A Korean War Veteran Remembers

Author: Young Oak Kim
Puka Puka Parades, February 2006, #06/1

Editor’s note: On November 6, 2001, Col. Young Oak Kim was asked to speak at Washington Place in Honolulu to honor the Korean War Veterans and also to participate in launching a two-year celebration commemorating the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States. The following is a reprint of his speech. It is of great interest to us because Kim shares his memories of those days of training at Shelby, of fighting in actual combat with the 100th Infantry Battalion, and of applying that valuable experience to fighting and leading his troops in Korea This speech was printed in a previous issue of the Puka Puka Parade. We feel compelled to print it again as a wonderful remembrance of this outstanding warrior, patriot and humanitarian.

Lt. Governor Hirono, distinguished guests, fellow veterans and friends:

I have been asked today to help honor veterans of the Korean War and by doing so to assist in launching a two-year national celebration to commemorate the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States on January 13, 1903. This should be a joyful day. But today we in America are again at WAR. This is a new type of war where the enemy are terrorists who are hard to identify and not easy to find. By their very nature, they remain hidden all over the globe and may even exist within our midst. This will be a long war. Thus we must resolve to stand together until the war is won. This will not be an easy task, because we Americans tend to want quick solutions.

Life takes strange twists. I know of no more patriotic state than Hawaii. Yet the events in New York and Washington, DC, have hurt the economy of Hawaii most severely because people of all nations now fear to fly. Perhaps Hawaii was chosen in this way to once again show the rest of America the way to deal with war.

In 1943, Hawaii forced the United States Army to form the first segregated all-Japanese American combat infantry battalion – the 100th Infantry Battalion. Later, when the Army decided to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and requested volunteers from Hawaii, over 10,000 volunteered when only 2,500 soldiers were needed. Nowhere else in America was this degree of patriotism shown during WWII.

I know these facts because I was lucky to have served initially in the 100th and then later as part of the 442nd when we fought together in Italy and France.

When I reported for duty in early February 1943 to Colonel Turner, he immediately stated he would arrange for my transfer, explaining I was probably ignorant of the fact that the men were Japanese and I was a Korean and historically the two did not always get along. Having just come from Jerome, Arkansas, after visiting interned Japanese American friends from Los Angeles, I was stunned. I responded, “Sir, the soldiers are American and I am American. We are going to fight for America.” This shocked Colonel Turner, who said, “But others that have preceded you have all desired a transfer so the procedure has already been established.” “No sir! I want to stay,” I said. Colonel Turner agreed.

The other side of the coin is that I have been asked, ‘But did the men resent you because you were Korean?” The men did initially resent me, but not because I was Korean. They resented the fact that I was too “GI,” too demanding in their training, and the first Kotonk “90-day wonder” to join the 100th. After the war, I learned my nickname was “GI Kim,” a name bestowed on me because:

1. I wanted them to get haircuts, put their shirttails inside their trousers, lace up their shoes, etc. The Army believes a well-dressed and well-groomed soldier is a good combat soldier. The combat deeds of the 100th clearly refute these ideas. I never succeeded in having my way with the 100th soldiers and never convinced the Army that these were false indicators of combat capabilities. In sustained combat, everyone soon looks like bums.

2. I convinced Clarence Johnson, the Company Commander, that we should conduct special advanced small unit training. Thus, the B Company men ran over seven hours per day in the high humid summer heat of Mississippi. They also learned the jobs of their leaders two levels above their own. They did not like this one single bit.

All of this was quickly forgotten when we were in combat. In combat, I expected to be obeyed, but was willing to listen to all ideas. Intellectually and personally I treated all my soldiers as my equal. I welcomed their ideas and comments regardless of their rank. Many of the innovative methods I used and was given credit for were my soldiers’ ideas.

My success in Korea was due to a great degree to my having been a member of the 100th in WWII. Arriving in Japan in early February 1951, I was greeted by Colonel Gordon Singles, who had been the 100th battalion commander and now was the Commander of Camp Drake in Japan. He pulled strings to get me to the front lines. Without his assistance, I would have been a poor interpreter or translator somewhere in Japan or Korea. Upon reaching the 7th Infantry Division, I was requested by General William McCaffrey, who was then a colonel commanding the 31st Infantry Regiment. Without knowing me personally, he wanted me solely on the basis of my having been the Plans and Operations Officer of the 100th during WWII. He had been the Chief of Staff for the 92nd Division in Italy with whom the 100th/442nd fought their final battles.

I fought just as we, the 100th, learned to do in Italy. We officers had been taught to fight on rolling terrain like the French battlefields of WWII, We learned the hard way how to fight in the mountains of Italy. By using the same tactics learned in Italy, the 1st Battalion of the 31st had great success. We always quickly took our mountain peak before noon and suffered the least number of casualties of all the surrounding battalions. This amazed the high brass. The 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry veterans have every reason to be proud of their Korean War record. We led the final Eighth Army advance across the 38th Parallel. I was wounded at the time we reached the current DMZ. Our battalion was five miles ahead of either adjacent American battalion and had just captured the 7th Division objective two days ahead of schedule. Thus, we appeared as a very prominent target openly moving around on top of this mountain. US Corps artillery fired on us, violating their own regulations.

Fighting in Korea was a strange personal experience. True, I was in command of an American battalion and fighting Chinese and North Korean Communists soldiers, but the North Koreans were still Koreans. Just as in WWII not all German soldiers were loyal followers of Hitler, these Korean soldiers may not have been loyal Communists, but they were fighting for Communism, whereas I truly believed in democracy and America and felt Communism was wrong. I and many other American officers admired their fierce fighting ability despite being poorly equipped and led. I just had to overcome my distaste for killing Koreans. But then, I personally dislike wars and killing even though I excelled at this task.

Last year, I was one of eight outside experts appointed by Defense Secretary William Cohen to help guide the United States’ investigation of the No Gun Ri incident. President Clinton directed that this investigation be undertaken in response to the request of President Kim of South Korea.

I will touch briefly on some of the highlights. We were continuously briefed on the investigation and gave our own insights and opinions. We, the outside experts, were encouraged to reach our own conclusions. The Army IG conducted the formal investigation but seriously considered all of our suggestions, including adjusting the investigation or probing new areas. The investigation took much longer than anyone anticipated because facts did not confirm the Associated Press’ findings. Everything became much more difficult when the key US witness for the AP was found not to have been a member of the unit at No Gun Ri. The second key witness, according to available records, had actually been wounded the day before the incident. He refused to speak to us. Finally, AP’s last US soldier witness also refused to talk to us.

Several conclusions can be safely stated:

1. These were extremely chaotic and desperate times early in the Korean War, where the very survival of the South Korean Government, the South Korean Army and the US Army was in doubt.

2. The US Army units were poorly trained and greatly under strength. They were also badly led and ill-equipped.

3. This was the first day of combat for the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Calvary.

4. Yes, American soldiers did kill innocent Korean civilians at No Gun Ri – less than 100, however, not the 300 to 500 reported in the AP story. At this late date, no more accurate figure can be determined.

5. No American officer ordered the shooting. Yes, American soldiers believed there were North Korean soldiers among the refugees. No, there were no North Koreans among the refugees.

The Army IG was limited to investigating the incident, but we, the outside experts, were permitted to make recommendations regarding possible compensation. We all made separate reports to the Secretary of Defense. We realized that we disagreed with the AP and the survivors on the numbers killed at No Gun Ri. However, many other refugees were killed by American soldiers in those early hectic weeks of the war. In many other instances, North Korean soldiers were indeed infiltrating US Army positions by mingling with and hiding among refugees.

We outside experts agreed to these recommendations: The American President should express regrets for the casualties at No Gun Ri. The United States should build a monument in the vicinity of No Gun Ri to recognize all Korean civilians killed in this area of Korea. The US Government should establish a scholarship program to fund annually about 35 students to attend a university either in Korea or the United States.

Our investigation was to uncover the truth no matter the outcome. No one wanted a cover up. But the passage of 50 years has clouded the truth of what happened at No Gun Ri. The full truth will never be known.

Finally, back to why we are gathered here. Although I am a Kotonk, I have a very strong affection for Hawaii because of my WWII ties. Most of my many true friends are from this lovely state. Hawaii is truly a beautiful place physically, but I love Hawaii for its wonderful aloha spirit, which brings everyone together into one happy family. Hawaii to me represents how America will look someday if we live up to our Constitution. I am grateful that my life put me in such close contact with Hawaii. Despite the war today, celebrate and welcome the diversity of the many ethnic groups that make Hawaii so unique and wonderful

Your late Governor Jack Burns made me officially a Calabash Cousin of Hawaii. He stated this was Hawaii’s highest award for a non-Hawaiian. This award was for my contributions toward helping make the 100th famous. Governor Burns believed the 100th was Hawaii’s most effective ambassador for its bid for statehood. During WWII, thousands of US soldiers from the Midwest, fighting in Italy, wrote home to parents and siblings praising the little iron men from Hawaii. After the war, these same veterans spearheaded the drive to convince their Congressmen and Senators in Washington, DC, and their state governments, to support statehood for Hawaii. Thus, Hawaii became the 50th State. And as a member of the 100th, I became a Calabash Cousin and can claim to be one of you.

For inviting me and for listening, Mahalo.