Updated: August 14, 2013 6:09AM
One military historian called it “the century’s nastiest little war.” On June 25, 1950, seven divisions of elite North Korean communist troops invaded the fledgling democracy of South Korea with the intention of conquering their southern neighbor and ally of the United States in three weeks.
Three years and three weeks later — when the United Nations, China and North Korea signed an armistice ending the Korean War — U.S. casualties amounted to 33,629 killed, 103,284 wounded and 7,140 taken prisoner. Millions of civilians had perished.
American soldiers were dubbed “the walking wounded” because they were patched up in the field and sent back into battle — a savage existence where ever-changing front lines, hand-to-hand combat, merciless artillery barrages, amputations from frostbite and death from dysentery were commonplace.
Sixty years after the armistice signing on July 27, 1953, the walking wounded remains an apt description for Bernard Bossov, 83, of Wilmette, and other American veterans who continue to battle physical and emotional trauma caused by the war. “I can handle the pain and the nightmares,” Bossov says, “but worse is that people might forget how well we fought and what we did.”
Bossov, like so many other Korean War veterans, feels his sacrifice has been overlooked.
After winning World War II most Americans in the 1950s were busy raising families and enjoying the good life after years of economic depression, war and sacrifice. Television news was in its infancy. As a result, the Korean War raged on largely unnoticed — except by the thousands of American soldiers who endured captivity, torture, amputations from frostbite, merciless artillery barrages, dysentery and massive onslaughts of Chinese communist troops.
Bossov was a forward observer in the 37th Field Artillery Battalion. During ferocious battles such as Kunu-ri, Chipyong-ni, the May Massacre and Bloody Ridge he received two severe concussions — one when his truck was blown off a road and plunged 200 feet down a mountain and another from an exploding shell — as well as a bullet wound and parasites from eating potatoes scavenged while missing in action. Six times he fought to the death in hand-to-hand combat.
When Bossov returned home in October of 1951 — virtually deaf from artillery barrages, numb in both legs from frostbite, racked by tortuous neck and back pain that would eventually compress his frame more than seven excruciating inches — people could not comprehend what he had been through.
“Civilians were told it was a police action and thought, how bad could it be?” he said.
He went on to have four major surgeries to repair broken discs in his spine. Screws and bolts keep him together, and he wears a neck brace.
Because of veterans like Bossov, South Korea was saved from a ghastly fate. A 1954 U.S. Senate report states that war crimes committed by the North Korean Army “constituted one of the most heinous and barbaric epochs in recorded history.”
Today, Bossov attends therapy sessions at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Center in North Chicago for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. An accomplished pianist, he also plays for veterans in treatment. His hands, however, are severely bruised from thrashing in bed caused by nightmares of war and atrocities.
Constant pain has not dampened his joie de vivre. He is happy to tell his story about “how well we fought and what we did.” It is as though, once again, he has been ordered to hold his position. “And I will,” he says with the same resolve that earned him a drawer full of medals.
So, when you see a veteran wearing a Korean War cap, say “thank you.” As Bossov says, “A heartfelt thank you means more than all the medals in the world.”
William A. Baltz is an independent writer who frequently writes about veterans.