Military history


The Plan of General Chae

Surprise may decisively shift the balance of combat power in favor of the commander who achieves it. It consists of striking the enemy when, where, or in a manner for which he is unprepared.

— Field Service Regulations, Operations, United States Army.

THE ONLY AMERICAN soldier on the 38th parallel on Sunday morning, 25 June 1950, awoke at daylight to the sound of cannon. Captain Joseph R. Darrigo, Assistant Adviser to the 12th Regiment, 1st ROK Division, had quarters in a house just northeast of Kaesong. Half awake, he lay in bed, listening; it had been raining, and the sound he heard could have been thunder. Then he heard the whine of shell fragments through the air and the slap of small-arms fire against the house.

Captain Darrigo came awake. He found his trousers, and with his shoes in one hand and his uniform shirt in the other, he rushed from his bedroom. He ran into his frightened Korean houseboy on the stairs.

Darrigo's jeep was parked just outside the house, and the two of them made a dash for it. Outside they saw no one, but the sound of firing was continuous, reverberating from the bare hillsides and amplified by the low clouds. Darrigo started up the jeep and spurted southward toward Kaesong.

Arriving at the traffic circle in the center of the city, he stopped and looked around. He saw the railroad station, less than half a mile away, and noticed that a dozen railway cars had just pulled into it. As he watched, what seemed a full regiment of men in mustard-colored brown uniforms began leaping from the train.

Darrigo knew that the rail line, which had been torn up across the demarcation zone just north of Kaesong when the bamboo curtain crashed down, must have been relaid during the night by the Inmun Gun. Then they had loaded a train with troops, and while their artillery and frontal assault crashed against the thinly held position along the parallel, this train had puffed calmly into Kaesong to take the ROK's in the rear.

Men began advancing toward the traffic circle, and rifle fire slashed near Darrigo's quarter-ton. Captain Darrigo saw that there was nothing he could do in Kaesong; he could not even rejoin the 12th Regiment beyond the town. He put the jeep in gear and roared south, speeding across the Imjin River to Munsan-ni.

The assault of the North Korean People's Army—the NKPA, in United States Army terminology—while completely coordinated did not fall everywhere at once. Rather, it came in a series of blows, beginning at exactly 0400 in the west and continuing eastward for more than an hour.

Since the South had been heavily infiltrated with line crossers and Communist agents, the NKPA without exception knew the location of every South Korean defense unit, and sent superior forces against it. And almost without exception, the assault took the ROK units by complete surprise.

Many officers, most American advisers, and a large number of enlisted men were absent on pass to Seoul or other towns. And while the ROK's had deployed four divisions along the border, only one of the three regiments of each division was actually occupying its preplanned defensive position. The remaining regiments generally were in reserve areas from ten to forty miles south of the parallel.

The armored fist of the NKPA, then, struck not only against an utterly surprised ROK army, but a ROK army not deployed for battle. This factor, even more than lack of equipment or status of training, was to be decisive.

At approximately 0600, KMAG HQ in Seoul received a radio message from the advisers of the ROK 17th Regiment on the Ongjin Peninsula west of Seoul. They reported: "Regiment under heavy attack, about to be overrun." They requested instructions. No orders had been issued to KMAG to cover the situation developing on Sunday morning. Were the American officers to fight alongside the ROK's, or merely to continue their advisory duties, or to withdraw, since this was a war of Korean against Korean?

Ambassador Muccio's feeling was that KMAG should stand aside, following the precedent set earlier in China's civil war. Two volunteer aviators from KMAG HQ flew the five Americans on the Ongjin Peninsula back to Seoul in light L-5 liaison planes.

The Ongjin Peninsula west of Seoul had been considered defensible, but within hours the remnants of Colonel Paik In Yup's 17th Regiment were evacuated by LST's to Inch'on.

Farther east, the assault that had awakened Captain Darrigo rolled up the defenses north of Kaesong. Only two companies of the ROK 12th Regiment were able to flee south across the Imjin River; the others were killed or captured. The remaining regiments of the ROK Ist Division, the 13th and 11th, were at Korangp'o-ri, fifteen miles east of Kaesong, and in reserve just north of Seoul. They were commanded by Colonel Paik Sun Yup, a very young but able officer.

At the time Captain Darrigo was watching the NKPA detrain in Kaesong, Colonel Paik and several of his staff were in Seoul, beating on the door of the KMAG compound where Darrigo's boss, Lieutenant Colonel Lloyd Rockwell, was sleeping. As soon as they had got Rockwell awake, the Koreans told him of the NKPA assault. Colonel Paik then got in touch with his 11th Regiment by phone and ordered it to move north to Munsan-ni, south of the Imjin River, and to take up already prepared defensive positions alongside its sister regiment at Korangp'o-ri.

In earlier discussions, both Rockwell and Paik had agreed that the 1st Division could hold against an attack from the north only on the south side of the Imjin. Now they and the staff proceeded immediately up to that river and ordered the bridges blown. But the NKPA was so close upon the rear of the retreating 12th Regiment that the order could not be executed.

The 11th and 13th regiments, by midmorning, were heavily engaged with the NKPA 1st Division and the 105th Armored Brigade. Korean soldiers were as brave as any, but they soon found they had no weapons to halt the Russian-built T-34 tanks. The 2,36-inch rocket launchers furnished them by the U.S. Army could not be counted on to penetrate the Russian armor, and they were very weak in artillery. But the 1st Division held at Korangp'o-ri.

ROK soldiers, seeing all else fail, seized packets of high explosive and threw themselves under tank treads, trying to disable the steel monsters. Others ran at the advancing tanks with satchel charges, or charges fixed to long poles. Still others leaped upon tank decks, and desperately attempted to pry open the turret hatches with iron bars and hooks, so that they might drop hand grenades inside. In open terrain, and against tanks deployed in number, such tactics were suicide. A tank or two slued aside or blew up, but the ROK soldiers died.

They died chopped down by the tank machine guns, or shot by the supporting NKPA infantry. They died shrieking under the tank treads. When almost a hundred had been killed in this manner, the desire to fight tanks barehanded began to leave the survivors.

Still the 1st Division held its ground. It was still holding, desperately, when disaster to the east forced it to withdraw.

The main attack of the NKPA burst down the Ch'orwon Valley toward the Uijongbu Corridor, the main gateway from the north to Seoul. On the left the 4th Division, NKPA, attacked southward along the Yonch'on-Tongduch'on-ni road into Uijongbu; on the right the 3rd Division moved along the P'och'onKurwha road. In front of each division roared and clanked a regiment of forty tanks.

A single ROK division, the 7th, with its 1st Regiment scattered along the parallel, its 9th Regiment at P'och'on, and its 3rd Regiment at Tongduch'onni, took the full force of the assault.

At 0830 a staff officer of the 7th Division radioed the ROK Minister of Defense in Seoul: "We are under general attack and heavy artillery fire near the parallel. The enemy has already seized his initial objectives. We require immediate reinforcements. Our reserve is engaged."

There were no reinforcements available, and there was no way to stop the onrushing tanks—no rivers, no ridges to bar the way. Fighting, the 7th Division fell back toward Uijongbu. By evening of 25 June, worried civilians there could hear the sound of guns, coming closer.

If Uijongbu fell, Seoul was defenseless.

Farther east, south of Hwach'on and the great Hwach'on Reservoir, near which NKPA II Corps had its headquarters, lay the ancient and lovely town of Ch'unch'on, atop whose Peacock Mountain was the most famous shrine in Korea, a building with bright-lacquered pillars and dull red roof tiles, which the South Koreans had turned into a library. Against Ch'unch'on II Corps threw its 2nd Division, without tank support.

The 2nd Division was to take Ch'unch'on no later than Sunday afternoon, while II Corps' 7th Division, which had tanks, was to attack toward Hongch'on, which lay southeast of the Shrine City.

The attack of the 7th Division south from Inje was immediately successful. What happened at Ch'unch'on, however, is significant.

The ROK 6th Division's 7th Regiment stood in dug-in concrete pillboxes and bunkers on the high, pine-covered ridges north of Ch'unch'on. The positions on Sunday morning were fully manned by grousing ROK soldiers; Colonel Kim Chong O, the division commander, had permitted no weekend passes. The American adviser, Lieutenant Colonel McPhail, was at Wonju with Division HQ. The 6th Division artillery was well trained.

The attack of the NKPA stalled in the mountains north of Ch'unch'on. Well-placed artillery fire shattered the NKPA 6th Regiment. There was no panic, no confusion among the defenders, who had been ready.

At midmorning, Colonel McPhail rushed up from Wonju to be on hand during the battle, and by late afternoon the reserve regiment of the 6th Division entered the town. Despite desperate attacks and bitter fighting, the NKPA 2nd Division could not force its way into Ch'unch'on.

With the fall of dark, there was annoyance in the Operations Post of II Corps at Hwach'on. Senior Colonel Lee was ordered to divert the 7th Division from its push toward Hongch'on and bring it back to join in the drive on Ch'unch'on. The 2nd Division, in only one day's fighting, had been badly mauled. It had suffered almost 40 percent casualties.

Fighting unsurprised, fully manned, and against troops without armor, the ROK Army was more than holding its own. For three days the ROK 6th Division would hold Ch'unch'on, retreating only when disaster to its east and west made its strongly held positions untenable.

Far across the peninsula, on the other side of the rugged and almost impassable Taebaek Range, the ROK 8th Division, which was stationed in coastal cities along the Sea of Japan, had been fighting Communist guerrillas. Several of its battalions were detached for service in the mountains on Sunday, 25 June; the others were stretched out from the parallel down to Samch'ok.

At first light on Sunday morning Korean staff officers burst in on Major George Kessler, adviser of the 10th Regiment. They told him, "We are under heavy attack across the parallel!"

Before any moves could be made, reports by telephone said that enemy soldiers were landing on the coast both north and south of Samch'ok. Whatever might be happening along the parallel, this last was serious. Kessler jumped into his jeep, and with the commanding officer of 10th Regiment, drove east to the sea north of Samch'ok.

Kessler stopped the jeep on a high hill overlooking the sea. Offshore, he and the regimental C.O. saw a vast flotilla of sampans and junks. Below them, on the beach, they saw a battalion-sized group of Inmun Gun coming ashore and spreading out. Kessler backed around and got out of there.

Driving south of Samch'ok, they saw approximately the same scene. ROK gunfire opened up and sank two boats offshore, but at least a thousand armed men came ashore. These men, mostly guerrilla cadres, did not engage the ROK forces, but slipped into the Taebaek Mountains and linked up with the guerrilla forces already fighting there.

And north, along the parallel, the NKPA 5th Division, supported by the 766th Independent Unit, crashed against the spread-out ROK 8th, driving it southward down the coast. The division commander informed the ROK chief of staff before withdrawing, in good order. No matter what happened, the campaign would not be won or lost in the remote east.

By midmorning on Sunday, General Chae Byong Duk and his principal advisers knew that the assault in progress was no rice raid.

In ROK Headquarters at Seoul there was confusion, but as yet no panic among the rank and file. After all, plans had been laid for just such an eventuality as this attack of the Inmun Gun.

In Seoul the officers knew that the key to the capital lay in the Uijongbu Corridor; any serious threat against Seoul must come that way, and if the enemy should get past Uijongbu, there was no feature, manmade or natural, that could hinder him short of the Han, on Seoul's south side. Obviously, and according to well-thought-out plan, the major ROK effort would be made in the Uijongbu Corridor, where now General Yu Hai Hyung's 7th Division was falling back under heavy pressure.

General Chae Byong Duk, Chief of Staff, began nervously to issue orders. All reserves of the ROK Army were to move north toward Seoul, and through the city into the Uijongbu Corridor.

The ROK 2nd Division was at Taejon, ninety miles south. The 5th was near Kwangfu far to the southwest, and the 3rd was across the peninsula at Taegu.

The ROK 2nd was the first to receive its orders, and to move. Its lead elements, accompanied by their American advisers, departed north by rail at 1430. By nightfall on 25 June parts of the 5th were on the road, and some units of the 3rd were also in motion.

The ROK divisions were not mechanized or mobile. Most of their transport was on deadline for lack of spare parts, and they were not organized for rapid movement. But they did the best they could, beginning to move north in piecemeal fashion.

As his orders went out, "Fat" Chae grew more nervous. Accompanied by his American staff adviser, Captain Hausman, he made two trips up to the

In Seoul there was no more talk of rain and rice. As word of the Communist attack spread, the people rose in a spasm of patriotic fury. There was relief in their fervor, too—all Koreans had considered the division of their country unbearable; from cranky old Syngman Rhee in the government palace to the landless peasant in the south ran strong agreement on that issue.

Now the puppet state to the north had attacked, and it would soon be over. North Korea would be overrun by the victorious troops of the Taehan Minkuk. It would be united again. The people, fed on statements by their government and the broadcasts of the Voice of America, believed implicitly in their army. They believed implicitly in the mountains of military aid the Americans had promised, and in final victory.

At 0900 Kimpo Airport reported that it was under air attack, and at mid-morning Russian-built yak fighters screamed over Seoul's main avenue, strafing—but no one understood the significance of this. The only people in Seoul who were shaken by the appearance of the enemy aircraft were some members of the American colony—who knew the true status of the ROK forces where equipment was concerned.

By midday, ROK Army units were streaming north through Seoul. They came through in long columns of trucks, rail cars, jeeps, bicycles—and oxcarts. To the people of Seoul the oxcarts did not seem odd. Nor did they seem to notice that their army had no combat vehicles, such as tanks.

The soldiers sang as they poured through Seoul, and vast crowds of civilians gathered at every street corner, cheering them. From Taihan Mun to the solid stone of the railway station, Seoul went wild with emotion.

Peasants in traditional white, elderly yangban graybearded in black hats, and neat businessmen in Western suits screamed their encouragement. The sight of the khaki-clad ROK troops moving north suddenly united all the segments of Seoul in one vast frenzy.

Manzai! Victory! Manzai! Unification! Manzai! Manzai!

All day Sunday, the khaki columns rode, pedaled, or limped by, moving north.

But among the American colony of Seoul, which had its women and children far from home, men were growing nervous. A fish merchant named John Caldwell, who had once been attached to the embassy staff, called a high embassy official, asking for news, just after the yak fighters had been reported over Seoul.

The embassy man was very angry. He said: "John, this thing is serious. They strafed an American plane at Kimpo. That's destruction of American property!"

At four o'clock on Sunday afternoon Ambassador John J. Muccio went on the air over the embassy radio station, WVTP, to reassure the American Uijongbu area, trying to hammer out a plan of action. Chae was certain that something had to be done very quickly, or it would be too late.

In that surmise he was correct—but what he would do was wrong. It would lose the war. colony. He stated that there was no reason for anyone to be afraid and that the ROK army had already contained the Communist offensive. There was to be no evacuation.

But KMAG officers, who were getting frantic reports by telephone from the length of the 38th parallel, were hardly so sanguine. They began to argue with the ambassador, who was still in command. At least the women and children should be flown out, many of them said.

All afternoon and far into the night, an argument raged. Ambassador Muccio cannot be blamed for his attitude. A diplomat, he was suddenly in command during a military disaster, with no instructions from home, no clear-cut policy, no idea of the course the United States should follow. Muccio felt he must continue to show confidence, and at the same time he sincerely believed the United States would not become involved, at least not directly.

At midnight, Muccio suddenly yielded to the pleading for evacuation. But he would not listen to a plan for removal of the American civilians by air; Communist planes were in the air, and if one of them should shoot down a plane loaded with refugees it would become an international incident.

There was a small Norwegian ship at Inch'on, and all 682 women and children would have to sail for Japan aboard this. The Norwegian ship carried a full load of fertilizer, and it had accommodations for only twelve passengers.

On this point Ambassador Muccio, a tall, dark, bespectacled man, given to wearing bow ties, was adamant. Generally, too, he was set against any evacuation, since he felt that even if the Inmun Gun should by some miracle capture Seoul, the Americans there would be granted diplomatic immunity by the Communists. The British, who had recognized Red China, also planned to keep their diplomatic staff in Seoul.

The British, some of whom would not live to see England again, also did not fully understand the nature of the Communist foe.

Radio Station WVTP ordered all dependent American women and children to assemble at certain designated locations to be picked up by embassy busses for the trip to Inch'on. From there the tiny freighter Reinholt would take them to Kokura, Japan.

Three days later, when the Reinholt docked, fifty of its passengers had to be removed to hospitals by stretcher. Exposure, lack of food, crowding, and the horrible odor of commercial fertilizer had prostrated the majority. But at that the women and children were lucky.

On late Sunday, with the sound of the guns coming ominously closer to the vital center of Uijongbu, General Chae held a hurried conference with his major subordinate commanders. Chae had formed his plan of battle.

Yu Jai Hyung's 7thDivision, which was holding both approaches to Uijongbu, was to swing to the west, onto the Tongduch'onni road, up which it would attack at dawn.

The arriving 2nd Division, under Brigadier General Lee Hyung Koon, would take over the entire P'och'on sector, and attack up the right-hand road in a coordinated effort with that of 7th Division.

Counterattacked, the advancing Inmun Gun would be halted short of Uijongbu, and, with luck, destroyed.

Brigadier General Yu accepted his orders, and began to move his units westward at midnight.

Lee Hyung Koon did not buy the plan at all. He explained that his division was still on the road and that only his Division HQ and two infantry battalions had closed in on Uijongbu. He said he could not possibly deploy the entire division north of Uijongbu by morning—it would not even have arrived.

Chae told him, "You will attack with whatever troops you have available."

"But I shall have to attack piecemeal, throwing in small units one at a time. And my men cannot march all night and fight at dawn. We must defer the counterattack until all my division, or at least most of it, is in position!"

Chae said, "No. You are overruled. The attack will proceed as I have planned."

Lee looked at Captain Hausman, the American KMAG officer. Hausman agreed with Lee, and said so. Lee's 2nd Division would be in no position to make a major effort; in fact, such a commitment risked its destruction.

But Hausman had no command here. He was an adviser lent by a friendly government, and at the moment even his status was not clear. Even had he been a major general, he could not overrule, and would not have felt justified in an attempt to overrule, the ROK chief of staff.

Chae, his huge bulk sweating, would listen to no more argument. Furious, Geeral Lee departed for his command post at Uijongbu.

The hours of remaining darkness passed swiftly. General Yu, with his weary, half-demoralized troops strung out along the Tongduch'on-ni road after many of them had made a night march, gave orders for a counterattack to be launched at daylight, and when the orders had gone out, paced up and down inside his CP, watching the intermittent flashes of gunfire to the north. At dawn, he would see to it that his 7th Division attacked.

But on his right flank, at Uijongbu, General Lee Hyung Koon, surrounded by his Division HQ, with two tired battalions dozing along the road, did nothing.

He had made up his mind, and he had no intention of doing anything.

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