By Matthew Gailani
The Korean War has had many names since an armistice was signed at P’anmunjom on July 27, 1953. Historians have referred to it as a “forgotten war,” and, at the time, it was referred to as a “police action.”
The reality is that the war that began 70 years ago this summer had massive international ramifications and cost millions of lives, many of which were Korean civilians. While the war was first and foremost a war between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), it eventually involved the intervention of the United Nations and soon The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, among the many world powers involved.
Consequently, thousands of Tennesseans soon found themselves fighting in Korea only five years after the end of World War II. Ultimately, more than 10,500 Tennesseans served during the Korean War. Of these soldiers, three received the Medal of Honor for their service. Before we learn about the Tennesseans who served during this conflict, it is essential to first understand the war they were fighting.
A blood chit is a notice carried by military personnel to infiorm civilians who may come across an armed-services member – such as a shot-down pilot – in difficulties.(Tennessee State Museum collection, 0.886B) TSM)
If you search for the Korean War online, most websites will list the start date as June 25, 1950. This was when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel (the line separating the two Koreas) and prompted an invasion of the South that soon led to the fall of Seoul and United Nations intervention. Yet historians Bruce Cumings and Charles Armstrong argue, while this may have been a major step in the conflict, it was by no means the start of hostilities between the two Koreas.
Korea was a colony under Japanese rule from 1910 until World War II ended in 1945. Soon after, when it was divided along the 38th parallel, the peninsula found itself on the front lines of the Cold War The South was occupied by the U.S military; the North by the Soviets. In 1948, the Republic of Korea, under President Syngman Rhee, was established in the South, while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the North, under Prime Minister Kim Il Sung. Both leaders looked to unify the Korean peninsula under their government, and guerilla fighting and skirmishing between the two sides broke out. As a result, the two Koreas were already fighting by the North Korean invasion on June 25,, 1950.
Map of Inchon Area and North Korean Flag (Tennessee State Museum collection, 0.886D and 83.66)
The United States was quick to respond. Concerned with international prestige and stopping the spread of communism, the United States gained a UN resolution calling “upon all Member States to render every assistance,” in preventing the invasion. A United Nations force, primarily consisting of US troops led by General Douglas MacArthur, soon found themselves on the Korean peninsula to assist South Korean forces. Three years of fighting ensued under brutal conditions. During the fighting, as Cumings documents, atrocities were committed by both sides. The United States dropped more tons of bombs on Korea than in the entire Pacific Theater during World War II. On July 27, 1953, an armistice was finally signed at P’anmunjom. It established a demilitarized zone roughly along the 38th parallel, the border separating the two Koreas when the fighting began.
This was the war that thousands of Tennesseans found themselves in during the early 1950s. While it is impossible to tell all their stories here, three received the Medal of Honor for their service: William F. Lyell, Ray E. Duke and Charles Pendleton.
Corporal William F. Lyell was born in Lyles, Hickman County, on Valentine’s Day 1928. He grew up in Goodlettsville, and before the war worked at the DuPont Chemical Plant in Rayon City. He was drafted in November of 1950, with Old Hickory as his place of enlistment. According to his Medal of Honor citation, “Cpl. Lyell…distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and outstanding courage.” The citation goes on to state that after Lyell’s platoon leader was killed, he led his men on numerous assaults against enemy bunkers, “fearlessly exposing himself to enemy fire, he continuously moved about directing and encouraging his men until he was mortally wounded by enemy mortar fire.” Cpl. Lyell was killed on August 31, 1951.
Corporal William F. Lyell and his Selective Service Card (Tennessee State Museum collection, 5.631 and 2002.13.67)
Sergeant First Class Ray E. Duke from Whitwell in Marion County was another recipient of the Medal of Honor. A veteran of World War II, Sergeant Duke was wounded numerous times after an attack on April 26, 1951. His citation reads, “realizing that he was impeding the progress of two comrades who were carrying him from the hill, he urged them to leave him and seek safety. He was last seen pouring devastating fire into the ranks of the onrushing assailants.” According to a newspaper article published years later, Sergeant Duke lost his life in a prisoner of war camp on November 11, 1951.
Sergeant First Class Ray E. Duke (Tennessee State Museum collection 5.648)
Corporal Charles F. Pendleton was the final Medal of Honor recipient from Tennessee during the Korean War. Some sources list Corporal Pendleton from Texas, since he enlisted in Fort Worth, but he was born on September 26, 1931 in Camden, Tennessee. According to his citation, Corporal Pendleton continued to consolidate and establish a defensive perimeter, “although he was burned by the hot shells ejecting from his weapon, and he was wounded by a grenade, he refused evacuation and continued to fire on the assaulting force. As enemy action increased in tempo, his machine gun was destroyed by a grenade but, undaunted; he grabbed a carbine and continued his heroic defense until mortally wounded by a mortar burst.” This tragic action occurred in the final days of the war in July 1953.
Corporal Charles F. Pendleton. (Photograph from Wikimedia Commons)
These citations and stories, although brief, show that the Korean War was not a “forgotten war” for those civilians and soldiers who experienced it. The war devastated the Korean peninsula and impacted the Cold War. Its aftermath remains relevant today, as do the stories of those who fought in the conflict.
The lives of those Tennesseans who served in the Korean War, and all foreign wars, are recognized in the both the Tennessee State Museum and the Museum’s Military Branch at War Memorial. Tennessee Medal of Honor recipients are also honored at the recently opened National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga.
Matthew Gailani is a Tennessee State Museum Educator