On the battlefield, the young lieutenant leads the small units of the combat arms. In the mid-20th century the lieutenant is the infantry, armor, heavy weapons, reconnaissance, or combat engineer platoon leader, the artillery gun section leader, a wingman in a flight of four fighters, a co-pilot or aircraft commander on a bomber.
Unless they have served as soldiers or airmen in combat before they become officers, they have no experience in war. Yet their responsibility is to lead soldiers and airmen into the deadly, terror-ridden chaos, confusion, and irrationality of war.
They seek the responsibility, sometimes with brashness and bravado, facades which bolster and shield them from the fear they all will know. They grow up fast if they survive. Thoughts of heroism and glory rapidly vanish. They quickly relearn an ancient lesson. There is ever a youthful, prewar naivete with respect to the battlefield's realities. The battlefield, whether on the ground or in the air, is not the place to be without prior months of tough, realistic individual and unit training. In the absence of carefully prepared training, mistakes are more frequent, with deadlier consequences.
The sacrifices of the young who do not survive are silent, almost reverent, unless extraordinarily heroic, and observed by someone who survives. They have made no mark in life save the joys given by their youth, the promises seen and n ever fulfilled. Acts of heroism are more often matters of circumstance and luck, desperate acts from individuals driven by powerful emotions, which overwhelm fear and concern for their own safety, and bring out the noblest good within them. Most have gone to war with the greatest of confidence they will come back. "It will not happen to me. Life will go on forever. The world will continue to be my oyster."
War pauses little, if at all, to honor their loss. The grief of loved ones is private, shared only with family, friends, the lost son's or daughter's comrades in arms who write, call, or might escort their bodies home for burial, and the officers - their commanders - who had the painful duty of committing the young soldiers to combat, who understood all too well the terrible price inevitably paid, and who, when they fell, performed the sad duty of sending letters of condolence, facts, and circumstances.
The Academy doesn't publicize or boast of the sacrifices of its young graduates. It cannot. Such actions would be crude, callous, and supremely disrespectful. Irreverent. Yet sacrifice in the extreme is an accepted part of life called to duty in the armed forces.
West Point's Class of 1950 learned early, in Korea, the meaning of leadership on the battlefield, and its price. But the price was probably increased by an unusual set of peacetime circumstances and decisions associated with the rapid insertion of these young officers into the fight.
In the spring, well before the NKPA invaded the Republic of Korea, a decision had been made by the Chief of Staff of the Army to send the Academy's newest graduates directly to troop duty with Army units, without their attending a series of schools en route. The new lieutenants could continue to receive specialized schools they might request, such as airborne or Ranger training if the Army had need of men with those specialized skills.
The decision for troop duty right out of the Academy resulted after repeated complaints received from various branch schools that Academy graduates were not performing up to standards.
Senior officers at the Academy and in the Army staff knew West Point's curriculum was carefully structured to prepare graduates for troop leadership. The schools which followed graduation duplicated some of the graduates' branch technical and field training, and leadership training, received while at the Academy. The senior officers also concluded there was one other factor contributing to the problem - graduates' additional months, almost a year, in student status, with responsibilities solely as students. The prolonged student status was adding to the frustration and boredom among well qualified young officers anxious to begin what they had been trained for for four years. The new lieutenants troop leading responsibilities without additional schooling.
Unfortunately, that decision didn't take into account the wartime circumstances the Class of '50 would soon face. The last branch field and technical training of any consequence, received by most of the Class of '50, was the summer of 1949. For others, the last such training had been a year before. In the absence of recent field or technical training, and a lack of unit training, many in the class were scrambled to their first troop duty as fillers or replacements in units about to engage, or already engaged, in fighting on the Korean peninsula.
GEN MacArthur's reminiscences of Korea fit the circumstances of West Point's class of '50 remarkably well: "The Korean War meant entry into action 'as is'. No time out for recruiting rallies or to build up and get ready. It was move in and shoot."
So into the theater of operations came the Class of '50, swelled with the pride of young officers anxious to do their duty. What they faced that summer was not at all what they expected, although the steady drumbeat of bad news had kept coming all summer, warning them of what lay ahead.
American and South Korean forces were in a desperate fight to avoid being driven from the Korean Peninsula. On September 3, Edmund Jones Lilly III was the first in '50 to be killed in action. Two months and 27 days after graduation. He was in the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division when he died. He received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, posthumously. Before the month of September ended, six more members of the class would die.
By war's end 365 from the graduating class of 670 had served in combat in Korea. Of their number 34 were killed in action, 84 more were wounded, and seven died in accidents or of natural causes while serving in combat. Other West Point classes, before and after the Class of '50, paid heavily in Korea, but none more dearly. The class of '50 had a special kinship with the classes of 1836, 1846, 1861, 1917, and 1941.
The five preceding West Point classes bloodied for the first time in Korea were only slightly more fortunate than '50. In the class of 1949, 27 were killed, 52 wounded. About one-half of the West Pointers from the classes of 1949 and 1950 went to Korea as "unit fillers" to serve as platoon leaders. Casualties among junior officers from the classes of 1945-1948 were less severe, a total of 61 killed, 124 wounded, but still heavy compared to casualties among officers commissioned in college and university officer training programs, and officer candidate schools.
The Class of 1951 lost nine, with 47 wounded. In the Class of 1952 five were killed in action, and 13 wounded. By the time the classes of '51 and '52 had reached Korea's battlefields "volunteers" from the People's Republic of China had entered the war, and the opposing armies were in the brutal stalemate while armistice negotiations were droning on at Panmunjom. The emergency that had rushed the class of 1950 into the breach in Korea was over.
AS FOOTBALL PRACTICE BEGAN LATE IN THE SUMMER OF 1950, American and South Korean forces were continuing to retreat toward the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Overwhelmed by the power of the attackers' onslaught, they had suffered a series of stinging defeats.
The In Min Gun had been taken far too lightly, almost with disdain, by many American commanders. The advanced elements of American forces rushed to Korea from Japan painfully relearned old military lessons: occupation duties are no substitute for field training in preparing for combat, and never underestimate your enemy.
The soldiers of the NKPA were well trained, tough, disciplined, and well equipped. American and ROK soldiers also quickly learned a new term - "bugout" - G.I. slang for fleeing the enemy, frequently leaving weapons and equipment behind. In the first two months of the NKPA offensive there were several shameful "bugouts" by both ROK and U.S. units. All were green combat units, most committed piecemeal, in a futile effort to stem the tide of North Korean advance.
Go on to Part 4 - One Man's Road To Korea
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