William F. Dean

views updated

William F. Dean

Born August 1, 1899
Carlyle, Illinois
Died August 24, 1981

Berkeley, California

American military leader

William F. Dean was one of the few U.S. officers in the Korean War (1950–53) who had been in that country prior to the war. As military governor in U.S.-occupied Korea from October 1947 until the South Koreans set up a constitutional government in August 1948, Dean had experienced firsthand some of the conflicts that had arisen due to the occupation of the country by Soviet and American forces. But by his own account, it was not until his three harrowing years of captivity as a prisoner of war (POW) that he reached an understanding of the Korean people and the issues before them in the war. Dean was the first commanding general to lead a division of American troops into battle in Korea. His remarkable twenty days at the battlefront and his three years of captivity as the highest ranking POW held by the North Koreans earned him a Medal of Honor and became the subject of his book General Dean's Story in 1954.

Rising in the ranks

William Frishe Dean was born in Carlyle, Illinois, in 1899, the son of Charles Watts Dean, a dentist, and Elizabeth Frishe Dean. He was a good student who loved to read and enjoyed outdoor activities. He graduated from high school as the class valedictorian. Dean wanted to go to West Point, the U.S. military academy, but did not get accepted; he went instead to the University of California at Berkeley. In 1918, he served in the Student's Army Training Corps. To pay his way through school, he worked as a police officer, a streetcar driver, and a cook. He was not a great student in college, and although he intended to pursue a law degree, he quickly realized he wasn't cut out for a legal career.

During college Dean had risen in the ranks of the reserve army (a branch of the army that organizes units that are not active, but keep up training on a part-time basis to be prepared should they be called into active duty during war or an emergency). In 1923, he took a commission in the regular army. Three years later he married Mildred Dern. They had a son and a daughter. Through the next seventeen years he served at a number of army posts, always working his way upward in the ranks. In 1940, he graduated from the Army War College and was promoted to major.

By 1942, Dean was a brigadier general. World War II (1939–45) was raging, and he wanted nothing more than to lead troops in combat. Because he was needed on staff duty in Washington, D.C., it wasn't until mid-1944 that he was appointed deputy commander of the Forty-fourth Infantry Division. He moved with it to the battlefront in France and became commanding general in December 1944.

World War II hero

In the months that followed, Dean's division faced the enemy in some of the deciding battles of the war in Europe and was responsible for victories that ended the occupation of Austria and caused the surrender of a German army division. His units captured thirty thousand prisoners in Germany and Austria. In July 1945, Dean brought his division back to the United States to high acclaim. Dean had personally shown remarkable heroism at the front and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Legion of Merit. He was promoted to major general.

Military governor of Korea

In 1947, Dean was appointed as the third military governor to serve in the three-year U.S. occupation of South Korea. The situation there was desperate when he came into the position. At the end of World War II, in August 1945, the Soviets were at the borders of Korea, which the Japanese had forcibly controlled it as if it were part of Japan since 1910. After the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan and called for an end to the fighting, the Allies (the United States, the Soviet Union, the British Commonwealth, and other European nations) decided that the Americans would accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel and the Soviets would receive the surrender north of it (some American diplomats arbitrarily selected the 38th parallel—the 38th degree of north latitude—as the dividing line between northern and southern Korea).

When the American Military Government came in to accept the Japanese surrender in the south, the Koreans had already established a new government, which ruled by local branches of People's Committees. The People's Committees were reform-oriented, and leaned to the left, causing Americans to fear a communist takeover. ("Leftists" generally hold radical political views seeking change and reform, usually including more freedom, more equality, and better conditions for common people. Leftism may include communism, which is a kind of economic practice that eliminates private property, under which production of goods and the distribution of goods are owned by the state or the population as a whole. Communism is at odds with the American economic system, capitalism, in which individuals, rather than the state, own the property and businesses.) The Americans therefore kept intact the national police force that had been established by the hated (and vanquished) Japanese. The anticommunist Americans strove to eliminate the People's Committees, which, according to many accounts, represented the majority of Korean people. Many Korean people were angry and ready to rise up against the Americans.

As trouble arose, the military government imposed harsh ordinances that forbade saying anything against the U.S. occupation forces, and many Koreans were arrested for breaking the rules. Newspapers were not allowed to publish information or opinions that were contrary to the U.S. military government's wishes. One Korean paper was shut down.

Dean came into a messy situation that was already well in progress. By most accounts, he was a kind and fair man, sixfeet tall with white hair and a healthy energy. He loved to take long daily walks. As a POW only three years later, Dean reflected on the way prisoners were treated in the South Korean prisons when he was in charge of them as military governor:

I don't think that the treatment [in the South Korean prison] as a whole was bad, although some things possibly seemed worse to the Koreans than to me… . Prisons were over-crowded at that time, however, and I was very much disturbed when I found out how many people were being held for long periods without being brought to trial. In April of 1948 I had pardoned more than thirty-five hundred at one time because I found that some of them had been incarcerated for as long as eighteen months without trial, and charged only with talking against the government, or opposing rice collections… . Wewere only partially successful in raising the standards, and we never had enough U.S. personnel to be positive that all our orders were being carried out; but we were trying.

Violence during Dean's governorship

In 1947, when General Dean became military governor, a huge wave of uprisings prompted by the national police's campaign to eliminate the People's Committees had already been violently crushed. In April 1948, a major rebellion erupted on the island of Cheju (pronounced SHE-shoo). Tens of thousands of islanders were killed and entire villages were destroyed. A second rebellion broke out in the city of Yosu, and a third in the city of Taegu. U.S. troops helped suppress the uprisings.

In May 1948, the United Nations, at the request of the United States, supervised elections in Korea, with the idea that Korea would become independent after a leader was elected. (The UN was founded in 1945 by the Allies to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries.) The elections took place, but amid great controversy. The northern Koreans and the Soviets claimed that the UN did not have the authority to determine the future of Korea and blocked its agents from entering the country to set up the elections. Southern Korean independence leader Syngman Rhee (1875–1965; see entry) urged going forward with the elections without the northern vote, a plan that clearly benefitted him. While a few agreed with Rhee, a large group of Korean leaders of all backgrounds strongly objected to the election, believing that an election in which only the south participated would doom any hope of the reunification of Korea. The election went on without the Koreans north of the 38th parallel, nonetheless, and a new government to rule over all of Korea, the Republic of Korea, with Rhee as its president, was established on August 15, 1948. Dean left with the military government, satisfied that the election had been legitimate and a tribute to the democratic process.

Twenty days

Dean spent the next few years in Japan. In 1949, he was made commanding general of the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division, headquartered in the town of Kokura, on the Japanese island of Kyushu. The Twenty-fourth Division consisted of three regiments, the Twenty-first, the Thirty-fourth, and the Nineteenth. In 1950, all three regiments added up to only 11,242 men, gravely down from the authorized war strength of 18,900. Equipment was in very short supply. The American troops were in Japan mainly for the purpose of occupation of the country after the war, and many of the troops had not been trained for combat. The Twenty-fourth Division was considered by the U.S. Army to be the least combat-ready of the four divisions in the Eighth Army.

Just a few days after the war broke out in Korea on June 25, 1950, Dean received orders to get his whole division to Korea as soon as possible. The North Koreans had crushed the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army and captured the capital city of Seoul. Dean needed to get his troops there to stop the North Korean southward advance. Dean quickly learned that the air transport could not handle great numbers of men. A small force of 406 men called Task Force Smith was chosen to proceed directly by air to Korea to begin delaying the North Korean Army. The rest of the division, with added men bringing it to a force of about 15,000 troops, was to cross over in ships.

Task Force Smith dug in near the Korean town of Osan early on the morning of July 5. Having been told that the North Koreans would turn and run if they saw an American uniform, the unit was totally unprepared for what was to come. They were hit by two regiments of well-trained North Korean soldiers and thirty-three tanks. They were hopelessly outnumbered and they had little ammunition that could penetrate the tanks, but they courageously faced the enemy. Nearly half of the men of Task Force Smith were killed or injured on their first day of battle; the rest were forced to flee in disorder.

Dean had arrived in Korea on July 4 and established headquarters at Taejon, a city about one hundred miles south of Seoul. As news of the bloody defeat of Task Force Smith came in, he was deeply concerned. The rest of the Twenty-fourth Division arrived during that week. It was becoming clear that the enemy was far stronger than expected, and a plan was in place for support to arrive from the other divisions of the Eighth Army. But in the meantime it was Dean's task to delay the enemy with whatever troops he had. Dean set his units in the path of the advancing North Koreans to delay them, but the North Koreans continued to press southward, crushing unit after unit of the Twenty-fourth as well as the ROK divisions, which had rebuilt since the fall of Seoul.

The fall of Taejon

Dean's regiments were greatly weakened, having suffered great casualties. Soon the city of Taejon itself, a vital center for the war effort, was in jeopardy. North of Taejon was the Kum River, and Dean decided to concentrate all the forces of the Twenty-fourth Division there. But his forces weren't strong enough. From July 14 to 16, the North Koreans penetrated the Twenty-fourth on the south side of the river. Two of the three regiments were nearly shattered. No help was yet on the way, and Dean had to prepare his defense of the city of Taejon with what meager resources he had. His defense was set up by July 19, but no preparation under the circumstances could have sufficed.

At 3:00 in the morning on July 20, a North Korean division struck at Taejon. Dean was awakened by gun fire. North Korean tanks and hundreds of North Korean soldiers dressed in white robes had infiltrated the city and were opening fire on the American troops and the fleeing South Korean civilians. Dean's units were scattered and without proper communication. He watched as the enemy tanks razed buildings, slaughtering the troops inside.

By this time, Dean had been at or near the battlefront for more than two weeks and was thoroughly exhausted.

Throughout that day, in what seemed to some as odd behavior, Dean set out with an aide and fearlessly hunted on foot for enemy tanks that had come into the city. He finally got one, shooting it from close range with a bazooka. (He was awarded a Medal of Honor for this in 1951.) While he was hunting tanks, his units were besieged and awaited withdrawal instructions. When Dean finally called for retreat, his units were already gone, with the exception of one brave unit at a roadblock, holding off incoming North Koreans from three sides. When that unit retreated, the city was in North Korean hands. Dean had not yet gotten out.

By evening, the road out of Taejon was jammed with army vehicles. The city was on fire and the streets were littered with dead bodies. Dean finally got into a convoy heading out of the city, but his jeep took a wrong turn. After being forced into a ditch by enemy fire, Dean stumbled down a steep hill and was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he was alone. He spent the next thirty-six days in the enemy-occupied area. On the verge of starvation the whole time, he narrowly missed capture several times as he tried to find his way back to his men. In the end, he was turned over to the North Korean army by two South Korean civilians who received the equivalent of $5 for him.

The highest ranking prisoner of war

Dean was terribly ill in his first weeks as a POW. He had lost as much as sixty pounds and was too weak to walk more than a few steps. Because of his high rank, the North Koreans felt they had a negotiating asset, so he was not treated like other American POWs. He was placed in a room in a house with an adjoining room for guards and an interpreter and treated for his illness. As he began to recover, the North Koreans began daily interrogations, always with the goal of making Dean denounce the United States or the president or give them information. They threatened him with death and violence, but Dean did not budge. Sometimes the questioning would go on for days and nights, and Dean was not allowed sleep. He repeatedly asked to be placed with other POWs, but he never saw another American soldier in all the years of his captivity.

Early in his confinement, Dean tried to escape, but he was too weak and well guarded. When that proved unsuccessful, fearing that he might reveal army secrets if tortured, he attempted to kill himself. After failing at escape and suicide, the general carried on bravely, showing remarkable courage. One of the North Korean interpreters who was with him in prison admired him so much that he later wrote a long letter praising Dean to Life magazine.

Reflections as prisoner of war

Although as a prisoner of war Dean was subject to the worst the enemy had to offer, he came to view the North Korean people in more human terms than he had before being captured. His memoirs reflect his keen observation and growing understanding of the Korean people. "Perhaps I'm naturally naive," he wrote in General Dean's Story, "but the most important discovery to me was that the ordinary Communists who guarded me and lived with me really believed that they were following a route toward a better life for themselves and their children."

On reflection about the things he would change about the American presence in Korea, Dean concluded that the American military establishment had much to learn about respecting others. As he recounted in his memoirs:

Through all the questioning and my many subsequent conversations with intelligent Koreans who had chosen communism after knowing something about our government in South Korea, ran one refrain: they resented being called "gooks," and the slighting references to their race and color more than any of our policies, ill advised or not. Again and again I was told that this man or that one had come north because he had decided he never could get along with people who called him a "gook," or worse, among themselves; because he resented American attentions to Korean women; or because he hated to see foreigners riding in his country in big automobiles while he and his family had to walk.

A visit from the outside

When the truce meetings began between the communist forces and the UN forces at Panmunjom in 1951, the North Koreans decided to allow Wilfred Burchett, an Australian correspondent and a communist, to interview Dean and take pictures. Dean had been in prison for over a year and was very happy to have an English-speaking visitor. Their interview and conversation went on into the night. Burchett gave him a book to read (which he had not been allowed) and promised to write to Dean's wife. From that time on, Dean's imprisonment was not as harsh. He was given writing tools and was allowed to stand or lie down at will. Dean believed Burchett was responsible for his good treatment and admitted to liking Burchett a lot, although he remained very perplexed about his being a communist.

Nearly two years later, on September 3, 1953, Burchett appeared again with Chinese and North Korean photographers and reporters. The war was over and Dean was going home. He returned to the United States to a hero's welcome, which seemed to genuinely surprise him. He struck observers as humble but also as kind and understanding. He felt strongly that POWs who had "confessed" to war crimes while being "interrogated" by the enemy should be treated with leniency. He even testified at the trial of the most famous of these, a man who had confessed to involvement in the alleged U.S. biological warfare against the North Koreans. Dean also asked for leniency for the two South Koreans who had given him over to the enemy for $5.00.

Dean's captivity caused him to reflect about the cold war attitudes toward communism. (The cold war refers to the political tension and military rivalry that begun after World War II between the United States and the communist Soviet Union, which stopped short of full-scale war and persisted until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.) Closely observing the North Koreans—seeing their character, needs, hopes, and fears—he was more sure than ever that communism was a dangerous and repressive force in their lives. He also saw that American arrogance was so disturbing to others that it could have the effect of pushing them away. He believed that all American soldiers and diplomats needed to be educated to their cause: "An army can be a show-window for democracy only if every man in it is convinced that he is fighting for a free world, for the kind of government he wants for himself, and that he personally represents the ideals that can make a world free. And every individual in that army must realize that his whole country is judged by his behavior, at home and abroad, and not by the ideals to which he gives lip service."

After the war

On January 1, 1954, Dean took a new post as deputy commander of the Sixth Army, Presidio of San Francisco, California. That same year he published General Dean's Story, which he dictated to William L. Worden. A contemporary review by Korean War historian S. L. A Marshall is quoted in an 1954 edition of Current Biography: "This is one of the warmest of books, though it treats of a bitterly cold ordeal. Its delightful humor, recurrent amid the recounting of excruciating personal experiences, is worthy of an exalted spirit capable of seeing all things in proportion in any circumstances." Less than two years later, General Dean began a long retirement devoted to his family and civic affairs in Berkeley, California. He died in Berkeley on August 24, 1981.

Where to Learn More

Dean, William F., as told to William L. Worden. General Dean's Story. New York: Viking Press, 1954.

"Dean, William F(rishe)." Current Biography. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1954.

"Dean, William Frishe." Webster's American Military Biographies. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1978.

Deane, Hugh. The Korean War: 1945–1953. San Francisco: China Books, 1999.

"Heroism of General Dean Is Revealed When Most Famous POW Is Set Free." Life, September 14, 1953.

Web sites

"Dean, William F." Congressional Medal of Honor Society. [Online] http://www.cmohs.org/medal/history_links/w_dean.htm (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Webb, William J. "The Korean War: The Outbreak" (army brochure). [Online] http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/brochures/KW-Outbreak/outbreak.htm (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

atomic bomb: a powerful bomb created by splitting the nuclei of a heavy chemical, such as plutonium or uranium, in a rapid chain reaction, resulting in a violent and destructive shock wave as well as radiation.

biological warfare: the act of spreading disease germs or other living organisms through enemy territory, using the germs as a weapon with which to kill or disable the enemy.

Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.

constitutional government: a ruling body of a nation that is regulated by the nation's constitution, which sets out the laws of the land, the responsibilities of the government, and certain rights of the people.

division (or infantry division): a self-sufficient unit, usually about 15,000 to 16,000 strong, under the command of a major general.

infiltrate: to enter into enemy lines by passing through gaps in its defense.

interrogation: a systematic questioning; for prisoners of war, an attempt by the enemy to get information from them about their own army.

leftists: people who advocate change and reform, usually in the interest of gaining greater freedoms and equality for average citizens and the poor; some leftist groups aspire to overthrow the government; others seek to change from within.

leniency: forgiveness; kindness and tolerance.

occupation: taking over a state or nation and ruling it by a foreign military force.

regiment: a military unit composed of three battalions.

reserve army: a branch of the army that organizes units that are not active, but keep up training on a part-time basis to be prepared should they be called into active duty during war or an emergency.

unification: the process of bringing together the separate parts of something to form a single unit; in Korea, the hopedfor act of bringing North and South Korea together under a single government.