Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta observed the 59th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice July 27 by reminding a gathering of Korean War veterans that America will not permit cuts to the military to again “allow us to lose our edge,” as he says happened on the eve of that conflict more than 60 years ago.
Panetta was the keynote speaker at an observance of the armistice that ended the 1950-1953 conflict, held at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the river from Washington. It was an opportunity to remember the more than 50,000 U.S. service members who lost their lives in the Korean War, and to celebrate the “sheer grit, determination, and bravery” of those who fought for a noble cause in a distant land to make the world a safer place, he said.
“For three long, bloody years, American troops fought and died in Korea, in difficult conditions, where the country’s mountainous terrain and the unrelenting cold of winter were bitter enemies in themselves,” Panetta said.
“It was an uncompromising war, where capture by a vicious enemy often meant summary execution. In Korea, American troops and their allies were always outnumbered by the enemy, awaiting the chilling sound of bugles and horns that would signal another human wave attack.”
Panetta said the troops that fought during that Cold War conflict will never forget the battles waged in the country’s mountains and at Massacre Valle, Bloody Ridge, Chosin Reservoir and Pork Chop Hill. Those fights, he said, “became synonymous in our lexicon with the heroic sacrifice and the grim determination of the American fighting man.”
The Korean War caught America unprepared, Panetta said, and the mighty military machine that liberated Europe and conquered the Japanese empire had been rapidly demobilized. Only a few years of under-investment had left the United States with a hollow force, he added.
“The American soldiers and Marines initially sent to Korea were poorly equipped, without winter clothing and sleeping bags, with insufficient ammunition and inadequate weapons, including bazookas that weren’t strong enough to stop North Korean tanks.”
But those green troops sent to stem the tide of communism soon turned into savvy combat veterans, he said, and what they weren’t taught before their baptism by fire, they quickly learned on the unforgiving battlefield. They soon became a battle-hardened force, Panetta said, that fought from one end of Korea to the other, halting repeated drives to capture the peninsula, and in the process inflicting massive casualties on the enemy.
“As we honor our Korean War veterans we must also remember the more than 7,900 Americans missing in action,” he said. “The Department of Defense is dedicated to resuming the search [to find] the remains of fallen service members missing in action in Korea. We will leave no one behind … until all of our troops come home.”
South Korea has grown strong and has become independent, and the Korean War’s moniker as “The Forgotten War” no longer holds true, he added.
“Thanks to the service and sacrifice of our veterans six decades ago … South Korea is a trusted ally, an economic power, a democracy and a provider of security in the Asia-Pacific region, and in other parts of the world.”
Panetta contrasted the South’s progress with “the bleakness” of the North, which he said remains a dangerous and destabilizing country bent on provocation, “and is pursuing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction while its people are left to starve.”
Two crucial lessons were learned from the Korean War, Panetta said.
“Too many American troops paid a heavy price in Korea because they were not provided the necessary training and the right weapons. They were sent into a tough fight with little preparation …Only a few short years after World War II, dramatic cuts to the force made us lose our edge – even though the world remained a dangerous place. We will not make that mistake again. That’s why today, coming out of a decade of war, we have put forward a strategy-driven defense budget to meet the challenges of the future. The world remains a dangerous place, and America must maintain its decisive military edge.”
America “must remain the strongest military power in the world, and … make no mistake: We will be ready to defeat aggression – anytime, anyplace.”
Panetta said the second lesson taught by the Korean War is the service and sacrifice made by a generation that bravely fought on its battlefields.
“Some 60 years ago, a generation of Americans stepped forward to defend those in need of protection and to safeguard this great country. America is indebted to them – to you, for your service and your sacrifice. Sixty years ago, the bugles sounded and you helped strengthen this country for 60 years. America will never forget you.”
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, another generation stepped forward to lead, and its strength will be America’s strength for decades to come, Panetta said.
“Over the past decade of war this new generation has done all this country has asked of them and more,” he said. “They take their place alongside all of you – another greatest generation of heroes that exemplifies the best that America has to offer. Our nation is great because generation after generation after generation, when the bugle sounded, our [military] responded.”
In commemoration of the Korean War, Panetta said America should always remember “the sacred call to duty,” and to “renew our commitment to honoring those who have fought, who have bled, and who have died to protect our freedoms and our way of life.”