Although the Korean War’s actual hostilities only lasted for a little over three years (1950–1953), they had a lasting impression on the Philadelphia region. On both sides of the Delaware River, the war gave the shipbuilding industry a boost, and military installations were crucial in preparing troops and supplies for deployment. However, the high death toll in South Jersey, Delaware, and Southeast Pennsylvania encouraged a student movement against the war in Philadelphia and efforts to avoid the draft. The deaths also inspired the construction of memorials to local residents who had fought in the Korean War.
After World War II split the Korean Peninsula into north and south, supported by communist China and the Soviet Union, there was strife that led to the Korean War (backed by the United States). These differences, together with the Chinese Civil War, facilitated the start of the Cold War in East Asia in the late 1940s, at the same time that similar ideological struggles caused the “Iron Curtain” to divide Europe. The North Korean military invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, starting the Korean War.
The internal conflict expanded internationally in the fall of 1950 after the United States persuaded the UN to send troops to block the spread of communism by defending the South. When the Chinese and North Koreans retook Seoul, the capital of South Korea, in January 1951, over half of those surveyed were against American engagement, and support never fully recovered. During the early months of the Korean War, American public opinion was in favor of the conflict.
When the Korean War started, local employment soared in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. By the end of 1951, the Philadelphia Navy Yard had temporarily added 3,700 employees, bringing its total employment to more than 12,500. Navy Yard employees also updated World War II seaplanes and submarines with contemporary technology while primarily preparing United Nations ships for action in the Pacific Ocean. Through the middle of the 1950s, the return of ships from the front kept Navy Yard employees busy. At the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, both building new ships and converting old ones led to more jobs.
Military installations in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware were also crucial in the Korean War. For basic training, soldiers arrived at Fort Dix in New Jersey from all around the northeastern United States. At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, which later housed the support services for Air Mobility Command and the strategic aerial defense of Washington, D.C., jet fighter squadrons trained for combat during the first two years of the Korean War.
The 111th Attack Wing of the Air National Guard, which trained on bombers like the B-29 Superfortress before being assigned to the Strategic Air Command and sent to Korea, was based at the United States Naval Air Station in Willow Grove, north of Philadelphia. The impact of the war’s death toll was also felt in the Philadelphia area. The counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia contributed more than 600 deaths to the conflict, or more than one-fourth of all deaths in Pennsylvania. Also, in Korea, 43 people from Delaware and about 800 people from New Jersey were killed.
Philadelphia became one of the hubs of organized protest against the Korean War because of the significant local sacrifices made in the area as well as the existence of a socialist population that had supported Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace (1888–1965) in 1948. The long-standing local influence of Quakers and other pacifist groups, like the Mennonites, as well as the region’s several universities, contributed to the protest movement’s strength.
Throughout the Korean War, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), based in Philadelphia, gave advice to young people about their religious rights under the Selective Service System to refrain from active duty, a protection that was not available for pacifism motivated by political reasons. Many college students in the Philadelphia area didn’t want to wait to be drafted. Instead, they volunteered to serve in the Korean War so they could join the Navy or Air Force instead of the Army.
James Michener (1907–1977), a native of Doylestown who covered the war for The Saturday Evening Post, was one of the first to adopt the term “Forgotten War” because he thought that by the second part of the fight, the American public had completely forgotten about Korea. Despite the fact that the armistice talks to end the Korean War started in the middle of 1951, it took them two years to come to a conclusion, in part because of conflicts over the return of prisoners of war who insisted they did not want to serve in the Chinese or North Korean forces. The official end of the war was on July 27, 1953, when the armistice stopped fighting. However, no long-term peace agreement was ever reached.
In southern New Jersey, northern Delaware, and southeast Pennsylvania, there are numerous local memorials honoring fallen Korean War troops. A memorial in New Castle, Delaware’s Delaware Memorial Bridge Park, which was inaugurated in 1956, bears the names of all residents of Delaware and New Jersey who lost their lives while serving in the Korean War. Residents and visitors are reminded of the sacrifices made during the Korean War by monuments at Coatesville, Doylestown, and Philadelphia.
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Two side walls with pictures of kids, grandparents, nurses, and preachers, as well as battle scenes, were part of the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial at Penn’s Landing, which was dedicated in 2002. Four pillars held the names of the war dead from the counties surrounding Philadelphia, listed by year. The New Jersey State Korean War Veterans Memorial in Atlantic City, local memorials in southern New Jersey, and the museums at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware all served as venues for remembering the Korean War’s long-lasting effects on Greater Philadelphia.