The American Legion Magazine
September 1, 2000
Alan W. Dowd

WITH THE SOMBER shadows of the Korean 'police action' and a crisis in world affairs hanging low on the horizon, official delegates and visitors to the 32nd annual National Convention of The American Legion charted a course for the new year ahead at Los Angeles."

So began The American Legion Magazine's coverage of the first convention following the outbreak of war in Korea. Those somber shadows would darken the magazine's pages for most of the next three years.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who spoke at the 32nd Convention, made international news at the event. Dulles' speech included warnings about extending the war beyond the Yalu River, a condemnation of communist intransigence and lack of seriousness, and concern for communist advances throughout Asia.

"In its own Foreign Relations actions," the magazine continued, "the Legion expressed no confidence in the U.N. as a world peace body as now constituted and questioned the emphasis now given some activities of the U.N.'s independent agencies."

A Full-Fledged War. As always, Legion publications kept veterans and servicemen up to date on developments in Washington as well as overseas.

"On June 1, 1951, the Senate by voice vote approved a compromise bill which permits induction of 18-and-a-half year-olds and extends the period of service from 21 months to two years. House approval is expected to follow.  The legislation also clears the way for an armed forces goal of 3.5 million," the Legion reported in July 1951.

Another article from the same issue noted, "Congress finally got around to recognizing the 'police action' in Korea as a full-fledged war - and the men who are fighting there entitled to veterans benefits. The Legion has been fighting for this recognition since the war broke out, but it took the full force of public displeasure to jar Congress into action.  As a result, honorably discharged veterans of the Korean War are now entitled to hospitalization, medical care, domiciliary treatment and burial benefits, and compensation and pension for themselves and dependents."

Korea had a profound effect not only on America and its fighting men, but on the Legion itself. "On December 28, 1951, President Truman affixed his signature to Senate Bill 4240 passed by both houses of the Congress amending the Legion's National Charter. The ranks of the Legion were opened to armed service personnel on duty since June 25, 1950, in the Korean crisis. Millions of new and future war veterans were made eligible for membership in The American Legion.

"It was the second time in eight years that the Congress has been called upon to amend the Legion's Charter to admit veterans of a new war. On October 29, 1942, President Roosevelt signed a bill which made the veterans of WWII eligible for Legion membership. The new eligibility period is designated as beginning June 25, 1950, and ending with the official cessation of hostilities, whenever proclaimed by the government. The immediate effect is to make potential Legionnaires of the estimated 2.5 million men and women now in the armed forces."

Korean War veterans came to be called "K-vets" in the magazine's companion publication, "The Veterans Newsletter."

"On the average, K-vets applying for job training seem more vague about what career to choose than were WWII GIs, says a VA survey. The chief reason seems to be applicants so far are younger.  The VA says this survey has put it on its mettle to make its counseling service top-notch. Young vets who are vague about the training they want should take full advantage of VA counseling service."

Another issue of the newsletter reported, "According to a survey made by VA, the average age of Korean War veterans is 22, WWII veterans average age 33 and WWI vets average 58 plus."

As the war wore on, Washington dug in for the long haul. "A presidential order dropping fatherhood as grounds for new draft deferments became effective Aug. 25, 1953. The new order applies only to future fathers in the draft age bracket between 18-and-a-half and 26."

The newsletter later warned, "Wholesale slashes in the federal budget for the Veterans Administration will, if enacted by Congress, be reflected in sharply reduced services to disabled veterans. Cuts will most keenly be felt in hospital, medical and domiciliary care of disabled war veterans - all in the name of economy!"

Americans grew increasingly apathetic as the war staggered on. Nowhere was their apathy more obvious than when it came to blood supply. "What happened in Korea is an acute crisis in blood," observed Eric Northrup in the December 1951 issue. "In one of his final acts as secretary of defense, George C. Marshall went on the national airwaves and told the American people that the reserve supply of blood plasma was exhausted. Not low. Not below quota," Northrup explained. "Exhausted."

The Voice of Korea's Casualties. As months passed into years, the war took its toll on soldiers, families and veterans alike. Korea would claim more than 35,000 veterans, trap 8,000 Americans as prisoners of war and maim thousands more. The American Legion would become their voice.

James Jones, Marine veteran from Korea, couldn't understand why America seemed to shrug at the "100,000 casualties, 15,000 dead and thousands more butchered." The combat veteran called the United States "a nation which gives every indication of not caring, which appears to prefer looking the other way, which concerns itself virtually not at all with the fearful casualties, and which has dedicated itself almost exclusively to the betterment of its individual back yards."

Jones would later confront head-on the perception among many Americans that Korea wasn't really a war. "When you listen to some veteran of Korea tell you how tough it was at the Naktong, or Chosin Reservoir, or Yoju  you would do well to stifle that urge to top him. This guy probably will refuse to be bested. He figures he fought the meanest war of them all."

Gene Gilmore, another Korean War vet, wrote not about the shock of war, but the shock of returning home. "Perhaps your family loves you just as much as before, but they are more independent, used to doing without you.  Your house is intact, if you're lucky.  You find your job has shrunken in your absence.  Your take-home pay is considerably less than it was two years ago, and what is left doesn't go as far."

With the opposing armies rolling up and down the peninsula, The American Legion Magazine began devoting columns and pages to the missing: "Cpl. Curtis J. Kiesling, remains not recovered  Cpl. John Bobbs, reported missing  Pfc. Barney Talbert, missing since Dec. 2, 1950,  Sgt. Tommie Lee Morgan, family advised that he is a prisoner, Pfc. Connie Max Conner, missing at Chosin Reservoir." Each month, more names, more columns, more missing.

The words of Ruby Peeler, wife of a Korean MIA, reminded Legion subscribers that the war's victims were not only in Korea. "We Korean MIA widows must face the grueling fact that our soldiers, if living, face the most torturous existence of any uniformed men having fallen into enemy hands. We wives have waited while most of the populace laughed. We have wept calmly, and wept frantically, into our pillows, while caressing the undented pillow on the other side of the bed."

Some Korean War veterans would escape Korea with little more than their lives. Maimed by war, these veterans would receive help and much-deserved praise from the Legion.

"Boys have become veterans very quickly in the Korean War. On Easter Sunday, 1950, Robert L. Smith of Middleburg, Pa., was a 19-year-old boy. & By Christmas Eve, he had been to Asia and only part of him had come back. & He fought nearly to the Manchurian border where he dreamed of being home by Christmas. Then, on Nov. 27, he was shot in the right arm and froze in a ditch for days in sub-zero weather. He became a prisoner of war in a shack near the ditch.  He was beaten by a Chinese guard and he froze some more.

"U.S. Marines rescued him deep in enemy territory and evacuated him. (But) he had four of his frozen limbs removed."

A follow-up article reported, "the Pennsylvania Department has set up $1,000 as the beginning of a Robert J. Smith Foundation to ensure this gallant young soldier, who had given all but life itself, the comforts of life and as complete rehabilitation as possible."

The American Legion Magazine also wrote about the dark side of the war at home - the war profiteers. "Relatives of men killed or missing in Korea  are warned to watch out for chiselers and human vultures who seek to obtain money  on the strength that they knew the serviceman.  When such appeals are made, please have the person investigated by organized groups such as the Legion, the Red Cross or the Better Business Bureau."

Still others sought to profit by hoarding goods: "Scores of speculators had snatched up everything they could lay their hands on for hoarding and are now reselling the equipment at enormous profits," wrote The American Legion Magazine.

Ending the War with Honor. As the war entered its third year, National Commander Lewis Gough called on President-elect Dwight Eisenhower to support an attack on China. "Commander Gough said he recommended this course of action to Eisenhower to 'bring peace with honor'  in the Far East," The American Legion Magazine reported in its January 1953 issue.

While the change at the top of America's government would trigger a change in war strategy, an attack on China was not part of that strategy. And another six months would pass before a permanent cease-fire ended the war.