The Forgotten War Remembered: Korea, 1950-1953

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Bill Shinn

The Forgotten War Remembered:
Korea, 1950–1953; A War Correspondent's
Notebook and Today's Danger in Korea

Published in 1996

When the North Korean army invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) on June 25, 1950 to start the Korean War, it took them four days to reach the South Korean capital city of Seoul. While the ROK troops fought a losing and bloody battle to hold them off, the families of Americans were evacuated, and then the South Korean government and American embassy personnel fled the city. Knowing the communist troops were coming in, thousands of Seoul's citizens gathered what belongings they could and joined the throngs of fleeing civilians on the roads heading south.

Bill Shinn was born in what is now North Korea in 1918. In August 1945, when the Soviet army came into his homeland to accept the Japanese surrender after World War II, he was overjoyed by the liberation of his people. His joy was brief, as he witnessed many atrocities at the hands of the Soviet soldiers, who were cruel and violent in their dealings with the Japanese and with wealthy or educated Korean people. Shinn left his home within two weeks of the Russian occupation, leaving behind his parents and three sisters; he was never to see or even hear from them again.

In 1945, Shinn found his way to the United States, where he finished a bachelor's degree and went on to get a degree in international law. In 1950, he took a job with the Associated Press (AP) as a reporter and went on to become a correspondent covering Korea. At the start of the war he and his wife, Sally, were living in Seoul. They had a young son, Johnny, and Sally was pregnant.

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from The Forgotten War Remembered:

  • More than one million civilians who lived in North Korea at the time of Soviet occupation in 1945 became refugees in the south within one year.
  • When the North Koreans entered Seoul, they arrested anyone who was in any way involved in Syngman Rhee's (1875–1965) South Korean government, most foreigners, Christian missionaries, educators, and a lot of other innocent people. Any journalist for the South Korean or American newspapers would have been certain to be arrested.

Excerpt from The Forgotten War Remembered

[On June 27, 1950, it was clear that the North Koreans would soon enter Seoul, South Korea. Shinn had been witness to the flight of the ROK government and many other officials and their families from Seoul.]

As the sounds of guns could be heard closer and closer, rows of refugees and wounded South Korean soldiers were streaming into Seoul … Amidst this panicky situation, many Koreans—young and old, men and women—began fleeing southward carrying their meager belongings on their heads or backs.

Toward dusk, I, too, decided to flee. I went to the AP [Associated Press] office from the Chosun Hotel, where I was covering the war news, to collect important papers, and rushed home.

My wife, who had been anxiously waiting for my return, reported that two men calling themselves "members of a security unit" had come about an hour earlier and searched for my Ford car. "They shouted at me, 'Where is the dark-blue old car?' They left because I declared that we don't have any car at all," she said.

If I had been at home at that time, I would have been taken away by them. The so-called "members of a security unit" must have been either North Korean agents or members of the South Korean Workers (Communist) Party who became active in preparation for the entry of the North Korean army into Seoul. What they were looking for was not the Ford car; it was me working as a correspondent for AP, an "American imperialist news agency," as the Communists would call it. I was saved thanks to the fact that the Ford car was then at the parking lot of the Chosun Hotel where I was gathering information.

At about 8:00p.m., when I had finished my first meal at home in three days, I heard a big explosion outside. A bomb had been dropped….

We had to flee at once. We hastily packed our essential belongings and fled in the old Ford. Amidst sporadic whines of small

firearms, I drove desperately, without headlights on, toward the Han River bridge, the only exit from Seoul to the south. We felt relieved when we reached the bridge shortly after 10 p.m., believing that we would be able to save our lives once we safely crossed the bridge. But to our consternation, we were stopped at gunpoint by South Korean military police at the entrance and ordered not to cross the bridge. "No one is allowed to cross!" the MP shouted….

[The Shinn family crossed the bridge at 11:45 p.m.Two-and-a-half hours later, the South Koreans blew up the Han River Bridge, which was packed with soldiers and fleeing civilians at the time. Hundreds were killed and the escape route for thousands more was gone.

[Shinn took his family to Shinwon-ri, a small farming village where his younger brother was staying with a friend named Kim Jongwook. Leaving his wife and child behind, on June 28, Shinn traveled on foot fifteen miles south to Suwon, where the ROK government was temporarily residing. After witnessing the communist aircraft fire on the city, Shinn decided he had better get back to his family immediately to evacuate them from the area entirely. Setting off in the evening, he walked through the night.]

Walking wearily at dawn, I could see South Korean soldiers limping along with their rifles upside down. As I moved further north, gruesome dead bodies lying in the roadside ditches greeted my eyes.

When I got to Shiwon-ri at last, not a soul could be seen in the village. Kim Jong-wook's house, where my family had taken refuge, was vacant and as silent as a grave. Realizing that all villagers had fled, I stood aghast, almost fainting. I looked around in a daze. Three men, who appeared to be North Korean soldiers, were standing guard on a small hill at the back of the village, and many others were moving southward along the Seoul-Suwon route across the rice field. I had entered an enemy-occupied zone!

Trembling with fear, I tried to escape. My old Ford had been left at Kim's house, but I could not find the key…. I broke open the dashboard, connected wires to start the motor, and frantically drove the car along a narrow lane. At a point about 300 yards from Kim's house, three North Korean soldiers suddenly emerged and ordered me to halt, blocking my way.

Apparently assured that I was like a rat in a trap, they took their eyes off me for a moment to look around the neighborhood. Since any South Korean working for an American organization was to be shot to death, I immediately decided to throw away my wallet which contained my AP reporter's ID card, American greenbacks, U.S. postage stamps….

[The North Koreans finally accepted the gift of Shinn's car and allowed him to proceed on foot. During the next two days on the run, Shinn had many close brushes with the enemy. As he was driven back to Suwon by ROK soldiers, he saw the village of Shiwon-ri, where he had last seen his family, engulfed in flames. Shinn then headed for Taejon, where the South Korean government had relocated.

[In September 1950, the United Nations forces, supporting the South Koreans, began their first real victories with the landing at Inchon. Seoul was recaptured at the end of that month, after heavy fighting and the near-destruction of the ancient city and its treasures. Shinn had never heard from his family, but when he arrived in Seoul on September 30, he was immediately informed of their whereabouts. His wife had kept a diary throughout the ordeal.]

Sally Shinn's Diary

[Written in the form of a letter to her husband]

On the night of June 29, fierce fighting continued near Shinwonri and North Korean soldiers were approaching the village. We fled the village together with Kim Jong-wook's family to his brother's home deep in a steep mountain in Kwangju-kun (county). Farmers in the out-of-the-way hamlet were so poor that we barely staved off hunger

by barter of personal effects for food. Because it was too much of a burden on the part of the poor family of Mr. Kim's brother, I decided to go to my parents' home in Seoul.

Your younger brother, Wha-kyoon, who had been living a fugitive life in Seoul, eluding Communist search for young South Koreans to induct into the North Korean Army, was informed of my whereabouts by Mr. Kim's relatives. He kindly came to the remote village to take me to Seoul. I was about to collapse many times while trudging along the rugged mountain trails with Johnny. As a pregnant woman, I barely held out from hunger and fatigue thanks to the few vitamin pills on hand.

On our way, we came across Communist soldiers. They ordered Wha-kyoon to show them his hands. I trembled with fear when they yelled at him, "Your hands are clean enough. You are not a laborer," and threatened to take him away. With bare life, we managed to arrive in Seoul in three days….

I and Johnny went to my parents' home at Yongchon in the western district of Seoul….

Tribulation persisted even after I moved to Yongchon-dong. Unable to buy food, we sustained life by eating dumplings in soy soup each day. While furious battles continued, we lived in an air-raid shelter built by the Japanese on the hillside of a rocky mountain during World War II. More than 20 persons used the shelter, about the size of 20 square feet with a small public toilet outside. I had to bring meals from my parents' home 100 yards down at the foot of the mountain. Being in the last month of pregnancy, I had to carry diapers and swaddling clothes for the baby.

The most terrifying was the United Nations air raids during the furious street fights for the recapture of Seoul. While bringing meals from my parents' home, I saw gruesome corpses scattered around, and many old women dying from bomb shrapnel. Although their targets were the Communist troops, I felt sorry that the bombs dropped by American Air Force planes hit many South Korean civilians.

Despite all the hardships I and little Johnny had, my waking and sleeping thoughts were about you because I had no way of knowing your whereabouts since you had gone to Suwon from Shinwon-ri on the early morning of June 29. (Shinn, pp. 66–67, 72, 132–33)

What happened next…

As soon as the United Nations forces recaptured Seoul, Bill Shinn found his wife and son on September 30, 1950. Sally Shinn gave birth to a second child on October 30. Shinn covered the entire Korean War (1950–53) for the Associated Press and later worked in top-level positions in other news agencies.

The city of Seoul changed hands four times during the Korean War. The ancient city was destroyed by bombing and firefights, its treasures looted or burned.

One of the results of the Korean War was the permanent separation of families and loved ones. Bill Shinn dedicated his book: "To my mother and father, left behind when I fled Soviet-occupied North Korea fifty years ago and whose fate remains unknown."

Did you know …

  • According to Shinn, during their occupation, the North Koreans killed 165,000 civilians (nonmilitary people). In Seoul alone, 9,500 people were executed by the communists. The South Koreans, when they recaptured the city, were also very intent on rooting out any communists. In early November 1950, Shinn witnessed and reported on an ROK mass execution of civilians suspected of having helped the communists.

Where to Learn More

Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986, revised edition, 2000.

Shinn, Bill. The Forgotten War Remembered: Korea, 1950–1953; A War Correspondent's Notebook and Today's Danger in Korea. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International, 1996.

Web sites

"Bridge at No Gun Ri: Mass Executions." Associated Press (AP). [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).

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The Forgotten War Remembered: Korea, 1950-1953

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