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A new Korean War would be just as brutal as the first one, veterans say

Grim as it was for them, the old soldiers of the Korean War would go back again if they could.

"I'm ready to saddle up," said Peter Popolizio, 80.

As a 21-year-old, he fought for Pork Chop Hill, the most famous battle of the war.

"If I was a little younger, I'd go back," said Popolizio, who earned a Silver Star. "We all would."

But make no mistake: The veterans do not want to see their country fighting on the Korean peninsula ever again.


They have done the math.

"My company, we went up with 193 and came down with 40," Popolizio said.

The latest and most serious clash between North Korea and South Korea occurred on Nov. 23, just a few months after veterans commemorated the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War on June 25, 1950.

North Korea fired dozens of shells at a South Korean island, Yeonpyeong, just 8 miles from the North Korean border. Two South Korean soldiers were killed. Because of the deaths, the incident was considered one of the most serious clashes since the 1953 Korean armistice.

"We have 28,000 to 30,000 troops that are totally exposed," said Ed Hersh, who spent a year and a half in Korea as a young officer during the original conflict.

Now, it's a whole new world, more dangerous, and controlled by a whole new set of variables.

China, the formidable enemy from the north during the Korean War, now has wide-ranging economic and political interests in the region and has been sending high-level diplomats to capitals of both of the partitioned countries.

Making matters more tense is the news that North Korea has developed a modern nuclear enrichment facility. This raises the specter that North Korea could build even more sophisticated nuclear weapons, either to threaten South Korea or to sell to other rogue nations.

There is no evidence that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and his family want to join the economic revolution that swept China, said Michael Devine, director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo. For them, the possibility of a free exchange of ideas is too threatening a barrier to control of the population.

"They were pretty frightened by what they saw in China - the protesters in Tiananmen Square," said Devine, a former Peace Corps volunteer to Korea and a Fulbright lecturer on Korea. He has been to South Korea twice this year for the State Department. "The prospect of a million people protesting in Pyongyang is something they don't want."

The soldiers remember vividly how in 1951 the wild card was an American: Gen. Douglas MacArthur informed President Truman that he was ready to cross the Korean border and invade China. Truman, who feared nothing so much as starting a third world war, fired MacArthur.

In 2010, the wild card is the reclusive Kim Jong-il, who had a stroke two years ago and appears to be positioning his youngest son to be his successor.

"I do fear that this guy (Kim Jong-il) has got a screw loose and anything could happen," said Hersh, 90, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

According to the most recent documents released by the WikiLeaks organization, some Chinese leaders share Hersh's assessment. A Chinese official told Americans last year that North Korea wanted talks with the United States and was acting like "a spoiled child."

The Korean War, 37 months from 1950 to 1953, was a brutal undeclared conflict that cost 54,000 American lives .

Green and his unit waded ashore on the Korean peninsula in waist-deep, ice-cold water in early 1952. They were part of a demolition unit. Those who made it up the beach past the snipers then got busy, on their bellies, probing for mines.

If American troops were to return to Korea, it could easily turn into the same kind of inch-by-inch warfare that the veterans recall.

"You still have to put boots on the ground," Green said. "That's one big, hefty rock."

At the end of World War II, Soviet leader Josef Stalin and Truman negotiated one of the first partitions of the Cold War, along the 38th Parallel, which roughly divided Korea in half.

Ignatius Serra stayed in the military nearly four years, calling the extra year his "Truman year." The extra year was a way to keep up the numbers of American forces in the region, Serra explained.

"That was so Truman would have a good poker hand when he was dealing with the Russians," said Serra, who lives in Port St. Lucie.

At home, Truman's position was strong too, said Robert Wolz, director of the Little White House, the Truman museum in Key West.

"Truman was in the Senate from 1934 to 1944," Wolz said. "He knew when to push and when to pull, he knew how to use the game of politics to his advantage."

Green, the mine defuser, remembers the endless numbers of Chinese soldiers who swarmed past phosphorus bombs that burned flesh down to the bone, past Claymore mines and grenades defending Pork Chop Hill, the most famous battle.

"They came through all of that," Green said. "You could see them picking up their dead and throwing the bodies in a pile, using them as a bridge. Oh, God, it was tragic to see all those bodies."

"We can handle this another way," said Green, the old sergeant. "I don't want to see that again."

Source: palmbeachpost + The New York Times contributed to this story
Tags: army
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