Book Review: In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation

by Abigail Pfeiffer on January 23, 2013

In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans who Fought the Korean War by Melinda Pash

November, 2012. 349 pages, includes index and bibliography, $35.00

Published by NYU Press

In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation

American historical scholarship has often neglected the Korean War and the service people who served in Korea. Melinda Pash introduced us to these men and women in her book In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans who Fought the Korean War. This book is not a military history of the Korean War, so the reader will not find in depth analysis of the Inchon landing or the Chosin Reservoir. Instead, Pash focused on the people who answered the call to service in America’s first military action after WWII.  She concentrated on the upbringing of the Korean War veterans, their training, wartime experiences, attitudes, and post-war lives. As time progresses, this “generation is passing and with it the opportunity to give a face to those who served and to understand the impact that this war had on veterans and on the world to which they returned.”

After WWII, Americans were eager to move on with their lives.  The men and women who came home from Europe and the Pacific started families, went to college, secured jobs, and tried to put the war behind them. Five short years after the conclusion of WWII, North Korea invaded South Korea and the United States was officially involved in their first conflict of the Cold War. However, after WWII, the United States government downsized the military so who was going to fight this war? Many men and women voluntarily enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted, for many reasons, including financial need, family military heritage, and increased recruitment efforts by military. In addition, many men who were too young to serve in WWII found the Korean War their opportunity to serve their country.  Many other men were drafted, nearly half a million a year throughout the duration of the war.

The next step for the new inductees was basic training for their respective service branch. American military leaders were shorthanded in Korea and men were sent to Korea immediately after basic training, instead of the previous policy of stateside assignments or advanced training prior to shipping overseas. When soldiers and military nurses first arrived in Korea, they found a country that many  “often took a dim view of the land Uncle Sam called them to defend.” Some of the early soldiers to arrive in Korea expected to be home by Christmas, but as the months dragged on, it became clear that little to no progress was being made.

Over 7,000 American servicemen became prisoners of war in Korea. Pash dedicated a chapter to the Korean War POW experience. The Korean War POW experience was anything but pleasant and the American POWs experienced extremely high death rates while imprisoned. The men who spent the war in North Korean and Chinese prison camps came home to a government that questioned their loyalty and to a public that “overwhelmingly found the chilly novelty of brainwashing and tales of collaboration infinitely more interesting than POW denials that Chinese indoctrination had succeeded. “ They were accused of high rates of collaboration with the enemy and their courage as soldiers was doubted.

Pash described the racial and gender changes that took place in the 1950’s military. The United States military was in the very early stages of racial integration at the outbreak of the Korean War. While legally the military was integrated, segregation still was common, and black men who were posted at Southern bases found themselves subject to local Jim Crow laws when they left base. But when black and white soldiers served together in Korea., most learned to coexist peacefully. It was difficult for some black soldiers to come back home after their tour was completed to a society that still viewed them as inferior. Women also served in Korea, some in front line MASH units, and they experienced their own discrimination. Women veterans of Korea often found it difficult to gain the same benefits from the military since they were not men or considered head of a household.

For the men and women who survived Korea and made it home, many found a much different homecoming than the soldiers of WWII experienced.  When Korean War veterans arrived home in the United States, they found “no bands, no cheering crowds, and no tickertape parade.”  This is not to say that communities did not welcome their veterans home at all, however, as the war continued, public interest waned. The veterans who returned home dealt with lingering emotions from the war, going to college, getting acclimated to home, and moving on with their lives.

A decade following the armistice of the Korean War, American found herself in another Cold War conflict, this time in Vietnam.  The war in Vietnam lasted three times as long as the Korean War and has produced a large amount of historical scholarship. Sadly, the Korean War, sandwiched between WWII and Vietnam, has decidedly lacked in historical scholarship in comparison. With the generation of veterans from the Korean War aging, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that only 2.5 million Korean War era survivors would still be alive, and none under the age of 70. It is crucial that historians document the stories of these men and women before their generation is completely gone.

I would recommend this book for a general audience with an interest in the Korean War and its veterans, as well as for historians of this era. Military historians will find this book useful, however, war and society historians will find it more useful than military historians who focus on strategy and tactics.

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