Rhode Island’s Korean War veterans were honored by the South Korean nation at a special ceremony in Chepachet on Sept. 11. More than 45 veterans from the Rhode Island Korean War Veterans Association Chapter 258 were thanked for their service and sacrifice at the Glocester Senior Center.
Commander John O’Brien of the U.S. Navy, a member of the Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee, presented the veterans with certificates signed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the Republic of Korea presented them with special service medals.
Among the recipients was Tom Pagliarini of Johnston, who was one of 250 members of a combat support battalion made up mostly of Rhode Islanders.
“I was among the first to be called in 1950,” he said. “I was a reservist in the National Guard.”
Pagliarini said the Guard was called because they were already a unit. More Rhode Islanders came a little later.
“Thirty-three of our boys never came back and another 103 were wounded and hospitalized,” said Pagliarini. “I’m not even counting the guys who were wounded but went back to the front again.”
The program at the Glocester Senior Center included the reading of the names of those who lost their lives from 1950 through 1953. The veterans were individually recognized.
“We each got a certificate from the Defense Department and they gave each of us these medals from the people of South Korea,” said Pagliarini as he showed off the medal at the Beacon office last week.
The Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee was authorized in the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill. It is dedicated to thanking and honoring all the veterans of the Korean War, their families and especially those who lost loved ones in that war.
Through 2013, the committee will honor the service and sacrifice of Korean War veterans, commemorate the key events of the war and educate Americans of all ages about the historical significance of the Korean War.
While our war-weary people were euphemistically told the Korean Conflict was a United Nations Police Action, virtually all of the veterans who served there call it the Korean War and were, for many years, denied a public memorial to the men and women who served in Korea.
“They can call it anything they want,” said Pagliarini. “It was a war … When the Chinese entered the battle, the fatalities were unbelievable. We lost a lot of men but the Chinese just came in waves and we had ordinance to stop them. They were slaughtered.”
Like all wars, it was the boots on the ground that bore the brunt of the “police action” and veterans like Pagliarini and the late Joe Corrente had to fight long and hard to get a Korean War Memorial.
“It took us years and years to get that built and nobody worked harder than Joe. He was also a World War II [veteran] and after he got through with Korea, he worked on the Second World War Memorial ... and he was sick most of that time.”
The Korean Memorial went up in Providence in 1998. The World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2007. Corrente has since passed away.
Would anyone at all remember the Korean War if weren’t for the television series “M*A*S*H?” The irony of it all is that the television series lasted from 1972 to 1983, 10 years longer than the war itself. Yet, for all that time on the air, “M*A*S*H” never much explained why they were there in the first place.
The Korean War started on June 25, 1950, when approximately 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south. It was the first proxy war of the Cold War. Korean invasion was the first confrontation between the United States and its former ally, Russia. China had only recently gone to Mao Tse Tung and did not play a very large role at first. It was the Russians who were financing and arming North Korea. Russian MiG jets and supposedly Korean pilots entered the fray and the first aerial dog fights with jets broke out in a corridor of air space called MiG Alley. North Korean pilots were few and only seven Chinese pilots are recognized as aces, but between 43 and 60 Russian pilots were also. But most American troops were on the ground starting in July of 1950. As far as America was concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism and many World War II veterans, including the late Senator John Chafee and ball player Ted Williams, were called back for service in Korea.
“We were called up because we were ready,” said Pagliarini. “We had some training and, as you know, we had the draft in those days, so a lot of us were in the Guard. After a while we started getting new guys coming over, but in the beginning most of us were from Rhode Island or New England. It was only later that we started getting people from other parts of the country.”
The battlefront went back and forth and the North Koreans were pushed back over the 38th parallel, but then China got involved and the ground war slogged along, gaining and losing ground on both sides into a stalemate.
“If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war,” said former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “the unanimous choice would have been Korea.”
Pagliarini said he was in a relatively secure area moving ammunition around.
“They [North Koreans] were always doing what they could, like derailing trains, but we were in a secure area,” he said, “except maybe the time that the pyrotechnics [signal flares] went up. That was something.”
Pagliarini said he’s proud that he helped the people of Korea.
“Those people had been persecuted by the Japanese, the Chinese, for centuries,” he said. “To see what they got now makes me happy. The place where I worked is now one of the most popular beach resorts in the country.”
Korea had been a part of the Japanese empire, and after World War II; it fell to the Americans and the Soviets to decide what should be done with it. In August 1945, the Korean peninsula was cut in half along the 38th parallel. The Russians occupied the area north of the line and the United States occupied the area to its south.
By the end of the 1940s, two new states had formed on the peninsula. In the south, the anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee enjoyed the reluctant support of the American government; in the north, the communist dictator Kim Il Sung enjoyed more enthusiastic support from the Soviets. Neither was content to remain on their side of the 38th parallel and border skirmishes were common. Nearly 10,000 North and South Korean soldiers already died before the war started.
The North Korean invasion came as a surprise. As far as the U.S. was concerned, this was the beginning of a communist campaign to take over the world. The National Security Council recommended that the United States use force to “contain” communist expansionism anywhere it occurred, regardless of its value to the American economy.
“If we let Korea down,” Truman said, “the Soviet will keep right on going and swallow up one after another.”
Yet he was sure that such a war would lead to Soviet aggression in Europe, atomic weapons and millions of senseless deaths.
As Truman looked for a way to prevent war with the Chinese, MacArthur did all he could to provoke it. Finally, in March 1951, McArthur sent a letter to Joseph Martin, a House Republican who supported declaring war on China – and who could be counted upon to leak the letter to the press. “There is,” MacArthur wrote, “no substitute for victory” against communism.
That letter was the last straw. The president fired him.
“I’m glad he fired McArthur,” said Pagliarini. “If it were left up to him, I would have probably never come home.”
By 1953, both sides were pretty much back where they started, an armistice was declared and the fighting stopped.
“They called it the forgotten war,” said Pagliarini. “Well, it’s great that people are remembering it now.”
For more information, visit www.koreanwar60.com. Keep connected with the Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee with Facebook and Twitter and through videos at YouTube.