Thursday, April 18, 2013

Korea: Monument to Little-Known Casualties of an Unfinished Conflict

Tucked away in a small park between the main thoroughfare through the US Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul and the 8th Army headquarters building is a rather nondescript monument of two soldiers and several rows of American and Korean names in English and Hangul, respectively.  Few individuals seem to pay attention to this rather simple construct.  Thinking for months that it was simply a tribute to the US-Republic of Korea alliance, I only recently paid any attention to it, stopping by one afternoon after walking up the street to run an errand.  What I discovered, however, was a bit more personal than a simple acknowledgement of the alliance.  It is a tribute to the bond between American soldiers and their Korean Augmentees to the US Army, known as "KATUSAs," and, perhaps more importantly, an interesting history lesson of a conflict that did not end in 1953 when the waring parties of the Korean War signed an Armistice.  You see, each of the names on the monument represent a US or KATUSA soldier killed in action since 1953 and a  look at those names represents a number of vignettes of a conflict that still continues.

Many of the names on the wall were soldiers killed in action during a little known period  (at least to Americans) in the late 1960s when North Korea conducted a low-intensity conflict in South Korea against US and South Korean forces while the US was neck-deep in Vietnam.  From 1966 until 1969, US and South Korean forces battled North Korea special forces in a series of small-scale skirmishes along the DMZ, guerrilla and terrorist attacks (including a brazen attempted attack by commandos on the Blue House--the South Korean version of the White House--in January 1968), and an attempt by the North to foment an insurgency in South Korea.  During the period, the North Koreans also seized a US intelligence collection ship and shot down a US surveillance aircraft.  The times were tense, but widespread conflict did not break out and eventually, US and South Korean forces foiled Pyongyang's campaign and the border returned to the uneasy peace you read about in the newspapers today.

Part of the title to this blog entry is from perhaps the most comprehensive English-language look at the conflict, Daniel Bolger's Scenes from an Unfinished War:  Low-Intensity Conflict in Korea, 1966-1969 (Check it out for free here:  Published by the US Army's Combined Arms Center, Bolger's study is very well-researched and informative, if somewhat dry.  Bolger (a major when he wrote the study, but now a lieutenant general) focused on the efforts of General Charles H. Bonesteel III and his US and South Korean subordinates to craft a plan to defeat the North's campaign, despite operating in a complex and volatile political environment, being forced to use mediocre US and South Korean units (the best US units were in Vietnam, while many South Korean units were ill-trained for counterinsurgency), and operating under the constraint of not expanding the conflict into a major conventional war.

These soldiers were killed in typical actions during the period, such the ambush of a 2nd Infantry Division patrol south of the DMZ in November of 1966, which killed six US soldiers, and another ambush in August of 1967, which killed four and wounded 15 members of a 7th Infantry Division construction team, also well south of the DMZ.

In January of 1968, the USS Pueblo, a ship designed to collect signals (SIGINT) and electronic signals (ELINT) intelligence was boarded and captured by North Korean naval forces in what Pyongyang called its territorial waters.  One US serviceman was killed during the boarding, and the 82 other members of the ship's crew were held in captivity for 11 months.  North Korea still has the Pueblo; it is on display as a museum.  The Wikipedia account of what became known as the Pueblo Incident isn't too bad

In April of 1969, North Korean fighters shot down a US EC-121 surveillance aircraft about 90 miles off the North Korean coast.  All 31 crewmembers were killed. 
The low-intensity conflict officially ended in late 1969, but North Korea continued conducting violent acts against US and (mostly) South Korean personnel through the 1970s and into the 1990s.  Many of these incidents go beyond the scope of the monument and this blog entry, but they included assassination attempts against South Korean leaders in 1974 and 1983, the bombing of an airliner in 1987, numerous incidents along the DMZ, and the sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) corvette Cheonan in 2010.   The most notorious incident for American troops was the infamous "Axe Murders" in 1976.

In August of 1976, a work party comprised of UN (but actually US) soldiers on a mission to trim a tree within the Joint Security Area was attacked by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers.  Two US servicemen, CPT Arthur Bonifas and LT Mark Barrett, were killed.  The incident led to Operation Paul Bunyon, a combination of a second tree trimming mission and a massive show of military force by US and South Korean forces to intimidate the North Koreans.  Shortly afterwards, Pyongyang  kinda-sorta accepted responsibility for the killings. 

Lest we forget that a significant number of KATUSAs were killed alongside their US counterparts in this undeclared conflict, and they only represent a small percentage of the total number of South Korean troops killed over the period, which by some estimates is well over 500.


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  2. You are very welcome! Glad you find the site useful.

  3. Thank You for posting this My Uncles name is on the monument April 15 1969 where the N Koreans shot down the EC121 31 men lost their lives that Day Only two bodies were ever recovered

  4. Thank you for this article, my brother's name is on this Memorial too
    He was also on the EC121 that was shot down April 15, 1969.

  5. Apologies for the long delay in responding! We're not very active on the site anymore, but I do want to express my condolences to the both of you for your losses.