Health problems that come with age have crept up on Jimmy “Doug” Gibbs, but he speaks with vigor and conviction as he recalls the Chosin Reservoir, an epic, against-all-odds battle in a war that some have dubbed as “forgotten.”
“I can say I have been to hell on this earth,” said Gibbs, after describing his part in the 17-day struggle, which transcended a battle between opposing sides and became a fight for survival in harsh, subzero weather.
The Korean War “will never be forgotten by what few men are left,” said the decorated U.S. Marine, also a member of the Hall County-based Korean War Veterans of Georgia.
The three-year Korean War is being remembered this weekend as veterans and others recognize the 60th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement signing. The armistice on July 27, 1953, marked the end to the fighting, which resulted in some 34,000 U.S. deaths, and reaffirmed the 38th parallel as the boundary between South and North Korea.
But it didn’t mean the end of the conflict, which still resounds today with saber-rattling by communist North Korea and futile attempts at reunification.
“The impact of the war is enormous,” said Chris Jespersen, the dean of our College of Arts & Letters at University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. “There is no doubt about that, with America’s commitment to Asia and the impact it had on the national security state.”
Many of the provisions of a U.S. National Security Council paper in 1950 that made containment of communist expansion a high priority “were put into place because of the Korean War,” Jespersen said.
And the U.S. would return to Asia in the 1960s to battle another communist enemy, North Vietnam, which, two years after a 1973 peace treaty with the U.S., would overrun South Vietnam and reunify the country under a communist regime that persists today.
“Korea seems forgotten in light of the post-Vietnam discussion,” Jespersen said. “After ’75, a lot of attention was paid to the loss in Vietnam. ... Korea wasn’t considered a forgotten war in the 1950s.”
For many of the men who served, guns and artillery from Korea have yet to silence. Memories are still fresh, with veterans still shuddering at the thought of Korea’s brutally cold winters.
“That’s the coldest I’ve ever been in my life,” said Paul Scroggs, president of the Korean War Veterans of Georgia, in an interview last week at Central Baptist Church in Gainesville, where the group meets monthly.
Scroggs, 81, served in the Navy as radioman on an attack transport ship that landed troops on most of the major Korean beachheads.
He said he recently picked up a diary he kept during the war and started reading it for the first time in 60 years. In a March 1953 entry, he noted that his ship had unloaded troops at Inchon, Korea.
“In my next entry, I said the helicopters ‘are coming over, bringing in the wounded,’” Scroggs said.
“There would be a hospital ship always sitting in the harbor there at Inchon. When we’d land the troops, they would go by truck right up to the front lines, and then ... helicopters would (return) with a (wounded) guy strapped on each side. You could see their boots (from the ground).
“They would come right over our ship and land on the hospital ship. At night, we would sit on top of the radio shack and watch the artillery flashes on the clouds.”
The day the truce was signed, Scroggs was at Inchon.
“We had to get underway before the truce went into effect,” he said. “That night, it was like the Fourth of July. Everybody was firing everything they had on the beach and celebrating.”
Charles Truelove, 81, of Gainesville, landed in Inchon in February 1953. Later, overdue for a rest, his company had to go back into action when Chinese soldiers, who were fighting on North Korea’s side, broke through South Korean ranks.
“Twenty-eight days later, I came off that hill with the same clothes I went up there with,” he said.
Most of the fighting was at night, Truelove said.
“A lot of times, you were shooting at gun flashes instead of at somebody,” he said.
Truelove never was injured in battle. He recalled one time when a piece of shrapnel struck him in the back above his belt, but the armored vest he was wearing protected him from harm.
He said the enemy was fearless in Korea, going through their own artillery to carry the battle forward.
“Talk about terrorists, that place was full of terrorists,” Truelove said.
Gibbs endured one of the U.S. military’s most horrendous battlefield experiences at Chosin, which later inspired books, websites and documentaries.
In the winter of 1950, some 15,000 fighters, mostly Marines, were surrounded by 120,000 Chinese soldiers in the frozen mountains of North Korea near the Yellow River. Against cruel weather conditions, they were able to retreat 78 miles to the Sea of Japan while still inflicting heavy blows to the enemy.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but the Chinese had cut us off at the rear,” Gibbs said in a phone interview. “The Pentagon had written us off as a lost bunch of men. Our weapons were so cold, they couldn’t fire and ... (the military) couldn’t drop supplies in there, such as food and medical supplies.
“Our commander told us we were going out, and we were going to take our wounded and dead with us. We had them stacked up in the back of trucks like crossties,” Gibbs said. “We had the dead on the bottom of the pile and our wounded on top of the dead.”
Snow was knee-deep as the warriors turned to withdraw.
“We started fighting and walking, hoping and praying that there was some way we could get out,” Gibbs said.
Darrel B. Whiting, who now lives in Gainesville, entered the U.S. Marines in August 1953, just after the war ended, and was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.
“We trained almost all the time, constantly,” he said.
Even though the war was over, tensions were still high and the occasional firefight or sniper attack would break out between both sides, resulting in casualties.
“You look at the way that war ended and the fact that it was not a unified Korea,” Jespersen said, “is hugely important for the region and the world, with North Korea’s isolated status.”
The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1995 and is operated by the National Park Service.
Last October, the Korean War Veterans of Georgia, which is down to 26 members after losing several in the past 18 months, dedicated a Hall County memorial at Rock Creek Veterans Park off Northside Drive and Academy Street in Gainesville.
At the time, Sunny K. Park, founder of the Doraville-based Good Neighbor Foundation, presented a $14,500 check from the “Korean-American community in Georgia” to the veterans group for the memorial.
As for the veterans themselves, talking about the war doesn’t come easy, said Scroggs, who has led the organization for 10 years.
Truelove, for one, never shared his experiences, Scroggs said.
“Only until recently has he warmed up a little bit,” he said.
Reflecting on why veterans don’t talk much, if at all, about the war, Scroggs said, “I don’t know if it’s that we’re getting older and we better tell somebody.”
“I think that’s why it’s called the forgotten war,” Truelove said. “It’s been just in the last 30 years that the ones who were there started loosening up a little bit.”
On Friday, Scroggs went to Atlanta for a Korean War remembrance ceremony at the Georgia Capitol.
“I’ve been thinking, ‘What could I say?’” he said beforehand. “All I can think of is, ‘Never in my wildest dreams would I see the South Koreans honoring me in our state Capitol.’ It is amazing how appreciative they are.”
Truelove said he recalled attending the memorial dedication in Washington as part of a 10-member group from Gainesville. In one taxi trip, the driver was South Korean.
Several people in the Gainesville group paid the fare, but the driver declined a tip.
The driver said, “I need money, but I don’t need it bad enough to take it from you. Thank you for my freedom,” Truelove said.