The Korean War, in which 36,000 Americans died fending off two Communist armies bent on conquering pro-Western South Korea, has the dubious distinction of being our “forgotten war.” This is a shame, and something of a puzzle, as the conflict had an enormous impact on American military strategy and foreign policy.
The fighting in Korea, which at several junctures threatened to blossom into World War III, convinced the U.S. foreign policy establishment that it could no longer afford to rely primarily on nuclear weapons as a deterrent to Communist adventurism. After the Korean War, there would never again be a small “peacetime” American military establishment.
The country needed a uniquely capable military on a permanent basis, with truly global reach. Conventional armed forces had to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice to a Soviet threat in Western Europe, and Communist-inspired wars of “national liberation” anywhere in the world. “The commitment on the part of the United States to contain communism everywhere,” writes renowned historian John Lewis Gaddis, “originated in the events surrounding the Korean War.”
The United States emerged from the conflict as the new global policeman on the block—and with the most powerful military in world history—a state of affairs that continues to this day.
And of course, the Korean conflict was the first in a long line of limited wars fought by U.S. forces, in which political considerations both constricted and complicated military operations in bewildering and unexpected ways. It was the fear of direct Chinese intervention in Vietnam—a fear born during the Korean conflict—that put such frustrating limits on American operations in Southeast Asia. The political and military scaffolding for U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Kosovo, and even Afghanistan and Iraq, first began to take shape in the pressure-cooker that raged on the Korean peninsula from June 1950 until July 1953.
Korea witnessed several military innovations that changed the face of modern warfare. The helicopter came into its own in reconnaissance, resupply, and medical evacuation missions. For the first time, jet fighters battled each other in dogfights to gain air superiority.
The first six months of combat in Korea witnessed two of the most stunning reversals of military fortune in 20th century warfare. North Korea’s June 1950 armored blitzkrieg across South Korea came perilously close to unifying the entire peninsula under the iron hand of Kim Il Sung, and destroying a (largely) American field army hunkered down in a tightly compressed enclave around the port of Pusan on the southeastern coast—the “Pusan Perimeter.”
Then came the first great reversal of fortune: In mid-September, two American divisions conducted a brilliantly successful amphibious assault well behind the lines of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at Inchon, and recaptured the South Korean capital of Seoul, cutting the Communists’ supply lines. Over the course of the next two weeks, UN forces inflicted devastating casualties on the KPA, driving its shattered divisions across the 38th parallel, back into North Korea.
The risky amphibious operation, Operation Chromite, had been the brainchild of Douglas MacArthur, and was carried out against the better judgment of the Navy and the Marines. Many thought Chromite was MacArthur’s finest piece of generalship, which was saying quite a bit.
Gripped by euphoria and a lingering sense of outrage over North Korea’s blatant act of aggression, the Truman administration then attempted to establish UN control over all of North Korea by force of arms. MacArthur sent the Eighth Army up the west coast of North Korea, and X-Corps, another multi-divisional force, up the east coast, with about 80 miles of mountainous terrain between the two.
Mao’s newly established People’s Republic of China had issued repeated warnings that it would intervene if UN forces invaded North Korea. Truman and his advisers joined MacArthur in believing Mao was bluffing.
He was not. And so came the second great reversal of fortune: More than 300,000 troops of Communist China’s People’s Liberation Army (the PLA) under Gen. Peng Dehuai crossed the Yalu River into North Korea between mid-October and late November with the express intention of driving the Americans and their UN allies not only out of North Korea, but off the entire peninsula.
They nearly succeeded. UN intelligence grossly underestimated both the size and the capability of the Chinese forces, which would soon expand to more than a million men. Although the PLA lacked heavy artillery, motorized transport, and modern communications, many of its divisions had seen heavy combat in the long Chinese Civil War. Chinese troops were seasoned infantrymen, capable of marching enormous distances with little rest, and they were inured to the bitter cold and blustery winds that prevailed in the mountainous terrain that covered most of North Korea.
About 180,000 PLA troops counter-attacked the advancing Eighth Army on November 26, in a blistering series of human wave assaults announced by bugles, and well supported by mortars. UN troops had been assured they would “be home by Christmas.” The shock of such a massive onslaught was completely overwhelming. Within 48 hours, the lion’s share of regiments in the Eighth Army broke down into a disorderly retreat—perhaps the most humiliating episode in the entire history of the U.S. Army.
All along the line, officers and men fled from blocking positions, in many cases leaving behind their dead, wounded, and vast quantities of supplies. Widespread panic set in, as rumors of “invincible Chinese hordes” spread like wildfire. Some American and Republic of Korea units broke and fled south well before the Chinese had approached their front lines.
Not every unit cracked—not by a long shot. But sufficient numbers of troops abandoned their positions to force the commanding general, Walton Walker, to order a general withdrawal to Sunchon, about 30 miles south of Kunu-ri. The hurriedly prepared defensive line there could not stand up against the Communist onslaught. PLA troops in great numbers got in behind withdrawing U.S. units, and set up road blocks and ambushes by the score, adding considerably to the confusion and fear.
Over the first 10 days of the disaster, the Eighth Army retreated 120 miles; before it was all over, Seoul was in the hands of Communist forces for a second time, and the Eighth Army finally managed to halt its slide north of the city of Taejon. Just south of Seoul, the Chinese advance finally stalled. The infantry units ran out of steam, and the PLA had outrun its (quite limited) supply lines.
Gen. Leslie Mansergh, a British officer who witnessed the collapse of the Eighth Army firsthand, filed a top-secret report to his superiors in London about the weaknesses of the U.S. Army, which was all too accurate: Too many enlisted men, he wrote, never expected to have to fight. They were psychologically and physically unprepared for combat. A high percentage of infantry commanders were extremely reluctant to get off the roads and fight in the hills, where the enemy typically formed up for attacks.
U.S. Army troops, wrote Gen. Mansergh, “do not understand locality defense or all-around defense in depth. They do not like holding defensive positions. They appear only to have studied mechanized advances at great speed . . . Americans do not understand infiltration and feel very naked when anybody threatens their flank or rear.”
In the east, X-Corps’ rapid advance also came to a screeching halt. But the withdrawal of one of X-Corps’ divisions turned into one of most heroic stories in this history of American arms. Deep inside North Korea, elements of at least seven PLA divisions attacked the 1st Marine Division, which had been reinforced with a number of small U.S. Army detachments—about 25,000 men in all—as it was deployed along a tenuous 78-mile road (the Main Supply Route, or MSR) from the town of Yudam-ni, just west of the Chosin Reservoir in the north, to the port of Hungnam in the south.
In arctic temperatures and some of the most inhospitable terrain in all of East Asia, the 1st Marine Division fought a harrowing two-week battle against encirclement and destruction. By the time the division came out of the mountains and down to the coast, it had suffered heavy casualties, but inflicted even greater damage on the enemy. Moreover, it somehow managed to carry virtually all its dead, heavy weapons, and equipment all the way to Hungnam.
On the night of November 27, the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments at Yudam-ni were hit with powerful PLA human wave assaults from multiple directions just hours after their own attack to the northwest had been called off due to darkness. Numerous companies and battalions attached to the 1st Division and deployed at supply bases and air strips along the MSR to the south were also attacked that night.
By morning, the two regiments at Yudam-ni had driven the Chinese back into the hills. Five miles south, the PLA was threatening to wipe out Capt. William Barber’s F Company, 5th Marines, which had the unenviable job of holding Toktong Pass. That twisting stretch of road, more than 4,000 feet above sea level, was a critical choke point along the MSR. If the Chinese seized it, the chances of extricating the 5th and 7th Regiments would be slim to none.
At 2:30 a.m. on November 28, F Company was attacked from three directions. Two squads were immediately wiped out. For the next 14 hours, Barber’s shrinking company fended off repeated assaults, sustaining 20 dead and 54 wounded. And the attacks just kept coming at irregular intervals for several more days.
With the entire division in effect surrounded by more than 120,000 enemy troops, even the most hardened Marines found it difficult to be sanguine about their fate. Col. Alpha Browser, the Marines’ chief operations planner, recalled years later: “I really thought we’d had it. We knew the size of the Chinese force against us—and we didn’t at the time understand their shortcomings. I wouldn’t have given a nickel for our chances of making it. Fortunately, a lot of people down the line could not see the overall situation as I could, and they continued to conduct themselves as if they were going to get out.”
The 1st Marine Division commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, remained unflappable in the midst of a growing crisis. He knew he had to concentrate his forces to prevent the Chinese from annihilating small units in detail along the MSR. Early on December 1, the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments, the bulk of the division’s infantry, began their breakout from Yudam-ni under intense pressure from the enemy. Infantry companies, ably supported by air and artillery, had to seize the high ground above the road, with one platoon leapfrogging another, methodically eliminating Chinese attack formations in front of the advancing force.
As the infantry fought off the Chinese in the snow-capped hills, an 8,000-man column, replete with hundreds of trucks, tanks, and jeeps, crept southward along the two-lane road below. Only the dead and seriously wounded rode in the vehicles.
Late on the afternoon of December 1, Lt. Col. Ray Davis’ 500-man task force broke from the column and marched eight miles through the mountains in sub-zero temperatures to relieve F Company at Toktong Pass. Davis’ Marines arrived just as F Company was on the verge of being overrun, having fought and marched over a series of trackless ridges and valleys for almost 24 hours straight. Barber’s F Company had held on to the pass for five days and nights, at a cost of 118 casualties, including five of its six officers.
Both Barber and Davis were later awarded the Medal of Honor, as their actions insured the passage of the big, snaking column through the pass and into the friendly confines of the big supply base at Hagaru-ri, 14 miles south of Yudam-ni. There, for about two days, the 5th and 7th Marines rested, having completed the most precarious leg of the withdrawal to the sea. Various Army, ROK, and British troops fended off PLA attacks on the base. The wounded were evacuated by air, and 500 replacements, mainly experienced infantrymen—joined the party for the march south.
By now, the fate of the Marines had become a national fixation, and reports of their progress were broadcast hour by hour on the radio. When a reporter at Hagaru-ri suggested the Marines were in headlong retreat, Smith’s response made headlines all over the world: “We’re not retreating,” said the professorial general. “We’re just advancing in a different direction.”
Smith wasn’t being flip. As the Marines conducted their “retrograde movement” from Yudam-ni, they had eviscerated at least two PLA divisions. Before the battle was all over, several more enemy divisions would be so torn up by U.S. firepower—both from the air and from the ground--that they were rendered completely ineffective in combat.
On December 6, the great fighting withdrawal continued, with the column further swollen by the original Hagaru-ri garrison, and troops from outposts further south that had fought their way into base to prevent its being overrun. Onward they marched, all the while enduring arctic blasts of wind and snow, Chinese snipers, and well-placed mortar fire.
The only way for the troops to keep their rations from freezing solid was to carry them in their armpits. Corpsmen kept their morphine syrettes for the wounded in their mouths to keep the precious drug from freezing.
The Chinese descended from the hills and attacked the exhausted Marines and soldiers along the column time and time again, writes historian Clay Blair, “like raiding Indians in the Old West.” But the Indians took far heavier losses than the cowboys.
At Koto-ri, the column expanded yet again, with the addition of elements of the 1st Marine Regiment. As it departed Koto-ri, the ferocity of PLA attacks seemed to diminish. Spirits began to soar among the Americans . . . only to plummet again when they got the word that the PLA had blasted a 24-foot gap in the single-lane MSR at Funchilin Pass, about three miles south of Koto-ri. Once again, the prospect of complete destruction gripped the half-frozen Marines and soldiers in the column. Now, the U.S. Air Force came to the rescue, dropping a number of steel bridging sections, and engineers assembled a replacement bridge strong enough to withstand the weight of the division’s tanks.
By December 10, the vanguard of the column entered the port of Hungnam. Over the next several days, unit by unit, about 100,000 Marines and a wide array of other UN units boarded a vast armada of ships and sailed away, and the U.S. Navy blew up the Hungnam port facilities in a spectacular bombardment. Total Marine casualties in the Chosin reservoir campaign were 718 killed and 3,500 wounded. More than 7,000 men suffered from frostbite.
Under the inspired leadership of Gen. Mathew Ridgway, UN forces fought a series of successful counteroffensives from January to May 1951, driving the Chinese, now joined by North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel. In April, MacArthur was famously relieved as Supreme Commander, when he refused to accept Truman’s decision to limit the new UN objective to restoration of the status quo ante-bellum. MacArthur wanted to mount a major offensive against China, and in so doing—in the opinion of most responsible decision-makers in the United States and Europe alike—risk provoking World War III. “In war,” intoned MacArthur, “there is no substitute for victory.”
The line struck a powerful emotional chord with Americans, but events were about to prove Gen. MacArthur wrong. There was a substitute for victory. Korea, in the end, was a limited war, for limited objectives, and victory in the traditional sense of the term was not among them. The war settled down into a brutal stalemate. Tens of thousands of combatants were killed in a lengthy series of inconclusive battles along the front line over the next two years, as peace negotiations dragged on, seemingly without end.
Finally, on July 27, 1953 an armistice brought the fighting to a merciful close, leaving the pre-war regimes in both North and South Korea intact. For millions of Americans, and certainly for Gen. MacArthur, it was a very unsatisfying result, but it was a harbinger of wars to come, in which international politics shaped the battlefield far more than the battlefield shaped politics.
As Gen. Ridgway put it, “Korea taught us that all warfare from this time forth must be limited. It could no longer be a question of whether to fight a limited war, but of how to avoid fighting any other.”