Friday, June 15, 2018

Once Upon a Time: Comrades Lost in Korea

May 1950. Sasebo, Southern Japan.  From left: Cpl. James R. Williams, age 23, Santo, TX; 
SFC. Daniel J. Cavanaugh, age 29, Groton CT; Cpl. Russell D. Talley, age 32, Mexia, TX; 
and Cpl. Lacy C. Barnett, age 23, Empire, AL.
Although they did not know it at the time, these four young American soldiers were just weeks away from life-altering events.  An early death awaited two of them.  But in June 2018, one of them is alive and well, busily compiling a written commentary on the U.S. Army’s involvement in the opening weeks of the Korean War. More about him will follow below.

Several hundred thousand soldiers of the U.S. Eighth Army were tasked with the post-World War II occupation of the Japanese home islands. Budget austerity ensured that Army resources were optimized either for occupation duties or for war.  It could not excel at both.  

This was an idyllic garrison for young Americans in early 1950. The impoverished Japanese population welcomed these soldiers – or more specifically – welcomed their disposable income.  As members of the U.S. Army’s 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, these four men were assigned to the regiment’s medical company. Based in the southern Japanese port of Sasebo, they were ten miles from the regiment’s home base at Camp Mower.

They served as medics, albeit with varying specialties such as “surgical technician” or “corpsman.” The medics’ duties included clinical support to doctors tending a litany of mundane peacetime ailments and injuries. Perhaps the most frequently encountered maladies were sexually transmitted diseases. These were sufficiently endemic to hamper the Army’s overall mission.

The sudden onset of the Korean War on June 25, 1950 would change everything for these men.  By July 5, these medics were among the 1,981 members of the 34th Infantry Regiment sent to the front lines of a “police action” to defend South Korea.  As a whole, the U.S. Eighth Army was understaffed and deficient in combat training, weaponry, and supplies. Many infantrymen entered combat with rifles that were tagged “combat unserviceable.”  

The Americans were shocked to discover that they were outmatched by the more numerous and aggressive North Korean People’s Army. The American combat strategy during the opening weeks of that war was to stall the invaders as best they could, trading land and lives for the time required to deliver additional troops and resources from the mainland U.S.

The role of a medical company was radically transformed by combat.  The corpsmen provided immediate treatment to wounded soldiers on the battlefield – and often under enemy fire. Others worked in aid stations just behind the lines, performing the initial triage of men awaiting medical remedy. Stated differently, the medical staff attended to the ghastly wounds of war, attempting to save lives, reduce potential disabilities, or shorten the wounded man’s rehabilitation times.  Per physicians’ direction, medical corpsmen carried out excruciating decisions about if, when, and how and they would treat each wounded soldier. A shortage of time, space, and supplies too often prevented or compromised the quality of care that wounded men deserved. 

The July 20 battle for the communications junction city of Taejon tragically exposed the weakness of American forces committed to the earliest days of the Korean War. After penetrating the Americans’ porous defense on the outskirts of Taejon, North Korean troops effectively infiltrated and surrounded the city. The better part of 5,000 Americans – mostly non-combatant, rear echelon troops such as medical company personnel – would have to fight their way out through Taejon’s gridwork of streets. The four medics pictured here had mixed success in escaping Taejon.  Cpl. Williams was killed in an ambush. Sgt. Talley died as the result of a truck crash after enemy marksmen killed his driver.

Both Dan Cavanaugh and Lacy Barnett survived the Korean War. They would go on to enjoy what their colleagues could not: careers, families, and time to reflect. Both men watched the American cultural landscape change over the following decades.  They saw how America changed its attitude toward soldiers, alternately reviling then embracing veterans of the Vietnam War, followed by the vacant platitudes offered to the Iraq-Afghanistan vets. But what of their old colleagues from Korea?  History would make scant record of them unless veterans themselves took the initiative.

From the mid 1980s onward, Dan and Lacy took that initiative.  Not satisfied with the official histories promulgated by the U.S. Army, they joined forces with other Korean War vets to assemble a gritty truth from a disparate collection of archival records and personal recollections.  Theirs was a race against time as the years began to take their toll.  Dan Cavanaugh passed in 1997.  Today, at age 91, Lacy Barnett is one of a handful of survivors who can provide first-hand knowledge of the chaotic days of July 1950. His vigorous research of official records has uncovered numerous permanent facts that have yet to be published. The omission of such facts from official histories, he asserts, could not have been accidental. Mr. Barnett promises that a publication, “Criminal Deployment of U.S. Forces to Korea in July 1950,” is forthcoming. 

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