Book; the Korean War -- an Oral History

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), August 4, 2000 | Go to article overview

Book; the Korean War -- an Oral History


In recent years, some excellent historical studies have come out on the Korean War, which have chronicled all aspects of this so-called ``forgotten war" on and off the battlefield. Many of these classic accounts of the conflict have offered much in interpretation (sometimes reinterpretation) and historical scope. What separates (and distinguishes) Donald Knox's stirring chronicle of the Korean War from all the others is that it is told in the words--through the recollections (and sometimes letters) of the men who fought in it.

This is not a historical study loaded with conjecture and speculation. Nor is it an interpretation of the origins of the conflict or military strategies. No second-guessing here. It is just a stripped-down, gritty, tell-it-like-it-was oral history of the conflict. Although first published in 1985, it has most definitely stood up to the passage of time as one of the definitive oral histories on the war. Replete of drama, camaraderie, and courage under fire, Knox's oral history takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride of fighting, withdrawal, and invasion--from Task Force Smith to the Chosin Reservoir.

Knox has done a phenomenal job putting together this impressive, detailed account of the war from the perspective of the men who found themselves fighting in what was erroneously passed off as a ``police action'' in the early months of the conflict. The book covers those first six months of the conflict from the first U.S. ground troops to land at Pusan and the first contact with the NKPA outside of Osan to the withdrawal of the 8th Army and X Corps from North Korea.

The veterans' hard-hitting, visceral account of the war puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Wherever the action takes place, the reader is right there along side of these men--whether it's on some bombed out hill, racing across a rice paddy, or trying to keep warm around the ``frozen Chosin.'' After awhile, one feels as though they know the men who have shared their experiences of war. Similarly, the reader feels the losses, albeit vicariously, of the men we have been told about whom have been wounded or killed.

Likewise, Knox often offers multiple viewpoints of the same battle or military operation by connecting individual recollections with one another. It's very effective in not only tying the narrative together, but also lends historical credence to the individual accounts. On a more personal level, though, when one meets up with a soldier they read about early on in the narrative it is like coming across an old friend. This attention to human detail offers much in anecdotal and historical design.

In those first few weeks of the war, it's amazing to discover what the U.S. forces were up against when they landed on the peninsula. Much has been written about the ``so-called'' ineffectiveness of those forces after getting soft with garrison duty in Japan. However, Knox's narrative of the early days of the war is both insightful and astute in delineating the chaos these men encountered. There's no denying the first couple of weeks were calamitous. The reader learns that no amount of training or preparation would have helped these outnumbered and out-gunned forces. For example, 1st Lieutenant Philip Day of Task Force Smith recalled that ``in less than two hours, thirty North Korean tanks rolled through the position we were supposed to block as if we hadn't been there.'' The accounts that Knox includes on what befell Task Force Smith and other forces capture the chaos and frustration that was experienced then.

Similar horrors were recounted by 1st Lieutenant Charles Payne, 1st Battalion/34th Infantry Regiment after fierce fighting in and around Taejon. ``By first daylight my little knoll was covered with dead, dying, and wounded,'' recalled Payne. ``My men were dead and I was alone.'' Such recollections by the soldiers in Knox's book of the early days of the Korean War tell not only the horrors of the war, but also the odds the Americans (and ROK forces) were up against. …

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