The “forgotten war” was front and center Friday at the National Infantry Museum as veterans who fought in Korea shared their experiences and the general officer who most recently commanded United States troops there shared his views during a symposium attended by more than 300 soldiers and civilians.
Retired Lt. Gen. Bernard Champoux, who relinquished command of the 8th Army in Korea in February, gave the current assessment of the nearly 65-year U.S. alliance with the Republic of Korea and the threat posed by North Korea.
More than once, Champoux referred to the situation on the Korean peninsula as complex. Part of the complexity is because of third-generation dictator Kim Jong-un, whom Champoux called “rational but very unpredictable” and “brutal.”
“It’s almost like a cult,” he said of North Korea. “They are raised from the very beginning to think a certain way about the regime leadership. It is not unlike the deity. … It is similar to the Trinity — Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and (Kim Jong-un). In the schools and in the public buildings, there are magnificent statues to them.”
Keeping the regime in power is the top priority, Champoux said, and the continued nuclear testing is an example of that.
“I think you have a regime that is more concerned about its viability and will literally throw its people under the bus,” Champoux said.
The South Koreans understand the threat and live with it daily, Champoux said. He pointed out that weapons are about 30 miles from Seoul, the most densely populated city in the world.
“Although they understand the threat, it is part of their daily lives,” he said. “They also understand why a strong alliance with the United States is so important.”
While Champoux has spent the last four years living with the South Korean alliance and the North Korean threat, other officers who addressed the symposium were there in the early years.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles “Chick” Cleveland, a fighter pilot who shot down six Russian aircraft during the Korean War, takes exception with those who say the United States lost that conflict.
“I have had some people I know, Marine pilots and others, who actually said we lost that war because they wouldn’t turn us loose,” Cleveland said. “I don’t subscribe to the theory that it was a draw or we lost. We won that war. We did exactly what the United Nations asked us to do, which was to repel Communist aggression.”
Proof of that victory rests in the South Korean auto manufacturing plants in places like Montgomery, Ala., and West Point, Ga., Cleveland said.
“Any of you ever been to Montgomery?” Cleveland asked. “There is a huge Hyundai plant that makes all the Sonatas and Elantras made in America. That factory would not be there if we had not won that war.”
Retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett, a Columbus resident who led a makeshift Ranger company into battle in Korea in 1950, said training and being prepared to fight were the most important lessons he learned as a young commander. And that lesson translates to the current force, he said.
“You may not have six months to get ready,” Puckett said. “It costs a lot of lives trying to hold off the enemy while we try to get ready. You must be ready today — every day. ... You must be prepared to fight today.”