June 25 came and went without notice except by a relatively small segment of the population -- middle-aged males who constitute the Korean War generation -- and none of us made enough noise to disturb anyone's reverie.
That's too bad. Although limited in its goals, Korea was, by any definition, a major war. In three years and one month nearly 34,000 Americans were killed in action or died in captivity, and more than 20,000 others died of noncombat causes. By comparison, about 56,000 Americans died in Vietnam.
The North Korean and Chinese communist forces suffered an estimated 1.6 million combat casualties, about 60 percent by the Chinese, plus another 400,000 deaths from disease. An estimated 3 million North Korean civilians and 500,000 South Korean civilians died as a result of the war.
However obscure the Korean War is now, it was vivid enough to those involved at the time. My first inkling of it came on that dazzling sunny Sunday 35 years ago when I was an 18-year-old in western Kansas sleeping the sleep of, if not the just and innocent, at least the uncaught.
My grandmother was making her usual preparations for church and Sunday dinner (fried chicken) when she heard the early, fragmentary reports on the radio that North Korean infantry and tanks had invaded South Korea. There was the usual commentary that such a conflict carried the seeds of possible conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Grandmother gave me the wake-up call of my life: "Wake up, Jimmie D, World War III is about to break out." Now there's a reveille that will rouse even a night-owl adolescent. Particularly in those days of Cold-War, early-atomic-age hostility in which every U.S. reconnaisance plane that was shot down over East Germany or the Baltic Sea inspired speculation that Armageddon was at hand.
I headed for the drugstore to get the Sunday papers with, for once, more than the sports and comics in mind. Because of the papers' early closing times -- we got the boondocks editions -- none had a word about the invasion.
I made my bemused way back home speculating gloomily on where in Russia I might be at that time the following year. When I passed the bench in front of the People's State Bank on the corner on Main Street, the usual half- dozen elderly loafers, including a Spanish-American War veteran, were taking the morning sun, chewing and spitting, whittling and telling each other lies. They, too, had heard the radio.
"Hee, hee, hee, boy, get your fightin' clothes on," the Spanish-American War vet called out. Trust me that this quotation is exact: "We done whomped up a war for you."
My response, in tribute to my training in respecting my elders, was inaudible. Later, in my first days at the Marine Corps recruit depot at San Diego, I had reason to recall it.
No one was gung-ho about the war in Korea although there was no opposition to it as with Vietnam. There was little question of its necessity. And unlike the guerrilla war in Vietnam, it was a conventional war with armies opposing each other.
Conditioned by the Depression and World War II, we accepted our lot as just another of life's random deals of the cards. With the memory of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany still vivid, it was generally accepted that we had to stand up to aggression, although the fact that it ended in effect as a tie, after all that suffering, caused great frustration.
The pressure of the draft was enormous because the draft-eligible manpower pool was relatively small; the birthrate in the first years of the Depression had been the lowest in the nation's history.
There were college student deferments, but a lot of guys whose grades were below a certain level or who let their class load slip below the 12-hour minimum found themselves snatched unceremoniously off campus. There also was a remarkably liberal deferment policy for fathers, even for those who got married for that reason.
Many opted for four-year enlistments in the Air Force or Navy, figuring the extra two years' obligation was worth the guarantee of not winding up in the infantry.
There was no question at the time that it was a real and lethal war. And it featured some of America's finest feats of arms.
MacArthur's landing at Inchon still stands as a strategic masterpiece. The First Marine Division's skillfull and courageous fight out of the Chosin Reservoir under the most horrendous winter conditions imaginable is a performance unexcelled by any fighting force. The campaigns of maneuver by Matthew Ridgway and James Van Fleet in the months following the withdrawal from the north are generalship any nation can be proud of.
But the last two years saw trench warfare more reminiscent of World War I than World War II, with bloody small-unit fights for the hilly outposts in front of the main line of resistance. It ended after millions of casualties with the boundary between North and South Korea essentially unchanged, as the United States concentrated on keeping the war on the peninsula from spreading into a global conflict.
There's not much glory in limited wars. As a child excited by World War II, I had wondered what it would be like to be a veteran of the Spanish-American War or the War of 1812. I was to find out.