Courtesy of the Department of the Navy
The USS General Simon B. Buckner was a Navy transport ship that moved military troops from Fort Lewis, Wash., to Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). The 609-foot Buckner was constructed in Alameda, Calif., in 1944-45. Ebsch boarded the Buckner in October 1952 for a 14-month tour of duty. Most of the duty was spent at Koje-do Island where about 5,000 U.S. troops guarded more than 70,000 hardened North Korean and Communist China prisoners-of-war who were rebellious and staged frequent riots.
Courtesy of the Department of the Navy

The USS General Simon B. Buckner was a Navy transport ship that moved military troops from Fort Lewis, Wash., to Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). The 609-foot Buckner was constructed in Alameda, Calif., in 1944-45. Ebsch boarded the Buckner in October 1952 for a 14-month tour of duty. Most of the duty was spent at Koje-do Island where about 5,000 U.S. troops guarded more than 70,000 hardened North Korean and Communist China prisoners-of-war who were rebellious and staged frequent riots.

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It was a quiet Monday morning in Marinette and Menominee — 7 a.m. to be exact — when the guns fell silent in a small country more than 5,000 miles from here. This would take us to Korea, also known as the “Land of the Morning Calm.’’ The Korean War had ended.

This Friday will mark the 65th anniversary of the ‘‘cease fire” — July 27, 1953. Although the firing stopped, tensions between South Korea and North Korea have not.

South Korea was an impoverished country when a well-manned and well-equipped North Korean Army burst across the 38th Parallel at 4 a.m. on June 25, 1950 firing 122-mm howitzers and then followed with Soviet-made T-34 tanks. North Korea invaded with 135,000 troops.

“Mr. President, I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea,” were the first words spoken by Secretary of State Dean Acheson when he informed President Harry Truman of the surprise attack.

The war was a stiff challenge for the relatively newly formed United Nations, which had been established only five years before the Korean War erupted. The U.N. called the invasion a violation of international peace and demanded that the Communist-saturated country withdraw their forces. When the Communists rejected the demands, the U.N. looked for support from member nations to provide military support for a hapless South Korean, which had only a small and ill-equipped military to take on the invaders.

Sixteen countries responded to the emergency call and sent troops to aid the retreating South Koreans. Forty-one countries provided military equipment, food, medical assistance and supplies to the Republic of Korea Army (ROKs).

The U.S. provided more than 90 percent of the troops, equipment and supplies. The U.S. manpower came from an aggressive recruiting campaign, armed forces reservists and a resurrected military draft. The country was only five years from fighting the mightiest war of mankind (World War II ended in August 1945), and a large chunk of U.S. resources were earmarked for the rebuilding of Europe and Japan following that bloody and costly conflict, which began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Military historians have called the Korean War “one of the bloodiest wars in history.” Here’s why: About one million South Koreans were killed and several million civilians were made homeless. About 580,000 U.N. and South Korean troops and 1.6 million Communist troops were killed or wounded or were reported missing.

The U.S. casualty list alone was staggering:

■ 5,720,000 men and women served in the military.

■ 33,739 were killed in combat, and 2,835 died of illness or other causes.

■ 103,284 were wounded in action.

(The numbers were provided by the U.S. Department of Defense).

Thirty-six men from our three-county area, many of them in their teens or early twenties, died in combat. Marinette registered 22 combat deaths, Menominee County recorded eight and Oconto County had six. One soldier, Pfc. Roger Pleshek of Menominee, was a teenager when he died of malnutrition in a North Korean Prisoner of War Camp. His remains have never been found.

One of the deadliest battles of the war was fought at the Pusan Perimeter when U.N. and ROK forces were trying to stave off the attackers and prevent a Communist takeover. The battle was fought from Aug. 4 to Sept. 16, 1950. The U.S. was still moving troops from their bases in Japan to Korea. If the Pusan Perimeter had not been defended it would have been a devastating blow to the war effort.

Some of the other deadly skirmishes were at the Chasin Reservoir, Taejon, Bloody Ridge, Pork Chop Hill, Heartbreak Ridge, Old Baldy, Unsan, Kum River and Haengsong.

Twenty-eight infantry regiments in eight divisions and three combat teams served in Korea. They accounted for 23,285 KIA or about 84 percent of Army hostile deaths. The 38th Regiment of the 2nd Division had the heaviest toll: 2,034 were killed in action, and 5,090 were wounded.

Korea is sometimes called the “artillery war.” The 54 U.S. field artillery battalions often proved decisive in battle. The 503rd Battalion of the 2nd Division lost 255 men in battle and 120 were wounded.

I was 20 when I attempted to enlist in the Marines Corps. I wanted to be a marine like my brother, Buddy, in WWII. Sorry son, the recruiter told me, we don’t accept people with your eyesight. So I went home and waited for my call under the Selective Service System (military draft).

The notice from “The President of the United States” arrived on Feb. 7, 1952. My “greeting” came from Local Board No. 57 of Menominee County. It was signed by Roland Larson, a member of the board. I still have the original copy of the order.

After weeks of infantry and medic training, I boarded the USS General Simon B. Buckner, a 609-foot transport ship at the Port of Embarkation, Seattle, Wash. After 12 days of boredom, mixed with anxiety and battling through a couple of storms in the Pacific, we docked in Yokohama, Japan, and rode trucks to Camp Drake for processing. Ten days later we were back aboard ship for a three-day trip to Pusan, Korea.

I was assigned to Koje-do Isand where more than 70,000 hard-shelled North Korean and Communist China prisoners were detained in compounds surrounded by layers of barbed wire fence. Guards were positioned at gates, towers and in jeeps circling the compounds. Some guards were equipped with machine guns.

The job of my small medical detachment (about 25 men) was to provide medical services for U.S. troops. A separate and more larger medical team cared for the POWs.

Rioting was a favorite pastime for the POWs. They rioted day and night. They honed shivs from the metal on their cots and from kitchen equipment. Prison leaders were diehards who allowed themselves to be captured so they could infiltrate the POW camps and plan violence. They killed their own men if they didn’t cooperate.

In one riot, more than 70 POWs were killed before the disturbance was brought under control. In another outbreak, a U.S. brigadier general was captured by the prisoners when he entered the compound with his men. It took the 187th Airborne to enter the compounds, rescue the general and restore order. The general was relieved of his command and demoted to colonel for exercising poor judgment in the riot.

Gas masks were standard equipment for all soldiers on the island. Infantrymen used non-toxic gas which caused vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes guards moved into the compounds with fixed bayonets in order to quell the uprisings.

The Korean War was a bloody skirmish, but it saved the South Korean people from being ruled by tyrants since the armistice. People in North Korea are starving, have little or no freedom and have a life expectancy 10 years less than their counterparts in South Korea.

Meanwhile, South Korea is a prosperous country with a free democracy. It has blossomed into a beautiful resort country with a strong economy. It has become a leader on the world trade market. South Koreans build ships, automobiles and electronic equipment for other countries. It has been a host country to two world Olympics. 

It wasn’t that way 65 years ago. The South Korean government and the South Korean people have been forever grateful that U.S. and U.N. troops showed up to give them what they have today.