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All Quiet on the DMZ: The History of the Cold War Didn’t Always Make History

March 29, 2016
by Glen Martin

We all have a certain subset of memories burned deep in our forebrains: images so vivid, so invested with emotion that the decades serve to sharpen rather than diminish their resolution. It could be a few mental frames from childhood: a tableau of mother and puppy on a vast expanse of lawn. Or a traumatic event: the onrush of ruby brake lights just before a collision. Such memories seem fixed in amber, impervious to time; richly detailed images that can be examined again and again from all aspects.

Dennis Klein harbors such a mental hologram. It’s about war—or at least, war avoided. He’s eating lunch at an open-air mess hall above the road leading to Freedom Bridge, a span crossing the Imjin River near the Korean Demilitarized Zone not far from the town of Paju. It’s January 23, 1968, and Klein is a second lieutenant with an engineering unit in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. As he eats, he sees a crowd of people moving toward the bridge. They’re dressed in the black-and-white livery standard for Korean secondary school students. They get closer, and he sees that they’re in their mid-teens; no adults accompany them. They’re marching in cadence, swinging their arms upward in unison at every fourth step, belting out slogans in rhythmic time. The Korean cook operating the mess translates for Klein:

To attack the Blue House is a grave insult!

This disrespectful act must be revenged!

There must be war to restore Korean honor!

Only total war can get our honor back!

Mighty and great are the Korean people!

It dawns on Klein that the kids are about to cross the bridge and launch themselves against the chain-link fence, concertina wire, and mine fields of the DMZ, with consequences that would resonate far beyond this mess hall.

Tensions were exceedingly high along the DMZ in early 1968. Beginning in 1966, gunfire across the zone along with periodic raids from North Korea had killed about two dozen Americans and wounded scores more. In April 1967, artillery was used by South Korean soldiers to repulse an incursion of about 100 North Korean troops. Two months later, a 2nd Infantry Division barracks was dynamited by North Korean infiltrators, and two South Korean trains were blown up. A few months after that, North Korean artillery batteries fired more than 50 rounds at a South Korean barracks, the first time since 1953 that North Korean artillery had been employed along the DMZ.

So it was not inconceivable that the North Koreans would react with massive artillery barrages, even a full-scale invasion, to the students’ actions. The balloon could go up. Nukes could explode. World War III, in other words, could commence.

And as the only officer in the immediate vicinity, Klein realizes the onus is on him; he has to do something. He thus finds himself in an analog of the Great Man Theory (the view that individuals with sufficient will and charisma can change the world)—call it the Little Man Theory. A junior field officer, halfway through chow, suddenly finds himself on the pivot point of world-changing events. Moreover, he is required by his commission to act, to launch himself into the flow of history

But what Klein saw and did and what history recorded are two different things.

Some additional backstory here: As noted, the march on Freedom Bridge was the boiling point for a geopolitical cauldron that had been at a parlous simmer for months. On January 17, 1968, a unit of 31 North Korean commandos had infiltrated the DMZ, sneaking past an observation post manned by soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. Their mission: to behead South Korean President (and military dictator) Park Chung-Hee. The rationale: North Korean leaders believed that assassinating Park would somehow compel the South Korean hoi polloi to overthrow their government, expel the U.S. military presence, and lead to a glorious unification of the Korean Peninsula.

The infiltrators wandered around for a couple of days, working south toward Seoul, and at one point encountering several laborers cutting wood. Rather than kill the workers, the soldiers attempted to indoctrinate them with the North Korean POV before moving on. The woodcutters reported the contact to the South Korean authorities.

The North Korean unit divided into multiple teams and entered Seoul on January 20, dressed in uniforms of the South Korean 26th Infantry Division. They approached the Blue House, the residence of the president, getting to within a thousand yards of the compound before they were stopped and a running gun battle ensued.

Two North Koreans were killed outright, with the remainder escaping. They attempted to get back across the DMZ, but 26 more were killed, 1 was captured, and 2 went missing. On the south side, 68 South Koreans were killed, including several civilians, as were 3 American GIs. Meanwhile, on January 23, North Korean patrol boats seized a U.S. naval intelligence ship, USS Pueblo, in international waters, killing 1 sailor. By the time the American military scrambled its aircraft, the Pueblo and her 82 crewmen were being held in the North Korean harbor of Wonsan.

In sum, the tensions between the two Koreas from 1966 to 1969 were so high that the period sometimes has been labeled the Second Korean War or the DMZ War.

Add to that what was going on in Vietnam: The Battle of Khe Sanh was launched on January 21, 1968. This 77-day siege by North Vietnam Army troops against a U.S. Marine garrison marked the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The campaign was widely viewed as the beginning of the end of the American effort in Vietnam; after Tet, enthusiasm for the Vietnam War waned among American pols and citizens alike.

Klein had been drafted in 1967. He had applied to Cal, but his acceptance was delayed, meaning he had no student deferment. (He received notice of his acceptance shortly after entering the Army. He later matriculated at UC Berkeley and earned an engineering degree.) He was accepted into Officer Candidate School; because he had worked as a road engineer in the Feather River canyon, he ultimately was sent to Korea as a second Lieutenant in the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, where he supervised road construction in the rugged terrain bordering the DMZ.

He was, he acknowledges, relieved to go to Korea. “I was lucky,” he says. “Like thousands of other guys, I could’ve ended up in Vietnam.”

Not that it was exactly soft duty in Korea. In 1967 and 1968, fire across the DMZ was commonplace. “Seven GIs were killed by gunfire in 1967 alone,” recalls Klein. “You were always aware of snipers and infiltrators.” The Blue House raid only deepened the sense of impending and catastrophic conflict, he says. And if things did fall apart, it was only too clear what that would mean to the few thousand men of the 2nd and 7th Infantry Divisions arrayed in defensive positions along the DMZ.

“Basically, there were 350,000 North Korean soldiers facing us on the other side of the zone,” he says. “We had no illusions about our odds.”

So on that January day, when he saw the students rushing toward the DMZ, Klein jumped in a jeep and raced toward Freedom Bridge to intercept them. By the time he got to the southern terminus of the bridge, the kids had started to overrun a cordon of half-tracks parked in front of the DMZ. Klein was the only officer present. The GIs manning .50 caliber machine guns mounted on the half-tracks seemed dumbfounded as the chanting students rushed past.

“I screamed at [the soldiers], ‘How could you let them get through?’” Klein recalls, “and they yelled back, ‘What are we supposed to do? Shoot them?’

Klein yelled at his men to grab the demonstrators by the arms and legs and toss them into the trucks…

“By the time I got to the north side of the bridge, they were starting to climb an anti-infiltration fence that had been installed a couple of months before. They were able to climb the chain link on the lower part, but were being stopped by a triple strand of concertina wire on top. I knew we had to do something to get them off there. There was a triple-tier minefield beyond the wire, and once they got in there and started blowing themselves up—well, we had to stop them.”

Various vehicles began arriving, and as the soldiers rushed up, Klein ordered them to pull the students from the fence. “As soon as the kids were dragged off the fence, they’d mill around a bit and start climbing again,” Klein remembers. “We needed a different plan.”

Among the vehicles pulled up to the wire were numerous “deuce-and-a-half” rigs—the two-and-one-half-ton trucks with high-sided cargo beds that were the workhorses of mobile infantry units during World War II and the Korean conflict. Klein yelled at his men to grab the demonstrators by the arms and legs and toss them into the trucks.

“The flying bodies acted like boxing gloves, knocking down the students who had already been thrown in the trucks, preventing them from escaping,” says Klein. “Once a truck was pretty full, I yelled at the driver to step on it, to go really fast so they couldn’t get out.”

After several minutes, that strategy seemed to work. The scene was chaos, with sweaty and cursing GIs in battle harness peeling screaming Korean adolescents in school uniforms off the fence and throwing them into the trucks. The kids were scratching and gouging the troops, Klein recalls, even trying to unsheathe the soldiers’ bayonets so they could cut themselves. But Klein could see progress; more students were going into the trucks than up the fence. The soldiers were comporting themselves perfectly, using no more force than necessary.

There was one hitch, though: Klein calls her the Alpha Girl.

“She was the one who was really leading the group, giving orders and direction. When things really started going our way, she suddenly gets down on her knees. She grabs a big rock and puts it in front of her, and then she grabs another rock and puts it on top of the first one.”

Like a significant percentage of the other people in the world in 1968, Klein had seen Hawaii, the 1966 film based on the eponymous book by James Michener. In one famous scene, “the Hawaiian chief grabs a big rock, puts another rock on top of it, and starts to slam his head down on them. Then the screen goes black,” Klein says. He quickly realized that Alpha Girl was going “to dash her brains out, give the demonstration its first martyr. So I screamed at the men: ‘GET THAT BITCH OFF THAT ROCK!’” Four soldiers leaped to comply, grabbing Alpha Girl before she could injure herself, and throwing her adroitly into a nearby truck.

Once Alpha Girl was hauled away, the demonstration began to lose momentum. The soldiers were able to corral the remaining students, get them into trucks, and ultimately transport them to a nearby station, where they boarded trains south to the city of Pusan.

After the students were dispatched, Klein and his men decompressed. He was proud of the soldiers under his command, but also deeply sympathetic toward the demonstrators.

“They were willing to sacrifice themselves for what they thought was a just cause,” he explains. “They wanted to die so their country could win. The soldiers saw it as a noble act, even though they had to do everything possible to prevent it. And we did have to prevent it. If those kids had died, it could’ve led to war.”

Back at his unit’s headquarters, Klein reported the incident in detail “and then we kind of waited around to see how it was covered in the press.

And that’s the thing. It wasn’t covered—not even by Stars and Stripes (the news service for the U.S. military). Later, I talked to a Stars and Stripes reporter and asked him what was going on. Everyone near the DMZ knew about the incident, knew what it meant. He basically said there was a blackout along the entire DMZ, that [commanding officers] didn’t want to ‘open a second front,’ given all that was going on in Vietnam. So it was like it never happened.”

Which raises a conundrum long posed by the historical record: Is it an accurate accounting of what occurred? Or is it what people in power want us to know? Further, the fog of war envelops more than active battlegrounds; it obscures entire fields of operations. Grunts often have no idea what’s going on with their commanding officers, and superior officers in rear units may know little about what’s really happening either on the front lines or at divisional headquarters.

And if a lone second lieutenant wages a battle that no one else acknowledges, you have to consider another existential question: Did it even happen, and if it did, can we trust the narrator’s version of events? Something clearly occurred near Freedom Bridge that day. But did war and peace, perhaps nuclear oblivion, really teeter on a handful of infantrymen pulling a few hundred squalling students off a fence? Or was the memory, no matter how intense, somehow distorted by time?

Hwasop Lim, the San Francisco correspondent for Yonhap News Agency, the largest news service in South Korea, is intrigued by Klein’s story and has investigated it. He searched news accounts of the time and tried to find students and soldiers who had been in the DMZ on the day of the incident. Sometime around that date, he says, an incident similar to the one described by Klein apparently occurred there.

“The newspapers covered it, but it was a protest by Christian seminary students,” says Lim. “They were older than high school students. It’s possible that the incident happened as Mr. Klein described it, but that it involved older seminary students, not high school kids. It’s a fact that Westerners often have difficulty determining the age of Asian people. They can confuse people in their 20s or even older for people in their teens.”

Lim thinks one of two things happened: There were two incidents, and the papers only covered the one involving the seminary students; or there was a single demonstration involving older students whom Klein mistakenly thought were in high school.

“If there were two incidents, the basic narratives were the same: Students were trying to climb the fence, and so on. But along with [the disparity in] the ages of the students, there were also some other differences. The newspaper accounts mention the presence of a senior officer at the officer—he was only a second lieutenant, and he maintains he was the only officer there. Eventually, I did find two witnesses to a DMZ demonstration from around that time, and their accounts generally matched the newspaper articles.”

“There was very bad stuff going on around the DMZ between 1966 and 1969, and it was at its absolute worst when Dennis was there,” Davino confirms. “It all could have gone deeply wrong very quickly, and if it had, it would’ve been unbelievably bloody.”

In the end, Lim reflects, “It’s really hard to say exactly what happened. At this time, for me, it’s a cold case. But it’s a fascinating incident. It deserves to be remembered, and I’ll follow any new leads.”

Mike Davino is a retired Army Colonel and former president of the 2nd Indianhead Division Association, a fraternal organization that promotes the interests of 2nd Infantry veterans and records the history of the division. He, too, has looked into events that occurred near the DMZ in early 1968.

“I have a Stars and Stripes article from February 23, 1968,” says Davino, “and it describes a big brawl involving 450 theological school students who had traveled 180 miles north to Freedom Bridge. It mentions some U.S. troops firing warning shots. I forwarded [the article] to Dennis, and he says that was some other incident, not the one he was involved in. That certainly could be the case, but I’m surprised that I haven’t found any records [of a second incident].”

But perhaps there’s a larger issue in play than historical accuracy. Whether it was one incident or two, says Davino, the men of the 2nd Infantry clearly performed their duties well, and perhaps prevented a catastrophic conflict between the two Koreas—something, unhappily, that could occur on the DMZ today, where American troops are still positioned and tensions are once again climbing.

“There was very bad stuff going on around the DMZ between 1966 and 1969, and it was at its absolute worst when Dennis was there,” Davino confirms. “It all could have gone deeply wrong very quickly, and if it had, it would’ve been unbelievably bloody.”

Klein is now a successful engineer living in Mill Valley. Thin and wiry, he is in his early 70s, although he looks younger. That’s due, perhaps, to his longtime avocation of running the Marin Headlands. (In 2013, he was in the news when he was rescued after tumbling off a trail during a run on Mount Tamalpais, an experience he wrote about for California Online.) He speaks rapidly and discursively, his face animated as he recalls specific events from his tour of duty at the DMZ almost 50 years ago.

Talking to him, an interlocutor has no doubt that whatever the details of the Freedom Bridge incident, Klein and his men were under immense daily stress. The record shows that many people died during the DMZ War. Anyone walking or driving near the wire knew that they could catch a sniper’s bullet, get shredded by an artillery shell, or encounter a hostile squad—or an invading division—of North Korean infantrymen at any time. In short, to paraphrase Davino, they knew that it could all go south, literally and figuratively, at any moment, and that they would be little more than mincemeat if it did.

Klein appreciates Davino’s analysis, emphasizing that he wants no personal recognition. He observes he was merely a draftee among a crowd of draftees, not a professional soldier seeking glory. But his fellow enlistees, he says, knew they had been entrusted with an important job and were determined to do it competently. “They were going to be the first ones to die if it ever came to total war,” he says. “But it wasn’t like Vietnam, where there was no clear mission, where people were completely disheartened.

“The men at the DMZ knew they had to hold the line. And they held it. That meant they were ready to fight and willing to die, but it also meant that they knew when to show restraint and compassion. And that’s what they did when those kids were climbing up the fence near Freedom Bridge.” 

Glen Martin is a frequent contributor to California.

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