Lasting US-Turkish bonds formed in Korea
As I do every year on July 27, I will visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, as well as Arlington National Cemetery, to pay my respects to the entire legion of the dead and their comrades from the United States and 20 other United Nations member countries who selflessly fought to save the South Korean people from the totalitarian threat of North Korean occupation 59 years ago. Despite a 1953 cease-fire, the two countries have yet to sign a formal peace treaty. Thousands of American troops are still stationed in South Korea to thwart the constant threat of renewed warfare.
On this anniversary of the Korean War armistice, many Americans will find themselves reminded of this horrific conflict. American veterans organizations across the country will sponsor commemoration ceremonies. Similar ceremonies will take place in Turkey, the United Kingdom, and other countries allied with the U.S. on the Korean peninsula.
At the memorial, I will also focus on the inscribed names of the involved countries, starting first with my homeland, the United States. Moving on, I will pause to look at the name “Turkey,” the ancestral home of my immigrant father. In Korea I was reminded of him when I met soldiers from the Turkish Brigade.
I am one of the 1 million surviving veterans of the Korean War. And, like all the others, I am grateful to still be alive. Also, like most of them, I will always have vivid memories of what many consider “the forgotten war.”
Every war is worth studying, remembering and learning from, if for no other reason than to try to figure out how to avoid future conflict. War lays bare human evil, making nobler those actions that counter it through bravery, compassion, endurance and even commemoration. One story line that is left out of many historical accounts of the war and deserves greater recognition is that of the heroics of the legendary Turkish Brigade that fought alongside me and my fellow American soldiers. Among the veterans of the Korean War, the Turks have gained fame for their bravery and selflessness. As one veteran, Bob Banker (from Fallston, Md.), of the 25th Infantry Division, put it, “Having the Brigade on your flank made you feel secure at night.”
Beyond the lines of battle, the Turks often proved their camaraderie and compassion to fellow captives in the Chinese prison camps. One American veteran recalled the following:
“We didn’t know how to look after ourselves, and the Turks took pity on us. … My friend was Hakim. … When I was sick, he brought me food, and he looked after me as he would have another Turkish person. … When our sweaters and socks wore out, they picked the wool apart and reknitted it. Hakim made me a pair of socks. … We had informers among us, and we knew who they were. I still know. The Turks did not have one single informer. … When I was so sick I thought I was going to die, Hakim brought me soup and sat with me, and pulled me through it. I think he gave me courage; so many GIs just died because they gave up.” (“Turkish Reflections, A Biography of a Place,” Mary Lee Settle).
After the fighting wound down, some American POWs were accused of having divulged secrets to their communist captors. On May 18, 1955, Defense Secretary Charles Erwin Wilson established an Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War to review the issues and determine a code of conduct for U.S. prisoners of war.
The committee found that Marine Corps POWs performed far better than their fellow Army captives. That was attributed to Marine Corps discipline, training and overall higher morale. However, among our allies and those studied, the Turkish prisoners were found to have performed best.
The alliance between the United States and Turkey has survived numerous conflicts since the conflict on the Korean peninsula. Although many of those efforts were spearheaded through NATO, the valiant effort of the Turkish Brigade in Korea set the tone for cooperation in times of war from Bosnia to the Gulf War, from Somalia to Afghanistan.
Although the future is uncertain, the American-Turkish partnership is strong. It is my hope, as well as that of many of my fellow Korean War veterans, that the legacy of the Turkish Brigade continues to serve as the foundation for U.S.-Turkish relations in the years to come. I will always be inspired by those bloody early days in Korea, and by the resilience of both our U.S. soldiers and our Turkish comrades.
Retired Sgt. William Edward Alli was an ammunition carrier with a machine-gun section attached to Dog Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division, from March 1951 to November 1951. He participated in operations against Chinese and North Korean forces on the east-central front in Korea. He is the author of “Too Young for a Forgettable War.”