by Jeff Pederson
for The Beacon
Commonly referred to as the “Forgotten War,” the Korean War stands as one of the least recounted wars in United States history.
That is among the reasons why Sheboygan Falls resident Richard Stoelb set out to chronicle the Korean War in his newly released book “Sheboygan County’s Unforgotten-A Story of our Korean War Soldiers,” written from a distinctly Sheboygan County-oriented perspective.
A native of Sheboygan, Stoelb graduated from New Holstein High School in 1964 and served in the United States Army and Reserves from 1964-1970, during the Vietnam War era.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Stoelb has served as a research assistant at the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center in Sheboygan Falls.
“There wasn’t anything written about local men or stories connected with local men who served in the ‘Forgotten War,’” Stoelb said. “There have been so many books written on the battles, the statistics, etc. of the Korean War. I took a different course. The book I wrote contains profiles, letters they wrote or received and, hopefully, takes a more personal look at them as just ordinary people.
“What was on their minds., how did they feel and what really concerned them?” he said. “Surprisingly, their biggest concern was not for themselves, but for those they left back home. One of my favorite quotations comes from World War II Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, ‘There are no extraordinary men, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.’”
The Korean War ran from June 5, 1950 through July 27, 1953, beginning when North Korean forces overran the 38th parallel or the dividing line between North Korea and South Korea. Korea had only recently been liberated from Japanese colonial control at the end of World War II by Russia and the United States.
Post-World War II, the northern half of the peninsula was administered by Russia and the southern half by the United States. In 1948, early on in the Cold War, two sovereign nations were created, the Republic of Korea (south) and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (north). However, two years later, the peace between the two nations came to an end.
In Sheboygan County, 960 young men were called up by the local Selective Service Board for assignment to military service and 700 of these men served in Korea. Seven were killed in action, five died in prisoner of war camps, one remains listed as missing in action and two died in non-combat events.
After working on the book for a year and a half, “Sheboygan County’s Unforgotten” was released in June 2020.
“The book took about 18 months to put together,” Stoelb said. “I interviewed veterans from that war to get their unique perspective on the war. Some felt the time was right to talk about their experience and some simply refused to say anything because it still was too painful for them. I was contacted by family members to see what I could find out about their father, brother, uncle, etc. because they knew little or nothing about their time in Korea.”
According to Stoelb, the 162-page book, published by the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, focuses mainly on Sheboygan County residents, who encountered hardship, tragedy and sorrow and ultimately survival against all odds during the Korean War.
“Sometimes called the ‘Forgotten War,’ the Korean War wears a number of curious monikers,” Stoelb said. “North Korea calls it the Fatherland Liberation War, in South Korea, it’s called Six-two-Five, after the day it started, and China’s duplicitous name for the conflict is the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.
“For most Americans, it is the Korean War, yet President Harry S. Truman always referred to it as a police action because he never asked Congress to pass an official declaration of war,” he said. “This book remembers Sheboygan County’s casualties, its prisoners of war, missing and unforgotten. Many stories and photos were contributed by families of those soldiers.”
Military service is part of Stoelb’s family history with his father serving during World War II and the Korean War before he joined the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
Combining his families military service with his knack for writing and love of research, writing war-related books has been a natural fit for Stoelb.
“I have written other books for SCHRC,” Stoelb said. “My first was called ‘Time in Hell – The Battle for Buna on the Island of New Guinea…The Story of Company F, 127th Infantry, 32nd Infantry Division Wisconsin National Guard, Sheboygan, Wisconsin,’
“My dad was a member of Company F from Sheboygan in World War II and saw combat in New Guinea and the Philippines (38 months in the Southwest Pacific),” he said. “He was also a Korean War veteran. The early years of my life were spent on Army posts. We were living on base at Fort Riley Kansas when Dad received orders for Korea. I was 7 years old when he came home from Korea. That night is still very vivid to me 66 years later. He had been gone 16 months coming home in time for my first communion. I have also written ‘Lipper’s Mills.’ It is the history of the village we know today as Franklin just west of Howards Grove. I have also contributed various stories and articles for SCHRC that have been published.”
Stoelb says the month of November holds a significant place in setting the course for the trajectory of the Korean War 70 years ago.
“The Battle of Chosin was a two-week-long bloodbath with 30,000 U.S., ROK and British troops against 120,000 Chinese soldiers,” Stoelb said. “It was a defining moment of the Korean War, during an extremely bitter cold Korean winter in November 1950
“Fighting in the winter of 1950, the coldest Korean winter in 100 years, plus the brutal snow-covered mountainous terrain, men endured severe frostbite, sleepless nights and total mental and physical exhaustion,” he said. “Below-zero temperatures of minus 30 to minus 40 degrees and minus 70 degree wind chill, icy roads and wind-swept cliffs made every skirmish, firefight and attacks nightmares beyond the men’s wildest dreams.”
Against Chinese military forces outnumbering them by nearly 90,000 troops, coupled with the brutally cold weather conditions, U.S., ROK and British soldiers faced a very high casualty rate.
“With tens of thousands of young Americans and Chinese locked in eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand combat in the desolate, freezing mountains surrounding the Chosin Reservoir, the death toll soared,” Stoelb said. “Even men with minor wounds or injuries frequently died. If you stopped moving, you froze.
“By late November 1950, the 1st Marine Division and 31st Regimental Combat Team, surrounded and vastly outnumbered, were on the verge of annihilation,” he said. “As casualties mounted, the generals realized there was only one way to avoid a catastrophic defeat was to fight their way out and march to the North Korean port city of Hungnam 70 miles away for evacuation to Pusan. Over the next five-to-seven days, the Americans fought, or as O.P. Smith said, ‘attacked in another direction,’ down the Main Supply Route (MSR) that was nothing more than a winding, treacherous, snow-packed road. Through extraordinary willpower, exceptional war-fighting skills, and countless acts of valor, U.S. Marines and soldiers escaped the Chinese trap.
Due to the large death toll and high volume of soldiers wounded both physically and mentally, those that survived the battle have been tagged as “The Chosin Few.”
“By the time U.S. forces, with thousands of North Korean refugees in tow, reached the evacuation beaches, nearly 6,000 Americans were dead or missing,” Stoelb said. “Thousands more were wounded. None of the men who survived the horrific ordeal would ever be the same. They are known as ‘The Chosin Few.’”
Copies of “Sheboygan County’s Unforgotten,” can be purchased online at SCHRC.org/shop or in person at Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, located at 518 Water St. in Sheboygan Falls.