'Forgotten' conflict still fresh for veterans as tension remains among nations
By DAVE SUTOR | The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. | Published: June 20, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Rudy Maiorana ran down a hillside trying to flee a wave of oncoming Chinese People's Liberation army soldiers.
Through the confusion, terror, smoke and explosions, he heard a voice cry out: "I need help. I can't see."
Maiorana, who, not long before, had been living a peaceful life in Conemaugh Borough, kept retreating for a bit. He had lost his rifle in a surprise attack, leaving him no way to defend himself or protect anybody else.
But then ... he stopped.
"I couldn't leave him there and me running down the hill," Maiorana said. "I hollered to him, 'Where are you?' I couldn't see him at all. I said, 'Keep hollering so I can hear your voice because they're coming down.'
"I could hear them screaming and blowing bugles. I said, 'Run with me.' We were hidden in the trees. We fell from an edge – I'm guessing it was maybe 6, 7 feet high – on the hillside. That's the last I saw him."
That Chinese counterattack happened in November 1950 during the Korean War.
And, to this date, as the United States commemorates the 70th anniversary of when the conflict started on June 25, 1950, Maiorana still remembers running down the hillside, seeing bullets pierce the water in the valley below and the man's voice pleading for salvation in the darkness.
"Every day I think of him," said Maiorana, who now lives in Geistown.
"When I'm in bed, I start thinking about it, and I keep thinking 'What ever happened to that man?' I always hoped that he hit his head and killed himself, because they would have bayoneted him. They were all over the hill then where he was at. That's my biggest, biggest thing. I think about it all the time. Not a day goes by. That was a sad point in my life."
'I was wounded twice'
Maiorana joined the Army in 1949, needing money to help support his mother.
No long afterward, he was in the Pacific Ocean on his way to Japan, where the post-World War II occupation and reconstruction was ongoing.
But he got diverted to the Korean Peninsula where the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and United Nations forces, including those from the United States, were fighting against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), which was supported by the communist Chinese and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
"I didn't know what Korea was," Maiorana said. "I never heard of Korea. I thought it was a trip to Japan. We landed in Korea and we were in action the first day."
Maiorana recalls being injured less than two weeks after arriving, earning the first of his two Purple Hearts.
"I just turned 18 and I was very scared," he said. "You've got to be there to understand it. People ask me about it. I tell them you've got to be there to know what's going on. I was wounded twice. I was there 11 days when I got wounded. They sent me back to Japan and they patch you up, they give you penicillin, and then I went back again."
Vivid memories still linger – the sub-zero cold, the sweltering heat, the daze of being knocked out by grenade concussion ... and the stench.
"The whole Korea to me, it stunk like an (out) house because of their rice paddies," Maiorana said. "They said they put human waste in the rice paddies. I don't know if it's true or not. But I laid in a lot of them and it smelled like it. To me, the whole country smelled like it."
Maiorana was among the more than 5.7 million Americans who served during the Korean War.
Locally, almost 80 Cambria County residents died in the conflict.
Marine Corps Cpl. Frederick Stouffer (Navy Cross), Army Sgt. Richard Hartnett (Distinguished Service Cross) and Army Capt. John Zanin (Distinguished Service Cross) fought during the war and were later inducted into the Cambria County Military Hall of Fame.
Army Lt. Paul Clauson (Distinguished Service Cross) is scheduled to join in the class of 2020.
Also, Lt. Col. Pauline Beckley was the third-highest ranking woman in the Marine Corps while commanding a recruit training battalion at Parris Island, South Carolina, during the Korean War era. She became a member of the county's inaugural hall of fame class in 2006.
John Hugya spent one year, two months and 17 days in country, assigned to the 1st Marine Air Wing Marine Aircraft Group 12.
He arrived after the fighting concluded.
"We were the peacekeeping force," Hugya, a Somerset County resident, said. "We had a year in which we did all the patrols and everything by night to make sure they didn't come over the line and attack again. The ones that really had it tough were in 1950 and '51. They had the Chosin Reservoir. After that, they had operations 'Ripper' and 'Killer.' That was '51. After that, it was playing pingpong across the border."
Hugya said he joined the service specifically because he wanted to go to Korea.
"I didn't get the chance to go ahead of time," Hugya said. "I asked to go overseas, but they sent me to a few schools. They sent me to an Army school. That held me back. I didn't get over there until May of '54. I was in that peace year between '53 and '54."
His time there was "tiresome," working "16, 18 hours because all aircraft have to be combat-ready like yesterday."
Hugya said: "All we did was patrol and watch that you didn't step on the land mines that both sides left behind."
Hugya was among the first in a series of forces that have kept the uneasy peace on the peninsula for decades.
'Needed to take a stand'
The conflict started when more than 100,000 North Korean fighters crossed the 38th parallel, an arbitrary manmade dividing line drawn put in place after World War II to separate the Soviet-controlled land in the north and the United States-occupied south.
The communists almost completely overran the peninsula, forcing the South Koreans into a 5,000-square-mile area at the southeastern port of Pusan.
On Sept. 15, 1950, an amphibious attack, conceived by U.N. commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was launched behind enemy lines and led to the liberation of Seoul less than two weeks later. U.N. forces pushed northward close to the border with China.
The Chinese then counterattacked.
The frontline moved frequently.
In July 1952, the Korean Armistice Agreement, which South Korea never signed, was reached, creating the Demilitarized Zone, a de facto border, more or less along the 38th parallel.
A formal peace settlement has never been finalized.
"I think the important thing to me is the fact that it was the first time it tested the United Nations," said Marty Kuhar, a local historian and chairman of the 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial Veterans Committee.
"I think that's the key to me. It tested the United Nations. I don't think, to tell you the truth, anybody in the United States really said, 'Oh boy, let's go defend Korea.' Most people didn't even know where Korea was or could care less.
"But, in general, it was our commitment to the United Nations. And the second thing to me was, at that time, by 1950, a whole lot of countries were falling to communism. And we needed to take a stand somewhere, whether it was in the Pacific or in Europe."
During the war, a divide existed in the United States whether to wage all-out war and go hard after China, an approach supported by MacArthur, or to simply secure a peace and protect South Korea.
"You have to understand what was going on," said Paul Cunningham, a 90-year-old Lancaster resident and president of the Korean War Veterans Association. "World War II had ended in 1945. And here in 1950, we're faced with another war. No one had stomach for another war. For that reason, they didn't call it a war. They called it a police action.
"The significant thing is that this was a U.N. effort, the first time ever."
The Cold War was still in its beginning.
And, in 1949, Mao Zedong, a communist revolutionary, officially proclaimed the existence of the People's Republic of China after battle with Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek and his supporters.
"We were cheering MacArthur on – 'Let's go get them' – but not realizing that to do so could possibly trigger the start of World War III," Cunningham said.
"MacArthur, too, wanted to bring Chiang Kai-Shek into the war.
"These things could have easily precipitated World War III. That was the fine line that Washington was treading. It proves we do need civilian oversight."
'Perpetuate our legacy'
Today, the Korean War Veterans Association includes about 10,000 members who served in the war or during the continued policing.
"Our mission is to perpetuate our legacy, to take care of our veterans, remember our fallen and the MIAs and POWs," said Cunningham, an Air Force radar repairman during the war.
"Most of our efforts have been to carry out that mission statement."
The governments of multiple countries, the United Nations and independent organizations, including the National Committee on North Korea, are involved in trying to maintain peace on the peninsula between DPRK, ruled by Kim Jong-un, and ROK, led by Moon Jae-in.
Tensions rose again this month when Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, a trusted aide, threatened possible military activity, saying, "I feel it is high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities. We will soon take the next action."
North Korea's nuclear program is a constant concern for nations in the region, specifically South Korea and Japan.
"It's an extremely complicated relationship to say the least," said Daniel Wertz, program manager with the National Committee on North Korea, a non-governmental organization working to develop relations between the United States and DPRK. "It's – I think – one that has a lot of salience for U.S. interest and U.S. security. I think the North Korean nuclear program is certainly a direct threat to the United States and its allies in the region. I think that the consequences of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be enormous. Frankly, I think a few years ago, in 2017, we came very uncomfortably close to a renewed conflict. It's something we'd certainly want to stop from happening."
Wertz said that even 70 years later, the conflict is perceived quite differently in North Korea than it is in the United States – where it is often referred to as "The Forgotten War."
"I think the war is still very much alive in North Korean political culture," said Wertz, whose father lived in Johnstown. "There are reminders of it consonantly. It's a major part of the narrative of the North Korean government that the country's under threat and that it needs nuclear weapons and a powerful military to survive."
Wertz experienced that difference firsthand when he visited the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities that is dedicated to a massacre that the North Koreans allege the United States and South Korea carried out.
Some of the paintings include alleged victims being burned alive and butchered.
"It was a very strange and harrowing experience to go through there," Wertz said. "There were also, as you went, several hundred or maybe over a thousand North Korean school children who were visiting the museum at the same time. They were very careful to segregate the western visitors from the North Koreans visiting. This is a field trip for the North Korean kids. And it's a big part of their indoctrination to hate the United States."
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