Korean War Era in Washington

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/16/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11103
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Washington performed a significant role in the Korean War. The Second Infantry Division stationed at Fort Lewis in Pierce County was the first stateside division to reach Korea. It arrived at the end of July 1950 to a desperate situation. North Korean forces had driven to the southern tip of the peninsula. Averting defeat required a "stand or die" reaction from the Second Infantry Division. In its first major battle, beginning on August 31, the Second helped win a victory that allowed Allied troops to start pushing North Korean forces back. The division remained in Korea for the duration of the war and fought in some of the war's toughest battles. Back home, the truce that ended active fighting in Korea did not generate huge victory parades. Recognition came over subsequent decades, as Washington residents worked to acknowledge the "Forgotten War," honor Korean War veterans, and recognize their achievements. As a result, there are now memorials and events remembering the war around the state, including in Bellingham and on the state capitol campus in Olympia.

A Critical Role in the Korean War

The Fort Lewis home division, the Second Infantry Division, was the first stateside division to enter the Korean War. North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. U.S. Army units from Japan and Okinawa were rushed to Korea to stem the attack. On July 17, 1950, the first element of the Second Infantry Division departed Washington. The lead elements arrived at Busan (then usually spelled "Pusan"), Korea, on July 31, 1950, and served in Korea until the July 27, 1953, truce ended the fighting. The division paid a high price, with 7,094 killed. Its awards included the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award given to units.

While the Second Infantry Division, whose motto was "Second to None," was fighting the ground war on the Korean Peninsula, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton was doing its part. The shipyard activated much-needed reserve-fleet mothballed ships. Reactivating aircraft carriers was one of its most important tasks. The yard's workforce jumped from 7,880 to 15,300 workers during the war.

The 62nd Troop Carrier Wing, based at McChord Air Force Base in south Pierce County adjacent to Fort Lewis, transported troops and materials to Korea. The Royal Canadian Air Force stationed a cargo unit at McChord, its 12 aircraft making regularly scheduled resupply flights to Tokyo.

Spokane Air Force Base (later renamed Fairchild Air Force Base) rushed Boeing B-29s to Korea to bomb enemy troop movements and targets in North Korea. The base's 62nd Bombardment Wing, flying B-29s, deployed in August 1950 and was followed by the 68th Bombardment Wing. The two wings were stationed in Japan to carry out their bombing raids. The 62nd Bombardment Wing returned to the United States in October 1950, while the 68th remained to the end of the war.

In the Korean War, American air power greatly contributed to victory. On June 30, 1950, Captain Raymond Schillereff (1916-1951) from Seattle made one of the first shoot-downs of a Russian-built fighter. Captain Schillereff was born in Peshastin, near Wenatchee, and grew up in Seattle. He attended Washington State College before entering the Army Air Forces in World War II. During that war, as a fighter pilot, he downed four German aircraft. Captain Schillereff appeared on the cover of Life on July 17, 1950, when the magazine had a feature article on Korean War air combat. While serving in Korea, Schillereff was promoted to major, and returned to the United States in March 1951. In August he was flying to his father's funeral in Cashmere, Washington, when his fighter hit a bomber over Utah and he was killed.

The Navy's Seattle Port of Embarkation was again busy with troop-ship departures, and then ships bringing home the wounded. Military hospitals, such as Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis, treated the wounded.

Second Infantry Division: Fort Lewis Home Team

The Second Infantry Division, highly decorated in World War I and World War II, first made Fort Lewis its home in April 1946. It had an intensive training schedule that included Arctic operations, air transport, amphibious landings, and land maneuvers. It was one of the army's most combat-ready units. Although the division had fought in World War II, only 82 men who had served with the division during the war remained.

Overall, 1,500 of the division had served in World War II. By June 25, 1950, when the Korean conflict began, the Second was understrength by 3,898 troops. Additionally, the unit was poorly equipped with items from World War II, many of them war weary. The division troops spent the final week of June and early July watching the news of the action in Korea. It was not good news. The South Korean forces, lacking armor and combat aircraft, were not able to stop the North's drive.

On July 5 "Task Force Smith," the American forces sent to halt the advance, set up a roadblock near the village of Osan. The soldiers, members of the 24th Infantry Division, had just arrived from Japan. Task Force Smith stationed itself on a hill overlooking a corridor with a road running south. It was a fine ambush point but, lacking effective weapons, the task force could not stop the onslaught and was overrun. Private First Class Larry L. Blair (1932-1950) of Grays Harbor County was killed in the battle, becoming Washington's first Korean War combat death.

"We Go"

At Fort Lewis, three days after the Task Force Smith defeat, Major General Laurence "Dutch" Keiser (1895-1969) called his senior officers to a conference in the headquarters. Speaking to the assembled officers, he turned to the chalkboard and wrote "We Go." He had received the alert order for deployment.

Keiser turned to the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot, adjacent to Fort Lewis, to obtain the needed equipment and arms. The depot went on a 24-hour workday, seven days a week, to arm the division. Weapons, vehicles, and tanks were delivered to the division to bring it to combat readiness. The depot then went on regular eight-hour shifts with an enlarged labor force, rehabilitating World War II vehicles from Alaska and shipping them to Korea.

On July 17, 1950, the lead Second Infantry Division elements sailed for Korea. Three days later the main body sailed. Moving the division required 10 troop ships and 11 cargo ships. The lead elements arrived on July 31 and went to battle.

As the North Korean Army pushed south, the Allied forces had retreated to a defensive position called the Pusan Perimeter. On August 8 the Second Infantry Division had its baptism of fire. Two weeks later the Second relieved the 24th Infantry Division in the perimeter defense.

The Second Infantry Division's first major battle occurred on the night of August 31 when the North Koreans launched a human-wave attack. The division's sector of the Pusan Perimeter came under attack by elements of four North Korean infantry divisions, accompanied by two armored divisions. Everyone in the division -- clerks, cooks, supply personnel -- fought to hold on. The battle lasted three days and four nights, ending with a Second Infantry Division victory that allowed Allied forces to break out and push up the Korean peninsula.

The successful drive north had Allied forces almost to the China-North Korean border when the Chinese entered the war. The massive Chinese attack pushed the United Nations forces south. During the retreat the Second had the difficult task of protecting the rear and right flanks, and took very heavy casualties.

Canadians Train in Washington for War

U.S. soldiers were not the only ones who deployed to Korea from Washington. On November 16, 1950, Canadian troops arrived at Fort Lewis. Occupying barracks in adjacent North Fort Lewis, they trained and prepared for combat on the peninsula. It was the first time that a large Canadian force trained in the United States. The Second Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (called the "Princess Pats"), was an experienced force, with 35 percent of the men being World War II veterans. The 1,100 Princess Pats spent only four days at North Fort Lewis, then sailed from the Seattle Port of Embarkation bound for Korea. Arriving in December, the Princess Pats went into eight weeks of training. They had their initial combat on February 22, 1951, as the first Canadian infantry unit to fight in the Korean War. The unit distinguished itself in the war.

Another Canadian infantry unit that trained at North Fort Lewis was the 25th Infantry Brigade. With some 6,000 troops, the brigade required more time to prepare for battle. It departed Seattle in mid April 1951 for Korea. The 25th Infantry Brigade fought with the British Commonwealth forces.

Building a Home

In its last year, the conflict became a static war. The "Second to None" division established camps and moved less. This enabled division soldiers, as American soldiers had in previous wars, to provide more help to children in the devastated country. The soldiers built an orphanage near Kapyong, about 33 miles northeast of Seoul. The orphanage, named Friendship Home, opened in July 1952. Soldiers gave money to operate the home and donated clothes, toys, and candies. In anticipation of leaving Korea, the soldiers created an $80,000 trust fund to keep the home going after their departure.

At the time of the truce on July 27, 1953, the division had 7,094 killed in action. Individual honors included eighteen men awarded the Medal of Honor.

Returning to Change

During the summer of 1954 the Second Infantry Division redeployed to the United States. It did not return to Fort Lewis as a unit. Division soldiers were discharged or sent to other units or assignments. The home unit at Fort Lewis, the 44th Infantry Division, was renamed the Second Infantry Division. Its soldiers removed their 44th Infantry Division patches and put on the "Indian Head" patch of the Second Infantry Division. The 44th was then deactivated.

In 1956 the Second Infantry Division was transferred to Alaska. Following stateside assignments, the division returned to Korea duty in July 1965. Defense duties came with a cost. A number of North Korean ambushes killed division soldiers.

Remembering the Korean War

For many years the Korean War was often considered America's "Forgotten War," overshadowed by the earlier World War II and later Vietnam War. This began to change in the 1990s as the 50th anniversary of the Korean War approached. Efforts were made to get Korean War veterans their due respect. With donations, a Korean War memorial was erected on the Washington State Capitol grounds in Olympia, at the East Campus Plaza next to the Capitol Way skybridge. The memorial included a statue by Deborah Copenhaver Fellows (b. 1948), with three bronze figures of soldiers. The statue was dedicated on July 24, 1993, within a few days of the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, and included informational plaques relating the history of the war. The names of more than 500 killed in action from Washington were listed.

The Korean War Children's Memorial in Bellingham remembers the good deeds of American soldiers. Dedicated on July 27, 2003, the 50th anniversary of the truce, it honors soldiers who saved the lives of more than 10,000 Korean children and sustained 50,000 more. George F. Drake (b. 1930), a Korean War veteran and retired sociologist, was the coordinator for this memorial. He also documented the more-than-400 Korean orphanages founded during the war and the support they received.

More than 60 years after it ended, there are still nearly 8,000 men who fought in the Korean War unaccounted for. A continuing effort has been made to recover their remains. The American Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has gone to North and South Korea to excavate sites believed to hold the remains of the missing. In 2005 a site in North Korea was excavated in a joint North Korean and American project.

Among the remains identified was Sergeant First Class Richard L. Harris (1928-1951) from Spokane. The Second Infantry Division soldier had been taken prisoner during a battle on November 30, 1950. Harris died of malnutrition in a prisoner-of-war camp and was buried there. His remains were returned to Washington in April 2012. Sergeant Harris was buried with full military honors at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent.


Harry G. Summers Jr., Korean War Almanac (New York: Facts on File, 1990); "2nd Infantry Div. to Live at Lewis," The Seattle Times, February 18, 1946, p. 28; Hal Boyle, "The 2nd Infantry -- Symbol of U.S. Strength," Ibid., July 10, 1950, p. 13; "'We Go' Order Received Somberly by Men of 2nd," Ibid., July 10, 1950, p. 13; Tom Lambert, "2nd Division Troops Cocky Upon Landing," Ibid., July 31, 1950, p. 3; "2nd Infantry Called One of Army's Best Trained Outfits," Ibid., July 31, 1950, p. 3; "And Now He's a Fighting Man," Ibid., October 6, 1950, p. 25; "Canada's Princess Pats Leave for Korea," Ibid., November 26, 1950, p. 14; "Seattle Flyer, Korea Vet, Killed in Utah Crash," Ibid., August 9, 1951, p. 8; "The 2nd is Home," Ibid., October 11, 1954, p. 9; "Second Infantry Expects to Load About Tuesday," Bellingham Herald, July 16, 1950, p. 11; "Defense Jobs Keep Tacoma Busy," Morning Olympian, April 26, 1951, p. 5; "Canadian Unit Ready to Quit Fort Lewis," Ibid., April 18, 1951, p. 1.

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