John Connor's Korean War memories come back to him with a stunning clarity.
Plankton sparked a phosphorescent galaxy as he dipped his paddle in the water of the Yellow Sea on the night he landed at Kunsan, South Korea, with his U.S. Army Special Forces unit. On the beach, bullets kicked up the sand in front of him, a barrage of North Korean automatic gunfire.
It was September 1950, his unit's first mission. He was 20.
"For the first time in my young life, I realized someone was trying to kill me," said Connor, now 83 and a retired Sacramento State anthropology professor living in Sun City Lincoln Hills.
On Memorial Day – and every day – he remembers. So do Duane Anderson, Val Soto and other Korean War veterans. But the world long ago looked away from the three-year conflict widely called "the forgotten war." It has been overshadowed in the American consciousness, even though many historians consider America's role in the Korean conflict to have lasting, unappreciated significance.
It began on June 25, 1950, after the communist government north of the Korean peninsula's 38th parallel – a line drawn after World War II to divide Korea between American and Soviet influence – invaded South Korea.
It ended on July 27, 1953, with an armistice establishing the 38th parallel as a permanent demilitarized zone separating the two countries. Yet there is no peace treaty, no official recognition by either of the two Koreas that hostilities ended. Tensions continue today – most recently, as a result of North Korean missile threats – and 37,000 American troops remain in Korea.
"The thing about Korea is, it's always been a series of these crises," said Bob Patrick, director of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project. "It was always from crisis to crisis.
"But Korean War veterans are a different breed. They're a special category. Their stories are just as compelling as those out of World War II and Vietnam."
Nearing the 60th anniversary of the armistice, their numbers are dwindling.
Almost 1.8 million American military members served in the Korean theater during that period, according to Defense Department figures, while 5.7 million served around the world. The youngest of the estimated 2 million remaining American veterans from the Korean era are now nearing 80.
Nearly 34,000 were killed in battle, and another 103,000 were wounded, Defense Department statistics show. More than 7,900 American military personnel remain missing.
Theirs was a brutal conflict, fought in subzero temperatures and searing heat, up the sides of steep mountains and on rice paddies that turned into killing fields.
It was the last war of the untelevised age, before battles and bloodshed came into America's living rooms every evening. And it was the first conflict after World War II, the war that united Americans in a sense of common purpose and sacrifice.
Korea was, in short, easily overlooked by a war-weary country ready to move forward – and easily forgotten compared with the bitter polarization to come a decade later with Vietnam.
"World War II was universally experienced by every American household," said Ted Barker, co-founder of the Texas-based Korean War Project, an online history site. "But in Korea, like Vietnam, men were rotated in and out one at a time, not unit by unit.
"There was an anonymity to the people who fought."
A blueprint for conflict
Home on leave from Korea in 1951, John Connor took a bus across the country, heading to the Pennsylvania mining town where he had been raised. He wore his full uniform, complete with the combat infantry badge. At a stop 100 miles outside Omaha, a woman approached.
"I was leaning up against the bus, and this woman said, 'What time's the next bus?'" he said. "I told her I didn't know. And she said, 'Why not? You're the driver, aren't you?'
"Unless you read the newspapers or went to the newsreels, you really didn't know there was a war in Korea."
Still, historians say that it was the Korean conflict, not World War II or Vietnam, that most significantly shaped America's emergence as a superpower.
"Korea set the template for America's subsequent military engagements," said Sacramento State history professor Joseph A. Palermo, who specializes in post-World War II history.
"It was the blueprint for what we've come to take for granted."
For example, Korea was an undeclared war, much like many subsequent American military conflicts. Similarly, in entering the war – as a way to stand up to the Soviet Union and undermine the influence of China – the United States sought U.N. backing as a legitimizing force.
"Now, America has military bases around the world and alliances like NATO," Palermo said. "And whenever there's a war somewhere, the world looks to the U.S. and says, 'What are you going to do about it?'
"Korea was the beginning of that. You could argue that Korea was a more important war than Vietnam because it established America as a global superpower."
Experts say that the Cold War-era domino theory – the idea that communism in one country would topple surrounding countries into communism – was formulated during the Korean War and used as an excuse for American military intervention for decades to come.
Service and sacrifice
Duane Anderson knew nothing about communism, even less about Korea. He was a college kid in North Dakota who had joined the National Guard. In 1950, as the war began, President Harry Truman activated the North Dakota Guard, and Anderson was inducted into the Army.
"I could have gotten a deferment," said Anderson, now 81, a retired Sacramento State administrator who lives in Carmichael. "But there were people from my county who didn't go in 1941 when the Guard was sent to Pearl Harbor, and that stuck with them the rest of their lives. That's how they were known.
"There was a great deal of reverence for the service and sacrifice."
At 20, he was in Korea, part of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division fighting what became known as the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge. It was September 1951.
"It's steep, and you have people shooting down at you," Anderson said. "It's either uphill or downhill. My company had 165 guys going up, and when we came off on Oct. 26, we had 42 who hadn't been injured or killed."
U.S. forces already had repelled the North Korean army almost to the Yalu River, the border with China, causing China to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the war. With their help, the North Korean forces fought their way back south.
That's how the war went, inch by inch, mountain by mountain, with one side advancing north of the 38th parallel, then moving back south of it, leading to eventual stalemate.
"There are a lot of things you can't forget," Anderson said. "I can remember days and times vividly. I can see them all in my mind. I did for years. I had that post-traumatic stress."
He has returned to Korea twice since his retirement. From the DMZ, he has viewed Heartbreak Ridge and sites of other long-ago battles, now overgrown and quiet, just patches of rugged countryside in North Korea.
"The DMZ is like a movie," he said. "It's surreal. They're standing there, the North Korean and South Korean soldiers, trying to look tough. They're maintaining vigilance along that line.
"And here are all kinds of tourists going up to look."
A matter of honor
Val Soto won't go back.
At 81, he's a retired forklift operator who spent almost 25 years in the Air Force. But in 1953, as the Korean War slowly drew to an end, he was a kid from Oakland manning a radar van near the front lines that helped direct bombers to reach their targets.
Late that spring, attached to the 5th Marine Division two dozen miles outside Panmunjom, his crew was overrun by North Korean soldiers.
"Infiltrators came through our lines looking for the little piece of radar on the van," said Soto, who lives in Sacramento. "They hit us all night."
The attack left him wounded in the leg and head: To this day, he's not sure exactly what happened. When he woke up on a troop train, he couldn't see. Surgery at a military hospital eventually restored his sight.
He was still hospitalized when the armistice was signed.
"They called the war a 'peace action,' " he said. "You see movies about World War II and Vietnam, but there's very little about Korea.
"It's forgotten, but we know what we went through."
They sacrificed. The forgotten warriors left their buddies and part of their own youth behind in a land far from home. They live now with the ailments of old age as well as the ailments left by their war, such as neuropathy and bone damage related to frost injuries.
But they served.
Before he volunteered for the Special Forces unit, John Connor was part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's honor guard in Tokyo.
"I got a letter there one day from my childhood buddy who'd gone to Korea," Connor said. "He said, 'For God's sake, don't come here.' He was horrified by the carnage.
"But going was a matter of honor."
A week later, his friend was reported missing in action. He's still listed as MIA today.
Call The Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her in Twitter @AnitaCreamer.