From Inchon to the Chinese Border
From Inchon to the Chinese Border
Almost as soon as the United States joined the fighting in Korea in mid-1950, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), commander of the United Nations (UN) forces in Korea, had developed a plan for an amphibious attack, using land, sea, and air forces. MacArthur's plan was simple. While the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) was using most of its forces to drive the South Korean (ROK) and UN troops south, a separate UN force would enter the country to the north at the rear of the enemy, coming in from the sea and strongly backed by air and naval support. Once troops had entered, the UN troops holding the Pusan Perimeter could break out and drive north to meet up with the new offensive. (The area called the Pusan Perimeter was bordered by the Naktong River on the west, the Sea of Japan on the east, mountains at the north, and the Korean Strait at the south. See Chapter 6.) The city of Inchon, the port nearest the South Korean capital of Seoul, was MacArthur's choice site for this amphibious attack. Unfortunately, Inchon had very unfavorable naval conditions, with dangerous tides and weather and enemy-held islands surrounding it. The poor conditions gave MacArthur the edge he wanted. According to him, no one would suspect the UN forces to strike at Inchon precisely because of these dangers.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff had growing concerns about MacArthur's ability to stay within his realm of authority. (Cre ated in 1949, the Joint Chiefs of Staff is an agency within the Department of Defense serving to advise the president and the secretary of defense on matters of war.) In July 1950, on hear ing a rumor that the Communist Chinese Army (the People's Liberation Army or PLA) was about to attack Taiwan (formerly Formosa), the Joint Chiefs had authorized MacArthur to go to Taiwan to survey the situation. (Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong [Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976] had driven the American-backed Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek [1887–1975] and his forces to the island of Taiwan in October 1949 following a bloody civil war [see Chapter 3].) When he got there on July 31, although he found nothing to support the rumor, MacArthur staged a ceremonious two-day visit with Chiang that made it appear to the world that there was a U.S. alliance with the Nationalists on Taiwan. Since President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) had announced a hands-off policy in China, MacArthur's display of alliance with Chiang was highly inappropriate. Later in August, in a message he provided to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, MacArthur again emphasized Tai wan's importance to the United States—as he had done before—but added a strong paragraph that was insulting to President Truman and probably very threatening to the Chi nese. Offhandedly condemning the ignorance of those people
(Truman and his administration) who were attempting to keep peace with the Communist Chinese, MacArthur made it clear that he believed the United States should set up a military base in Taiwan and use its position there to keep the Asian communist countries in line.
Representatives from the Joint Chiefs had met with MacArthur in Tokyo, Japan, in July to address these policy issues. MacArthur was, as always, impressive and clear about his intentions. During the course of the meeting he announced that his intentions were to destroy the North Korean forces and to possibly occupy all of North Korea. Nowhere in any policy statement had the Truman administration ever suggested that it intended to dismantle the North Korean government. Yet the Joint Chiefs did not contradict the general.
Later when the U.S. diplomat Averell Harriman (1891–1986) and a group of Washington military and political officials went to Tokyo to see MacArthur, he was quite convincing
about his Inchon plan, and many came back in favor of it. Truman himself, although annoyed with MacArthur, was enthusiastic about Inchon. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the navy and marines leaders still had great objections to the logis tics of the amphibious landing and went through them all with MacArthur. They got nowhere. In the end, MacArthur received the full support and authorization of the Joint Chiefs and the State Department for a September 15 attack.
The landing at Inchon
The mission at Inchon was given to the new X Corps (the First Marine Division, the Third and Seventh Infantry divisions, and ROK I Corps) under the command of MacArthur's chief of staff, Major General Edward M. Almond (1892–1979). Joint Task Force 7 provided naval support for the Inchon landing. Combining the resources of nine nations, the task force consisted of 230 battleships (huge combat ships used
in Korea primarily for their big guns as support to the ground forces), 21 aircraft squadrons, and many specialty teams. As many as 75,000 troops participated in the attack.
Preparing the entryway
Prior to landing at Inchon, the UN forces needed to clear enemy-held Wolmi Island, which was in the line of approach to the port city. On September 10, Corsairs (singlepilot fighter planes used by navy and marine forces) dropped on the island ninety-five tanks of napalm, a jellylike material that turns to flame as it is shot from bombs and flame throwers (napalm is known for sticking to its targets as it burns). But the UN forces soon learned that, despite their bombings, an enemy gun emplacement was located somewhere on Wolmi Island. Cruisers (fast, lightly armored battleships) and destroy ers (small, fast battleships with guns, depth charges [explosive projectiles for use underwater], and torpedoes, used to support the main battleship) were sent in on the morning of September 13. They destroyed the North Korean artillery and then fired on Wolmi all that day and the next, taking turns with naval aircraft. When they were done on the afternoon of September 14, the island of Wolmi was almost completely burned.
On the morning of September 15, the Corsairs once again bombed Wolmi Island. In the morning, a group of marines landed on Wolmi's beaches and secured the island. All day, aircraft covered the roads into Inchon to make sure that no new enemy troops could enter. In the afternoon, when the tide again allowed movement into the channels, two groups of marines, the First and the Fifth, got into landing craft as rockets were fired onto the beaches of Inchon. There they faced another of the problems of an Inchon landing: there were tall seawalls all around the city. The marines had to bomb the walls or find holes through which to enter.
The Fifth Marines struck at Red Beach. On the other side of the seawall they penetrated was the heart of the city of Inchon, where NKPA troops were waiting for them. After vicious fighting, the North Koreans were eliminated; eight marines were killed and nearly thirty were injured. The Fifth Marine units then moved on to secure two hills determined to be strategically important. The First Marines ran into less resistance; with one man killed and nineteen wounded, they reached their goal of the Seoul-Inchon Highway by midnight. The next morning the two groups met, sealing off the city of Inchon. MacArthur's plan was a success.
Although many of the city's 250,000 citizens had fled in terror when the attack began, there was no fleeing once the troops enveloped Inchon. The South Korean marines began to "mop up" the city. In the process, the remaining troops of the sixteen-hundred-man North Korean garrison and many civilians were killed.
On from Inchon
The UN and ROK marines quickly went on to capture Kimpo Airport, just outside of Seoul. They reached the Han River on the night of September 18. By then, the NKPA had brought in twenty thousand troops to defend the capital city. From September 22 to September 25, the UN forces and the
North Koreans battled savagely at the western approaches to Seoul with heavy losses on both sides. On September 25, the North Koreans, having lost as many as thirty-five hundred men and facing the far superior naval and air forces of the UN troops, panicked and began to withdraw. General Almond
announced that Seoul had been recaptured, but in fact much of the city was still in North Korean control. Gruesome street fighting continued until September 27.
On September 28 the South Korean flag was raised once again at the government building in Seoul. The centuries old city had been virtually destroyed. Many civilians were killed, historical treasures and priceless artworks were looted, and buildings were burning everywhere. With the streets ablaze and the city population terrorized, MacArthur brought South Korean president Syngman Rhee (1875–1965) back to Seoul on September 29. In the celebration commemorating the return of the capital to the ROK government, Rhee spoke with tears in his eyes, telling MacArthur, as quoted in Joseph C. Goulden's Korea: The Untold Story of the War, "We love you as the savior of our race."
MacArthur went back to his headquarters in Tokyo after delivering Rhee to the South Korean capital. The whole
world seemed to be in awe of the general who had so dramatically turned the war around.
Breakout from the Pusan Perimeter
General Walton H. "Johnnie" Walker's (1889–1950) Eighth Army had continued its fight in the Pusan Perimeter while the Inchon landing was carried out. The Eighth Army was now made up of two new corps: I Corps ("eye" corps), with the Twenty-fourth, First Cavalry, and ROK First Divisions; and IX Corps ("nine" corps), with the Second and Twenty-fifth Divisions. The troops, happy to learn that the attack at Inchon had gone well, eagerly got ready to break out of the defensive positions they had been struggling to hold.
But no one told the NKPA troops fighting in the Pusan Perimeter about Inchon: their commanders wisely kept the news of the attack to themselves. Had the troops known that a powerful enemy force was at their back, they probably would have headed north immediately to avoid being cut off from their army. Ignorant of the event, the North Koreans fought as relentlessly as they had always fought. At first the Eighth Army's plans to drive north were in jeopardy; for every minor advance there were many casualties. Finally, on September 19, the weather cleared up, allowing the use of air support. The North Koreans fell at some key points and the Eighth Army moved forward. By September 23, the word was out about Inchon among the North Koreans, and there was a general North Korean flight.
Walker's Eighth Army troops were under instructions to advance as quickly as possible to join the X Corps near Seoul. However, they faced an unpredictable enemy. The NKPA military units had fallen apart, so the surviving North Koreans were traveling and fighting in small groups or by themselves. Some withdrew northward in good order, while others ran away into the mountains to make the difficult journey home. Still others surrendered without a fight. Many were killed by the ground troops and many more by the strafing (machine gun fire at close range from low-flying aircraft) and napalm bombs of the air force.
Once they had broken out from the Pusan Perimeter, Eighth Army units moved quickly, some units making the trip up the peninsula in three days. On September 27, a task force from the First Cavalry met up with a regiment of the Seventh Division near Suwon—that is, an Eighth Army unit met an X Corps unit. The ROK troops were heading up the east coast. This completed the incredibly successful Inchon attack.
Perhaps due to the controversy about striking at Inchon in the first place, there was no plan for making the
most out of this success when it occurred. Because of this, many of the routes to the north were left clear, allowing North Korean soldiers to return to their army.
Key questions about what the UN forces were doing in Korea remained. Did the United States want to occupy North Korea and force a reunification under Syngman Rhee or only stop the North Korean invasion of South Korea? Should the border between North Korea and South Korea at the 38th parallel be strengthened to protect South Korea or should it be smashed for reunification? The initial UN resolution empowered the troops to stop an invasion, not to destroy a nation.
Back in the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff cabled MacArthur (JCS 92801 to Far East Commander MarcArthur, quoted in Goulden) on September 27 with instructions:
Your military objective is the destruction of the North Korean armed forces. In attaining this objective you are authorized to conduct military operations… north of the 38th Parallel in Korea, provided that at the time of such operation there has been no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist Forces.… Underno circumstances, however, will your forces cross the Manchurian or USSR borders of Korea, and as a matter of policy, no non-Korean ground forces will be used in the northeast provinces bordering the Soviet Union or in the area along the Manchurian border.
The Joint Chiefs and the State Department then sent MacArthur some very ambiguous messages. They knew he wanted to cross the 38th parallel and wipe out the North Koreans, and they thought if he did it quickly enough they could present it to the United Nations as a "done deal." In their messages, the Joint Chiefs told MacArthur (JCS 92985, September 29, 1950) he should "feel unhampered tactically and strategically" by the 38th parallel, but that he should avoid making any public statements about crossing it. Further, the military leaders advised against using any non-Korean troops in the border zones of Russia and China. Beyond these orders, they left a great deal up to MacArthur.
By nearly all accounts, these decisions should have been made long before the Inchon attack, and they should have been made by President Truman and his administration. Policymaking is not typically the job of the commander of the forces. But MacArthur carried more sway than other military leaders, particularly after Inchon. In his book Korea: The Untold Story of the War, Goulden quoted General Matthew B. Ridgway (1895–1993), deputy to the army chief of staff and later commander of the Eighth Army, explaining the lack of direction from Washington to MacArthur: "A more subtle result of the Inchon triumph was the development of an almost superstitious regard for General MacArthur's infallibility. Even his superiors, it seemed, began to doubt if they should question any of MacArthur's decisions."
On September 30, the British representative to the United Nations introduced a resolution that "appropriate steps be taken to ensure conditions of stability throughout Korea" and that all of Korea—North and South—should be invited to participate in a UN-sponsored election for the establishment of a unified government. This resolution did not directly say whether force should be used.
The People's Republic of China responds
As decisions on how to proceed in Korea after Inchon were being discussed, there was great concern about how the Soviet Union and China would react to UN forces crossing the 38th parallel. It was determined that the Soviet Union was not likely to enter the war. (The Soviet Union was the first communist country and was made up of fifteen republics, including Russia. It existed as a unified country from 1922 to 1991.) The United States, gravely underestimating China as only a satellite (a dependent nation) of the Soviet Union, failed to understand that it would act as an independent and powerful agent on its own if threatened with having a hostile world power such as the United States approaching its border.
In fact, since August, China had been warning the United States and the world that it would intervene in the war if necessary. After a fiery speech on August 17 from U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Warren Austin about the necessity of unifying Korea, the People's Republic of China Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai; 1898–1976) cabled the United Nations with this message, as quoted in Allen S. Whiting's China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War: "Since Korea is China's neighbor, the Chinese people cannot but be especially concerned about solution of the Korean question, which must and can be settled peacefully." On September 24, China again cabled the United Nations to protest the strafing of sites in Manchuria (an area in northern China just north of the Korean border) by U.S. aircraft (some apparently accidents). On October 1, Zhou delivered a speech in the Chinese capital of Beijing (Peking) saying that the People's Republic of China considered the crossing of the 38th parallel by UN troops to be "a possible cause for war." Two nights later, Chou told the ambassador of the neutral nation of India that the People's Republic of China would intervene in the war if American troops crossed the 38th parallel. He said China would not intervene if the South Korean troops crossed the parallel on their own. The Indian ambassador's message was dismissed by Truman and his administration, who believed it was a bluff.
The United States knew that Chinese troops were building up in Manchuria just across the border at the Yalu River. According to the Far East Command's intelligence reports, there had been 189,000 People's Liberation Army (PLA) regulars in Manchuria in July, approximately 246,000 at the end of August, and 450,000 troops there on September 1.
Truman was concerned and decided to pay a visit to MacArthur himself. The two met on October 15, 1950, in Wake Island, a U.S.-owned atoll (a ringlike coral island) in the Pacific Ocean. They had a private one-hour conference and then met with a group of statespeople to discuss the war. MacArthur predicted that the North Koreans would completely cede by Thanksgiving and also expressed his belief that the Chinese would not at this point interfere in Korea.
After his successful assault at Inchon, MacArthur broad cast to the North Koreans two orders to surrender on October 1
and October 9. No answer to the broadcasts was expected, and none was received. On October 10, North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) broadcast a message to his troops telling them to continue to fight to the end. In the meantime, the UN forces got ready to attack north of the 38th parallel.
MacArthur started by sending the X Corps by sea around the Korean peninsula to the port of Wonsan. He would send the Eighth Army by land to the north to capture the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Then the X Corps would drive west to meet the Eighth Army, and the two forces would form a line across North Korea about one-hundred miles north of the 38th parallel. In these initial plans, only the ROK troops would fight above that line.
MacArthur's plan had two immense flaws. Pulling the marines out of the fighting and getting them out to sea caused innumerable delays just when the forces should have been pursuing the North Korean survivors. Splitting the command of the two corps, the X Corps under Almond's command and the Eighth Army under Walker, would have grave consequences.
The drive north
Rhee had already summoned the ROK commanders and instructed them to cross the 38th parallel and head up to the Yalu River, Korea's northern border with Manchuria, no matter what the United Nations instructed. The ROK Third Division crossed the 38th parallel on the east coast on September 30. Ten days later the ROK Third and Capital Divisions had secured the port of Wonsan, before the X Corps had even gotten out to sea.
In the meantime, the Eighth Army pushed on into North Korea, where the First Cavalry Division fought the desperate North Koreans in a series of brutal fights. As the UN and ROK forces approached, Premier Kim Il Sung and his government fled to the border city of Sinuiju on the Yalu River. On October 19, the First Cavalry reached the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, followed quickly by the four ROK divisions, the U.S. Twenty-fourth Division, the Twenty-seventh British Commonwealth Brigade, and a battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. The North Korean People's Army had evacuated the capital. There was little resistance and massive surrender. The city, unlike Seoul, was temporarily saved from complete destruction.
On October 21, MacArthur flew to Pyongyang to address the troops there. A new governing council was created to replace Kim Il Sung's government, comprised of noncommunist citizens of the city. Kim Il Sung in the meantime moved again, this time to north central Korea. Small bands of
soldiers from the NKPA continued to attack throughout the country. The North Korean People's Army was not beaten, but it was too spent to be a real threat for some time to come. Everywhere in Korea the UN soldiers began to plan their trips home. Everyone thought the war was over.
MacArthur urges UN forces to the border
Changing his plans in an attempt to hasten the end of the war, MacArthur ordered the X Corps to travel north to the Yalu on the eastern side of the mountains that ran up and down North Korea. The Eighth Army was to continue its drive on the western side of the mountains. The mountains allowed no communication or contact between the two armies. MacArthur then ordered all troops, not just Koreans, to a point north of the original objective line. On October 20, he ordered all units to be prepared to advance rapidly to the bor der. MacArthur then authorized both the Eighth Army and the X Corps "to use any and all ground forces… as necessary to secure all of North Korea," as quoted by the Army historian Roy E. Appleman, violating the intent of the September 27 directive that recommended placing only Korean troops near the border in order to avoid a direct confrontation between U.S. troops and the Chinese. The Joint Chiefs demanded to know what he was planning. MacArthur's response to them was long but not very satisfactory and he did not change his tactics.
On October 20, the Eighth Army began its advance north to the Chongchon River, which is about sixty miles south of the Yalu. The Eighth Army's drive started out with a massive airdrop twenty-six miles north of Pyongyang. In this first airborne operation of the war, 2,860 paratroopers of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team as well as their vehicles, guns, and other heavy equipment were dropped by parachute into Sukchon and Sunch'on. Their mission was to rescue some American prisoners of war who were being transported by the enemy troops. Although they did not find the train transporting the prisoners, one of the drops was right behind an NKPA Regiment that had stayed behind to delay the UN forces. During the next couple of days the paratroopers and a battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment fought a hard battle and almost completely eliminated the North Koreans. By October 23, the Eighth Army had pressed through to the Chongchon River.
The area between the Chongchon and the Yalu is made up of a ridge with valleys. Three villages—Taechon, Unsan, and Onjong—lie at the entrance to the valleys. Control of the Yalu River crossings required control of the divide. The Chinese, with troops amassed on the other side of the river, were watching and ready.
Where to Learn More
Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986, revised edition, 2000.
Appleman, Roy E. South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu: United States Army in the Korean War. Office of the Chief of Military History. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961.
Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story of the War. New York: Times Books, 1982.
Poats, Rutherford M. Decision in Korea. New York: McBride, 1954.
Varhola, Michael J. Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950–1953. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing, 2000.
Whiting, Allen S. China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Words to Know
airborne operation: a military action involving movement of troops into a combat area by aircraft, often referring to a mission using parachutes.
aircraft carrier: a warship with a huge deck on which planes take off and land.
amphibious attack: an invasion that uses the coordinated efforts of land, sea, and air forces.
artillery: large weapons, such as howitzers, rockets, and 155-millimeter guns, that shoot missiles and generally take a crew to operate.
battleships: huge combat ships used in Korea primarily for their big guns as support to the ground forces.
Corsair: a single-pilot fighter plane used by navy and marine forces.
cruiser: a fast, lightly armored warship, smaller and with less armor but faster than a battleship.
destroyers: small, fast battleships with guns, depth charges, and torpedoes, used to support the main battleship.
Joint Chiefs of Staff: an agency within the Department of Defense serving to advise the president and the secretary of defense on matters of war. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consists of a chairman, a vice chairman, the chief of staff of the army, the chief of naval operations, the chief of staff of the air force, and the commandant of the marine corps.
logistics: the military science of tending to the acquisition, upkeep, and transportation of military equipment, goods, and personnel.
mine: a buried explosive set to go off if it is disturbed.
minesweeper: a warship that drags the bottom of the sea to remove or deactivate mines.
mop up: the clearing of an area of all enemy troops or resistance.
napalm: a jellylike material that turns to flame as it is shot from bombs and flame throwers; napalm is known for sticking to its targets as it burns them.
paratroopers: soldiers who are trained to jump from airplanes with parachutes.
reunification: the process of bringing back together the separate parts of something that was once a single unit; in Korea, it connotes the dream of a single Korea ruled under one government, no longer divided into two nations at the demarcation line.
satellite: a state or nation that is controlled by a stronger nation.
strafe: to fire upon at close range with machine guns from a low-flying plane.
38th parallel: the 38th degree of north latitude as it bisects the Korean Peninsula, chosen by Americans as the dividing line between what was to be Soviet-occupied North Korea and U.S.-occupied South Korea in 1945.
A War Correspondent's View of the Recapture of Seoul
United Press war correspondent Rutherford Poats was just one of the news reporters following the marines into the battle for Seoul. Although the recapture of the city was a major victory for the United Nations forces, the gruesome combat in the city streets turned the once-bustling capital city into a nightmarish burning landscape. Poats captured the aftermath in this often-quoted description from his book Decision in Korea:
I followed the 1st Marines through the smoldering rubble of central Seoul the day after its premature "liberation." The last desperate Communist counterattack had been hurled back during an eerie 2a.m.battle of tanks firing at point blank range, American artillery crashing less than a city block ahead of Marine lines, the echoed and re-echoed rattle of machine guns—all against the background of flaming buildings and darting shadows.
Now it was almost quiet. The angry chatter of a machine gun up ahead now and then punctuated the long pauses between mortar and artillery strikes. But on this street corner was condensed the full horror of war, stripped of the vital challenge and excitement which make it bearable to the men who must fight wars.
Telephone and power lines festooned the streets or hung from shattered poles which resembled grotesque Christmas trees. Bluish smoke curled from the corner of a clapboard shack—the only building even partially spared destruction along the left side of the street. A young woman poked among a pile of roof tiles and charred timbers for her possessions, or perhaps for her child. A lump of flesh and bones in a mustard-colored Communist uniform sprawled across the curb up ahead, and the white-robed body of an old man lay on a rice-straw mat nearer the street corner. Marine ammunition and mess trucks churned the plaster and adobe rubble into dust as they shuttled back and forth from the front, six blocks north. Southbound ambulance jeeps, almost always fully loaded with four stretcher cases on their racks, told the story of the pre-dawn battle.
A tiny figure wrapped in a Marine's wool shirt stumbled down the street. Her face, arms, and legs were burned and almost eaten away by fragments of an American white phosphorous artillery shell. She was blind, but somehow alive. She was about the size of my little girl. Three other Korean children, luckier than she, watched as the child reached the curbing, stumbled, and twice failed to climb up on the sidewalk. The kids laughed.
Source: Rutherford M. Poats. Decision in Korea. New York: McBride, 1954.
Naval Operations in the Korean War
Although the United States cut down the size of all of its military branches after World War II (1939–45), the U.S. Navy emerged in those years as the primary world naval power, taking the place of Great Britain's once powerful navy. When the war in Korea started, President Harry S. Truman hoped to prevent sending ground troops to the distant land. His first efforts to stop the enemy were with air and naval forces.
The day the war started, June 25, 1950, the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet was ordered to the Straits of Taiwan, where it was to ensure that no conflicts erupted between the Chinese Communists on mainland China and the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan (formerly Formosa). The Seventh Fleet then joined with Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand warships, forming Task Force 77, which set up a naval blockade to impede North Korea's access to the sea. Within the first few months of the war, the UN forces had destroyed North Korea's small navy and for the rest of the war remained unopposed in the waters around the Korean peninsula. There were no battles at sea after this, and the navy served as support to the ground effort.
UN ships carried supplies and troops to and from battlegrounds. Aircraft carriers brought in fighter planes, and minesweepers cleared out the mines (buried explosives that are set to go off if disturbed) planted in the waters off of the port cities by the enemy. The most heavily used large ships in the war were aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and minesweepers.