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Christmas in Korea 1951: ‘Thanks for the Memories’
By Tom Range, Sr.

Christmas 1951 saw young American military men, once again stationed half way around the world from their homes.  Many of the troops had older brothers and fathers who fought in World War II to make the world safer for their younger brothers and sons.  The draft was still in force and there was a military obligation for most American men, but it entailed little more than occupation duty in defeated Europe and Japan.  It meant being away from home, but no one was shooting at them and the local economies were eager to relieve the GIs of some of their pay as they went on overnight or weekend passes and on liberty.

The routine of GIs stationed in Japan changed virtually overnight with the invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK), which occupied the lower half of the Korean peninsula, by troops of the Communist Democratic Republic of Korea on June 25, 1950.  Five days later President Harry Truman committed ground forces to combat the invading Communists.  Through the balance of 1950 and much of 1951, ROK and American troops waged a seesaw battle with the North Korean communists, who were augmented by military forces of the Peoples Republic of China.  Americans soon learned to identify phrases like the Pusan perimeter, the landing at Inchon, the Yalu River over which thousands of Chinese raced seemingly undetected by American intelligence, the retreat from the Chosin reservoir, and the 38th Parallel, the arbitrary dividing line between the Communist regime to the north and a democratically elected regime to the south.

The war raged the entire length of the Korean peninsula.  Seoul, the capital of the ROK fell to the Communists and then was freed a number of times over the year.  The supreme commander of the forces fighting the Communists, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was relieved of command in April 1951, charged with insubordination.  He was replaced by General Matthew Ridgway.  The Allied forces, fighting as members of the United Nations, finally stabilized a line of demarcation south of the 38th Parallel and, in July 1951, delegations from the opposing sides began meeting, first in the town of Kaesong and then at Panmunjom in October.

There was at least a semblance of peace so that American troops could enjoy the celebration of Christmas.  One unit of the U.S. Army had occupied college buildings near Seoul, the nominal capital of the ROK.  On Christmas Eve, thirty children from a nearby orphanage came dressed in their native garb and sang Christmas carols in English.  After the singing the children joined the troops in a traditional American Christmas dinner; turkey, dressing, peas, bread and coffee.  The men celebrated as best they could with being half a world away from home.

The next day, Christmas Day, men who were off duty could go to the Bob Hope United Services Organization (USO) show in Seoul.  Only one "deuce and a half" truck was available to transport the lucky troops.  The show was presented in a theater, one of the few buildings left standing after the destruction to the city, as it became the focal point of the war.  To assure themselves of good seats, the fortunate GIs arrived at about 3:00 p.m. for the show that started at 7:00 p.m.  The temperature was 0 degrees, a thousand troops from units around Seoul were huddled together for warmth waiting for the theater doors to open.  Among the performers were Debbie Reynolds and the actor Walter Pidgeon, with Les Brown and his Band of Renown.  The headliner was of course Bob Hope. 
The USO had all but disbanded by 1947, after World War II.  In 1950, when the United States entered the Korean War, the USO reorganized and eventually opened 24 clubs worldwide.  As the war in Korea dragged on for another two years, and American GIs were stationed in the country, USO Camp Shows performed hundreds of times for battle-weary troops, and for the wounded GIs in hospitals in Japan.  Bob Hope, carrying on the tradition established in World War II, continued visiting the troops all over the world, up to the First Gulf War in 1990-1991.  His career of volunteering for the USO spanned nearly fifty years.  He died in 2003 at the age of 100 years.

The truce talks in Panmunjom were conducted from October 1951 through July 1953.  The tactic of the Communist regimes of North Korea and China was "talk, talk, fight, fight."  As the talks were being held, major battles would be fought for control of a ridge or a hill, of no real strategic value but considered of importance for propaganda purposes.  As late as April 1953, the three-day battle of Pork Chop Hill ended in victory for United Nations forces, with U.S. casualties of 243 killed and 916 wounded.

In total, the Korean War that formally ended on July 27, 1953, resulted in U.S. casualties of more than 33,700 killed and 105,000 wounded.  The ROK losses were 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded.  It is estimated that the Communist forces sustained over 1.5 million dead.  131 Medals of Honor were bestowed upon U.S. fighting men.
At present, the U.S. maintains a force of some 28,000 troops in South Korea, stretched along a 2.5 mile deep demilitarized zone separating the two countries that occupy the Korean peninsula.

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Uploaded: 12/19/2007