The Invasion of South Korea: June 25–30, 1950
The Invasion of South Korea: June 25–30, 1950
On the evening of June 24, 1950, a Saturday night, the South Korean (ROK) Army's entire front line defense force consisted of four infantry divisions and a regiment. Normally there would have been about thirty-eight thousand troops at the 38th parallel (the dividing line between northern and southern Korea), but for the first time in months, the ROK Army felt confident enough to issue leaves to soldiers on the front. On that crucial night, only about one-third of the force was on duty.
Throughout the night, the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) prepared for an offensive. To its ten thousand troops already stationed at the 38th parallel, the NKPA had added eighty thousand more men, amassing seven divisions equipped with one hundred fifty Soviet-made T-34 tanks. Without being detected, the North Koreans took up positions along the front across Korea, even rebuilding train tracks in the night for the transport of soldiers in the morning.
The North Korean invasion of June 25
The North Koreans positioned themselves to strike at five key places. All of the strikes occurred between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. on June 25, 1950. Two full divisions and a battalion of T-34 tanks struck on a route beginning with Kaesong (a South Korean city positioned on the 38th parallel) and leading to the capital city of Seoul. A fifteen-car train packed with North Korean soldiers moved across the 38th parallel and right into Kaesong. The Twelfth Regiment of the ROK First Division, stationed at Kaesong, was very nearly wiped out in this initial attack. The First Division's Thirteenth Regiment, about fifteen miles east of Kaesong, and the Eleventh Regiment in reserve near Seoul, fought bravely against the North Koreans in desperate conditions for two days.
The largest NKPA attack occurred at the Uijongbu Corridor (pronounced wee-jong-boo), a broad valley leading southward through western Korea, with good roads that lead right from the 38th parallel into Seoul. There, two full NKPA divisions armed with eighty tanks met the highly trained ROK Seventh Division. The Seventh put up a good fight and inflicted many casualties on the NKPA, but was forced to withdraw. The retreat of the Seventh Division exposed the First Division, which then fell back to Seoul.
The ROK Sixth Division was stationed near Chunchon at the time of attack. Despite the fact that the NKPA had about
eleven thousand men to the ROK's twenty-four hundred, the ROK Army had its greatest success at Chunchon, stopping the NKPA in its tracks for three days.
There were two smaller attacks on the coasts. On the east coast, the ROK's Eighth Division was attacked in the Taebaek mountains and was quickly forced to withdraw. The Seventeenth ROK Regiment held the Ongjin peninsula on the west coast. When the NKPA attacked, one battalion was wiped out and two managed to evacuate.
As the NKPA infantry divisions attacked on the ground, two full forces of the North Korean Air Force began bombing sites in Seoul, especially Kimpo Airport.
In the first weeks of the war, the North Korean People's Army was almost unstoppable. The North Koreans were better prepared, better armed, and better disciplined than the South Koreans and had more troops ready for action. Perhaps the biggest single asset of the North Koreans in their invasion of the south was their strategic use of the Soviet-made T-34 tanks they had amassed before attacking. This 35-ton armored vehicle had been the Soviet Union's main battle tank during World War II (1939–45). It had a high-velocity 85-millimeter gun and could be driven at speeds up to 34 miles per hour. The ROK Army had no tanks and barely any serviceable antitank ammunition and weapons. In fact, just before the war, the chief of the U.S. military advisors had proclaimed Korea too mountainous for tanks. The North Koreans proved him very wrong. The tanks, which maneuvered the terrain quite well, were virtually indestructible and deadly to the South Korean and American troops that first came into contact with them.
Many of the South Korean soldiers had never seen a tank before, and the appearance of the tanks on the first day of fighting, when all were reeling from the surprise attack, was overwhelming. While some panicked, there was an amazing show of bravery within First Division commander General Paik Sun Yup's (1920–) troops, as he recalled in his memoirs From Pusan to Panmunjom:
The more courageous soldiers of the 13th Regiment overcame their fear [of the tanks]. Acting without orders from their officers, a number of them broke into suicide teams and charged T-34s clutching explosives and grenades. They clambered up onto the monsters before touching off the charges. Although such desperate acts brought tears to my eyes, the bravery of these men prevented NKPA armored units from getting past the 13th all that first day, earning precious time for division troops on leave and pass to return to the 11th Regiment.
An estimated ninety ROK soldiers died in these suicide missions against the tanks on that first day of battle.
It quickly became clear that the ROK Army could not save the city of Seoul. American ambassador to Korea John J. Muccio started procedures for the evacuation of Americans on the first day of the invasion. By the next morning, a Norwegian ship took hundreds of women and children to Japan. Later that day, air transport protected by U.S. fighter planes brought out the remaining American dependents. A portion of the civilian population of the city prepared to flee as well. South Korean president Syngman Rhee (1875–1965) and his government evacuated Seoul late on the night of June 26, heading south for the city of Taejon (pronounced TIE-shon). Muccio closed the U.S. embassy in Seoul on Tuesday afternoon, June 27. By then, chaos reigned in the city, as its people fled south across the Han River by train or on foot with what belongings they could carry on their backs.
During the evening of June 27 the ROK Second and Seventh Divisions gave way to the NKPA forces just north of the capital, and the retreating ROK soldiers were ordered to flee south across the Han River. Seoul was open to the invading North Koreans.
Disaster on the Han River
As the North Korean forces approached Seoul on the night of June 27, the ROK planned to stop their advance by blowing up the bridges on their route. But the order to blow up the three-lane, three-railroad-trestle Han River Bridge that lay just south of Seoul—when at least ten thousand ROK troops remained north of it and would not be able to cross the river with their equipment—caused an uproar at the ROK Army headquarters. Last minute attempts to stop the disaster from happening were unsuccessful. The Han River Bridge blew up at 2:15 p.m. The population of Seoul had been given no warning, and the bridge was flooded with people fleeing south when it exploded. From five hundred to eight hundred civilians and military personnel were killed in this explosion.
After the first three and a half days of fighting, the unprepared ROK Army was in a state of near collapse. Out of the ninety-eight thousand men in the army at the beginning of the war, one week later only fifty-four thousand could be accounted for. The rest—almost one-half the army—had been killed or captured or had deserted. Without support from the United States, the war would have been over very quickly. But the South Korean Army had probably done the very thing needed to foil the stronger and better equipped NKPA. By their resistance, they most likely stopped the North Koreans from swooping down and capturing Seoul within the first twenty-four hours of their invasion. Had the North Koreans taken Seoul before the United States or the United Nations (UN) could respond, they would almost certainly have been the immediate victors of this war.
During the first few weeks of the war, Rhee's government feared that the leftists within South Korea would join with the invading North Koreans and tip the scale of the war. Therefore tens of thousands of people—men, women, and even children—were jailed on suspicion of being rebels throughout South Korea. When the North Korean People's Army approached South Korean cities and the time for evacuation neared, the political prisoners were often taken out and shot in large groups without trial. There are reports from South Koreans, Western journalists, and the U.S. military showing that at least ten mass executions took place—and there were probably many more than that—killing thousands of civilians.
Meanwhile in the United States
Because of the time difference (it is fourteen hours earlier in Washington, D.C.), when the invasion of South Korea occurred at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 25, in Korea, it was 2:00 p.m. Saturday, June 24, on the U.S. East Coast. News of the attack began to reach key government officials on Saturday evening. Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893–1971) called President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) at his home in Independence, Missouri, to tell him the situation in Korea was "serious." Acheson suggested calling an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, to which Truman agreed. After receiving the call, Truman was very quiet, recalled his daughter Margaret in her biography, and quoted by Joseph C. Goulden in Korea; The Untold Story of the War: "My father made it clear, from the moment he heard the news, that he feared this was the opening round in World War Three."
Like Truman, many Americans jumped to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was responsible for the North Korean attack on the south. The Soviets left behind a panel of military advisors and a sizable arsenal of weapons when their
troops pulled out of North Korea in 1948. They had also sold vital military equipment to North Korea after the occupation. But many modern historians have concluded that the Soviets were not fully behind the effort. In 1970, memoirs attributed to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) were published in the West that were thought to be authentic. The memoirs describe a visit that North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) had made to Moscow, the Soviet capital, in 1949 to try to get support for the planned invasion from Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). Stalin was very cautious in his response. Because the Soviets were tied up in other efforts, Stalin's eventual nod of approval to Kim Il Sung's plans for invasion appears to have been just that: moral, but not military or financial, support.
On the first day of fighting, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff met. Created 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. It was then headed by World War II veteran General Omar N. Bradley (1893–1981), who was appointed chairman by the president, and included the chiefs of the army, navy, and air force. When the Joint Chiefs met on June 25, a policy in regard to Korea had already been established: in the event of military conflict in Korea, all Americans, including military advisors, would evacuate, and the United States would not intervene. At the time of the first Joint Chiefs meeting, reports arriving from Seoul seemed positive, and the military leaders had no reason to think the policy would be overturned.
On the afternoon of June 25, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the invasion. The U.S. representative to the UN proposed a resolution accusing North Korea of "unprovoked aggression." This proposal met with significant opposition from other member nations, but by evening a version had passed condemning the "armed attack on the Republic of Korea" and calling for "the immediate cessation of [end to] hostilities" and withdrawal of NKPA troops to the 38th parallel. Just before the Korean War broke out, the Soviet Union had begun a boycott of the United Nations—they refused to participate in the proceedings—because the UN had failed to recognize the People's Republic of China, headed by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976). (Ever since 1949, when the Communists defeated the U.S.-backed Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, the United States and the UN did not recognize Communist China.) Had the Soviets been represented at the UN that day and in the days to come, it is unlikely that the UN resolutions would have passed.
Two Blair House meetings
President Truman arrived back in Washington, D.C., on the evening of June 25 and called the first of his Blair House
meetings. (Blair House served as the presidential residence while the White House was being renovated.) Attending were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and other State Department officials. The tone was entirely different than that of the morning meeting. Fears of an expanded Soviet empire became dominant. The issue had changed from interfering in a civil war to stopping the communists from their mission of taking over the world. Everyone agreed that instead of evacuating, the United States should support South Korea.
The Joint Chiefs and Truman agreed to try to limit the American involvement and defer to the United Nations in the major decisions of the action. They assigned to General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), commander of the U.S. forces in the Far East whose headquarters were in nearby Japan, the commissions of sending military supplies to the South Koreans and providing air and naval protection for the evacuation of American civilians from Korea. The U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet, then in the Philippines, was ordered to head for China, where it would be responsible for preventing any hostilities from erupting between the Communists on the mainland and the Nationalists on Taiwan (formerly Formosa).
By the next day, June 26, the situation in South Korea had worsened. At another Blair House meeting, it was agreed that the air force and the navy could fight below the 38th parallel. But all agreed to delay sending ground troops to Korea, heeding Bradley's warning that the United States would not be able to carry out its commitments elsewhere in the world if it were fighting in Korea.
MacArthur goes to Korea
General MacArthur, from his general headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, had the highest confidence in the South Korean Army, so on June 27 he was stunned to learn that Seoul was falling to the NKPA and that Syngman Rhee and his government had fled. Under the orders stemming from the Blair House meetings, he prepared to bomb the North Koreans from the air, thinking that this would be sufficient to end the war. (Bad weather prevented any real results from the air raids the first couple of days.)
Douglas MacArthur is an unusual American hero. A lifetime in the military had brought him a multitude of distinctions, from his days as the heroic brigadier general in World War I (1914–18), through his impressive reign as supreme commander of Allied powers (the United States, the British Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, and other European nations) in Japan after World War II. He was well known for bravery and resourcefulness in combat and was a powerful and charismatic speaker who always managed to seem bigger than life. But MacArthur was also known in military and government circles as someone who believed himself to be above the rules. He had a habit of constantly putting himself into the limelight, taking credit for other people's efforts, and blaming others for his errors. To some who knew him, his legendary bravery often appeared to be staged or just foolhardy. MacArthur was seventy years old when the Korean War brought him back to the world of combat. Although he was a hero to millions (he had accepted the Japanese surrender after World War II), his appointment as commander of the forces in the Korean War worried many leaders in the U.S. military and government.
On June 29, despite bad weather, MacArthur flew into an airport twenty miles south of Seoul and from there drove up to the front. There he impressed his observers as he strode fearlessly in the path of flying bullets. He found Seoul in flames and saw how desperate the situation was. MacArthur's appearance at the front was a welcome relief to the exhausted South Korean Army. General Paik Sun Yup described the effect of the legendary general's visit in From Pusan to Panmunjom: "At that time General MacArthur was regarded by Korean soldiers and civilians alike as almost a god. He was the hero of World War II and had accepted the surrender of the emperor of Japan. People today can't imagine the extent of his prestige." After his tour of the front, MacArthur visited Rhee, with whom he already had a warm relationship. Rhee begged for American support. On the way back to Tokyo, MacArthur bragged to Marguerite Higgins, a war correspondent, "Give me two American divisions and I can hold Korea," as quoted in her book, War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent.
U.S. commitment to war
Two days before MacArthur's trip to Korea, the United Nations Security Council met again. The United States proposed a resolution that UN members were to "furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security to the area." The resolution brought about a bitter debate, since, in effect, it meant that all member nations were at war with North Korea. But the resolution did pass, again without the representation of the still-boycotting USSR. The next day, there was another meeting at Blair House, at which new decisions were made: MacArthur's air forces could bomb North Korean targets above the 38th parallel, and he should send in military units as needed to secure the southern part of the peninsula.
The next day MacArthur cabled his own report to Washington, asking that ground forces be committed to Korea immediately: "Unless provision is made for the full utilization of the Army-Navy-Air team in this shattered area our mission will at best be needlessly costly in life, money and prestige. At worst it might even be doomed to failure," as quoted in Clay Blair's The Forgotten War: America in Korea. Truman called his advisors together and within a half hour authorized MacArthur to use any of the ground forces he had under his command—way more than he had asked for. The president also approved a naval blockade of North Korea. Although Truman had not brought the decision before the U.S. Congress— only by resolution of the U.S. Congress can the United States declare war on another nation—and he was calling it a "police action under the United Nations," as of June 30 the United States was at war.
Where to Learn More
Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986, revised edition, 2000.
Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Times Books, 1987.
Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story of the War. New York: Times Books, 1982.
Higgins, Marguerite. War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1951.
Paik Sun Yup. From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 1992.
Toland, John. In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953. New York: William Morrow, 1991.
Sang-hun Choe, Charles J. Hanley, and Martha Mendoza. "Bridge at No Gun Ri." Associated Press (AP). [Online] http://wire.ap.org/APpackages/nogunri/story.html (accessed on August 14, 2001).
Words to Know
army: two or more military corps under the command of a general; an army usually consists of between 120,000 and 200,000 troops. Chinese armies were generally composed of three 10,000-men divisions and resembled the U.S. Army's corps.
battalion: a military unit usually made up of about three to five companies. Generally one of the companies is the headquarters unit, another the service unit, and the rest are line units. Although the numbers differ greatly, a battalion might consist of about 35 officers and about 750 soldiers.
boycott: a refusal to participate in something (purchasing from a store, working, attending an organization) until stated conditions are met.
casualties: those who are killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner in combat.
civilian: someone who is not in the military or any other security forces.
company: the basic army unit, composed of a headquarters and two or three platoons. A company is generally made up of about 100 soldiers commanded by a major or captain. There are three to five companies to a battalion. Army and Marine Corps regiments during the Korean War followed the same system of designating their companies by a letter. In First Battalion, A, B, C were rifle companies, D was a weapons company. In Second Battalion, E, F, G were rifle companies, H was a weapons company, and so on. To avoid confusion, the letter designations became words: H Company was How Company, etc.
corps: a military unit consisting of two or more divisions under the command of a lieutenant general; there are usually between 30,000 and 60,000 personnel in a corps.
division (or infantry division): a selfsufficient unit, usually about 15,000 to 16,000 strong, under the command of a major general. Communist Chinese army divisions were closer to 10,000 soldiers strong.
evacuate: to remove people from a dangerous area or a military zone.
grenade: a small explosive weapon that can be thrown, usually with a pin that is pulled to activate it and a spring-loaded safety lever that is held down until the user wants to throw the grenade; once the safety lever is released, the grenade will explode in seconds.
intervention: the act of a third party who steps into an ongoing fight in the attempt to interfere in its outcome or stop it altogether.
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.
resolution: the formal statement of an organization's intentions or opinions on an issue, usually reached by vote or general agreement.
ROK: an acronym standing for Republic of Korea; "ROK" was frequently used to refer specifically to South Korean soldiers.
suicide mission: an activity taken on with the knowledge that carrying it out will mean one's own death.
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.
Military Units in the Korean War
Squad: A unit consisting of twelve riflemen (twelve troops).
Platoon: A unit composed of three squads.
Company: A unit composed of three platoons.
Battalion: A unit composed of three companies of riflemen and other companies formed for heavy weaponry.
Regiment: A unit composed of three battalions.
Division: A self-contained tactical unit composed of three regiments (about sixteen thousand troops).
Memo: Mass Executions Carried out by South Korean Military Police
Top Secret Document, Declassified in December 199911 August 1950 Subject: Shooting of Prisoners of War by South Korean Military Police To: 545th Military Police Company
Between the hours of 1500 and 1630, 10 August 1950, while on routine patrol on the highway between Taegu and Waegwan, Korea, a large volume of gunfire was investigated by the undersigned and Pfc. Rant. This gunfire came from a canyon near the top of a mountain that is situated approximately eight miles north of Taegu.
Investigation disclosed that the South Korean Military Police, under command of a Captain of the South Korean Army, were in the process of the killing of a group of Korean Nationals, estimated to be between 200 and 300 persons, including some women and at least one girl. It is the opinion of the undersigned that this child was approximately 12 or 13 years of age.
The methods used by the Koreans in the executions were the placing of about 20 of the condemned persons in a line on the edge of a cliff, and behind each of the victims was placed one Military Policeman with a carbine of American Army current issue. At the command of fire, given by the commanding officer of the group, the military police fired at the head of the prisoner that was in front of him. It was noted in several of the shootings, that due to poor aim of the weapon, the prisoner was not killed instantly, but it was necessary for several other shots to be fired into the body of the victim, and in some cases the mercy shot was not administered, and that about three hours after the executions were completed, some of the condemned persons were still alive and moaning. The cries could be heard coming from somewhere in the mass of bodies piled in the canyon. One man was lying a short way apart from the main mass of bodies, and even though unconscious, was noted to be still breathing.
A survey was made by the undersigned of the prisoners that remained on the side of the mountain awaiting their turn to be shot, and it was noted that the hands were tied behind by trussing two of the condemned persons together, and the hands were tied so tightly that there were cries of severe pain coming from the prisoners. One of the women prisoners, a girl of about 19 years, had fallen and in the fall the flesh had been torn from her hands. Extreme cruelty was noted from the Military Policemen to the condemned persons such as striking them on the head with gunbutts, and kicking them on the body for no reason.
The Commanding Officer of the execution group stated that the prisoners were being killed as they were "spies." No other information was given.
The bodies were not properly buried, but were partly covered with dirt and brush, and the cartridge cases were left on the ground. In the event of the fall into the hands of the red army of this area, all of the evidence left by the South Korean Military Police would indicate that the killings were perpetrated by the American Army and not the South Korean Army. The bodies had been stripped of clothing and it would be hard to determine whether the victim was civilian or North Korean Military Personnel.
H. H. Mix WOJG, USA /s/Frank Pearce, Sgt l/c Division Investigator 1st Cavalry Division Taegu, Korea
Source: "Bridge at No Gun Ri." Associated Press (AP). [Online] http://wire.ap.org/APpackages/nogunri/executions_doc2.html (accessed on August 14,2001).