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Steve Hansen: Remembering those who served during Korean conflict

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Posted: Tuesday, November 7, 2017 11:17 am

Most people from my generation think of Vietnam when contemplating sacrifices made by young men and women in service of our country.

And rightly so. Over 58,000 American military personnel were killed and 304,000 were wounded, including 75,000 who sustained permanent disabilities in what became one of America’s most controversial foreign policy issues.

But there was another war going on at the same time for which most people either do not know about or have forgotten over time. This was a much smaller conflict where American service people died as well.

I’m referring to violent skirmishes that took place between North and South Korea during the time period from 1966-69.

Most folks know about the Korean War from 1950-53. But the latter one was overshadowed by the Vietnam conflict during the mid to late 1960s.

During the second war, over 220 American military personnel died from combat and other related issues.

It all began when North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-sung, decided to take advantage of U.S. troops being bogged down in South Vietnam. North Korea’s ally, the communist Chinese, were not interested in getting involved in another war with America. They had previously withdrawn almost all of their forces back in 1958. This left Kim Il-sung with the power to create his own foreign policy for neighboring people in the south.

Kim was delusional about the wonders of communism and thought that once he overthrew the South Korean regime of Park Chung-hee, the people would rise up and support the north. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Kim’s aggression began in 1966, when the Korean People’s Army (KPA) put eight infantry divisions along the DMZ, coupled with additional armor and motorized divisions for backup. Although it was a threatening force, it was unlikely to overcome the superior military power found in the south.

As an alternative, the North Koreans infiltrated the South with various guerilla raids and disrupted activities wherever possible. The U.S. was unprepared for this. Their equipment was lacking, as most modern weaponry was being sent to South Vietnam. Several clashes took place involving U.S. troops. Most incidences went unreported by the media.

Kim decided to use the opportunity of chaos caused by the famous Tet Offensive in January 1968, when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attacked several strong points in South Vietnam. He ordered a raid on the residence of President Park Chung-hee, with orders to “cut the leader’s head off.” The military operation failed.

Also in January, North Korean patrol boats captured the USS Pueblo, along with 83 crewmembers while in international waters. One sailor was killed. The U.S. did not (or could not) immediately react militarily.

Nevertheless, despite the simultaneous ongoing Vietnam conflict, The United States did respond to the North Korean threat with a large buildup of naval forces, improved weaponry, additional manpower, and more UH-1D “Huey” helicopters. They also made it far more difficult for KPA forces to cross the border.

Short-term skirmishes continued. The last major act of aggression during this time period was in April 1969, when two North Korean MiGs shot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane, killing all 31 on board.

President Nixon responded by having future flights escorted with American fighters.

Things were winding down by May 1969. North Korean officials came to the realization that their policy of infiltration and harassment was not working. Kim responded to the defeat by turning on his own people,

including purging and executing leaders, whom he thought had failed to carry out his plan.

The end of the second Korean “war” is considered to be December 3, 1969, when U.S. negotiators successfully obtained the release of three crewman shot down in a helicopter near the DMZ.

Despite sacrifices made by American troops in Korea during this time period, their noble deeds still go unrecognized by most. There was not even a medal for their specific services until 2002, when the Korean Service Defense Medal was authorized by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

So this Veterans Day, I will be especially mindful of those who served in Korea during the late 1960s. It’s most unfortunate that these patriots have been lost in the dust of history.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and former Army civil affairs officer.