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June 22, 2000

Korea: Gallant allies: The Story of the Turkish Brigade

Among the virtually forgotten combatants in the "forgotten war" were the 25,000 Turkish soldiers who served in Korea.

Fighting in the U.N.'s first police action earned the conscript Turkish Brigade a reputation for extraordinary valor (at a cost of 3,277 casualties) and speeded admission of Turkey into NATO, said Fusun Turkmen of Istanbul's Galatasary University.

On a deeper level, she said, the Korean War furthered Turkey's "socio-psycho-historical quest for Western identity" — a quest that continues today as Turkey seeks membership in the European Union.

In the aftermath of World War II, Turkey's greatest foreign policy problem was the country's isolation, Turkmen said. "Drained by two massive wars — World War I and the ensuing war of independence — and in the process of building a young republic on the vestiges of the defunct Ottoman Empire, [Turkey] had refrained throughout World War II from being dragged into hostilities, especially since she had not been attacked this time."

After the war, the international community viewed Turkey as a neutral country. "That made her particularly vulnerable in the eyes of the Soviet Union…still eager to control the Black Sea straits," Turkmen said.

Threatened by Soviet demands to share in administering the strategic waterway, Turkey sought closer ties with the United States.

Truman administration officials, meanwhile, had concluded by January 1946 that the Soviets would attack Turkey unless faced with strong U.S. resistance, said Turkmen.

A symbolic gesture cemented the bond between Turkey and the United States, she recounted.

When Turkish Ambassador MŸnir Ertegin died in Washington in April 1946, President Truman dispatched the U.S. battleship Missouri to return his body to Turkey. "Reaction in Turkey was so ecstatic that since then, some experts refer to the Missouri episode as the beginning of the love affair between Turkey and the U.S.A.," Turkmen said.

With the declaration of the Truman Doctrine the following year, the United States began providing massive economic and military aid to Turkey and Greece.

Less than a month after Turkey's first democratically elected government took power, the Korean War broke out. In response to a U.N. plea for troops, the government sent a 5,000-man brigade — despite the risk of Soviet retaliation, and without demanding Turkey's eventual admission to NATO as a condition, Turkmen said.

Although they had never fought away from home before, Turkish troops entered the conflict with style, charging uphill with fixed bayonets to push back a Chinese advance at the Battle of Wavon on Nov. 28, 1950. For the next three days, the Turkish Brigade helped to hold off Chinese troops long enough for the U.S. Eighth Army to retreat safely. U.N. commanders would credit the Turks with saving the Eighth Army from destruction, Turkmen noted.

The Chicago Tribune reported the news under the headline, "Turks could be our best allies." A commentator for the Soviet TASS news agency icily addressed American troops: "This time, it was the Turks who saved you!"

Korean War veterans at last week's Pitt conference concurred: U.S. soldiers considered the Turks to be the most ferocious and dependable of America's allies in that war, they told Turkmen.

— Bruce Steele

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