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Vista man recalls invasion of ‘Forgotten War’

VISTA — Sept.15 marks the 61st anniversary of the famous 1950 Inchon Landing masterminded by General Douglas MacArthur and advanced by the United States Marine Corp Division.
Yet in contrast to the feat, the climate of the Korean War, only three months prior, showed little to no promise. On June 25, 1950, a powerful North Korean Army surged across South Korean borders and threw the Western allies into complete disarray. The downsized American military was left with no choice but to face the unthinkable: A humiliating evacuation.
Yet as the reality of a communist victory grew evermore imminent, the stage was set for the most dramatic reversal of the war.
Against all odds, the Marines scaled sea walls from landing crafts, pushed back North Korean guerilla fighters from the South Korean city of Inchon, and ultimately liberated the area from communist takeover.
Even more advantageously, the success mobilized U.S. forces into surrounding regions previously held by North Korean forces. Communism in both Yong Dung Po and the South Korean capital Seoul fell triumphantly.
Robert Olsen, a former combat infantryman of the First Marine Division and current Vista resident, fought in four Korean War Campaigns when he was only 19 years old. His war stories begin with the success of the historical Inchon Landing.
“While we were fighting in Seoul, every corner of the city had barricades made out of large rice bags,” he said. “An elderly man came out of a building with tears in his eyes and hugged us. Just that emotional expression of appreciation made our efforts and sacrifice worthwhile.”
Within months, the Marines spearheaded their subsequent aim — the Wonson Landing in North Korea. In another seemingly large victory, General MacArthur’s men drove North Korean forces through the frozen Chosin Reservoir to the Chinese border.
Yet success was short lived. A million Chinese troops waited strategically miles away, while 120,000 more flooded across the Yalu River at General Mao Tae-Tung’s command. Fifteen thousand U.S. forces retreated to the South Korean border, unprepared and outnumbered.
Conditions were dire. November brought 45-degrees-below-zero weather, forcing soldiers to eat snow to quench intense thirst. Damaged bridges and roads impaired trucks from supplying troops with food, clothing, fuel and medical supplies. All materials were flown in, exacerbating already high losses in lives during battle.
“We needed to keep the tanks and trucks running 24/7. If they stopped they wouldn’t start again because it was so cold,” Olsen said.
“The Marine Corps had the dirtiest job of them all,” he said. “We slept in dirt holes every night, wore recycled, lice-filled dungarees and torn-up boots, and lived off sea rations (canned food) for months. Every night we saddled up with packs on our backs and prepared for the following objective: The next hill to conquer or battle to win. We had a break after we were on the front lines for a month or longer. Then we were sent to the rear for three days of rest where we’d finally get a shower and decent meal!”
Fortunately, the determination of the First Marine Division was unparalleled. The men defeated and impaired 10 Chinese divisions.
Fighting their way out of the trap, the Marines brought tanks, artillery and the wounded to safety. After reaching the port of Hungnam in South Korea, the Marines launched their counter offensive.
“We liberated over 100,000 North Korean civilians — men, women and children — from the tyranny of communism, transporting them to Pusan, South Korea,” Olsen said.
Unfortunately at the time, the war was far from over. Bloodshed continued as the communist forces recaptured both the North Korean capital Pyongyang and the South Korean capital Seoul. President Harry Truman replaced General Douglas MacArthur with General Matthew Ridgeway after feeling exceeding pressure to bring troops home.
The warring nations consolidated on either side of the 38th Parallel now dividing North Korea from South Korea. At this point, it was clear that U.S. intentions for the region had changed. Communist containment at the 38th parallel replaced the original goal of liberation throughout the Korean Peninsula. The war raged on until the Armistice of July 1953.
Four months preceding the stalemate, Olsen was shot in the leg at Hong Chon on March 15, 1953. He laid in a pool of blood for 12 hours before being rescued by Corpsman Bob Yorka and evacuated to a nearby field hospital. On the ship home, his right leg was amputated. He spent the following 13 months recovering in military and V.A. hospitals.
“The best thing we can take from this upcoming anniversary,” Olsen said, “is to remember the ‘Forgotten War.’ In remembering the Inchon Landing and other key battles, we can appreciate the selfless acts, sacrifice, and courage exhibited by the First Marine Division. In the end, their efforts allowed hundreds of thousands of Koreans to exercise the greatest gift of all: Freedom.”