Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Korean Naval History: The Sinking of the ROKN Corvette Cheonan and a Captured North Korean Sang-O Class Submarine

During our time on the Peninsula, we have had several opportunities to visit sites that are important reminders to our Republic of Korea hosts of the threat posed by their bellicose neighbor to the north.  This blog is a brief tour of two such sites.  The first is a memorial to the sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) ship Cheonan.  The Cheonan, a corvette-class ship, broke in two and sank in March of 2010 with the loss of 46 of its 104-man crew.  The site of the sinking was near the island of Baengnyeong, just south of the disputed maritime boundary in the Yellow (or West) Sea where there have been several clashes between the North and South going back decades.  The cause of the sinking was not immediately known, but a later international investigation led by the ROK determined that a  torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine was the cause of the ship's demise.  The second site, the Gangneung Unification Park, is a little less well known, largely because it is in a relatively remote area on the eastern side of the Peninsula and the incident it commemorates occurred almost 20 years ago.  The park contains a North Korean submarine captured during what is called the Gangneung submarine infiltration incident.  In September of 1996, a Sang-O class submarine attempted to pick up a North Korean reconnaissance team from the ROK coast line near the town of Gangneung, but ran hard aground.   The 26 men on the sub, including the reconnaissance team, decided to try to escape overland through the DMZ.  Before they scattered into the mountainous and rugged countryside, however, 11 were executed by their compatriots.  Meanwhile, a suspicious local Korean reported their presence to the authorities and the hunt was on.  ROK security forces conducted a massive manhunt to find the infiltrators over the course of 49 days, killing 12 and capturing a 13th.  One is believed to have escaped across the DMZ.  Twelve ROK military and four civilians were killed during the operation, and another 27 were wounded.  The North Koreans at first claimed the submarine had lost power and drifted ashore, but later apologized for the incident.


The memorial to the Cheonan is at the Pyongtaek naval base about 50 miles south-southeast of Seoul.  It includes the Cheonan itself, a patrol craft sunk during a 2002 skirmish, monuments, and a museum. 

Depiction of the 1999 skirmish along the disputed Yellow Sea boundary. 
Photograph of the incident.  The ROK Navy was the clear victor during this skirmish, sinking at least one North Korean patrol craft and damaging several others.  North Korean casualties were estimated anywhere from a few dozen to over 100.
A skirmish in 2002 left one ROK Navy patrol boat sunk.  It was raised and is now on display
Close-up showing the impact points of the rounds that struck the patrol craft.
Raising of the ROK patrol craft.
Photo of the shelling of the Yeonpyong Island in 2010.
Replica of the North Korean torpedo casing the ROKs discovered after the sinking of the Cheonan.  This was a key piece of the evidence presented by the South Koreans that a North Korean submarine was the culprit for the 2010 attack.
List of names of ROK Navy sailors killed during the Cheonan sinking.
The Cheonan.
Where the ship was ripped apart.  I'm no naval or explosives expert, but it seemed pretty clear the ship was destroyed by an external explosion.

 Gangneung Unification Park and the Sang-O Submarine

A wooden fishing boat used by North Koreans to defect.  In the background is a 3,400 ton decommissioned ROK Navy destroyer (Jeon Buk Ham) on display.  The ship was once part of the US Navy's inventory.

Interior of the Sango-O.  Awfully crowded space for 26 men.

Items recovered from the Sang-O incident on display in the park museum

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Vietnam War Sites: The "Hanoi Hilton," a Museum in Hue, and Combat Base Khe Sanh

With our interest in military history and since the Vietnam War is such an integral part of what most Americans probably know or can remember about Vietnam, we decided that our trip would not be complete without visits to a few sites of what the Vietnamese call the Resistance War Against America.  I'm not going to write about the war itself as there are plenty of books and websites out there on the subject, and I am not an authority on it either.  I'll just write about the sites themselves and show you the pics.  There were three-- 1) Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, known to Americans as the "Hanoi Hilton." 2)  A military museum in Hue.  3) Khe Sahn, a Marine combat base near the old Demilitarized Zone (plus a couple of other bases and outposts in the same area).

Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo was built in 1896 by the French for holding Vietnamese rebel fighters, which it did until the French evacuated Hanoi in the mid-1950s.  Most of the prison, now a museum, was devoted to this portion of the prison's history.  For a brief period from the mid-1950s until the US began bombing North Vietnam in 1964, the prison held common criminals.  From 1964 until 1973, the prison held captured US pilots and gained its American nickname, the "Hanoi Hilton."

Most of the displays focused on the imprisonment of Vietnamese rebels by the French in the late 19th century up until the 1950s.  Evidently, conditions were not very good.

Other depictions of French treatment of Vietnamese rebel prisoners.
These are the remnants of two sewer openings that prisoners used in 1951 to break out of Hoa Lo.
A cell with shackles.
Part of what was known as Death Row.

One of the more prominent displays, a guillotine that the French used at Hoa Lo as late as the 1930s.

And the results, displayed for intimidating the local populace against revolt.

Remnants of an American B-52 bomber shot down over Hanoi.  The portion devoted to the imprisonment of American pilots during the Vietnam War consisted of just two rooms.  One room focused on the bombings (referred to as the "sabotage war") and the "arrest" of US pilots.  The other room focused on life inside the prison, which the Vietnamese claimed was the best they could offer considering the economic hardships of the war.  Life for the prisoners was "stable."
Uniform and parachute of of a US pilot.

Photo of the capture of Navy pilot and current senator John McCain.
Propaganda regarding the B-52 bombing campaign.
Prison uniforms.
Recreational activities of the captured pilots.
 Vietnamese Army Museum in Hue

Just across the street from Hue's Citadel is a Vietnamese Army museum full of military equipment from recent wars.  Many of the items on display were American weapons that were captured from the South Vietnamese Army when it collapsed in 1975.

A Russian-made MiG-21 fighter, which the placard said was effective against US imperialist bombers.
A French 75mm mountain gun captured in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, where the Vietnamese (Viet Minh) defeated the French colonial army.  The defeat led to the withdrawal of the French from Indochina and was a key battle of the 20th century.
There were a number of photos like these of North Vietnamese soldiers walking past abandoned South Vietnamese equipment during the decisive invasion of 1975.
Recovered US bombs.
A creepy display of US service member IDs recovered during the Vietnam War.
Marine Combat Bases and Outposts Along the Demilitarized Zone

Near the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which divided North and South Vietnam there was a string of US Marine combat (or fire) bases and outposts along Route 9 designed to block North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attempts to infiltrate the border area.  These bases were home for Marine infantry, tanks, artillery, and support personnel, and from them, the Marines would conduct combat patrols into the surrounding countryside against NVA soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas. Some bases, like Khe Sanh, might have their own airstrips.  Khe Sanh was probably the most well-known of these, at least for the Marines.  Its story is long and complicated, and its impact on the war when it played a prominent role in the US military's Vietnam strategy in 1967-68 is still debated.  The long and the short of it is that in 1967, the US military decided that Khe Sanh could be used to draw the NVA into a large-scale attack on the base, similar to what happened at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  In 1954, the Vietnamese were able to overwhelm the French garrison.  This time, however, US firepower would make the difference, or so it was thought.  Fighting raged around the base and its outposts from January to April of 1968.  It was evacuated in July of the same year, only to be reoccupied by South Vietnamese forces for a short while in 1971 when the South invaded Laos in the disastrous Operation Lam Son 719.  Today, the old bases and outposts are abandoned, but still there, marked by the occasional monument and visited by a few American vets.  The site of the Khe Sahn Combat Base has a museum and a few static displays.   Here is a map of the area. 

Monument to the North Vietnamese capture of Camp Carroll in 1972.  Camp Carroll was the home base for the 3rd Marine Regiment from 1966-1970.  Afterwards, South Vietnamese troops occupied it. 

That day, there were a couple of old vets there on a tour.  Both were telling stories of their time at the base long ago. One was a former marine, the other a sailor.  They ignored us after I told them I was a former soldier and was only a child back when they were serving in Vietnam.
Detail of the monument.
The Rock Pile.  It was an observation post and artillery base from 1966 to 1969.  Today, it is just a dramatic hill surrounded by beautiful countryside.
More countryside along Rt 9.

Monument in the center of the Khe Sanh town.


Khe Sanh Combat Base


American equipment captured from the South Vietnamese Army on display.

Reconstructed bunkers and trenches.
Remnants of Khe Sanh's airstrip flanked by a couple of old tanks.