Not Forgotten: The 70th Anniversary of the Korean War at ANC

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 6/30/2020

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War (1950-1953)—the United States’ first major military conflict after World War II and, amid the escalating Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the nation’s first major test in its effort to contain the global spread of communism. In the United States, Korea has been called “the forgotten war,” overshadowed both by the victories of World War II and the traumas of Vietnam. Here at Arlington National Cemetery, however, the many gravesites of Americans who served in Korea, as well as several memorials to those who lost their lives in the conflict, ensure that the Korean War will always be remembered.

Following World War II, the Korean peninsula, which had been occupied by Japan from 1910 to August 1945, was divided into two sections along the 38th parallel in an arrangement meant to be temporary. The Soviet Union occupied the northern half of the peninsula and installed a communist government under Kim Il-Sung. The United States occupied the southern half of the peninsula and backed the pro-capitalist yet authoritarian regime of Syngman Rhee.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea across the 38th parallel. The United Nations (UN) swiftly condemned the attack, and on June 27, 1950 a U.S.-authored UN Security Council resolution called for member states to help South Korea to “repel the armed attack.” The Truman administration—without seeking a Congressional declaration of war—proceeded to commit U.S. naval and air power to South Korea’s defense. On July 1, 1950, the first U.S. ground forces entered the conflict. Although technically a UN “police action,” the Korean War resulted in three years of brutal combat, especially after communist China intervened in November 1950.

Although an armistice ended the hostilities on July 23, 1953, the Korean peninsula remained divided. More than 36,000 American service members died in the Korean War, with 4,817 designated as missing in action. Estimates of total war deaths vary greatly, but reach as high as three to four million—with civilians accounting for as many as 70 percent of Korean deaths.

While Arlington National Cemetery remains closed to the public, we acknowledge the 70th anniversary of the Korean War with this virtual commemoration highlighting some of our memorials and gravesites.

Memorials

•  The Korean War Memorial Contemplative Bench in Section 48, near Memorial Amphitheater, honors and invites reflection upon the many lives lost in the Korean conflict. On July 27, 1987, the Korean War Veterans Association and the veterans service organization No Greater Love dedicated the memorial bench in a ceremony that included Korean War veterans, the South Korean ambassador and the secretary of Veterans Affairs. The bench rests under the shade of trees donated by South Korea: a Korean white pine tree, dedicated by President Roh Tae Woo in 1989, and a Korean mountain ash. The bench’s inscription quotes writer (and World War II veteran) Herman Wouk: “The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.”

• In Section 21, the Borinqueneers Memorial Tree and Plaque honor the Korean War service of the U.S. Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, which consisted almost entirely of soldiers from Puerto Rico. Approximately 65,000 Puerto Ricans served during the Korean War, most with the 65th. Nicknamed “The Borinqueneers,” after the Taino name for Puerto Rico (“Borinquen”), the unit originated in 1899 as the Battalion of Porto Rican Volunteers, shortly after the United States gained control of Puerto Rico as a result of the Spanish-American War. It officially became part of the U.S. Army in 1908. Due to racist ideologies, the Puerto Rican unit received non-combat assignments during World War I and World War II, as did most segregated African American units. However, the Borinqueneers soon had the opportunity to prove themselves in combat. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which prohibited racial discrimination in the U.S. armed forces and led to the desegregation of military units. In Korea two years later, the United States entered its first war with an integrated military.

In August 1950, the 65th Infantry Regiment arrived in Pusan, South Korea and went into action almost immediately. In years of fierce fighting with North Korean and Chinese forces, the unit was credited with a total of 15,787 enemy killed-in-action and 2,169 enemy prisoners of war; it suffered 1,510 battlefield casualties. According to General Douglas MacArthur, “the Puerto Ricans forming the ranks of the gallant 65th Infantry give daily proof on the battlefields of Korea of their courage, determination and resolute will to victory.” Members of the 65th Infantry Regiment received four Distinguished Service Crosses and 125 Silver Stars, among many other decorations. In 2016, Congress awarded the unit the Congressional Gold Medal.

The memorial tree in Section 21 of the cemetery is a sugar maple. The plaque, in both English and Spanish, reads: “Dedicated to the men of the 65th Infantry Regiment United States Army for their Valor and Patriotism During the Korean War 1950-1953” / “Dedicado a los Soldados de El Regimiento 65 de Infanteria Ejercito de los Estados Unidos por su Valentia y Patriotismo durante la Guerra de Corea 1950-1953.”

          ⇒ Explore further: Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, “Borinqueneers”

Individual Gravesites

Twenty-seven Medal of Honor recipients from the Korean War are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. They include:

•  Cornelius H. Charlton: Born in a West Virginia coal mining town, Cornelius Charlton joined the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in 1946. He was stationed in Japan, as part of the post-World War II U.S. occupation, when war broke out on the Korean peninsula. Requesting combat service, he transferred to Company C, 1st Battalion of the 24th Infantry Regiment—the Army’s last segregated African American combat unit. Killed in action on June 2, 1951, Sgt. Charlton posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his heroism on that day. After his commanding officer was wounded and evacuated, Charlton took command of his platoon and led his men, under heavy fire, to take a strategic position near the village of Chipo-ri. Then, despite a serious chest wound, Charlton charged an enemy encampment alone, destroying it—and saving the lives of his men—before being mortally wounded by a grenade. His Medal of Honor citation acknowledges his “indomitable courage, superb leadership, and gallant self-sacrifice.” (Section 40, Grave 300)

•  Don Carlos Faith Jr.: A decorated World War II veteran of the 82nd Airborne, Lt. Don Faith Jr. served in Korea as commander of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. He was killed in action on December 2, 1950 during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir—notoriously one of the toughest and deadliest battles of the war, fought amid harsh winter conditions in Korea’s northeastern mountains, against a massive Chinese army. His battalion, greatly outnumbered, became entrapped by Chinese forces, but Lt. Col. Faith bravely led an assault on the enemy. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he “unhesitatingly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire” and “personally led counterattacks to restore [his unit’s] position,” despite being “physically exhausted in the bitter cold.” At the time of his death, Faith’s body could not be recovered due to battlefield conditions. In 2004, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (now the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA) located and exhumed remains in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir. DNA analysis identified some of these remains as Faith’s. Don Carlos Faith Jr. was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on April 17, 2013—in a gravesite next to his father, Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Faith, a career Army officer. (Section 4, Grave 3016)

Explore further: Missing In Action: The LTC Faith Story,” U.S. Army Pacific Public Affairs Office video documentary

Several important Korean War military leaders rest at Arlington:  

• Omar Bradley: As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1949 to August 1953, General Omar Bradley oversaw U.S. military strategy in Korea. On September 22, 1950, he was appointed General of the Army, becoming the last U.S. general to attain five-star rank. A West Point graduate, Bradley ascended rapidly in his lifelong military career. Although he began World War II with no combat experience, he ultimately commanded 43 divisions and 1.3 million men (the largest body of soldiers to serve under a U.S. field commander) and led American ground forces in the 1944 invasion of France. Nicknamed “the GI’s General,” Bradley was known for his modest demeanor and camaraderie with his troops—qualities that he also brought to his postwar leadership of the Veterans Administration. After Bradley died in 1981, he became the fifth, and last, five-star officer to be buried at Arlington. (Section 30, Grave 425-1-2)

⇒ Explore further: “Omar Nelson Bradley: The Centennial,” U.S. Army Center of Military History

•  Arthur Radford: During the Korean War, Admiral Arthur Radford served as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. A naval aviator and veteran of both world wars, he had commanded an aircraft carrier division in the Pacific during World War II, earning the Distinguished Service Medal (among other decorations). Three weeks after the armistice in Korea, Radford succeeded General Omar Bradley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, becoming the first Navy officer to hold that position. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs from August 1953 to August 1957, Radford played a key role in implementing President D. Dwight Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense policy, which prioritized nuclear deterrence, via air power and guided missiles, over conventional ground forces. (Section 30, Grave 435)

•  Matthew B. Ridgway: As commander of the U.S. Eighth Army, Matthew Ridgway launched a successful counteroffensive against Chinese forces in South Korea in late 1950, which was largely credited with salvaging the United Nations’ war effort. Promoted to general in April 1951, Ridgway succeeded General Dwight D. Eisenhower as commander of Allied forces in Asia—a position which placed him in charge of UN strategy for the remainder of the war. He subsequently served as Army chief of staff (1953-1955). During his retirement, he published two books: a memoir titled "Soldier" (1956) and "The Korean War: How We Met the Challenge" (1967). A 1917 graduate of West Point, Ridgway also served with distinction in World War II as commander of the 82nd Airborne Division (parachuting into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944) and XVIII Airborne Corps. General Ridgeway’s many honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1986) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1991). He died in 1993 at age 98. (Section 7, Grave 8196-1)

•  Kurt Chew-Een Lee: The first Asian American officer in the Marine Corps, Kurt Chew-Een Lee was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944 and received his commission in 1946. During the first few months of the Korean War, Lee, then a first lieutenant, commanded a machine gun platoon which advanced deep into northeastern Korea. On the night of November 2, 1950, he trekked into the mountains, in blizzard conditions, on a solo reconnaissance mission. Encountering Chinese troops, he began yelling in Mandarin to confuse them and to expose their position. As a result of his actions, his unit was able to take a Chinese base, and he received the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism. Lee also earned a Silver Star for his actions in the famous Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which he was severely wounded. Lee subsequently served in the Vietnam War as an intelligence officer, and he retired from the Marines in 1968 at the rank of major. Kurt Chew-Een Lee’s record of service not only honored his country, but also demolished anti-Asian stereotypes: “I wanted to dispel the notion about the Chinese being meek, bland and obsequious,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.  (Section 55, Grave 4970)

⇒ Explore further: Kurt Chew-Een Lee oral history, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress

In remembering the Korean War, we also honor American civilians who performed important services to their nation. One notable example is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Marguerite Higgins, buried at ANC with her husband, Lieutenant General William Evans Hall of the U.S. Air Force. Higgins, who had previously won awards for her World War II reporting from Europe, was one of the first American correspondents in Korea after hostilities broke out in June 1950, and the only woman reporter on the front lines. As chief of the New York Tribune’s Tokyo bureau, she was in Seoul when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel, and she accompanied the U.S. Marines during their landing at Inchon. After the military banned women reporters from the front lines, Higgins successfully appealed to General Douglas MacArthur, whom she had previously interviewed, to allow her to remain. She received the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1951—the same year that her first book, "War in Korea: Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent," was published. Higgins died in 1965 at only 45 years old, after contracting a parasitic disease in Vietnam. (Section 2, Grave 4705-B)

⇒ Explore further: Marguerite H. Higgins Papers, Syracuse University

At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an Unknown Soldier from the Korean War was interred on May 30, 1958, joining the World War I Unknown who had been buried there in 1921. (The World War II Unknown was also buried on May 30, 1958, as part of a dual interment. The Korean War had delayed the process of identifying and returning unidentified remains from the previous conflict.) The Korean War Unknown’s ceremonial selection and burial reprised the traditions established for the original Unknown Soldier of World War I. The Army exhumed four caskets previously buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii (known informally as the “Punchbowl”) and selected one for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; the others received a ceremonial burial at sea. After arriving in Washington, D.C., the new Unknown lay in state at the U.S. Capitol and was then transported to Arlington via caisson, in a full military honors procession. At the funeral ceremony, President Dwight D. Eisenhower placed the Medal of Honor on the casket, as President Warren Harding had done for the original Unknown.

Today, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) continues to work on identifying and repatriating American remains from the Korean War, using forensic and DNA analysis. Numerous service members identified by DPAA have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery in recent years, including Don Carlos Faith Jr. However, according to DPAA estimates, more than 7,800 Americans who served in Korea remain unaccounted for. We recognize and honor them at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as we commemorate all who served in the Korean War. The “forgotten war” will never be forgotten at Arlington National Cemetery.


Selected Sources

Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987.

Bowers, William T., William M. Hammond and George L. MacGarrigle, Black Soldier, White Army: The 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1996.

Cumings, Bruce. The Korean War: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2011.

Edwards, Paul M. To Acknowledge a War: The Korean War in American Memory. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Sides, Hampton. On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir—The Greatest Battle of the Korean War. New York: Anchor, 2019.

Webb, William J. “The Korean War: The Outbreak.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2000.