The Forgotten DMZ, by Vandon E. Jenerette

By Major Vandon E. Jenerette, US Army


Article by Major Vandon E. Jenerette, US Army

F rom late 1966 through 1969, the Korean peninsula provided the background for a military confrontation that included guerrilla warfare, sabotage and terrorism directed against the people of South Korea and the Americans serving there. The situation tested the willpower and reserve of the Unified States and the Republic of Korea (ROK)). This article relates some of the circumstances of a significant victory and of the combat fought along the forgotten demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Korea.

The point man gripped his M16 rifle tightly as he pushed through the underbrush. Carefully looking for booby traps along the trail, he strained his ears listening for the slightest sound to his front. It was dark as the patrol inched its way forward through the valley far below the guard posts on the hills of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).A branch snapped somewhere in the darkness. The point man turned to signal the patrol to stop as a shot rang out, hitting him in the chest. Grenades exploded, sending blinding flashes along with shrapnel into the night sky in all directions.

The young sergeant leading the patrol ran forward in a low crouch as his men automatically started shooting and fanned out along the sides of the trail. As he crested the small rise separating the main body from the point man, a burst of fire caught him in the shoulder, knocking him to the ground. He fought to remain conscious as he crawled toward the body of the point man. He yelled, but there was no answer.

Meanwhile, as the radio operator grabbed the hand mike of the radio and called back to the command post for help, the assistant patrol leader shouted for covering fire and slithered forward. Everyone was shooting, and the dull "thunk" of the M79 grenade launcher was answered by a "kaboom" as it exploded on the far side of the rise.

The sergeant's voice could be heard between the shooting as he yelled for a medic, and the specialist four (SP4), now in charge, had only one thing on his mind-to get the wounded out of the line of fire. He shouted back to the men in the rear to move around the hill to a position where they could put more fire on the enemy; but as quickly as it had begun, the shooting stopped.

The radio squawked to life and asked for a situation report and location as the survivors regrouped and prepared for a counterattack.

The battle scene described was Korea in the late 1960's. It was the United States' other "DMZ." A nearly forgotten place where soldiers from the 2d Infantry "Indianhead" Division and the 7th Infantry "Bayonet" Division were engaged in combat operations on a smaller scale, but no less deadly, than the operations faced during the same period by fellow "grunts" in Vietnam.

In the fall of 1966, thousands of young Americans were undergoing basic combat training at one of the many US Army training centers around the United States. At Fort Ord, California, they shouted in adolescent voices about the spirit of the bayonet and marched to the cadence of "River of Saigon." At Fort Knox, Kentucky, new "burr heads" heard stories about "Sir Charles Cong" from drill sergeants not much older than themselves. At Fort Dix, New Jersey, street-wise kids from South Philadelphia and the tough boroughs of New York watched with rapt attention while veteran sergeants explained what a Vietcong Bouncing Bety mine could do to an unlucky GI.

No matter where they were that autumn in the barracks throughout the country, American soldiers were talking about one thing, and one thing only -the NAM. To the new soldier, there was no doubt about it-if he was more than 18 years old by the time he finished advanced individual training, the next stop was Vietnam. Most of the volunteers had joined for it-for the draftees it was considered a sure bet.

That same autumn, across the Pacific Ocean in a country few Americans under 25 knew much about, events were in motion that would change the destination for thousands of these US soldiers. For some, these events would change their lives forever; for others, it would mean a rendezvous with death in a frozen rice paddy far from "the world" and far from Vietnam in a place called Korea.

Following the Korean War cease-fire in 1953, a DMZ was set up that crossed the entire Korean peninsula. The southern boundary was occupied by ROK armed forces except for an 18-mile sector which fell under the responsibility of the US Army.

From 1953 through October 1966, eight Americans were killed in Korean clashes. However, as US involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, the tempo of incidents and violations of the Korean armistice also increased. Though it was not readily apparent at the time, there was speculation of a connection between the war in Southeast Asia and hostile acts committed by the North Koreans.

South Korea had deployed ROK army troops to Vietnam to join the fighting as US allies. Next to the United States, the ROK commitment to the war in Vietnam was the largest of the free-world forces and consisted of nearly three combat divisions.

In light of the developments throughout Korea, certain obvious questions had to have been considered on both sides of the DMZ:

 - Would South Korea keep its soldiers in Vietnam in the face of a resumption of warfare in its homeland?
 - Was the United States prepared to deal politically with a sudden escalation of hostilities on the Korean peninsula?
 - Was, the United States willing to commit its resources and US troops to combat on two fronts in the Pacific theater?

Apparently, the leadership in North Korea thought the answers were an emphatic NO? because Premier Kim It Sung personally initiated actions that would affect the entire peninsula for the next four years. His speech to the Korean Workers Party (KWP) Conference on 5 October 1966, gave warning that the status quo since 1953 between North and South Korea was about to change, and the overall strategy would be linked to the war in Vietnam.

The following is an extract of that speech: "In the present situation, the US imperialists should be dealt blows and their forces dispersed to the maximum in Asia and EuropeS Africa and Latin America . . . and they should be bound hand ant foot everywhere they are...."All the socialist countries . . . should oppose the aggression of US imperialism in Vietnam and render every possible support to the people of Vietnam . . . as the DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) is being attacked by the US imperialists, the socialist countries should fight more sharply against them . . . there can be no vacillation or passivity on this point.''(1)

Whether Kim It Sung's speech set the North Koreans into action or only served to alert the workers of the shift in policy that was already in progress remains an open question. However, in less than 30 days, activity along the DMZ made it clear that a call to battle had been sounded by the communists.

During the early morning hours of 2 November 1966, while US President Lyndon B. Johnson was sleeping at Walker Hill Resort near Seoul, ROK, North Koreans attacked a United Nations (UN) patrol south of the DMZ. The ambush signaled the beginning of a "Second Korean Conflict" that would last through 1969.

Newspapers around the world carried the story: "A few hours before President Johnson left Seoul for home today at the end of his Asian journey, six American soldiers and one South Korean of a United Nations Command patrol were killed by North Koreans. . . .This is undoubtedly the gravest incident in the series of clashes near the uneasy zone . . . it was believed to be the rnosl; brutal incident since I953."(2) ". . . the Communists charged into the United States sector lobbing grenades, using submachine guns, and finally coming to grips in a brief but savage hand-to-hand combat...."(3) ". . . the Communists fired 40 to 50 bullets into the bodies of the dead Americans and mutilated and bayoneted the corpses.

. . .The patrol ambushed by the North Koreans fought back so fiercely until it was wiped out that one of its members ., . PFC [Private First Class] Ernest D. Reynolds . . . who had been in Korea only 17 days . . . will be nominated posthumously for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The only survivor of the patrol was PFC David L. Bibee . . . 17 years old. He was wounded but escaped death by playing dead. "The only reason I'm alive now is because I didn't move when a North Korean yanked my watch off my wrist."(4)

The communist follow-up was a rapid acceleration of military attacks, amphibious landings by commandos, sabotage and guerrilla actions that would test US resolve to honor its commitment to the security of South Korea.

During the 12 months beginning in November 1966, more than two dozen Americans were killed and scores more were wounded in combat. Artillery fire was used by ROK troops in April 1967 to repel a communist incursion in a battle that involved more than 100 men. In June of that year, a US 2d Infantry Division barracks was dynamited. September saw two South Korean trains blasted, one carrying US military supplies. In October, North Korean artillery fire sounded for the first time since 1953 when more than 50 rounds were fired at a South Korean army barracks. (5)

 The action was by no means limited to the DMZ. In June 1967, four South Korean police and a civilian were killed in a battle with North Koreans near Taegu.(6) South Korean intelligence information indicated the communists were preparing an elaborate infiltration program for guerrilla warfare in the south and were hoping to enlist the masses for a full-scale subversive movement.(7)

In response to the urgency of the situation, US Army Special Forces teams, based in Okinawa, were inserted into the rugged mountain areas of South Korea and fought against the North Koreans during the summer of 1967. During the nine-month period from May 1967 through January 1968, in the US sector of the DMZ alone there were more than 300 reported hostile acts during which 15 US soldiers were killed and 65 wounded.(8)

As a result of the sudden deterioration of the cease-fire, coupled with the fact that US soldiers were once again fighting along the DMZ, the commander in chief of US Pacific Forces requested that the area north of the Imjin River and south of the DMZ be designated as a hostile fire zone. The Joint Chiefs of Staff supported the request which was approved by the Department of Defense. The memorandum sent forward outlined the evaluation of the situation: "The men serving along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) are no longer involved in cold war operations. They are in every sense of the word, involved in combat where vehicles are blown up by mines, patrols are ambushed, and psychological operations are conducted on a continuing basis against the Korean Augmentation troops with the US Army."(9)

Korea had gone from cold war to hot war overnight. Incidents of violence along the DMZ and in the interior of South Korea sky rocketed. However, these actions were only a prelude to more violent and drastic attacks yet to come.

The war in Vietnam, by this time, had become a familiar scene to most Americans at home. They watched it on the evening news and grew used to the pictures of bombs, smoke and death that invaded their living rooms. They were informed that we were "winning the war" and that "the light could be seen at the end of the tunnel." Nothing prepared the American public for the events that began on the evening of 31 January 1968, as Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year, began. It appeared that all of South Vietnam exploded at once when communist forces launched coordinated attacks against US and Republic of Vietnam facilities throughout the country. Nearly every provincial capital and city was hit. The US Embassy compound in the heart of Saigon was the scene of heavy fighting. Elsewhere, a band of communists made a "reckless bid" to break into the presidential palace, the most heavily fortified building in the capital.(10)

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 miles away, a group of North Korean commandos attempted to attack the presidential palace in Seoul. In this action, later known as the "Blue House Raid," 31 highly trained North Koreans infiltrated through the US sector of the DMZ on a mission to assassinate the South Korean president, Park Chung Hee.

This team fought its way to within a few blocks of the Blue House before being stopped by ROK troops and police. In the fighting that followed and the subsequent attempt by the raiders to flee to North Korean 28 of the communists were killed, one was captured and two others were presumed to have escaped.

The North Korean captured in the raid said the US Embassy was also a target of the commando force.(ll) Given the relationship that North Korea acknowledged between its own policies and the Vietnam War, "there is good reason to speculate about closer coordination between Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung.''(l2)

In the space of a few days after launching the Blue House Raid, the North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo in international waters off the coast of North Korea. Its 83-man crew was captured after a brief fight in which one US sailor was killed.

The North Koreans were putting one crisis on top of another. Because of the high visibility of antiwar protests in the United States, the communists apparently surmised that the administration would be unable to react to the rapid developments in Korea. Added to the situation was the fact that the US Army in Vietnam was experiencing the highest casualty rate of the war, which reached an all-time high level between November 1967 and April 1968.(13)

US and South Korean relations became severely strained by the sudden change in the course of events. The Koreans raised the possibility of withdrawing their troops from Vietnam unless the United States took firm measures to counter North Korean infiltration and subversion. Also, the South Korean government wanted to take retaliatory measures against the North, while the United States, already embroiled in problems in Vietnam, wished to approach the Korean situation from a low key perspective. Disagreeing with the US concept of Korea's defense, Park and other South Korean government officials voiced irritation at what they considered greater US stress on the Pueblo incident than on the stepped-up North Korean military actions.(l4)

Meanwhile, North Korean violence and activities directed against the ROK and US forces in the DMZ increased in 1968 after the Blue House Raid and the USS Pueblo seizure. The next large-scale action was the landing of a l20-man commando team on the east coast of South Korea. All the infiltrators were eventually killed or captured, but only after the loss of many civilian lives. During 1968 alone, North Korean agents arrested in the South numbered 1,245.(15)

North Korean strategy was aimed at creating a rift between the South Korean and American people. They transmitted propaganda broadcasts by radio and television. They tried to gain the support of Koreans residing in Japan. The communists also distributed propaganda ieailets throughout the South. They hoped this would force the withdrawal of US troops and lead to a popular uprising that would overthrow the Park regime, eventually reunifying the country under communism.

The reaction of the South Korean population to the propaganda efforts was not what the communists had expected Villagers throughout the country joined home guard militia units to defend their communities. The South Koreans were fiercely anti communist and, after having lived alongside Americans for nearly 20 years, were almost without exception pro-American. US units throughout the country did a splendid job of developing good public relations with the people in the towns and villages through well-planned civil affairs programs and civic action projects.

An operational report from the 2d Infantry Division gives an example of the type of relations Americans had established with the South Korean people. " heritage tours of Korea for Division soldiers, and provides English language instruction to ten Korean Middle Schools and five Korean High Schools. In addition, the Division participates in a cultural exchange program with Korean universities and presently has 33 active projects under the Armed Forces Assistance to Korea Program.''(16)

American reaction at home to the provocations of the communists was rather mixed. The media focus was on the war in Vietnam and reports of US combat operations and casualties in Korea, apparently, were not considered "page one" subject matter.

The Pueblo crisis eventually "petered out" after the United States decided against any direct action against North Korea, However, there was a substantial buildup of US ground forces and equipment in South Korea immediately following the Blue House Raid. Thousands of troops originally earmarked for duty in Vietnam were diverted to Korea in the first few months of 1968. Along with these actions, a tour extension of soldiers of the two infantry divisions already in Korea helped stabilized things considerably.

Two brigade headquarters and five tactical battalions, four from the 2d Infantry Division [one from the 7th Infantry Division], faced the communists north of the Imjin River. However, while junior enlisted strength approached full authorizations, the officer and noncommissioned officer (NCO) levels were dangerously low. Vietnam still had top manpower billing, and commanders in Korea had to come up with innovative methods to meet grade requirements to counter the conflict now being waged along the DMZ.

Promising young SP4s and corporals were sent to division NCO academies so they could fill the many junior NCO vacancies in the field. Meritorious promotions were made to quickly advance qualified soldiers.

Also, the two infantry divisions began a massive education program in light infantry tactics. "Imujim Scouts" training and "counterguerrilla warfare" schools instructed soldiers about operations peculiar to Korea.

The Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) was authorized for eligible soldiers along the DMZ, but the criteria for receiving one were much more restrictive than those in Vietnam. The 7th Infantry Division, to recognize its soldiers who had served in the combat zone north of the Imjin River, created a badge similar to the CIB with a bayonet and division patch in the center of a wreath.

In the meantime, US troops along the DMZ reinforced the newly completed barrier fence in their sector, manned guard posts in the middle of "no-man's land" north of the barrier and conducted aggressive patrols and stakeouts continuously. Rome plows cleared areas from the roadside leading to the guard posts located just below the actual military demarcation line (MDL).

Defoliants were used on the vegetation to eliminate hiding places for North Koreans attempting to infiltrate or attack US units. Quick-reaction strike forces were on 24-hour alert to assist any unit or patrol in contact with the enemy. After a short time, combat duty became a routine part of life along the DMZ for Americans in the base camps scattered north of the Imjin River.

Further to the south, in the 7th Infantry Division area of operations around Tongduchchon and Tok-ko-ri, foot and airmobile patrols conducted counter guerrilla operations to secure the area against the North Koreans.

These patrols ranged in duration from a few hours to several days and stakeouts and ambushes would be set along suspected avenues of infiltration. Isolated radio relay sites, occasionally the targets of North Korean probes, were reinforced by ad hoc security detachments made up of scouts, cooks supply clerks and medics.

Military response was not the only action taken by the United States. President Johnson sent Cyrus R. Vance as his special representative to meet with the South Koreans to display the US close and continuing interest in South Korea's security. A$100 million special military aid program was approved by Congress after an initial $32 million in military equipment was delivered in February 1968. Economic assistance was provided in the form of a $12 million foreign aid loan for industrial development.

The overall effectiveness of the combined US and ROK response could be measured by the drop in the number of incidents initiated by the communists. Hostile actions went from more than 700 in 1968, to just more than 100 incidents in 1969. The crew of the USS Pueblo was finally released by the North Koreans shortly before Christmas 1968 and crossed the "Bridge of No Return"at Panmunjon to freedom.

Though the tempo of events had slowed dramatically, the North Koreans sporadically continued to create flare-ups. In April 1969, a North Korean MiG fighter shot down a US Navy EC-121 intelligence aircraft, killing the 31-man crew. A US helicopter was downed in August, when it strayed across the DMZ.

US reaction was swift, and President Richard M. Nixon ordered a special naval task force of 23 warships into the Sea of Japan off the Korean coasts. (17) Then, as 1969 came to a close, provocative incidents by the North Koreans decreased as quickly as they had started three years before. The high point of North Korea's aggression coincided with the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.

It continued well into the early part of 1969 when the rate of hostile acts began to drop off. It became clear that North Korea was rethinking its strategy for dealing with the South.

There is reason to suspect that North Korea's original belligerency was a result of collaboration going far beyond its own borders and included players from the Soviet Union, as well as North Vietnam. The timing for the execution of the Blue House Raid and the seizure of the USS Pueblo leaves little doubt that they were planned to coincide with communist operations during the Tet offensive.[in Vietnam]

This possibility of collaboration becomes even more distinct when other events of the period are taken into account. Just before the escalation of North Korea's military action in 1966, the Chinese communists withdrew their delegate from the Military Armistice Commission talks at Panmunjon and did not return until July 1971. It was clearly in China's strategic interest at the time to improve relations with the United States, especially in the face of the border tension it had with the Soviet Union. Curiously, it was against this backdrop that Washington and Bejing were making moves that would culminate in the Nixon visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972.

In the long run, North Korea miscalculated the response of the South Korean people and the US ability to deal with the conflict militarily and politically. Attempts to recruit South Koreans for communist cadre failed miserably. The effort to disrupt the relationship between the South Korean government and the Americans failed with equal measure. By the end of 1970, it was obvious that North Korea had suffered a strategic military setback and was forced to abandon its disastrous course of action.

It has been two decades since the first coffins bearing American dead from the Second Korean Conflict were quietly brought home to be buried. There are no memorials inscribed with their names or monuments erected that extol their sacrifice. The battles long the Korean DMZ are for the most part forgotten except by the families of the dead. However, South Korea now stands as a free country and a phenomenal economic power, given its chance by the sacrifice of those Americans who died there and the thousands who served there.

The sole survivor of the patrol ambushed on 2 November 1966, carries 48 scars from the North Korean grenades that blew him off a hilltop when he was just 17 years old. Looking back across 20 years he slowly said, "We did what the country asked us to do . . . that's all."

Today, about 30 miles to the south of the DMZ, a free South Korea is preparing to play host to the 1988 Olympic games. That, in a way, is a tribute in itself.


 1. LTC Walter S. Clark, A Case Study of Reaction to Growing Aggression (US Army War College, 1970), 11.
 2. Times (London), 3 November 1966, a.
 3. New York Times, 3 November 1966, 1 and 15.
 4. New York Times, 4 November 1966, 19.
 5. LTC James M. Wroth, "Korea: Our Next Vietnam ?" Military Rewiew (November 1968):34.
 6. New York Times, 20 June 1967, 3:3.
 7. Ibid., 10 July 1967, 7:4.
 8. Department of Defense 'Report of the 1971 Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation," (Washington, DC: Manpower and Reserve Affairs, 17 March 1972), 45.
 9. Ibid.
 10. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), 527. 
 11. New York Times, 29 Janunry 1968, 9:3.
 12. Howard H. Lentner, "The Pueblo Affair: Anatomy of a Crisis" Military Review (July 1969):58.
 13. Bruce Palmer Jr., The 25-Year War America 's Military Role in Vietnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1984), 68.
 14. New York Times, 4 February 1968, 7:1.
 15. Everett H.Webster,Is the Morning Calm About to be Broken in Korea? (US Air War College, 1971), 9.
 16. Operations: Lessons Learned, 2d Infantry Division for Period Ending 30 April 1969 (APO San Francisco: Headquarters, 2d Infantry Division, 31 October1969) 2.
 17. The New York Times, 22 April 1969, 1:5.

(About the Author) At the time this article was written, Major Vandon E Jenerette was attending graduate school at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He received a B.S. from Troy State University, and is a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College. He has served in Korea with the 2d Infantry Division, the 7th lnfantry Division and with the United Nations Honor Guard in YongSan. He also served with the Ist Special Forces Group, Okinawa, Japan.

Military Review Published by US Army Command and General Staff College Volume LXVIII - May 1988 - No 5 pp 32-43


Article by Major Vandon E. Jenerette, US Army (Author Update - 1995)

Major Vandon E Jenerette (USA, Ret) is a professor at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, North Carolina where he teaches Sociology and Leadership. He is a PhD candidate at the University of South Carolina. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Kansas.