Military history


The Coming of the Chinese

On the evening of November 1, 1950, Private Carl Simon of G Company, 8th Cavalry, lay in the company position with his comrades speculating nervously about the fate of a patrol of F Company, which had reported itself in trouble, “under attack by unidentified troops.” As the darkness closed in, they heard firing, bugles, and shouting. Their accompanying Koreans could not identify the language, but said that it must be Chinese. When a wave of yelling enemy charged the Americans out of the gloom, firing and grenading as they came, no effective resistance was offered. “There was just mass hysteria on the position,” said Simon. “It was every man for himself. The shooting was terrific, there were Chinese shouting everywhere, I didn’t know which way to go. In the end, I just ran with the crowd. We just ran and ran until the bugles grew fainter.”1 The war diaries of the 1st Cavalry Division, of which the 8th Cavalry was a part, present the events at Ansung in a somewhat more coherent, less Armageddonist spirit than Private First Class Simon. But since his uncomplicated perception—of a thunderbolt from the night that brought the entire ordered pattern of his army life down about his head—was to become common to thousands of other young Americans in Korea in the weeks that followed, it seems no less valid than that of his superiors.

The twenty-year-old New York baker’s son had joined the Army to see the world. He was in transit to Japan when the war began and had to look on a map to discover where Korea was. When he saw the place for himself, he liked it not at all. His unit had been uneasy, unhappy, and uncomfortable since it crossed the 38th Parallel. Simon had been slightly wounded in a skirmish soon after entering North Korea. The only moment of the war he had enjoyed was the Bob Hope Show in Pyongyang, though he was so short that he had to keep jumping up and down among the vast audience of soldiers to catch a glimpse of the distant stage. Simon was one of many thousands of men vastly relieved to find the war almost over, impatient to get home.

Yet now he found himself among thirty-five frightened fugitives, in the midst of Korea without a compass. The officers among them showed no urge to exercise any leadership. The group merely began to shuffle southward. Most threw away their weapons. They walked for fourteen days, eating berries, waving their yellow scarves desperately but vainly to observation planes. Once, in a village, they got rice and potatoes at gunpoint from a papa-san. At night they gazed at the curious beauty of the hills, on fire from strafing. For a time they lay up in the house of a frightened civilian, who eventually drove them out with his warnings of Communists in the area. They were close to physical collapse, and to surrender, when one morning they thought they glimpsed a tank bearing a “red carpet” identification panel. They ran forward and found on the ground a London newspaper. Then they saw British ration packs and, at last, far below them in the valley, a tracked vehicle moving. They determined to make for it, whatever the nationality of its occupants. To their overwhelming relief, they found themselves in the hands of the British 27 Brigade.

• • •

Private First Class Simon and his companions were a small part of the flotsam from the disaster that befell the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division between November 1 and 3, which also inflicted desperate damage upon the ROK II Corps. The South Koreans were the first to be heavily attacked. The Chinese 116th Division struck against the 15th ROK. Then, on November 1 near Ansung, about midway across the Korean peninsula, it was the turn of the Americans. Strong forces hit them with great determination, separating their units, then attacking them piecemeal. Batteries in transit on the roads, rifle companies on positions, found themselves under devastating fire from small arms, mortars, and katyusha rockets. The 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry was effectively destroyed. The regiment’s other battalions were severely mauled, and elements of the 5th Cavalry damaged. Yet when the 1st Cavalry Division’s action ended, activity across the Korean battle front once again dwindled into local skirmishes.

Herein lies one of the greatest, most persistent enigmas of the Korean War. More than three weeks before the main Chinese onslaught was delivered with full force, Peking delivered a ferocious warning by fire: we are here, said the Chinese, in the unmistakable language of rifle and grenade, in the mountains of Korea that you cannot penetrate. We can strike at will against your forces, and they are ill equipped in mind and body—above all, in mind—to meet us. We are willing to accept heavy casualties to achieve tactical success. The armies of Syngman Rhee are entirely incapable of resisting our assaults.

Yet this message, this warning, MacArthur and his subordinates absolutely declined to receive. They persisted in their conviction that their armies could drive with impunity to the Yalu. They continued to believe that the Chinese were either unwilling or unable to intervene effectively. They showed no signs of alarm at the evidence that not only the ROK divisions, but their own, were at something less than peak fighting efficiency. They had created a fantasy world for themselves, in which events would march in accordance with a divine providence directed from the Dai Ichi building. The conduct of the drive to the Yalu reflected a contempt for intelligence, for the cardinal principles of military prudence, seldom matched in twentieth-century warfare.

• • •

The first ROK forces reached the Yalu on October 25 and sent back a bottle of its intoxicating waters to Syngman Rhee. Some soldiers, like their American counterparts, equally symbolically chose to urinate from its banks. On the same day the ROK II Corps, driving north on the western axis of the UN advance, was strongly attacked and, in the action that followed, almost destroyed. The ROKs reported that the agents of their disaster were Chinese and sent some Chinese prisoners to the Americans. General Paek Sun Yup, probably the ablest South Korean commander, was at this time transferred to temporary command of II Corps, and demanded to see the POWs personally at his command post. He spoke fluent Chinese, and immediately established that the prisoners were indeed from the mainland, with southern accents. They wore Chinese reversible smocks. Paek asked them, “Are there many of you here?” They nodded. “Many many.” Paek reported the conversation directly to I Corps’ commander, “Shrimp” Milburn. But Milburn was no more impressed by the Korean than by his own intelligence officer, Colonel Percy Thomas, who was also convinced that there was now a serious Chinese threat. General Walker himself sought to explain away the presence of some Chinese among the North Koreans as insignificant: “After all, a lot of Mexicans live in Texas. . . .” II Corps fell back as the enemy advanced under cover of vast makeshift smoke screens, created by setting fire to the forests through which they marched. When the U.S. 1st Cavalry passed through the ROKs to take up the attack, the division was savaged. Meanwhile, in the east, ROK I Corps, moving north from Hamnung, was stopped in its tracks on the road to the hydroelectric plants of the Chosin Reservoir. As early as October 25 the ROK 1st Division found itself heavily engaged and captured a soldier who admitted that he was Chinese. The next day more prisoners were taken. They were identified as members of the 124th Division of the Chinese 42nd Army. By October 31 twenty-five Chinese prisoners had been taken, and the strength of the Communist force at the foot of the Chosin Reservoir was apparent.

The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, of the British 27 Brigade, found themselves engaged in a skirmish near the Chongchong River which cost them five killed and six wounded. They advanced cautiously forward to examine the scattered bodies of the Communists on the hillside. “They were unlike any enemy I had seen before,” wrote Lieutenant Colin Mitchell. “They wore thick padded clothing, which made them look like little Michelin men. I turned one body over with my foot, and saw that he wore a peaked cap with a red-star badge. These soldiers were Chinese. I then turned over another and, as I looked down at him, he opened one eye and looked up at me. I shot him with my luger, shouting to the platoon, ‘They’re alive!’ It was quickly over, and all the enemy lay dead.”2 Yet still the UN Command could not bring itself to recognize the simple truth—that the Chinese had entered the Korean War in force.

Bradley, in Washington, speculated uncertainly as to whether Peking was merely seeking to make a face-saving gesture in support of its defeated North Korean allies. There was renewed debate about the merits of bombing the Yalu bridges. On November 13 the State Department sought opinions from London, Canberra, Ottawa, Delhi, Wellington, Moscow, and The Hague about possible overflights of Manchuria by UN aircraft in “hot pursuit.” U.S. ambassadors in each capital reported that reaction to such an initiative would be highly unfavorable. CIA reports continued to give uncertain guidance: on November 8 the Agency estimated that there were 30,000 to 40,000 Chinese already in Korea, with 700,000 more poised across the border in Manchuria. The reports suggested that Peking had full freedom of action and might move in strength. But opinion in Washington remained obsessed with the belief that the Communist world acted in concert to a prearranged plan, that Peking would not or could not operate independently of Moscow, and that the assumed unwillingness of Moscow to see the war extended would preclude Chinese action. Bedell Smith, the CIA’s director, urged the National Security Council on November 9 that MacArthur should be given a freer hand in North Korea because “the Kremlin’s basic decision for or against war would hardly be influenced by this local provocation in this area.”3

At a joint State-Defense meeting on November 21, Vandenburg and Forrest urged that, if MacArthur’s advance to the Yalu was checked by the Chinese, Peking should be told to “quit, or we would have to hit them in Manchuria.”4 No evidence of dissent from this view by Marshall or any others present is recorded. Washington interpreted Chinese warnings and probes in October as evidence of weakness and reluctance to fight. The Administration’s instinct was to call the Chinese bluff. Although Washington had some reason to be exasperated by MacArthur’s public declarations and threats, the private mood in the capital, the confidence in imminent victory, and lack of apprehension about Chinese intentions mirrored that in Tokyo. And if the American assessment of Peking subsequently proved bitterly mistaken, the circumstantial evidence indeed supports the view that the Chinese moved with caution and circumspection into Korea, and committed themselves to all-out war only when it became apparent, first, that the UN forces were not entirely formidable foes; and, second, that unless they were defeated on the battlefield, they were committed to an advance to the Yalu. Some of the Chinese soldiers who took part in the first actions against the ROKs and the 1st Cavalry described how, afterward, they were marched back across the Yalu and moved eastward to cross the river into North Korea once more for the main offensive that followed. For an army as scantily provided with transport as that of China, this was scarcely an economical approach to deployment. It can be most readily explained by a measure of caution and indecision in Peking, as the Chinese leadership measured the military capability of the UN forces. In November 1950, General MacArthur thundered to the United Nations that the Chinese intervention was “one of the most offensive acts of international lawlessness of historical record.” This was absurd. It may never be possible to piece together the precise decision-making process in Peking that led to the order to enter Korea. Almost all the key participants are dead, and among the living there is no reliable body of records to enable even those who wish to establish the objective truth about recent Chinese political history to do so. But the evidence is overwhelming that in 1950, Mao Tse Tung and his colleagues were deeply reluctant to engage the United Nations—or, more precisely, the forces of the United States—in Korea.

China had scarcely begun to recover from her civil war. In 1949 an estimated 40 million of her population were affected by natural disasters. To famine was added the new problem of local guerrilla war: the traditional phrase “kung fei”—“Communist bandits”—was now transferred to the Kuomintang. Over a million were rounded up or killed between May 1949 and May 1951, most of them south of the Yangtse. In the country, secret societies had grown up to resist land reform. There was widespread dissent in the cities. China was still seeking to secure what she considered to be her own borders. In October 1950 the People’s Liberation Army moved into Tibet and completed its occupation of the country only the following year. Meanwhile, in the east, Peking’s attentions were overwhelmingly focused upon eliminating Formosa as the base of Nationalist opposition. Throughout the summer of 1950 invasion barges were being built, some 5,000 junks assembled, airfields prepared to support the assault on Chiang’s stronghold, which the Third Field Army’s deputy commander, Su Yu, declared would be “an extremely big problem, and will involve the biggest campaign in the history of modern Chinese warfare.” Yet amid all this, Mao was seeking to demobilize vast masses of his unwieldy army, to return soldiers to the factories and fields and workshops where they were so desperately needed. It was a problem that Peking had failed to resolve by the autumn of 1950, when China still possessed some five million men under arms.

Peking must have been well aware of Kim Il Sung’s invasion plans—the railway system of northeast China played an important part in moving Soviet supplies and equipment into North Korea. But there is no evidence that China played a significant role in the North Korean decision to go to war. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, signed in Moscow on February 15, 1950, had gone some way to heal the long-standing rift between Mao and Stalin. But it provided China with disappointingly little material assistance. It was rumored that Stalin had demanded, and Mao rejected, the wholesale appointment of Soviet advisers as a condition of major equipment aid. The People’s Liberation Army was still equipped entirely with arms captured from the Japanese or supplied by the Americans to the Kuomintang. Despite considerable skill in fieldcraft, it lacked the communications or the training to operate cohesively much beyond regimental level. The PLA remained, in large measure, a guerrilla army, lacking the advantage of the heavy weapons—and the handicap of the impedimenta—of a modern Western army. Both for reasons of domestic political stability and military preparedness, in the autumn of 1950 it appears that many key figures among China’s leadership were most reluctant to see their country exposed to war with the West.

But Washington’s linkage of the invasion of South Korea with the threat to Formosa in June 1950 had an immediate influence on China. Truman’s statement on June 27, declaring that “the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area and to U.S. forces performing their lawful and necessary functions in that area,” created—incidentally and almost casually—an entirely new and firm commitment to keeping Formosa out of the hands of Peking’s Communist rulers. This was a much greater blow to China’s perceived national interest than Washington seemed to recognize at the time. Premier Chou En Lai adopted a far tougher public attitude toward the American blockade of the Taiwan Strait than toward American intervention in Korea. Henceforward, as a leading historian of the PLA has written, “The struggle to liberate Taiwan began to be linked to the struggle against U.S. imperialism as such, and the achievement of the former was now seen in the more long-term context of the latter.”5 After years in which Chiang Kai Shek had been perceived as the foremost enemy of Communist China, with astonishing rapidity the United States took on this role. “The American imperialists fondly hope that their armed aggression against Taiwan will prevent us from liberating it,” Kuo Mo-Jo wrote in the People’s Daily in August. “Around China in particular, their designs for a blockade are taking shape in the pattern of a stretched-out snake. Starting from South Korea, it stretches to Japan, the Ryuku Islands, Taiwan and the Philippines and then turns up at Vietnam.”6 Westerners, and Americans in particular, sometimes made the mistake of allowing their scorn for propagandist rhetoric such as this to blind them to the very real Chinese fear of encirclement. Throughout the Korean War, Washington persistently sought the communist ideological logic behind Chinese actions. It might have been more profitable to consider instead historic Chinese nationalist logic. Korea had provided the springboard for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria only a generation before. As the Americans drove north after smashing Kim Il Sung’s armies in September 1950, Peking was appalled by the imminent prospect of an American imperialist army on the Yalu.

Chinese alarm was intensified by the visibly strengthening relationship between the United States and Chiang. The warm words spoken by both sides during MacArthur’s July visit to Formosa were widely publicized, as were Chiang’s offers of Nationalist troops to fight alongside the United Nations in Korea. The Communists would have been even more disturbed had they known how close Truman came to accepting Chiang’s offer of 33,000 men when MacArthur’s armies were desperate for reinforcements.

In late September and early October, the Chinese issued increasingly forceful warnings, both in public statements and in private remarks to the Indian Ambassador in Peking, about their attitude to the American presence in North Korea. In the first weeks of fighting in Korea, the Chinese press scarcely reported the war. Yet now a growing crescendo of anti-American propaganda was printed and broadcast: “Resist America, Aid Korea”; “Preserve Our Homes, Defend the Nation.” Massed meetings denounced the “bloodstained bandits,” “murderers,” “savages.” The People’s Republic did not intend, General Nieh Jung-Chen, China’s Acting Chief of Staff, told Sardar K. Pannikkar, “to sit back with folded hands and let the Americans come to their border. . . . We know what we are in for, but at all costs American aggression has got to be stopped. The Americans can bomb us, they can destroy our industries, but they cannot defeat us on land.” On the danger of American nuclear reaction, Nieh said, “We have calculated all that. . . . They may even drop atom bombs on us. What then? They may kill a few million people. Without sacrifice, a nation’s independence cannot be upheld. . . . After all, China lives on the farms. What can atom bombs do there?”7

At the State Department in Washington, a handful of officials took heed and sounded a note of caution. John Paton Davies warned that a combination of “irredentism, expansionism, Soviet pressure and inducements, strategic anxieties, ideological zeal, domestic pressures, and emotional anti-Americanism” might lead China to intervene. Edmund Chubb, director of the Office of Chinese Affairs, expressed the conviction that China would fight. But his persistent pessimism on this issue had undermined his credibility. As late as October 12 the CIA argued that “despite statements by Chou En Lai, troop movements to Manchuria, and propaganda charges of atrocities and border violations, there are no convincing indications of an actual Chinese Communist intention to resort to full-scale intervention in Korea.” Dean Acheson found the logic against Chinese intervention irresistible: they would lose all hope of their coveted UN seat; they would need to become clients of the Russians, dependent upon Moscow for air and naval support to be able to wage war at all; the PLA was too poorly equipped to compete convincingly with MacArthur’s armies; the Chinese government must be daunted by the expectation of devastating American reprisals if Chinese forces were committed against those of the UN. The United States was convinced that its policies in the Far East presented no threat to any legitimate Chinese interest. Washington therefore persuaded itself that Peking would reach the same conclusion.

Peking did not. On October 2, Premier Chou En Lai summoned Pannikkar, the Indian Ambassador, and directly informed him that if the United Nations crossed the 38th Parallel, China would intervene in the war. Truman, when he learned of Chou’s message, dismissed it as “a bald attempt to blackmail the UN. . . . The problem that arose in connection with these reports was that Mr. Pannikkar had in the past played the game of the Chinese Communists fairly regularly, so that his statement could not be taken as that of an impartial observer.” The absence of any direct link between Washington and Peking was a significant force in preventing the Americans from achieving even the level of understanding they possessed with Moscow. The lack of diplomatic relations together with the absolute ignorance of the Peking regime about how these might profitably be conducted ensured that Washington never received the sort of signals from Peking which, if believed, could have averted a confrontation on the battlefield. On October 8, the day after American troops crossed the 38th Parallel, Mao issued the order for “Chinese People’s Volunteers” to “resist the attacks of United States imperialism.”

For many years it was believed that the reinforced Fourth Field Army, which entered North Korea a week later, was under the command of Mao’s close associate, Lin Piao. The Chinese today assert most firmly that this was not so. And while Lin’s political disgrace might provide a motive for deceit on this issue, there is sufficient corroborative evidence to take the modern Chinese claim about Lin most seriously. Military sources in Peking say that, in the autumn of 1950, Lin was indeed urged by Mao and the Central Committee to accept command of a Chinese army to fight in Korea, and was their first choice to do so. Yet he himself argued strongly against immediate military intervention. He believed that the PLA was not yet ready to take on the army of the United States. He urged delay, if necessary for a year or more, until the army could be retrained and re-equipped. He was especially concerned about the impact of U.S. air power on an unprotected Chinese Army. Marshal Peng Te’Huai, on the other hand, argued that he could not see that China would be any better placed to fight in 1951, or for that matter in 1952, than in 1950. He believed—to resort to contemporary cliché—that “imperialists could be shown to be paper tigers.” A big, forceful, talkative man, Peng told his staff robustly that will and motivation could compensate for any shortcomings of equipment. One of his former officers says that Peng, from beginning to end, treated the struggle in Korea merely as an extension of the Liberation war against the Kuomintang.8 According to a memoir published under Peng’s name in 1981, on October 4 he found himself suddenly summoned from his headquarters, as commander in chief in northwest China, to fly to Peking for a conference and arrived to discover the Central Committee already in session, debating the dispatch of troops to Korea. At the next session the following day, he was appointed to command them. The simple fiction of describing the Chinese forces in Korea as “volunteers” was designed to prevent all-out war with the United States, above all to diminish the danger of massive American retaliation against the mainland.


China’s initial force in Korea was organized as XIII Army Group and comprised four armies, each of three 10,000-man infantry divisions, a regiment of cavalry, and five regiments of artillery. They crossed the Yalu bridges by night. Their first essential task was to establish a wide-enough bridgehead on the south bank to give themselves room to deploy. Had they permitted the United Nations to close up to the Yalu border along its length, they would have been confronted by the intolerable initial task of conducting an opposed river crossing before they could join battle. The Forty-second Army came first, to block the road running northwest from the Chosin Reservoir. The Thirty-eighth Army was to deploy across the road north from Huichon. The Fortieth Army advanced from Sinuiju toward Pukchin. The Fiftieth and Sixty-sixth Armies followed.

It was an extraordinary achievement of modern warfare. Between October 13 and 25 the intelligence staffs of MacArthur’s armies failed to discern the slightest evidence of the movement of 130,000 soldiers and porters. A combination of superb fieldcraft and camouflage by the Chinese, with their lack of use of any of the conventional means of detecting modern military movement—wireless traffic, mechanized activity, supply dumps—blinded the UN Command to what was taking place on its front. Above all, perhaps, the generals were not looking for anything of this sort. They had persuaded themselves that the war was all but over. Their senses were deadened to any fresh perception.

• • •

On the night of November 5–6, after the disaster to the 8th Cavalry and the crumbling of so many major ROK units, the UN Command was briefly sufficiently disturbed by the situation to consider a major withdrawal. Yet on the morning of November 6 Walker’s staff found that it was the Communists who were disengaging all along the front. After ten days in which they had dramatically seized the initiative and forced back UN forces in a succession of battles, they chose to break off the action. Once more, their motives and intentions are not entirely clear. Military sources in Peking today declare that there were problems of supply and coordination, that having thus warned the Americans of their will and capability to intervene, the Chinese were prepared to linger for a time, to discover whether their message was heeded. Both these assertions seem at least plausible. The Chinese also claimed that their purpose in withdrawing was “to encourage the enemy’s arrogance.”9 But it became immediately apparent that MacArthur, far from being deterred by the first Chinese offensive, considered that the Communists had striven their hardest to overcome his forces . . . and failed. Peking, he believed, had shot its bolt, and most unfrightening this had proved. The UN offensive, the drive for the Yalu, would resume forthwith. The Chinese, in their turn, prepared to meet it.

So who were they, the men of these “fanatical hordes” who were about to force upon the United States Army one of the most humiliating retreats in its history? It is sometimes forgotten that after twenty years of war, many Chinese soldiers were men of exceptional military experience. “My first memories as a child were of the Japanese burning and destroying,” said Li Hebei, a twenty-two-year-old infantry platoon commander who crossed the Yalu with the 587th regiment on October 25. Li had served first with local guerrillas, armed only with a homemade rifle, then graduated to the PLA and a captured Japanese weapon when a unit passed through his devastated village when he was sixteen. Like thousands of politically aware young Chinese, he called the PLA “the big university,” for it was in its ranks that he learned to read and write. Between 1943 and 1947 he saw his family just once. He learned to march . . . forever. Mile upon mile he and his unit could walk or even trot, in their quilted cotton uniforms and tennis shoes, up mountain tracks hauling all that they possessed in the world: personal weapon, grenade, eighty rounds, spare foot rags, sewing kit, chopsticks, and perhaps a week’s rations—tea, rice, a little sugar, perhaps a tin of fish or meat. Thirty-five years later, Hebei said, grinning at the memory, “We had a saying—red army’s two legs better than Kuomintang’s four wheels. Life was very hard, but the atmosphere was very good, because we were full of hope.”10 A Chinese soldier required just eight to ten pounds of supplies a day, against sixty for his UN counterpart. Thus, to sustain fifty divisions in combat, Peking needed to move only 2,500 tons of supplies a day south across the Yalu. This compared with 600 tons for a single U.S. Army division, 700 tons for the 1st Marine Division. Each of the tens of thousands of porters supporting the Chinese drive into Korea could carry eighty to one hundred pounds on his shoulder pole or A-frame. Thus did the impossible become possible.

Yu Xiu was one of the men who stormed the 8th Cavalry’s positions on November 1, exulting to discover the success of their techniques of hard-hitting night assault. Yu was a twenty-nine-year-old from Chungsu Province, brought up in the French sector of Shanghai, who joined the Fourth Field Army when his father was killed by a Japanese bomb in 1937. A deputy political commissar of his regiment, he said that the overwhelming lesson the PLA learned from its first brushes with the Americans was of the need for speed. “In the Liberation War, one might take days to surround a Kuomintang division, then slowly close the circle around it. With the Americans, if we took more than a few hours, they would bring up reinforcements, aircraft, artillery.”11

Li Hua was twenty-three, from Shandung Province, a veteran of the Eighth Route Army since he was sixteen, a peasant’s son who had been trained at one of the PLA’s officer schools. On the train south to the Yalu in October, he and his comrades were told nothing of their destination, “but everybody guessed—we were going to support the Koreans against their invaders. We felt pretty confident, because we had just beaten the Kuomintang, with all their support from the Americans. We expected to do the same to Syngman Rhee’s people. We weren’t very wrong. They were a pushover compared with the Japanese.” They walked across the Yalu bridge by night in their long files, then fifty miles onward to their initial contact near the Chosin Reservoir. Li, the propaganda officer of his company, examined his unit’s first American prisoner at much the same time, and with much the same curiosity, as the Eighth Army was studying its captives from the PLA: “This young American, he fell on his knees and begged for mercy. We felt sorry for him. He obviously didn’t want to fight.”12

Americans who found North Korea an alien land might have reflected that it was almost equally so to the Chinese. The men of the PLA found the Korean peasants at first cold and unfriendly, the weather and the mountains unyielding and vicious. They were guided across country only by a few old Japanese maps—one to a regiment. Yet this initial wave of PLA veterans, in the months before massive casualties caused their replacement by less promising material, possessed some notable advantages over the Americans. For all their lack of equipment and sophistication, these Chinese soldiers were among the hardiest in the world. Many had known no other life but that of war since their teens. Most were genuinely enthused by the spirit of revolution, the sense of participation in a new China that seemed to offer brighter promise than the old land of tyrannical landlordism and official corruption. In Korea, in the months to come, the PLA would suffer its own difficulties with shaken morale and growing disillusionment in its ranks, matching those of its enemies. But in the winter of 1950 the spur of early success outweighed the impact of high casualties in Peng’s divisions.

• • •

On November 15 the Korea Times described life in liberated Seoul as “returning to normal.” Food queues were said to be fading. The government had just declared “Epidemic Prevention Week.” A statement from ROK Army headquarters declared, “Our army is continuing its exterminating drive against the enemy, who are taking refuge (remnants) in the mountains.” Over 135,000 Communist POWs were said to be in UN hands. Total North Korean casualties were estimated at 335,000.

November 24 was Thanksgiving Day—bleak and blustery. Immense logistic efforts had been made to ensure that the men of the Eighth Army enjoyed their turkey dinner. By truck and even by airdrop, the traditional Thanksgiving trimmings were shipped to the army that was still assured by its commanders that it was victorious. The British and other allies mocked the idea of bringing domestic comforts into the forward areas. “I could not stop asking myself what on earth it had all cost,” said one British soldier,13 faintly ashamed of his own small-mindedness. Yet he and his compatriots were also secretly impressed by a nation capable of such a feat in the midst of a campaign. The enemy were nowhere much in evidence. In the forward areas the troops were uneasy, yet they clung to MacArthur’s promise: home by Christmas. In some units work had begun to clean up vehicles and equipment, to crate surplus stores for shipment to Japan or Stateside. The cold was already intense, though not as bitter as it would become. In a thousand positions among the barren valleys and hillsides of North Korea, American soldiers huddled around flickering fires fueled from the wreckage of local huts and imported packing cases, and made what seasonal cheer they could. Afterward, they looked back on that day as a hollow echo of a celebration, when they had seen what was to come. The clothes that Colonel John Michaelis of the 27th Infantry was wearing on Thanksgiving Day, he did not take off until February 16.

• • •

On November 25, Walker’s Eighth Army and Almond’s X Corps began to move forward once more. The men of B Company of the 1/9th Infantry, 2nd Division, were approaching the crest of yet another faceless, meaningless geographical feature—Hill 219, on the east bank of the Chongchon River on the road to Kanggye—when they were hit with fierce grenade and small-arms fire. By nightfall, fighting was in progress throughout the area. The 9th Infantry was in no doubt that they were engaged against the Chinese. But poor communications and extraordinary command lethargy hampered the 2nd Division in rousing itself to meet a major new threat. In camps and vehicle concentrations along the length of the Chongchon Valley, Americans found themselves wakened in their sleeping bags by a terrifying cacophony of bugles, drums, rattles, whistles—and gunfire. Again and again, Chinese assault groups smashed through ill-prepared perimeters, overrunning infantry positions, gun lines, rear areas. By the night of November 26, 2nd Division had been driven back two miles southwest down the Chongchon. The command posts of the 9th Infantry’s 1st and 3rd Battalions were overrun. Shortly before midnight the 2nd Battalion was heavily attacked and forced back, losing most of its equipment. Some men waded the Chongchon in their flight, to find their clothes and boots turning to ice as they climbed the southern bank. Not that the Chinese possessed any magical means of walking upon water. That first night the 23rd RCT captured a hundred Communist soldiers, stripped as they forded the river. On the 2nd Division’s left, the 25th Division was also under pressure. Amid individual acts of great bravery, the collective American response was feeble. From Army Command to the meanest hilltop foxhole, men seemed too shocked and appalled by the surprise that had overtaken them to respond effectively.

Eighteen-year-old Private Mario Scarselleta and other men of the Mortar Company, 35th Infantry, had been less than happy for some days—the cold, the shortcomings of their shoepacs, the jamming of their weapons, and the rumors of the Chinese had already eaten deep into their morale. When the shooting began around them on the night of November 26, their first thought was to pull back. Their somewhat elderly lieutenant declared doggedly, “I’m not leaving until I get the word from battalion,” which upset his men greatly. Then the shooting closed in around them, and somebody shouted, “Every man for himself!” “Then there was really chaos. Everybody just bugged out,” said Scarselleta. They ran a few yards along the hillside, met a Chinese with a bugle, whom they killed, then dashed for their trucks and began to drive away. To their astonishment, they found that the Chinese appeared to be seeking to capture rather than to kill them. There were some extraordinary hand-to-hand fights. Scarselleta saw a friend laid out by a blow on the jaw from a Chinese. The man rejoined the unit a month later. They abandoned the hopeless effort to load the vehicles and started walking. They walked for four days, among a great throng of ill-assorted Turks, Koreans, fellow Americans. “There was a complete loss of leadership,” said Scarselleta. “It was a nightmare, really. Many times, I felt that we’d never make it out of there, that to survive this would be a miracle. Those Chinese were just fanatics—they didn’t place the value on the life that we did. To this day, I still think about it—the bodies blown up, the Americans run over with tanks, the panic and shooting in the nights.”14 He and his comrades did not reorganize as a unit until they were a few miles north of Seoul.

• • •

Yet the setbacks to IX Corps were insignificant compared with the absolute disaster taking place on the right of the Eighth Army: the whole ROK II Corps, three divisions in strength, had collapsed almost literally overnight and was falling back in chaos, abandoning guns, vehicles, equipment. Not a gap but a chasm eighty miles wide had thus been opened in the Allied line—if the United Nations deployments before the Chinese attack could be dignified as such—between the Eighth Army in the west of the country and the X Corps in the east. An attempt by the Turkish Brigade to move to the support of the ROKs was halted abruptly at a Chinese roadblock at Wawon, well behind the American flank. Eighteen Communist divisions of the Chinese XIII Army Group were now committed. The Eighth Army faced a desperate danger of being cut off from the south. Walker ordered his forces’ immediate retreat. But while they moved as best they could down the western side of the country, the 2nd Division around Kunu-ri, just south of the Chongchon, must hold open its own line of withdrawal and prevent the Chinese from bisecting Korea to the south.

General Keiser, 2nd Division’s commander, only began his move back to Kunu-ri early on the twenty-eighth. By the next morning Chinese troops were already attacking road movements south of the formation, between Kunu-ri and Sunchon. Yet still there was a reluctance in the higher command to grasp the deadliness of the threat, to understand that the retreating units faced not roadblocks but enemy forces in strength. This, although as early as November 24, POWs had been reporting massive Chinese concentrations in the area. When “Shrimp” Milburn of I Corps telephoned Keiser that morning of the twenty-ninth to ask how things were going, Keiser replied, “Bad. Right now, I’m getting hit in my CP.” Milburn promptly urged Keiser to bring his men out westward, via Anju. But the 2nd Division commander was unwilling to undertake such an extended diversion. He preferred the short road—directly south—to Sunchon. As Keiser’s men were falling back in disarray around Kunu-ri, infantry were struggling to sweep the enemy out of range of the Kunu-ri to Sunchon road—and failing. Yet even this did not convince their commanders of the seriousness of the threat on their line of retreat.

In the first two days of the Chinese offensive, there was the bizarre kid-glove quality of a drawing-room game about their behavior. Though the men in the line might detect nothing frivolous about the Communists’ assault, how could they rationally explain the repeated episodes when Americans who might easily have been killed were taken prisoner, then turned loose to return to their own lines? American officers returning to command posts that had been overrun discovered to their astonishment that nothing had been touched by the enemy. Colonel Paul Freeman was one of many commanders who were later convinced that the first days had been a test of American strength and will: “They came tongue in cheek at first, to see what we would do. Then they found what a thin line we had, how easily the South Koreans cracked. They saw what a pushover we were—that we would not even bomb across the Yalu. Then they became very aggressive, very bold—and stayed that way.” The most savage American experience of the Korean War now began.

• • •

Major John Willoughby of the 1st Middlesex of the British 27 Brigade had spent the afternoon of November 26 soaking ecstatically in his first bath for weeks. The brigade was in reserve. He was still in the bath when an orderly brought in a signal reporting that four unidentified horsemen had been spotted near brigade headquarters who galloped off when challenged. They were Chinese, of course. Later, when they grasped their symbolic importance, they called them “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” That night they were warned to be ready to move, and the next morning they were moved north in a piercing wind—still lacking winter clothing—to Kunu-ri. They could see the icefloes forming on the rivers they crossed as they drove.

Willoughby accompanied Brigadier Coad to IX Corps headquarters, where they found an atmosphere close to panic. The positions of several American formations were marked on the big Perspex map overlay with an enigmatic “?” following their numbers. In the center, pointing south, a great red arrow had been chinagraphed in, marked “2 MILLION?” The British were uncertain whether this was satirical. The 27 Brigade was directed to take up position north of Sunchon, on the road from Kunu-ri. There was no available transport to move them, so the men began to march the twenty-two miles back to the positions. It was a long, exhausting hike in the icy wind, and they heard unexplained bursts of firing from time to time up the valleys around them. The young soldiers were tiring. Willoughby found himself carrying five rifles for a time. After ten miles, to their enormous relief, trucks arrived to carry them the last stretch. At 4 A.M. they lay down to sleep for an hour in a frozen paddy.

The next morning they were ordered to move north once more, toward the pass through which they had marched unscathed the previous night. There was talk of an ambush. A few miles up the road, they met an American jeep coming the other way, a colonel hanging dead over the side of the vehicle, two other corpses lying in the back. The British dismounted and began to deploy. Suddenly, at the far edge of the paddy, they saw a cluster of white-clad figures leap up and begin running into the hills. There was absolute silence around them. Yard by yard, expecting a volley at any moment, the Middlesex advanced toward the southern end of the pass in front of them. At last, inevitably, the Chinese opened fire. The Middlesex began a battle which continued all day of November 30 and cost them some thirty casualties. And as they fought, they watched a great tragedy unfold in the pass before them.

• • •

At 1:30 P.M. on November 30, with his shrinking perimeter around Kunu-ri under violent pressure, General Keiser ordered his men to run the road south, whatever was in their way. The leading elements of 2nd Division’s great nose-to-tail vehicle convoy drove south from Kunu-ri into a storm of mortar and machine-gun fire. The horrified British onlookers to the south watched trucks keel over and catch fire, men mown down as they ran for their lives from the Communist machine-gunning, occasional jeeps slewing crazily into the 27 Brigade positions laden with survivors, dead, and wounded. The Middlesex suffered several casualties from the fire of shattered Americans, driving forward, unable to understand that they had passed into safety. The “death ride” of the 2nd Division through the pass below Kunu-ri became one of the grimmest sagas of the Korean War. Through six miles of enemy fire vehicles sought to smash their way past the blazing wreckage of those that had gone before. Infantrymen ran among them, seeking their own salvation, and rarely finding it. A dreadful paralysis of command and discipline overtook the division. Major Walt Killalie, commanding the division’s mobile antiaircraft battalion, saw men sitting motionless in their vehicles, incapable even of rousing themselves to return the hail of Chinese fire, merely waiting for death. Clusters of soldiers struggled to push wrecked vehicles off the road, falling as they did so. Others screamed and shouted in pain or fear. And the unemotional Communist mortaring continued. Nightfall brought infantry attacks from the Chinese, ending in desperate close-quarter fighting among the shambles of vehicles and casualties on the road. Only a handful of men like Colonel James Skeldon, commanding the 2/38th Infantry, kept their heads and maintained their units’ cohesion sufficiently to maintain an effective defense and lead their survivors to safety.

Bill Shirk, a young gunner with the 15th Artillery, was newly returned to duty after a month in an Osaka hospital recovering from a bullet wound he had received on the Pusan Perimeter, where he found himself in a convoy that was ambushed and almost wiped out. After that experience he was reluctant to return to Korea. He hated the country. When the word came in late November to begin cleaning up the guns to return home, “like everybody else—I felt really happy to be getting out of this stinking place.” But Korea had hardly started on the nineteen-year-old Ohioan. In the pass at Kunu-ri “the order came—‘Every man for himself.’ We dropped phosphorus grenades down the gun barrels, then we set about getting out.” Shirk started off with a group of eighteen men, hastily shedding his gaiters to move faster. By dawn he was running clumsily in his overcoat, alone with an unknown major. They were trying to hide in a cluster of stacks of cornstalks when the Chinese reached them, and they were herded away into a large cave where they found some 200 other American prisoners already assembled. A bitterness about the war, a sense of betrayal by his own superiors, was born in Shirk which remained undiminished by the ensuing two and a half years of captivity.15

Some men escaped in small groups by taking to the hills. A few vehicles and even gun teams got through that night, or early the next morning, when American fighter-bomber support belatedly made some impact upon the enemy positions in the hills. The division’s rearguard, the 23rd RCT, commanded by Colonel Paul Freeman, was successfully diverted to the Anju road. But in that one afternoon the 2nd Division lost 3,000 men and almost all its transport and equipment on the road from Kunu-ri. The division’s history speaks of “a magnificent stand. . . . Even in defeat, the ‘Indianhead’ division proved to be a rock which held fast, giving other units an opportunity for survival.” The truth was sadder, and more bitter. Much of the 2nd Division fell apart in those days. It was months before the formation was considered capable of fighting effectively again in Korea. “In general, to achieve quick decision,” wrote Mao Tse Tung, “we should attack a moving and not a stationary enemy.”16 At Kunu-ri the PLA ruthlessly implemented his dictum.

At last, quiet fell on the pass, and 27 Brigade understood that no more Americans would be coming that way. They left the great graveyard of MacArthur’s hopes and pressed on southward, under increasing fire. American air strikes sought to blast the hills around the road into silence, but still the shooting went on. Major Willoughby remembered an insanely irrational moment when he saw machine-gun fire striking the road around his vehicle and opened the door to let it pass through. Yet it was somewhere on that road that they heard a news broadcast in which it was reported that the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, had declared that Britain “has no quarrel with the Chinese.”

On the road to Pyongyang, a growing element of panic was overtaking the whole of the Eighth Army. Rumors multiplied—of 20,000 Chinese straddling the line of retreat, of a Communist regiment at a ford where a patrol discovered only two dead farmers and three dead horses. A British officer was shocked to attend a briefing at which his American regimental counterpart warned his subordinates, “Remember—if you see a red Verey light, just get everybody you can together and head south.” Private David Fortune of the 2/35th Infantry felt “numbed, stunned by the situation. We had believed that it was all over. Yet now we knew the war would be over no time soon.” Fortune was captured on January 2 when his company was cut off. “You guys better get out while you can,” a fugitive shouted to his platoon as he “bugged out.” “There’s no end to them—the more you kill, the more they come.”17 Fortune spent two and a half years in captivity.

Private James Waters of the 1/35th Infantry, 25th Division, had joined the Army “because I felt I had to get out of Joplin, Missouri.” On the morning of November 26 his unit was marching in long files up a road some forty miles south of the Yalu when the company commander was called to a battalion O Group. He returned two hours later. The word was passed from man to man as they sat stunned and disbelieving by the roadside: “The Chinese are in the war, and they’re behind us.” There was no firing that day, but when they made camp on a hilltop, they lay awake, jumpy and watchful. An elderly NCO, Sergeant Jennings, confided sadly to Waters in the darkness, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. I’ve just about had it—I’m not young anymore.” Many men were taking counsel of their fears that night. The next morning they began to walk south before dawn. Each soldier seemed to be trying to tiptoe, fearful that a rash sound would bring the Communist hordes upon his head. At last, the stillness was broken. They heard the quad .50-caliber machine guns on a half-track firing, heard the shouts and screams of Chinese attackers. But still Waters’s company marched on in darkness, past an abandoned field hospital, with a jeep full of dead medics lying beside it. Daylight brought Chinese mortaring . . . and casualties. Most were left behind. They quickened their pace, shedding sleeping bags, tents, heavy equipment to ease their burden. There were occasional brief scuffles with the enemy.

That day, and each day and night that followed, the sense of fear and desperate danger grew. They had no resupply, until one morning a jeep halted by the column to disgorge cooks bearing hot chow. They had abandoned even their mess kits, and held out their helmets to be filled with a mess of cereal and powdered eggs. The cooks’ impatience to be gone—shouting, “Hurry up! Hurry up!” as the men queued before them—heightened their own fear. As they neared Pyongyang, Waters and his companions found themselves marching among a growing host of retreating Americans: “Somewhere along that road, an orderly withdrawal became a disorderly withdrawal.”18 A glimpse of Oriental faces became sufficient to cause a local panic, until the men were confirmed as ROK troops. Their feet were lacerated and bleeding, young officers hobbling like old men. Men lost their units and grew frightened in their loneliness amid a mob of soldiers and refugees harboring so much fright.

• • •

The men of the Eighth Army plodding south were awed by the great pillars of flame and smoke from the supply dumps of Pyongyang, fired to keep them from the hands of the enemy. Private Waters met a tanker by his ditched monster who told them sardonically, “This vehicle requires a new part that costs five dollars. We do not have one. Therefore we must blow up this vehicle.” Pyongyang was abandoned on December 5, leaving behind vast quantities of stores and equipment. Having lost 11,000 casualties dead, wounded, and missing in the first days of the Chinese offensive, the Eighth Army was now in full retreat by land, sea, and air, its men fleeing from North Korea by every means available. It was fortunate for the reputation of United States arms that, while Walker’s army hastened southward in disarray, almost incapable of organized resistance, farther east other Americans were salvaging at least a portion of honor from one of the most inglorious moments in their nation’s military history.

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