Military history



Do something, even if it's wrong.…

— Unofficial doctrine of the United States Army Infantry School.

BECAUSE OF THE International Date Line, there is a day's difference in time between Korea and the United States; it was still Saturday, 24 June, in Washington when word of the North Korean attack arrived.

Early Sunday morning, Korea time, both the military attaché and Ambassador Muccio had cabled the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence and the State Department, respectively. Muccio said, in part:

"It would appear from the nature of the attack and the manner in which it was launched that it constitutes an all-out offensive against the Republic of Korea."

Meanwhile, newsmen from the various wife services sent their own messages from Seoul.

The word, from varying sources, first reached Washington at about eight Saturday night; Muccio's cable came in at nine-thirty. On Saturday night in Washington, particularly in summer, things were slow. It was not until the next day, Sunday morning, that even a good panic could get organized.

At nearly the same time, members of the United Nations Commission that was still in Korea reported to U.N. Headquarters in New York. Secretary General Trygve Lie was at his Long Island estate; receiving the news by telephone, the rotund Norwegian blurted, "This is war against the United Nations!"

Lie, furious, called an emergency meeting of the Security Council to convene at 2:00 P.M. Sunday.

Official Washington, meanwhile, had been taken completely by surprise. As General Lyman Lemnitzer reported to :an angry Secretary of Defense a few days later, while United States Intelligence knew that North Korea had had the capability to attack the South, similar capabilities had existed all along the Soviet periphery, and not one intelligence agency had singled out Korea as an imminent danger point.

When the Soviet pressure had relaxed in Europe in 1949, with the ending of the Berlin blockade and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Washington had tended to relax also. Owing to American commitments and atomic superiority, no war seemed imminent in Europe—and Asian policy had not been completely firmed.

The shift of Soviet strategy away from Europe, which after all remained the major prize, to the periphery of Asia had not been understood in the West. And the West tended to think only in terms of an all-out Soviet attack, of which there was no evidence. Almost no one had considered the possibility of limited military operations, for which the Western powers were completely unprepared.

Now, on 25 June and later, Washington could never be sure that Korea was not merely a smokescreen, to divert American attention and troops while an assault against Europe was being prepared. For this reason, even after it had committed itself to the defense of Korea, the United States Government was reluctant to throw any major portion of its strength into the peninsula.

Only gradually did American planners realize that the Soviets might attempt to achieve their ends by bits and pieces rather than in the traditional American way, with one fell swoop. Soviet strategy, like Soviet thinking, has always been devious where American has been direct.

On Sunday, 25 June, the government was stunned by the Communist action, In the climate of opinion prevailing in Washington, such an overt military operation was unthinkable.

The surprise pointed up a continuing of American Intelligence. The various intelligence agencies poured a vast amount of information into Washington; they knew the numbers of divisions, guns, tanks, and naval craft of potential enemies. But this intelligence could not be evaluated because Washington had not even one pipeline into official circles of enemy capitals; they could not even estimate what the potential aggressor was thinking or might do.

This was no change from the past. In December 1941, American Intelligence knew that strong carrier task forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy had left port. But not understanding official Japanese thinking, the fact had meant nothing to Washington.

The situation in 1950 was no change from the past, and there would be little change in the future.

Now, Sunday morning 25 June, there were observers in Washington who recalled a similar shock on another Sunday eight and one half years before.

President Truman was in Independence for the weekend. He immediately prepared to fly back to the capital and called a conference of high Defense and State officials at Blair House that evening.

But the shock in Washington was more of anger and annoyance than of alarm. No one yet could know the real extent of the military disaster that had already overtaken the Taehan Minkuk.

As the shock wave set off by the overt Communist aggression against the Republic of Korea reverberated through the West, Seoul began its second day of war, and by now the city was relatively calm.

Confidently, their initial hysteria drained away, Seoul's million and a half inhabitants waited for word of their army's victories in the North. Troops still streamed through Seoul toward Uijongbu and other points north, and soothing statements came over the national radio.

The day passed quietly; then in the afternoon of 26 June, Seoul broadcast the news that the 7th Division had counterattacked north of Uijongbu.

Fifteen hundred enemy soldiers had been killed, fifty-eight tanks destroyed, and a mountain of other matériel had been captured. Listening, the people shouted with enthusiasm.

But as evening fell, an ominous tide of frightened, fleeing refugees began to pour into the suburbs from the north, and, by listening closely, men could hear the distant mutter of cannon on the wind. The sound seemed to be coming closer.

On the morning of 26 June both the 3rd and 4th Divisions of the Inmun Gun were poised above Uijongbu, spearheaded by powerful armored elements. After pausing briefly for reorganization during the night, both divisions attacked on a converging axis toward the Uijongbu Corridor, the 3rd along the P'och'on road, and the 4th down the road from Tongduch'on-ni.

Immediately the 4th Division ran into trouble. The ROK 7th Division struck them with a violent counterattack, and during the morning a bitter fight developed in the west. Genera Yu Jai Hyung's division was not making anything like the progress the Seoul radio later claimed, but it was at least containing the attack.

But to the east, on the 7th's right flank along the P'och'on road, American advisers entering Brigadier General Lee Hyung Koon's 2nd Division command post found the general sitting among his staff officers. He had placed his two infantry battalions along the road approximately two miles north of Uijongbu, told them to dig in, and now Lee Hyung Koon did nothing.

Believing an attack by his feeble battalions futile, he never ordered it. And at 0800, his men saw the NKPA columns advancing south on the road. They opened fire with artillery and mortars.

A column of forty tanks led the NKPA attack, and when the artillery first crashed among them, the tanks halted momentarily. Then, spotting the ROK infantry along the road, the tanks clanked. forward, firing.

The light fieldpieces of the ROK's scored some direct hits, but even these could not halt the thickly armored. T-34's. The tanks rumbled through the ROK lines and crashed into Uijongbu.

Behind them, bayonets fixed, charged. the North Korean infantry. As the tanks overran their positions, the soldiers of the ROK 2nd Division began to leave their holes. Within minutes, the survivors had melted into the encircling hills.

Brigadier Genera Lee and his staff fled south.

Fighting stubbornly along the Tongduch'on-ni road, Yu Jai Hyung heard that the enemy was in Uijongbu. Flanked, about to be cut off, Yu ordered his attack broken off. Raggedly, the 7th Division fell back south of Uijongbu.

The 2nd Division had virtually disappeared; it was fighting now with disorganized small units. And during the unexpected retreat, 7th Division also began to come apart. Only the best trained and best led troops can execute an orderly withdrawal under heavy pressure. Outnumbered, outgunned and with no way to counteract the freezing terror—which the Germans call panzer fever—caused by the unstoppable Russian tanks, the 7th took frightful losses.

The NKPA 3rd and 4th divisions joined in Uijongbu, and again the tanks of the 105th Armored Brigade rolled south.

But now, as darkness fell on 26 June, there no longer remained any effective ROK force above Seoul that could affect the situation.

General Lee had disobeyed orders—but the complete shattering of his forces, even in defensive positions, revealed that even had he obeyed Chae and attacked, he would have failed. The ROK plan of maneuver had been hasty, ill advised, and impossible. A competent, adequately trained basic rifleman could be made in eleven months. Competent, well-schooled commanders and staffs could not.

There was nothing wrong with either the stamina or courage of the ROK soldier. Too many thousands of them died above Seoul proving otherwise.

On Sunday, 25 June, Colonel Wright, KMAG Chief of Staff and senior officer of that group now that Brigadier General Lynn Roberts had left, was in Japan. On Saturday night his wife had sailed from Yokohama for home, and Colonel Wright expected to follow her in a matter of days. But as he attended church services on Sunday morning, a messenger sought him out, bent over and whispered, "Colonel, you'd better get back to Korea right away!"

Wright left church and telephoned Seoul. What Seoul told him caused him to hop a plane, and he flew into Kimpo Airport just before dawn on Monday 26 June.

Before leaving Japan he set in motion a plan to evacuate American dependents from Korea. American ships were diverted to Korea, and Air Force cover was ordered for such ships. Planes were to screen the Norwegian fertilizer ship Reinholt as it left Inch'on early on Monday morning.

Now, in Seoul, Wright conferred with his boss, Ambassador Muccio, and they agreed to evacuate all of KMAG, too, with the exception of thirty-three officers Wright wanted to keep in ROK Army HQ. The word was passed, and KMAG officers began to leave the front. Most of them were flown to Japan from Suwon Airfield early the next morning.

All during the 26th of June, KMAG HQ in Seoul was getting confused but accurate reports from its officers in the field. The reports were not good.

And during the hours of darkness on 26 June, the Government of the Taehan Minkuk was getting accurate reports, too, despite what the people were told. And the Government of the Taehan Minkuk began to grow increasingly nervous. During the night it planned to move from Seoul to Taejon, ninety miles to the south. The members of the National Assembly engaged in acrid and shouting debate in the early morning; the National Assembly voted to remain in Seoul no matter what the ministers did.

Just after midnight on the morning of the 27th, Ambassador Muccio received orders from the Department of State to leave Seoul. He planned to take his staff south of the Han to Suwon, while Colonel Wright and his selected KMAG officers crossed to Sihung-ni, a town some five miles south of Yongdungp'o, to which ROK Army HQ had already gone, without notifying the Americans.

Now the American evacuation, which had been held in abeyance for two days, began in a sort of panic. Ambassador Muccio and his staff went to Suwon at 0900 Tuesday, 27 June. Under American fighter cover from Japan, the civilian and KMAG staff began to fly from Suwon Airfield. Behind them, the American evacuation of Seoul was both hasty and chaotic, and in some respects, tragic.

The fifteen hundred vehicles belonging to Americans, both government and private, were abandoned; no effort was made to turn them over to the ROK Army, which desperately needed them. More than twenty thousand gallons of gasoline were abandoned in the embassy motor pool. A tremendous amount of food, valued at $100,000, and the entire July quota of liquor-$40,000 worth, tax free—were left for the Inmun Gun.

But these losses, aid to the enemy aside, were replaceable. The ghastly mistake made during the early hours of 27 June was that the personnel records of more than five thousand Korean employees of the embassy were left in their files. While the confidential records of the American Mission were burned, no one thought of the dossiers of its loyal Korean workers—or more likely, no one on the embassy staff really understood the nature of the Communist foe they faced.

These files would fall into the hands of the Inmun Gun, and none of the employees who remained at their homes in Seoul would survive the Communist occupation.

But the 2,202 American citizens were evacuated from Korea, without loss of life.

Colonel Wright, as Chief of KMAG, drove to Sihung-ni to hunt up General Chae and the ROK Army HQ, who had taken off from Seoul without informing him.

On the way, Wright received a radio message from General MacArthur in Tokyo. MacArthur stated that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had directed him to take command of all United States military personnel in Korea, including KMAG. He was sending an advance command and liaison group—called ADCOM—into Korea at once. KMAG was home again.

Arriving at Sihung-ni, Wright received a fresh message from MacArthur: "Personal MacArthur to Wright: Repair to your former locations. Momentous decisions are in the offing. Be of good cheer."

Colonel Wright had no idea what was; up, but at least he recognized MacArthur's hand in the message. With both messages as authority, he began arguing with General Chae to return the ROK HQ to Seoul. It was not an easy task, but by evening of the 27th the HQ had returned to the capital.

But inside Seoul itself panic was erupting. The people had not been told of the failure of the counterattack at Uijongbu, but civilian refugees and wounded soldiers were streaming down into the city, and slowly a feeling of panic spread. North Korean planes flew over the city, dropping surrender leaflets. Fear grew. Then Marshal Choe Yong Gun, field commander of the Inmun Gun, beamed a broadcast into Seoul: "Surrender!"

By nightfall 27 June the city was in turmoil, and thousands of civilians began to flee southward over the Han bridges.

The military authorities in Seoul had devised a roadblock and demolition plan that was supposed to blow all bridges north of Seoul, and, on order, destroy the great modern spans leading south across the Han. But by dark on 27 June the civilian terror had spread to the soldiers, too. Men falling back from the north told of the terrible tanks that could not be stopped. It must be recalled that Korean soldiers had not even been told much about tanks, let alone given them, and the tanks assumed the proportions of invincible monsters as the tales spread. And the ROK Army had not even one antitank mine.

The roadblocks were not defended; the bridges to the north were not blown. Thousands of defeated ROK troops began to pour into Seoul, and as they did so, the rearguard detachments left to delay the enemy melted away.

And now a new menace appeared. Thousands upon thousands of Communists and Communist sympathizers had infiltrated Seoul during the years, and as the Inmun Gun approached, these men came out into the open. Suddenly no one could be trusted; even on the ROK Army Staff men began to shout "Communist!" and "Traitor!" at each other.

By midnight the ROK Army Staff was close to a state of funk.

The leading units of the Inmun Gun had already entered Seoul at 1930, but desperate fire from the defenders forced them back temporarily. At 2300 a single T-34 and a platoon of soldiers reached the gardens of the Chang-Duk Palace in the north of the city. Somehow, amazingly, the Seoul Police Department was able to destroy the tank and disperse the accompanying infantrymen.

On the ground, the situation in Seoul was far from hopeless. There were thousands of heavily armed ROK troops within the walls, and the city itself was an immense obstacle. Fighting street by street, using delaying tactics, the ROK's Army could delay the Inmun Gun for days, while more of their reserves moved north.

The bulk of the ROK Army was still north of the Han River.

But the ROK Army was at this moment almost devoid of leadership.

At approximately midnight, an American lieutenant colonel named Scott was on the G-3 (Operations) desk at ROK Army HQ. The phones were beginning to report breakthroughs all along the northern edge of the city. As the reports came in, Scott saw ROK officers of the G-3 Section start to take down and fold their maps.

Going to General Chae Byong Duk, Chief of Staff, Scott asked "Have you ordered this headquarters to leave?"

"No," Chae said.

At about this time, Colonel Wright issued orders that most of his principal KMAG officers try to get a little sleep. The majority of KMAG, including Colonel Wright, had been on their feet since Sunday morning, and were nearing exhaustion. The KMAG quarters were a little distance from ROK HQ, connected by phone.

Colonel Wright, and his Chief of Staff Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood, turned in. Almost immediately Colonel Greenwood's phone rang. It was Major Sedberry, G-3 Adviser to the ROK Army, who now had the desk over at ROK HQ.

"My God, Colonel, the ROK's are going to blow the Han bridges," Sedberry said. "I'm trying to get the Deputy Chief of Staff, General Kim, to hold off until all the troops and supplies in Seoul can be removed to the south side—"

The KMAG officers on duty in ROK HQ now tried to reach Colonel Wright, but the officer who took his calls refused to disturb his chief. The solicitude was understandable, but it would almost cause Wright to lose his life.

There had been a firm agreement between KMAG and General Chae that the Han bridges south of Seoul would not be blown until enemy tanks reached ROK HQ itself. But when Colonel Greenwood rushed to ROK HQ, he could not find Chae.

There were three ROK divisions still holding Seoul, with all their arms and military transport. It did not appear that the enemy could reach the center of the city before noon the following day, and there was plenty of time to blow the bridges later.

But Chae Byong Duk was gone—he had been hustled out of the HQ, apparently against his will, and put on a :southbound truck. General Kim Paik II was now in charge.

Kim Paik II told Greenwood that the Korean Vice-Minister of Defense had ordered that the bridges be blown at 0130 and that he had no authority to countermand the order.

A few minutes later General Lee Hyung Koon, commander of the 2nd Division, which had now finally arrived in Seoul, entered the HQ and was told that the bridges were to be blown. Lee rushed to Kim and began to plead with him.

"At least let me evacuate my troops, with their equipment, to the south side of the river! This order does not make sense!"

Shaken by Lee's arguments, Kim at last turned to the ROK Army G-3, Major General Chang Chang Kuk.

"Drive to the river and tell the chief engineer to stop the demolitions!"

As soon as he had ordered this, Kim directed the HQ to pack up and depart.

The KMAG officers were still not able to reach Colonel Wright.

General Chang, who well understood the situation, ran outside and started his jeep. He headed for the great highway bridge, but by now the streets were so clogged with refugees and frightened ,civilians, men, women, children, and animals, that he could make no progress. Cursing and blowing his horn, he pushed his way through. He had to reach a police telephone box on the north end of the bridge, which was the only point from which the ROK engineers on the south side could be contacted.

At 0214 he had arrived at a point only 150 yards from the northern end of the highway bridge. The highway and the bridge itself were jammed with masses of vehicles and pedestrians—fleeing refugees, army trucks, soldiers, and civilians filling all eight lanes of the road and the three lanes of the bridge. Chang could see that there were many thousands of civilians and soldiers actually crossing the bridge itself. Sweating, he angrily bulled the jeep foot by foot across the stream of traffic.

He knew he had very little time.

Two of Wright's KMAG officers, Colonel Hazlett and Captain Hausman, had been sent south at midnight to Suwon, there to establish communications with Tokyo. They had just jeeped across the highway bridge when Hausman looked at his watch: 0215.

At that moment the bridge blew. A sheet of orange fire burst across the dark night, and the ground shook. With an ear-shattering roar, two long spans on the south side of the river dropped into the swirling dark water.

No one will ever know how many soldiers and civilians died in the explosion or were hurled screaming into the Han to drown. The best estimates indicate the number was near one thousand.

There had been no warning of any kind to the traffic thronging the bridge. Later, the ROK chief of engineers would be tried by court-martial and summarily shot for his part in the demolitions. But no one in the Rhee Government ever brought up the matter of the Vice-Minister of Defense, who had given the order that ensured the destruction of the ROK Army.

Trapped by the premature blowing of the Han bridges, 44,000 men of the divisions north of the river would die or disappear. Their vital artillery and equipment would be lost with them.

A few got out. Brigadier Yu Jai Hyung, whose 7th Division had charged the buzzsaw, reached the south side of the river with 1,200 men and four machine guns. Colonel Paik, whose 1st Division soldiers had fought tanks with iron bars, brought 5,000 men across the Han near Kimpo, but had to leave his artillery behind.

At Ch'unch'on to the east, the gallant 6th Division heard the news, and prepared to abandon its pillboxes and bunkers north of Peacock Mountain. At Samch'ok, on the Sea of Japan, the 8th began its own retreat. These two divisions were the only ones of the ROK Army still intact, and they were isolated.

General Lee got out, and lived to explain to Colonel Wright why he had not obeyed Fat Chae's orders. But the majority of the Korean officers died with their men.

On the 28th of June, only a rabble held the south shores of the Han. The ROK Army Command could account for only 22,000 men of the 98,000 its rolls had carried out on the 25th.

The Army of the Taehan Minkuk, which had been called "the best damn army outside the United States," had not merely been defeated.

It had been destroyed.

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