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The Forgotten Heroes of Korea

Published: November 12, 2011

Sixty years ago, the United States was just beginning its long course in global geography. Thanks to our involvement in the Korean War, Americans were learning about places like Osan, Pusan, and Inchon.

The country was also learning the difficulty of waging war where there would be no clear victory or immediate benefit to the U.S. In a pattern that was to be repeated in many of our foreign conflicts,  popular enthusiasm quickly faded, and the war seemed almost forgotten.

Certainly this is how James Michener saw it. Writing for the Post in 1952, he said that even among Americans who knew better—

American men are dying… in the barren wastes of Korea, with a heroism never surpassed in our history. Be­cause they are so few, we forget that they contribute so much.

They seem to fight in a vacuum, as if America didn’t care a damn.

The Post had commissioned Michener, who was already a nationally recognized novelist at the time, to write about the war. So, in 1952, he sailed aboard the carriers USS Essex and Valley Forge. In his article, Michener introduced readers to the pilots who were flying the Navy’s fighter jets and rescue helicopters.

One of these extraordinary men was Lieutenant Sam Murphey, whose plane was shot down over enemy territory. Murphey was determined not to become one of the North Koreans’ prisoners of war. So he decided to fly to the coast, “even if I cracked up doing so.”

He cracked up all right. A mile inland, his plane roared down through trees, high-tension wires, and into a rice paddy. It burst into flame, but by that time Murphey was walking away. He was at the edge of a communist village. And he was much worse off than he knew. For his mates aloft, watching the amazing landing and the flaming wreckage, were sure he was dead. They headed home.

Lt. Sam Murphey after his escape from North Korea.

Seeing the villagers starting toward him over the frozen fields, Murphey lay down in an irrigation ditch, “resting on one elbow, trying to survey the situation. I believed I had been seen by the men of my squadron. I believed they would come back to rescue me pretty soon, and that my job was to evade the communists for, say, ten minutes. So I got up and started to run.”

It was a long ten minutes. From the crowd of villagers, two soldiers ran forward with rifles and started firing. Murphey continued running across the rice paddies. He ran for an hour. After the first few minutes, he thought his lungs would explode, but whenever he looked back, there were the two communist soldiers. His big boots cracked through the ice at every step. When he fell, he pitched his face into manure. And the rifle fire kept getting more accurate. Finally one of the bullets passed clean through Murphey’s neck. But by one of those unbelievable miracles of war, this bullet, although passing right through his neck, had hit only loose skin.

He took time out to look back, and there were the two communists, coming steadily.

Suddenly it occurred to Murphey to set off a flare.

“Don’t ask me why I didn’t do it sooner”… his fellow pilots saw him, an aston­ishing four miles away from his burning plane. But Murphey’s run had taken him into a terribly dan­gerous spot. He was now pretty well surrounded by antiaircraft guns. When our people back on board the Antietam plotted Murphey’s position, they could not command any helicopter pilot to fly in there to get the pilot. That would be suicide. But one helicopter man, Jack Stultz, of San Diego, radioed back: “All you have to do is give me cover. I’m going in.”

For any kind of gun, a helicopter is an absolutely dead duck. But somehow Jack Stultz pushed his ‘copter down into the rice paddy where Murphey was still running away from the two communist soldiers. The rescue was made. A few days later, with a patch about his neck, Murphey was flying again.

Michener declared these pilots—

as heroic as any men who have ever fought for the United States. They are as brave as the marines on Guadalcanal or the tank crews in Nor­mandy.

I hold their heroism to be great… for [those soldiers] could feel that his entire nation was behind him, dedicated to the job to which he was dedicated… today the fighter in Korea cannot feel this sense of identification with his own nation.

What kept these pilots aloft and fighting, Michener believed, was their own sense of integrity, their mutual support, and their patriotism.

It is difficult in these cynical days to state in simple words that young men fly dangerous missions to sometimes certain death because they believe that what their country is doing is right. But that is the simple truth.

[In one fighter] group every pilot wears a wed­ding ring, every one has children. Most of them were recalled unwillingly from civilian jobs they had built up painfully after long years in service last time. I doubt if you could find men less eager for war—more acutely aware of what they have surrendered to participate. But they go out day after day over the icy seas, over the high mountains.

They still go out these days, flying or marching into distant, hostile countries. And they continue fighting our wars, even when the public enthusiasm fades.

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  • Gary Abbott

    I served in the Air Force for 27 1/2 years and retired on 1 January 1983 as a Senior Master Sergeant. I have four brothers who served in the Army. One was in Korea, two in Vietnam and one in Germany. We have an uncle, SSgt Cicero McNeeley who is still in his tail gunner position aboard his B-17 somewhere off the coast of northern Europe. Our father, who was a SEABEE in WWII, left his family to fight for his country and his family that lived in it. He went in with the Marines during the fifth assault wave on Iwo Jima. A few hours after landing he was hit with a mortar shell and was not expected to live and was left on the outer deck with others in the same condition. After the doctors finished saving all that could be saved they started checking the ones still on the deck. My father was one of the few that was still alive, he was a tough coal miner from West Virginia. They did save him by putting a silver plate in his skull, but could do nothing for the damage to his spine. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and had the use of one arm. He died at age 52. Attitudes toward the military have really changed for the better. I an glad that those serving now do not have to experience whar we did during the Korean and Vietnam era when we came home. I really enjoy mentioning now that I served in the military and complete strangers telling me “thank you for your service”

  • Becky Stephens

    My grandfather and father served during WWII (Navy and Marine, respectively), Several of my uncles served during the Korean ‘conflict’ and my eldest brother was killed in a rice paddy in Vietnam, my third brother was a career Marine, whose last deployment was in Iraq in the early days after ‘Shock and Awe’. His son followed in his footsteps, and is preparing to relieve the soldiers leaving Afghanistan. My oldest son is currently serving in Japan in the Navy.
    I am ashamed that I knew so little about the ‘conflict’ (haha…like someone was arguing over paper or plastic) in Korea. My uncles would never speak of it…and I was such a late life baby, that I am sure they never imagined sharing any of the details. I am amazed that our schools do not teach our children about it…America does not honor their bravery, their sacrifice. I am certain that our next generation will grow up with no knowledge of those days and those men who never returned. I am horrorfied!
    We would have nothing without the selfless courage and amazing bravery of our men and women in service, and to ignore those who gave is offensive to all of America! It is just as bad as the ‘welcome’ our soldiers received on their return from Vietnam.
    America’s soldiers are the backbone of America and I am grateful that they can do what many of us cannot. I pray that we make it right, before it is too late to let them know.
    Please thank a veteran or a soldier today and everyday.

  • Paul Felber

    I spent over a decade and a half in the Army Infantry and have always worn the uniform with pride. What bothers me about the way our system works is that civilians ( Politicians) cause such turmoil in other countries with their sneaky tactics that instead of helping our relations, they cause a great hatred of America and Americans everywhere. They then send in soldiers trying to straighten out the mess. The young Patriot in uniform always pays for the greed and self serving decisions that our ” Leaders” have made.

  • Larry Vargo

    re C.Darwin Sewell, Tsgt USAF……couldn’t agree more. As a fellow Vietnam vet (USAF 1964-68) and subsequent Naval Air reservist, continue to be disappointed with the attitude(s) displayed towards our military. At least our service people are now respected more by the civilian populace, but I’ll never forget the callous remarks made by George W. Bush, shortly after he’d sent our troops off to one of his unwanted wars, and they actually had the audacity (I’m being sarcastic here) to complain about the shortcomings of the resources they were expected to operate with. Whatever your political party, this was unconscionably insensitive. At least in my opinion.

  • C. Darwin Sewell

    I spent 23 years in the military. I was on Guam with the B-52s from Barksdale AFB, LA when the first wave of fighters headed for Vietnam. I also watched as the first war casualties were returning from the jungles of Nam. It wasn’t pretty, they looked as if they had been to Hell and survived. Their replacement infrantrymen looked on in shock and harror as those poor clods staggered in still caked in mud and jungle slime too weary to put their weapons in order or even to wash up before getting a hot cup of coffee and colapsing at a table. I also spent a year in Thailand with the B-52s as they flew non-stop missions over enemy territory, I was there during the Tet Offencive and the famous Christmas raids. I spoke to several of the crew as I worked on their bombers, never did one pilot or crew member ever say a word about hating the war or that they were forced into this conflict. All I ever heard was praise for the work the ground crews did to maintain the aircraft and its equipment. After 13 months at Utapao Thai Naval Station I returned to the U.S. to be reasigned to an F-4E Squadron in North Carolina. After being with my family for only six months I was sent back to Thailand, this time with the F-4Es. Actually this was worse than before because we were right on the Laosion border where we received morter fire and hand held rocket incoming on the average of once or twice a week. I watched our fighters go out and many never returned. After the war ( conflict, the government never declared it a war) I returned to the states only to be called a murderer, a baby killer, and to be spat upon for being in the military. I soon found nearly every soldier, marine, or sailor received a similar welcoming home. I don’t recall anyone jumping up and saying “Send me, send me, I want to kill people, we were given orders to go and if those roders were refused you were branded a cowerd and sent to prison by the same government which in the end turned their backs on some of the bravest fighting men our country has ever produced. Yes, I know what the troops in Korea went through because we went through the same crap during the Vietnam confilct. Neither war accomplished a damn thing except get a hell of a lot of very good young Americans killed for nothing. These were the first battles inwhich America didn’t win. Only because the Government drew too mant boundries and kept our troops from taking the enemy when we could.
    God bless the American fighting men and women, God bless America, Damn our spinless goverment.
    C. Darwin Sewell, Technical Sergeant, United States Air Force, retired.

  • Jeff Nilsson

    I’ve got to admire the Korea vets. Not only did they bravely fight in a distant war in some of the harshest winter conditions our Army ever faced, but they saw their war end in a stalemate. And now, 60 years after their hard-won cease-fire, the same old enemy is still around, threatening the peace of the world.

  • Leatrice Green

    My husband, Ray Green, was in the Service, CB Branch of the Navy for four years during the Korean War. He had Boot Camp at San Diego and then was sent to Port Hueneme, near Oxnard, Ca. for a short time, then to Adak, Alaska for about 13 months. We weren’t married yet at that time. When he came back we were engaged but he had to go back overseas. Names were being called to be sent to Korea and he was the first to be called to the Phillipines instead, so he was there for about 10 months and we got married at Hawthorne, Ca.. He was in the U.S. for about 2 l/2 months, then sent back to the Phillipines. We feel very blessed that he didn’t have to go to Korea. He got out of the service after four years.

  • Ima Ryma

    The war continued to wage on,
    Far, far away on foreign land.
    At home, public support was gone,
    Hard for soldiers to understand.
    The enemy shot down his plane.
    The pilot soldier survived that,
    But the chance for rescue did wane,
    ‘Cause who he was, where he was at.
    Out of the blue, a copter came,
    An angel flying into hell,
    To save a soldier was the aim.
    The soldier was saved live and well.

    There is a bond in soldierkind.
    A soldier is not left behind.

  • Carl W. Johnson

    Not much has changed, we got little publicity then and even less now, even when it would be very enlightening to those fighting other wars, or preparing too.”