The most bizarre things about the Korean War no one ever told you

The Korean War is the middle child of military conflicts. Sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War, it's often remembered for being forgotten. It started on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces led by Communist dictator Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea. The U.S. led an international effort to repel the Communists, and China provided reinforcements for North Korea. It was a war of historical firsts. Never before had the U.S. and China engaged each other in an actual war. It was also first time the U.S. Congress didn't formally declare war and the first conflict to include racially integrated U.S. units. A 1953 armistice stopped the fighting, but there was no peace treaty, which means the Korean War still hasn't ended technically.

The conflict permanently altered North Korea, which became an isolated, dystopian twilight zone governed by batty dictators. Current autocrat Kim Jong-un is so paranoid that he travels with a portable toilet so no one can analyze his poop. His father/predecessor, Kim Jong-il, claimed he didn't poop at all and bragged about impossible accomplishments. Yet their jarring oddness pales in comparison to the outlandish details of the conflict that shaped the Hermit Kingdom. Here are the most bizarre things nobody told you about America's forgotten war.

The psychotic spymaster who decided the war's outcome

Of all the major players in the forgotten war, Donald Nichols might be the one America tried hardest to forget. A seventh-grade dropout from an impoverished background, Nichols only joined the military because civilian life was so rough, per the Seattle Times. His knack for languages and complete lack of conscience helped him gain favor with South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee. Nichols attended torture sessions by South Korean police, according to historians, and even posed for a photo with a detached human head. Cold and calculating, he would make himself indispensable to U.S. and South Korean forces during the war.

Thanks to a North Korean defector with stolen military codebooks, Nichols had the means to decipher enemy communications and foil their operations. Rather than sharing that crucial info with intelligence agencies, he formed his own group of codebreakers, forcing the U.S. and South Korea to rely on him. He helped determine which targets to bomb and warned about planned North Korean attacks. Because of how important he was, Nichols literally got away with murder. When subordinates disagreed with him he shoved them out of airplanes and off of boats. He even had a shoot-out with his own agents. After the war the U.S. military got sick of Nichols and had him placed in a straitjacket and subjected to months of electroshock therapy.

When Tootsie Rolls saved the day

At first glance, Tootsie Rolls could easily be confused with gnome droppings. But if you need to patch up bullet holes in subzero temperatures, they're a godsend. Thanks to a ridiculous but fortuitous mix-up, Marines discovered that wacky fact amid the bitterest battle of the Korean War. As History detailed, in the early months of the war, North Korean forces were so overwhelmed that General Douglas MacArthur predicted the whole thing would be wrapped up by Christmas. Then Chinese troops unexpectedly entered the fray at North Korea's Chosin Reservoir, a region loathingly dubbed "frozen Chosin" by the Marines.

Instead of crushing North Korean Communists, the Marines found themselves cornered by 100,000 Chinese combatants in a mountainous region where temperatures reached as low as -25 degrees. So they embarked on a 70-mile retreat, or as the commanding officer called it, "advancing in another direction."  Bullet wounds froze in the perilous cold, and ice-cold corpses were used as sandbags. As ammunition dwindled, the troops requested an airdrop of 60mm mortar ammo, which Marines referred to by the codename "Tootsie Rolls." However, the radio operator mistakenly called in an urgent order for chocolate candy. The Marines figured out they could melt Tootsie Rolls in their mouths and form a kind of putty that would seal bullet-hole-ridden equipment as it froze. That MacGyver-like ingenuity allowed them to accomplish their mission and take out several Chinese divisions.

GIs said they fought a UFO before mysteriously falling ill

Before we dig into this, it's important to keep in mind that while UFOs are commonly assumed to be extraterrestrial spacecraft, the term "UFO" literally just refers to any flying object that an eyewitness didn't recognize. If you have no clue what a helicopter is and one flies by you, for you it counts as a UFO. But what counted as a UFO for GIs during the Korean War?

As History recounted, in 1951, troops stationed roughly 60 miles north of Seoul saw what resembled "a jack-o-lantern come wafting down across the mountain."  Eyewitnesses claimed the craft could hover and emitted an orange and later blue-green flashing light. It seemed immune to explosions, and attempts to down it with armor-piercing bullets caused the craft to move unpredictably. Before racing away, it unleashed waves of light that allegedly caused a "burning, tingling sensation." Three days later, everyone in the unit was too sick to walk.

The men were diagnosed with everyone's favorite wartime illness: dysentery. However, an ex-NASA scientist thought their symptoms were consistent with radiation poisoning. Whatever the case, the soldiers blamed the explosion-proof jack-o-lantern. Were the men the victims of a Soviet death ray as some suggested, or worse, a Soviet diarrhea ray? Perhaps stress made the troops hallucinate. If so, at least 42 witnesses had an eerily similar delusion. Or you can blame aliens. You know you want to.

A beer-drinking horse became a sergeant

It's not every day that a horse holds rank in a human hierarchy. (The Roman emperor Caligula allegedly made his horse a high-ranking government official, but that story might have been fabricated to make Caligula seem crazy.) However, America absolutely had an equine sergeant and her story is really crazy.

A packhorse for the Marine Corps, Sergeant Reckless (above) was named after the dangerous-to-handle recoilless rifles, dubbed "reckless" rifles, whose ammunition she carried. She is best known for her invaluable efforts during the 1953 Battle for Outpost Vegas, where fighting was so ferocious that one serviceman said it sounded like "twenty tornadoes tearing at a countryside." Reckless made 51 round trips across mountainous terrain and rice paddies to transport ammo. She also wore flak jackets and shielded Marines. In total, Reckless traveled over 35 miles and toted 8,800 pounds of ammunition.

Reckless wasn't just a workhorse; she was a cherished friend. She slept in the Marines' tents and had meals alongside them. Not your typical oat-muncher, she ate eggs, bacon, candy bars, blankets, and even poker chips. She was also known to drink beer, coffee, and Coca-Cola. Reckless was so popular and appreciated that when the military wanted to leave her behind, a Marine paid $1,200 of his own money to bring her to the U.S. In 1954, Reckless was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant twice.

The Korean flag war

George Carlin famously compared war to "a whole lot of men standing out in a field" and waving their pocket rockets at each other (metaphorically, of course) to compensate for insecurity about the size of their weapons. That would certainly explain why ceasefire talks during the Korean War got derailed by a fight over (literal) flagpole size.

Ceasefire negotiations started in 1951, and as the Atlantic reported, North Korea desperately wanted to look strong. During one session, North Korea's lead negotiator spent two hours and 11 minutes staring at a U.S. vice admiral and silently chain-smoking. The legs of the admiral's chair were also shortened to make the negotiator appear taller. North Korean General Lee Sang Cho let flies crawl over his face as a show of "iron self-control."  But all absurdity broke loose when the North Koreans noticed that the UN flag on the conference table was bigger than theirs.

Evidently feeling emasculated, North Korea brought out a bigger flag. Then South Korea whipped out an even bigger flag, triggering history's most Freudian conflict. According to the Independent, North and South Korea kept one-upping each other until neither nation's flags fit inside the conference room. The countries continued their flagpole fight in the demilitarized zone. Eventually, South Korea erected a 323-foot pole, and the North responded with 525-foot pole, which for a time was the tallest on Earth.

A tree almost sparked a second Korean War

Following the 1953 ceasefire, America and North Korea maintained a mostly bloodless animosity toward each other. However, in 1976, they verged on all-out war after a disagreement over a tree. Located in the demilitarized zone, the 40-foot poplar blocked a United Nations Command observation post from viewing the so-called "loneliest checkpoint in the world," according to the Atlantic. So U.S. Army Captain Art Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett attempted to trim the tree.

North Korea balked at the idea, and the infamously belligerent Lieutenant Pak Chul warned Captain Bonifas: "The branches that are cut will be of no use, just as you will be after you die." Bonifas continued trimming, so Pak commanded 30 North Koreans to kill him. Using crowbars, pipes, and axes snatched from nearby South Korean laborers, the assailants beat Bonifas and Barrett to death. The U.S. was incensed, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested attacking a North Korean barracks. President Ford opted for a ginormous show of force dubbed Operation Paul Bunyan.

American aircraft carriers entered Korean waters, and conventional and nuclear munitions were moved to bunkers. North Korea responded by assuming "full combat readiness" and conducting air-raid exercises. The ordeal ended with hundreds of heavily armed U.S. and South Korean troops, backed by helicopters and nuclear-capable aircraft, amassing in the DMZ to oversee the tree trimming while heavily armed North Koreans watched.

The missing sergeant forced to star in North Korean movies

During the 1960s, the DMZ (demilitarized zone) was sorely lacking in D. As the BBC described, the not-so-demilitarized zone was strewn with landmines, and battles between North and South Korean forces were commonplace. U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins (above) was assigned to help keep the nonexistent peace, but his mind was occupied by war, namely the Vietnam War, which he feared was his next destination. By 1965 the DMZ was at its most acrimonious, and Jenkins couldn't cope with his circumstances. He later recalled feeling like he would "cause other soldiers to be killed." In a panic he crossed into North Korea, which he hoped would send him to the Soviet Union to seek amnesty.

North Korea kept Jenkins all to itself. Held against his will, he was habitually tortured and forced to undergo self-criticism sessions. Also viewed as a useful propaganda tool, he was forced to star in North Korean movies. Eventually he married a Japanese nurse who had been kidnapped by the North Korean government. In 2002, Japan arranged for her release, and two years later Jenkins was allowed to leave. After turning himself in to U.S. military police, he was tried for desertion and sentenced to 30 days in prison. 

North Korea kidnapped more than 80,000 South Koreans

Kim Il-sung (above) was the granddaddy of North Korean insanity in that he was the country's first dictator, he was Kim Jong-un's grandfather, and he was insane. During the Korean War, he orchestrated the abduction of an estimated 84,000 South Koreans. To be clear, these weren't prisoners of war or deemed enemies in any way. Rather, as the New Yorker explained, Kim Il-sung longed to "compensate for the mass exodus" that occurred when Japan occupied the Korean peninsula and tried to assimilate Korean people into Japanese culture. After World War II, Japan was ousted, North and South Korea were formed, and the newly formed rivals competed to see which could establish itself as the "legitimate homeland" of the Korean people.

After the 1953 armistice, North Korea continued its forced repopulation project, primarily abducting South Korean fisherman. This went on for decades, and Reuters reported that South Korea scarcely acknowledged the kidnappings for fear of angering its ornery northern neighbor. Over time, other foreign nationals were targeted. Between 1977 and 1983, North Korea kidnapped somewhere between 20 and 100 Japanese citizens, often hauling them away from their homeland in sacks.

Prisoners were forced to train North Koreans to pass as foreigners for espionage operations or conduct spy missions themselves. U.S. Sergeant Charles Jenkins, who was trapped in North Korea for 39 years after attempting to seek asylum, claimed North Korea had a spy-breeding program that involved having prisoners produce interracial children with Koreans.

America's awkward apology to North Korea

Many people, politicians especially, despise apologizing. Admitting fault makes people feel weak and embarrassed, per Scientific American, and apologizing to someone is often seen as yielding control. However, in 1968, America had to swallow its pride and (sort of) apologize to North Korea.

Per NPR, North Korean ships attacked the USS Pueblo, a spy vessel pretending to conduct environmental research near North Korea. One crewman was killed, and the remaining 82 Americans were imprisoned and tortured for 11 months. To save his crew from execution, Lieutenant Commander Pete Bucher confessed to espionage. In a hilarious act of defiance, Bucher purposely mispronounced the word "paean" as "pee on" while reading his confession. So instead of expressing a "fervent desire" to praise (paean) North Korean officials, he said he wanted to urinate on them.

In addition to Bucher's declaration, North Korea demanded an apology from the U.S. government. It was a diplomatic pickle for President Johnson, who had tried and failed to intimidate North Korea into releasing the crewmen. Furious Americans called Johnson a coward for not using military force, but the Vietnam War was intensifying, and it was better to have wounded pride than more wounded soldiers. So an American negotiator signed an apology letter while verbally denying its validity. Nonetheless, "it was a hell of an embarrassment," and North Korea kept the captured ship as a trophy.

The U.S. kept threatening to nuke North Korea

North Korea is a pathological saber-rattler. Its track record of aggressive gestures includes firing missiles near and over Japan, sending troops to the DMZ, and threatening to bomb the bejesus out of America. The scary part is that North Korea possesses an estimated 20 to 60 nuclear weapons. The U.S. has tried to curb the country's nuclear ambitions through sanctions and condemnations, but it might be tough to persuade the Hermit Kingdom after the U.S. destroyed North Korea and threatened it with nukes for decades.

Most of the Korean War was fought under President Truman, who atomically bombed Japan during World War II. In 1950, he considered doing the same to North Korea, and according to Air and Space Magazine, he almost did. To show he meant business, Truman held a press conference to announce that he'd do anything to win, including nuking the enemy. He even ordered mock atomic bombing runs and authorized a general to use the nuclear option if he saw fit.

America didn't need nukes because it "dropped 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea," according to Newsweek, including 32,557 tons of napalm." Per the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, beginning in 1958, the U.S. "continuously" deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea for 33 years to deter the North. Fearing a U.S. invasion, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung began trying to build nukes in the 1980s.

The official U.S. death toll was way too high for decades

The Korean War had an enormous death toll. As many as 5 million people perished, and the Koreas lost about 10 percent of their civilian populations, according to History. Until 2000, the official U.S. death toll was listed as 54,246, a number literally etched in granite on the Korean War Veterans Memorial. That figure was entirely too high. We don't mean that morally or philosophically. We're talking about the gap between the stated number and what the evidence indicates. By that metric, the actual death toll was 36,516. In other words, the official tally was almost 50 percent too high for a half century.

How was it so wrong for so long? In a baffling clerical error that apparently went unnoticed, the death toll included fatalities from around the world, often from places as far away as Germany and the U.S., per the Washington Post. Despite the disparate locations, excluding the deaths proved controversial. Some Korean War veterans took felt it devalued the already overlooked sacrifices of those who fought in the Forgotten War.

An imaginary king might be the key to reunification

North Korea is the geopolitical equivalent of a fever dream. Where else will you find a head of state who tries to build credibility by announcing the discovery of a unicorn lair or who claims that when the previous leader died, the sky glowed and a snowstorm stopped? The place would be political Narnia if it weren't so brutally oppressive. Perhaps fittingly, a fantastical tale about a king who likely never existed could play a key role in formally ending the Korean War and reuniting the divided Koreas.  

Korean legend has it that the peninsula's first kingdom was founded by a dude named Dangun, whose father was the king of heaven and whose mother was a bear that transformed into a "beautiful woman" after spending 100 days in a cave avoiding sunlight. South Korean professor Jeong Young-Hun explained that "Dangun is a basis for Koreans to feel the necessity for pursuing harmony and unification" because he establishes a sense of shared origins and cultural oneness. That elusive reunion seemed a little more attainable in 2018 when North and South Korea's leaders met and visited the mythical birthplace of Dangun together.