Picturing the Korean War

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Photograph of Nicholas Phillips (center) with two South Korean soldiers. Nicholas Phillips Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/00653.

Sixty-two years after the armistice was signed ending the Korean War, on July 27, 1953, the conflict remains slightly hazy for many Americans. Sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam, and involving fewer service members and battle deaths than either, the Korean War may seem a bit of an enigma. There are not as many iconic images or historic narratives–or, for that matter, veterans–to demand our attention and imprint the war on our collective memory, despite our current focus on North and South Korea in modern global politics.

Veterans History Project (VHP) collections can help bring the Korean War into sharp focus. This point was newly clarified for me when researching collections for a recent Experiencing War website feature on wartime correspondence. Sifting through masses of letters by service members to their families, I came across one collection that immediately caught my attention–that of Robert L. Barber, a Private First Class who fought with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. In sparse, unsparing language, Barber wrote to his mother about his combat experiences, describing in his letters home the constant, intense cold, the lack of supplies, attacks by guerrillas, and the decimation of American troops. On December 8, 1950–at the start of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and less than three months after arriving in Korea–he wrote,

Dear Mom, this past Tuesday nite all hell broke loose on all sides. I really thought I was gone quite a few times. When dawn came there was dead men everywhere. I lost my best buddy from Detroit that nite… Most of us left can hardly walk from frozen feet.

Letter from Robert Barber to his mother, December 8, 1950. Robert Barber Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/32004.

Reading through Barber’s letters, I was immediately riveted. His collection is literally page-turning (or, in this day of digitized collections, mouse-clicking). I could not stop reading, wanting to know what else his unit might encounter, and his response to such grim conditions. His collection hit me so strongly that now, when I find a mention of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, I will think of an exhausted 21-year-old from Savannah, Georgia, who chose not to sugarcoat his thoughts in his letters home, who longed for a “big glass of milk” and his own bed, and who told his mother not to worry, but simply to pray.

VHP has many such collections that paint a vivid picture of the Korean War through a variety of different formats, ranging from correspondence to oral history interviews to home movies shot during the war. Many of these collections, such as that of Edward Pierce, echo Robert Barber’s letters in the topics that they cover–the brutality of the weather and of combat–while others provide different perspectives. The movie and television series “M*A*S*H” may have presented the most enduring vision of the Korean War, and the collections of nurses such as Frances Liberty and Regina Schiffman who served in field hospitals in Korea offer real-life examples of medical personnel serving there.

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Photograph taken by Nicholas Phillips of unidentified soldier. Nicholas Phillips Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/00653.

Private First Class Nicholas W. Phillips‘ collection includes relatively rare color photographs taken during his time in Korea. These images are striking, almost to the point of being jarring, as we are used to picturing this time period in black and white. Phillips’ subject matter is also notable: he captured scenes of the everyday experiences, such as USO shows, interactions with Korean civilians, makeshift Christmas trees, and one photograph (pictured at left) of an African American soldier, presumably serving with an integrated unit. I found this this picture to be particularly interesting because the Korean War was the first conflict to follow President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order to desegregate the military. The experience of African American soldiers during this era is frequently commented on in VHP interviews, such as the collections of Charles Rangel and Julius Becton.

These are just a handful of the more than 12,000 collections related to the Korean War in VHP’s archive. Two thousand of these collections have been digitized; browse through them here, and don’t miss our related online exhibit, The Korean War: Not Forgotten.

Are you a veteran of the Korean War, or do you know someone who is? Please consider participating in the Veterans History Project, so that we do not lose sight of the Korean War and the stories of those who served in it.

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