Thoughts On The Forgotten War.

by Daniel Russ on February 6, 2010

How did North and South Korea become two countries? From 1905 until 1946, the entire peninsula was under the rule of Japan. On August 15th, 1945, Japanese officially surrendered to US forces, and afterwards the United Nations unilaterally divided the country at the 38th parallel even though Roosevelt and Churchill publicly stated that they believed the country should be free and independent. The Soviet Union occupied the North and the United States occupied the South. Neither Korean side was particularly happy about the division of the country, and the division caused much unrest. Not unlike gremany after the war, those who ran the country, the Japanese,, were the best qualified to run the country after the Second World War. Ultimately, it was this decision that led to the war between the North and South. During the occupation, the United States Military Government in Korea lost civil control and uprisings occurred. General Hodge put Japanese civil authorities back into control of key positions, and not long afterwards reports flew in that the Russians had moved forces south of the 38th parallel. Now there was another fire to put out. This resulted in negotiations that officially divided the country. The Russians installed Communist authority in the North and the US and the UN put Syngman Rhee in power in the South. Syngman Rhee was an extreme right wing nationalist who argued vociferously against foreign rule after over three decades of foreign rule. Though he did not want the US or the Japanese to rule over South Korea, he was officially arguing against the occupation of the North by the Soviets.

When combat began, the combat strategies of the North and South differed simply by their strengths. The South, bolstered by a fledgling South Korean Army, blooded British and Americans, and forces from 22 other nations would rely on artillery, tanks and air strikes. It was Stalin who said “Quantity has a quality all its own”. Mao and Kim Il Sung ( Yes, Kim Jong Il’s father)  didn’t have heavy tanks, and little artillery. They had infantry. Lots and lots of infantry.

On June 25th, 1950, without a warning, 130,000 North Koreans rushed over the 38th parallel, mostly concentrated above Seoul. Within 48 hours, Seoul was in the hands of the North. The South Korean Army was completely unprepared for a surprise attack and fell back in great disarray. When the UN voted to declare war on North Korea, the Soviet Union wasn’t at the table.  This was the first time in history that the United Nations declared war. The US had countered with an invasion of Pusan. However the South Korean Army had completely collapsed and within weeks, American forces were surrounded in a perimeter about 50 miles by 50 miles. The situation was desperate.

Harry Truman placed General Douglas MacArthur who had succeeded against a tough Japanese opponent with amphibious invasions in charge. MacArthur did what he thought what would work, and took a desperate and calculated gamble with anothe ramphibious invasion. On September 15, 1950, he brought 70,000 US soldiers, mostly Marines, into Inchon on the Western edge of South Korea South of Seoul. His idea was simple.  He would close the North Korean forces in the center of South Korea between two forces, the invasion force moving south from Inchon and the forces holed up at Pusan. MacArthur was more than an effective General; he was a glory hog and a great speaker. MacArthur inspired soldiers and made enemies quake with fear. When he addressed Congress he received standing ovations. He was larger than life and probably no one else could have achieved what he did in this desperate situation.

The first targets were three beaches, Red Beach, Green Beach and Blue Beach. Launched from landing craft off of troop ships, Marines had to move through a waterway called Flying Fish Channel. It had tides that exposed muddy flats on the ebb tide. Twelve hours later the tides filled up again and did so rapidly. So timing them had to be perfect. There were fortified sea walls in an island salient called Wo Mi Do. It wasn’t as if the Koreans had no idea what was happening either. Two days before the invasion of Inchon, the Canadian Navy pounded the beachheads. The Marines who first took Green Beach were surprised at the lack of resistance. The beach itself was marked with bomb craters and burnt out structures, evidence of the furious bombardment from Canadian Naval forces. The HMCS Cayuga, HMCS Athbaskan and HMCS Sioux put tons of ordinance on the defensive positions. The North Korean defenders weren’t as highly motivated as German or Japanese soldiers would have been only five years earlier. That worked in the UN’s favor. Twelve hours after the Marines secured Green beach, 25 waves of Marines invaded Blue beach. It went badly. Poor timing and waves on top of tides drowned some of the invaders. Resistance was tougher and casualties mounted.

Then again, these were US Marines. They took the beaches and secured the invasion portal. Within a few days, the Marines marched on Seoul and encountered the vicious house-to-house fighting that they expected at the beach fortifications. After a few weeks of bloody urban combat, North Korean troops were forced out of Seoul. By September 22nd, the Marines had recreated Seoul beaches and ports into a staging center and unloaded over 6600 armored vehicles, and 53, 000 US Army troops, and over 25,000 tons of supplies. There, the US 8th Army began moving North.

Now a new battle emerged, and this one was a battle of wills and egos. MacArthur had political aspirations and had become a fervent anti-communist. But there can only be one driver during a war. And Truman had done a reasonable enough job of bringing WWII to a satisfactory end after Roosevelt had died. He had presided over the only use to date of nuclear weapons, and had no stomach for another escalating world war. MacArthur felt he had the momentum and pushed the President and Congress to give him permission to cross the 38th parallel and invade the North all the way to the Yalu River, the official boundary between Chinese Manchuria and North Korea.

He received permission from a reluctant Truman and on October the 7th, 1950 he led forces into Pyongyang and again pushed North Koreans out.

Further north, Mao Tse Tung was watching. Mao was a ruthless politician, willing to do anything to win and consolidate power. Only a year before, he had led Communist forces to a victory over Chang Kai Check’s Nationalist forces. From his point of view, the crossing of the 38th parallel was nothing more than imperialist ambitions to expand the ideas of the West into East Asia. The forces he commanded were blooded warriors who were tough, experienced in close quarters infantry combat in the exact same terrain that the beleaguered North Korean forces were retreating into. The Communist troops were also highly motivated, politicized forces. While many were conscripted, the political wills of the Communists were still rock hard under party leadership, indoctrination and a recent victory over the Nationalist forces.

Of course, most of the UN forces that had pushed north believed that once the Yalu was secured, they would be headed home. They had seen nothing yet. At the end of September 1950, Mao Sent upwards of  500,000 infantry across the Yalu River. This became the “Yellow Horde” of legend. Motivated thousands who an forward despite the casualties around them.. Even artillery bombardments and continued air strikes could not stop them. UN and US forces were exhausted. This was for many of them another difficult struggle after years of fighting in the Second World War. The anti-Communist fire had not been fanned until the late 1950s. So the cause and motivations for the war became political properties of General MacArthur and did not burn a brightly in the hearts of the UN forces.

In January 1951, Seoul was back in the hands of the Communists. There were brave moments during this forgotten war as well. On an odd note, only advertising agencies claim to build the brands of military forces. But J Walter Thompson did not build the Marine brand. The Marines built the Marine brand, at places just like this, when the odds were against them, when they were outnumbered, when they were almost out of ammunition. At Chosin, as they had for centuries, they still broke out.

Chinese Communist Troops In Korea

MacArthur had miscalculated and now his own troops were on the run. Worse, the bitter Korean winter was setting in. With that came the same problems that the Germans faced at Stalingrad. Uniforms were too thin. Frostbite and hypothermia began taking its toll on both sides. Some Communist prisoners even admitted that there were moments when the entire affair seemed worthless. The Chinese had pushed too far and their own supply lines were attenuated, stalling the infantry counter attack.

MacArthur was becoming more public as well. He began talking to the press and indicated his displeasure with the “half measures” taken by the Commander In Chief. Truman went to Congress and to his advisors and decided to replace MacArthur with General Matthew Ridgeway.

Harry Truman spoke these words in front of cameras:

“I believe that we must limit the war to Korea for these vital reasons; that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of the country and the free world is not needlessly jeopardized, and to prevent a third world war. I have therefore considered it essential to relieve

General MacArthur of his command. General MacArthur is one of our greatest heroes, but the cause of world peace is more important than any one individual.”

Both sides at this point were close to where they had started, at the 38th parallel locked in a stalemate made even more difficult by rough, hilly terrain. However the Chinese had another trick up their sleeve as well, and they were not ready to stop fighting. They were planning a massive spring offensive that they triggered on April 22nd, 1951. They attacked from coast to coast. The South Korean forces collapsed. But the US and the British held their positions and a back and forth struggle ensued while the Chinese made peace overtures to the UN. Thousands died while politicians negotiated.

On July 27th, 1953, a ceasefire was signed. Not a peace treaty. To this day, the Koreas are officially still at war.

This was the first war where jet powered fighters engaged each other in dogfights. Our primary jet fighters were the F-84 Thunderjet, F9F Panthers and Cougars, and the F-86 Sabers. The Chinese flew the Mig-15, and the Yak 9. Heavy and medium bombers were used, particularly the B-29 Superfortress. The helicopter came into its own as a troop mover and a medevac platform, in particular, the Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw made famous by MASH. This was a bad start for prisoners of war in the Cold War as well. The Chinese executed a lot of POWs and innocents thought to be pro America or simply anti- Communist. It was a war where news footage was more present and coverage more complete. But when it ended, a war weary America had no parades for the veterans. It has been named The Forgotten War for a reason. Today the DMZ stretches across Korea west to east, 4 kilometers wide, utterly and totally militarized.

A total 1,207,000 UN forces faced 1,212,000 Communist forces. The US lost 37,000 KIA and 92,000 wounded. 2.5 million civilians on both sides perished. Total civilian dead about 1.5 million.

Edwards, Paul M. The A to Z of the Korean War. The Scarecrow Press, 2005

Millett, Allan R. The War for Korea, 1945–1950: A House Burning Volume 1.

History Channel


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis August 28, 2017 at 5:16 am

While I agree with quite a lot of this piece, the opening of the war was not with hordes of North Korean infantry crossing into the south. The Soviets had build a perfect little copy of their own mechanized army, with copious amounts of artillery and tanks (although not the most modern, but much better than what the US gave the South). The South Korean army, trained and equipped by the US, was only a glorified Gendarmerie, with no tanks and very little AT capability (and which was mainly trained to fight communist inspired insurgents in the countryside). This was apparantly done partly to not offend the soviets by building something that could be seen as an “Invasion Froce” (as both the North and the South stated that they were only government of the whole of Korea). So the biggest shock for both the South Korean army, and their US advisors, was the apperance of lots of soviet supplied armour, that the South Korean amry did not have the means to stop. Even when the US deployed US army combat troops (from occupation duty in Japan) their (also obsolete) AT guns and bazookas were not able to stop the North Koreans. Only after Inchon, with the initially well trained and equipped North Korean army in ruins (and no time and money to rebuild it along sovier lines), the US sending new(er) equipment and the Chines willing to help with their Infantry army (which was in a way better suited for the broken landscape in the north of Korea then the fully motorised US\UN one) did the North Koreans resort to waves of Infantry.

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