On the morning of 25 June 1950, when the North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th parallel into South Korea, they found the latter’s troops completely unprepared. There were miscalculations from all sides. America’s supremo in the east, General MacArthur, dismissed CIA warnings that the North Koreans would attack in June. Stalin, emboldened by the American apathy towards the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, insisted to Mao that Americans were too afraid to fight another war. As for President Truman, he had been roundly criticized by the Congress for the Communist takeover of China the previous year. With mid-term elections just a few months away, and he himself still intending to run for a second term, he wasn’t going to appear soft. “By God I’m going to let them have it,” he remarked on the evening of the attack.
Others have won Pulitzers for covering the war, but the greatest collection of pictures about the Korean War was produced by David Douglas Duncan (still alive as of mid-2017 at age of 101!). On September 4th, Duncan joined the men of Baker Company across the Naktong river — one of his images was later chosen for a commemorative stamp. He remembered:
“I cabled LIFE’s editors in August from Tokyo and I told them I was heading back to Korea to try and get what I called ‘a wordless story’ that conveyed the message, simply, ‘This is war.’ Not long after that I was covering the fighting near the Naktong River, and I made the picture of Marines running past a dead enemy soldier, their fatigues absolutely soaked to the chest with mud and muck and god knows what else. And this ended up as the cover image for the book, This Is War!, when it came out a year later.”
His photos which appeared in LIFE on September 18th underlined the struggles of fighting men at front. One of the most memorable was that of corporal machine gunner Leonard Hayworth, was crying at the loss of all but two of his squad (above). Another much-reproduced photo captured Ike Fenton, commanding officer of Baker Company receiving the news that his forces are nearly out of ammos and that he could expect no supplies or troops to secure this ‘no-name’ ridge. (below) If another attack came, they (and Duncan) stood to be wiped out.
Now known as a ‘forgotten war’ — commemorated by a TV series that lasted longer than the war itself — the Korean War cemented the American hegemony in the Pacific. After much dawdling, Truman had now drawn a ‘line-in-the-sand’. Some historians note that not much South Korea, but also Japan and Taiwan were saved by the war.