“Doc, you got a phone call.”
It was June 25, 1950. My mother was calling long-distance, then expensive and rare, from her childhood home in Maryland. She was trying to reach my father, a young U.S. Army Medical Corps captain on temporary duty in Yokohama, Japan. Doc, as his military buddies knew him, took the phone.
“North Korea just invaded South Korea. They’re calling it a police action,” my mother said. “What’s going to happen to you? Will you have to go?”
Doc did have to go. The U.S. troops then in Japan, though inexperienced and ill-prepared, were the first to land on South Korean shores. Two weeks later, Doc was on the front lines, fighting with the doomed Task Force Smith. Vastly outnumbered and overrun by the enemy, nearly half its soldiers died. Most of the survivors were captured and would spend the next three years in prison camps along the Yalu River. Of his initial group of 738, Doc was one of only 275 who made it home.
What happened next seems peculiar in these days of media saturation and endless analysis. The statistics were staggering enough: 36,000 Americans died in that war, and of 7,140 POWs, 38 percent died from brutality, starvation and 40-below-zero cold, the highest American POW death rate of any war so far. But after a mid-1950s flurry of McCarthy-era court-martials, in which POW survivors were tried and often convicted of collaborating with the Communists, the forgetting ensued. Few movies were made, few books written. The men who fought went back to their jobs and families, and in that age of stiff upper lips and still waters running deep, seldom spoke of their experience. My mother bundled the pages of my father’s story, written for affidavits and military archives, and hid them away in a safe place, where they remained for nearly 50 years. Sharing wasn’t popular then.
The silence has been profound. Many of us know little about that war, which has never really ended. An armistice was signed, but no peace treaty. Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops still serve in South Korea. North and South Korea are disparate both politically and economically, while separated families suffer on both sides. Closure remains a fantasy for the families of the more than 7,800 Korean War veterans still unaccounted for.
My father, Pelican Rapids native Alexander Boysen, stayed in the military and served again on the front lines during the Tet offensive in Vietnam. But that was a different war in a different time, one that earned recognition if not unity; gone is the patriot nation that came together to support our World War II efforts.
Those who fight today’s wars must often feel alone, as the soaring veteran suicide rate attests. Although we have made progress in understanding and treating post-traumatic stress disorder, the understandable human need to set aside the pain, to stay silent, is still wreaking havoc in our society. Many children will grow up as I did, afraid to ask, afraid to elicit nightmares, afraid to know.
No war is, nor should be, ever forgotten.
Catherine Madison, former editor of Utne Reader, is the author of “The War Came Home With Him: A Daughter’s Memoir,” to be published by the University of Minnesota Press in September.