Military history



There is a certain blend of courage, integrity, character and principle which has no satisfactory dictionary name but has been called different things in different countries. Our American name for it is "guts."

— From Louis Adamic, A STUDY IN COURAGE.

THE MONTHS AND years that began with the peace talks at Kaesong and Panmunjom were the most frustrating the American Republic, and more particularly its Army, had endured.

While all citizens could feel frustration at the continued thwarting of American policy, and at the continued failure to achieve either military or political results from continuing expense and sacrifice, while political leaders, in or out, fretted and worried over public reaction and tried to trim their sails accordingly, the period was hardest of all upon the military services.

American military leaders, of all services, are brought up in the belief that vigorous action saves the day, and it is always better to do something, even the wrong thing, than to take no action at all.

History proves that on the battlefield he who hesitates is usually lost.

But in the early 1950's the United States had at last decided that the battlefield could no longer be separated from the political arena—and in politics, domestic and international, the rules are different.

Fools rush in, while success often comes to him who cleverly bides his time.

Seeking a substitute for MacArthur's victory, the United States was forced to bide its time, while its treasure poured into arms, and millions of its young men were forced into hard and painful service they detested.

It was hard for all services. The Navy, forced to blockade and patrol, had lonely, cheerless duty in the China seas, unrelieved by much action. Its carrier pilots flew dangerous patrols, and sometimes its landing parties went ashore on North Korea—but the rest of the time the Navy sowed mines, or harvested them, and merely stood on station in the gray waters off Korea.

Without its utter control of those seas, there would have been no U.N. stand in Korea—but it was made to stand watch only. It was not allowed to blockade the real enemies, nor had it any enemy fleet to engage. Still, despite this frustration, the Navy was fulfilling its primary mission—keeping control of the seas, and holding the sea lanes open.

The Air Force, out of Japan and Korea, flew in support of ground operations of Eighth Army. It bonded, strafed, rocketed, and napalmed, and without it the very presence of the U.N. in Korea would have ended early. Day by day, night by night, over the long months and years, it leveled each city, each shop and factory and mine in North Korea. It had quickly gained its primary goal of air superiority over the skies of Korea, and never lost it.

Yet the Air Force knew frustration, because it could not interdict this kind of battlefront, could not destroy a Chinese ground army that was a lurking phantom, and it could not do what was in so many of its leaders' hearts—strike the enemy where it hurt him.

North Korea it could reduce to rubble, but North Korea did not contain the enemy's war making potential. In this anachronistic type of war, the Air Force had been reduced almost to what it had been in World War I—an adjunct, not the decisive arm.

Except for brief moments, the Korean War had always been old-style, down in the mud. There were only two new developments in this conflict, both of which were in the air: the general use of jet aircraft, and the widespread use of rotary-wing craft for evacuation, transport, and reconnaissance.

In the first days of the war, American Far East Air Force had knocked down the antiquated YAK-9 and YAK—15 fighters of North Korea. It was not until 31 October 1950 that a new phase of air warfare began.

On that date Russian-built MIG-15 jet fighters appeared in strength over North Korea. They raised havoc with the lumbering B-29's bombing the Yalu bridges, and threw a fright into American pilots flying World War II F-51's and Corsairs. On 8 November an American F-80 shot down the first MIG-15, but the Air Force was forced to rush its newest and best fighters, the F-86 Sabrejets, to the Far East.

And here began the incessant air-to-air combats, which without significant change went on until the end of the war. The Communist aircraft, although field after field was constructed in North Korea, and as quickly bombed out, never were based south of the Yalu. They remained, silvery in plain sight on broad airdromes just north of the river, in privileged sanctuary, coming now and again across the river to engage patrolling American aircraft above the Valley of the Yalu—the famous MIG Alley.

American aircraft were never permitted to cross the Chinese or Russian boundary, even in hot pursuit.

On the other hand, although the Communists built up a large numerical superiority, they never attempted to carry the air war to South Korea, or even to the battle lines along the parallel. Both sides enjoyed their "privileged sanctuary"—and the resulting air combat resembled that of 1916-1918, or even the jousting of the knights of old.

American flights of Sabrejets, day after day, spread contrails high over MIG Alley, watching both sky and ground.

Often, across the river, they could see the MIG pilots leisurely walking to their parked and waiting aircraft.

American pilots talked to each other, as they rode by at great altitude and high mach in the sky.

"Dust at Fen Cheng—the clans are gathering," from Blue Leader.

"Thirty-six lining up over at Antung," from Black Leader.

"Hell, only twenty-four coming up here at Tatungkou," from another flight leader.

"Don't bitch—here come fifty from Takushan. That's at least three for everybody!"

Aided by their close ground control radar, the Communist craft rose high, preferably waiting until American fuel ran low before striking. Then at rates of closure as high as 1,200 MPH, the two formations came together.

Immediately, the formations dissolved into individual dogfights.

It was air war with a code more out of the Middle Ages than of twentieth century combat. Yet day after day, always outnumbered, too far away from their own bases to glide to safety, as could the enemy, American airmen accepted mortal combat.

The MIG-15's flashing upward from Manchurian bases were faster than the Sabrejets, and could out climb them. The Russian-built planes carried twin 20mm cannon and a single 37mm against the .50-caliber machine gun armament of the F-86s. The MIG-15 was a superb aircraft, superior to any U.N. craft except the Sabrejet, which proved to be the only United Nations plane able to live in the air with it.

The appearance of the MIG-15 caused many people deep concern. These men had not accepted the fact that culture and weaponry, or even culture and plumbing are not synonymous, and while a society may lag a hundred years behind in comforts and ethics, it may catch up in hardware in a human lifetime.

But the F-86 that flew daily down MIG Alley was an exceedingly rugged plane, extremely maneuverable, flown by competent pilots sifted for the "tiger" instinct—the quality that makes a man bore in for the kill—and above all, it carried a radar-ranging gun sight superior to anything owned by the Communists.

Because of that radar sight, as the Air Force admitted, American pilots destroyed enemy jet aircraft at a ratio of 11 to 1. At sonic speeds the human eye and hand were simply not fast enough—but more than 800 MIG-15's were sent spinning down, to crash and burn over North Korea.

The MIG-15's, flown by North Korean and Chinese pilots, were never handled with a skill matching that of American airmen.

Yet, overall, considering the hours of combat, few jets fell. The high altitudes, the high speeds, the toughness of the planes, which almost required a hit on engine or pilot to cripple, combined to keep losses small in comparison with earlier air combats.

This was to be an interim air war, a testing and a learning phase for both American and Communist. Tactics and weaponry could be put to test, and the answers—radar gun controls, air-to-air rocketry, automatic cannon—reserved to the future.

Through it all, American skill, courage, and ingenuity remained preeminent.

And even though the Air Force could not utilize its cherished strategic power in this war, though it fought under a maze of hampering restrictions, it could still fulfill its mission, like the Navy. It held control of the skies, and could work actively at its secondary missions.

It was the Army that knew the worst frustration, from July 1951 to the end of the war. The mission of the Army is to meet the enemy in sustained ground combat, and capture or destroy him.

The Army was indoctrinated that strength lay not in defense but in attack, and that the offensive, as Clausewitz wrote, always wins.

The Army not only could not win; it could not even work at the task. Yet it was locked in a wrestler's grip with the enemy, suffering hardship, taking losses, even after the peace talks began.

It was the first time that American generals, as well as Supreme Court judges, were forced to study the election returns. At home, the people and government, with certain exceptions, wanted peace, not costly victory. Abroad, American generals were closely watched by jittery allied governments who regarded them as irresponsible jingoists, and their every initiative as a reckless provocation that might lead to World War III.

It is understandable that some American Army generals chafed a little at the bit.

While certain units remained on line, the bulk of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division proceeded to bivouac near Kap'yong on 25 October 1951. Here replacements were fed in; specialists schools set up; a one-week course run for replacement officers. Bloody and Heartbreak ridges had shown that again basic weapons instruction and small-unit tactics—the seemingly eternal weaknesses—were the chief needs of the division, as they were of every United States division manning the Korean battle line.

Training in the Zone of the Interior was just not thorough or tough enough to prepare men for ground combat.

While schools were set up, and battle drills organized, some elements of the division were detached to the south, where guerrilla activities had once again come to the fore.

When the Inmun Gun had collapsed along the Naktong, in September 1950, approximately twenty thousand North Koreans had neither been killed nor captured; they had faded into the rugged hills surrounding Pusan, and made contact and common cause with the guerrillas in the region.

When the frontier was violated, two ROK divisions had been deployed on counterinsurgency missions—and during the course of the war the problem was never completely solved. While the great majority of South Koreans were loyal to the Syngman Rhee government, elements in the mountainous South continued in armed opposition, with the support of some of the peasantry. Because of this support, and the broken terrain, where each valley remained almost a world to itself, the survivors of the NKPA and the guerrillas melted into the population. They were seemingly peaceful agriculturists by day, becoming armed marauders by night.

U.N. convoys continued to be fired on; individual soldiers were sometimes killed. The troop and hospital trains running between Pusan and Taegu—inspite of frequent railside patrols, sentry posts, and flatcars filled with infantry on each train—were fired on almost daily, sometimes with casualties.

A favorite trick of the insurgents was to slip close to the rails by night, set up a machine gun, wait until a well-lighted hospital train—its passengers strapped helplessly in berths—puffed by. Then, in a matter of seconds the train could be sprayed with bullets, the gun dismantled, and the guerrillas, in white peasant garb, gone into the night.

The mountain villagers knew which men went on these nocturnal excursions—but it was no simple matter to make them talk. The ROK Government, with American advice, grappled with the problem, but never completely solved it. There had always been a sort of banditry in the southern hills, and probably always would be.

It could not affect the war, but it could be a nuisance.

In December, the 2nd Division moved back into line north of Kumwha, on the central front in the area known as the Iron Triangle. Hopes at this time for a negotiated peace were high, and the mission was to hold the line, no more. The division relieved the 25th, which now passed into Army reserve for rest and training.

By now, the lines had been stable for months, and improved positions were constructed. Units, on relief, left their positions intact, and overhead cover was constructed for every position on the MLR, and heated shelters and mess tents protected all men from the fierce winter weather.

As General Bull Boatner said, "Aside from being cold as hell, it was as easy and plush a winter as could be expected in combat. The division took an average of only two casualties a day, and that was peanuts."

And by any standard of actual war, peanuts it was—yet human lives are not potatoes, and it was now almost 1952, an election year. A good argument could be made that men who died now on line in Korea died for nothing, and Washington was adamant that none must die, if it could be so ordered.

While patrols had to be run nightly, and the enemy shelled, and kept off balance if possible, no attacks above platoon size were permissible short of Corps' approval. And Corps was very chary with its approval of anything that might result in soldiers being hurt.

With one eye always on Panmunjom, the old noncoms running the patrols grew wise, too. They quickly understood the nature of this new war, and of all the thousands of patrols run by the division—some for the express purpose of capturing prisoners—few ever made contact with the enemy. Each night there were hundreds of Americans and Chinese slipping out of the hills into the broad valleys that ran between the two main lines of resistance, listening, waiting, each supposed to ambush the other.

The operation journals record that contact, and resultant fighting, occurred with remarkable regularity, and when it did, it was often by CCF initiative.

General Boatner and the new division commander, Major General Robert N. Young, knew these things, just as the company and battalion commanders knew them; but there are some things, like this and one's relations with one's wife, that gentlemen do not discuss.

When the 23rd Infantry took over the 27th Infantry, 25th Division's sector, the Wolfhounds had told Colonel James Y. Adams, commanding the 23rd and the son of the Army adjutant general, that the Chinese up on Papa-santo the north would not shoot unless three or more vehicles got on the roads near the front. The CCF, while it had plenty of artillery, continued to show a marked reluctance to fire on any unprofitable target, or any target its observers could not see. It had to bring its ammunition over a long and painful route—thus, while U.S. artillery shelled Communist areas behind the lines regularly, American areas back of the immediate front were normally as safe as San Francisco.

The Wolfhound officers explained that it was fine to run two jeeps or trucks down the road, anytime—but three or more pulled the plug.

Colonel Adams thought he knew a line when he heard one. A few days later he went down the road under Papa-san in a convoy of three jeeps.

During the resulting uproar, Adams' buttocks were made a bloody sieve. The exec of the 23rd took over the regiment. This officer was told to make no personnel changes for the moment, since he was junior to one of the battalion commanders. Unheeding, the exec moved a senior lieutenant colonel up to his old job, probably feeling he was getting rid of a potential rival—and four hours later, Brigadier General Boatner was sent down to assume control of the regiment, until a new eagle colonel could be rounded up.

Christmas came while Boatner still commanded the 23rd. There had been talk of a Communist attack on the 25th, and during the morning, in a light snowfall, Boatner went out to inspect his forward lines.

At 1000 hours, he couldn't find a man on line in one area.

He went into a platoon CP, dug into a heated bunker, and found one enlisted man by the phone. "Phone your platoon leader," Boatner barked.

"Yes, sir—only the phone's out of order, sir—"

Boatner, mad as a snapping turtle, placed the platoon leader under arrest. That young man, as so many others, had not had the moral courage to force his men to stay alert and ready out in the snow on Christmas Day.

A little later, Boatner was on the phone to the lieutenant's battalion commander. "You hear about this, Colonel?"

"Hear about it? Hell, the whole regiment's heard about it, General! Don't come up here—everybody's running for their holes!"

Boatner growled, "All fight, I, want you to chew that platoon leader out, and when you have, take him off arrest. I don't want him KIA while under arrest—"

He had made his point, and it was still Christmas Day.

A few days later, Boatner was inside a bunker with the same second lieutenant, under heavy shelling. When the enemy fire eased, the young officer started for the exit.

"Where the hell are you going?"

"Sir, I've got to make up my shellrep—" After shelling, regulations required a report of the number and caliber of shells that had come in, and the craters had to be inspected.

Now, that was the last thing Bull Boatner wanted to do—but to keep up appearances he had to accompany the young officer outside.

The lieutenant was wounded, and Boatner was wondering if he hadn't almost been hoisted by his own petard.

A continuing problem of this static war was that senior officers did not have enough to do to make them keep their hands off their junior's affairs. Or they had time to think up new projects, from painting fire buckets red to promulgating the color of name tags on enlisted fatigues.

Just before Clark Ruffner turned over the division to Bob Young, he had told Boatner: "Haydon, we ought to get out a division history. Since I'm leaving, you take it over."

As clearly as Boatner could remember later, his own comment was, "Jesus Christ!"

"Now, I want you to do it."

"Yes, sir," Boatner said. Fortunately, in the 72nd Tank Battalion was an officer who had been editor of the Texas A&M newspaper, and Boatner was able to get rid of this jewel fast.

And then there was the problem of the new corps commander. This general had been in the CBI with Boatner and Stilwell, and had been junior to Boatner. But he had had the good fortune to be transferred to Europe, and now returned to the Far East as lieutenant general. Bob Young, the 2nd Division commander, considered it great fun to kid Boatner about this.

And this new corps commander had been brainwashed as he came in, as they all were in Tokyo, and in Seoul. Ridgway still had his foot firmly on Van Fleet's neck on the matter of casualties, and Van Fleet made sure his corps commanders got the word.

Just before Colonel Adams was wounded, he had got permission to stage a limited tank attack across the frozen paddies—actually, a hit-and-run raid with two sections from the regimental tank company.

The raid, with a total of five tanks, started off on schedule.

But out in the Kumwha Valley, the schedule blew up, along with the AT mines the right two tanks rolled over. While Boatner watched from a hill within friendly lines, the crews of the two disabled tanks, between three hundred and four hundred yards in front of their own positions, abandoned their vehicles and ran to safety, before the enemy could zero in on them.

Then the platoon leader in charge led his remaining tanks to within about twenty-five yards of them, and proceeded to blow them to hell with his 76mm cannon. They were left out in no man's land, ruined and smoking.

Now, Bull Boatner was no politician. If he had been, he would have written his own regimental situation report for the day. As it was, the sitrep went forward, listing the events of the day with appalling clarity.

That night, General Young called him on the phone. "Haydon, your friend"—Young's inveterate manner of referring to the corps commander—"is madder than hell!"

"Who's he mad at?"

"He's mad at you!"

"What the hell's he mad at me for?" Boatner wanted to know.

"You lost two tanks—and Bill says his corps does not lose tanks!" Boatner fortunately remained silent.

"Haydon, you're in for it—you're in a hell of a jam. He's madder'n hell. I mean it, Haydon!"

Though BullBoatner was no politician, he was no fool, either.

"Bob," he said, "what are you talking about? What's this about my having two tanks destroyed?"

"Goddamit, that's what your sitrep says!"

"Oh, hell, that's a mistake. Those two tanks were disabled, not destroyed. Hell, I can turn 'em in. Please scratch out that part on the sitrep about 'destroyed' and make it 'disabled."'

After Young hung up, Boatner thought, Well, hell. Here we are, fighting a war, and—now, maybe some auditor of General Motors would say I'm crooked, or a liar—but dammit, I'm not a liar about anything that amounts to anything.

He got the Regimental Tank Company C.O., Captain Juno, in front of his desk, next morning.

"Juno, we're in a jam. We've got to go recover those two tanks we left out there. Now, I'll give you all the support you need—mortars, engineers, division artillery—"

"General," Juno said, "those tanks are no goddam good!"

They were obsolete M-4A3E8's, and there were thousands of them rusting in depots in the States, from Detroit to Red River. And these two had exploded and burned to black hulks when their basic load of ammunition blew under the tank officer's shelling.

"Juno, you tend to your goddam business and I'll tend to mine—I'm telling you you got to go get those two tanks back! Now, I don't want anybody hurt—I'm going to get you all the support you need. You go rack up a plan—but it's got to be this afternoon."

"This makes no sense to me, General," Juno said.

"It's not supposed to—just do it," Boatner snapped.

It made plenty of sense to him.

Juno did it. He took out his tank retrievers under a curtain of friendly fire and dragged the burned-out hulks back smoothly and efficiently, without a casualty. The CCF were too surprised to shoot. It was no sweat at all.

As the two blackened hulks were pulled within the edge of his main line of resistance, Bull Boatner was on the horn to the division ordnance officer. "Come get these goddam disabled tanks out of my area—"

What the division ordnance officer said or what he did with the "disabled" tanks is not recorded.

But it was one way to satisfy a newly arrived corps commander who tried to get down and operate on tank-section level.

As the winter wore on, General Van Fleet, feeling continual pressure, continued to raise hell with the divisions for losing too many men.

And the 2nd Division, while it inflicted more casualties during the Korean War than any other, always had the misfortune of losing 50 percent more men than other divisions.

There was the matter of the 38th's platoon raid.

Colonel Rowny's regiment was authorized to stage a one-platoon raid on the extreme left flank of the division, toward a hill that had been firing into the division lines. From a friendly hill, General Boatner, Ed Rowny, and the battalion commander of the selected infantry platoon watched the attack proceed. From this hill they could see clear to P'yong gang, in enemy hands.

The platoon assaulted the hill, which was neither completely within one MLR or the other. And it ran into a hell of fire from machine guns and mortars, and was pinned down, helplessly.

Eighth Army orders, all across Korea, read that no more than one platoon could be committed without express approval from jurisdictional Corps HQ. The company commander of the pinned-down platoon, however, ordered a second platoon into action, and finally his whole company, to bail his first platoon out.

To do so, he had to take the disputed hill and knock the enemy off it. Then, his boys relieved, he had to relinquish the hill, since it was too close to CCF lines to be tenable. No one wanted to start a new Bloody Ridge.

And in saving his platoon, he took heavy casualties.

Boatner, Assistant Division CG, Rowny, the regimental commander, and the battalion commander saw the whole operation, watching in an agony of suspense. Not one of them jumped into the action, however—to do so would have been the best way in the world to destroy the confidence and command ability of the junior officers, who, like children, have to learn to make their own mistakes however desperately it pains their parents.

However painful it is to contemplate, officers have to learn in battle. There simply is no other feasible way to learn experience commanding men in battle, except in battle.

Whatever else he had done wrong, the company commander had done the right thing by committing his full company to extricate the men in trouble. But the next day, when the casualty reports reached higher HQ, all hell broke loose. Major General Young called Boatner in.

"Haydon, what's this all about?"

Boatner explained the whole matter to him.

"Well, go up to the 38th and make a complete investigation. We'll have to make a report."

Boatner did so, and reported back. The raid had been a mistake. It never should have been undertaken—but then who could tell beforehand what would have happened?

The company C.O. involved had made some mistakes—but his decision to commit his entire company had been the only one. How could he have stood by while his one platoon was cut to pieces before his eyes?

Maybe Bull Boatner was out on a limb, for not taking over as he watched—but what kind of brigadier general or regimental commander would it be that got down on company level and started commanding platoons?

The whole trouble stemmed from one thing: in the year 1952 the division had got men killed, during offensive action, and in this year if anything was anathema to the men running the Republic it was that.

Now, here they were. They had lost men, and that was that. Young asked, "What're we going to do about it?" He was concerned over Ed Rowny, who was a fine officer, and could be ruined if the ball bounced the wrong way.

In higher echelons the urge to seek scapegoats as slowly becoming irresistible. As Boatner said, what was often not understood about the Army was that while it threw someone to the wolves frequently, it was civilian pressure that was often the cause.

Now, Boatner told Young, who the hell was more interested in those young men—besides the parents—than their immediate officers, the officers who knew these kids, who lived and ate with them? Some staff officer, some corps or army commander, or the theater commander in Tokyo?

"It's simply goddam ridiculous and absurd for a combat man to be put in a position where his own subordinates that he's known—youngsters that he's eaten with—get killed or wounded, and someone thousands of miles back puts the bite on him, as though he were callous about it!"

Boatner wrote a formal report. He refused to hang anyone and he made his refusal strong—so strong the matter ended there.

To Bull Boatner, it was a shining example of people in the rear being damned cowards. On line, there was no such thing as a "limited" war—when the shooting started on line, no man a thousand miles away could tell the man in combat what or what not to do.

And anyone who believed that American officers were callous underneath their hard exterior poses about the men who died in action under their command had simply never commanded a platoon or higher unit in action, or ever had to write a tragic letter home. But there is no such thing as war—even limited war—without losses.

As the months passed, and 1952 deepened, and there was no peace at Panmunjom, the war that was not a war went on endlessly. Every night the guns on each side cannonaded; every night the patrols went out, for no army may sit entirely still, except at its peril.

Every night, men died.

Frustration grew, in government, in generals, and in the men on the line, while the guns sounded and the talks about the peace table droned on.

And, caught in a Communist trap, the moral courage of some leaders grew less. The pressure on Tokyo to hold down the loss never ceased. In Korea, on tile ground, it intensified. It was no longer possible to permit juniors any latitude, or any possibility for error.

What Boatner foresaw happened. Soon battalion commanders led platoons, and general officers directed company actions, for the loss of one patrol could ruin the career of a colonel. In one way, it was an efficient system. It worked, for the lines were stable, and no senior officer had enough to do.

But the damage done to the Army command structure would be long in healing. If a new war came someday, there would be colonels and generals—who had been lieutenants and captains in Korea—who had their basic lessons still to learn.

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