The Korean War is often called "The Forgotten War”, and aside from the hit TV show M*A*S*H (actually a disguised parody of the Vietnam War), few Americans today know very much about it. In June 1950, North Korean Communists crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea. The United States and many other nations responded by committing troops and support personnel, including women, to repel this incursion. When General Douglas MacArthur landed at Inchon, his forces were augmented by 13 female nurses of the 1st MASH and 4th Field Hospital Units, and by the end of the year over 200 Army Nurse Corps members were posted in Korea.
During the war 120,000 women ultimately served, acting in a variety of roles. While some 7,000 of them worked as nurses at MASH units (which were not the ‘fun’ assignments that the TV show portrayed them as being by any means), others were stationed aboard hospital ships, in air evacuation units and in other support units in and near Korea (such as in Japan). Unfortunately, like the war itself, many of these women returned to civilian life forgotten, and un-thanked. As Winston Churchill aptly put it: “In time of danger and not before, Women were added to the corps. With the danger over and all well righted, War is forgotten and the women slighted.”
South Korean women also joined in the defense of their nation. In addition to the usual support roles, that also served as military surgeons, dentists and nurses due to the extreme shortage of available males to fulfill these functions.
In North Korea, women also played an important part in what their side called the “Fatherland Liberation War”. In the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, women were completely integrated into the military and they not only provided traditional support services like their capitalist sisters, but also reportedly fought on the front lines as conventional soldiers. They also served in guerrilla units composed of South Koreans who supported the communist cause. This was a phenomenon that the United States and its allies would confront on an even greater scale in the later war in Vietnam. Oftentimes, tfemale guerillas would disguise themselves as refugees in order to obtain valuable intelligence information. In addition these fighters also committed acts of sabotage and engaged in hit-and-run operations inside of South Korea right alongside their male counterparts.
(Image, from left to right: Captain Lillian Kinkela Keil, a real MASH unit, Female Communist Soldier, Colonel Ruby Bradley)
Spotlight: Captain Lillian Kinkela Keil
Having served in World War 2 helping to evacuate wounded soldiers, Keil reentered military service when the Korean War broke out. She was the inspiration for the 1953 movie “Flight Nurse” and held numerous decorations for her service both in the Second World War (holding the distinction of being the most decorated female in that war) and Korea. These included European Theater of Operations with Four Battle Stars; The Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters; The Presidential Unit Citation with One Oak Leaf Cluster; The Korean Service Medal with Seven Battle Stars; The American Campaign Medal; The United Defense Medal; and Presidential Citation, Republic of Korea. She died at the age of 88.
Spotlight: Col. Ruby Bradley
Bradley is known as the most decorated woman in US Military. She received 34 medals and citations of bravery for her military service Her awards included Legion of Merit Medals, Bronze Stars, Presidential Emblems, WWII Victory Medal, U.N. Service Medal, and Florence Nightingale Medal. After her service in WW2, she returned to the battlefield as chief nurse of the 171st Evacuation Hospital during the Korean War. Then in 1951, Bradley became chief nurse for the Eight Army, supervising 500 Army Nurses all over Korea. There, she faced a number of near-death situations while ensuring the sick and wounded were safe. In one case, when surrounded by 100,000 Chinese soldiers, Ruby Bradley refused to leave her post and helped evacuate the wounded. She jumped aboard a plane at the very last minute—and right as a shell destroyed the ambulance she had been working in. Col. Bradley’s military service lasted three decades, and she retired in 1963.
Women in the Korean War:
Communist Forces and Guerilla Units:
Col. Ruby Bradley:
Captain Lillian Kinkela Keil: