The Jhoon Rhee Story

Part 3: A Country at War (1950 - 1953)

Rhee was barely settled at Dong Kook University when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. Instead of pursuing his studies and advancing his dream to teach Tae Kwon Do in America, Rhee found himself fleeing south with his nine-year-old brother, to be with their grandfather.

Rhee's grandfather

Jhoon Rhee's grandfather, Dr. Kun Jae Rhee (1881 - 1973).

Around July 4, only a few days before North Korean Communist troops passed through the area, Rhee and his brother reached their grandfather’s home, where they stayed for a month. Despite the danger, they then decided to head for their home in Suwon, because their mother was there alone.

Although only 90 miles away, the journey took three days, because Rhee and his brother had to travel on foot. They regularly had to hide from air attacks, but were helped along the way by friendly strangers who took them in and fed them.

Korean refugees

Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans fled south in mid-1950 after the North Korean army invaded.

Rhee and his brother reached their mother safely, but the reunion was brief. By August, Rhee had to go underground—literally. Since Rhee was 18 years old, if he were discovered staying with his mother, he would have been forced to register and would sooner or later have been drafted into the North Korean Army. So, for two months, Rhee lived in a cellar, until the Americans landed and pushed the Communist army north beyond Pyongyang. On September 28, 1950, Rhee emerged, ready to fight for his country alongside the Americans.

By November, Rhee had joined a unit of the U.S. Air Force as an interpreter, putting his English skills to use in a way he had never expected. Over the course of the next year, Rhee continued to work as an interpreter for both the Americans and the British, until he was drafted into the South Korean Army and began his service in the 101st Battalion.

Conditions in the Battalion were severe, in part because corruption was rampant—Rhee’s commanding officer, for instance, would keep most of the troops’ food and supplies for himself and his friends, and in order to sell on the black market.  When the Battalion was newly formed in Chulwon, near the front line, it was bitterly cold, but the troops lived in field tents with no heat and with only one blanket per person. Their meals consisted of three spoons of rice plus a couple of sips of salt water, and they were allowed to sleep no more than three or four hours a night.

Hoping for a transfer out of the Battalion, Rhee decided to apply to officer cadet training school. It was not an easy decision to make, despite his current harsh circumstances: the casualty rate in the cadet officer corps was over 70%. Rhee fully expected that, if he were accepted into the corps, he would not survive. Still, Rhee felt that anything would be better than the hunger and cold in the Battalion.

After Rhee was accepted into the training school, his family shared the belief that his death was imminent. To relieve their fears, Rhee lied and told them that one of the officers in the program planned to keep Rhee at the school as a Tae Kwon Do instructor after his cadet training was complete.

Having comforted his family, Rhee resigned himself to his fate as his training neared its end. Then, on July 27, 1953, with Rhee’s deployment only days away, the truce was declared. The War was over. All of the 250 cadets in Rhee’s class believed they had been spared certain death.

Rhee says it felt like a miracle. He was alive. And his dream was still alive, too. Maybe he really could teach Tae Kwon Do in America some day.

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