It is often called “The Forgotten War” or “The Unknown War,” but many veterans remember it all too well.
Some remain haunted by its horrors.
“We don’t forget it, but I think a lot of people, especially younger people, have no idea of what it was like,” said Auburn’s John Pepper, who served in the 4th Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment during the Korean War. “We don’t forget.”
Pepper, 79, wiped away the tears, reflecting on a horrible war between nations waged on a remote peninsula in Asia. Pepper lost friends, his youth and innocence as a well-trained soldier fighting for freedom on rugged, unforgiving terrain, punished by bitter cold and extreme heat.
He was not alone.
Don Chadwick and other veterans know the Korean War was much more than a hard and unfortunate three-year conflict played out above and below the 38th parallel. It was pure hell, a barbaric war filled with atrocities, fought in difficult circumstances. To them, it was a battle of survival, courage and soul as Americans confronted a relentless, savage enemy with superior numbers more than 50 years ago.
Still, the Korean Conflict gets lost between World War II, a major event of the 20th century, and the Vietnam War, a controversial struggle that fractured the U.S.
To help bring attention to the significance of the Korean War, several veterans assembled this week at the Auburn Senior Activity Center to share their experiences, however painful they might have been. They came to remind others of how great the sacrifice was to protect the sovereignty of South Korea from the hostile Communist North. The war led to a bitter military stalemate. It remains divided in many ways today.
The war came and went at a huge cost.
Chadwick, a decorated Marine veteran who served honorably in the combat theater in late 1950, still suffers from the wounds.
There are the physical ones. The 77-year-old Chadwick, who grew up in Seattle and lives in SeaTac today, no longer can feel his arms and feet, a result of frozen weather-related injuries he sustained during combat. He took three bullets, two to the helmet and another through the neck. He also took shrapnel in his back.
Doctors considered amputating his badly injured legs after his combat duty. Chadwick managed to hang onto them through a fortuitous break – the stateside doctor who offered a second opinion was his mother’s cousin.
Then there are the emotional wounds. He continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. He nearly drowned during an amphibious landing. He nearly was killed by an enemy prowler at night. He was MIA for 10 days.
If not for the help of his friend, fellow Marine Tasi Alo, he would not be here today. They had each other’s back. They saved each other’s life. They remain close today.
Chadwick is 70 percent disabled but able to get around today through family and VA support.
And, when asked, he is willing to talk about his time in the Korean War for those who wish to listen. Talking about the horrific ordeal is a way to therapeutically tackle his psychological fears.
“War is war, and tough is tough, but the talks have helped,” said Chadwick, who served as a corporal assigned to demolition and anti-tank duty in the weapons company for the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division. “If you hold it in, you end up hurting yourself and your family.
“You won’t survive unless you talk about it,” Chadwick added. “If you don’t get it out of your system, it is going to fester.”
Chadwick and his fellow Marines were part of one of the most daunting and bloodiest chapters in the Korean War. He was part of the Battle of Inchon, which led to the liberation of Seoul. He was part of the subsequent invasion of North Korea and weathered the massive wave of Chinese intervention.
He also fought and survived the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. The fight involved a 30,000-man unit from the U.S. 7th Infantry Division and Marine Corps. Unprepared for Chinese tactics, the American units were soon surrounded. They eventually managed to escape the encirclement but sustained more than 15,000 casualties after inflicting heavy casualties on six Chinese divisions.
Chadwick scrambled out alive. He is one of the 2,500 Chosin Few survivors alive today. The dwindling alumni will have a reunion this summer.
He went on to fulfill a good life. He and his wife raised four children. He attended the University of Washington. He spent 43 years in the electrical industry. He survived.
“The Forgotten War” remains an everyday flashback to him. He has learned to cope with it, with courage and honor.
“We won’t forget,” Chadwick said of the war. “We will never let it be forgotten.”