Pentagon knew about error in Korean War death tally

Sunday, June 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – President Clinton and veterans from across the nation will gather in somber remembrance Sunday afternoon at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where it is carved into stone that 54,246 Americans died in the war that began 50 years ago.

For decades, the number has been enshrined in histories, almanacs, monuments and memories, reverently cited as proof of the war's cost. But nearly one-third of those deaths – 17,730 – occurred elsewhere, often half a world away from Korea. The actual number of Americans killed in the Korean War theater of operations is 36,516, the Pentagon acknowledged this month.

"If you were walking down the street in Washington, D.C., and were hit by a car, you'd be considered a casualty of the Korean War," said Burt Hagelin, a Korean War veteran who helped uncover the historical mystery.

The error was blamed on an anonymous government clerk who in the 1950s mistakenly added noncombat deaths worldwide to the total, and the correction was credited to revised accounting procedures, according to brief news accounts reporting the Pentagon's clarification. That is not the real story, according to veterans and others who have been pushing for years to get the numbers corrected.

Revised data available

"Fifty years later, they're trying to drop it all on one clerk," said Richard Kolb, publisher of VFW Magazine, a Veterans of Foreign Wars publication that has lobbied several times for the number to be corrected. "They had the facts all along. Now they're acting like it's a new revelation."

Pentagon officials have known for years that the 54,000 figure is inflated and believed before the memorial was dedicated in 1995 that engraving that number in black granite would be misleading, according to interviews. But at the insistence of the veterans committee that oversaw the memorial's construction, the larger figure was used.

Far more than an arcane numbers game, the issue is deeply emotional to many Korean War veterans, who see the lower, revised total as one more slap at their oft-ignored sacrifices.

Vets cling to old number

Some veterans, tired of the conflict being slighted in favor of the Vietnam War, say 54,000 remains an accurate tally because all those killed were part of the general war effort, regardless of where they died. They are angry that VFW Magazine and others have suggested changing the number engraved along the memorial's Pool of Remembrance.

If the Vietnam Veterans Memorial included out-of-area deaths along with the 58,000-plus names engraved on the Wall, it would have to add the names of more than 20,000 Americans who died in the United States and elsewhere from 1965 through 1975, according to a study cited by VFW Magazine.

Two Korean War veterans from Maine are responsible for bringing the issue to the fore through years of prodding, Mr. Kolb said.

Mr. Hagelin, who was with the 2nd Infantry Division during the bloody fighting for the outpost known as Old Baldy, read an article in the early 1990s that said the 54,000 Americans killed in the Korean War included 20,000 nonbattle deaths.

"I couldn't believe it," said Mr. Hagelin, 69, a self-described "Maine farm boy" in the town of Dover Foxcraft.

Mr. Hagelin started making inquiries at the Pentagon, asking to see statistics on the nonbattle deaths, which usually stem from accidents, training mishaps and disease.

But Mr. Hagelin obtained data after members of Maine's congressional delegation applied pressure on his behalf. He teamed up with a former soldier from Augusta, Marty O'Brien, who was independently investigating the matter. "The numbers were all over the place," said Mr. O'Brien, 70, a 1st Cavalry Division veteran.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. O'Brien obtained a microfiche showing the Army's nonbattle deaths during the war, information the Army had claimed did not exist.

Working together, Mr. Hagelin and Mr. O'Brien helped establish that most of the 20,000 nonbattle deaths during the war occurred outside Korea.

The Pentagon published statistics in 1994 and subsequent years showing that 17,000 of the nonbattle deaths occurred elsewhere. About 2,800 of the nonbattle deaths occurred in the theater. When that figure was added to the 33,600 killed in battle, the number of Americans who died in the war came to fewer than 37,000.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon made no effort to publicize the new numbers, and the 54,000 figure continued to be generally accepted.

54,000 number pervasive

The Pentagon's Korean War Commemorations Committee used the higher figure in promotional bookmarks it published this year.

"The 54,000 number became so pervasive in the secondary literature that we felt it not necessary to go to the primary sources," said Air Force Maj. Bob White, the committee's historian.

Maj. White said he learned the figure was suspect from a military historian who saw the bookmark.

The 54,000 figure dates to the war's end in 1953, reflecting about 33,600 killed in battle and 20,600 nonhostile deaths worldwide.

The total of 54,000 became the common reference for Korean War deaths. For many Korean veterans, the fact that it is close to the 58,000 killed in Vietnam was significant.

The veterans' view won out as far as the monument was concerned. "Had it not been for the Korean War, they would never have been drafted," said Bob Hansen of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board.