Standing over a bomb dolly, U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Carl Comte stuck his survival knife into a cylinder's seam and twisted the blade.
Welds popped. Comte pried a small opening in the tin canister that was as long as he was tall. He pulled out several pieces of paper, slipped the knife into his belt sheath and tucked the souvenirs amid the celestial tables and maps in his navigation bag. Then the dolly's cargo was loaded into the B-29's bomb bay.
Comte's final payload over North Korea wasn't 250-pound bombs but thousands of cherry blossom leaflets printed in Chinese. The message: Go home. The war is over.
It was the night of July 27, 1953, the day a cease-fire pact ended fighting in the Korean War.
Now, six decades later, the conflict's global significance remains largely neglected — some say ignored — in the United States. Flanked by World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean War was the middle child of America's 20th century conflicts.
The war, however, left a lasting legacy on several fronts.
The Korean War was too significant to neglect, too momentous to ignore, too pivotal to be disregarded and far too costly to be forgotten, says Paul M. Edwards, a U.S. Army veteran of the war and founder of the Center for the Study of the Korean War in Independence, Mo.
The Korean War was a civil war that erupted into an international conflict. Its complexities often fall as casualties in the retelling, historians say.
The Korean Peninsula, occupied by imperial Japan since 1910, was divided into North and South at the 38th parallel after Japan's 1945 defeat in WWII. The Soviet Union supported the North; the United States aided the South.
The North and South were virtually at war in the late 1940s, when the United States and the Soviets withdrew their occupation troops. North Korea pressed the Soviets for permission to invade the South and reunify the Korean people under communist control. The Soviets initially refused, reluctant to risk confronting the United States. They gave lukewarm approval in early 1950, if North Korea got China's blessing.
North Korea invaded in June 1950.
Korea caught the United States unprepared for combat. Occupation troops in Japan were rushed into battle with little ammunition and ineffective weapons. The Army was so short of tanks that it took down those on concrete monument pedestals at Fort Knox and reinstalled engines, transmissions and other equipment. Rusting tank hulks from South Pacific battlefields were refurbished in Japan.
Although the United States reversed the course of the conflict in less than three months after its outbreak, war was waged up and down the Korean Peninsula for a year. Then the fighting turned into a two-year stalemate near where it began on the 38th parallel.
Korea is the only conflict since 1945 in which the armies of two great powers — the United States and China — met on a battlefield. America's first battlefield clash with communism was unpopular, bloody and seemingly unending.
Three years after its start, fighting ended in a negotiated armistice.
The war's death toll included an estimated 2 million Korean civilians and soldiers, 600,000 Chinese, nearly 37,000 Americans and 3,000 Turks, Britons and others in United Nations forces.
Some 150,000 Nebraskans and Iowans served in the conflict. When it was over, 331 Nebraskans and 532 Iowans had lost their lives.
As the war generation in Korea and the United States fades and memories of the destruction and violence evaporate, the conflict's spot in world history is secure, said James Matray, a Korean War historian at California State University, Chico.
Matray said the war's fundamental legacy is that it militarized and hardened the Cold War, the state of political and military tension between U.S.- and Soviet-led blocs from 1947 to 1991.
Matray said the war and its outcome had far-reaching significance that shaped the world for the rest of the century and continues. Among the outcomes, it:
» Revitalized NATO, the Western alliance established after WWII to counter the Soviet bloc in Europe.
» Focused U.S. resistance to communist expansion in the Far East.
» Contributed to Japan's economic recovery from WWII.
» Poisoned U.S.-China relations for two decades, but made China a great power in the eyes of the world. Still, China was left in diplomatic and economic isolation and dependent on the Soviets for a generation, accelerating the split between the two communist states.
“It was a watershed event,” Matray said. “It altered the nature of international affairs.”
Michael Pearlman of Lawrence, Kan., a retired Army Command and General Staff College historian who is writing a book about U.S. nuclear policy through the Korean War, said the armistice evolved into a peace treaty that has largely held up for six decades.
“There's peace,” he said. “Sure, the North blusters, and there are shots at the border. But that's not war.”
* * *
In the summer of 1953, the only thing Comte and others in the war zone focused on were their jobs and the slow-moving truce talks in tents at a village called Panmunjom near what would become the border between the two countries.
United Nations commanders met with North Korean and Chinese officials there from 1951 to 1953.
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Gene Livingston of Atkinson, Neb., had the equivalent of a sideline pass to the negotiations.
Livingston arrived in Korea in late summer 1952 and was assigned to the historical section at 1st Marine Division headquarters northeast of Seoul. He gathered reports from Marine units to create daily and monthly war diaries to run up the chain of command. He collected hundreds of photographs to accompany the diaries.
His job kept him on the front lines of history, including brief visits to Panmunjom, where talks eventually ended the fighting with the negotiated armistice — simply an agreement to stop fighting, not a surrender or peace treaty — that endures today.
Marine officers at Panmunjom periodically would alert division headquarters that they had paperwork to be picked up. Livingston, a driver and often an officer would travel alone on primitive dirt trails and gravel roads to Panmunjom in a jeep.
The cargo from Panmunjom was always a large, khaki-colored cloth sack, similar to a money bag. Livingston remembers it as large enough to hold 50 pounds of cement. A padlocked leather strap secured the opening.
“There never was more than 10 or 15 pounds of paper in there,” Livingston said. “Some days there was only one sheet of paper inside. It was all secret. Nobody was supposed to see it.”
Livingston, now an 85-year-old former rancher and rural mail carrier who lives in Omaha, would place the bag into the open rear of the jeep or ride with it under his legs in the front passenger seat.
Back at the historical section tent, Livingston's captain opened the bag. Papers were distributed to Livingston and others to type into daily reports that later would be compiled and distributed to Marine commanders everywhere from Korea to the United States. It was the same routine they followed for gathering and distributing daily combat reports throughout the war.
“The Panmunjom packets were full of information our officers there picked up and what they accomplished that day,” Livingston said.
Historian Matray, who is at Korea University in Seoul, attending a conference on the end of the war, said the issue of repatriating prisoners of war bogged down negotiations. The Communists insisted that all prisoners be returned. U.N. negotiators insisted that prisoners who wished to remain where they were should be allowed to do so.
Many Chinese prisoners didn't want to return to China, Matray said. Most were Nationalist soldiers forced to serve in Communist China's army after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949. Some Nationalists tried to make it impossible for Communists to return, by tattooing anti-Communist slogans on them.
“There was a tremendous war being waged within the United Nations POW camps throughout the last two years of the war,” Matray said.
Exchanges of sick and wounded prisoners started four months before the armistice was signed, but the big switch was delayed. The Chinese and North Koreans eventually relented on the repatriation issue and signed the armistice.
More than 3,700 American prisoners eventually were released. Livingston returned to the United States on the same ship carrying the first freed POWs.
More than 22,600 Communist soldiers declined to go home.
* * *
Matray said divided Korea — illustrated by Panmunjom and the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that stretches 156 miles across the peninsula — are the last vestiges of the Cold War.
“Koreans carry around their necks an albatross of a Cold War that's been over for a generation,” he said.
North Korea's warlike rhetoric aimed at the United States and South Korea reflects a memory of the pummeling the United States inflicted upon the North during the war. The regime of Kim Jong Un — like those of his father and grandfather before him — is convinced the United States “was, is and will continue to be dedicated to the destruction of North Korea,” Matray said.
The Kim dynasty has used the national memory of the United States destroying the North's army to indoctrinate the populace that America is a dedicated enemy of North Korea, Matray said.
In addition to a fledgling nuclear arsenal, the North Korean army has more than 13,000 artillery tubes — more than any other country — and most of them are aimed into South Korea. The artillery arsenal includes chemical weapons.
North Korea also has the world's largest special operations forces and more submarines than any other nation. The North's military — the fourth-largest on the planet — includes the world's third-largest ground army. Three-fourths of the army is deployed between the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and the DMZ.
About 30,000 U.S. troops remain stationed in South Korea as a deterrent to renewed aggression by the North.
Except for the black hole that is North Korea, northeast Asia is a booming corner of the world — one of the fastest-growing pieces of the global economy. It produces one-fifth of the world's economic output and trade. The area also represents 25 percent of all U.S. trade, and $221 billion is direct U.S. investment.
More than 2,000 American companies operate in South Korea, which in a little more than a decade transformed from an agricultural-based economy to the world's largest shipbuilder and a leading microchip producer.
The South Korean army deploys worldwide. South Korea had the third-largest force in Iraq, behind only the United States and Great Britain. South Korean troops also were in Afghanistan.
South Korea was the second-largest provider of ground troops, following the United States, during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. At any one time, South Korea had about 50,000 troops in South Vietnam.
Since the end of the war, North Korea remains isolated, impoverished and in decay. It depends on outside aid to feed a third of its 23 million people.
Matray said the 60th anniversary of the end of the war is time for reflection and sadness for Koreans.
“There aren't two Koreas,” he said. “There's only one Korea. It was artificially divided at the end of WWII and then a war brutalized the country for three years and resolved nothing.”
* * *
Comte's final flight over North Korea felt to him like a page torn from an adventure comic book.
In the opening panels, a B-29 lumbers at low altitude in the night sky over enemy territory.
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In the second series, somewhere below the aircraft in a dark landscape, a Communist anti-aircraft gunner who didn't get the message that the war was over — or doesn't care — has one shell waiting to unload on an easy target.
“The adrenaline flowed,” Comte said in reference to the anxiety among crew members.
Comte, 83, a retired colonel who lives in Bellevue, was a navigator on nearly two dozen night bombing missions over North Korea during the last months of the war.
On the night of the armistice, Comte's bomber was one of three B-29s dropping leaflets across North Korea. The cease-fire officially started at 10 p.m.
Truce negotiations had been underway since Comte enlisted in 1951. Soldiers followed every breakthrough and breakdown of the talks.
“They were like a puff of exhaled cigarette smoke,” Comte said of the negotiations. “There was a lot of rhetoric and a lot of noise, but no action.”
Based in Yokota Air Base in Japan with the 98th Bomb Wing, Comte flew bombing missions every three days to targets from the 38th parallel north to the Yalu River border with China.
During his last combat mission just days before the armistice, Comte's low-flying aircraft dropped 15-pound anti-personnel fragmentation bombs on Chinese soldiers threatening to overrun U.S. troops. The devices burst in the air, creating carnage with ball bearings and steel fragments.
The bomber crew listened over a radio link from a forward air controller on the battlefield under the barrage.
“We could hear the (Chinese) bugles blowing,” Comte said. “Dropping regular bombs was OK, but this time we really felt like we were doing something for our troops on the ground. They were the real heroes of the war.”
Like the fragmentation bombs, the tin cylinders dropped by three B-29s across North Korea the night of the armistice were detonated above ground.
But this was a mission of peace. The cylinders burst open and scattered thousands of leaflets across the countryside. They depicted Communist soldiers returning over hills to their homes and families.
Comte went home, too. He spent nearly 29 years in the Air Force and retired as assistant chief of staff at Strategic Air Command headquarters, now the U.S. Strategic Command, near Bellevue. In the six decades since the war's end, Comte said, only one person has thanked him for his service in Korea.
Comte and his late wife, Evelyn, were vacationing in Jamaica. During a dolphin show, he asked a young woman standing next to him where she was from. Texas, she replied, but born in South Korea. Comte said he served there during the war.
Tears rolled down the woman's cheeks.
“She looked at me and said she wanted to thank me on behalf of her country and family for what I did, because without American intervention and help, she probably wouldn't be here,” Comte said. “It really touched me. They are true allies.”
Still time for Korean War vets to book Honor Flight spots
About 200 Korean War veterans have applied to participate in an Honor Flight this fall to the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The one-day trip is for men and women from Nebraska and western Iowa who served in the war zone between 1950 and 1953, said organizers Bill and Evonne Williams of Omaha.
The trip is tentatively scheduled for late October, if funds can be collected to charter the aircraft and cover other expenses. About $100,000 is needed.
Applications for a seat on the flight should be postmarked no later than Aug. 5, Bill Williams said.
Applications can be downloaded at PatrioticProductions.org. Completed forms should be mailed to Patriotic Productions, 16213 Lamp St., Omaha, NE 68118.
Tax-deductible donations can be made online or mailed to the Korean War Veterans Honor Flight Fund at the Midlands Community Foundation, 945 N. Adams St., Suite 7, Papillion, NE 68046. The foundation's website is MidlandsCommunity.org.