The Korean War flared quite suddenly and American troops were caught unprepared and poorly equipped. This shows you that poor US intelligence has been a problem for a long time. No one on this side of the world guessed what the Koreans would do.
Some background: From 1910 to 1945, Korea was occupied by a newly militarized Japan. Wedged in between the Soviet Union,
China and Imperial Japan, Korea has been described by their own people as a ‘rabbit fought over by people’. When World War II ended, the country was separated at the 38th latitudinal parallel. North was under the influence of the Soviet Union, and the south would be supported by the United States and NATO command. Russia installed a pro Communist apparatchnik named Kim Sung Il and the south was ruled by president Syngman Rhee.
By the end of the Second World War, the US Army was drawn down to about 1/10th the size. So when the North Koreans attacked on July 10th 1950, the 540 men of Task Force Smith, and the perfunctory South Korean armed forces were completely overwhelmed when Soviet made T-34s rolled down across the 38th parallel. Through rain and haze, the tanks forced the tiny US force all the way past Osan. Worse, the weapons US forces were carrying were not up to snuff against T-34s. They were not even up to snuff against vintage WWII German armor. The bazookas we were firing at T-34s bounced off of the hulls. Radios stopped working in the rain. Reinforcements were on the way, but for the first time in years, the US Army was in full retreat.
Enter Douglas McArthur, who I like to call the Patton of the Pacific Theater. He was an imposing, intelligent, articulate and charismatic leader who was also a loose cannon and somewhat insubordinate. He and Truman did not like each other and it became apparent to those in the White House that a Battle Royale would soon ensue between the two. When the US 7th Cavalry came as reinforcement, the retreat was still full on with a confusing mix of US troops and South Korean troops who were also quite demoralized. Once inside the Pusan perimeter, US troops thought they would be evacuated but McArthur would hear none of that. A General Walton Walker showed up to take local command and announced that the US 7th Cavalry would hold the perimeter until enough forces could be in place to stop the North Korean onslaught.
In the short term, the 7th Cavalry stopped the North Korean advance but with massive casualties. Hill 303 was the Hamburger Hill of this war and it exchanged hands back and forth several times. A US Mortar regiment was found executed in one of the take back scenarios. They were tied and shot in the back, and this set the US soldiers and commanders afire.
It was not long afterwards that McArthur decided on a bold plan, that many at the time felt was desperate and foolhardy. He
intended to land a massive invasion force behind the North Korean line at Inchon on the northwest coast of South Korea. Inchon was known for it’s odd tidal activity and meteorologists determined that September 15th 1950 would be the best day to make the landing given the behavior of the ebb and flow of sea water into the port.
Almost everyone on his staff disagreed with McArthur. He listened to them all, put on his hat, put his pipe in his mouth and announced “On September 15th, we invade Inchon.”
That’s what leaders do sometimes. They disagree with their advisors and go ahead with what they think they know.
The invasion on Inchon worked. The North Koreans were caught with their pants down and scrambled to defend against the invasion. While they retreated and tried to stop the invasion force. On September 16th, 1950, the US 7th Cavalry pushed northwest towards Inchon to join up with the US 7Th division.
On September 29th 1950, McArthur wrested Seoul from North Korean forces and returned the city to Syngman Rhee in an emotional and much televised ceremony.
In the next few weeks as US and NATO forces reclaimed territory they discovered that the North Koreans butchered and murdered tens of thousands of South Koreans.
Harry S Truman was delighted and when the United States and NATO reached the Yalu River, he ordered the forces to stop in order to avoid involving the Chinese in the war. McArthur disagreed. Truman decided to set up a meeting with him on Wake Island, their first ever face to face. Truman wrote to his wife “I leave now to meet with God’s right hand man tomorrow.”
It must be remembered that Truman was the first and only man to use nuclear weapons, but ruled them out at this juncture.