Paul G. Zolbrod of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania was shipped off to the Army during the heart of winter, 1953.  He was twenty, and like so many other young men during the 1950s, Mr. Zolbrod was drafted into a quietly raging military conflict on the Korean peninsula.  Some call it The Forgotten War.

“For draftees, Monday evenings was the worst time to leave the city,” Mr. Zolbrod reflects in his 2007 novel inspired by his experiences, Battle Songs:  A Story of the Korean War in Four Movements:

Very few people paid any attention to the inductees.  Perhaps their inattention made leaving even worse.  The young men were all old enough to remember the Second World War, when the newly drafted were paraded through the streets in broad daylight like heroes, not smuggled out through the alleyways at night . . . But when these youngsters left to fight in Korea in 1951, there was neither ceremony nor public sadness.  They were simply taken away from life and noise and freedom to fight a war that people even wanted to pretend did not exist, and that people now have either forgotten or never knew of to begin with.

After weeks of intense infantry training and preparation for the front lines, Mr. Zolbrod found himself quietly standing watch in a Tokyo Army hospital and supply depot.  By this time, the Korean War was officially over; as of July 1953 over 128,000 Americans had been either killed or wounded in the three year “police action” against communist expansion.  Korea was never Truman’s War; it was, rather, politically and conveniently termed a United Nation’s conflict.

By the mid 1950s, another war was brewing in Asia and Corporal Zolbrod’s last job with the Army Quartermasters was to ship supplies to the French fighting their way out of the thickets of Indo-China.  A decade after Mr. Zolbrod’s homecoming, a new wave of young American infantrymen would be fighting their way back into the jungles of Vietnam.

Unlike Korea, that war would be remembered–jammed into the nation’s psyche–if for no other reason but to stand in stark contrast to The Great War of a generation earlier.  The Korean War–despite its place as the only major multinational war between WW II and Vietnam, its tremendous cost in American lives, and its role in launching the Cold War–seemed not to matter, not to historians, Hollywood, or even to a great many of those who where actually there.   Until recently the nation, it seems, wanted to forget.

As he writes in his essay, “A Veteran Remembers the Korean War” (see More Stories), when I left the States I “then boarded an Asian bound troop ship from an empty San Francisco pier; and finally returned  to an equally deserted one.  We too had embarked and returned, but who cared?”

–Welcome home, Corporal Zolbrod.  Thank you for your service.

Although Paul Zolbrod lives in New Mexico, he migrates homeward toward  Pennsylvania every chance he gets.  These days, his son and family in Connellsville give Paul a good reason to visit the Pittsburgh area.   It was on such a visit that Paul sat down with us at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Brentwood.  He was on his way to the airport and we happened to be on his trek from Connellsville.

Mid August was sweltering, and we hoped that Paul wouldn’t be too uncomfortable in our borrowed recording space.  He wasn’t.  In fact, the whole experience was one of the most pleasant and interesting interviews we’ve had in a long while–but not because Paul’s stories were any more spectacular than our other veterans.  As an academic, Paul’s keen insights and observations about his veteran experience were eloquent and thoughtful. Contemplative is a better word.  Most veterans never reach that point in their stories.  It was refreshing.

During the interview, Paul did much of the work for us in describing “what it all means”–growing up as the son of working class immigrants, going to war, coming of age in Japan, retiring from a long career as an educator, and now enjoying the comraderie among older veterans like himself.  Indeed, the professor’s stories proved to be . . . deeply educational.

We Were the Cannon Fodder

In this audio short, Korean War veteran Paul Zolbrod of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania talks with Todd DePastino (director of The Veterans Breakfast Club) about being drafted into the Army from a working class neighborhood.

For more audio short stories from local veterans, visit our stories archive.

A Veteran Remembers the Korean War. . .

 by Paul G. Zolbrod

“It sickens me yet, that slaughter….”  —Walt Whitman

As a Korean war era draftee and the author of a novel about that conflict—Battle Songs—I failed to see much notice that this summer’s sixtieth anniversary of our entry into it has now come and gone. Still unresolved, it remains our forgotten war.  Yet it stands as a bleak benchmark in this nation’s history, since it represents the first in a string of undeclared, winless wars that, appropriately or not, brand us as geopolitical meddlers.

With the perspective I now have, I even question Truman’s decision to send troops toKorea, although I recognize how difficult that choice was.  More clearly, though, I find it nothing short of tragic that following our mighty World War II triumph, we were giddy with invincibility and failed to realize that wisdom does not necessarily accompany military power.

Vietnam followed, then Iraq, and nowAfghanistan.  In between, a series of quick little military exploits strengthened our mindless faith in raw might–Grenada, Panama, a first Gulf War, Haiti, Bosnia, etc.–that only reinforced a “bring it on” bravado, leading us deeper into national debt, arousing international disfavor, and poisoning our national will.

I don’t claim a historian’s certitude, but sixty years later I know this. A dark gulf of insensitivity separates managers of the macrocosm who send youngsters to fight from the way lives are shattered in the microcosm of combat in ways unimaginable to anyone lacking military experience.

Cover: Battle SongsWhile not having fought in Korea, I live that lesson just the same after sixteen weeks of infantry basic training where I was taught to kill;  after sharing a Tokyo Army Hospital ward with wounded soldiers during the aftermath of the war;  after weeks of round-the-clock duty as a corporal at Tokyo Quartermaster Depot dispatching emergency supplies to surrounded French troops at Dien Bien Phu;  after two stays in a Veterans Administration hospital immediately following my discharge; and even now at the local VA clinic where my disability pales when I meet Vietnam vet comrades still carrying shrapnel in a shoulder or a groin, or a youngster newly returned from Iraq or Afghanistan learning to walk on a prosthetic leg.

For all these years the reality of callow youngsters sent to Korea virtually unnoticed still haunts me. As a boy during World War II, I remember trolley rides to Pittsburgh’s Baltimore and Ohio station to watch newly drafted soldiers board trains while a band played in a cascade of confetti; and how as a young teen we helped greet them back as mothers and wives and girl friends kissed them tearfully.  Yet as a newly sworn-in inductee in the early fifties, I was marched after dark with others through alleyways from the Old Post Office Building to the same station; then boarded an Asian bound troop ship from an empty San Francisco pier; and finally returned to an equally deserted one.  We too had embarked and returned, but who cared?

Since my discharge in the mid fifties, I have tried to reach an understanding of that conflict from a foot soldier’s viewpoint.  In addition to history books, I studied diaries, field reports, battlefield dispatches, front-line hospital records, and even first-hand accounts by Hiroshima survivors.  Over that span of time I struggled to complete to my satisfaction a work of fiction that might remind readers of what was being overlooked.  It tells the story of four young inductees fromWestern Pennsylvania mining and farming communities into a war they do not understand to face an enemy they know nothing about.  Each in his own way must recognize a legacy of conflict of a different sort absorbed through their upbringing, raising the question of whether as Americans they are already predisposed to combat.

On two occasions I actually submitted earlier versions–once while the war in Vietnam escalated, and again after the first Gulf War.   The first submission was originally accepted by a trade publisher, but later cancelled when a managing editor declared that nobody would be interested.  The second submission was praised but rejected by a publisher uninterested in historical fiction, which apparently it had now become.

Moved to try again as young returnees from Iraq began coming to the local VA hospital, I rewrote it once more, aware by now that Korea had set a precedent for what had become a national addiction to military action, always at the expense of the grunt doing the fighting and the dying.  As a member of the Korean era generation, I am now with few World War II surviving exceptions one of the oldsters who sit waiting in the orthopedic department or the blood lab, still questioning war.  Perhaps one of the youngsters will tell his or her story, but mine brings a broader perspective.

War is futile not just for the destruction it leaves.  Cities can be rebuilt, as nations in Europe and Asia have demonstrated.  It is futile because it recurs for reasons an individual soldier may not always fathom as easily as those who fought in the so-called Great Generation did.  It is futile because in it so many die so young. And it is futile above all for what those who survive endure for rest of their lives. That’s why the Korean War remains important in the face of forgetfulness.

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Paul G. Zolbrod was an English Professor at Allegheny College for thirty years before retiring to New Mexico.   He now lives in Albuquerque and teaches at the Navajo Nation’s Diné College.  He is the author of several books, including Weaving a World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeing, with Roseann S. WillinkReading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page, and Diné bahane: The Navajo Creation Story.

2013: Year of the Korean War Veteran

The Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee, authorized in the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill, 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.

“The Korean War was the first test of the United Nations’ resolve to stand against tyranny in all its forms. Twenty nations banded together with the United States and South Korea in a remarkable display of solidarity to turn back naked aggression and stem the tide of communism. The Armistice signed in 1953 that remains in effect today reminds us that we must remain vigilant against the forces of tyranny and oppression.

The Korean War also saw the advent of aeronautical, medical and societal change: Helicopters were introduced to transport casualties to field hospital. Jets became the new “standard” for aircraft; leading-edge radio technology allowed better coordination of troop movements. Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) units placed experienced medical personnel closer to the front, improving a wounded Soldier’s chance for survival. Perhaps the most lasting impact of the Korean War was the social change that was manifested to American society. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman had signed Executive Order 9981, implementing the full integration of America’s Armed Services. Thus, America went to war in Korea for the first time in her history with a military that reflected her diversity.

The selfless sacrifices of the Veterans who fought in Korea to ensure the freedom and prosperity we enjoy today must always be remembered. The Veterans who shivered in the trenches, tracked through knee-deep mud, flew combat missions over rugged mountainous terrain, and stood watch over hostile seas set aside their own comfort, safety and aspirations to answer the call to arms at a time when our nation was still exhausted from the horrors of World War II. These patriots halted the tide of communism that threatened to sweep over the Korean peninsula. Today the Republic of Korea stands as a modern, prosperous, vibrant democracy because of their courage and selfless sacrifice. (from Army Live: The Official Blog of the United States Army)