Turning the Tide: the Pusan Perimeter

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Turning the Tide: the Pusan Perimeter

During the two-hundred-mile retreat of the Eighth Army (which included both U.S. and South Korean troops) down the Korean peninsula between the onset of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, and the withdrawal to the Pusan Perimeter that took place between August 1 and 3, 1950, the North Koreans had been fighting in their element. U.S. troops fought best on roads, in formation, and with heavy equipment. The North Koreans, many having learned to fight in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese when Korea was under Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, were mobile fighters, skilled at nighttime attacks, fighting in the mountains, and hand-to-hand combat. The North Korean People's Army (NKPA) relied heavily on the battle technique of infiltrating (passing through gaps in the enemy defense line) and mixing themselves right into the ranks of the enemy, where they were able to kill at close range. They also had developed an effective method of sending troops around and to the rear of the enemy while the main forces were fighting at the front. Enveloping the enemy troops, they were often able to cut them off from help and to inflict terrible casualties.

Because the North Koreans kept attacking, relentlessly pushing U.S. troops farther south, most observers thought they greatly outnumbered the South Korean and American forces. Indeed, the North Koreans were characterized by the American media as unstoppable "waves" of soldiers. This was not true. By August 4, 1950, with new troops arriving, the Eighth Army in Korea numbered around ninety-two thousand, and the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) numbered

around seventy thousand. The North Koreans were exhausted and far away from their home base and supplies. They had a serious shortage of food and equipment. To make up for their battle losses, they were recruiting soldiers from the newly occupied South Korean cities. Many of these young men had no training and were not even given weapons. The North Koreans continued to distinguish themselves, however, moti vated by the confidence of their many victories and their mis sion of reunifying Korea. But by August, they knew that time was running out. If members of the United Nations (UN) kept pouring more troops and weapons toward the defense of South Korea, the North Koreans would not have a chance against

them. North Korean premier Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) promoted the mission to "take Pusan by Liberation Day," which was August 15, the anniversary of Korean liberation from Japanese rule following World War II (1939–45). When it became clear that the NKPA was not going to capture Pusan on time, Kim changed the mission to "Taegu by Liberation Day."

The U.S. and South Korean (ROK) forces were all in place behind the Naktong River by August 3. American general Walton H. "Johnnie" Walker (1889–1950) knew that they would finally be in their own element here, where they could form a more secure defense line with all units in a structured formation. There, the heavy weaponry (being airlifted in daily) could be set up to fire at all possible avenues of approach. There was even a railroad loop—Pusan-Kyongju-Taegu-Pusan—that could deliver supplies and troops throughout the perimeter as needed.

However, defending the Pusan Perimeter was no simple task, even with new troops and supplies. The area was too large for a dense defense line, and the troops who were arriving had little combat experience and no familiarity with Korea. Walker carefully planned the positions of every unit assigned to Korea for the defense of the huge area. The five divisions of the South Korean Army defended a large line in the north and northwest; the First Cavalry defended an eighteen-mile line from Waegwan south along the Naktong River; the Twenty-fourth Division defended a twenty-five-mile line extending to the meeting of the Naktong and Nam Rivers; and a reinforced Twenty-fifth Division defended the line south to the Korean Strait. The Twenty-fifth had recently been built up significantly with newly arrived battalions and ROK survivors. In addition, two regiments of the Second Infantry Division had arrived. Along with other weapons, Sherman tanks were arriving from Japan that could destroy the dreaded T-34 tanks the North Koreans were using. With more troops and supplies, and a more defensible station, it seemed as though the Eighth Army could quickly defeat the NKPA. However, it was not so easy.

A weak start

The first order of business after setting up the defensive line in the perimeter was to stop the North Korean drive down the western roads leading to Masan. Walker sent the Twenty-fifth Division, under General William Kean (1897–1981). Task Force Kean began a counterattack on August 7. The counterattack ultimately failed despite the fact that the Americans outnumbered the NKPA twenty thousand to seventy-five hundred and seemed to have all the advantages. Several things contributed to the loss. It was very hot, with temperatures reaching 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Many soldiers dropped from heat exhaustion. On their way to battle, the Fifth Regimental Combat Team took a wrong road, allowing the North Koreans time to get control in the hills.

The U.S. Marines, in their first highly publicized fight in Korea, did extremely well, twice bailing out the Twenty-fifth Division. The marines were not only combat experienced, but brought with them their own air support and good weapons and ammunition. But even their support was not enough. From the hills, the North Koreans achieved the advantage, engaging the Americans in a vicious battle later known as Bloody Gulch. At the end of August, the Masan front was in a stalemate.

Attack at Naktong Bulge

The North Koreans began an attack on August 5 in an area called the Naktong Bulge, about seven miles north of the meeting of the Nam and Naktong Rivers. The Americans were using the river as a part of their defense, but the North Koreans by the hundreds managed to cross it during the night.

They took their heavy equipment across the river on underwater bridges made up of sandbags, rocks, logs, and barrels built up from the river bottom to about a foot below the river's surface. The North Koreans then infiltrated the very weak Thirty-fourth and Nineteenth Regiments of the Twenty-fourth Division that defended this line. For several days, despite fierce

combat, the NKPA continued on their drive into the perimeter, getting as far as Yongsan, a village eight miles east of the Naktong. They also set up a powerful roadblock on the road to Miryang. More American units arrived but counterattacks, though heavy in casualties, failed to drive the North Koreans from the bulge.

Then the marines were called in, along with several new army regiments. On August 17, the marines struck the ridgeline within the Naktong Bulge called Obnong-ni, where the savage fighting had been taking place. The marines first came in with their Corsairs (fighter planes), strafing the North Koreans, attacking them with machine gun or cannon from the low-flying aircraft. Then the infantry climbed the hills under heavy enemy fire. After being repulsed, the marines made a combined effort with the army regiments and shattered the North Koreans. When, as a last resort, the North Koreans pulled out their T-34 tanks, three U.S. M26 Pershings (heavily armed forty-six-ton tanks) met the T-34s and quickly destroyed them. After a full day of fierce battle, at great cost in American and North Korean lives, the marines had shattered the enemy. The next morning, after a Corsair bombing had destroyed a machine-gun emplacement, the surviving North Koreans ran back to the Naktong River. The North Koreans were facing a new enemy and fighting a different kind of war.

The battle for Taegu

Taegu was the headquarters for the Eighth Army and the seat of the South Korean government during this phase of the war. It was defended by the First Cavalry and the ROK First and Sixth Divisions. In mid-August, the U.S. Army had learned through decoded North Korean radio messages that the NKPA was approaching on the roads leading to Taegu, ready to attack. U.S. and ROK troops were ready when the strike came on the night of August 9. They lit the sky with flares and started heavy fire on the North Koreans, killing thousands. On August 12, another NKPA division struck at Yongpo and was virtually slaughtered. But the attack on Taegu was a desperate one for the North Koreans: four full divisions were committed to it. The NKPA kept attacking until their enemy was exhausted. The ROK First, short on weapons and outnumbered by the NKPA, fought well for days but finally collapsed. By August 15, the North Koreans had pushed past them and gone on to Tabu, fifteen miles north of Taegu. Another NKPA division slipped behind the ROK Third and captured the town of Pohang, threatening Taegu from behind.

A massive bombing

In what many consider to be a large-scale blunder, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; commander of the UN Command in Korea) decided to bomb a twenty-six-squaremile area north of Waegwan in the belief that the North Korean troops were gathering there. U.S. Air Force officers explained to him that the area he wished to bomb was too large and mountainous for this kind of bombing, but he went ahead with his plans. On August 16, twelve B-29 squadrons released 3,084 five-hundred-pound bombs and 150 one-thousand-pound bombs over the area in question. Apparently no North Korean troops were killed in the bombing, and in fact there is evidence that they were elsewhere at the time. According to

the commander of the First Division, General Paik Sun Yup (1920–), the bombing did have the positive effect of raising the ROK morale and badly wounding NKPA morale.

The Bowling Alley

The NKPA kept fighting to reach Taegu. A few North Koreans got close enough to Taegu to fire mortar (small cannon)

rounds in the city, creating general panic. The civilian population and Syngman Rhee's government prepared once more to evacuate. (Rhee [1875–1965] was president of South Korea at the time.) Walker, unwilling to allow any kind of withdrawal, sent the highly successful Twenty-seventh Regiment, called the Wolfhounds, led by Lieutenant Colonel John "Mike" Michaelis, to join General Paik Sun Yup's First Division just north of Tabu. There a seven-night battle raged in a place called the "Bowling Alley," a twomile stretch of road with mountains rising on either side. Paik's troops held the mountains, while the Twenty-seventh held the roads.

Each night during this battle, the North Korean tanks would begin the attack by firing down the road at the Americans. The Twenty-seventh's bazookas would destroy the first couple of tanks in line, and the rest would eventually turn around, only to come back the next night. As the North Koreans fired, red balls flew down the road. General Paik recalled these battles in his memoirs From Pusan to Panmunjom: "The NKPA attackers not only gave the impression of bowlers approaching a lane, but also the sharp cracks of exploding shells reminded observers of the sharp 'crack crack' sounds of flying bowling pins." Paik, who probably got along with American officers better than any of the other ROK generals, was a little offended at the Americans' comparison, however. "I must say, at the time I found it difficult to understand the Americans' humor when they referred to a grisly battlefield with such a lighthearted term."

The ROK and U.S. forces were able to inflict heavy damages on the North Koreans in the night battles by illuminating the sky with flares and then firing continuously on the enemy. By day, the air support strafed the enemy. Unable to penetrate the UN positions, the North Koreans traveled around them in the hills and very successfully attacked the Twenty-third Regiment of the Second Division, but the air support again bombed them relentlessly, stopping their drive for Taegu.

Now or never

There was a lull in the fighting in the last few days of August. The North Koreans were too weak to continue but unwilling to give up. General MacArthur was finalizing his plans for an amphibious (using land, sea, and air forces) attack at the port city of Inchon, near the capital city of Seoul. Though it should have been top secret, his boasts to the media made the plan common knowledge, even if the place for the landing was unknown. The North Koreans were more aware than ever that they had to capture the Pusan Perimeter soon. They rapidly overhauled their army, filling it up with about thirty thousand new recruits and lumping together survivors of vanquished divisions into reformulated units. Once again, in the first days of September, they struck savagely on five different fronts. And once again, although outnumbered and without food and supplies, the North Koreans were successful: they penetrated the Naktong Bulge and the towns of Pohang, Tabu, and Ka-san. They moved in force into many mountains just north of Taegu.

General Walker deployed all his forces to the trouble spots in these critical days. He was most worried about the Naktong Bulge, where the penetration was deepest. Although he was aware that the marines were being moved to Pusan to embark for the attack at Inchon, in desperation he called for their help. MacArthur allowed him the use of the marines for three days. In those three days, the marines counterattacked, reaching the ridge at Obong-ni for a second time by the third day. There they engaged in fierce battle. But just after midnight on September 6, they pulled out, under orders from MacArthur. As the marines got ready for the attack at Inchon, Walker was faced with a continuing North Korean penetration at the Pusan Perimeter. The loss of the marines was devastating, as they were the only force that had been able to stop the NKPA so far. He knew that another withdrawal was the only way to ensure the safety of his troops. But he decided to hold the line.

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.

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.

Varhola, Michael J. Fire and Ice: the Korean War, 1950–1953. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing, 2000.

Words to Know

amphibious attack: an invasion that uses the coordinated efforts of land, sea, and air forces.

bazooka: a light and portable rocket launcher or antitank weapon fired from the shoulder that consists of a large tube that launches antitank ammunition.

Corsair: a single-pilot fighter plane used by navy and marine forces.

division (or infantry division): a selfsufficient military 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.

heat exhaustion: also called heat prostration; the symptoms that arise when one physically exerts oneself in hot weather, including dizziness, nausea, weakness, and sweating.

infantry: the branch of an army that is composed of soldiers trained to fight on foot.

machine-gun emplacement: a prepared position for a powerful automatic weapon.

mortar: a muzzle-loading cannon that shoots high in the air.

perimeter: the outside limits of a geographical area.

regiment: a military unit composed of three battalions.

reunification: the process of bringing back together the separate parts of something that was once a single unit; in Korea, this usually refers to the dream of a single Korea ruled under one government, no longer divided into two nations at the demarcation line.

stalemate: deadlock; the state in which the efforts of each party in a conflict cancels out the efforts of the other party so that no one makes any headway.

strafe: to fire upon at close range with machine guns from a low-flying plane.

United Nations Forces in Korea


Infantry: 3 battalions

Naval forces: 1 aircraft carrier, 2 destroyers, 1 frigate

Air forces: 1 fighter squadron, 1 air transport squadron

Casualties: 1,200 wounded, 339 killed


Infantry: 1 battalion

Nonmilitary: DC-4 transportation aircraft and 2 nurses

Troops throughout war: 3,498

Casualties: 101 killed, 350 wounded, 5 missing, 1 died in captivity


Infantry: 1 army brigade

Naval forces: 3 destroyers

Air forces: 1 air transport squadron

Troops throughout war: 21,900

Casualties: 300 killed, 1,200 wounded, 32 captured


Infantry: 4 battalions, one at a time

Naval forces: 1 frigate

Casualties: 600


Nonmilitary: 100-member medical detachment; hospital ship


Infantry: 1 battalion

Nonmilitary: Nurses

Troops throughout war: 3,158

Casualties: 121 killed, 536 wounded


Infantry: 1 battalion

Naval forces: 1 warship

Troops throughout war: 3,421

Casualties: 287 killed, 1,350 wounded, 7 missing, 12 POWs


Infantry: 3 army brigades, 2 field artillery regiments, 1 armored regiment

Naval forces: 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, 8 destroyers, marine units

Troops throughout war: 14,000

Casualties: 700 killed, 4,000 wounded or POW


Infantry: 1 battalion

Air forces: 1 air transport squadron

Troops throughout war: 397

Casualties: 12 killed


Nonmilitary: 1 unit Indian Medical Corps; parachute field ambulance unit


Infantry: 1 battalion

Naval forces: 1 destroyer

Troops throughout war: 3,148

Casualties: 120 killed, 645 wounded


Infantry: 1 artillery regiment

Naval forces: 6 frigates

Troops throughout war: 6,000

Casualties: 46 killed, 79 wounded, 1 POW


Nonmilitary: 105-member mobile surgical hospital (NorMASH)


Infantry: 4 motorized battalion combat teams (1 at a time)

Troops throughout war: 7,420

Casualties: 112 killed, 299 wounded, 16 missing, 41 POWs

SOUTH Africa

Air forces: 1 fighter aircraft squadron ("Flying Cheetahs")

Casualties: 36 killed, 9 POWs


Nonmilitary: 154-member medical team


Infantry: 1 regimental combat team

Naval forces: 4 frigates, 1 cargo ship

Air forces: 1 air transportation squadron

Nonmilitary: 3 medical service detachments


Infantry: 1 army brigade

Troops throughout war: 14,396

Casualties: 741 killed, 2,068 wounded, 163 missing, 244 POWs

Weapons Most Frequently Used in the Korean War

Small Arms

  • M-1911A1 .45 Caliber Pistol: The standard U.S. sidearm in the Korean War, a semiautomatic weapon that carried seven rounds. Weighing three pounds, it had a maximum range of thirty yards.
  • M-1 "Garand" .30 Caliber Rifle: The primary rifle used by Americans and South Koreans, a gas-operated semiautomatic weapon with an eight-round clip. Weighing 9.5 pounds, its range was about 550 meters and it had a rate of fire of about thirty rounds per minute.
  • M-1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR): At least one BAR was issued to every rifle squad in the U.S. infantry and it became the basic automatic support weapon. The BAR could fire either automatically or semiautomatically. It had a twenty-round detachable box magazine. Weighing 19.5 pounds, it had a range of about eight hundred meters and a rate of fire of about three hundred to six hundred rounds per minute. It could be fired from the shoulder or from a bipod.
  • Bayonets: Knives that are attached to the end of rifles so that in hand-to-hand combat they can be used as spears.


Grenades are small bombs that are filled with explosives, gas, or chemicals.

They can be thrown by hand or shot from a launcher. A grenade is usually activated by pulling a pin and then holding down a safety lever until the user is ready to throw it. Within seconds of the release of the safety lever, the grenade explodes.

Heavy Weapons (usually require more than one soldier to fire)

  • .30 Caliber Machine Guns: Air-cooled or water-cooled, these guns were used heavily in Korea. They used the same ammunition as the BAR and shot at a rate of four hundred to six hundred rounds per minute.
  • .50 Caliber Machine Guns: A heavy weapon mounted on armored vehicles and trucks and used to support the infantry. It fired about 575 rounds per minute and had a range of about two thousand yards.
  • 3.5-inch Rocket Launcher or "Super-Bazooka": Bazookas are rocket launchers that fire antitank ammunition. The3.5-inch bazooka was sent to Korea in a hurry when the troops found that the2.35-inch bazooka from World War II was ineffective against the Soviet-made tanks used by the North Koreans. The "super bazooka" was a twenty-five-inch tube with a range of about sixty-five meters. It could penetrate up to 280 millimeters of tank armor.


When the Korean War began, the United States had no tanks in Korea, due to a belief that tanks would not be able to maneuver in the mountainous terrain. When the North Koreans successfully used the Soviet T-34 tanks, the United States saw their error. Tanks were especially necessary as antitank weapons. Three types of tanks were used by the United States:

  • M-4 "Sherman" Medium Tank: The most successful tank in the Korean terrain, the Sherman was a thirty-five-ton vehicle armed with a high velocity seventy-six-millimeter main gun and two machine guns. The hull, tank, sides, and turret of the tank were protected by varying thicknesses of armor. It could move up to twenty-four miles an hour.
  • M-26 "Pershing" Heavy Tank: A more advanced tank than the Sherman, the Pershing weighed forty-five tons and was run by a five-member crew. It was armed with a ninety-millimeter main gun and two machine guns and could reach speeds of up to twenty-five miles an hour.
  • M-24 "Chaffee" Light Tank: With less armor and fewer arms, this tank could move more quickly than the heavier tanks and could be run by a crew of four. It weighed eighteen tons.


  • M1 eight-inch (203.2mm) Howitzer: Howitzers are cannons that shoot high. The eight-inch howitzer weighed about fifteen tons and was mounted on a four-wheel carriage, to be towed by a ten-ton truck or tracked utility vehicle. The weapon was about thirty-six feet long, had a range of about ten miles, and had a rate of fire of about thirty rounds an hour. The eight-inch howitzer was operated by a crew of about fourteen and took twenty minutes to set up.
  • M-114 155-millimeter Howitzer: A medium-sized howitzer, weighing 6.5 tons and measuring twenty-four feet long. It fired at a range of about ten miles, at a rate of fire of about one hundred rounds per hour, and was operated by a crew of eleven.
  • M-101A1 105-millimeter Howitzer: This lighter howitzer had a range of about seven miles and a rate of fire of about one hundred rounds per hour. It needed a crew of eight and could be set up in about three minutes.

Source: Michael J. Varhola. Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950–1953. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing, 2000.