Friday, February 01, 2008

USS Colorado: Up Close and Personal

As I leave the US Navy in March after an almost-10 year career, the emotions I have run bittersweet.  My transition to active duty military to unemployed (yikes!) full-time graduate student has been a unique period of introspection.  I’ll certainly miss the close friendships that I’ve made, the common sense of selfless service among the men and women that I’ve sailed with, traveling Southeast Asia on the government dime, and having the best job in the world as a jet pilot on an aircraft carrier.  And I'll ALWAYS miss looking out over the water on a moonlit night as I sailed the Pacific.  On those nights, I tried to imagine what my predecessors thought while sailing these same waters during the Vietnam War, WWII, and the US Navy’s first forays to East Asia.  I’m sure we had many things in common.

Now at GW, I look forward with great excitement and a LITTLE anxiety about what the future holds for me.  But I have to say that our brief discussion last week on US Naval campaigns in Korea during the end of the 19th Century provoked my curiosity and took me back to my days at sea.  It made me wonder what those sailors on the USS Colorado were thinking when they ventured into the Han River on June 1, 1871.  Were they truly surprised by the Koreans' reaction? Who really shot first?  These questions and others compelled me to look a little further into this campaign.

I found these letters written by Capt. McLane Tilton, US Marine Corps.  Capt Tilton led the marine combat detachment from the decks of the USS Colorado to the shores of Kangwha Island, and these letters sent home to his wife Nannie were archived by the Naval Historical Center right here in DC.

Capt. Tilton’s letters provide us with a vivid and, at times, horrific description of US combat engagement with the “Coreans” in early June 1871.  His writings are a strange juxtaposition of demonization and appreciation.  On one hand, Capt Tilton was worried about the prospect of facing “10,000,000 savages”. (Ok, Capt Tilton. Maybe that was a little hyperbole there, but I get the point.)  On the other, he’s calls Korea “beautiful” and “everything is pretty and green”.  I also think it’s interesting that Capt Tilton noted the Koreans had no desire to communicate and in fact retreated when US forces initially approached the western shores. That should’ve been interpreted as cautionary indicators of a Korean defensive posture.  I mean, it seems to me the writing was on the wall. How else should the Koreans respond to US forces entering the river?  And I’m still not sure why the USS Colorado commander decided to go back into the river and attack the Korean forts in response to shots fired at the US detachment.  Sure, US forces gained approval to take surveys from lower-level diplomats, but the letters acknowledged the importance of getting this consent from top-level officials.  In my mind, the US commander assumed the risks when he accepted the approval from less than superior authorities.  Really, why would the Koreans apologize?  And besides, was Korea not a sovereign nation-state able to take defensive measures against an intruding force if necessary?  Hmmm…I guess imperialist powers weren’t really into that whole sovereignty thing. It made me think what would’ve happened if the roles were reversed.

Overall, I enjoyed reading these letters.  Whatever you may think of the cause of the war, Capt Tilton's letters capture the essence of being at sea for months on end, the violence of armed conflict, the love and longing for family, and the need to tell someone all about it.

To me, some things just never change.

1 comment:

Justin-B형 said...

Hey Ken!

well done it seems that the US military has never had much luck militarily ,strategically speaking, in Korea until Matt Ridgway.
There seems to be a tendency to underestimate the enemy's military prowess.

Im still reading the letters, I just wanted to drop a comment to you.

anyway I think your post was quite interesting.