BRINGBACKS FROM THE KOREAN WAR
Of all the United States’ major conflicts in the 20th Century, the Korean War seems to yield the fewest souvenirs. There are plenty of items GIs purchased in Japan to send home from sterling tea spoons to imitation samurai swords and an array of handmade black lacquered photo albums inlaid with mother of pearl, but true war trophies from the Korean peninsula are scarce.
Soldiers returning from World War I and World War II had no shortage of captured items. It seems like anyone growing up in the post war years can remember playing with or otherwise admiring a captured German pistol or Japanese flag their father, uncle or neighbor brought home. Even veterans of Vietnam seem to have their share of pith helmets, rubber sandals, or NVA flags.
What makes Korean War bring backs so scarce? Even within collectors’ circles there is not a clear answer, but a variety of explanations that contribute to the rarity of these items. It seems to be a general understanding that these pieces, the most common of which being North Korean flags, are just scarce and it is accepted that they fall into the ‘rare’ category.
A major factor is simply the amount of servicemembers overseas – less people to acquire less loot. At a total number of 1,789,000 serving in theater, that number is dwarfed by the 11.7 million serving overseas during World War II and smaller still than the 3,403,000 deployed to Southeast Asia during Vietnam. For some reason the World War I statistics are difficult to find, but based on battle deaths as an average one could determine there were a third less servicemembers deployed for Korea. Regardless of how the numbers are calculated, the scale of the Korean War was much smaller than the other major wars of the period (1, 2).
An additional problem in importing souvenirs initially was that so many pieces were confiscated before GIs returned to the United States. There are anecdotes of red bins on troopships returning home where those with souvenirs were ordered to deposit their findings. Though it was an honor system, the consequences were likely worse than simply dumping a captured flag or rifle and many GIs obliged. Theft was a major problem, especially among the Officer Corps, and more than on enlisted man has griped in the years following the war about the beautiful piece they would have bought home had it not been for some thieving rear echelon Lieutenant (3).
From a collectors’ perspective, it has been said that North Korean flags are ‘as rare as they get.’ That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but those statements are out there. Both these and many South Korean flags are made from delicate silk that easily deteriorates over the years if not cared for properly. Longevity of the material is an issue in how many of these are currently in existence. Another point is general collectability – an item that is not continually sought after tends to be discarded. The Forgotten War is just as overlooked in the collecting field as it is by the general public. While on a smaller scale and not as glorious as the victories of World War I or World War II or as controversial and publicized as the Vietnam War, there is a general lack of interest in collecting and preserving any artifacts from Korea.
These two groups featured in the collection this month exhibit unique bringback items from two soldiers who served in Korea. From the first year of the war is a group of silk flags, communist newspaper clippings, and what appears to be an identification booklet for a South Korean civilian. These are all well documented in narratives by the soldier, Joe Drozd who was an early replacement to supplement the losses of B Company, 21st Infantry from the decimated Task Force Smith. Joe joined the 24th Division in early July 1950. His unit would see some of the heaviest fighting up and down the Korean peninsula including the fall of Taejon, the Naktong River and up toward the Yalu and back again. He captured this North Korean flag in October 1950 while clearing a small village during a patrol. This flag is in exquisite condition maintaining its strength and rich colors. Many of the paper items have been laminated using packing tape and the writing on the ID card is suffering due to the chemicals in the tape. The South Korean flag was also ‘preserved’ in this manner with two large pieces of tape across the tear in the middle. Despite how delicate the material is, this solution would be more detrimental as time passes and the tape has since been carefully removed and gently cleaned.
The second group comes from Harvey Valenta who served in Korea beginning in April 1953. Paired with Drozd’s collection, the two provide a nice display that frames the first and last days of the war. Over the years, Harvey saved his photo album, miscellaneous paperwork, pile cap, and his trophy items: a Chinese officer’s tunic and cap, rifle, and pistol. Unfortunately, the rifle and pistol were sold separately at auction and the whereabouts are unknown.
The Chinese tunic is a very rare piece and is one of the only two known to the collector to exist in private collections. The other tunic of similar style and also of the artillery branch was brought back by line crosser Charlie Lamb and has been featured in the 8240th Army Unit collection which features a vast array of amazing items in addition to captured pieces (4). That tunic is documented to have been captured in the Yokchon Valley in May 1953. Few references exist for these uniforms. One U.S. Army publication (AR PAM 30-51) from 1960 has image boards with strikingly similar uniforms and insignia, but nothing explicitly from the wartime period before any changes in style for their 1955 pattern uniform and insignia. The Type 55 being exhibited in a Chinese reference book for collectors. This uniform retains the shoulder boards of Soviet style that indicate rank of the equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel. The visor cap appears to be a recycled Republic of China hat, with an added chinstrap and buttons to match those used on the shoulder boards. It is possible that the uniform is also a recycled Republic piece captured during the Chinese Civil War. The September 1952 copy of AR PAM 30-51 shows photographs of Chinese soldiers wearing caps almost identical to this, but no trace of a uniform in this style. 1953 may be the first year these were issued on an experimental basis and the artillery may have been the first or only branch to receive them. Without many references or surviving examples, there is a lot of speculation as to the origins and use of these tunics. David Cabral offered expert insight on the origins and wear of the uniform, though it is a perplexing piece.
On a very interesting note, upon inspection of the uniform there appeared to be some markings on the back. In normal light they can barely be traced, but viewing beneath a blacklight reveals handwritten letters: P.O.W. With this new information, it may be possible to review after action reports for Harvey’s unit to see if they have records of prisoners captured, if they interview them, and if any were field grade officers of artillery.
All of these pieces are fine additions to the holdings in the collection and hold a number of stories that exemplify the importance of documentation, research, and provenance. They also shown that not everything is available online and having access to in print publications and a knowledgeable collector base is essential to finding answers, or at least getting on the right path.
(1) “America's Wars.” U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, 2010, www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf.
(2) “Research Starters: US Military by the Numbers.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, The National World War II Museum, www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-us-military-numbers.
(3) Mercy, Robert Winston. I Hear No Bugles. Merriam Press, 2008.
(4) Force, Matthew. “History of the US Army Advisers and Partisans That Served with the 8240th AU during the Korean War.” 8240th AU Facebook Page, 2015, www.facebook.com/pg/8240thAU.