Korean War


Although active hostilities during the Korean War lasted for little more than three years (1950-53), the conflict had a lasting impact on the Philadelphia area. The war provided a boost for the shipbuilding industry on both sides of the Delaware River, and military bases played a major role in preparing soldiers and supplies for deployment. The sizable human toll in southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware, however, helped to encourage an anti-war movement in Philadelphia and attempts by students to circumvent the draft. In the aftermath, fatalities also motivated monuments to local citizens who served in the Korean War.

A black and white photograph of men standing in formation in the Schuylkill Arsenal
The Korean War saw men across the greater Philadelphia region drafted into military service. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

The Korean War resulted from conflict that followed the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II into two political units, north (supported by communist Soviet Union and China) and south (backed by the United States). During the late 1940s, at the same time that similar ideological conflicts led to the “Iron Curtain” dividing Europe, these divisions as well as the Chinese Civil War fostered the advent of the Cold War in East Asia. The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean military invaded South Korea, and the internal conflict became international in the fall of 1950 after the United States persuaded the United Nations to send troops to stop the spread of communism by defending the South. While American public opinion supported the Korean War during the early months of the conflict, by January 1951 as the Chinese and North Koreans captured the southern capital, Seoul, for the second time, nearly half of those polled opposed American involvement, and support never fully rebounded.

A black and white photograph of the USS Norfolk launching at the New York Shipbuilding Company of Camden New Jersey
Local shipyards including the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden, shown here, and the Philadelphia Navy Yard joined the Korean War effort, building and repairing navy vessels. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

For Philadelphia and the surrounding region, the onset of the Korean War brought about a spike in local employment. The Philadelphia Navy Yard experienced a temporary upsurge of 3,700 new jobs by the end of 1951, which led to a total workforce of more than 12,500 people. Primarily preparing United Nations ships for service in the Pacific Ocean, Navy Yard workers also modified seaplanes and submarines from World War II with modern technologies. The return of vessels from the front kept Navy Yard workers employed through the mid-1950s. The New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden experienced a similar surge in employment for constructing new ships and converting existing vessels.

Military bases in New Jersey, Delaware, and eastern Pennsylvania also played a major role in the Korean War. Soldiers from across the northeastern United States reported to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training. During the first two years of the Korean War, jet fighter squadrons trained for combat at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, which also became the location for Air Mobility Command support services and strategic aerial defense of Washington, D.C. North of Philadelphia, the United States Naval Air Station at Willow Grove was home to the 111th Attack Wing of the Air National Guard, which trained on bombers such as the B-29 Superfortress before being assigned to the Strategic Air Command and deployed to Korea. The Philadelphia region also felt the human toll of the war. More than six hundred deaths in the war, over one-fourth the total for Pennsylvania, came from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties. In addition, forty-three Delawareans and nearly eight hundred New Jerseyans died in Korea.

The region’s sizable local sacrifice, along with the presence of a socialist community that had supported Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace (1888-1965) for president in 1948, helps to explain why Philadelphia became one of the centers of organized protest against the Korean War. The protest movement also drew strength from the longstanding local influence of Quakers and other pacifist denominations, such as the Mennonites, as well as from the large number of universities in the area. Throughout the Korean War the Philadelphia-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) counseled young people about their religious rights under the Selective Service System to avoid active combat, a protection not available for politically motivated pacifism. In order to be able to choose their branch of service, such as the Navy or Air Force rather than the Army, many Philadelphia-area college students volunteered to serve in the Korean War rather than wait to be drafted.

Doylestown native James Michener (1907-1997), who covered the war for The Saturday Evening Post, was one of the first people to use the term “Forgotten War” because he believed that by the latter half of the conflict the American public was wholly ignoring Korea. Although armistice negotiations to end the Korean conflict began in mid-1951, they took two years to conclude in part due to disagreements over the repatriation of prisoners of war who claimed that they did not wish to return to the Chinese or North Korean militaries. The war formally ceased on July 27, 1953, with the signing of an armistice ending active hostilities, but no permanent peace treaty was ever negotiated.

a color photograph of the Korean War Museum at Penn's Landing
Philadelphia’s Korean War monument was dedicated in 2002 near Penn’s Landing. (Photograph by Levi Fox)

Local monuments dedicated to the deceased soldiers of the Korean War dot the landscape of southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware. The names of all Delawareans and New Jerseyans who died fighting in Korea are engraved on a wall in New Castle, Delaware, at the Delaware Memorial Bridge Park, dedicated in 1956. Monuments in Coatesville, Doylestown, and Philadelphia all remind residents and visitors of the sacrifices made during the Korean War. The Philadelphia Korean War Memorial at Penn’s Landing, dedicated in 2002, included four pillars containing the names of the war dead from the counties surrounding Philadelphia listed by year and two side walls with images including children, grandparents, nurses, and ministers as well as scenes of combat. Local memorials in southern New Jersey, the New Jersey State Korean War Veterans Memorial in Atlantic City, and museums at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware similarly provided platforms for remembering the lasting impacts of the Korean War on Greater Philadelphia.

Levi Fox is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public History at Temple University and a former Allan F. Davis fellow at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. Fox is also a blogger for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) and teaches courses at Temple, Rutgers, and Stockton Universities. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Drafted Men at Schuylkill Arsenal

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Just weeks after the Korean War began, men from Philadelphia were called to service under the Selective Service Act. This act made all male citizens of the United States between the ages of 19 and 26 eligible to be drafted for twenty-one months of service. The program was expanded in 1951, lowering the minimum age to 18½ and extending the service requirement to twenty-four months. This July 1950 photograph shows the first group of drafted men reporting to the Schuylkill Arsenal in the Grays Ferry neighborhood of Philadelphia for service duty.

Philadelphia's traditionally pacifist religious sects, like Quakers and Mennonites, were subject to the draft despite their religious objection to serving in combatant roles. Throughout the Korean War the Philadelphia-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), under Iowa-born Executive Secretary Lyle Tatum, worked to counsel young people about their religious rights under the Selective Service System to avoid active combat, as well as counseling that politically motivated pacifism was not similarly protected.

North and South Korea Divided

Library of Congress

The Korean conflict had its roots in 1945, when the Japanese occupation of Korea was ended and the Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th Parallel by the Allied powers. South Korea was occupied by the United States under General Douglas A. MacArthur, while North Korea fell under the influence of the Soviet Union. The occupation, as well as North Korea's proximity to communist China, sparked a communist revolution in North Korea. Though both occupying Western forces ended their occupation of Korea by 1948, the deep political rift that emerged during this era remained. The dispute came to arms in June 1950 when North Korean forces backed by the Soviet Union invaded South Korea. United States forces intervened on behalf of South Korea. After a year, the war came to a stalemate that lasted until 1953, when an armistice was signed. No resolution to the political conflict was reached and the two Koreas have not reunified. In total, 610 Servicemen from Philadelphia and the surrounding Pennsylvania counties were killed in the conflict.

New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The war effort provided employment for thousands of local residents. Philadelphia’s long history of shipbuilding— dating to the 1640s— was furthered when the Philadelphia Naval Yard was established in 1801 as a repair yard, then was pressed into constructing new war vessels during the War of 1812. At its peak during World War II, the yard employed almost 47,000 people in the construction of battleships, aircraft carriers, and escort vessels. Employment slumped immediately after World War II, but the Korean War created 3,700 temporary jobs by the end of 1951.

Across the Delaware River, Camden's New York Shipbuilding Corporation also joined the war effort in 1950. The shipyard had at first been destined for Staten Island, New York, but difficulties purchasing a suitable tract of land diverted the project to Camden's waterfront, where it opened in 1899. By 1920, it was the largest shipbuilding operation in the United States and at its peak during World War II, New York Ship employed over 30,000 men and produced nearly two hundred vessels for the U.S. and other Allied Forces. The yard is shown here in December 1951 during the launch of the destroyer USS Norfolk. New York Ship continued to contract with the U.S. Navy until the company closed in 1967.

Shipping Blood to Korea, Philadelphia International Airport

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Philadelphia International Airport served as a port for emergency supplies during the Korean War. This 1950 photograph shows the first Red Cross shipment of blood being loaded onto a United Airlines jet at the airport by servicemen and volunteers from Philadelphia, Chicago, and Herrington, Kansas. The airport also served as a base for repairing and re-equipping military planes after the war ended.

Presidential Candidate Henry A. Wallace

Library of Congress

While the Korean War was initially popular with the public, attitudes toward the war soured in the Philadelphia area as the war reached a stalemate. One cause for this was the city’s sizable socialist population, which supported Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 presidential election. Wallace was appointed secretary of agriculture by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 and served as Roosevelt's vice president during his third term. His outspoken and contentious personality led the Democratic Party to drop him from its 1944 lineup. His replacement, Harry Truman, became president upon Roosevelt's death in January 1945.

Wallace was vocal in his opposition to Truman's policies, particularly those regarding communism. While denying that he, himself, was a communist, Wallace refused to vilify his communist supporters. In 1948, he ran for president on a Progressive Party ticket and earned the support of Philadelphia's socialist minority. Though highly critical of Truman's Cold War militarization, Wallace spoke in support of U.S. intervention in Korea, stirring the ire of the Progressive Party and Philadelphia's socialist minority. Wallace retired from political life shortly thereafter.

Brothers in Arms

Private collection

Entire families in the Philadelphia area were affected by the conflict in Korea. The Bracale family of Penns Grove, Salem County, New Jersey saw all three of their sons serve in Korea. Twin brothers Tony (left) and Carmine (right) enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, the only branch of the service that did not separate siblings at the time. They served in the 58th Fighter-Bomber Group. Elder brother Joe (center) was drafted into the U.S. Army weeks later, serving in the Army Corps of Engineers in Pusan. In July 1953, all three Bracale brothers were united on a U.S. military base in the South Korean city of Taegu, where this photo was taken. Days later, on one of the last major actions of the Korean War, the 58th Fighter-Bomber Group attacked a dam near Sunan Airfield in Pyongyang, North Korea, inundating the airfield. The three Bracale brothers returned home safely from Korea, but not all were so lucky. Sixteen servicemen from rural Salem County, New Jersey, were killed in the conflict.

Korean War Memorial at Penn's Landing

The Philadelphia area is home to several monuments memorializing those who fought and lost their lives in the Korean War. The earliest of these is at the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Castle, Delaware, just south of Wilmington on the Delaware River. The bridge was dedicated in 1955 to the nearly 15,000 Delaware and New Jersey residents killed in World War II and the Korean War. A monument to Delaware's Korean War veterans was erected at the site in 2003.

Philadelphia dedicated its own Korean War monument, shown here, in 2002. Erected near Penn’s Landing, between a Vietnam War Memorial and a Monument to Irish Immigrants, the Philadelphia Korea War Memorial lists the names of all those from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties as well as those from the city who died in Korea. The memorial, located at what is called 38th Parallel Plaza, also includes images of the war, maps and flags, and a narrative that divides the conflict into four stages. Korean War monuments also stand in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Coatesville and Doylestown in Pennsylvania. (Photograph by Levi Fox for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Memorial Day at Korean War Memorial

Visitors to the Korean War Memorial at Penn's Landing inspect the inscriptions on the monuments before gathering for an official tribute ceremony on Memorial Day, 2015. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

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Related Reading

Clark, Joseph and Dennis Clark. “Rally and Relapse: 1946-68.” In Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, edited by Russell Weigley. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982.

Conn, Steven. Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Cumings, Bruce. The Korean War: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2011.

Gillette, Howard Jr. Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Labovitz, Sherman. Being Red In Philadelphia: A Memoir of the McCarthy Era. Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1998.

Sugrue, Thomas. Sweet Land Of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008.

Weintraub, Stanley. War in the Wards: Korea’s Unknown Battle in a Prisoner of War Camp. San Francisco: Presidio Press, 1978.

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