Walton H. "Johnnie" Walker
Walton H. "Johnnie" Walker
Born December 3, 1889
Died December 23, 1950
Near Seoul, South Korea
American military commander
Walton H. "Johnnie" Walker, one of the great generals of World War II (1939–45), commanded the Eighth Army in the Korean War from early July 1950, when the first U.S. troops arrived on the peninsula, until his sudden death on December 23, 1950. Few would envy him those five months of command. With the odds all in the enemy's favor, he led raw, untrained troops through vicious combat and constant defeat. The terrain and enemy were unknown, his troops had little experience or training and were short on equipment, and he did not get along well with his superior, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry). But "Bulldog" Walker was a professional soldier. Short of stature and short on words, he was tough and fearless in combat. When the North Koreans penned in the Eighth Army at the southern end of the Korean peninsula, Walker staged a concentrated defense of a large area known as the Pusan Perimeter. Although his forces did not have the strength to stop the enemy from penetrating the perimeter, Walker's dogged persistence in keeping his units moving to the holes in the defense line thwarted the efforts of the North Korean Army to push the United Nations forces out of Korea. Walker's defense of the Pusan Perimeter is considered one of history's great military feats.
Walton Harris Walker was born on December 3, 1889, in Belton, Texas. He entered the Victoria Military Institute in 1907 and then entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1912. He received a commission in the infantry and put in garrison duty (time at a military post) in several locations. Just before World War I (1914–18), he took part in the occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico, and served on the border patrol near Mexico. In 1917, he was promoted to captain and went to France as a company commander. He was then promoted to major and led his troops in the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. His skill leading troops in combat was noticed: he was awarded two Silver Stars for bravery and was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
"A fighter in every sense of the word"
At the beginning of World War II, Walker (by that time called "Johnnie Walker," after the scotch whiskey he drank), took command of the Third Armored Division. In 1941, he took over as the commander of the IV Armored Corps, which later became known as the XX Corps. In 1944, Walker led his division in the famous invasion of Normandy under the command of General George S. Patton (1885–1945) and his Third Army. Walker and the XX Corps saw very difficult and bloody combat and were central in the drive across northern France and the capture of key positions. By 1945, Walker's XX Corps had entered Austria and liberated Buchenwald, the German death camp. At the war's end, Walker was promoted to lieutenant general. Patton himself presided at the ceremony, calling Walker "a fighter in every sense of the word" (as quoted in John C. Fredericksen's biography in American Military Leaders). Patton, who would die in a car accident in Germany later that year, made a tremendous impression on Walker.
After the war, Walker took on commands in Dallas, Texas, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1948, he became the commander of the Eighth Army in Japan, which was part of Douglas MacArthur's Far East Command. When Walker arrived at his new post, he found the Eighth Army in very poor shape. Occupation duty in post-World War II Japan had been a young soldier's dream, with servants to do all the work at very low pay, clubs with good music playing well into the night, cheap alcohol, free trains, and plenty of time off to enjoy it all. Besides being soft from an easy life without combat training, the four divisions stationed in Japan were well understrength in personnel and equipment because of the huge budget cuts in the military after World War II. In the summer of 1949, Walker set up a training program for combat readiness with what resources he could muster. When the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, most of the men had gotten through the first rounds of training; none had advanced enough to be prepared to fight. Only 10 percent of the Eighth Army had combat experience.
The Korean War
The Korean War had roots in an agreement decided upon by the Allied powers (the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain) at the end of World War II. When Japan was defeated, the general order for its surrender included a provision for Korea, which Japan had occupied for decades, that had the U.S. troops accepting the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel and the Soviets, who were already on the Korean border, receiving the surrender north of it. (The 38th parallel was set as the dividing line between northern and southern Korea.) The Soviets were soon helping the northern Koreans develop a government and economic system while the United States was bolstering forces in the south. The United Nations (UN), which was established during World War II to promote friendly relations between countries, was called in to set up elections across Korea, after which the country would be independent. Claiming the UN lacked the authority to determine the future of Korea, the Soviets and northern Koreans refused to take part in the elections. They were held nonetheless, only in the south, and a new country, the Republic of Korea (ROK), was established. The northern Koreans then held elections of their own, and established the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Both Korean governments sought to reunite the country, but only under its own control. In the summer of 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea to begin the war.
Once MacArthur had cleared sending U.S. ground troops to help the ROK Army in its efforts to stop the advancing North Korean People's Army (NKPA), he put Walker in charge of all ground units in Korea on June 30, 1950. General William F. Dean (1899–1981; see entry) and his Twenty-fourth Division had been the first American units in the war. On July 7, Walker flew to the current defensive position near the city of Taejon to find Dean and his troops in a desperate position after multiple retreats and heavy casualties. He made up his mind to bring the entire Eighth Army to Korea. Walker was officially in command of U.S. troops in Korea on July 13 and took command of the ROK troops as well on July 17.
Walker created a headquarters for the Eighth Army at the city of Taegu in the south of the peninsula. Soon he learned that the Twenty-fourth Division had been defeated at their position on the Kum River. As he would do at every crucial battle throughout the war, he had his private pilot, Captain Eugene Michael Lynch, fly him to the scene to get a bird's eye view. The flights were often hair-raising: flying low to observe the battlefields closely inevitably drew enemy fire. Walker was more concerned about the vulnerability of the troops below, knowing they were unprepared for battle. His orders were to delay the NKPA forces in their southward advance. MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the president's and secretary of defense's war advisors) believed the North Koreans to be a weak force that the United States could scare off just by appearing. Walker saw for himself that this assessment was very far from true, but, always a good soldier, steeled himself to carry out the orders.
"There will be no more retreating"
By the end of July, MacArthur and the Defense Department understood how strong an enemy the NKPA was. Enough UN forces were shipped to Korea that the North Koreans no longer outnumbered the Eighth Army forces. Tanks, guns, ammunition, and other military equipment were arriving daily. Even so, the Eighth Army was defeated time and again. After the city of Taejon fell to the North Koreans, the city of Taegu, temporarily serving as the ROK capital and Eighth Army headquarters, was in jeopardy. Walker knew his troops were being ravaged by the enemy and that they were more likely to panic and run than to hold their ground. As the divisions continued to withdraw, he told the commanders that retreat was unacceptable. On July 29, after receiving word from MacArthur's headquarters that there would be no more retreats, Walker delivered his famous "stand or die" speech to the Twenty-fifth Division staff, as quoted in John Toland's In Mortal Combat: Korea 1950–1953: "We are fighting a battle against time. There will be no more retreating, withdrawal, or readjustment of the lines…. There is no line behind us towhich we can retreat."
Oddly, at the time Walker delivered this speech, he had a well-developed plan to retreat with all Eighth Army forces to the Naktong River, where they would set up a strategic defense line. He wanted to set up a solid front from which standard U.S. military methods, including artillery and air power from interlocking units, provided a tight and secure defense line. He had mapped out the Pusan Perimeter, a one-hundred-mile long, fifty-mile wide rectangle with the Naktong River serving as its western boundary. His pilot, Mike Lynch, was busy flying Walker all over the Naktong River area during late July and early August. He described the general's activity, as quoted in Joseph C. Goulden's book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War: "General Walker got to know every nook and cranny of the river. When the fighting began, and Hill So-and-so was the scene, Walker could immediately envision the terrain. This helped him immensely in his defense."
The Pusan Perimeter
The withdrawal to the Pusan Perimeter took place between August 1 and 3, 1950. Walker carefully planned the positions of every unit assigned to Korea for the defense of the huge area. The first order of business was to stop the North
Korean drive down the western roads leading to Masan. Walker sent the Twenty-fifth Division. This counterattack ultimately failed. The marines, in their first highly publicized fight in Korea, bailed out the Twenty-fifth Division twice. 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.
The North Koreans began an attack on August 5 in an area called the Naktong Bulge. They crossed the river during the night 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) and then infiltrated and, despite fierce combat, continued on their drive into the perimeter. On August 17, the marines struck the ridge line within the Naktong Bulge called Obnong-ni and shattered the North Koreans.
The battle for Taegu
In mid-August, the North Koreans made two unsuccessful attacks on the city of Taegu, but they kept attacking. By August 15, the NKPA was only fifteen miles north of Taegu. Walker, unwilling to allow any kind of withdrawal, sent in the highly successful Twenty-seventh Regiment, called the Wolfhounds, led by Lieutenant Colonel John "Mike" Michaelis to join ROK First Commander General Paik Sun Yup (1920–; see entry). A seven-night battle raged in a place called the "Bowling Alley," a two-mile stretch of road with mountains rising on either side. During this battle, the North Korean tanks would begin the attack each night 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. By day, the air support strafed the enemy, firing upon them with machine guns from low-flying aircraft. Unable to penetrate the UN positions, the North Koreans traveled around them in the hills, but the air support again bombed them relentlessly, stopping their drive for Taegu.
In the last few days of August, MacArthur was finalizing his plans for an amphibious (using land, sea, and air forces) attack at the port city of Inchon, near Seoul. He was creating a new X Corps, combining marines and army infantry divisions and a huge naval fleet for the attack. His boasts to the media made the plan common knowledge, and the North Koreans knew they had to capture the Pusan Perimeter soon. In the first days of September, they struck savagely on five different fronts, penetrating the Naktong Bulge and moving in force into the mountains just north of Taegu.
Walker was worried about the Naktong Bulge, where the penetration was deepest. Although he was aware that the marines were preparing for the attack at Inchon, in desperation he asked for their help. MacArthur allowed him the use of the marines, but only for three days. In those three days, the marines counterattacked, 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 held the line.
The X Corps' attack at Inchon was a complete success, but the NKPA soldiers fighting at the Pusan were not informed of it right away and kept up a vicious battle. As Walker's army fought to break out of the perimeter, they incurred heavy casualties. Finally, on September 23, the North Korean troops got word that the UN forces had invaded behind them and they began their retreat. The Eighth Army then raced up the peninsula to meet with the X Corps.
The Eighth Army advanced north, recapturing the capital city of Seoul after a difficult battle. They crossed the 38th parallel that divided North and South Korea and captured, with less difficulty, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on October 20. By late October, Walker had set himself up with a headquarters in North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung 's (1912–1994; see entry) former headquarters. His troops were at the Chongchon River in North Korea, and he received orders from MacArthur to advance as rapidly as possible to the north. The X Corps would also advance, but separated from the Eighth Army by mountains and under the command of General Edward M. Almond (1892–1979). As the troops were beginning their advance, word came in that the ROK divisions were being attacked in strength by Chinese troops, which had entered the war to aid the North Koreans. Walker believed the reports, and expressed grave concerns to MacArthur. MacArthur did not believe the reports, and ordered a rapid advance to the north, promising a prompt end to the war.
The Eighth Army was hit all around by the Chinese as it advanced, but MacArthur ordered Walker to press on. Walker did not get along well with MacArthur, but was too professional to argue with his commander. He was faced with brutally cold weather, a shortage of supplies, and a vicious enemy. Without the support of the X Corps, the Eighth Army was completely exposed on its mountainous side, where the Chinese were already known to have infiltrated. While MacArthur was telling the press the army might be "home by Christmas," Walker cautiously stalled his army's advance to the north, waiting for supplies and personnel. When he did launch the offensive, heading up to the Chinese border, the Chinese attacked powerfully. The attack took place on November 25; by November 26, three ROK divisions had been destroyed and the entire Eighth Army was threatened with annihilation. Walker promptly flew to MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, to get permission from the general to retreat. The Eighth Army then retreated in several stages to the 38th parallel. Not long after Walker's retreat, the X Corps began its bloody retreat from the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir.
Taking the heat
From the perspective of most military historians, Walker acted prudently and correctly in delaying what he could see was a dangerous and ill-conceived mission. In fact, he almost certainly saved thousands of lives. But at the command headquarters in Tokyo, his actions were criticized. Even if he had been right to question the risk, his doing so made MacArthur and his staff, who admitted no risk, look bad. There was talk of replacing Walker as commander of the Eighth Army in Korea. Walker had never been a man of words and did not attempt to defend himself. He was not a particularly charming or popular man, and could not compete with MacArthur's theatrics.
At the end of December 1950, the Eighth Army was preparing to back up the ROK forces at the 38th parallel. On December 23, Walker went to inspect some units at the front near Seoul. His son, Lieutenant Sam Walker, was a battalion commander in the Nineteenth Division in Korea, and he was being awarded a Silver Star that day. Walker was going to present it to him as a surprise during this trip. He never got there. Traveling at high speeds was typical for the busy general, and he ordered his driver to go fast. When an ROK truck unexpectedly pulled out in front of them, Walker's jeep turned over on the icy road. The general was killed immediately.
At the time of Walker's death, the Eighth Army troops were demoralized from the onslaught of the Chinese invasion. They had lost the ground that they had worked so hard to gain. General Matthew B. Ridgway (1895–1993; see entry) replaced Walker as commander of the Eighth Army in Korea. After one more Chinese offensive and more losses, he built up the morale of the soldiers and began a successful program of counteroffensives. For all that Walker had achieved during his months of fighting in Korea, he would be remembered more for the defeats that occurred in the first months of the war than his skillful strategies and iron determination under fire. He had borne the brunt of the worst that war had to offer and shouldered the responsibilities, never calling attention to his own achievements. John Toland quotes British author Callum MacDonald on the legacy of Walker: "As for Walker, his crime was to be associated with an embarrassing defeat in an army with a cult of winning. It is difficult to believe that any other general could have done any better."
Walker Was Brought Home By His Son Sam And Buried In Arlington National Cemetery. Sam Walker Was A Combat Veteran Of Both The Korean And Vietnam Wars And Was Twice Awarded The Silver Star For Gallantry In Action. He And His Father Are The Only Father And Son To Achieve The Rank Of Four-Star General In U.S. Army History.
Where to Learn More
Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986, revised edition, 2000.
Fredriksen, John C. American Military Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story of the War. New York: Times Books, 1982.
Kangas, David. "Walton H. Walker." In The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler. New York: Garland, 1995.
Toland, John. In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953. New York: William Morrow, 1991.
Webster's American Military Biographies. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1978.
Words to Know
division (or infantry division): a self-sufficient unit, usually about 15,000 to 16,000 strong, under the command of a major general.
infiltrate: to enter into enemy lines by passing through gaps in its defense.
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.