Korean War 101

It was the bloodiest foreign war in U.S. history, but what do you know about the Korean War? This is a primer.


The Nation of Korea was split into North and South Korea at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union occupied the North, and the United States stayed in the South. What was once one nation was split in the middle, along the 38th parallel.

The Korean War began in 1950 when the North decided to "unify" the country under communism, and attacked the South. The U.S. eventually decided that fighting communism should be a priority and engaged the United Nations in its first military action - to push the Northern forces out of the South.

It was a dirty war, and battles devastated the entire terrain, from the south to the north and back again.

More than three million Korean civilians were killed, along with 55,000 American soldiers. Eight thousand American soldiers are still listed as Missing in Action.

After three years, in the summer of 1953, a cease fire was signed. The war ended about where it began, with a communist government in the North, and a democratic one in the South, split along the 38th parallel.

As with most wars, necessity was the mother of invention. There were many "firsts" during the Korean War. There were some differences in strategy fighting this war. This was the first war in the U.S. fought in conjunction with the United Nations. This was the first use of helicopters for evacuation of wounded personnel. Medical units were set up near the front lines for triage and emergency surgeries, but those needing further treatment were sent to war ships. This was the first use of jet fighters and fighter-bombers leading to the first aerial combat between jet aircraft. Some of those jets were manned by Soviet pilots for the training experience and hence the first time U.S. pilots fought Soviet pilots. In the U.S., the draft was re-instate, but exemptions favored the more affluent and more cosmopolitan young men. The war was fought mainly by blue-collar and farm workers.

Perhaps because of the rules of conscription, Iowa did play a large part in this war. Iowa sent approximately 8000 soldiers to Korea during the war. More than 500 were killed. 70 Iowans are still as Missing in Action. Five Iowa units were sent, from Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Sioux City and Cedar Rapids. One Iowan was given a Medal of Honor - Dean Edwards from Indianola served in the 2nd infantry division and was killed at the battle of Ching Pon in January of 1951. And, the state's namesake battleship, the U.S.S. Iowa was used in this battle.

There were some social and medical firsts in the Korean War. The military became truly integrated. Units were made of individuals from all over, and of all cultural backgrounds. Just five years earlier, World War II was almost completely segregated. The military also developed better cold weather clothing for its service personnel due to the bitterly cold temperatures of Korean winters. Medical advances were made in the use of vascular surgery, and veins were transplanted from both living and deceased donors. Kidney dialysis machines were used successfully with soldiers, confirming its place in medicine. Additional medical advances were made using blood plasma, not just "whole" blood.

And, America's role in world affairs changed drastically. The U.S. took a stand against communism, beginning the Cold War. The U.S. learned about a "limited warfare" strategy - and that all wars didn't need to end with nuclear weapons. The U.S. took a major step towards becoming the "police officer" to the world. The U.S. military budget has gone up every year since then - with no rest periods - unlike the first half of the 20th century. The U.S. has a continual presence in South Korea to this day. There was no exit strategy, and there still isn't one. The North Koreans and Chinese haven't forgotten the war - and their opposition affects U.S. relationships with the entire region to this day.

Iowa PBS

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