The Forgotten War: Researching Connections to the Korean War

As my husband and I have been watching M*A*S*H together on Netflix because I've never seen it, my thoughts have turned to my grandfather and the Korean War. Like most Americans, I know almost nothing about the Korean War. I've wanted to change that for a long time, but doing so poses some challenges I haven't known how to confront.

In addition to many Korean War era records being destroyed in a fire at the National Personal Records Center decades ago, many current privacy laws restrict me from requesting any information about my grandfather. He was discharged from the army on 9 December 1953, and the privacy laws mandate that his information will be restricted until 62 years past that date.

But in case you're just now joining me, you should know that that I'm incredibly lucky and the universe loves me to bits. When it comes to genealogy, I always seem to be the person who is descended from the group of people whose entire existence was erased, except for the one piece of information I needed.

And, as it turns out, my grandfather's service in the Korean War is no exception.

At 17, my grandfather Raymond Doyle joined the Army in 1947. He served for the duration of the Korean engagement, being discharged in December of 1953. Looking at his military headstone application and the Veteran's Affairs BIRLS index, that's all I would be able to gather. And I'm not sure I can expect much more from whatever the NPRC can give me.

But that's okay. Because even if they have nothing at all, I have an ace up my sleeve.

My grandmother knows I value old papers and photos, and gave me a huge haul of stuff right before I moved out west with my husband. Included in the swag was my grandfather's resume--a good portion of which lays out his military career.

Raymond Richard Doyle (Middle)
circa 1947-1953, Korean War

My grandfather seemed to understand that the military was a great place to get free training and education, and took advantage of every opportunity to better his prospects. He was trained at Fort Holabird, a counter-intelligence facility where he specialized in Industrial Security Management. He became an Administrative Specialist, eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant Major.

As a non-commissioned officer, I'm assuming he would have qualified for additional training opportunities while stationed overseas. Not only did he complete a leadership training course while in Tokyo, he also received a Certificate of Administration from Keio University in Japan. 

If these are the only facts I ever have to work with, I'm hoping they'll be enough to piece my grandfather's experience back together. And a great tool fill in the details are radio broadcasts from the early 1950's. These are available in great abundance on the Internet Archive. You can explore what they have generally via their Korean War, 1950-1953 subject tag. Some specific items include:

  • Radio Broadcasts: see broadcast 68 and 69 on this list
  • Books: What's Happening in Korea? by Richard Morris
  • Photos: While the submitter of these photos is named as Margie Burke, the nurses are not named or labeled. If your relative was a nurse in the Korean War, checking for photos of Korean War nurses may help you to find photos you've never seen before
  • Video: stock footage, home front reels, training reels
  • Operation Guides: Specific to each branch of service. This guide outlines the operation and actions of the U.S. Marine Corp.
Researching Korean War veterans and their service isn't a popular pursuit, especially in comparison to other conflicts like the Civil War or World War I and II. This plays a large role in how the Korean War came to be known as the Forgotten War. As this generation of veterans continues to pass away, it's important to record and preserve their memories while they are still with us, and we can do so. Once they pass away, there may not be a second chance to obtain that information.

My grandfather died when I was 5, and I never got the chance to ask him about his military service. I think it's safe to say that it isn't possible to understand the civilian life of a veteran without understanding their military service. 

So, we wait; for answers to come, and privacy laws don't restrict those with the greatest right to know those stories. Because in a situation where I have no choice but to work without records, I can choose to proceed anyway with patience and determination. 

As genealogists, we always have that choice.