Sixty years ago today (June 25, 1950) the Korean War began. Nearly half a million Americans served in Korea during the war’s three years with 36,000 killed in action, 92,000 wounded, 8,000 missing in action and 7,000 taken prisoner. The Korean War featured the first and only combat (thus far) between US and Chinese forces and saw the president (Truman) relieve his army commander (McArthur) for a number of reasons, an action that was undoubtedly far more dramatic than President Obama’s recent replacement of General McChrystal.
During the war, a young man from Lowell, Joseph R Ouellette, was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions that cost him his life on September 3, 1950 while serving with the 2nd Infantry Division. Here’s PFC Ouellette’s Medal of Honor citation:
Pfc. Ouellette distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy in the Makioug-Chang River salient. When an enemy assault cut off and surrounded his unit he voluntarily made a reconnaissance of a nearby hill under intense enemy fire to locate friendly troop positions and obtain information of the enemy’s strength and location. Finding that friendly troops were not on the hill, he worked his way back to his unit under heavy fire. Later, when an airdrop of water was made outside the perimeter, he again braved enemy fire in an attempt to retrieve water for his unit. Finding the dropped cans broken and devoid of water, he returned to his unit. His heroic attempt greatly increased his comrades’ morale. When ammunition and grenades ran low, Pfc. Ouellette again slipped out of the perimeter to collect these from the enemy dead. After collecting grenades he was attacked by an enemy soldier. He killed this enemy in hand-to-hand combat, gathered up the ammunition, and returned to his unit. When the enemy attacked on 3 September, they assaulted his position with grenades. On 6 occasions Pfc. Ouellette leaped from his foxhole to escape exploding grenades. In doing so, he had to face enemy small-arms fire. He continued his resistance, despite a severe wound, until he lost his life. The extraordinary heroism and intrepidity displayed by Pfc. Ouellette reflect the highest credit on himself and are in keeping with the esteemed traditions of the military service.
PFC Ouellette is buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery in Chelmsford. The city of Lowell commemorated his heroism by naming the bridge over the Merrimack on Aiken Street in his honor. The city’s veterans’ organizations frequently make mention of him at their events. But my sense is that the Korean War’s place in our collective consciousness has been more or less squeezed out between World War Two and Vietnam and that is certainly a shame. All those who served during the war made great sacrifices and those sacrifices should always be remembered. Perhaps we can use this, the occasion of the war’s 60th Anniversary, to educate ourselves and each other.