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Prior to the outset of World War II, the “38th parallel” was a phrase that held no significance whatsoever in the geopolitical lexicon. All of this changed, however, following the surrender of Japanese forces in August 1945 and the subsequent end to the most horrific war in the history of humanity.
With American forces tasked with occupying southern Asia and their wartime allies, the Soviet Union, claiming the territory of northern Asia, a line of demarcation was needed to separate the two competing ideologies.
After much wrangling and international debate, in 1948, this border was placed at 38˚N, effectively cutting the Korean Peninsula in half – separating Communist North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) from the free-state of South Korea (Republic of Korea).
Unfortunately, the war-torn region saw very little peace in the days following the world war and was often plagued with cross-border raids and gunfire.
In June 1950, any semblance of peace was lost when the North Korean Army crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the sovereign territory of South Korea.
The military action sparked one of the first United Nations resolutions against an aggressing nation – a resolution which was ignored by the invading army.
In the days ahead, United Nations troops, comprised mainly of American forces, would be sent to the eastern Asia peninsula, intervening in a bloody civil war that in hindsight probably should have never been fought.
Sadly, 800 young men who left their West Virginia homes to fight on the other side of the globe never returned, fatalities of an international chess game being played between the ruling elite in Moscow and Washington.
These young men came from Parkersburg and Princeton, Morgantown and Matewan, Wheeling and Welch, and virtually all places in between. They were young boys, young West Virginia boys who died defending a piece of land some 6,902 miles from their local high schools and ice cream parlors.
Perhaps what is most disgusting about this three-year war which claimed the lives of 2.5 million civilians, and 178,426 allies is that it ended with virtually no significant gains or losses in territory for either side.
In 1953, an Armistice was signed and a ceasefire was agreed upon, with a provision to create a Demilitarized Zone between the feuding neighbors… which just so happens to cross the 38th parallel.
Though the snowcapped mountains and sandy beaches of the Asian peninsula probably seemed out of this world to the thousands of West Virginians sent to the international conflict, undoubtedly many of them were clueless to the fact that the 38th Parallel they heard so much about actually ran through their own home state, somewhere between Charleston and Beckley.
The story of the 38th Parallel is especially sad when you consider the story of Marine PFC John B. Elwell, of Fayetteville, West Virginia, who was killed on February 3, 1953.
The young Marine grew up roughly one mile from the notorious 38th Parallel, never knowing the haunting curse a simple geographic reference line near his own home would play in his ultimate death.
As we embark into the month of November and near Veteran’s Day, may we forever remember the forgotten soldiers of West Virginia who died defending an imaginary line that just so happened to run through their very state a half a world away.
The next time you head down the West Virginia Turnpike, as you’re getting your two dollars ready for the next toll booth, keep in mind just how fortunate you are to live on the 38th Parallel in West Virginia and remember the sacrifices your fellow Mountaineers made on this same northern latitude some 7,000 miles away.
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