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‘I didn’t know I was young:’ Remembering the Korean War 70 years later

Retired Army Maj. Bill Terwilliger was only a 17-year-old boy from Colton, South Dakota when he joined the Army in 1950.

It all started when he and a friend decided to drive 30 minutes to Sioux Falls and connect with military recruiters after school. Terwilliger spoke with an Army recruiter, who visited his family’s farm house the very next day so his mother could sign papers allowing him to join the service since he was under 18.

Before he knew it, he was back at the recruiter’s office in Sioux Falls, was sworn into the Army, and put on a train to Fort Riley in Kansas for basic training.

“So I didn’t miss a day of school, I just changed schools...in one day,” Terwilliger told Military Times.

“I didn’t know I was young...I grew up rather quickly,” said Terwilliger.

Weeks later, Terwilliger joined the 9th Regiment, 2nd Division and headed to Korea in July of 1950 — just after the North Korean Army invaded South Korea exactly 70 years ago on June 25.

During Terwilliger’s year serving in Korea, the 9th Regiment, 2nd Division was in the middle of a series of violent battles, including those near the Naktong River in August and September 1950. Per U.S. Army Korea officials, the first two weeks of September 1950 marked the bloodiest era of the Korean War.

Terwilliger earned both Silver and Bronze Star Medals while serving during the war. According to Korean War Educator, a site run by veterans and civilians to preserve Korean War History, then-Pfc. Terwilliger earned the Bronze Star with valor for leading a group to cover the withdrawal elements of the regiment “with utter disregard for his personal safety” on Nov. 28, 1950 near Sinjung, Korea.

He also earned a Silver Star as a corporal for jumping into action when he saw an empty machine gun position during an attack on 20 May,1951 near Senchon, Korea. He ignored enemy fire as he crossed a mine field to man the machine gun, and proceeded to kill 40 enemy troops, according to Korean War Educator.

But Terwilliger was tight-lipped when asked if he wanted to talk about his actions surrounding those awards.

“Not really, I just want to leave it at that,” Terwilliger said.

Ultimately, Terwilliger served in the military for 20 years and became an officer after graduating from officer candidate school at Fort Benning in December 1961. He went on to become a helicopter pilot and served a tour in Vietnam as well.

“I decided if the military would keep me, I would just stay in 20 years unless they kicked me out. So I put 20 years in,” said Terwilliger, who retired at the rank of major in 1970 and currently lives in St. Petersburg Fla.

Now, Terwilliger connects with other veterans as a member of the Military Officers Association of America. He also joins an informal group of veterans from all branches — even Coast Guard, he joked — who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam for breakfast every Tuesday and Friday.

“We all get together and tell different stories...things that we’ve done in the past,” Terwilliger said.

Remembering the Korean War and its History

Terwilliger is one of the roughly 5.7 million service members who served during the Korean War era, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The conflict took the lives of approximately 36,574 American lives and wounded another 103,284 before the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 to halt hostilities.

The Korean War has been dubbed the “Forgotten War,” but it is very much remembered by the Korean War Memorial Foundation, which is holding an online ceremony dedicated to the lasting alliance between the U.S. and South Korea. The event will be livestreamed on YouTube on Thursday starting at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

Additionally, the largest repatriation of remains of South Korean soldiers who fought alongside U.S. troops in the war is scheduled for Thursday in Seoul, South Korea. The 147 remains were returned to their homeland after 67 years away.

A 2018 remains return to U.S. and South Korean scientists by North Korea shows Drs. Debra Prince-Zinni, left, and Jennie Jin, forensic anthropologists with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), secure a case containing the possible remains of service members lost in the Korean War. Some of those remains have now been verified as South Korean in origin and are being repatriated. (Sgt. 1st Class David J. Marshall/Army)
A 2018 remains return to U.S. and South Korean scientists by North Korea shows Drs. Debra Prince-Zinni, left, and Jennie Jin, forensic anthropologists with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), secure a case containing the possible remains of service members lost in the Korean War. Some of those remains have now been verified as South Korean in origin and are being repatriated. (Sgt. 1st Class David J. Marshall/Army)

North Korea turned over 77 of the total remains samples in July 2018, while the other remains had been repatriated in the 1990s. They were validated to be of South Korean origin by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, who claims there are more than 7,500 U.S. personnel unaccounted for, and South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification, the Pentagon said.

A similar ceremony was also held Tuesday at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Republic of Korea Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo touted the strength of the U.S.-ROK Alliance that resulted from the Korean War, noting that the alliance is “built on mutual trust and shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”

“On this day in 1950, the U.S.-ROK military alliance was born of necessity and forged in blood, as brave U.S. and ROK service members from a world apart banded together based on shared values and common purpose,” Esper and Jeong said in a joint statement Wednesday.

“Seven decades later, the U.S.-ROK Alliance remains the linchpin for security, stability, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the Northeast Asia region,” Esper and Jeong said.

Violence in the DMZ

Although an armistice was reached in 1953, a heavily armed demilitarized zone between North and South Korea remained. In 1966, while America was focused on Vietnam, violence started to pick back up, according to a journal article published in the Military Review by Army Captain Michael Anderson.

Around this time, Kim Il-sung decided to revamp efforts to infiltrate South Korea and there were hundreds of violent incidents at the DMZ up through 1969. American and South Korean forces started increasing patrolling and building defensive structures.

70 U.S. lives were lost and 111 soldiers were wounded, with even more casualties for North and South Korea between 1966 and 1969.

Violence decreased in the 1970s, but a tunneling campaign by the North Koreans was discovered. After the first tunnel was found, it was detonated, killing one and injuring five other Americans.

These tunnels were capable of moving tens of thousands of North Korean troops to South Korea underground – posing a threat both in counter tunneling efforts and potential contact with the north.

Outside of the tunnels, violence could erupt in the strangest of circumstances. In 1976, an event known as the “Korean Axe Murder Incident” occurred.

Two U.S. Army officers were bludgeoned to death by about 20 North Korean guards armed with crowbars and clubs when a group of U.S. and South Korean forces went to clear a tree that was blocking their view of the border.

The response was an 813-soldier task force supported by helicopters and B-52 bombers with a simple mission: cut down the tree. They accomplished the task in forty-five minutes while North Korean Forces watched passively from afar.

These acts of aggression continued through the 1980s, explained Kevin Mason, who at the time was a commander of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry at Camp Greaves. Three people were seen making an “infiltration attempt” late at night on Dec. 9, 1983.

Mason said they were spotted by radar, people on the ground, and a missile sight system, giving them enough information for permission to open fire.

“The only people that could fire were the 35MM grenadier and designated marksman, because we had to worry about rounds crossing to the north and creating another incident,” he said.

He said the captain accompanying the fire team was unhappy with the grenadier’s marksmanship, so he took the M203 grenade launcher and struck near one of the targets, throwing him in the air.

“The designated marksman hit one for sure and probably two,” he said. “And at that time the lights were flashing off and on in the north with the loudspeakers saying, ‘come back, come back, come back!’”

The next morning they went to scope out the scene and found drag marks but no blood, leading them to speculation that the infiltrators were wearing something along the lines of scuba suits, said Mason.

‘Parallels’ to 1950 and North Korea Today

Decades later, the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s invasion into South Korea also coincides with recent provocations from the North. For example, North Korea’s military warned earlier this month it would head into demilitarized areas on the border, and later destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office building that opened in 2018 to promote better communication between the two states.

But on Wednesday, North Korea changed its tune when it’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was calling off military action plans against South Korea.

According to retired Army Col. David Maxwell, who has several decades of military service in Asia, Kim is in a tight spot and has not secured relief from crippling sanctions the U.S. has imposed against his regime.

“The bottom line is I think Kim is recalculating to determine what he should do next,” Maxwell, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an email to Military Times. “I think the abrupt turnaround is meant to preserve options for himself.”

“In addition to blackmail diplomacy or in parallel with it one of the reasons for the recent actions could be to try to divide the ROK/US alliance. This has long been a critical supporting objective to the regime’s long term strategy to dominate the peninsula,” Maxwell said.

The move is timely.

Maxwell said he’s reminded of a “parallel” between June 1950 and June 2020, citing that North Korea moved to end hostilities and “abruptly” called for negotiations with South Korea following years of tension between the two in May 1950. However, it didn’t take long for the North to invade the South, officially launching the Korean War in June.

As a result, Maxwell warned the U.S. and its allies should remain cautious.

“We should beware of the North ceasing its hostile rhetoric,” Maxwell said. “If Kim embarks on a charm offensive, we had better be ready.”

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