Seventy years ago, conflict on the Korean Peninsula raged. “The Forgotten War,” as it has come to be known, claimed upwards of 4 million lives by some estimates.
Why is the Korean War so rarely discussed in military science or foreign policy circles? We tend to study our successes more often than our failures. This conflict offers both for study, especially the latter.
The Korean War came less than five years after the end of World War II, when America had the most powerful military on earth. Nevertheless, we were embarrassed multiple times on the battlefield.
In Clay Blair’s massive tome on the war, he states, “The first year of the Korean War was a ghastly ordeal for the United States Army. For various reasons, it was not prepared mentally, physically, or otherwise for war. On the whole, its leadership at the army, corps, division, regiment, and battalion levels was overaged, inexperienced, often incompetent, and not physically capable of coping with the rigorous climate of Korea.”
The Weather and Terrain Played a Part
Terrain and weather have immense effects on military operations. Friendly and enemy forces suffer alike, and little can be done to improve one’s situation. Korea has hot, wet summers and brutal winters. The terrain in the central part of the country is some of the toughest U.S. soldiers ever fought in, of high peaks with few roads.
The fighting started in the summer. June 1950 was hot, and troops suffered dehydration. As summer turned to winter, U.S. troops were not adequately supplied with winter clothing. They fought up the Korean Peninsula to the Yalu River and the Chinese border in the same clothes they arrived in. Temperatures there dropped to 20 below zero.
After World War II, the American public and soldiers abroad demanded rapid demobilization. Congressmen were hounded to “bring the boys home.” This brought America’s armed forces from an all-time high of 12 million in uniform down to 1.5 million, below even our current all-volunteer force.
The troops left were therefore barely enough to respond to any Soviet aggression while also occupying Germany and Japan. The military was gutted. In Korea, we committed into combat most likely the least trained and least-equipped army in our history.
When the Korean hostilities began, the average regimental commander, a full-bird colonel position, was close to ten years older than the recommended age. George C Marshall stressed in WWII that the average age be no more than 45 years old. This is not ageism. Marshall knew that ground warfare is no walk in the park. If you physically cannot keep up, you will fail.
When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) launched their offensive on 25 June, the South Korean Army was caught unprepared and subsequently went into full rout. Despite several Pentagon studies showing it was disadvantageous to fight on the Korean Peninsula and that doing so would commit forces to a strategically irrelevant region, President Truman felt it was imperative to fight Communists there.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Far East Command’s commander in chief, believed the real fight was with Red China. MacArthur was both brilliant and irrational in his last war at 70 years old. His insubordination resulted in his firing by President Truman.
Understaffed and Underprepared
To stem the NKPA tide, the undertrained and underequipped U.S. Army 24th Infantry Division was committed to battle. Its piecemeal defense resulted in the division essentially becoming a speed bump for the NKPA. Despite his bravery in personal combat as his unit collapsed, even the division commander, William F. Dean, became a prisoner of war for the next three years.
Our first units on the ground were armed with obsolete bazookas firing 2.36-inch rockets, thanks to Truman administration budget cuts. These rockets failed to stop North Korean T-34 tanks. Numerous units were overrun by armored forces until the updated 3.5-inch bazooka could be rushed into the theater from the United States.
As the U.S.-trained Republic of Korea (ROK) military continued to collapse, the American Eighth Army, now consisting of the 25th Infantry Division and First Cavalry Division with the shattered 24th Infantry Division, shrank into a perimeter in the southeastern corner of the peninsula around the port of Pusan.
Reinforced by tank battalions that had to use M26 Pershing tanks pulled down from display pedestals at Fort Knox, the ROK and U.S. forces held the line. The NKPA, lacking sufficient air or naval power, had vastly extended supply lines while our forces had increasingly shorter ones.
The Joint Chiefs continued to believe Korea was merely a Soviet feint to suck American resources in while they planned an invasion of Japan or Europe, so they hesitated to commit more forces to Korea. Despite misgivings from most of the U.S. leadership, they provided more forces. The Second Infantry Division, Fifth Regimental Combat Team, and United Nations forces began to arrive in Pusan.
In September 1950, MacArthur went forward with his ambitious plan to outflank the NKPA by conducting an amphibious landing at Inchon using the X Corps, consisting of the Seventh Infantry Division along with the First Marine Division and ROK forces. There was tremendous disagreement between leadership over the pros and cons, but MacArthur’s dominating presence prevailed and the landing was conducted with incredible success.
Seoul was recaptured a few days later. After several tough battles, Eighth Army was able to break out from the Pusan perimeter and most of South Korea was retaken from fleeing NKPA units. But the goal of trapping all NKPA forces was not achieved.
The Truman administration then decided to cross the 38th parallel and pursue the NKPA deep into North Korean territory. As U.S. and ROK forces rapidly moved north, supply lines stretched and the front became wider and rapidly more mountainous. Poorly trained units were not in close contact and were increasingly stuck to the few existing roads.
Intelligence Failures Were Common
Intelligence failures were common in the Korean War. Far East Command regularly disregarded lower-level intelligence reports. There was a prevailing idea throughout the national security establishment that Red China would not commit forces to the Korean conflict. There was a continual racist denigration of their fighting prowess and abilities. MacArthur was confident that strategic bombers would smash any Chinese Communist Forces (CCF).
Chinese troops began to show up as POWs and readily divulged their unit designations and movement plans. U.S. frontline units became increasingly uneasy. Intelligence reports believed maybe 34,000 CCF were in North Korea. In reality, 300,000 had crossed the Yalu River on foot, under cover of darkness, and were preparing for an all-out assault on UN positions.
Over the next few months, several massive CCF offensives pushed UN forces back down the peninsula past Seoul once more. The CCF relied on enormous human-wave night attacks that would simply overwhelm poorly dug-in ROK and UN units.
The U.S. Army was primarily road-bound in Korea, which allowed units to be bypassed and surrounded by CCF forces on foot. When they attempted to break back to friendly lines, they had to run a gauntlet of roadblocks. Unbelievable numbers of American vehicles, heavy equipment, and artillery pieces were abandoned on roadways as units attempted to flee ambushes. The thought of American troops fleeing battle and throwing down their arms seems impossible, but happened numerous times and was dubbed “bug-out fever.”
Under the leadership of Mathew Ridgeway, Eighth Army refocused on proper defensive tactics, which allowed massively outnumbered units to hold off much larger CCF concentrations. At Chipyong-ni, the 23rd Infantry Regiment, along with a French battalion, held off Chinese forces at least five times their strength while surrounded. Artillery units shot unbelievable amounts of ammunition. Even then, the infantrymen on the ground were often in hand-to-hand night fighting.
The Communist Chinese leadership was more than happy to throw wave upon wave of their countrymen into the attack to ultimately be shattered by concentrated artillery fire, air attack, and overlapping fields of machinegun fire. From April to July 1951, 7.6 million rounds of artillery ammunition were used by UN forces to halt the Chinese offensives.
Americans Were Sick of Foreign Wars
Our own troops, however, did not have the stomach to keep killing peasants for no reason, in what they dubbed the “yo-yo war.” The American public had a 30 percent approval rating of the war, and Truman’s chances at another term were quickly evaporating as his approval rating sank to 22 percent.
Diplomatic feelers were sent out through the Soviets, and armistice talks began in Kaesong. The talks dragged on for two more years due to both sides’ unwillingness to compromise and diplomatic blundering. Meanwhile, the armies still had several major clashes along the 38th parallel.
Our current foreign policy puts us at odds with North Korea and China. We fought them to a standstill in the Korean War nearly 70 years ago, and are still in a stalemate on the 38th parallel. An armistice was signed in 1953, but there is no true peace treaty. The closest we’ve come was in 2018 when North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in signed the Panmunjom Declaration during the Inter-Korean Summit.
This was later reaffirmed during a historic summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. This groundbreaking progress regressed as the Trump White House focused on domestic issues in 2020.
Korea is a thought-provoking conflict that should be studied in intimate detail by the U.S. military and foreign policy experts. Let’s learn from our failures. Past actions cannot necessarily predict the future, but why not gain as much knowledge as we can regarding the Chinese and Korean mindset and the nature of the battlefield on the Korean Peninsula?
This Memorial Day, let’s remember the Korean War and the 33,739 Americans who died fighting communism. Their sacrifice on the altar of freedom must not be forgotten.