Seventy-one years ago, on January 11, 1951, I joined the 38 other young men my age assembled in front of the Racine Wisconsin Memorial Hall. Why? Because just a few weeks earlier we each received one of the letters made famous during World War II. It came from the President of the United States and began with the familiar words: “Greetings. You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report at . . .”
And report we did, accompanied by parents, siblings, wives, girlfriends, and buddies, all of whom came to say goodbye as we went off to fight in yet another war, this time the Korean War. Back in August we had been ordered to report for our physical examinations, a month later we learned of our “draft eligible” 1A classification, and then came the “Greetings” letter.
We were soon moved out of the winter cold into Memorial Hall. There we heard a few words from the local draft board chairman, followed by the swearing-in ceremony conducted by an Army sergeant. With that out of the way, the sergeant escorted us to the waiting bus. As our names were read off, we boarded. With a final wave to those left behind, we were soon on our way to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, 45 miles to the south. There, our processing began, the first step in transforming us into soldiers, to be followed by a new and uncertain adventure.
As we gathered that morning, I think we all worried about what was ahead of us. The Korean War (officially, a United Nations “police action”) had come as a complete surprise to everyone, and so soon after the end of World War II. It began with the June 25, 1950 invasion of South Korea. The North Korea invaders quickly overwhelmed the small force of American soldiers and the much larger but poorly trained army of the Republic of Korea. From the beginning the American and ROK military had been forced to retreat. They ended up surrounded by the enemy in a small perimeter at Pusan on Korea’s southeast coast. Their situation looked desperate until reinforcements arrived from Japan.
But then came General MacArthur’s surprise Inchon invasion, followed by the retaking of South Korea’s capital, Seoul. American forces pressed forward, first crossing beyond the 38th parallel, the previous boundary between North and South Korea. Soon after that our forces continued northward, reaching the Yalu River on North Korea’s border with China. The war now seemed to be going well with expectations that it might be over by Christmas.
But then another reversal occurred. Chinese forces came to the assistance of North Korea. American forces were caught unaware and quickly had to retreat through difficult mountain terrain in the bitter cold of winter, and were then evacuated from a North Korean port by U.S. Navy ships. By early January the North Koreans had retaken Seoul. But, then the augmented American armies began forming what became a new battle line just south of the 38th parallel, and a stalemate ensued. The battle became one of attrition.
These developments made all of us uneasy. We visualized ourselves being rushed over to join the fighting as soon as we finished our 14 weeks of basic and advanced training. The prospects of engaging both the North Korean and Chinese armies did not have great appeal. We already knew about the desperate conditions faced by our troops. We also knew about the ever-growing lists of casualties. Not a happy prospect. We could already visualize our families receiving another one of those World War II letters: “We regret to inform you that your (son, husband) has been (killed or wounded in action) . . .”
Our family was concerned because an older brother had been killed in action in Italy in 1943; and I had two younger brothers that were likely to be drafted in the next year or two. Luckily, I was not sent to Korea but after training at Camp McCoy I was assigned duty first in Chicago and later with our military aid program in Turkey.
Although armistice talks between North Korea and the United Nations forces (principally those of the United States) began in 1951, it was not until July 1953 that an Armistice was signed that brought an end to the fighting. During the three years and one month of the Korean War, U.S. casualties included approximately 40,000 killed, among them a recently-married cousin, and more than 100,000 wounded. By the end of hostilities, 1,750,000 Americans from our military force of 5.7 million on active duty had served in the Korean conflict.
The Korean conflict has been described as this country’s “forgotten war,” sandwiched between World War II’s “the greatest generation” and the “ dogface” soldiers fighting in the divisive Vietnam War. The history of the Korean War and its complexity is described in the long, detailed account in Wikipedia; also, by David Halberstam’s excellent book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Cold War.
No similar post-World War II celebrations feted the returning Korean War troops. Most of them, after completing their one-year tours of duty in Korea, returned quietly to the States and to their families. After my almost three years of military service, I was glad to be home and felt no need for any celebration. Few folks inquired about my military service. The now-ended war was not a major subject of conversation. Only one calendar I have seen in recent years, one published by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), lists the end of the Korean War on July 27, 1953.
About the Author
At age 92 I decided to showcase my recent and current writings on a variety of topics outside of my career interests as an economist. My wife Sally’s dementia, my experiences of war, and my interests in improving higher education all compel me to write.
For most of the last decade I maintained a low profile, necessitated by my wife Sally's suffering from a decade-long siege of vascular dementia. After she passed away several years ago I wrote about our experience, in the belief that this would be helpful to the many others who suffer from dementia and their family caregivers. I am currently seeking a publisher for my book manuscript: The Forgotten: Dementia and the Right to Die.
Over the past few years I began working on several other writing projects that are described more fully elsewhere in my blog. These include a nearly-completed book manuscript on my "expected proficiencies approach to the college major'' as a vehicle for reinvigorating liberal education. I continue to write on the shortcomings of UW-Madison's affirmative action policies and programs that over the years have been renamed "diversity and inclusion" policies and programs.
Within two weeks of my graduation from UW-Madison in June 1950, the Korean War broke out. I was drafted and expected to be sent to Korea to join our fighting forces there. But instead I was sent to Turkey for 18 months. How lucky I was. I am also writing a memoir of my Korean War military experience when I served as an U.S. Army adviser in our military aid program in Turkey.
Until I began branching out beyond economics, I failed to realize what a profound effect the Great Depression and World War II had on me as I grew up. I have already captured some of these recollections, with more of them to follow.
With that introduction, I turn you over to my blog entries as well as my other writing projects described more fully elsewhere in my blog. Best wishes ~ W. Lee Hansen
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Award-winning author W. Lee Hansen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Full bio.