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Posted on Dec 13, 2004 in Books and Movies

Their War for Korea: American, Asian and European Combatants and Civilians, 1945-1953 – Book Review

By Richard N Story

Their War for Korea: American, Asian and European Combatants and Civilians, 1945-1953
Allan R. Millett
Brassey’s 25 November, 2002 Hardcover

Korea; saying the word out loud conjures up mental images of two countries that are dichotomous in extremes. One is economically vibrant, politically free and a player on the world stage. The other is economically stagnant and politically repressed and isolationist. Now mention the Korean War and totally different mental pictures are conjured up. The waves and waves of Chinese soldiers attacking outnumbered United Nations (UN) soldiers; freezing cold winters and unmercifully hot summers compounded by the intransigence of the leadership of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) to reach an armistice. The Korean War has recently come back into favor as a subject worthy of study, but only on the personal first hand level or in the macro “big picture” level. While I prefer first person narratives; the lack of academic rigidity that ensures accuracy and provides sourcing that allows further studying in depth of source material is an issue. I was glad when I was given the opportunity to read Professor Millett’s book which is a hybrid book that combines the first person point of view along with the academic submission of sources.


Published by Brassey’s Inc., the book is a compilation of vignettes of individuals who experienced the war in Korea from the end of World War II until the armistice was signed in 1953. The book, counting appendixes, glossary, notes and index runs to just over 310 pages. The book is divided up into four main sections. The introduction serves to orientate the reader to the Korean War and a broad and general outline of the war. The heart of the book however lies in the three sections that deal with the narratives. Each section dealt with a particular group in the Korean War. The first one naturally deals with the Koreans. The next section dealt with the Allies of both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea. The last segment dealt with the forces of the United States and is called simply: Americans. Each segment is broken down into chapters for each narrative about an individual, or occasionally a group of individuals who are linked by time, job and/or place.

The section on the Koreans was an eye opener. I knew the war was brutal for the Korean peoples, but I was unaware that up to 3 million Koreans died during the war and that there was such bitter and bloody fighting going on before the armed forces of the north crossed into the south. One of the items that kept being reiterated through the book was how guerilla warfare on both sides aided to the misery of the ordinary person who was trying to live in difficult enough times. When the North Koreans crossed the border the South Korean Labor Party (SKLP) came out and denounced class enemies who subsequently were all too frequently executed. When the troops of the UN Command and the South Koreans retook the territory; it was the SKLP’s turn to be seized and executed by the nationalist elements. Yet one thing was shown that struck me as making the war more a civil war along the American model than a war between two nations, was how family was more important than political sides. Two other things that really struck me while reading the book was how large a percentage of Christians there was in Korea and how faith shaped many of the participants and their subsequent actions. Finally, Professor Millett documented that the Koreans served in the Imperial Japanese military as more than unwilling slave labor. In fact, when talking about the United States Air Force (USAF) training program for the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), one of the best and first pilots was Colonel Lee Gun-Suk who had 20 victories flying for the Japanese!

Allies was the smallest section in the book. It covers only 9 sections of which six dealt with the allies of the UN and the final 3 were allies of North Korea. The three that deal with the allies of North Korea are all based on multiple primary and secondary sources without any interviews. Despite Glasnost, Perestroika, the ability for the author to get interviews from Russia, China or North Korea is small, but the author makes good use of his sources. While generally pleased by the inclusion of a chapter dealing with soldiers from Australia, Belgium, Netherlands, Thailand and the United Kingdom; I have to admit to being disappointed that no person from Canada, Greece or Turkey was included. As the Turks suffered more casualties (721) killed-in-action than all the other United Nations contingents except the United States, this omission is unfortunate. The novelty of this section overrides any shortcomings and makes it a valuable tool for understanding the inner workings of how the various contingents of the UN Command were put together and organized.

The largest section is, naturally, the one that deals Americans at war in Korea. Subjects range from Generals to Privates. All branches of the military except the Coast Guard were represented in the book. Included in this number was Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton who was profiled in the Armchair General Magazine for his winning of the Medal of Honor in Korea. Another person who would be familiar to many would be Major Dean Hess whose book Battle Hymn was made into a movie staring Rock Hudson. Yet there are many unsung stories that Professor Millett brings out and shares with his readers. The story of Lieutenant Junior Grade William H. Shaw, United States Navy Reserve, who returned to the land of his birth and died there for a people he had learned to love due to his missionary parents was especially poignant.

Professor Millett used all of his considerable skills and contacts to write this book. A former Colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserve; he spent 3 years on active duty in the infantry and also commanded an infantry battalion. He is currently The Major General Raymond E. Mason Jr. Professor of Military History, The Ohio State University. He is a member of the Mershon Center’s Program in International Security and Military Affairs. He has authored five books and coauthored several more. His contacts ranged from soldiers and statesmen for different countries to those whose mere name opened doors. One such series of contacts was with the Underwood family in Korea. The Underwood’s were one of the first families in missionary work in Korea and who is held in the highest esteem by the Koreans. Professor Millett is extremely qualified to write the book.

The book with its short chapters could be a quick and easy read. Yet to read it rapidly without reflection would lose many of the subtle lessons buried in the book. Each chapter had a surprising turn, or reveals little known knowledge over the war. It is easy to see that Professor Millett has a genuine love for Korea, and the plight of the Korean people is never far from the surface of the book. If I had any complaint about the book it was the amount of space devoted to the United States Marines and Korean Christians. But on reflection, given the nature of his contacts this can only be expected and he does a good job incorporating the other services into the book. I highly recommend this book to any student of the Korean War or any person who wants to look beyond the popular media and into the real face of war. With a list price of $18.95 for the paperback version; the book is accessible to all students of military history.