On the 25th of June, 1950, the North Korean people’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea by crossing the 38th Parallel, the line of latitude that is 38 degrees north of the equator. At the end of World War II, Korea was divided into two nations along the 38th parallel; North Korea was supported by Russia, and South Korea was supported by the USA. Bringing in 135,000 troops, the North Koreans encountered little opposition and entered Seoul on the 28th of June, 1950.
This forced the American army into the war, where they found the NKPA were no pushovers but fought fiercely, causing many casualties among the American and South Korean forces. In July 1950, the Americans and other allied forces had retreated to Pusan, the only deep-water port in South Korea.
Things looked bleak for the Allied forces, but they had a significant weapon in Lieutenant General Walton Walker, whose combat skills enabled the Allied forces to fight an excellent defensive battle. The goal was to hold off the North Koreans and protect Pusan while the UN mustered reinforcements of both men and equipment to bolster the meagre number of American troops fighting since the start of the Korean War.
It was during this time that Walker issued his famous stand or die order, “We are fighting a battle against time. There will be no more retreating, withdrawal or readjustment of the lines or any other term you choose. There is no line behind us to which we can retreat. There will be no Dunkirk; there will be no Bataan. A retreat to Pusan would be one of the greatest butcheries in history. We must fight until the end. We will fight as a team. If some of us must die, we will die fighting together. I want everybody to understand we are going to hold this line. We are going to win.” And they did win, or rather hold the line, and they did so in fighting the first major battle of the Cold War.
General McArthur, the only five-star general still on active duty, had laid plans to launch an offensive in the North Korean rear. At Inchon on the 15th of September, he launched his invasion with the so-called X-Force. Walker and his 8th Army broke out of Pusan the following day, being able to link up with McArthur on the 27th of September. By October 19th, the 8th Army had seized Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and the Americans were convinced that the war was over and that peace would be declared. They were sadly mistaken – on November 26th the Chinese Army came to the rescue of the North Koreans and pushed the 8th Army back below the 38th parallel.
Early in January 1951, the UN forces withdrew from Seoul after the combined Chinese and North Koreans forces attacked. By March of the same year, after bitter fighting, the UN forces retook Seoul and once again pushed the Chinese/North Korean forces back to the 38th parallel. In the first half of 1951, there was bitter fighting along the 38th parallel as the Chinese attempted to force the Americans back down the peninsula By July 1951, armistice negotiations started.
The negotiations were interrupted by attacks by Chinese and later by UN attacks on each others hills and fortified positions. Eventually, on July 27, 1953, an armistice agreement was signed at Panmunjom, a village that straddles the border. Both sides agreed to withdraw a short distance to create a demilitarized zone between the two Koreas; a situation that still exists today. No formal peace treaty was ever signed, and the De-Militarized-Zone is the most heavily fortified area in the world.
While these events were taking place, they were supported by ordinary men doing the very best job that they could. One of these men was Han Joon-ki, a locomotive driver. Han was born in Japan to Korean parents, and in 1943 he started working for Japan Railways, eventually making it to being a locomotive driver. He was in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb detonated and destroyed the city and, along with it, thousands of people. With the destruction of the city and Japan’s surrender, Han left Japan and returned to Korea where in February 1946, he joined the Korean National Railroad as a locomotive driver. He was very happy hauling trains behind his locomotive, and the momentous events that happened around him passed him by completely.
The United States accepted the surrender of the Japanese troops stationed in Korea and arranged for them to return to Japan. The country would be divided along the 38th parallel; the North would fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, the South under the American influence. In 1948, Syngman Rhee was elected as President of the Republic of Korea. At the same time, Russia was championing Kim Il Sung to become the leader of the North Koreans.
Continues on Page 2