This document is entitled Scenes from an Unremembered Victory because the author was there; Unremembered because an event has to be known before it can be forgotten. This story is too big to drop out of history for lack of recollection, it is about 9,000 US Army and 4,000 Korean Augmentation Troops (KATUSA) standing in the way of 400,000 combat ready North Korean People's Army (KPA) combatants bent on invading Seoul Korea.
America unconditionally won a lethal game of Cold War chicken -- the enemy blinked first, giving up any notion of invading South Korea. Forever. This is an excerpt of the full memoir is primarily about a single incident at Freedom Bridge, on or about January 25 that involved an attempted student invasion of North Korea on or about January 25 when about 200 students rushed Freedom Bridge, all got across! with the intent to invade North Korea and to get as many of themselves killed as possible to force a war of Reunification with North Korea. Both amazingly heroic and fortunately unsuccessful, the Korean Government wants this story known to bolster the Korean people's spirits in today's trying times, but unfortunately not a single bridge guard or student is yet to be found to corroborate the story. If you know any of the MPs stationed at the Bridge in early 1968, please let us know.
This story starts with an account that details a North Korean commando raid to kill South Korea’s president and the US Ambassador on January 21, 1968. The next day The USS Pueblo, a spy ship, is seized by North Korea as part of a Russian coordinated second front to the Tet Offensive. Within two days, over 100 combatants on both sides are dead; 82 Pueblo sailors are prisoners of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK); and daily firefights commence along the DMZ as a run-up to an impending invasion. However, the high body counts of the Tet Offensive knocks this report off the front page.
According to an Associated Press News Reporter while touring the DMZ, "We file reports daily but nothing goes on the Wire due to the American people being too demoralized by Tet to handle a second front. The “invasion” is conveniently swept under a news blackout.
Most Baby Boomers know the USS Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans, that the crew failed to return fire when strafed and bombarded, to destroy all their intelligence materials and/or to scuttle the ship before being captured. Some remember that the captain and the crew stood up well to the rigors of a brutal captivity. A few remember the crew being returned at the end of the year.
Nobody but those who were there, and their families and a few Army College historians know there was a ground war fought most of ’68 along the Korean DMZ and seacoast. Just about no American born after 1970 has a clue that any of this ever happened. No mention in the text books, skipped over by Hollywood, fallen through the cracks of history. At least the War College has given it a name. First it is called the DMZ War, later upgraded to the 2nd Korean Conflict as more evidence of its Peninsula-wide nature were unearthed.
The 2nd Korean Conflict is not a small engagement. It could have gone global, plunging the world into a nuclear holocaust if the line had not held. But it did not wiggle due to a very few who leaned into this fight that had to be fought. The whole world was watching their parents in World War II. The men and women of the 2nd Infantry Division won the 2nd Korean Conflict with no one watching at all.
Thirty one KPA Commandos, whose mission is to assassinate the South Korean president, in full combat gear, in the dead of Korean winter, cut a hole in the highly guarded anti-infiltration fence (across the entire length of the DMZ), make their way to Seoul undetected until spotted within 200 yards of the Blue House, Korea’s presidential mansion. Once detected, instead of running away, they try to fight their way into the Blue House. Only when a solid cordon of tanks bars their way do these ultra fighters decide it’s not their night and retreat. Even on the run, they set up ambushes and kill their pursuers at a rate of more than two to one. After two days of fighting, 29 commandos are dead, one captured and one made it home, at the cost of 68 Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers, 3 US GIs, and over two dozen Korean noncombatants.
The USS Pueblo is not notified of the commando raid on January 22. On January 23rd it is surrounded by a dozen enemy ships and two MIG fighter jets and attacked without warning. The Pueblo is far from shore, spying not on North Korea but Russia.
The USS Pueblo did resist capture. After they were fired on the first time, they acted like they were going along with being escorted to North Korea, buying time to destroy documents and equipment. But when its skipper, Commander Lloyd Mark Bucher, took evasive action to keep the KPA from boarding, the Pueblo deck is swept with lethal fire, wounding three. With one crewman dying, Captain Bucher let them board. The only armament is a single mounted 50 caliber machine gun. As can be clearly seen in North Korean propaganda photos, it is completely exposed with no protection. Though mounted 50s have surprisingly high fire power, with multiple North Korean war ships less than 40 yards off their bow, whoever manned the gun would have lasted but a matter of seconds.
Things look so grim that President Johnson issues Executive Order No. 11392 calling up 14,787 Air Force and Naval Reserve Units to active duty due to the seizure of the USS Pueblo. (New York Times, January 26, 1968, p. 1).
The Republic of Korea’s Army wants to go north to right the wrongs of the Blue House Raid. But three days after the Blue House Raid, something happens to demonstrate just how serious the Korean People were about getting even.
It all started at a high school in Pusan where some 200 high school students took it on themselves to go on a little field trip on the Pusan to Paris Railroad. As it does now, the train stops just short of the Imjin River, the southern extent of the DMZ. There they get off, adorn themselves with black head bands with white lettered slogans, form up and start marching north. What happens next is an eye witnessed account from Army Engineer Lieutenant Dennis Klein.
While eating lunch at an open air dining hall overlooking the road to Freedom Bridge, he saw them coming down the road. Ranging in age from 16 to 18, there were no adults to be seen. Just high school students, as many girls as boys, in black and white uniforms worn by all Korean students. Marching in formation, every forth steps their arms swing up in the air and they belt out in unison 5, 6 and 7 word slogans, each time louder and more spirited than the one before.
Curious about what is going on, the Korean cook tells Lt. Klein that the translation goes something like...
“To attack the Blue House is a grave insult!"
“This disrespectful act must be revenged!"
“There must be war to restore Korean Honor!"
“Only total war can get our honor back!"
“Mighty and great are The Korean People.”
Lt. Klein figured out that these were the same kids he had seen getting off the train back in town. Tickled by the oneness of their enthusiasm, where they were going did not cross his mind. Coming around the bend in the road, looking down the final approach to Freedom Bridge, one of two entrances to the US sector of the DMZ, reveals a spectacle beyond imagination. He gets in his jeep and speeds to the confrontation.
The students, no longer in a formation, are just a bunch of running, screaming kids. By the time his jeep is at the south end of the bridge, he has to wait his turn, stuck behind the last 40 or so kids over overrunning a solid cordon of half tracks with mounted 50 caliber machine guns hastily parked side by side, a formidable defense. The students just saw them as something to scramble over, momentary impedance to their charge across bridge.
Lt. Klein screams at the dumbfounded guards...“How could you let them get through?”
Just as loud the guard yells back, “What to hell are we supposed to do? Shoot them!?
They ran right at us and when we tried to block their way, they just ran right over us, yelling and screaming, ignoring the guns and … “
In hot pursuit, the Lt. Klein’s jeep is too far across the bridge to hear the rest. Just a short distance on the north side of the bridge, there they are, all 200 of them, trying to climb the anti-infiltration fence, just installed a few months before. This time, it is keeping people from going north instead of going south. Easily scaling the chain link fence, but having no success getting through the triple strand of concertina wire welded on top, they were flailing about in a frantic array of elbows and kneecaps, determined to succeed. Succeed at what? Get over the fence to be blown to bits in the dense minefield just beyond. It’s learned later that their grand plan was to run helter skelter into the DMZ, engage KPA soldiers and harass them enough to get the KPA to kill them. The more that die, the harder it is to avoid a big fat war to revenge their deaths. Yes. The students were definitely living the creed that “a life without honor is a life not worth living.”
As soon as they were dragged off the fence, they would mill about and start climbing the fence somewhere else. Vehicles soon arrived and GIs started putting the students in the trucks. But they wiggle out and start climbing the fence again. As the only officer present, a trick comes to mind to end this mess. Over the den of this, Lt. Klein shouts
“Throw them in the truck and step on it! Go fast so they can’t jump out!.”
It starts working. Everywhere two GIs grab a single student by their arms and legs, throw them high in the trucks so their bodies knocked down the students trying to get out. One truck after another takes off like a shot, delivering them back on the civilian side of the bridge. As the students realize that their plan is not going to work, many, including one in particular, clearly the Alpha girl of the group, begin attacking the GIs with their bare hands, tying to gouge eyes and scratch faces, even unsheathe bayonets to cut themselves or get the GIs to cut them - - anything to cause injury enough that has to be avenged.
The air is dense with swearing and screaming on all sides, yet not a single GI is even close to becoming violent. Instead, they quickly developed protocols for carefully and methodically grabbing students harder, throwing them higher and driving the trucks away faster. Every move protects life and ends violence. When all looks lost for the students, in the midst of still quite intense melee, the Alpha Girl suddenly goes down on her knees. She slides a big rock in front of her and then she puts a second rock on top of the first rock and… Sure enough, she is leaning way back to get the swing she needs to smash her head hard, hard enough to kill herself. Like a shot, Lt. Klein bellowed loud enough to be heard all the way to Pusan…
“GET THAT GIRL OFF THAT ROCK!!!”
Instantly four GIs have her by her hands and feet and she is airborne. Up and up she goes, the highest loft of the day, up in the air and down into the center of the truck. With her hauled away, the demonstration runs out of steam and soon all the students are transported out of the DMZ, dropped in town to take the train back home.
Who were these soldiers?
No orders were given to the GIs to not harm the students. Perhaps the familiarity of these GIs with American kids back home protesting a bad war made them sympathetic to these Korean kids demanding the fighting of a good one (to them). The GIs seemed to see the nobility of the student’s desperate act, treated them as precious, deserving respect for their cause, but no way were they going to succeed. With wave after wave of obscenities, the GIs firmly and carefully kept the students from getting hurt. The best the kids could point to afterwards as their badge of courage were bruises, cuts, a broken hand or finger or two.
There were no Special Forces on the DMZ. No Rangers, no A Teams in ‘68. No Green Beret. Just a bunch of regular GIs swept up in the troop buildup that followed the Gulf of Tokin Incident. In 1966, over a million Americans are inducted into the service. Most are sent to Viet Nam, but some 55,000 are randomly selected by computer to go Korea.
Who are these students?
Even though Korea in ‘68 was under military control these students had enough free will to organize, skip school, and go on their train trip north. They marched down local streets and then on to a highway, screaming slogans, with no one stopping them.
No one ordered the GIs not to harm the kids, even when the students turned on them. “Steady” was heard a time or two. So, for once, the whole thing worked, it was just one of those times where things turned out right except for any of it becoming history. Now it’s time to make it history.
The South Korean Consulate in San Francisco is interested in making this story widely known since a country always in trouble like South Korea cannot have enough good stories about dedication of its people to the nation. Ditto America.