Commander of ROK forces in Vietnam buried among fallen soldiers

Commander of ROK forces in Vietnam to be buried among fallen soldiers

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) Lt. General Chae Myung Shin encouraging soldiers about to leave South Korea for the warfare in Vietnam in 1965 (2) Chae in Saigon, South Vietnam in 1969 (3) Chae in 2005 (4) Soldier of 9th Infantry division of ROK forces in Vietnam War (5) A large number of war crimes were committed by both sides during Vietnam War; Photograph of two of the 69-79 Vietnamese civilians who were massacred by South Korean soldiers at Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat village in 1968. U.S. troops murdered about 6,000 Vietnamese civilians, South Korean troops murdered around 2,425 Vietnamese civilians and North Vietnamese Communist Viet Cong troops assassinated over 37,000 South Vietnamese civilians and abducted 58,000 more during the Vietnam War.

South Korea a.k.a. Republic of Korea (ROK) was on the anti communist side during the Vietnam War fought between 1st November 1955 and 30th April 1975. ROK forces in Vietnam had the second largest contingent of foreign soldiers after the U.S.  John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the U.S. presidential election in 1960. Kennedy administration remained committed to the Cold War foreign policy inherited from Eisenhower and Truman administrations.

Kennedy’s was at first against the deployment of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. He increased assistance to the South Vietnamese forces instead. Up from Eisenhower’s 900 military advisors in South Vietnam, there were 16,000 U.S. military personnel there by 1963. Park Chung-hee, who led South Korea from 1961 to 1979, proposed participation of ROK forces in Vietnam War to Kennedy in November 1961. But Kennedy disagreed. Lyndon Johnson took over the presidency after Kennedy was assassinated on 22nd November 1964.

Following the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem on 2nd November 1963, Johnson reversed the ‘disengagement from Vietnam’ policy of Kennedy. By 1968 the strength of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam was 536,100. On 1st May 1964, Johnson also requested South Korean participation in the war.

ROK forces in Vietnam War had the peak strength of 50,000 in 1968. Approximately 320,000 South Korean soldiers served there at different times between 1964 and 1973. All of them were withdrawn by 1973. About 5,099 ROK soldiers were killed, 10,962 were wounded and 4 went missing in action. ROK claimed to have killed 41,000 North Vietnamese communist Viet Cong fighters during the war. ROK forces in Vietnam were paid $236 million for their efforts in the war. Thus Gross National Product of South Korea increased five-fold during the conflict.

War is a tragedy for humanity. Both sides of Vietnam War committed a large number of war crimes during the Vietnam War. U.S. troops murdered about 6,000 Vietnamese civilians, South Korean troops murdered around 2,425 Vietnamese civilians and North Vietnamese Viet Cong troops assassinated over 37,000 South Vietnamese civilians and abducted 58,000 more.

Current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participated in the Vietnam War in 1968-69 as commander of a Fast Patrol Craft PCF boat and was wounded in action. Later Kerry joined the VVAW or ‘Vietnam Veterans Against the War’ and continued anti war activities. In 1971, John Kerry testified before the U.S. Senate and stated that over 150 U.S. veterans described during an investigation about the war crimes they committed during the Vietnam War.

South Korean all units- Marine Corps, Army, Air Force & Navy participated as an U.S. ally in the war. Lt General Chae Myung Shin was the first commander of ROK forces in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1969. He was born on 27th November 1926 to a Christian mother and an anti-Japan activist father. In 1949, he graduated from the Korea Military academy.

He served as a second lieutenant and Skeleton Corps, Guerrilla corps were commanded by him during the Korean War fought between 25th June 1950 and 27th July 1953. He became the authority on guerrilla tactics of the army of South Korea. Chae had reportedly opposed to South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War due to Vietnam’s dense jungle and outstanding leadership of North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.

The strong and harsh tactics adopted by Chae for the Vietnamese was seriously opposed by William Westmoreland, the chief of staff of U.S. forces. Several times Westmoreland demanded Chae the investigation of Phong Nhat and Phong Nhi massacre of 69-79 South Vietnamese civilians. Chae said that the perpetrators were Viet Cong soldiers. But Col Robert M. Cook, inspector general of U.S. Army, concluded that marines of ROK forces in Vietnam conducted the massacre. Before returning to South Korea, Chae survived a helicopter crash.

For his excellent achievements in Vietnam War, he is described as a war hero. He was also awarded several orders of merit by the Korean and foreign Governments including Hwarang & Taegeuk Orders of Military Merit. He participated in the 1961 military coup in South Korea which was led by General Park Chung Hee.

But He was forced to retire as Lt General in 1972 as it was reported that he opposed the then President Chung Hee’s plan to prolong his rule. After retirement from military, he served as ambassador to Greece, Sweden and Brazil. He died of a chronic ailment on 25th November 2013 at the age of 87.  He is survived by his wife and three children. He was also the first president of Korea Taekwondo Association and president of Vietnam War Veterans’ Association.

Online edition of renowned daily newspaper in South Korea, The Hankyoreh (literally means the Korean Race or One nation) reported that he was set to be buried alongside the South Korean soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. Many have reported that he had been tormented by the deaths of Korean Soldiers under his command in Vietnam and wished to be buried alongside the fallen soldiers.

According to his wishes during his lifetime, he was buried in the enlisted soldiers’ section of Seoul National Cemetery on 28th November 2013. As a general he was entitled to a plot measuring 26.4 square meters, but he was buried in a 3.3 square meters plot like other solders, among other South Korean soldiers killed in Vietnam.

He became the first General in the history of South Korea to be buried in a cemetery enlisted for troopers.  The Ministry of National Defense of South Korea said that ‘The decision was made out of utmost respect for the noble wish of the deceased to be with his fallen comrades from the Vietnam War even in death.’
Video story: History Channel Documentary on Vietnam War.

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE