Cold War Casualties Cry out for Commemoration

By Fournier, Richard | VFW Magazine, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Cold War Casualties Cry out for Commemoration


Fournier, Richard, VFW Magazine


Memorials and museums haphazardly spot the landscape. Only a comprehensive museum-memorial combination can convey the magnitude of the nation's longest war, say veterans.

It's the war no contemporary government official wants to remember yet recognize. After all, the nation's former enemies are now supposedly our friends. Those in charge of transmitting historical knowledge will not even admit it was a war. Still others maintain the West did not achieve victory, or even worse, say it should not have.

A grateful nation pays tribute to its warriors by respecting their service in some permanent fashion. Traditionally, this has taken the form of memorials and museums. Just witness the much-deserved fanfare surrounding the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Politics should not interfere with such commemoration, but it has in the case of the Cold War, our country's longest running conflict. "In modern-day America, there is too much fashionable tampering with authentic tradition," wrote Willie Morris, former editor of Harper's. "This juggling with expressions of the past is reminiscent of the way the Communists are eternally rewriting history. ..."

For 40 years, GIs of every service manned ramparts along Communist borders in East Europe, Northeast Asia and the Caribbean Rim. At least 384 were killed as a result of hostile enemy action in a war that was reputedly waged "without firing a shot." Thousands of other Americans died while maneuvering to prevent global conflict.

So how have their memories been served by the nation that called them to duty? A comprehensive survey of museum exhibits and memorial reminders clearly shows the need for a single, unifying site that honors the service of Cold War veterans, especially those who paid the ultimate price for keeping the West free.

Scattered across the country-the world for that matter-are a number of relatively minor tributes. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions to this generalization. Let's take a look at what exists today and what is required to make sure posterity fully understands the sacrifices made by Americans in uniform well beyond the parameters of the two hot wars-Korea and Vietnam-in the struggle with communism.

Starting With a Polar Bear

Some historians say the Cold War actually began at the end of World War I. If so, the first memorial to Americans killed fighting the Soviets stands in White Chapel Memorial Park in Troy, Mich. The Polar Bear Monument, dedicated May 30, 1930, remembers 56 men of the 339th Infantry Regiment and 330th Engineers-"Michigan's Own"-killed in North Russia in 1918-1919. (All told, 146 Americans were KIA there.)

But the Cold War as most Americans know it dates back to May 1945 with the end of WWII in Europe. The first hostile American casualty, however, died on the other side of the world in China. Chinese Communists executed Army Air Forces Capt. John Birch, then attached to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), on Aug. 25, 1945. But, his name is not listed in the OSS Memorial Book, even though an officer killed in post-war Vietnam is so recognized.

In North China, between 1945 and 1948, Chinese Communists killed 13 U.S. Marines in action. Though covered by the China Service Medal, the frieze of the Marine Corps War Memorial does not list North China among its battle honors. Nor does the Marine Corps Historical Center have a display or list these KIAs on its official casualty list.

East Asia in the early years of the Cold War claimed another dozen American lives. The government of Taiwan remembers an Army adviser with a memorial on Kinmen (Quemoy) Island. Another, a CIA operative killed in China, is uniquely honored by the city of his birth. The Louisville (Ky.) Cold War Memorial-perhaps the only municipal one in America-also includes "all men and women who served in the Cold War."

Laos was a separate theater of the Cold War in 1961-62, yet the 13 Americans killed in action there at the time are named only on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. …

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