HISTORY OF MARINES IN THE KOREAN WAR
[Excerpted from Marine Corps History on MarineLink the Official Homepage of the United States Marine Corps]
The United States, from 1950-53, came to the aid of South Korea in response to an invasion by North Korea. The war with the Communist-backed North Koreans ended with a military stalemate and with the restoration of the original political system within the two countries. This was one of the first entanglements that helped to fuel the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
ACTIVE DUTY MARINES
During the war, 424,000 Marines served. Of these, more than 4,500 gave their lives for their country. An additional 26,000 received wounds that were not mortal.
MARINE UNITS PARTICIPATING
AIRCRAFT AND WEAPONS USED
MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENTS
SIGNIFICANT MARINE EVENTS IN KOREA
"The Navy and Marines have never shone more brightly than this morning." General of the Army Douglas S. MacArthur as he observed the amphibious assault from the sea at Inchon, Korea, September 15, 1950.
On June 25, 1950, 75,000 men of the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded their southern neighbor. American forces in Korea were limited to the 500-man Korean Military Advisory Group. U.S. naval forces in the western Pacific consisted of less than three dozen ships, half of them submarines and mine sweepers. U.S. forces stationed in Japan, hastily thrown into battle, were overwhelmed by July 5.
Eight days after the invasion, 24 U.S. and Royal Navy ships entered North Korean waters and aircraft from the carriers Valley Forge and HMS Triumph struck rail lines, airfields, and bridges near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
During July and August, American and allied navies arrived on station off the Korean peninsula. In addition to Navy aircraft, four squadrons of Marine Corps aircraft, plus U.S. Air Force fighters were embarked on carriers for the transit from California to Korea.
Limited air power, and the few infantry units deployed to Korean could not slow the North Korean offensive. The Fleet Marine Force, cut drastically from a WWII high of 300,000, had only 27, 656 men.
General Clifton B. Cates, Commandant of the Marine Corps, was ordered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to deploy the 1st Marine Division to Korea by mid-September. However, short of equipment and with only 8,000 men, Cates requested President Truman to mobilize all reserve elements of the Marine Corps and attached Navy medical personnel to bring the division to wartime strength of 22,000.
Within a month 33,000 men, the entire Marine Corps ground Reserve, 138 units, were ordered to active duty. And, with them, nine Marine Corps Reserve fighter and ground intercept aircraft squadrons were ordered up. By August 1, American and Allied forces were defending south of the Naktong River, to a pocket known as the Pusan Perimeter. The U.S. Eighth Army was reinforced by the Army's 2nd Infantry Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade comprised of the 5th Regimental Combat Team of the 1st Marine Division and Marine Aircraft Group 33.
The last North Korean attack on the Pusan Perimeter was blunted by the Marine Brigade in early September. But, the beleaguered force could not advance. MacArthur envisioned an amphibious assault behind the North Korean lines to drive a wedge into the North Korean lines and initiate an Allied offensive: Operation Chromite.
"We shall land at Inchon and I shall crush them!" said MacArthur to his planners.
The port of Inchon on the west coast of Korea was key, but there were formidable obstacles to be overcome, both for the Marines in the landing force, and the amphibious transports and gunfire support ships. Approaches from the Yellow Sea were narrow, tides had a daily range of 32 feet, and there were no landing beaches; only piers, docks, sea walls, and mud flats.
There were less than two months to plan Operation Chromite.
The 1st Marine Division's 5th Regimental Combat Team was pulled from the line at Pusan in early September, and eight days later embarked transports for Inchon. September 12, gunfire support ships, cruisers and destroyers navigated Flying Fish Channel and for three days shelled Pusan, and Wolmi Do island, a choke point which dominated the harbor.
Return fire from the North Koreans inflicted casualties and damaged several of the gunfire support ships. Carrier-based Navy and Marine Corps Panther jets, and prop driven Skyraiders and Corsairs strafed, bombed, and destroyed targets.
Reconnaissance of the approaches and islands of Flying Fish Channel began on September 1, led by the "Blackbeard of Yonghung Do," Navy Lieutenant Eugene F. Clark, with an intelligence team of South Koreans. The team conducted raids, collected intelligence, and went head-on, sampan-to-sampan, in close quarters gunfire exchanges with North Korean troops.
D-Day, midnight, September 15, Clark relighted the beacon on the Palmi Do island lighthouse. The beam guided the advance naval elements of the amphibious assault force threading the dangerous approach to Inchon. At 5:20 a.m., the amphibious force dropped anchor and embarked Marines loaded onto landing craft at the order, "Land the Landing Force."
The first objective was Wolmi Do Island. Joined by a causeway to the city of Inchon, the island had to be overrun quickly to protect successive assault waves. Corsairs from VMF-214 and VMF-323 covered the landing craft assault by G, H and I companies, 3rd Battalion, of the 5th Marines. Coxswains grounded their craft and the assault was on. Successive waves landed additional Marines and tanks.
Phase one of the operation was over by 8 a.m. Wolmi Do was secured at the cost of 17 U.S. personnel wounded. There were only a few North Korean survivors. MacArthur sent a message to Task Force 90: "The Navy and Marines have never shone more brightly than this morning." To the Joint Chiefs in Washington he sent, "First Phase landing successful with losses slight. All goes well and on schedule."
The Marines on Wolmi Do dug in, and the men of the task force waited out the eight hours as the tide changed before the second phase of the assault began. Seabees of Naval Beach Group 1, the Amphibious Construction Battalion, arrived on the rising tide at Wolmi Do to build a pontoon dock and causeway.
Other Seabees filed across the island and dug in with the Marines. They moved into Inchon and surveyed the sea walls and harbor facilities during the assault on the city.
2:45 p.m., and "Land the landing force" had Marines of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 5th Marines, boarding landing craft. Blue and Red Beaches were their objectives.
5:30 p.m. was H hour at Red Beach, and the eight landing craft of the first wave crossed the line of departure and bore in for the sea wall. Close air support and naval gunfire paved the way for the Marines.
Coxswains rammed their landing craft against the sea wall at Red Beach. Wooden scaling ladders went up and Marines assaulted. North Korean automatic weapons fire killed and wounded Marines and pinned others down at the sea wall.
First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, 3rd platoon leader, A Company, 5th Marines, landed with the second wave and scaled the sea wall to lead an assault on two pillboxes. He silenced the first position with a grenade. As he pulled the pin on a second he was critically wounded. The armed grenade fell from his hand. Lopez, a Naval Academy graduate and son of an orphaned Spanish immigrant, smothered the explosion with his body. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Invasion force LSTs, the Navy's Tank Landing Ships, loaded with equipment and munitions for the Marines, were positioned to move in as warehouses for the assault force. As the Marines made their way across their objectives, eight LST's positioned to support the assault on Red Beach crossed the line of departure and ran for the beach under fire from North Korean positions.
Ammunition trucks on LST 914 were threatened by fire and gasoline drums on LST 857 were riddled and leaking. The ships pressed forward to the beach and lowered their bow ramps disgorging men, vehicles and supplies. At Blue Beach, American and British warships pounded the high ground beyond the beach, while 25 waves of assault craft formed. There were more than 170 LVT's, tracked and armored troop carriers, carrying the Marines.
Lead by Navy Underwater Demolition Teams in guide boats, the first wave crossed the line of departure at 4:45 p.m. The first three waves hit their mark, and units moved forward. Following waves of amtracks were thrown off course by cross currents. Some units landed two miles from their designated beaches. But, the objectives were taken and American casualties for D-Day were far below predictions.
Navy doctors and corpsmen treated 174 wounded, and 14 non-hostile injuries. There were 21 killed in action, one man was listed as missing. By mid-evening, reinforcements, armor, artillery, and supplies were pouring across the causeway constructed by the Seabees, and down the ramps of LSTs. Within a day the beachhead was expanded, Inchon was secured, Kimpo airfield seized, and North Korean counterattacks against the advancing Marines of the 1st Division were blunted.
The bold amphibious assault at Inchon opened the road for the breakout of the Eighth Army from Pusan and the liberation of Seoul two weeks later.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army--organized, equipped, and abetted by the Soviet Union--lunged across the 38th Parallel to subdue its countrymen to the south. This flagrant action impelled President Harry S. Truman to commit U.S. forces, unprepared as they were, to the defense of South Korea. The United Nations Security Council simultaneously called upon member states to do likewise. Twenty other nations were to heed that call, fifteen providing combat units and five, medical support. For the only time in its history the United Nations authorized establishment of a multi-national force, flying its banner, to repel communist aggression, and requested the United States to provide the Commander. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was appointed Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command.
The North Korean offensive drove the defenders to the southeast corner of the peninsula. There, the Pusan perimeter was established and reinforced by American divisions, held in bitter battles. That stout defense made possible a brilliantly conceived amphibious landing at Inchon which enveloped the over-extended North Korean army and recaptured the capital city of Seoul. UN forces advanced north to compel capitulation of the aggressor and set the stage for the long-delayed reunification of the Korean people. But these laudable aims were to be denied.
Massive intervention of the Chinese Communist Forces in November 1950 profoundly altered the nature of the war. Savaged by vastly superior numbers and ill-equipped for combat in sub-zero weather, the UN forces retreated to a line well south of Seoul, regrouped, and by March 1951 had fought back to the 38th Parallel. In April and May, the Chinese launched successive major offensives to drive the UN forces from the peninsula. They were repelled at staggering cost to the attackers.
With battle lines now astride the pre-invasion boundary, proof that aggression had failed, negotiations were initiated to terminate armed hostilities. Opposing forces remained locked in combat, at great loss of lives, for the two years required to forge a Military Armistice Agreement, effective July 27, 1953. In the absence of a political settlement, that agreement still regulates the de facto boundary between the two Koreas.
When the guns fell silent over the war-torn Korean peninsula, the final tally evidenced cost beyond measure in life, limb, and material treasure. Many questioned the value of our involvement. Four decades later, an independent, economically prosperous nation of 44 million people--scene of the greatest ever Olympiad--stands free. What a better answer! Truly a VICTORY for all time, replacing the history book image of the forgotten war with a well-deserved remembered victory.
Moreover, the war's consequences extended well beyond Korea. They were measured by dramatic changes to the shape and content of post-WWII national security policy:
--America would not be caught off guard again. We are determined to maintain multi-service forces of requisite power to deter Soviet aggression at all levels.
--The political and military components of NATO were greatly strengthened to make it the principal instrument for maintaining the security and confidence of Western Europe.
--Collective security arrangements were forged by bilateral and multi-lateral treaties with the free nations of Asia. Buttressed by substantial U.S. presence and aid, they ensured the stability and forward progress of the entire Pacific Rim.
The resultant strategic posture, coupled with national resolve, contained the Soviet empire for decades and planted the seeds for the demise of communism.
Following their assault at Inchon, and the subsequent liberation of Seoul, the 1st Marine Division was ordered to conduct a second amphibious operation to occupy Wonsan, the principal seaport of North Korea. The landing at Wonsan, which began on October 26, was the foreword to one of the most dramatic chapters in Marine Corps history.
Sweeping in from the sea, the 71 Navy transports packed with the 28,000 Marines, waited for a week off Wonsan while Navy frogmen of the underwater demolition teams and mine sweepers cleared the landing area. The Marines came ashore standing up, an administrative landing. The North Koreans were gone, the city had fallen to Allied ground forces, and Bob Hope had already put on a USO show.
The respite from combat would last less than two days.
MacArthur's planners had called for United Nations forces to push forward to the Manchurian border, securing North Korea in a three-pronged drive to the Yalu River. The war is very definitely coming to an end shortly, stated MacArthur while he watched the operation unfold. With the closing of that trap there should be an end to organized resistance.
Units of the 1st Division were ordered forward to occupy the Chosin and Fusen Reservoirs. Other elements of the division were dispersed over 300 miles to link with Allied units. Intelligence reports stated that North Korean forces were on the run, disorganized and would offer only token resistance in the face of the Allied advance. Maybe, the reports speculated, the Chinese or Russians would intervene, but there was no hard evidence.
The reports of the North Korean capabilities were gravely underestimated, and the speculation on potential Chinese involvement was flawed. Determined and organized North Korean attacks were initiated against a battalion of the 1st Marines at the coastal town of Kojo, south of Wonsan, on October 27. Outflanked, outgunned, and faced with well coordinated night attacks on their positions, the Marines called in close air support and artillery.
Two days later, when the action was broken, as the enemy withdrew into the mountains, prisoners revealed that the Marines had been attacked by three battalions of one of the best units in the North Korean army. And there were still up to 7,000 North Koreans in the area.
By mid-November, 1st Marine Division units had been largely consolidated and were repositioned north, northwest of Wonsan from the town of Hamhung to forward positions at the Chosin and Fusen Reservoirs. The division's 7th Marine Regiment, largely comprised of recalled reservists, was the first American unit to go head-to-head with the Chinese on November 3, during a midnight bugle calling and whistle blowing frontal attack near Sudong.
Over the course of the four-day battle the Leathernecks gained less than a mile, as Marine air and artillery pounded in advance of the 7th Regiment. Chinese casualties were estimated at almost 9,000. There were 300 wounded and dead Marines. American intelligence estimates continued to place little confidence in Korean refugee reports describing masses of as many as 50,000 Chinese troops in the mountains. Unseen, there were eight Chinese divisions hidden within striking range of the Marines.
Before Thanksgiving, the 1st Marine Division and other United Nations forces were ordered forward to the vicinity of the North Korean and Manchurian borders bounded by the Yalu River. The forward Marine elements at the Chosin Reservoir were 125 miles south of the border. Before they could move out they needed critical supplies. The Marines' main supply route from their rear support base at Hamhung to the Chosin was 56 miles, and over this lifeline needed to flow the lifeblood of men and materials. A bitter, sub-freezing winter had set in, glazing the roadway with ice, freezing streams, and layering the ground with hard-crusted snow.
Engineers improved the road, installed culverts and plans were made for a 5,000-foot airstrip at Hagaru-ri. Air dropped supplies could satisfy some, but not all of the needs.
MacArthur ordered the advance to the Yalu for November 24, and units of the 1st Division moved north on the west side of the Chosin Reservoir through fields of snow. Aerial reconnaissance reported paths left by large numbers of footprints, but no large enemy forces were seen.
First contact came on November 27, between elements of the 5th Marines and Chinese forces. On the 25th, Chinese forces had thrown massed assaults against the U.S. Eighth Army and the X Corps, and II Republic of Korean Corps who were also advancing on the Yalu. Massed Chinese assaults cut the Marines' main supply route separating the 5th and 7th Regiments from the rest of the division. The Eighth Army was by now in retreat, and the two isolated regiments were threatened with being overrun. The Chinese commanders elected to throw the weight of their attack not against the fragmented United Nations units, but against the 1st Marine Division, the only strong concentration of forces.
The Division concentrated their firepower in four defensive perimeters: Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, Koto-ri and Chinhung-ni. By dawn of November 28, faced with the grim reality of a determined enemy, and 20 degree below zero temperatures, every man went online with a weapon. With the reality of the situation and heavy attacks by the Chinese on November 28, there was noone echoing the phrase repeated during the landing at Wonsan: We'll be home by Christmas.
Fighting at the defensive perimeter was initiated at Yudam-ni, masses of Chinese against companies and platoons of Marines. As an example of the ferocity, what has been described as human tonnage overwhelmed one platoon of the 24 men of Fox Company, 7th Marines, who were holding a critical position at the 4,000 foot high mountain pass on the road to Yudam-ni. That position held for nearly a week, and Captain William E. Barber would later be decorated with the Medal of Honor for heroism.
Marines were forced off fighting positions, but would then counterattack. Headquarters and service support personnel, cooks, clerks, truck drivers, and a host of other non-infantry disciplines, were engaged in close quarters fighting. Marine Corps close air support Corsairs blasted the Chinese at the next dawn, and then shifted to the Koto-ri area 25 miles south where enemy troop concentrations were massing.
In two days the Marines had suffered the equivalent of a battalion in
losses, 1,094 casualties--871 killed, wounded or missing,
the remainder casualties mainly to searing frostbite. The eight Chinese divisions, two armies, at least 80,000 men, were massed along a 25-mile front against the 1st Marine Division.
Distinction between units meant nothing as expressed in the words of Staff Sergeant Alec B. Gault of the 7th Marines who said, "There was the time when there was no outfit...you were a Marine, you were fighting for everybody. There was no more 5th and 7th: you were just one outfit. Just fighting to get the hell out of there!"
The main supply route, broken and overrun at places, was critical for the Marines. The positions, like Koto-ri, had to be held, and hold they did, driving off repeated attacks. Colonel Lewis B. (Chesty) Puller, a Marine Corps legend, led his Marines in holding the ground.
Hagaru, the southern point of the Chosin Reservoir, was the thinly held defensive point for the resupply airstrip. LtCol Thomas L. Ridges, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, fought from the hilltops, counterattacking and driving off the Chinese when their positions were overrun.
On November 29, the forward elements of Marines, Royal Marine Commandos and U.S. Army troops who fought their way through from Koto-ri, arrived with supplies. A rear element of the initial column had been turned back under fire. However, the bulk of the convoy had been overrun by the Chinese--130 Marines, soldiers and Royal Marines captured.
With the Chinese attacks repulsed, General Smith's Marines now repaired the airstrip at Hagaru and awaited the December 1 arrival of C-47s which would bring in supplies and evacuate the wounded. As supplies flowed into Hagaru, decimated Army units began to straggle into the Reservoir perimeter, and were placed under General Smith's operational control. About 450 soldiers were issued Marine equipment and formed into a provisional battalion.
After four days on the defensive, the 5th and 7th Regiments took the initiative to break out from the vicinity of Yudam-ni and redeploy to Hagaru. The 1st Battalion of the 7th Regiment would seize the mountain pass and relieve Captain Barber and the men of beleaguered Fox Company. They set out at night on December 1, and linked up with Barber's company before noon on the second. Carrying their wounded, the remainder of the two regiments moved out shortly after daylight on December 2. As they withdrew under cover of air and artillery, swarms of Chinese followed, but, rather than attacking they were diverted to heaps of rubbish which the Marines had discarded.
Close air support missions flown by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy provided a continual umbrella of bombs and bullets around the advancing column. And, artillery fire from the perimeter at Hagaru provided an additional steel curtain to cut down attacking Chinese. With their single tank to blast roadblocks, the two regiments fought forward toward LtCol Raymond Davis and his battalion at the pass. The units cleared the pass and moved inside the Hagaru perimeter on the morning of December 3.
Wounded, frostbitten, and ailing Marines, nearly 1,000 men of the 5th and 7th Regiments, were flown out of Hagaru before nightfall to hospitals in Japan. During the prior three days, some 1,750 casualties, most of them Army troops who straggled in from the battles east of the Reservoir, had been evacuated. Before December 9, 4,675 casualties would be evacuated.
The fight from Hagaru to Koto-ri began on December 6, with elements of the 7th again on the road. Units would stage out, and General Smith made the decision to come out in a fighting withdrawal with every piece of salvageable equipment. The provisional Army battalion took the left flank, 2nd Battalion of the 7th was on point, 1st on the right, and 3rd as rear guard. Tanks were up front to blast roadblocks. Overhead were tactical aircraft ready to deliver bombs and bullets in close support. There were an estimated 1,000 vehicles in the column. Only drivers, the wounded and a very few selected by unit commanders rode. Harassed by automatic weapons and mortar fire throughout the day, the column made slow progress while infantry skirmishes erupted.
Chinese troops infiltrated and cut the column at night, and two blown bridges had to be repaired before they reached the Koto-ri perimeter during the morning of December 7.
Supported by 76 aircraft, the 5th regiment fought a rear guard action out of Hagaru against stiff resistance. On the night of December 7, they entered Koto-ri. Air Force C-47 and C-119 transports continued the daisy-chain of resupply and evacuation of the wounded from the airfield at Koto-ri until the morning of December 8, when the regiments of the division and 1,400 vehicles moved out. Two battalions of the 1st Regiment would fight rear guard action.
The 1st Battalion of the regiment deployed forward from Chinhung-ni toward Koto-ri to seize the high ground on the convoy's route of march. During a blinding snowstorm they ran into strong Chinese opposition and took heavy losses before they reached their objective. To compound the threat, the enemy had blown-upa bridge span along the route from Koto-ri at a cliff, which could not be bypassed.
However, on the dawn of December 9, clouds lifted, the snow stopped, sun shone through, and the firepower of Marine Corsairs allowed the 1st Battalion to take their objective. Marine Corps engineers installed an airdropped bridge in three hours, and the column move forward. The first elements of the 7th Marines arrived at Hamhung on the morning of December 10, to hot food and warm tents. The last elements of the division did not arrive until the afternoon of the next day.
For the first time in two weeks, since November 27, the men would sleep without fear of an enemy attack. But, that rest did not come without reflection, thoughts both on what they had done, and for those who had fallen at their side.
Marine Corps losses were heavy. At the four perimeters, more than 700 had died, and there were more than 3,500 wounded and more than 7,000 non-combat casualties. But the Chinese had paid a heavier price--an estimated 25,000 killed, and more than 10,000 wounded.
"These men," said General Smith, "were delivered through their own efforts. They came out as a fighting division, not as survivors. I do not think the thought of failure ever entered anybody's head."