My Life during Korean War  

I was in 9th grade when the Korean War broke out. On Sunday morning, June 25, 1950, I went to the main street with the street car and felt something was wrong. Military polices were stopping every soldier on the street, putting them in trucks and sending them over the Miari hill to the north. Curious of what was going on, I came home and turned on the radio. It announced that the North Korean Army had invaded early that morning crossing 38th. parallel which was the border line of North and South Korea before the war and the war had started. President Sung-Man Rhee¡¯s American accented voice was broadcasted, assuring civilians that they didn¡¯t need to worry about the incident because the Korean Army was defeating the North Korean Army.

The news about the war was available only from KBS radio broadcasting. The government operated HLKA of KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) was the only broadcasting station in South Korea back then and it was all we could listen to. We guessed that there were battles going on around the 38th parallel, and that was why all the soldiers on the street were dispatched to the war front.

It was on the 27th when we started to take the war seriously. The broadcast continued to say the Korean Army was defeating the north on every battlefield and marching to north at some areas. But all of sudden, we heard shells screeching overhead. When we heard about ten shells, we started getting scared. Since Miari is the route to Seoul from the north, it would be very dangerous for us to stay in the middle of the battlefield. We decided to take refuge in Nam-Hyuk¡¯s house at Sajikdong at northwestern part of Seoul, and evacuated empty handed. I do not remember whether we went to his house on foot or by street car. I think the street car was still operating.

We stayed up all night. Early next morning, my elder cousin Dong-Kun who was a reporter, came to us and said that he saw a North Korean flag hoisted on Joongangchung, the Capital Building. His house was close to Joongangchung and I guessed it was his professional instinct to check that early in the morning. We had breakfast at Nam-Hyuk¡¯s house in Sajikdong and came back home all the way on foot because the street car was out of service already.

The street was full of North Korean Army soldiers who looked so unfamiliar to me. People with red armbands on their left arm were running wild here and there. On the way home, I still remember a Korean Army soldier with a gunshot wound was lying in front of Hwashin department store at 1st street of Jongro. He was bleeding and moving his arm but no one dared help him. It¡¯s pitiful but even I had to pretend not to see him.

The difference in military capacity of North and South Korea was so great at the time. The Soviet Union had powerful army and the U. S. had a formidable Air force and Navy. South Korea had nothing to defend themselves against the North, who were supported by the Soviet Army with tanks. The South Korean Army was equipped with M1 rifles given to them by the U. S. but there was no tank. It was useless to fight against the impregnable Soviet tanks with our rifles and grenades only. The Air Force of the South had ten light aircrafts, called Keonkookho which meant National Foundation, at Youido airport. They were contributed by citizens just to train Air Force pilots to fly, not for fighting. These aircrafts were singly propelled and were very similar to private Cessna airplanes you can see at U. S. local airports now, which were absolutely no match for Russian made Yak fighters. All of these Keonkookhos were completely destroyed in the 1st North Korean air raid. Whoever said the South Korea was the one to start the war must be insane. It is definitely out of of the question.

With this surprise attack, three months under communism and a extremely hard time for Korea including myself have started. The early force came to Seoul was called Palrogoon who used to be a part of the Red Chinese Army and were well trained soldiers (perhaps the best of the North Korean Army). They were also very kind to citizens. I saw a soldier whose North Korean bill was not accepted at a store but did not complain. I saw another soldier helping an old lady who couldn¡¯t walk very well.

As the North entered Seoul, one of the first change that took place was keeping walking people to the right side of the road instead of to the left. For some time, soldiers on the sidewalk forced people to keep to the right. It was a one-way single file rule. If you passed the spot that you were going to, you had to cross the wide automobile street to the other side, walk back, and cross the street back to the first sidewalk again.

There was a rumor that the purpose to send the gentle Palrogoon initially was to give a good impression of North Korea on South Korean civilians, planned by Il-Sung Kim. When they left for south to the front line, more North Korean soldiers came to Seoul. They were totally different guys and executed many acts of brutality by using organizations which used to be underground organizations until that time, including members of the South Korean Labor Party, the Democratic Young Men¡¯s Union, and Women¡¯s Union.  

Since these underground people had to suffer a lot hiding out, they would be grateful for a world like this. The brutality of the North was greater in rural districts. Rich landlords were accused as ¡°vestiges of the bourgeoisie¡± or ¡°reactionary elements who squeezed people,¡± and were put on trial. Once on trial so called as ¡°People¡¯s Court¡±, there was no way out but instant execution. However, within a month, as the North Korean Labor Party members followed the Red Army took power in South Korea, almost all of these men of the South Korean Labor Party and Democratic Young Men¡¯s Union were unwillingly drafted as North Korean soldiers and most of them were killed at the Nakdong River war front. I know it very well as my elder brother, Dong-Han was one of them.

I wonder now how we managed to live on. My father was unemployed for years since we left Chungsan. I guess we lived off the money he got from selling his land in Chungsan. Before long, since he could not sell the land or he did not have any more land to sell, we were eating barley soup. I¡¯ve hated barley ever since.

At this difficult time, my elder sister Dong-Sun was infected with intestinal tuberculosis. The only cure for this disease was an injection of streptomycin, which was very expensive and hard to get. Fortunately, my uncle (my father¡¯s younger brother), who managed bee farming, left twenty large cans (5 gallons can) of honey. So, we sold them and paid for the medicine and some rice for my sister. Without the honey, my sister probably would have died. I envyed my sister for having white rice.

My 2nd. sister, Dong-Soon, was well off because her husband was a manager of the Board of Trade in the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea . She lived at the house at the other side of main street in Donamdong and I used to visit her house and ate my fill. The school was closed and I stayed home as the summer vacation started soon. To make money, I sold Chapsalduk (rice cake). I wandered around the town yelling ¡°Chap – sal - duk.¡± My sister would often buy some to help my business but I also ate them often whenever I was hungry. Without making money, I quit this business in less than a month.   

The progress of the battle started to bog down at Nakdong River war front. The supply route for the North Korean Army got longer and longer and the number of those killed at the war front became greater and greater because of the air raid by the U. S.. North Korea needed more soldiers and recklessly took any young man who happened to be on the street and named them a volunteer soldier. With very limited military training on the way to Nakdong River, most of them got killed.

One day, on the way home from my sister¡¯s house, I was crossing the main street at Donamdong, when a Kyungdong High School 12th grader called me. He wore a red armband on his left arm, pulled up his left sleeve and showed me a red square stamp on his arm. Without any further explanation, he said, ¡°President Il-Sung Kim wants you to join the Red Army.¡± I was not old enough for the military service at the time. However I was the tallest in my class and there was no way to convince him of my age because I had no ID. I thought it would be better to show willingness to make him trust me so that I could run away whenever I got the chance, so I said OK and just followed him.

He told me that he needed more people. I followed him to the Dongdo Theater at Donam Bridge, where a Soviet movie¡° Seokhwa (Stone Flower)¡± was playing. I saw a free movie but I couldn¡¯t remember a single scene afterwards because I was looking for a chance to run away.

When the movie was over, he took five of us he captured to the Donam Elementary School where the physical examination for the volunteer soldier was being done. All of sudden, the air raid alarm sounded on the way and I saw a low flying L-19 light aircraft passing over me. By this time, the U. S. Air Force was controlling the air totally and North Korea Air Force had no chance to show up. L-19 was more formidable than any fighter or bomber because of its ability to fly low to detect enemies to inform U. S. battle ships anchored at Inchon harbor. The Naval Battle Ship guns could hit the target accurately. The L-19 scared all of us off and I ran away. It was so close. Without the L-19, I would have disappeared at Nakdong River and there would be no more old stories of mine.

Since that time, I was so afraid that I stayed home. The house at Donamdong had a basement under the living room where the preowner of the house hid rice from the occupied Japanese government. The entrance was so small that a sack of rice could barely make it through and was covered by a board. I stayed in the dark basement all the time except when I ate. Since it was summer, it was not cold but was too damp for me to stay.

After a month of living in the basement, I felt safe to come out and started staying in my room. One early morning around 2 o¡¯clock, somebody yelled and pounded on the door. When I opened the door, several Democratic Young Men Union guys and a soldier rushed in and fumbled around all the rooms. They told me I should join the volunteer soldier. All this happened in such a short time that I didn¡¯t have a chance to hide away.

I was taken to a building which used to be a church and forced to listen to lectures mostly praising the general Il-Sung Kim. Then they said, ¡°If anybody does not want to join volunteer soldier, raise your hand.¡± In such a warlike atmosphere, who would dare to raise their hand? So, they proclaimed saying ¡°The decision was made unanimously.¡± This frantic way was the usual platitude of the communists. One of my elder sisters, Dong-Hyun was also taken to the Women Union and forced to listen to the praising Il-Sung Kim lecture. After the lecture, she asked a couple of question and they said ¡°Comrade, you know too much.¡± What a nonsense! I hate this stupid communist.

At Donam Elementary School, under strict guard, they taught us how to sing the national anthem of the People¡¯s Republic, a praising song for the general Il-Sung Kim and ¡°The song of Partisan¡± before the physical examination. The physical examination was so perfunctory that a doctor just asked several question and did not perform any medical examination. I heard he kept mentioning formula 606, which was well known as to cure every disease without exception, like ¡°Formula 606 will do it. Pass¡± for every patient who suffered tuberculosis, hemorrhoid, etc.,. What a panacea the formula 606 was! I figured out there would be no excuse with any sickness.

After careful observation of examiner for a quite a time, I have noticed one magic word - revolutionist bereaved family. The communists think highly of revolutionists such that they regarded Il-Sung Kim as the highest revolutionist. So revolutionist bereaved family could be the special case. I thought to myself, ¡°That¡¯s it.¡± When it¡¯s my turn, the doctor asked me, ¡°Any sickness with you?¡± I answered ¡°No.¡± He said, ¡°Then you have no problem joining volunteer soldier.¡± I bravely answered, ¡°I can't.¡± When he asked me why, I answered ¡°I have two elder brothers. The eldest one was a revolutionist under Japanese occupation, involved in anti-Japanese movement of Hun-Young Park incident, imprisoned at West Gate Jail and passed away. The other joined to volunteer soldier and got killed. So I am the only one left in my family. Without me, the genealogy of my family would be discontinued.¡± Then he kept staring me for a while. I was not sure that my brother could be on the same rank with those revolutionists that this guy would show some respect. However, I knew that Hun-Young Park was a big shot among the communists in North Korea even though purged and executed later. I could speak up gallantly since they were somehow true and there were no times for them to verify them. They bought what I said. After staring me for a while, he told me to go home. Hence I escaped from one crisis by good luck and another by wit and braveness.  

They were really narrow escapes from death. Nevertheless, I still had some guts crawling to the top of the big tree on my yard to see the U. S. jet aircraft bombing Seoul every day. My father hated me doing this and scolded me. The main fighters of the U. S. Air Force were P-51 Mustang propeller fighters and F-86 Saver jet fighters. F-86, the early day jet fighters, had wings extended square and fuel tanks at each end of the wings that looked quite different from today¡¯s models. This model was the first jet fighter the Korean people had ever seen and they called this jet fighter ¡°Hojookee¡± which meant Australian airplane. The reason was that the people believed the rumor that Australia sent the airplanes to help Korean president Sung-Man Rhee, since he was married to an Austrian lady and Austria was mistaken as Australia .

On September 28, Seoul had been reclaimed from North Korea and the communist rule was over. I am not a military expert, but I think the Inchon invasion, or Inchon Landing Operation officially, by the command of General McArthur was a better designed tactic than the Normandy invasion. While the Normandy invasion killed so many soldiers, the Inchon invasion cost relatively few lives and was effective in blocking the North Korean supply route in the middle of the Korean peninsula. Hence most of the North Korean Army that was stationed at the south end of the Korean peninsula were isolated and not many enemy soldiers were left in the North, the U. S. and Korean Army could progress northward up to the Yalu River very fast and easily. This is why I think the Inchon invasion was a much better tactic than the Normandy invasion.

Instead, without any supplies or escape routes, the isolated North Korean Army had no choice but to hide in the forests of Jirisan mountains. Since they were brainwashed so strongly as communists, they did not attempt to yield and they protested there as guerillas for years. During these days, the people in the villages around Jirisan were ruled by Korean Government during the day and ruled by partisan guerillas at night. It took years to terminate all of these partisans and cost so many innocent civilian lives.

Seoul was peaceful for only three months until Red China joined the war to help North Korea and marched to south successfully winning over the U. S. and Korean Army. Since China¡¯s huge population was their main resource, they used human wave tactics. They attacked in overwhelming numbers, playing drums, gongs and trumpets. Korea and the U. S. had no choice but to retreat back to the 38th parallel.

There were disagreements between General McArthur and President Truman on one big issue. General McArthur suggested to bomb Manchuria in order to stop the Red China Army from entering the Korean peninsula while President Truman rejected it because he only cared for his political reputation. George W. Bush would have bombed Manchuria, if he would have been a president at that time. The Manchuria bombardment did not happen and Red China¡¯s Army advanced south, sweeping all before them.

By now, fear of communists was great and everyone hurried to evacuate southward. My family also joined the evacuation and this was called ¡°1-4 Retreat¡± (Red China occupied Seoul on January 4th.).

My second sister Dong-Soon¡¯s husband arranged a train from Seoul to Daejon to go to my eldest sister Dong-Hye¡¯s house in Daejon with his family. Dong-Soon¡¯s husband was supposed to come to join the family later in Daejon if necessary depending on the situation. Therefore, my family and my sister¡¯s family took the train to Daejon first at Seoul Railroad Station.

After we took a train, we discovered it wasn¡¯t a passenger train but a freight train without a roof, overflowing with people. It was bitterly cold with heavy snowfalls. The train stopped for hours at every station. It was a miracle that nobody froze to death. It took more than 24 hours from Seoul to Daejon compared to 3-4 hours usually on normal days. We covered ourselves with the blankets we brought. When we got to my eldest sister¡¯s house, we could relax finally. Still, since a lot of other people had to evacuate on foot, we were lucky to have a train.

About 10 days later after we arrived my eldest sister¡¯s house, my mother and two sisters cooked some Kimbap (Norimaki Sushi) and my youngest sister Dong-Hyun and I sold them at the Daejon station. But there was news that the Red China and North Korean Army were coming closer. We were afraid another Nakdong River war might happen again and we decided to go to Pusan, the 2nd. largest port city at the southeast corner of Korea. My eldest sister¡¯s brother in law, who was a director at Daejon railway station, arranged a freight train for us to Pusan and asked us if we would like to go to Pusan.

Since a transportation to Pusan is available, we decided to go to Pusan, packed and went to Daejon station. We were a big group with many baggage and prepared food for all members for many days. I went in to the train and loaded what my sister was handing over. We were almost done when, all of sudden, the train started moving.

We were all surprised and my youngest sister jumped into the train while all the others were about to follow. However a station employee told us not to worry about it because it was just switching to another rail. While we were wondering what to do, the train left Daejon station leaving all other family in the station separating my sister and me from our family. Fortunately, the freight train we rode had a roof and we had enough foods to survive for a while. However, my sister and I were so anxious to see our family again.

We had no choice but to ride the train to Pusan. The cold froze our meals but that also helped keep them fresh. Again, the train stopped at every station while we shivered for hours. The train could not proceed normally because too many trains were heading for Pusan at same time. It was like a traffic jam on a holiday expressway in Korea now. Several days later, the train arrived at Milyang station, where U. S. Military Police stopped all the people on the train and told them to go back. For us, it was impossible to go back.

Under the circumstances, somebody got a good idea to lock the door inside and remain quiet, pretending it is an empty car. It worked for a while until a baby started crying which made a MP to find us. We had to open the door and got out of the train.

Though most people were sent back by MP, my sister had a government officer ID as she was working at the Insurance Department of the Ministry of Communication. She showed her ID to the MP, introduced herself as a government employee and explained that she and I were going to Pusan to join the government. The MP allowed us to keep going. What a lucky guy I was again.

We ate frozen hard rice balls for a week until we arrived at Pusan. We had never been there before and we had no idea what to do. My sister went to the temporary office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hear about our brother-in-law while I was keeping all the baggage in the train. And, what a surprise!! She found our brother-in-law already there.

I heard later that he rented a truck, came to Daejon as the Ministry had evacuated Seoul and found my family were separated. He thought the only way to see us again was to come to Pusan with the rest of the family and beat the train. He rented a house at Choryang close to the Pusan railroad station. We met again one week after we separated and our parents had been very anxious to see us again. I knew I was a very lucky guy.

We started as refugees in Pusan. Nam-Hyuk¡¯s family, my eldest uncle's family, also came to Pusan and settled down at Daeshindong. I decided not to go to school but to start a business selling some snacks on a board at the intersection in front of the house we lived, which was close to main street where a lot of people were crossing the intersection. I imitated the business as many other guys with the board of about 3¡¯x 5¡¯. on which we sold cigarettes, chewing gums, candy bars, etc. etc.. But I didn¡¯t make much money again because I ate a lot of the stuff, as having food in front of me while I was so hungry was too irresistible. One day, my friend and I went to Seomyon and bought some goods to sell, among which we had a bacon can. It was twice as big as regular cans. We ate all of it on the way back to Choryang and it was very salty but very enjoyable as we were so hungry.

I quit the business and joined the dockers. At the Pusan port, there were several docks where many ships bringing military supplies everyday which required a lot of workers to unload them. Because a foreman at every dock would hire twenty people a day, it was easy to get a job. On-board teams in a ship loaded stuff onto the crane, which took them to ground team who carried them to the warehouse team and they stored them in the warehouse.

Each team had its own pros or cons. On-board teams worked in the ship and the supervision was not tight. They could take long breaks after each loading but they had no choice of food. Since they were all so hungry, the ship loaded with food supplies called C-ration was the most popular one to all workers. Each ration pack had 6 cans as a one day food supply for U. S. soldiers, consisting of a beef can, a chicken can, a bean can and a can with a pack of cigarettes, a chewing gum and a candy bar. When the supervision of U. S. military was away, we used to take the beef can out of a C-ration and ate it. I wonder how the soldier who received the C-ration box without beef can would feel at combat.

One day, a guys was caught eating onions by an American military police. MP told him he would be forgiven if he would eat a whole box of onions. He tried to eat whole box but there was no way to eat all of them. Since the MP was a good guy, he was released after having his cheek slapped a couple of times. Other workers were caught once eating raw eggs and ended up getting pelted with eggs.

On the other hand, the ground team had a lot more choices. Whatever they were handling, they could easily find C-rations piled up near by. The workers who stacked them always prepared a deep space at the center of the pile so that somebody could eat there without getting seen from the ground.

I mostly worked the graveyard shift, which lasted for eight hours. (It was 3 shifts operation of 8 hours.) Once the eight hours were up, we got paid and searched for hidden supplies. There were many women waiting at the entrance to buy whatever we had stolen. I saw a guy who stole one pound of sugar and wondered how he could pass the body search with it. There was no way to stop the stealing. Though the work was pretty hard for me, it was not too bad because I could eat and be paid at the same time.

For the first couple of months at Pusan, I spent time like this without attending school. One day, I saw a notice on the newspaper that the students of Seoul Normal School were to register at Pusan Normal School. Since so many students registered, we had to study in tent class rooms on the school ground. When the time came, I was given a diploma and I graduated Seoul Normal School at Pusan this way.

I enjoyed life at Pusan, even though it was hard. To be frank, my main purpose of working at the port was more to eat the C-rations rather than making money to help family. I also still miss the taste of fried squid I ate at the carriage store on the Pusan street. I was a mere middle school boy who thought more of me than of my family. Though my sisters, Dong-Sun and Dong-Hyun, worked and got paid, it was not enough to support the whole family and I guess we got a lot of help of my brother-in-law, Dong-Soon¡¯s husband, who supported our family quite a bit.

Afer half a year of living in Pusan, my father went to Chungju to meet his younger brother, who was a dean of the Chungju Agricultural College. In Chungju, he was so glad to meet the former first principal of Chungsan Middle School unexpectedly, which he founded when he was working as the advisor to the U. S. Military Government right after the WW-II as he was one of very few who could speak English at that time. He was the principal of Chungju Commercial High School .

Early one morning, my father went to Chungju Commercial High School to see him who asked my father to join to the morning gathering as it was the time for morning gathering of the day. Suddenly, he announced to whole students ¡°Let me introduce your new English teacher.¡± He knew my father very well who would never work under someone else and made this announcement without any prediscussion with my father, as he knew it was the only way to make him to work for the school. This way, by another person¡¯s will, he became an English teacher which was his first job in his whole life. From that time on, my family could live on a fixed income.

Soon, the summer vacation began and we moved to Chungju where I lived in for two and half years ending our refugee life in Pusan. There, I graduated Chungju High School and was admitted to the Engineering College, Seoul National University. Because the first day of school year was changed from September to March in Korea that time, I lost six months of high school days. (It was changed from March to September when U.S. Military government started and I was at elementary school, forcing us to extend 6 more months of elementary school.)

This is all I can remember about the Korean War. The Chinese Army invasion was stopped at little south of Seoul and pushed back to north of Seoul in a few months. Thereafter, the front line was stabilized at where the current DMZ, Demilitarized Zone, which is the current boarder of North and South Koreas, for a few years just pushing and pulling back and forth little here and there, until Cease Fire Agreement was signed in 1954 finally between North Korea and United States. (South Korean government didn't sign the treaty and South Korea claims they are still in war state technically as they didn't sign the treaty.) 

It was a tragedy that took hundreds of thousands of Korean lives as well as American lives away and caused utter destruction in the Korean peninsula. But it brought a couple of good things to us too. First, it separated communists and anti-communists into North and South respectively, cleaning up the confusions and serious problems in both sides and stabilizing both societies. (I am sure Il-Sung Kim was much easier to establish his kingdom in North Korea.) Second, it was a good opportunity to overcome the cultural gap between regions. Before the war, there were communication and understanding problems between regions due to different dialects of the Korean language and poor transportation and communication means. The war brought more opportunity to understand people each other and make friends in different regions. But the cost was still too high.

As a member of the generation who experienced the tragedy of the Korean War and the oppressive rule of communism, I am anxious to see recent trends moving to the left of Korea. I know that the North Korean communists have best knowledge brainwashing people in the world. They know how to make people believe. I know that Korean people are trying to help the North Korean people because they are of the same blood. However, it is the government, not the people of North Korea that is taking advantage of the South¡¯s support. I am surprised to see that so many South Koreans want to help the North without understanding they are actually helping very small group fo guys in North Korean government, not people in North Korea. I don¡¯t understand why the people don¡¯t realize that they are being deceived. I realize again how formidable and cunning the communists¡¯ ways of brainwashing are. It seems the former president of Korea, Dae-Joong Kim, who was too eager after the Nobel peace prize, has actually started what is happening in Korea now.