I took the attached photo exactly a year ago, on a weekend stop in Pittsburgh. No occasion since then has seemed appropriate to blog about this, till this week—the 70th anniversary of the start of American involvement with the Korean War.
In a way, Pittsburgh’s Korean War Memorial is a throwback to an age when state and local authorities rather than the federal government commemorated the wartime sacrifices of its citizens. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed all that.
Since 1995, visitors to Washington have been able to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial. But, though directed at the national level, this conflict was fought by local boys all around the country—and the word “boys” is not stretching matters much, as those drafted were as young as 18 1/2. The youngest Korean War veterans, then, would be close to 90 today.
Many, of course, never had the chance to live this long, including the approximately 2,300 men service personnel from Western Pennsylvania whose names are inscribed on the memorial in Pittsburgh. The memorial—installed in 1999, located between Heinz Field and PNC Park, on the Allegheny River’s North Shore—also includes plaques showing different phases of the conflict, as well as a stepped fountain.
A bas relief for the memorial, erected by the Korean War Veterans of Western Pennsylvania, reads:
They told us, ‘We are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it.’ So we fought in the mountains on Heartbreak Ridge and waded ashore at Inchon. We froze in the winter and baked in the summer sun. At times, we were greatly outnumbered; but we still fought on and many of us gave our lives for Freedom…for Justice…and for Peace.
The ambiguous nature of the war (a ceasefire ended hostilities, but no peace treaty was ever concluded) may have worked against honoring in a timely fashion those who fought it. It is probably a mistake to call this America’s “Forgotten War” (can any conflict dramatized on network TV in M*A*S*H over 12 years really be called “forgotten”?), but “Misunderstood War” might be appropriate.
Several aspects of the war make it unique among modern conflicts—and distinguish it from a later Asian conflict, the Vietnam War:
*The United States was broadly supported in the war, with 16 nations entering on the side of South Korea.
*For a fleeting moment in the post-WWII era, the United Nations acted against an aggressor. (With the USSR boycotting the Security Council over the issue of Red China’s admission to the UN, the path was clear for the US to push through resolutions calling for the Soviet-supported North Korea to withdraw from South Korea.)
*This was not to say, however, that the war was fought on an entirely legal basis. Not only did President Harry Truman send forces to the Korean peninsula without prior congressional authorization, but he never asked Congress for a formal declaration of war that would have stated the conflict’s causes and war aims.