The main fighting in the Korean War lasted from June 1950 to July 1953, claiming the lives of 36,574 Americans who fought to prevent the spread of communism through Korea pushed by the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Chinese soldiers streamed over the borders to press the campaign of former CCP leader Mao Zedong. Over 2.5 million Korean citizens were killed, and Korea was divided, with a brutal communist regime in the North and a free society in the South.
The war never officially ended, and only recently through peace talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un does it appear an end is in sight. With that, families separated for decades could be reunited, and the remains of U.S. troops who fought in the war could finally return home.
Bernard Farnan was among the 326,863 U.S. troops who fought in the war shortly after World War II, when Americans were ready to move on and enjoy peace again. Farnan was nominated twice for bravery—once for a Bronze Star and once for a Silver Star.
The troops fought in the bitter cold from bunkers and outposts, with most fighting taking place at night in the roughly 1,500 yards of no-man’s land between the Chinese line and the American line.
Farnan said that when he was drafted at 21 to fight from 1952 to 1953, “the silly fighting was over the outposts” that were placed in the middle of no-man’s land. “They wanted that outpost, we wanted that outpost.” Most of the fighting took place where he was, in the Cheorwan Valley beyond the 38th parallel, then known as the “iron triangle.”
“When I first got drafted, nobody knew even where Korea was,” said Farnan who grew up in Long Island, New York. “It was classified as a police action, and they said it would be over by Christmas that year.”
The nature of the war dawned on him quickly, as he and others were transported first to Japan, then through the war-torn ruins of Seoul in South Korea toward the front lines. As they rode through the city in the back of trucks, he said, “the highest building I saw there was like eight stories. Those were all bombed out. That was when the realization came to all of us that we were in the middle of a war.”
He was placed in the U.S. Army’s Third Reconnaissance Company, part of the Third Infantry Division, and left the war as a corporal. As part of Recon, Farnan’s place in the war would be up and down the lines, from outpost to outpost, and in patrols to scout or fight enemy troops.
The battles that won his nominations still stand vividly in his mind. The first was from a patrol he took out of friendship. One of the Native American soldiers who served with Farnan was set to return home in just a few weeks and came to Farnan stating his belief that if he went out on patrol that night, it would be his last. Farnan agreed to take his place to go to Outpost Kelly.
He and the men drank whiskey before heading out on their ambush patrol, and he said they prayed for a moonless night. As they headed out near Outpost Kelly, flares launched from the outpost, enemy bugles and friendly whistles rang out, and the sounds of gunfire and explosions filled the air. He said, “They were fighting hand-to-hand on the hill while we were at the base of the hill.”
In the confusion, Farnan’s squad was separated from their squad leader, who carried their radio, as well as from their two Korean interpreters. His squad was then ambushed, and Farnan took command, leading his men out of the kill zone and into a nearby ravine.
Battles were often filled with confusion, he said. Since they were fought mostly at night, the soldiers could rarely see the enemy and rarely even knew how many enemy troops there were. Their targets were muzzle flashes and sounds, and the only way they knew whether their shots hit was from the screams of young men. Farnan said, “The ones that ambushed us were on an ambush patrol at the base of the hill. I don’t know how many were out there.”
When they fell back into the ravine, one of the men with Farnan began to panic, and Farnan stopped to calm him. “I’m trying to say to him, ‘Look, we’re gonna make it. I guarantee we’re gonna make it back. Calm down.'”
It was then that an enemy hand grenade landed in the water just feet from them and exploded just as it submerged. Farnan noted that when he had stopped to calm the soldier, he had removed his helmet and was holding it next to his head—which as fate would have it, saved his face from a piece of shrapnel from the grenade that flew and dented his helmet.
This happened just as the man was calming down, and “when the grenade came, he cracked again,” Farnan said.
But the squad found their way to the other bank and took cover in a patch of reeds, where they waited for the enemy to follow. They stayed there until daylight.
Farnan was nominated for a Bronze Star for his actions that night.
At the nearby outpost, only three men had survived.
The Mine Field
Around the outposts were often chokepoints for the enemy troops. On the sides of these chokepoints were razor wire and minefields. One type of mine used tripwires that would pull behind troops and detonate. Another was what the men called “bouncing betties,” which would spring from the ground with small propellers to detonate at neck level.
When the Chinese soldiers attacked, they would often have a group they marked to die. The Chinese soldiers would force these men to run into the minefields to detonate the mines and clear the way for the main force.
There was a clear way through the minefields, but in the confusion of battle, or while fleeing, soldiers sometimes found themselves unintentionally in the fields with little hope of making it out safely. It was in one of these fields that Farnan earned his nomination for the Silver Star.
The enemy had attacked their line during the night, and at around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., Farnan said he could hear a faint moaning from beyond his bunker. They tried to locate the source of the moans, but in the darkness and the mist, they had no luck. Then they had some early sunlight.
Farnan was able to climb what was left of a small tree to pinpoint the location. He and two others followed the safe land through the minefield until they saw in the distance a U.S. soldier who had fled into the minefield during the night and was lying in a crevice from an exploded mine, where heat was still rising from the ground.
“I guess he was so frightened he couldn’t find the safe way, ran into the minefield, and hit a mine,” Farnan said. “He was partially going into shock, speaking sporadically, wanting someone to go in and get him. He couldn’t move. His leg was partially blown off.”
There was no safe way to rescue the man in time, yet as the fog began to lift, Farnan said drops of dew clung to the tripwires, which allowed him to see their locations. While he was still not able to find the buried mines, he volunteered to go, leaving deep footprints behind him for another man to follow with a stretcher. They were able to rescue the soldier, and he was medevaced for treatment.
Farnan said the U.S. troops in the Korean War “were extremely brave, very patriotic, and very concerned about one another.”
“There was a real concern for the welfare of your buddy. We all had that credo,” he said.
Even at the time, the Korean War was called “the forgotten war,” and he and others who fought there also tried to forget.
“Because they made it such a forgotten war, and that was the headlines always, the guys themselves tried to forget about it,” he said. “My biggest thing when I got home was to try to forget about it.”
The Korean War was a war that never truly ended. Yet, Farnan said with the peace talks now underway, he and others may finally have closure. With this, he said, “the war will have an ending.”