatever information they may have. An American captain curses briefly and through the one interpreter available to this regiment, tells the South Korean in charge of the police detachment, “Now, damn it, I want these prisoners alive, not dead. You hear me, I want them alive.” The captain explains that the division commander has been screaming for live prisoners – they all seem to be killed before they reach the division points in custody of the Korean police and the division commander has had enough of it.
We are leaving with an American regimental commander to visit one of his outlying positions. The colonel suddenly commands his jeep driver to halt; by the roadside there is an American litter jeep with two stretchers tied across the back. On one of them a brown body lies, naked to the waist face up to the sun. A huge welt almost obliterates the face. A GI is standing by the jeep and the colonel asks him what’s up.
“Gook guerrilla, sir, captured over there,” and the GI points to some hills lying between us and a very important town that the enemy is trying to infiltrate. The colonel is excited: here is a prisoner who ought to have some really useful information. The colonel asks the GI if the prisoner can talk.
“Talk, hell,” the GI says. “They got him first. Clubbed him to death, they did,” and he nods towards a squad of South Korean marines standing on the road. Later on it develops that the guerrilla had some extremely vital information but was killed before he had given more than a hint of it.
It is midnight and all around the hills are astir. Here a sharp burst of small arms fire, there the flashing life and death of an American shell searching out the enemy who we know are gathering within 5,000 yards of this command post. One of the field telephones rings, an officer of the staff picks up, listens a moment and says, “Oh Christ, there’s a column of refugees, there or four hundred of them, coming right down a B company.” A major in the command tent says to the regimental commander, “Don’t let them through.” And of course the major is right. Time and again, at position after position, this silent approach of whitened figures has covered enemy attack and before our men had become hardened to the necessities of Korean war, had often and fatally delayed and confused our own fire. Finally the colonel says, in a voice racked with wretchedness, “All right, don’t let them through. But try to talk to them, try to tell them to go back.”
“Yeah,” says one of the little staff group, “but what if they don’t go back?”
“Well then,” the colonel says, as though dragging himself toward some pit, “then fire over their heads.”
“Okay,” an officer says, “we fire over their heads. Then what?
The colonel seems to brace himself in the semidarkness of the blacked-out tent.
“Well then fire into them if you have to. If you have to, I said.”
An officer speaks into the telephone, and the order goes across the wire into the dark hills.
It is afternoon. From one of our most advanced posts, a foxhole or two far out in the hills among the constantly infiltrating enemy, a report has come that our riflemen have had to fire into another party of refugees who march at them, against shouted warnings and wavings. From the command post an urgent and remonstrating voice speaks over the wire into the hills, “My God, John, it’s gone too far when we are shooting children.” There is some reply from the hills, unheard by all save the officer on the telephone and at the end the officer says, “Watch it John, watch it! But don’t take any chances.”
Here I must say again our forces can’t take any chances. In this particular place, the South Korean police on whom we must rely have been ordered to comb the hills and villages, supposedly telling the people to get out and stay out while they safely can. But the people stay until they are shelled and bombed or are driven out by the North Koreans, and we have no way – other than the assurances of the South Korean police – of knowing whether they have been adequately warned or not.
Another afternoon, another place, and I am on my way out of hell, back to a typewriter and baths and rest that men I have left won’t have for all too long a time. The way lies through an area into which the American Marines have just moved. It’s good to see them, beautifully equipped and so obviously well trained. Once again I see refugees on this road. But there’s a difference. Our own men, Marines, surround them. As the jeep comes toward them I witness something of an advance in American communication with the people of the country. A Marine is passing a mine detector over the clothing and packs of the refugees. Any metal – a rifle barrel, a pistol, a clip of ammunition, maybe the parts of a radio – will presumably be spotted by the detector. Anyhow it is better than guns and the policemen whom I have seen at work.
A way down the road I enter the busy port of Pusan. Over its outskirts two helicopters, for some reason painted a sort of gleaming mahogany brown, are flying. I had heard that the South Koreans took aircraft and bulldozers and all the other paraphernalia of war in their stride – all, that is except the incredible helicopters. So I look closely at the Koreans on the highway. Most of them look briefly up then down again as the helicopters hover and pass.
But one boy of perhaps 7 or 8 stares upward at the monstrous things with a gaze of fixed and bright fascination. His eyes shine, his lips are parted, and I think of an American boy gazing at his first bicycle on a Christmas morning.
The mine detector, the helicopters, the on the roadside- here after a fashion, was communication between the American West and the people of South Korea. And so thinking, I reflected as the jeep lumped into Pusan that the machine age and the machine man of the West can be pretty wonderful. But machines still can’t talk to people, not as we must learn – and learn very soon – to talk to the people of Asia.
First of all let me just say that the journalist John Osborne who wrote this article is a very good writer. It seems reading through old articles like this that journalists decades ago were not only better journalists, but better writers than media types today. I think a lot of it has to do with the 24 hour news cycle of today where many journalists no longer take the time to do a thorough investigation into story and then spend the necessary time to write a compelling article. Osborne on the other hand went all over the battlefield during the Korean War and then would return to the rear to write his articles about what he had seen. Personally I prefer this journalism over what I see today. Anyway something else interesting about Osborne is that after spending years working for LIFE and TIME magazines he moved on to become the senior editor of New Republic magazine and wrote a number “Nixon Watch” articles that landed him on Nixon’s enemies list. Osborne died in 1981 at age 74.
I found it just amazing reading through this article how the US military back during the Korean War is facing the same problems we still face today. The language issue has been ongoing problem for the US military and despite lip service to address it, little has been done. It took a while in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least now the US military has many contractors now working as translators. There is also the AFPAK Hands program that trained select military personnel in languages useful in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. However, this program was started 9 years after our entry into Afghanistan, long after they were really needed. Could you imagine if the US military went into Afghanistan as well as Iraq with at least someone in every company that could speak the language and understand the culture? However, I really do not see this problem being fixed because language training takes a lot of time so it is easier to pay lip service to the problem and then later pay contractors as needed as translators. However this leaves the gap of time between when the US military first enters the country and then gets enough translators hired to spread across the battlefield that can create a lot of problems which John Osborne documents so well in his article about the Korean War.
Also of interest is how well he documents the guerrilla and infiltration issues caused by the refugee flow across the frontlines. Something to keep in mind which I don’t know if Osborne knew this or not when writing this article is that many of the attacks behind the friendly lines wasn’t just by North Korean infiltrators. There was also many attacks being carried out by South Korean communist guerrillas as well. Osborne’s description of the ROK police is not surprising because their brutality during the war is well documented. I haven’t read as much about the brutality of the ROK Marines though that he describes which I found interesting. I was glad to see that he was very complimentary of the ROK Army. The ROK Army often gets described as not performing well during the Korean War, but in actuality most of the ROK Army did fight well despite being out gunned and equipped by the North Koreans. Osborne wrote about how he was impressed with the 1st ROK Division. This was the ROK division at the time that was commanded by a ROK Drop favorite General Paik Sun-yup who later go on to become a four-star general and head of the ROK military.
Something else of interest is that this article just confirms what I have been saying for years about the Associated Press articles claiming they have uncovered something new about US soldiers shooting civilians during the war and the ROK police systematically killing North Korean sympathizers. I have long maintained that the Associated Press’ claims are nothing new and well known. Here is an example of recent claim made by the AP’s Charles Hanley:
The commission was the first government authority to publicly confirm what long had only been whispered: The U.S.-allied South Korean military and police carried out a vast secretive slaughter of political detainees in mid-1950, to keep southern sympathizers from supporting the northerners.
So an article in LIFE magazine, one of the major publications in the 1950′s confirming the killing of Korean civilians by US soldiers and ROK authorities is a “whisper”? I have already shown before other articles from the 1950′s as well as the screen capture from the DVD, The Korean War In Color that shows the execution of civilians by ROK authorities:
Here is another often repeated line from Hanley and other AP writers:
Declassified U.S. documents uncovered over the past decade do, indeed, show commanders issuing blanket orders to shoot civilians during that period.
Bottom line is that the Korean War, especially the opening months of it was a brutal conflict that required much sacrifice and moral compromises by the soldiers in the US military because of the nature of the fight. I hope the US military never has to find itself in another such fight again, but considering the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan the US military will likely find itself in such a fight again. I just hope next time we are properly prepared to fight it as Osborne advocates for in his article.