On June 25, 1950, more than 135,000 soldiers of the People’s Army from Russian-occupied North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south, crossing the boundary between their nations. The 38th Parallel, as the boundary was called, was drawn in August 1945, splitting what was once a territory of Imperial Japan and dividing it between the Soviets and Americans. By 1950, the two sides became individual states, each ruled by its own leader. In the north, communist Kim Il Sung garnered the support of the Soviets, while in the south, anti-communist Syngman Rhee was essentially backed by the US.
The invasion of South Korea brought Asia into the Cold War. The US viewed the invasion as an international communist threat and feared that the conflict would spread beyond Korea’s borders.1 At its urging, the United Nations Security Council sent troops from 15 countries to assist South Korea. The large majority of these troops, led by General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief, Far East, and then later by General Matthew Ridgeway, were American.
On July 5, for the first time since the end of World War II, American troops engaged in ground combat at Osan near Seoul. By September, the North Koreans had taken over much of the Korean peninsula and driven the ROK army to the region of Pusan. In October, Chinese Communist Forces began their first offensive, engaging in their first battle with US forces on November 1 near Unsan. Bitter and bloody battles, including those at Changjin (Chosin) and Seoul within the first six months of the war, would continue on for another two and a half years.
On July 27, 1953, the Korean War, technically a “conflict” since the US Congress did not actually declare “war,” would finally come to an end. The armistice between North and South Korea would establish the boundary between nations as a demilitarized zone, or DMZ. By the end of the conflict, Americans suffered some 140,000 casualties.2 The total number of deaths of all armed forces involved is estimated to be more than 1,250,000.3 It is also estimated that at least two million and possibly as many as four million civilians died.4
The Korean War is often referred to as “The Forgotten War,” a moniker it was given by US News and World Report as early as October 1951. In actuality, the war itself was not necessarily “forgotten” but, sadly, disregarded. At the time, the American public had little interest in the conflict once it failed to reach the scale of World War II, which had ended just five years prior.5
Today, the Korean War is often overshadowed by World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and now, the conflicts in the Middle East. The Nisei who served in Korea are also too often “forgotten.”
In 1948, a few years after the end of World War II, segregation in the armed forces was abolished, and the Japanese Americans who fought in the Korean War and then later in the Vietnam War were fully integrated into American units. The Korean War was in fact the first US military conflict in which the races were fully integrated across combat units.6 There were no all-Nisei units like the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the Korean War.7 Because of this racial integration, exact numbers of Japanese Americans who served in the Korean War are difficult to determine. However, the National Japanese-American Historical Society estimates that some 5,000 Japanese Americans served in the conflict.8 More than 240 Japanese Americans were killed in action.9
While many Nisei helped with the occupation efforts in Japan until 1952, others reported for duty in Korea. Several hundred Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Nisei, now veterans of World War II, served as interpreters, translators, and POW interrogators in Korea. Many Koreans spoke Japanese due to the lengthy period of Japanese occupation, which had only ended with World War II.
From June 1950, the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS), then called the 500th MIS Support Group, Far East, became the main intelligence center for the Korean War. The MIS Nisei found themselves serving as linguists in Tokyo. They also served on the battlefront, working as interrogators of Korean POWs, using their Japanese language skills. In the event that the POW did not speak Japanese, the interrogations were translated from English to Japanese and then Japanese to Korean.10
Members from the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team also served in Korea. One such Nisei was Corporal Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, Company H, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, a veteran of the 100th Battalion who had served at the end of World War II in Italy. On April 24, 1951, near Seoul, the machine gun squad leader demonstrated his valor during an enemy attack on his team. In the midst of the attack, Miyamura jumped from his secure position and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, killing at least ten men, and then another 50 or so with machine gun fire in an attempt to protect his team. In the process, he himself incurred severe wounds, and was captured by the Chinese Communist Forces and held as a prisoner of war for 28 months. He was awarded a Medal of Honor during his absence and did not learn of his commendation until after his release.11
Many Japanese American soldiers served bravely in the Korean War. After the war, some continued to serve in various roles worldwide, some moving on to the conflict in Vietnam. Others returned to the United States to restart their lives. Whether or not they returned to America, and whether or not they continued their military careers, many others would quietly slip back into everyday life with little recognition of what they had accomplished during the war.
- 1“The Korean War,” US Department of State, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/korean-war-2 accessed on January 6, 2015.
- 2The US Navy cites the following statistics for the Korean War: 36,574 total American deaths (including 33,741 battle deaths and 2,833 other deaths) and 103,284 non-mortal wounds. See “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” US Navy Library, last updated July 13, 2005, accessed on January 6, 2015.
- 3Bethany Lacina and Nils Peter Gleditsch, “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths,” European Journal of Population 21(2005), p. 154, http://www.bethanylacina.com/LacinaGleditsch_newdata.pdf accessed on January 6, 2015.
- 4Statistics on civilian deaths vary widely, but range between two and four million. See Bruce Cummings, The Korean War: A History (New York: The Modern Library, 2011), p. 35.
- 5Richard Ernsberger, “Interview: Melinda Pash, ‘Why is Korea the ‘Forgotten War?’”, American History Magazine, March 31, 2014, accessed on January 6, 2015.
- 6Daniel Kim, “The Korean War in Color: The Nisei and the Japanese in U.S. Media, 1950-1960,” Nam Center for Korean Studies, Colloquium Series, September 28, 2011, accessed on January 18, 2015.
- 7“Asian Americans in the United States Military during the Korean War,” State of New Jersey, https://www.nj.gov/military/korea/factsheets/asian.html accessed on January 6, 2015.
- 9Julie Tamaki, “Forgotten sacrifices in a forgotten war; memorial: Hundreds attend the unveiling of a monument honoring 246 Japanese Americans killed in the Korean conflict,” The Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1997, accessed on January 7, 2015, and “Japanese Americans Recall Role in Korean War,” The Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1997, accessed on January 6, 2015.
- 10James C. McNaughton, “Nisei Linguists and New Perspectives on the Pacific War: Intelligence, Race, and Continuity,” US Army Center of Military History, last updated on November 19, 2010, accessed on January 18, 2015.
- 11Medal of Honor Citation for Hiroshi H. Miyamura, Home of Heroes, accessed on January 6, 2015.
ORAL HISTORY CLIPS
975 Akio Konoshima
Starts on Tape Three, between 4 and 6 minute marks
Well, then I was assigned to the PW reports section where they did the—produced the PW reports, you know, put them in mimeograph form and that sort of thing. Others that had gone through the language school with me were put on assignment. They did some interrogation in Tokyo itself, but others were shipped over shortly after that to Korea to be interrog[ators]—to do interrogation there, because in Korea at that time, all the Koreans probably spoke a lot better Japanese than [6:00] we did, actually. And so the Korean people, all that interrogation was done in Japanese, I think. It was the Chinese—when the Chinese came in later, then it was a matter of using often Koreans that knew Chinese and Japanese. And of course we knowing, supposedly knowing Japanese, we get it in Japanese and put in English, actually, so it was a three-way interrogation in a sense.
Yeah. And your job was collating papers?
Well, in Tokyo it was, but when I went to Korea, then they needed someone to edit the PW reports, which is the main reason why they sent me to headquarters there.
975 Akio Konoshima
Starts on Tape Three, between 20 and 22 minute marks
No, it’s something that bothered me all the way through while I was in Japan. Of course, when I got to Korea it was a completely different show, I mean. Going through Army orientation, they told me about the history of Korea. Well, I knew better than the guide giving us the orientation, but, you know, they tell me, “Well, when you get there, don’t use your Japanese because of this and that and all that.” Well, it turned out to be so much nonsense because when I got there, they didn’t speak any English. I don’t speak any Korean, so we communicated basically in Japanese, I mean. And certainly there’s no animosity or anything else, in fact. And the thing about the Koreans being anti-Japanese, well, as far as I was concerned, maybe they didn’t see me as Japanese anyway because I was in the US uniform, but I didn’t sense any of that anti-Japanese feeling among the Koreans at all. There was none of that.