Rodents are always with us, in good times and bad. When the COVID-19 crippled the restaurant industry, rats came out in abundance, prompting warnings from the Centers for Disease Control. In 2015, a video of a rat carrying a slice of pizza went viral. Coffee rat, a video of a rodent carrying a cup of joe in the subway, followed a few years later. Though not as well known today, a similar abundance of rats shaped the experience of the men who served in Korean War, a war that started 70 years ago this summer.
In the Korean War, the rat problem emerged in the later stages of the conflict when lines stabilized. After a year’s worth of fighting up and down the peninsula, the U.S.-led United Nations Command fought North Korea and its Chinese allies over territory near the 38th parallel. In the fateful summer of 1951, the war transformed from one of movement into a war to take strategic positions among hills protected by bunkers and trench lines.
Rats soon filled U.S.-led United Nations Command positions. In the book Voices from the Korean War, American soldier Richard Peters remembered the rats were “both numerous and huge,” pests that “scurried about the bunker as if they owned the place.” Many in his unit tried to hunt them with their bayonets, but they were largely unsuccessful. American GI Norbert Meyer recalled that the rats were “nearly as big as cats.” Another veteran, writing for The Graybeards, the Korean War Veterans Association magazine, called living in the bunkers “a Neanderthal-like existence,” one in which rats were “daily companions.” Brian Hough, serving in the British contingent of the United Nations Command, remembered the rats filling his fortified position. One night, as he was preparing to sleep, he looked over and saw his bunker mate “fast asleep with a rat on his chest gnawing at his clothing.” Later, Hough lamented the scars he still bore from rat bites from the war. Living beside rats would be a memory few veterans of this part of the war would forget.
Rats proved dangerous to servicemen’s health. As U.S. and Allied Forces came into greater contact with the rodents, many contracted a mysterious disease that caused a viral hemorrhagic fever, kidney problems, and a host of other maladies. Approximately 10% of the 3,000 who caught the disease died from it. The outbreak initially puzzled researchers. Some thought it could be a disease carried into Korea by Chinese soldiers. Others thought it might be carried by mites on rats. The mystery of how the disease spread wasn’t solved until years after the armistice was signed. In 1976, South Korean researcher Dr. Ho Wang Lee and his team discovered the virus was spread from rat saliva, feces and urine. They named the disease the Hantaan virus, after a river near the demilitarized zone in Korea, the area of much fighting over hills and bunkers during the later stages of the Korean War.
Hantaan and its family of related viruses has never gone away. In the last 30 years there have been sporadic small outbreaks of the disease. The most recent iteration was in March 2020. In the midst of the current viral crisis, authorities reassured the public that the disease is not likely to spread due to person-to-person contact.
The COVID-19 outbreak, suspected by many to have originated from zoonotic (animal-to-person) transmission, reminds many of the ways that animals have always shaped the lives of humans. Animal–human relationships are especially important in wartime. And fewer reminders are as vivid as the history of rats and the Korean War.