What if they gave a war and nobody knew?
Back in the mid-to-late 60s, while all eyes were fixed on the conflict in Viet Nam, the US military was engaged in an all out shooting war with the North Koreans that took place almost entirely under the radar. Military historians now refer to it as “the Second Korean War.” PFC Bert Williams, who was 18 at the time, was right in the middle of it. Stationed in Korea from December, 1967, to March, 1969, he saw action on the DMZ as a "straight-legged infantryman."
“Shortly after we got there," he said, "my whole unit was transferred to an 18 mile long combat zone inside the Demilitarized Zone. We were just north of the Imjin River. Our job was to prevent infiltration by the North Koreans.”
Kim Il Sung (yes, that Kim Il Sung ), seeing that the US was becoming increasingly bogged down in Viet Nam, had decided the time was ripe to reunify the country under his leadership. In order to do so, however, he would have to get past the South Koreans and their staunch allies, the Americans.
“We had some serious fire fights,” Williams said. “Almost all the contact was at night. Our job was to prevent an incursion. But even so, the North Koreans did manage to get through.”
In January of 1968, an assassination squad of 31 North Koreans cut through the chain link fence separating North and South, and made their way in teams of three all the way to Seoul. They had one single objective; to attack the presidential palace and "cut off the head of (South Korean President) Park Chung Hee."
Once in Seoul, they changed into South Korean uniforms and marched in formation towards the Blue House (South Korea's White House), posing as a returning counter-guerilla patrol. Less than half a mile from their objective, they were stopped and questioned by the local police. During the interrogation, one of the officers became suspicious and drew his pistol. He was shot dead by an invader, at which point all hell broke loose. The running gun battle that ensued claimed the lives of two North Koreans, 26 South Koreans, and 4 US Army servicemen.
"One of our assignments was to go after the infiltrators," Williams said. "In the end, 29 of their guys were killed, one was captured, and one escaped back to North Korea."
After sixteen months on the DMZ, Williams was sent to Ft. Carson to serve out his hitch in the MPs. Now looking back on it, he has mixed feelings about his experience.
"The whole theatre of the 2nd Korean War was around 18 to 20 square miles," he said. "We were losing more Americans there than in equivalent combat areas in Viet Nam. I thought it was pretty sad when we'd get the North Asian edition of the Stars and Stripes and there'd be almost no news in it about what we were going through. The guys in Viet Nam were given credit. The guys in Korea were not."
Even more disconcerting was the fact that it took the VA more than 40 years to acknowledge injuries and diseases related to the conflict. "I've got hearing loss that was service connected," Williams said. "I was also exposed to Agent Orange. Only recently, like three years ago, was this acknowledged by the government."
Was it worth it?
"I think we were justified in being in Korea," he said. "We had a reason to be there. If I hadn't felt that way, I'd have been bothered significantly by the loss of life. I believed in it. But then, I was young and foolish, too."
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Coming soon, "Cowboys, Yogis, and One-legged Ski Bums," a collection of the best of Don Morreale's Examiner stories.