(This essay on Social/Civic values was written as part of the Ottawa University, Bachelor of Arts capstone class, Global Issues In Liberal Arts.)
My social/civic essay describes an interview with an 85 year-old man, who happens to be my father-in-law, Donald R. Cierzan. The subject of the interview was his military service experience during the early 1950s. Don, whom I call dad, served in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and is a Korean War Veteran. His USMC service was from 1950 to 1954 with his tour of duty in Korea dating from October of 1952 to June of 1953. Don’s tour ended just before the armistice agreement ending the war on July 27, 1953.
I have known Don since May of 1979. Over all the years since meeting him, I have known about his military service as a Marine but never asked him specific questions about his service while in Korea. All of his insights from his time there are extremely interesting. However, one particular line of questioning illuminated to me how geography may have played a role in developing cultural differences between the Korean people who lived North and those who lived South of the 38th latitudinal parallel. That parallel marks the boundary between North Korea and South Korea, a heavily militarized and political tense region of the world even today.
Discussion of the Interview
Don landed at Inchon in October of 1952, a port city in what is now known as South Korea. To land at Inchon meant to come ashore via an amphibious landing craft similar to the type used by World War II troops who landed at Normandy beach in France during D-Day. Inchon is on the western side of the Korean peninsula next to the Yellow Sea and is very close to Seoul. From Seoul it is less than an hour or so to the 38th parallel that separates North Korea from South Korea. In 1952, there were neither great ports nor grand buildings anywhere in Korea. The streets were not paved, but consisted of dirt roads, and the buildings, not the gleaming edifices you see today, but rather were simple structures that had been greatly damaged by bullets, artillery shells, and other ordnance types.
Don’s Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) designation was 3561. Those marines with that designation operated amphibious landing craft including what we all know well here in this part of the US, the Wisconsin duck. Don was first stationed at Munsan-ni, a motor transport compound that was located just north of Seoul and very close to the North Korean border. The primary ordnance he delivered from Munsan-ni was the 105-millimeter artillery shell. Don’s next and last station was from June until October 1953 at Ascom City, a military transport and storage compound that provided supplies to Kimpo Airfield. The primary ordnance supplied to Kimpo was 50-caliber ammunition used for machine guns mounted on aircraft at the airfield.
Don’s impressions of the Korean people he encountered were that they were scared and poor. Most wore similar, drab, dark colored clothing that for the most part they made themselves. Most people in Korea were farmers and their primary transportation was by ox cart. The climate in the area he was stationed he thought to be similar to Wisconsin’s.
Part of my interview, involved Don recounting a little history of Korea and of how the US was drawn into the Korean War. Those recollections started with Japan occupying all of Korea until after World War II. At that point, Korea was bisected at the 38th parallel with Russia occupying north of the 38th parallel and the US occupying south of it. Disputes arose between Russia and the US that could not be resolved even after the formation of the United Nations (UN). Troops from the North, supported by Russia eventually invaded the South marching all the way to Pusan, a city on the western southern tip of Korea near the Sea of Japan. The illegal action of North Korea’s invasion of the South led President Harry Truman to send in the US military in 1950. Other countries organized through the UN also fought along side the US.
US Marines first landed at Pusan, Korea to begin a series of bloody battles that pushed the North Korean troops back North of the 38th parallel. To support the Marines fighting at Pusan and allow the North Koreans to be pushed back, General Douglas McArthur’s strategy was to cut off logistics and supply lines to the North Koreans by landing Marines at Inchon. This strategy worked very well, in fact too well. The US Marines pushed the North Koreans from Pusan all the way to the Chosen reservoir in the central region of the North near the Chinese border. Chosen is far north of the 38th parallel. However, this led to China’s invading over their border into North Korea and pushing the Marines back to the Sea of Japan.
In discussing Don’s impressions of Korea, an interesting thought occurred to me regarding how the terrain of the Korea could have impacted the culture of its people. While the entire Korean peninsula consists mostly of hilly and mountainous, rather than flat plain, type geography, the North has a higher, more mountainous terrain. According to Sowell (1991), some areas of cultural diversity amongst people with a common regional and national background can be attributed to geography. When a cultural subgroup becomes geographically isolated, it can be cutoff from progressing socially, economically, and intellectually (p. 67 – 68). Given the more mountainous terrain of the North and its proximity to China compared to the South perhaps this played a role in creating the political and cultural divisions between these ethnically similar people.
In conclusion, my father-in-law’s experience gave me insight into a very interesting time in his life. He was only in his early 20s while stationed in Korea but saw things that not many of us see in our life. Through his eyes I could envision how geography might have played a role in allowing differences to develop that could cause people with similar cultural roots to become so hostile towards one another.
Sowell, T. (1991). A World View of Cultural Diversity. In Allard, M. and Harvey, C. (Eds.), (2012). Understanding and managing diversity: Readings, cases, and exercises. (5th ed.). (p. 60-69). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.