Military history



There will be no more retreating, withdrawal, or readjustment of the lines, or anything else you want to call it.

— Lieutenant General Walton H. (Johnny) Walker, to the staff of the 25th Division.

BY 4 AUGUST the entire United Nations force—the U.N. had now given the command of its effort over to the United States, and the Republic of Korea, though not a member, had placed its Armed Forces under U.N. command—had reeled into the Pusan Perimeter. So far only the ROK's and three occupation divisions from Japan had been engaged, and they had been blooded, knocked about, and pushed back. They had lost mountains of equipment and thousands of men. Staggering back into the small remaining toehold at the corner of the peninsula, the fighting men were exhausted, dispirited, and bitter.

Walton Walker reported to MacArthur that the 24th Division needed complete rehabilitation and that he had grave doubts as to the offensive capabilities of the 25th.

Behind the Naktong River the U.N. held only a rectangular box of terrain ranging one hundred miles from north to south and fifty miles across. On the west was the barrier Naktong. Across the north rose high and rugged mountains, difficult for an attacker to penetrate. On all other sides was the sea.

But at the bottom of the rectangle lay the major port of Pusan, now pumping renewed American strength into the peninsula. Working around the clock, transportation and technical-service people poured in ton after ton of supplies to replenish those the divisions lost. More important, men began to arrive in a continual stream. In Japan, Operation Flushout had separated thousands of American troops from their desks and other jobs, and thrown them into the fighting. Replacements were beginning to arrive from the States. All over the world, the Army had turned the vacuum cleaner on, and at its apex was Pusan.

Help was on the way.

And here, behind the Naktong, the tenor of the war began to change.

Within the box, from north to south, Walton Walker had eight divisions: the ROK 3rd, Capital, 8th, 6th, and 1st, plus ROK manpower to assimilate within the weakened American units; the 1st Cavalry, the 24th, and 25th infantry divisions, and 5th Regimental Combat Team from Hawaii.

Now, behind barriers, with a definite piece of ground to defend, Walker could form for the first time a continuous battle line. Eighth Army was spread margarine-thin across the land—but at last it had anchored flanks, refused to the enemy. There were great gaps in the line, but at least it was a line.

And slowly, painfully, reaching eagerly for every man, Walker was putting together a reserve. Each morning he demanded of his chief of staff, "How many reserves have you got me?"

For the first time, American commanders could plan for combat as they had been trained for it—with known friendly forces on either flank, and with help in the form of a reserve to their rear.

A great and continuing weakness of the United States Army fighting in Asia was its tactical and psychological dependence on continuous battle lines, such as had been known in Europe. In Asia, terrain and Communist tactics made such lines rare—Communist armies tended to flow like the sea, washing around strong points, breaking through places where the dams were weak. The "human sea" analogy picked up and headlined by the press was very real—except that the press always gave a misleading indication of the numbers of enemy involved.

Relatively small numbers of enemy flowed around the high ground held by American troops, went behind them, and interdicted their supply roads. Roadbound, the American commanders became understandably nervous. Invariably, both men and leaders began to think of retreat, falling back to form a new line. This was in many respects a frame of mind. The North Korean forces in the American rear were small, ill supplied, and in effect often cut off from contact with their own bases.

Able to live on three rice balls a day, capable of carrying guns and ammunition over the steepest slopes on foot, this isolation bothered the Communists not at all.

It drove the Americans, hating isolated action, dependent upon wheels, to desperation. Ironically, the Indian-fighting army of seventy-five years earlier would have understood the new form of warfare perfectly. On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare. It had learned to ride hard and march hard, live light, and to operate in isolated columns, giving the enemy no rest.

But even hard lessons can be soon forgotten.

In August, however, within a tight little box, the United States Army could at last fight the way it had been trained, and it could finally bring its inherently superior firepower to bear. And its mechanization, a handicap when scattered over long supply lines vulnerable to interdiction, became an asset, since troops could be rushed within the interior lines from one spot to another as needed, faster than the foot-bound enemy could exploit a breakthrough.

Within the perimeter, the American soldier began to put up a better fight, a fight he could hardly have been expected to wage when committed a battalion or a regiment at a time, with no friends to right or left, and his rear vulnerable.

And in August 1950, other factors took effect. After a month and more of battle, the first sense of incredible shock had worn off the green United States troops. They had now learned what to do the hard way.

They had also learned that they would not be withdrawn. Walton Walker told them, "A retreat to Pusan would be one of the greatest butcheries in history." If they did not hold along the Naktong, they stood to be slaughtered. There was, to say the least, an incentive to hold.

And finally, while most Americans can be pushed around a great deal, there comes a time when they will be pushed no more.

They had not been told why they were in Korea of why they must fight and die, but in many men a certain pride took hold. The "gooks" had pushed them around long enough.

Undisciplined, untrained, unhating, they had come to battle. They had been clobbered, as American citizen-soldiers had usually been clobbered in their first battles, from Bull Run to Kasserine. Only gradually did men understand the nature of the job they had to do.

Once they did, they would begin to do it.

It was the boast of the great Frederick that when he went to war neither the peasants of the fields nor the tradesmen of his towns should know or care. Because Frederick involved his small state of Prussia in wars too big for even his iron grenadiers, he was not quite able to live up to his boast—but it is an accurate statement of the conditions of warfare in the Age of Reason.

In the eighteenth century, men and rulers were sick to death of unlimited war. For almost two centuries jihad had been preached; armies had crossed Europe like ravening locusts; millions had died; and at the end of the savagery nothing had been accomplished. The survivors still insisted on being Calvinists, Catholics, or Lutherans, short of extermination.

In Frederick's time men were still men, and they must compete—but they no longer trusted the angel's trumpet, or would have heeded had it blown. Wars there still were, but they developed in a new, a limited, fashion: to snatch a province here, to defend one there, to place a friendly head upon some throne, or to remove an unfriendly one from it.

The statesmen of Europe, even though they fought, wanted a certain order to the world. They called it the balance of power. It was a desperately fragile system, but it was the best they could design.

After two hundred years, and after a new resort to savagery in the period of the "nations in arms," men had still evolved nothing with any more promise. There was a new hope of an eventual world order through the uniting of all nations in peace, but the hope was still only that, and no more. Power remained the fulcrum of world action. And unless some sort of balance could be maintained, the world would once again erupt in perhaps the last of all "holy" wars.

When the Soviet bloc pushed at the balance of world order in 1950, the men in the United States Government reacted the best way they knew how. So far as they would be able, they would reject resort to cataclysmic war. They felt, in their hearts, that a final test of strength between Communist and non-Communist would in the end decide nothing, except who remained alive in a shattered world. They would accept such a test only as a last resort.

They accepted, tacitly, to play the Communist game of limited war, for limited ends. It must never be forgotten that the game was pushed upon them—they did not precipitate it. Their cruel choice was that of cataclysm, humiliation, or surrender.

On 16 July 1950 the New York Times in a superbly worded editorial said: Our emotions as we watch our outnumbered, out-weaponed soldiers in Korea must be a mingling of pity, sorrow, and admiration. This is the sacrifice we asked of them, justified only by the hope that what they are now doing will help to keep this war a small war, and that the death of a small number will prevent the slaughter of millions. The choice has been a terrible one. We cannot be cheerful about it, or even serene. But we need not be hysterical. We need not accept as inevitable a greater war and the collapse of civilization.

The millions who still mutter that they should have chosen cataclysm forget that while civilizations live, they may still aspire, and hope—as long as their legions can hold the far frontier.

And no free-born American can or could advocate surrender.

The Truman Administration accepted the limitation of the war to Korea, and its decision was never altered. But that Administration must have wished for Frederick's legions, his forty thousand iron grenadiers—for there was never any hope that the men of the fields and the merchants of America could continue undisturbed.

In addition to restraint of objective, the second necessary ingredient of limited war is a professional army large enough to handle any task.

In 1950, even to fight an underdeveloped nation in Asia, America had to fall back upon her citizens. And in this, above all else, lies the resulting trauma of the Korean War.

The far frontier is not defended with citizens, for citizens have better things to do than to die on some forsaken hill, in some forsaken country, for what seems to be the sake of that country.

By July of 1950, the President was forced to authorize the calling of Reserve Forces. MacArthur understood the meaning of American control of sky and sea and was planning that truly American conception of warfare, amphibious assault against the enemy's flank. MacArthur wanted Marines.

The entire Marine Corps stood at less than ninety thousand men, scattered to the seven seas. Asked for a division by the Joint Chiefs, the Corps, with the President's agreement, called its organized reserves.

The Army, Air Force, and Navy quickly saw that all their forces in the Far East, and more, would be involved. There would be nothing left for fresh emergencies. They asked for, and received, permission to induct their own reserves.

The President called four National Guard divisions, hundreds of lesser units, and thousands of individual reservists, at the Pentagon's request. Conscription was immediately necessary to keep the ranks filled.

There was no hope that the men of the fields and of the towns could remain untouched. A modern democracy was not semifeudal Prussia, or Bourbon France, or Whig England, where soldiers could be swept from taverns, pressed from the ranks of the unskilled and unemployed, the disadvantaged put under the rod of iron, to be broken into grenadiers, to voyage and die for the realm, while the stable and fortunate citizenry said good riddance.

The war would touch every metropolis, every town, almost every field. It would touch many hearts, for sons and fathers would suffer mutilation and death. And many, not hearing the angel's trumpet that they had come to associate with the grandeur and horror of war, would never understand.

But suddenly, in late summer, an awareness of war came on the public. There was scare buying. Tires, coffee, sugar were hoarded; there was disruption of economic life.

To this the government could apply restraint. It had no intention of mobilization for a limited war; mobilization was not indeed. It refused to call the war a war, and slowly, gradually, panic failed.

America was rich, and money and munitions were no problem. There had been recession, and this disappeared in the smoke from retooling factories. As in World War II, America, unique in history, could afford both guns and butter. No Congress would refuse a defense budget, and money could be borrowed. There need be no special war appropriation; the fighting could be and was-financed out of "Miscellaneous." The guns and trucks and combat boots could be—and were—made in idle manufacturing capacity.

The price of labor, food, and fibers rose, and America enjoyed a new flush of wartime prosperity. At home, things were suddenly better than they had been before. The people might have been content. The slack economy hummed, and all seemed well.

But even in the middle of the twentieth century, men were still required for war. Guns, boots, and butter might be bought, but not men. Except for men, who had to suffer and die, all might have been well.

Men listened for the trumpet, but heard only an uncertain sound. The trumpet had to be sounded, a little, but the government wanted no hysteria, no war enthusiasm that might not be restrained. Men did not understand, and grew confused.

The government could handle the problems of butter and bayonets, but it could never solve the problem of men.

After the commitment of United States troops, American newspaper sever again devoted much attention to the exploits or condition of the ROK Army. Consequently, few Americans have understood the ROK contribution to the Korean War, and. most have tended to deprecate it.

In the first week of fighting, because it had exceedingly poor weaponry and bad training at staff levels, the original ROK Army in the west was largely destroyed. Most of its men and officers died fighting.

In the east, however, the ROK divisions had remained intact, and fought delaying actions down the peninsula.

Beginning in the early part of July, American officers tried to reorganize the ROK's, a difficult job since losses among officers had been ghastly, and because even American equipment was painfully short. By 24 July, however, two ROK corps of five divisions had been organized and outfitted. Their equipment was not equal to and never would equal that of United States divisions throughout the war.

ROK's would remain weak in artillery and without organic tanks for the balance of the conflict. But they would fight.

All during July 1950, ROK units continued in action. Many fought exceedingly well. A comparison of casualties tells the story: in the first six weeks, American losses amounted to 6,000 men; the 'ROK's lost 70,000 killed, wounded, or missing.

While the Republic of Korea would have been utterly defeated without American help, South Koreans for three years continued to bear the man power brunt of the war.

And in the summer of 1950, the ROK losses point up a fact that was decisive—by heavily engaging the victorious Inmun Gun again and again, the ROK Army inflicted deadly losses upon it, losses that at the time were not credited to them by American officers. In some cases ROK units, in dying, destroyed North Korean regiments and even divisions; although until NKPA records were captured later the fact was unknown.

When the United Nations reeled behind the Pusan Perimeter, American officers estimated the NKPA had suffered some 30,000 casualties. The actual figure was nearer 60,000, most of which had been inflicted by the ROK's. On August, many of the Inmun Gun divisions facing the Naktong were at half-strength; the total combat strength of its eleven divisions could not have been more than 70,000.

It had no more than forty tanks by 4 August.

Behind the Perimeter on 4 August 1950, the U.N. had a troop strength of 141,808, of which some 82,000 were ROK's. American combat ground strength was 47,000. By the end of August, when the crucial Perimeter battles began, American strength alone would exceed that of the Inmun Gun. By 19 August there would be 500 American tanks within the perimeter, outnumbering the enemy armor by more than five to one.

The United States Far Eastern Air Force had complete supremacy of the air, and could range over the North Korean supply lines at will. It could concentrate tremendous tactical air power against the ground in front of American troops.

For six weeks, the U.N. forces had been trading space for time. Their space was running out—but time was also running out for the Inmun Gun. In a protracted contest with the potential power of the United States, the North Korean State had no real hope of success.

By August the NKPA was bled white; replacements were fed in, some from the population of South Korea. These new men were hardly soldiers, but they were led by sergeants, officers, and generals who were fanatical veterans of the Chinese Communist Forces. Men who did not obey were shot. This system, with Koreans, had some success. It continued to be a matter of some frustration for American officers serving in Korea that Communist methods often turned out fighting men more quickly than the system employed with the ROK's.

By 4 August 1950, the Inmun Gun had actually lost every advantage but two: it still held the initiative; though it was running out of men, supplies, and time, its attack spirit was still strong; and of its seventy thousand men, almost every man was available for the line. Given ammunition, the North Korean soldier could fight on three rice balls a day.

For more than thirty days this tired, decimated, ill-fed army would push American and ROK forces to the very wall. For thirty days the outcome would hang by a slender thread.

Men are not ciphers, and hearts, even Communist hearts, are not potatoes, and Americans would do well to remember it.

Without complete control of the air and seas during the dark days of mid-summer 1950, the United Nations presence on the Korean Peninsula would have ended. The Far Eastern Air Force, aided strongly by Marine and Navy units, had quickly dominated the skies over both North and South Korea and the waters around them. The relative weak and unmodern air strength of the NKPA was soon brushed aside and by August was no longer a factor in the war. Unprepared for tactical ground-support missions, FEAF at first did almost as much harm as good, shooting up American positions and dealing grievous harm to friendly ROK units on the roads, but these mistakes were quickly corrected.

After gaining air control, FEAF began to interdict the ever-lengthening supply lines of the NKPA, throttling a great deal of its resupply to the front. But air over a country like Korea could never be in itself decisive. The country was too broken, and the NKPA was never completely road bound. Its units and its supplies, often on foot, went through the valleys and over the ridges, and too much of them arrived at the front. The NKPA did not amass the great, vulnerable mountains of matériel common to Western armies, because in the main it did not have them.

Tactical air burned and destroyed much supply on the ground, but more reached the front. This ability to resupply itself over the broken terrain of Korea without transport and in the teeth of air power was one of the minor miracles achieved by the Inmun Gun.

Because there was a certain lack of good targets in North Korea, but mainly due to the near desperate condition of the defending ground forces, FEAF early in the war devoted itself to supporting the front lines. It is expensive to use aircraft in place of artillery—but in 1950 the United States had more aircraft, relatively, than cannon in the Far East. Without the constant air cover over the Perimeter, without the strafing and rocketing and napalming that greatly hampered the NKPA attacks, it is; probable that the Perimeter would have been breached fatally.

All through the Korean War, whenever the enemy came out into the open, he was subject to immediate, effective air attack. Another minor miracle was his ability to learn to live with this handicap. The NKPA became very good at camouflage and at night movement.

The early months of the war were fought under weird circumstances by the American fighter and bomber pilots. Based in Japan, which never changed from peacetime ways, many of them had wives and family stationed at their fields. Many a pilot flew out in the predawn darkness to strafe and rocket enemy troops all day across the burning hills of Korea, then returned to play cards with his wife at night.

This was harder on both pilots and family than if the dependents had been an ocean away.

While the United States Navy never engaged in heavy combat during the Korean conflict, it was as essential as the Air Force to the American continuance on the peninsula. It ferried troops and supplies in endless quantity. Without this ability to reinforce Korea immediately by sea, all would have been lost. Without control of the adjacent waters, the United Nations effort would have been constantly imperiled.

Without both air and sea power no nation can hope to guard the far frontier beyond its shores. While neither air nor sea forces were fully permitted to fulfill their primary mission—the carrying of the war to the enemy—it is more than probable that their very presence enabled the United States to contain the war. In the air, and on sea, America was by no means so weak as she had been on the ground, and she was immeasurably stronger than the immediate enemies, North Korea and Red China.

The enemy never seriously attempted to strike at American bases or lifelines beyond Korea, vulnerable as the bases continued to be. An air or sea strike—and both planes and submarines were available in quantity within the Communist bloc—might have wreaked havoc with American reinforcement of Korea, but it would also have exposed the enemy to even more serious retaliation. During the fighting, both air and sea forces continued to operate from their own "privileged sanctuaries" on both sides.

The fact that the United States was not seriously challenged in the air, or at sea, where it was strong, indicates that had the nation been equally prepared on the ground, the war would not have occurred, or having begun, could have been quickly contained.

But while air power and sea power were absolutely vital to American hope of success, this was to be a ground war, by the enemy's choice. A French minister of state, in the days when Bourbon France was the land power par excellence of the world, once respectfully pointed out to his government that if France seriously intended to challenge Britain, a sea power, she must first have a navy. Two hundred years later the United States was in the same position. If it seriously desired to check the Communist advance on the ground, the United States would have to take to the mud, too.

Korea was an infantry war, essentially no different from any infantry war of the twentieth century. This was one of the factors, along with the political, that made the fighting so distasteful to a people who had subconsciously come to regard infantry warfare as obsolete.

Air Force and Navy fought, and spent long hours on dangerous and arduous duty. Airmen and sailors died—but it was an infantry war. Two typical days' casualties figures for American forces tell the story: Army—615 (20 KIA, 126 WIA, 417 MIA); Navy—0; Air Force—1 (MIA); and Army—328 (20 KIA, 181 WIA, 127 MIA); Navy-0; Air Force—3 (1 WIA, 2 MIA).

It was in the misty valleys and on the cruel mountains and hills that the fighting took place, and it was in these narrow valleys and barren hills that the story of Korea was told.

The North Korean Army came across the 38th parallel as conquerors, and as conquerors it prepared to remain. The Communists, to a greater degree than had been realized, had infiltrated the South, and as the Inmun Gun captured city after city, Communist cadres were ready to assume control.

Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans fled ahead of the armies, but the entire population of twenty million had nowhere to flee. As with most populations, the bulk of the people remained in place, particularly the peasants of the land.

The North Koreans were prepared to assume civilian control, and while the bulk of the Korean population was anti-Communist, the Reds quickly assumed such control. There was a pattern to the conquest following that of all Communist conquest in Asia.

The North Korean rulers had absolutely no interest in the merchants of the towns, or the middle classes, except eventually to get rid of them. Generally, these people were left alone or arrested, for later attention. But other groups received immediate attention. Former officials of the Republic, down to clerks, were jailed or killed. People such as moneylenders and prominent landowners were executed at once for political capital. Few, in any land, love the rich. The North Korean State acted on the assumption that men and women who could not be easily controlled or assimilated into a Communist state must be killed.

What happened in Seoul and Taejon was typical. In Seoul, every man or woman who had worked for the Americans in any capacity was executed if found, and the American Embassy had conveniently left their personnel files behind. All former government employees were killed or jailed. Steps were taken immediately to induct many of the youth of the city into the NKPA, and others in labor forces.

Outside Taejon, after the city had been scoured for possible enemies to a Communist regime, shivering hordes of unfortunates, in groups of one hundred or more, were led to mass graves, hands bound, wired to each other. Then the shooting began. When the United States Army came back through in September, a burial trench containing more than 7,000 bodies, including those of 40 American soldiers, was uncovered.

There were mass graves outside Amui, Mokp'o, Kongju, and Hamyang, wherever the Inmun Gun had marched.

The killing was not sheer savagery. The regime was ridding itself of people it could never trust, for the best of political reasons.

Revolution and terror are synonymous; only with the passage of time does any revolution become respectable. After the military triumph of the American Revolution the hard-core adherents of the Crown—more than a quarter-million out of a population of three million—were stripped of their property and forced into exile in Canada and elsewhere. Much of the success of the United States in early days was due to the lack of organized dissent within the Republic.

After the French Revolution, thousands of aristocrats and others who fought the revolution were permitted to return to France, where their descendants have not accepted the principles of the revolution to this day, causing perpetual instability.

In a hideously practical way the Communists knew what they were doing.

The Korean terror exceeded that of now respectable Western social upheavals only in degree, and in brutal Communist efficiency.

But while it was shooting the officials and anti-Communists, the regime made every effort to cater to the poorer masses. Asian Communists have always realized that in nations largely peasant, the peasantry alone is of any real political value. Land was redistributed. It would be taken back later, when the regime was consolidated—but first, it was a necessary step, as in China, to secure the backing of the millions of the poor.

The middle classes, so vital to Western democracy, do not exist in most of Asia. Where they do exist, they are more of a political liability with the mass of people than an asset, for they are regarded with envy and hatred by men who break their backs on the soil. The peasant feels he can live without them.

While the proscribed classes were being wiped out, the Inmun Gun showed every courtesy to the workers of the soil. When the Inmun Gun required food or lodging of the poor, these were paid for—in worthless currency, but paid for none the less. In Seoul, the Inmun Gun had captured the South Korean Government mints, and the printing presses ran off all the currency the Inmun Gun could ever use.

In a country where 90 percent of the people are peasants, the Communist regime had every expectation of success—because peasants they understood. From the first, the peasantry saw little to lose through Communist rule, and perhaps much to gain. Only much later, when the land is collectivized and the iron hand shows through the paternal glove, and when it is too late, does the peasant who has been Communized realize his loss. Communized, he ceases to be an individual man, losing an identity that even the most abject poverty could not take from his before.

Communism had really nothing to offer the peasant but propaganda—the Communist has no more use for the peasant in his scheme of things than does a purveyor of Rolls-Royces—but Asian Communism has always realized that the good will of the peasant was necessary above all else for its eventual success. Americans, in turn, have been slow to understand the peasant, let alone mix with him.

Americans, who cannot understand or even communicate with peasantry, are growing lonelier in a world where the great majority of men are peasants.

Shooting the members of the ancien régime, destroying the merchant and landowning groups, and making certain it respectfully paid cash for every peach its soldiers took from the trees of the farmers, the North Korean State came to stay in the South. Among the people of a nation inured to grinding poverty and accustomed to bloody repression, who had been beaten more than once into sullen submission, its actions aroused no such outcry as might have been expected in the West.

Communism came to stay below the parallel, and had it not been thrown back by force it would be there yet.

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