A long and wordy post, mostly for me as a record of the reading I have been doing around the Korean War.
For a war that is so often labelled as forgotten, there is a surprising number of books. Many of which seem to be called The Korean War. Wedged as it is between the second world war and Vietnam it is understandable that it often appears lower in understanding and awareness of people in the US, UK and Australia. Among gamers this strapline is misplaced. However, it is a complex conflict, occurring in a time of enormous change in politics, culture, and technology, so a certain amount of confusion and misunderstanding is not surprising.
Perspectives and memories of the Korean war vary widely (in this it is not unique). The war is not forgotten in Korea (North or South). Indeed, in the North in particular, it is not even over. Japan, officially at least, has the usual myopia over its role and actions in the early to mid-twentieth century. I think China, who in some ways should know better given the interaction with their neighbour over many years, has its usual understanding of the facts subsumed to the perceived needs of the ruling party.
A useful antidote to perception bias is to read widely, although my reading has still been skewed to the Australian experience. Nearly all of my books have been borrowed from the wonderful Goldfields Library. How ace are libraries?
TLDR; Where to start and don’t want to read 15 books? For gamers, the Osprey Men-At-Arms is probably the quickest overview if you want a little more than Bolt Action supplement. For a comprehensive military overview, either Hastings (more military) or Cummins (more politics) are the place to start. Both are good, but you probably only need to read one. From there, it will really depend on your interests. Probably the best book I read, the one that fired my imagination the most, was Scorched Earth, Black Snow. Although it focuses on Commonwealth units in 1950, I think even US readers will find this engaging and evocative.
Korean War Histories
The Korean War, Max Hastings (1987). By weight, Hastings wins. Lots of other authors refer to Hastings, and with some reason as it is a comprehensive overview of the war. Its main limitation (if the size doesn’t daunt you) is it is a very western view, with mostly US and UK voices. This is in part because of the material available at the time (it was first published in 1987). With this caveat, Hastings is a successful military history.
The Korean War: a history, Bruce Cummins (2010). I don’t know if Cummins and Hastings get along, but Cummins doesn’t like Hastings’ book. This alone makes this history worth reading. The disputes between the two are modest, residing in interpretation or emphasis rather than the narrative of events. Cummins has the advantage of access to additional scholarship and source material since Hastings published. He also frames the hot war of 50 to 53 in the longer history of the Korean Peninsula, which helps understand how it this war did not really erupt from nowhere, even if Korea was not well known in the West.
Brothers at War: the unending conflict in Korea, Shelia Miyoshi Jager (2013). A comprehensive history of the Korean struggle, written using the widest range of voices of any of the books I have read on this topic, including Chinese sources. Those looking for details on particular battles will need to look elsewhere (but plenty of material is available, e.g. Hastings or works on specific battles or units). However, those looking to understand the origins and ongoing repercussions of the Korean War should read Miyoshi Jager.
The Korean War 1950-53: Osprey Men-at-Arms, Nigel Thomas and Peter Abbott (1986). The usual, useful overview of the conflict, along with photos and references for painting.
Australian Experience in Korea
Scorched earth, black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, Andrew Salmon (2011). Scorched earth, black snow zooms in on not just the first year of the war, but the experiences of the British and Australian battalions during that year. This tighter focus compared with the grander histories leaves plenty of room to bring lots of colour and detail on the battles, individuals and locations involved.
The Korean War: Australia in the giant’s playground (2010), Cameron Forbes. This book focuses on Australia’s involvement in Korea, with insight into Australia at the time as well as placing the role of Australian forces in the wider struggle. Forbes quotes many documents from the time, letters, newspapers and reports that helps bring the history to life. It includes material on the air force and navy contributions.
A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53, Richard Trembath (2005). Dry but extensive survey of the Australian experience in Korea, includes many quotes from the time.
The Battle of Maryang San: Australian Army Campaign Series; these are great a series, researched and produced by the Army History Unit. It is well worth checking if the campaign or theater you’re interested in is covered by this series. This Korean contribution is no different.
The Last Call of the Bugle, Jack Gallaway (1994). Gallaway is one of the books frequently quoted in the sources of more recent books on Australians in Korea. It is worth reading for an insight into those who fought. Some of the language is dated but it is a classic of the genre.
Wild Knights in No-Man’s Land: The Korean War recalled by an Australian Infantry Officer, Bruce Matthews (2004). The memoire of a New Zealand reservist who volunteered in the Australian Army to head to Korea. I’m not convinced that Matthews is always accurate on events he is not directly involved in, but this is fascinating for focusing on the late stage of the war just before the armistice. By this time the battlefield was more static, though still deadly, occurring in a series of trenches and dugouts, with fierce night-time encounters in no-man’s land.
Mates, Mortars and Minefields: Korea, Ernie R. Holden (2006). Another late war memoire, where Holden deployed with 2RAR in 1953. This work is a wonderfully quirky, self-published affair. Worth the read if you can track down a copy from your library.
Royal Australian Air Force in Korea
Across the Parallel: Australian 77th Squadron with the USA Air Force in Korea, George Odgers (1952). This book is remarkable for when it was published, 1952, while the war was still on. Odgers was writing the official RAAF history of the second world war when he asked to go to Korea and report on 77 Squadron there. As well as a fascinating story from a part of the war sometimes overlooked, written as it was at the time, it is a bit of peek into values at the time around race, gender and politics.
A unique flight: the historic aircraft collection of the Australian War Memorial, Michael V Nelmes (2008). Includes a chapter on the Mustangs and Meteors used by 77th Squadron RAAF in Korea.
Indigenous Australian Involvement
Two books not directly related to the Korean War but a fascinating reminder that there is no single soldiers experience. Both have sections on the Korean War, including brief biographies of Captain Reg Saunders who was deployed with 3RAR (and with 2/7th Battalion in WW2).
Serving our Country: Indigenous Australians, War, Defence and Citizenship, ed. Beaumont & Cadzow.
Defending Country, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Military Service Since 1945, Riseman and Trembath.
See you in the stacks!