The month of May, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. But war in the Pacific didn’t end until Emperor Hirohito’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces on Aug. 15, 1945. Two weeks later, the supreme commander for the Allied Forces in the Far East, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, signed the surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, officially ending the Pacific War, liberating all Japan’s colonies, including Korea.
Soon afterward, with President Harry Truman’s authorization, MacArthur established the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea in Seoul, to protect the southern part of Korea from Russians who had already entered the northern part weeks earlier.
Local retired Col. Anthony Petruzzi, now 92, was one of American officers who went to Korea on Sept. 8, 1945, and served in the Temporary U.S. Military Government in Korea until 1948.
In a recent conversation, Petruzzi revealed that, as a captain in the 7th Infantry Regiment, 7th Division, he made sure that all Japanese prisoners in the hands of American troops were safe from the angry Koreans who had returned from all over the Pacific where they had served Imperial Japan, wearing Japanese uniforms.
The U.S. Military Government in Korea controlled everything — border security, rice production, factories, markets and all public facilities. Riots erupted by those who returned to their homeland like war debris; they had nothing to claim as theirs and were hungry and jobless. To control the diseases such as dysentery, cholera and malaria brought-in by the conscripts and forced laborers, Americans sprayed DDT and other chemicals from low-flying airplanes daily, creating eerie man-made fog.
In August 1948, the U.S. military government in Korea ended, and most of the Americans who had served in the military government were sent to Hawaii, but with North Korea’s invasion of the South in late June 1950, they were called back to the Far East, namely to Occupied Japan, where most of the Americans were stationed during the Korean War. And it was here in Japan, where MacArthur masterminded the Inchon landing, one of the most successful amphibious landings in American history, in which the 74,000 U.N. troops turned the losing war to a winning one overnight, for a short time.
Petruzzi still remembers Sept. 15, 1950, quite clearly even after 65 years. He and his men were aboard one of 260 landing ship tanks at the early hour of that cloudy September morning, watching the U.S. Navy pilots bombarding the shore in preparation for the troops to land. Finally, around noon, the order to take the beach came, and they approached their target. To their surprise, there was no resistance from the communists as they landed.
When asked how excited he was about the easy landing, the retired colonel said, “All we could think about was food, real food. For three days, we only had canned food. And the sea had been so choppy that most of us were seasick. But without having the time to rest, orders came to advance to Seoul. Seoul is only about 20 miles away from Inchon, but it took us about ten days to take the capital, because the retreating communists kept lurking about, shooting at us.”
When the capital was declared free of the communists, the American troops created an air of festivity as MacArthur escorted South Korea’s 74-year-old president Syngman Rhee in an open car to the presidential seat in the National Assembly Hall, while the marching bands played the American military hymns in the presence of tearful spectators.
Within days, Petruzzi found himself and his men in the North, shivering in their summer uniforms, in the freezing North Korean October weather, not knowing that 120,000 Chinese troops would ambush 25,000 U.N. troops within days and that nearly half of them would perish. Retreating through the ice-covered mountain pass in early December on military trucks was dreadful after losing so many battle comrades.
The following year, in April, MacArthur was removed as commander for miscalculating the Chinese involvement in the war and was sent home.
The peace talks between the Chinese leaders and American delegates began soon afterward. Petruzzi, then a major, served another year, not returning home until April 1952.
What was it like being home when the war still went on in Korea?
“It was awful,” the retired colonel said. “My mind was still in Korea, fighting. My wife often woke me in the middle of the night, saying, ‘Tony, wake up! You’re not in Korea anymore!’ I lost 32 men from my regiment in Korea. How could I not have nightmares about the evil that could have swallowed me, too? I still think about the guys we lost in Korea.”
Petruzzi served in three more wars after the Korean War — the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the Iraqi War.