The Korean War lingers on.
Until a couple weeks ago, other than historians, few people in the United States know that the two sides of the Korean War never signed a peace treaty. Instead, the war ended with an armistice–a ceasefire–on July 27, 1953.
That ceasefire was broken dramatically on November 23, 2010, when the North fired artillery shells on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, killing four people and wounding 18 others. But that wasn’t the first time the North Koreans broke the armistice. Since signing the armistice, the North has repeatedly engaged in provocative activities.
The recent shelling and the earlier skirmishes beg the question of China’s involvement. North Korea would completely collapse if China didn’t supply it with food aid and fuel. In the Spring of 2010, when an investigation revealed that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean ship resulting in the death of 46 sailors, China sheltered its ally, preventing the U.N. from officially blaming the North for the attack or imposing additional sanctions. And the North Koreans make few moves without the advice of their northern neighbor. Kim Jong-Il even took his son and chosen successor Kim Jong-Un with him on train trips to China before the succession plans were announced.
In response to the artillery shelling, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said: “We hold a consistent and clear-cut stance on the issue. We oppose any party to take any military acts in our exclusive economic zone without permission.” Certainly, China is warning the U.S. to stay clear of the region. But doesn’t the statement also imply that North Korea had China’s permission to shell Yeonpyeong?
In 1953, China aggressively fought against the South Koreans and their U.S. allies until the final hours before the armistice was signed. Even with peace talks underway, China launched a massive attack on the last day of the war.
Preceded by tens of thousands of artillery rounds, thousands of Chinese soldiers stormed a forgotten outpost known as “Boulder City” that is located in what later would be Korea’s demilitarized zone. Thousands of Chinese troops broke through concertina wire and overwhelmed the trenches and bunkers manned by the U.S. Marines of George Company, who were outnumbered twenty to one. The forgotten assault was the last battle of the war, or so it seemed.
One Marine on the site, Corporal Harvey Dethloff manned a .50 caliber machine gun and carried a flamethrower on his back. A grenade detonated, rendering the Marine’s right arm useless and knocking the hose off his flamethrower, but luckily not detonating the potential napalm-like bomb harnessed to his back.
With a useless right arm and a broken leg, Dethloff ditched the flamethrower as he stumbled backward in the trench, firing his .45 at the oncoming Chinese soldiers and hurling grenades with his left arm. Later, he would lose all of his teeth because they were so loosened from using them to pull the pins on the grenades he threw.
Corporal Dethloff and the fewer than 200 Marines of George Company made a heroic last stand. That day marked the single greatest loss of life of any battle for the company. Twenty-four men, roughly every ninth man in the company, were killed. In fact, on the day after the epic battle, only a quarter of the men in the company made the muster call.
But it wasn’t only the Americans who lost troops. More than a million Chinese men were killed in the Korean War. The Chinese certainly haven’t forgotten their investment in the country.
Have we forgotten what our troops, like Corporal Dethloff did?
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak addressed his nation after the most recent attack saying, “Now is the time for action, rather than words.”
Nearly sixty years ago, Americans made a heroic stand with the South Korean people, even though they were greatly outnumbered and peace seemed imminent. Would we do it again? Could we do it again?
[Editor’s Note: See historian Patrick O’Donnell’s recent book Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story — The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company]