History Wars Korean War

This letter and Purple Heart haunted Truman

The decision that most haunted President Truman was invading Korea, and a package from a Gold Star father drove the point home.
Logan Nye Avatar
president truman
President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency and authorizing U.S. entry into the Korean War. Also pictured, George C. Banning. (National Archives)

President Harry S. Truman faced some tough choices in his life. In World War I, he led his artillery battery through hell and forced it to stay strong. He got in trouble for firing out of sector to save American lives. Twice. Right after he assumed the presidency, he became the first and only president to order an atomic bombing. He ordered the integration of the armed forces.

But the decision that most haunted him was invading Korea, and a package from a Gold Star father drove the point home.

Buildup to war

The seeds of the Korean War hit the ground right as World War II ended. Japan retained control of the peninsula until its surrender in 1945. Upon the dissolution of Japanese forces, the Soviet Union immediately moved troops into Korea and occupied it, starting from the North. America sent forces in from the South and took surrenders from the Japanese, as well. American and the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily divide the peninsular along the 38th parallel.

Like divided Germany, divided Korea was a hotbed of tension. In 1950, North Korean troops launched attacks across the 38th parallel. The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution, 9 to 0, to condemn the invasion. Truman committed troops to a U.N. mission to expel the North Korean forces.

On June 27, 1950, the U.S. officially entered the war. American troops already stationed in North Korea assisted with repelling the invasion and new American forces poured in by the millions.

The war was on. And one of the troops sent into the fray was George C. Banning.

george c banning purple heart president truman
George C. Banning.

The death of George Banning and the letter

Army Pfc. George C. Banning deployed to Korea with the 5th Infantry Regiment, 5th Regimental Combat Team. By May 1953, American forces had made it almost to the border with China, China threw them almost off the peninsula, and American forces pushed almost back to the 38th parallel, where the war started.

Banning fought northeast of Seoul and, at Sagimak, Korea, on May 11, 1953, met his unfortunate end.

The Army told his family of his death. And his father, William Banning, decided to send his Purple Heart, ribbon bar, lapel pin, Gold Star pin and button to President Truman with a letter.

In the letter, he wrote:

Mr. Truman

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds.

Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.

William Banning

Truman kept the Purple Heart and letter nearby for the rest of his life, something historians learned when staff went to his desk to catalog the contents after his death.