The 38th Parallel and West Virginia

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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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6 COMMENTS

  1. A little background on one of those 800 WV. boys. Delbert Eugene Mulinex was born 10 Sep 1930 and died 13 Sep 1950. He’d been twenty years old for just three days. The day of his death was also his little sisters ninth birthday. He was the eldest child of Everett Carl and Roxie (Fordyce) Mulinex. He loved to cook and had worked in the kitchen of the Chancellor Hotel in Parkersburg. He was also a bit of a clothes horse and spent most of his earnings on new clothes. The day he joined the Army he ran into a high school friend who was on his way to join the Navy. He convinced his friend to join the Army with him and they were both sent to Georgia for boot camp. The first time they went home on leave he introduced his friend to his sister. On the long bus ride back to GA. his friend didn’t want to talk about anything except the sister. On 3 Jan 1950 the friend became his brother-in-law. I’ve posted several pictures of him on my Davis-Mulinex Tree on Ancestry.com

    • Thank you for sharing this heartwarming and heartbreaking story… and for doing your part to keep this American veteran’s memory alive.

  2. My brother,William Basel Sargentwas in the Army was eighteen when he was killed in the War World11 He was a mail carrier on a Motercycle he had been in a Fox hole for three months & when came out & got on his bike he was killed on Anglo Beach Head. He was the son of John & IDA Sargent Marianna,W.Vs. Dad & Mom were from Mill Creek west Virginia near Brenton

  3. My Uncle O. E. Michael, Jr. ( Junior Michael as he preferred to be called) was one of those who died in this war. He was from Marie, WV. That is near Forest Hill in Summers County.
    In on of the last letters he wrote home he said he was saving all his money to buy a car when he got home. That was his dream to have a car. Sadly my uncle never got that chance. He was killed about 2 months before the end of the war.

  4. Wonderful article that taught me something of the 38th of which I was unaware.
    Three of my brothers served in that war and miraculously all returned home physically unscathed. Home was Monterville, WV.

  5. John Bob Elwell was my brother-in-law. He was killed in Korea February 3, 1953. His only brother, my husband, D.D. Elwell, passed away July 28, 2013. There was a remarkable article in the Leatherneck magazine in 2003–fifty years after the fact–which told of John Bob’s bravery in the Battle of Ungkok where he died. A friend came by my in-law’s home and our home in Danville, Virginia 30 years later and told of his love and respect for John Bob and their experience the night before he died. He also described him as a “sneaky evangelist” who witnessed of his faith in Jesus Christ to men while he cut their hair. He led this man to the Lord. Memories are wonderful and these two brothers, John Bob and D.D., are now celebrating together in the presence of their Lord and many who had gone on before in Heaven.

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