The Korean War is strange anomaly in the history of American wars, especially of the 20th Century. So much consideration is reserved for wars and the people who fought them in today’s culture that it makes the term “the forgotten war” seem like an impossibility. But that’s what we face with Korean War veterans.
Theirs is a very insular generation of veterans. Those who don’t share an experience in World War II or Vietnam because they only fought in Korea, they can only find an ever-dwindling number of fellow Korean War veterans.
Because of this, they have a very detailed memory and analysis of not just their part in the war, but of the entire war itself, so conversations tend to be lively between them. And, if you have a question, you will find a thoughtful answer. They’ve discussed every aspect of the war quite a bit.
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So it makes sense that whenever I talk to Korean War veterans, there’s one thing they all say they want to do: talk to veterans who were fighting on the other side of the fiercest battles. Whenever old adversaries get together, the talk generally comes to heal the emotional wounds of both parties, whether it’s between Americans and Germans, Japanese, or Vietnamese counterparts.
“They were fighting under the same orders I had,” Marine Corps veteran Joe Owen said when he told me about North Korean troops just days before his death in 2015. Owen was a lieutenant at the Chosin Reservoir. “They were out to kill me, as I was out to kill them… I respect them. I’d love to sit down with one of them and bullshit with them about what they were doing at such and such a time, especially if they were in the same battle as I was.”
But Korean War veterans will likely never get this experience.
North Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom for a reason. It is extremely difficult to get in as an outsider, especially as a U.S. military veteran. North Korea did not fare well during the Korean War. Despite its early success, the North was pretty much ravaged and bombed away for three years and today’s North Koreans remember the war very differently than the rest of the world. An American Korean War veteran visiting the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang would either have to be extremely diplomatic or agree to a vow of silence as he walked through.
Chinese veterans of the war are a different matter. China is a much more open, and relatively progressive country. The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army sent upwards of a million Chinese to North Korea during the war, with many of the surviving veterans still alive, like Zhang Yuzeng. Zhang told Voice of America News that even though the two were allies, North Koreans generally acted independently and the two forces couldn’t understand each other.
“There were few [North Koreans],” he said. “[They were] badly equipped and were not as good at fighting…”The North Korean army would go first and we followed; we stopped where they stopped.”
To the Chinese fighters, they were protecting their country from American Imperialism, a protection they firmly believed was necessary. CNN interviewed a Chinese veteran of Korea at his retirement home in Henan Province. He proudly wears his Chinese Army dress uniform. He told CNN it was necessary to help the Korean people during the war.
“The people of Korea were suffering,” Duan said.”Seeing the people of Korea farming the land and being killed by enemy planes … what were they to do if they could not farm? The planes would just come and bomb them to death. We had to help protect the people of Korea.”
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Zhang Kuiyuan joined the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army at age 18 and was sent to Korea. He drove a supply truck to the front lines and also mentioned the lack of cooperation. They were not even to speak to or form relationships with the locals.
“We didn’t have many contacts with the North Koreans unless we were cooperating in the same hills,” he said. Duan Keke remarked that North Korean people today probably have no idea what sacrifices were made by the Chinese fighting man on their behalf, since they were not allowed to communicate on a personal level. He laments that the Koreans only know what their government wants them to know.
What the Chinese and American Korean War veterans have in common is that their war, decades old, remains “forgotten” – especially by the youth of their respective countries.
“Young people? Of course they don’t know,” says You Jie Xiang, a former infantry soldier who was assigned to guard American POWs. “These wars took place decades ago. All the young people have no idea.”
Like Joe Owen, the salty former lieutenant who commanded Marines at the Chosin Reservoir, these Chinese veterans harbor no ill will toward their former adversaries. They call Americans a “peaceful people” who “did not want a war in Korea.”
“War is death,” the old Chinese vets agree, nodding to each other.