Military history


Seoul Recaptured

Few operations in military history can match … the brilliant maneuver which has now resulted in the liberation of Seoul.

— President Truman to General MacArthur, September 1950.

AS AMERICANS discovered during 1861-1865, sustained land warfare is extremely costly in blood, and there has been a pronounced American distaste for such since. It is probably no accident that no great American tacticians have evolved since the War Between the States, while at the same time American strategical thinking has been superb. Having been once in the forest, United States military men tended to see it rather clearly—they had trouble with the trees, but rarely got lost in them.

During 1941-1945, on the whole, German tactical execution of battle was superior to American; German officers and N.C.O.'s on unit level exhibited particular excellence in fighting. But throughout the war, American strategical planning remained first rate. While the Wehrmacht, under Hitler, floundered about from one crisis to another, American strategists never lost sight of their ultimate goal of destruction of the enemy.

Because Germans considered battle itself important, their technique was bound to be good, but they became lost in the trees, winning battles, losing the war. After the fall of France, Germany's rulers never gave the Wehrmacht a clear, concise, strategical goal, because German planning never went beyond winning the West.

In the East, German planners again and again wasted their substance on transitory gains, while the Red Army never lost sight of its ultimate aim, which was to win the war politically as well as militarily. Significantly, while in 1942 Hitler struck deep in the Caucasus for oil, Russian military men always planned offensives for political effect, and for the control of populations. And while the Wehrmacht won many a tactical victory on the 1,800-mile Russian front, by 1942 it had no hope of controlling the Russian people, or of ultimate triumph.

Since the end of the Civil War, the United States has never been a massive land power. The ninety-two divisions raised in World War II never came close to matching either the almost four hundred of the Wehrmacht or the truly enormous field forces of the Soviets. But because the United States had Allies, such as Russians and Chinese, to keep the enemy heavily engaged on the ground, it was able to keep its commitment on land to a minimum.

If war is to have any meaning at all, its purpose must be to establish control over peoples and territories, and ultimately, this can be done only as Alexander the Great did it, on the ground. But because after the Civil War America's Allies again and again took the terrible losses required to bleed the enemy, Americans gradually developed a belief in cheap victory.

In World I, after Britain had suffered over 900,000 dead, and France more than 1,000,000, the United States threw her forces into the fray, to tip the scales at a loss of 50,000 killed in action.

In World War II, Russia lost more than 20,000,000 both military and civilian. Even agonized, stumbling France, in six weeks of 1940, lost more combat dead upon the field of battle—almost 500,000—than did America during the entire war.

Without this sacrifice of our Allies all over the world, World War II could not have ended as it did, with the United States relatively unscathed.

More Americans died in thirty minutes at Antietam than died in thirty days of the Normandy beachhead.

But by concentrating to a large degree on sea and air power, the United States was able to add the strategic punch that knocked the Axis out of the war. Japan, particularly, as an island empire was peculiarly vulnerable to air and sea attack. And the main body of the Imperial Japanese Army, on guard against the Soviets in Manchuria, was never engaged by the United States.

It must never be forgotten that without the enormous holding power of American Allies, American industrial capacity of itself would not have been a determining factor. Even in 1944-1945, when the United States Army engaged an already strategically defeated Wehrmacht upon the ground of Europe, the effort strained the relatively small land combat power of America to the limit.

By early 1945, men were being diverted in large numbers from the air forces and services into the infantry. No one had anticipated the replacements necessary once the Wehrmacht had been engaged.

Thus, again, it cannot be considered accident that in 1950 the dominant power of the world was barely able to contain the ground attack of an almost illiterate nation of nine million—nor could it have done so without the enormous manpower sacrifices of its Korean ally.

And thus, in the summer of 1950, General MacArthur, possessed of limited tactical ability on the ground, but with wonderful mobility of air and sea forces, instantly began to think in terms of strategic goals and sweeping maneuver rather than grinding infantry warfare across the face of Korea.

As early as the first week of July, MacArthur instructed his chief of staff, General Almond, to begin planning for an amphibious operation against the west coast of Korea. MacArthur planned to use his preponderance of air and naval forces, plus the unique ability of the United States Marines to go ashore against a hostile beach, to take the enemy in the rear and, by cutting his lines of communications, destroy him.

On joint Army, Navy, and Air Force levels, under the code name Bluehearts, work began immediately for this operation. Almond initially scheduled Bluehearts for 22 July. But the continuing collapse of the Korean front, requiring that virtually all available troops be committed to save the diminishing Perimeter, rendered Bluehearts impossible by 10 July.

But, despite postponement after postponement, MacArthur never wavered in his belief that a sweep by sea around the enemy's flank was the most practical way to end the war. It was a concept MacArthur had used in humbling Japan, and it put United States strength to its best use, while minimizing American weaknesses.

The Joint Strategic Plans and Operations Group, FECOM, had to discard plan after plan during July and August. The 2nd Infantry Division arrived from Fort Lewis, Washington; it had to be committed on the Naktong. The Provisional Marine Brigade—which MacArthur had requested particularly for the amphibious operation—had to be diverted to the peninsula to help save the Eighth Army. Only the 7th Division, already cannibalized by the demands of the understrength committed divisions, remained in Japan as nucleus.

Of a number of plans postulated by the Joint Strategic Plans and Operations Group, MacArthur favored the one labeled 100-B: an amphibious landing at the port of Inch'on, coupled with a breakout from the Pusan Perimeter by Eighth Army. MacArthur chose Inch'on as a landing site because it was the second port of Korea, Intelligence reported it lightly defended, and it was only eighteen miles from Seoul, the nerve center of the Inmun Gun in South Korea.

Seoul in U.N. hands would leave the North Koreans isolated from their bases in the north, and encircled by hostile forces. It was the ancient hammer and anvil concept, and MacArthur felt that a successful operation would result in the complete disintegration of the invaders.

But Inch'on posed enormous difficulties. Between Inch'on and the open sea were expanses of mud flats, crossed by a tortuous channel. The tides at Inch'on were extreme—from 31.2 feet at flood to minus .5 at ebb. Landing craft could approach the harbor only during certain hours of the day. In the middle of September 1950, the Marines would have to land against the sixteen-feet-high seawalls surrounding Inch'on with only two hours of remaining daylight.

By 20 July, however, MacArthur had decided on the Inch'on operation, and neither the outright opposition of the Navy and Marine Corps, nor the Joint Chiefs' lack of enthusiasm—even Army General Collins was dubious—could sway him. Admiral Doyle, who would command the naval forces, told MacArthur, "The operation is not impossible, but I do not recommend it."

Marine General Lemuel Shepherd called on MacArthur and tried to argue him into a landing near Osan, below Seoul.

But MacArthur, fighting from behind his five stars and his enormous prestige as America's leading field commander, was adamant. There were better landing sites in other areas, true, but none that could so quickly pinch the vital nerves of the enemy. MacArthur was willing to take risks, provided the campaign could be brought to a rapid close.

In Washington, he received solid support from Secretary of Defense Johnson, who also wanted the war over as quickly as possible.

He moved ahead with planning for Inch'on, and he bombarded the JCS with messages stating his position in highly eloquent terms. On 6 September he confirmed his verbal orders for the operation in writing; 15 September was set as D-Day. When the JCS again asked him for reconsideration, he told them in part:

"There is no question in my mind as to the feasibility of the operation and I regard its chance of success as excellent."

Finally, in a reply contrasting oddly with MacArthur's long and literate discourses, the JCS allowed him the green light:

"We approve your plan and President has been so informed."

Meanwhile, the landing forces were being assembled. A new corps HQ, the X, was activated to command them. When Ned Almond suggested that a corps commander should be found, MacArthur smiled and said, "It is you."

But Almond was also to retain his other hat as FECOM chief of staff. MacArthur figured that the Korean fighting would come to a speedy close once the enemy were taken in the rear.

Almond took command of X Corps. A blue-eyed, gray-haired man nearing sixty, and a VMI graduate, Almond possessed both a driving energy and a contempt for incompetence at any level. He was both respected and feared throughout FECOM. He drove all men hard, but drove himself as well. He could evoke the thunders if crossed, but he was a man completely loyal to Douglas MacArthur, and one whom MacArthur trusted implicitly.

Around him, Ned Almond gathered a great number of handpicked staff. While many of Walker's staff had been thrown together in Korea under hasty conditions, Almond wished to avoid any obvious pitfalls.

For ground troops X Corps would have the 7th Infantry Division in Japan and the newly assembled and arrived 1st Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force. Both these units had been put together almost from scratch.

Each of the Marine regiments, the 1st and 7th, had been reactivated. Marines had been called from all over the world. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean was stripped of one battalion. Half of the ranks were filled with recalled reservists. While the first-arrived 5th Marines fought in the Naktong Bulge, the 1st and 7th Marines continued to debark in FECOM in bits and pieces.

The 7th Division was in worse shape than even the Marines. As the weakened occupation divisions had been alerted for Korea, they had slowly cannibalized the 7th by drawing on it for fillers. During July, more than 100 officers and 1,500 key N.C.O.'s and men had been taken from the 7th; at half-strength, it was even weaker in cadre positions.

For a number of days of August and September, despite the Eighth Army's shrieks of dismay, the entire infantry and artillery replacement pipeline was channeled into the 7th Division. And at MacArthur's order, Walker shipped 8,000 Koreans over from Pusan as KATUSA for the division. These unfortunates were all civilians, swept up from the streets and refugee camps of Pusan. They poured ashore in Japan bewildered, scared, and sick; many wore only sandals and shorts. Understanding no English, they were herded to American companies and batteries in packets of one hundred, where they were regarded with no high enthusiasm by American commanders.

Only in the quality of its artillerymen and infantry weapons crews did the 7th Division stand out. The Artillery School at Sill, Oklahoma, and the Infantry School at Benning had been stripped of veteran N.C.O.'s to fill these posts.

While the 7th Division gradually swelled to combat strength, the Marines and Eighth Army were having a jurisdictional squabble over Murray's 5th Regiment. Major General Oliver P. Smith, 1st Marine Division CG, wanted the 5th back before Inch'on.

But Walton Walker, pressed for the Provisional Brigade's release, snapped, "I will not be responsible for the safety of Eighth Army's front if I lose the 5th Marine Regiment!"

The Navy and Marine Corps informed MacArthur that without the return of the regiment they would not participate in the Inch'on landing.

MacArthur said, "Tell Walker he will have to give up the Marines."

The Marine Division sailed from Kobe, Japan on the 11th of September. The Army 7th Division embarked at Yokohama the same day, and on the 12th, and 5th Marines departed Pusan for a rendezvous somewhere at sea. Thirty minutes past midnight on 13 September, with MacArthur and party aboard, the command ship Mt. Mckinley weighed anchor at Sasebo.

The X U.S. Army Corps, 70,000 men, was at sea. It had been formed from scratch, operating against time, manpower, and every known logistic difficulty, and its very conception embodied the best of American military capability. No other nation in the world had the means and knowledge to put such a force together in so short a time. No other nation would have attempted what MacArthur had planned from the first.

Riding into rough seas from a near typhoon off Kyushu, the convoy steamed toward the most brilliant stroke of the Korean War.

Because the Inch'on landing was so completely successful, and achieved at such light cost, there has been a tendency to discount both the hazards involved and Douglas MacArthur's courage in holding fast to his original plan. Whatever the early American participation in the Korean conflict had been, amphibious assault by X Corps was no small operation. It involved more ships and men than most of the island operations of the Pacific War, and it could be accomplished only because of the skills and knowledge acquired by the Navy and Marine Corps during that war.

The Navy and Marine Corps had never fully accepted the plan; yet they carried it out to perfection. As MacArthur had said, "The Navy has never turned me down yet, and I know it will not now." And the first hours and days of Inch'on were strictly a Navy-Marine affair. Until a beachhead was secure on the peninsula, the Army was merely along for the ride.

Because of the extreme tides on 15 September 1950, the assault had to be made in two phases. Wolmi Island, connected to the mainland by a causeway, guarded Inch'on Harbor. There were troops and guns on Wolmi-do, and it had to be reduced before landing craft could crash against the seawall of Inch'on itself. It had been decided to land a battalion of Marines on Wolmi-do early in the morning; they would secure the island and hold it while the falling tide forced the fleet to retire. Then, in late afternoon, the fleet would surge back into the harbor, throw its landing craft against the sixteen-foot seawalls surrounding the city of a quarter-million people. The amphibious assault could not begin until past 5:00 P.M., when the tide was high enough to float landing craft over the slimy mudbanks of the harbor, and this left the attacking Marines only two hours' daylight to land and secure their beachhead.

If the Marines on Wolmi-do ran into serious trouble, there would be no way the fleet could help them, other than gunfire and air support, until the tide turned.

At approximately 0630, under an overcast sky, Lieutenant Colonel Taplett's 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, followed a heavy naval gunfire and air preparation onto the beaches of Wolmi-do. Three LSV's landed tanks in support of 3/5. It took Taplett's men exactly one hour and twenty-five minutes to overrun and secure the rocky, caverned, 1,000-yard wide island.

The 5th Marine veterans killed or captured some 400 North Koreans of the 226th Independent Marine Regiment on Wolmi-do. They suffered total losses of 17 wounded.

Then the tide began to gurgle over the mud flats toward the Yellow Sea, and the fleet had to retreat down muddy, tortuous, Flying Fish Channel. For long hours Taplett's Marines were all alone on Wolmi-do, in the face of a now thoroughly alerted enemy.

But from offshore the big rifles of the fleet belched a curtain of fire and steel around the Marines, and Naval and Marine air ranged freely over Inch'on and twenty-five miles beyond, interdicting any possible enemy move. Then, in the rain that had begun to slash down into the smelly mud bottoms, the fleet steamed in with the resurging tide.

At 1733 the first landing craft of the 5th Marines grated against the seawall just north of Wolmi-do, near the center of Inch'on. Marines piled over the wall on scaling ladders or poured through holes blown in the barrier by naval gunfire. Within minutes they were in Inch'on's streets. After a brief, vicious fire fight along the wall, the enemy broke. Twenty minutes after touching shore, a Marine flare ascended into the sky, signaling the capture of Cemetery Hill, an initial objective.

At almost the same instant that the 5th Regiment went ashore, the 1st Marines struck toward Blue Beach, south of the built-up areas of Inch'on. After climbing the high seawall, the 1st Regiment moved north around the outskirts of the city to cut the Seoul-Inch'on highway. The rapidly failing darkness proved the most serious obstacle in their path.

There had been only 2,000 North Korean troops in the Inch'on area. By 0130 on 16 September, the Marines had completely ringed the city and taken each of their initial objectives. They had lost only 20 killed, 174 wounded, and I missing. Unfortunately, many of these casualties had been inflicted by trigger- happy naval gunners aboard LST's, who had fired into the 2/5 Marines.

Once Inch'on had been encircled, ROK Special Marines were allowed to enter the city to mop up. This they accomplished with such a vengeance that for a number of hours no man, woman, or child of Inch'on, friend or foe, was safe.

Now X Corps held a secure beachhead only eighteen miles from the vital nerve center of Seoul, thanks to the Navy and the 1st Marine Division. On 16 September, Murray's 5th Regiment and Puller's 1st pushed inland rapidly. By 18 September they had Kimpo Airfield. American air support now could fly from land bases. By nightfall of the 18th, Marines reached the banks of the Han.

On the same day, elements of the 7th Division went ashore. On the 19th, the 2/32 Infantry had relieved the 2/1 Marines south of the Seoul-Inch'on highway.

But the enemy had time to react. The NKPA 18th Division, bound for the Naktong, turned and engaged the 1st Marines. The NKPA 70th Regiment hurried into Seoul from Suwon. American air reported large numbers of troops moving toward Seoul and Yongdungp'o from the north.

But the enemy simply did not have the means to meet X Corps. He had been taken by complete surprise, and he was already stretched too thin in the south. The 20,000-odd soldiery he could throw into the battle for Seoul could stem the tide, but not reverse it.

MacArthur had told Ned Almond, "You will be in Seoul in five days."

Almond, however, was not so sanguine. "I can't do that—but I will have the city within two weeks."

On 20 September, elements of Murray's 5th Marines crossed the Han on LVT's. They moved to within three miles of the great Yongsan railroad station in Seoul, then settled down to a bloody struggle along a line of low hills ringing Seoul on the west. To their right, and south, Puller's 1st Marines moved against Yongdungp'o. On the far south, toward Suwon, 7th Division secured the flank.

On 21 September General MacArthur, feeling confident of success, returned to the Dai Ichi in Tokyo.

For four days the Marines and infantry locked the stubbornly defending NKPA in close combat along the western approaches to Seoul. The largest unit opposing them, the NKPA 25th Brigade, was newly activated. But its commanding general, Wol Ki Chan, had studied in Soviet military schools, and the majority of its officers and N.C.O.'s had seen battle with the Communist Chinese. The low hills and caves of the area gave them a good area for defense, and they had sufficient artillery and automatic weapons.

On 22 September and 23 September, both U.S. and ROK Marines engaged in heavy fighting along the ridge lines, with little gain. The 7th Marines, under Colonel Litzenberg, came ashore and entered the battle.

On 24 September, D Company, 2/5 Marines, assaulted Hill 66 in the center of the enemy line of resistance. Dog company's skipper, First Lieutenant Smith, was killed at the start of the final charge; his men pushed on over him and reached the crest of 66. The enemy fought, then panicked, running from the hill, leaving dead everywhere. Hill 66 cost Dog Company 36 killed and 142 wounded out of 206 officers and men—but its capture broke the back of the NKPA defense. The next day the entire North Korean hill line broke. The NKPA left 1,200 dead behind them in their positions.

On 25 September, the Marines were inside Seoul, and 7th Division held South Mountain. Just prior to midnight, because he wanted to send the message exactly three months from the date of the North Korean aggression, General Almond announced the liberation of Seoul.

He was a little premature. Less than half of Seoul was in U.N. hands, and while certain enemy forces were evacuating, others had been ordered to stay behind for a last-ditch stand.

While fighting still raged from barricade to barricade, and from street to street inside the Korean capital, MacArthur issued U.N. Command Communiqué Number 9 on 26 September. MacArthur stated that Seoul was recaptured.

However, for two more days inside the city, from Seoul Middle School to the Kwang Who Moon Circle, from the Circle to the Court of Lions in front of Government House, the Marines had their hands full mopping up. Official communiqués studiously ignored this action.

In the process the city of Seoul was badly scarred. When MacArthur arrived at Kimpo from Tokyo on 29 September, parts of Seoul were still burning—but crowds of Koreans by hundreds of thousands lined the streets between Kimpo and Government House, cheering hysterically as MacArthur and ROK President Syngman Rhee drove to the National Assembly Hall.

At high noon, MacArthur and Rhee entered the Hall, which was packed with selected Korean officials and American military. On the platform sat Walton Walker and other American ranking officers, and Rhee's Austrianborn wife. MacArthur spoke, briefly for him, but in his usual sonorous and dramatic style:

"Mr. President: By the grace of a merciful Providence our forces fighting under the standard of that greatest hope and inspiration of mankind, United Nations, have liberated this ancient capital city of Korea… ."

After a mention of the horrors of war visited upon the land, and of the spiritual revulsion against Bolshevism, he faced Rhee, saying:

"In behalf of the United Nations Command I am happy to restore to you, Mr. President, the seat of your government that from it you may better fulfill your constitutional responsibilities."

While MacArthur concluded with a recital of the Lord's prayer, in which the assemblage joined, glass from the battle-shattered roof tinkled down. MacArthur paid no attention.

Little, stooped, wrinkled Syngman Rhee rose to speak. The man who had spent the greater part of his life in exile, now aging badly but still active and courageous, for a few seconds could not speak for emotion. He held out his hands in front of him, clenching and unclenching his fingers, and blew on their tips. Only those who knew Syngman Rhee well understood why his hands worked when he was under emotional strain—over fifty years before, Japanese officers had tortured him by lighting oil paper pushed up under his fingernails, and had finished by smashing his fingertips one by one.

Men who knew nothing of Syngman Rhee's harsh years in exile, or of the Japanese torments during the Protectorate, tended to be impatient with Rhee's stubborn anti-Japanese stand in relations between the two countries. But when Rhee merely considered the notion of Japanese fishing boats approaching Korean water, his fingers hurt.

Now Rhee turned toward the Americans in his audience, and said:

"How can I ever explain to you my own undying gratitude and that of the Korean people?"

The ceremony ended, MacArthur returned to Tokyo to receive plaudits from the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and from all the non-Communist world.

In the ensuing days, Marines and Army pushed out from Seoul, establishing blocking positions south toward Suwon, and taking Uijongbu. On the high ground in front of Uijongbu the 1st Marine Division met its last organized resistance on 3 October.

Before abandoning the ROK capital, however, the NKPA and Communist officialdom had wreaked a frightful revenge on the helpless bodies of the old men, women, and children of the families of South Korean policemen, government employees, and soldiers. Thousands had been shot or otherwise executed. And from this time forward, learning what had been done in their captured cities and towns, the ROK Army and Government showed no mercy to any Communist, whether NKPA, guerrilla, or sympathizer. To a certain extent, Communist frightfulness was repaid in kind.

ROK officials were adamant in their determination never again to allow a Communist-sympathizing underground to exist in South Korea.

Meanwhile, the United States X Corps was in the enemy rear, seated firmly astride his lines of communications with his homeland. The anvil was in place. Now all that remained was for the hammer to fall.

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