Long Reads

Korea: A 'Forgotten' War That Never Ended

For an event that came so close to triggering a third world war, the 1950-1953 conflict in Korea receives relatively little attention. 

Being stuck between World War 2 ('the good war') and Vietnam (the news-heavy 'living room war') hasn’t helped. 

Then there's that daunting array of clumsy, bureaucratic acronyms, enough to put off would-be amateur historians even while providing them with an unintentionally humorous shorthand for events: 

After WW2, the USA and USSR divided the Korean peninsula into the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) along the 38th Parallel.

The DPRK invaded the ROK in 1950, overrunning ROK and KMAG troops.

US President Truman went to the UN and they agreed to a 'police action' in Korea but only because the USSR was not there to veto the motion. Russia had boycotted the UN to protest the US recognition of the ROC in Formosa instead of the PRC in China.

After Truman and the JCS had got the UNC to drive the DPRK's NKPA out of the ROK, the CCP, ruling the PRC, got the PVA, also known as the CPVA or the CPV, and not their PLA, to invade the DPRK because the UNC had crossed the 38th Parallel and got too close to the PRC. Fearing the UN could not stop WW3 between the US, NATO and ROC, and the DPRK, PRC and USSR, negotiations eventually ended hostilities with a DMZ in 1953.

FDR and Truman
Franklin Roosevelt, FDR (left), President from 1933 to 1945; and Harry Truman (right), President from 1945 to 1953

Less ridiculously, there is an important story behind all the jargon. The abbreviations illustrate the legalistic complexity that characterised the new geography of the early Cold War era.

These three and four-letter names were imbued with huge ideological significance and the correct (or incorrect) usage of them could spell the difference between fighting the mere spread of communism/'imperial capitalism' within Korea, and a wider (possibly nuclear) war. 

How did the world end up on this knife edge?

Korea in Asia ESS 8
Korea shown within Asia (image from 'The Korean War' by Carter Malkasian © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Sowing the seeds of a future war

Korea had been under the thumb of Japan from 1905 to 1945, but when this yoke was lifted at the end of World War 2, the peninsula became divided by a communist government in the north and a capitalist one in the south.

That had never been the goal, of course.

President Roosevelt (FDR) had suggested putting Korea under international management until it was ready for self-rule. Stalin and Churchill had agreed to this plan in their conferences with him at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, but before it could be implemented, events took on a life of their own. 

Churchill, FDR and Stalin at the Yalta Summit in 1945

After the carnage in Europe, everyone wanted to end the war with Japan as quickly as possible. The Russians were encouraged to drive the Japanese out of Manchuria before what everyone expected would be a final push onto the Japanese homeland. 

But the momentum behind the Russian advance saw them end up all the way down in Korea just as Truman, who'd taken over after FDR's death, dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. 

He hadn't known much about the bomb initially, but when its awesome power was unleashed and Japan had surrendered, he'd come to wish the Russians hadn't been invited to fight the Japanese in Manchuria after all. The seeds sown by Soviet occupation of North Korea would vex Truman for much of his presidency.  

A fragile beginning

Korea was divided halfway down the peninsula at the 38th Parallel. In the north, Kim Il-sung, grandfather to today's Kim Jong-un, became the leader of a communist dictatorship.

The country was dubbed the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the lofty adjectives 'Democratic', 'People's' and 'Republic' justified by 'elections' that were held to legitimise Kim, even though non-communist leaders were driven out.

In the south, strongman Syngman Rhee, a right-wing nationalist and the first of his countrymen to earn a PhD in the US, would become leader of the Republic of Korea (ROK). 

Mao Zedong declares the beginning of the People's Republic of China, 1949
Mao Zedong announcing the beginning of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)

Like his other US-backed counterpart in China, the generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (or Jiang Kai-shek), Rhee would turn out to be rather authoritarian in his own right. But he was capitalist and that was the important thing for the US at the time. 

In fact, China would foreshadow Korea by going to war with itself (again) from 1946 to 1950. It saw Chiang's nationalist forces, the KMT, Kuomintang (or GMD, Guanmindang) driven to Taiwan (or Formosa) in 1949, where they have remained ever since. (Today, the KMT/GMD constitutes one of the two main political parties on the island).

After the civil war, the US continued to recognise the ROC as the legitimate government of China from its base in Taiwan. This would only change after President Nixon visited mainland China and full diplomatic relations were established between the US and the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1979.

Nixon and his wife on the Great Wall of China during their visit in the 1970s

While political ideology was the main driver of these events, military necessity was also a major factor. General Douglas MacArthur would later describe Taiwan as 'an unsinkable aircraft carrier' from which to project power in the Pacific. Taiwan clearly needed to remain a friend.

So until Nixon's visit in 1979, this had the effect of snubbing the leadership back on mainland China, Mao Zedong and his CCP (Chinese Communist Party).

Thus, post-World War 2 Korea was being politically reborn right in the middle of all this great power politics. 

Kim and Rhee were both agents of events and products of their time, flat refusing to give an inch in recognising one another as legitimate alternative rulers. They would accept nothing less than the complete reunification of the entire peninsula under their own political sphere of influence and they were not above using violence to bring this about.

Border clashes became commonplace. Then Kim went a step further, supplying communist guerrillas in the south with weapons they could use to start an uprising.

A rebellion broke out on the island of Cheju-do (or Jeju) that spread to the mainland. Many police sent to quash the 'upstarts' ended up joining them instead. So Rhee doubled down and crushed the combined force with the military, purging the police of dissenters and killing up to 30,000 people (10 percent of Cheju-do's population).

The North tried to reignite the rebellion the following year but a force of 10,000 police and five army regiments trained in counter-insurgency were ready and put it down before it could get going.

Lukewarm support

For his part, Syngman Rhee also talked incessantly about invading the north. This is why a key Korean Aid Bill was voted down by the US Congress in 1950. Rhee would be supplied with rifles, bazookas and light artillery with which to defend himself, but tanks, aeroplanes and other toys he might use to launch an invasion were denied.

Syngman_Rhee_and_Douglas_MacArthur 1948 August 15
Syngman Rhee with General Douglas MacArthur in 1948

But rather that viewing this as cautious 'realpolitik', the USSR detected an ideological shift in the US' position. After all, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had also talked about a defence perimeter in the region running south-west from Alaska across the Pacific to Japan and down through the Philippines. Notable by its absence was South Korea.

Earlier that year, Kim had lobbied Stalin to support an invasion of the south. At the time that had seemed outlandish, but now the political calculus was leading him to opposite conclusion. 

The nuclear weapons capability gap had, after all, now been closed (the Russians detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949). And a unified communist Korea would provide far better security on Russia's southern border than one with 'American imperialists' and their allies ensconced on the southern half. The formation of NATO made Stalin insecure about Russia's eastern boundary (just as the inclusion of former Soviet satellites in NATO makes Vladimir Putin nervous today). If the West didn't care too much about Korea, then why not at least shore things up there?

So on June 25, 1950, Kim's forces rolled across the 38th Parallel. 

Invasion of south June 1950
The invasion of 1950 with North Korean forces in purple, South Korean in green and the small American presence shown in blue (image from 'The Korean War' by Carter Malkasian © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

To the rescue

This sent shockwaves through Washington, with Truman, Acheson and the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) scrambling to craft a response.

The US Seventh Fleet was dispatched to form a defensive flotilla around Taiwan, thought to be the next target of a larger communist expansion. 

Rather unusually, the UN was able to authorise a police action (war was never formally declared) on July 7 so that an international body of troops could be sent.

This was possible because of a fluke. In 'The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War', H W Brands outlines the logic behind the creation and the structure of the UN:

"Conventional wisdom held that World War II had been the result of the failure of the democracies to stand up to fascism when that ideology first reared its head in Germany and Japan.

Americans understood that their country had been the principal laggard, not even deigning to join the inter-war League of Nations (despite US President Woodrow Wilson doing much to bring it about).

"Pearl Harbor jolted the isolationism out of the American system, and Franklin Roosevelt and then Harry Truman made the United Nations a priority in their planning for the postwar period."

And so it was hoped the world could then do what it wasn't able to at the end of the World War 1, and prevent major conflicts of the future through proper international arbitration. Except this 'happily ever after' didn’t quite work out as planned:

"Americans, still worried about being dragged into other countries' quarrels and sitting atop the pyramid of world power, insisted on a veto of substantive actions by the UN."

"America's principal wartime allies, Britain and the Soviet Union, demanded no less for themselves, and so the Security Council procedures specified that each of its five permanent members - France and China were added to the initial three - possess a veto over the decisions of the council and therefore over the important actions of the United Nations as a whole."

In practice, that meant nothing but loggerheads in any major Cold War dispute, with Britain, France and the US on one side and China and Russia on the other.

But, as noted, in the early days of the era there were 'two Chinas' and the communist one wasn't a member of the UN (because Western countries refused to recognise the new government in Beijing).

Russia boycotted the body in protest and, in mid-1950, that left the UN free to work as it was intended because the PRC and USSR weren't there to use their vetoes. 

A multinational UNC (United Nations Command) force comprising the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Holland, France, Canada, Thailand, Turkey, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Greece, Colombia, Luxembourg and South Africa was soon assembled and sent to the peninsula.

They couldn't have arrived a moment too soon.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) troops had barely 100,000 men arrayed in eight weak infantry divisions, with a mere three artillery battalions (about 3,000 men). They were faced by 10 infantry divisions and an armoured brigade of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) - 130,000 men, with 100,000 reserves.

Many of these men were veterans of the Chinese Civil War - People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops, fed directly into the NKPA. 

Meanwhile, the armoured brigade had an intimidating 120 Russian-made T-34s, the best tanks of World War 2.

Key tanks of the Korean War
TanksSoviet T-34M-26 PershingBritish Centurion
Armaments85mm turret gun and x2 7.62mm machine-guns90mm turret gun and x2 .30 (7.62mm) medium and x1 .50 (12.7mm) heavy machine-gun105mm (17 or 20 pdr) L7 rifled turret gun and x1 .30 (7.62mm) medium machine-gun

Armour* and weight

*Thickness of armour is shown for key areas - it was generally thinner elsewhere

60mm thick on the turret and 47 mm on the hull, but angled at 60° to deflect shots;

26.5 tonnes and a crew of 4 or 5

102mm thick on the upper hull;

41.7 tonnes with a crew of 5
152mm at its thickest point; 51.8 tonnes and a crew of 4
Speed and range33 mph top speed and 150 mile operational range25 mph with an operational range of 100 miles22 mph top speed and 50 mile operational range


Combo tanks
A T-34 (left; image: Oeuvre personnelle), M-26 Pershing (centre; image: Cliff) and a Centurion (right; image: balcer)

The North Korean navy also had 50 vessels to the South’s 39, and in their air force they had 180 Russian Yak fighter planes and Ilyushin bombers. 

The ROK had no air force and no anti-aircraft guns. Not surprisingly, they were soon overrun.

Down the peninsula

There were a small number of Americans already on the ground, members of the KMAG (Korean Military Advisory Group). One lieutenant colonel described the scene to his superior:

"We couldn't stop them. They rolled right by our positions. We sent the bazooka boys down, but their fire couldn't hurt that armour."

"Pretty soon the tanks got around to our rear and were shooting at our positions from behind. Then the infantry came in with automatic weapons and rifles.

"Some were dressed like farmers, in whites, and the rest had on mustard-colored uniforms.

"They came in like flies, all around us. We had no way of protecting ourselves from encirclement. We didn't have enough men to deploy. Then we got caught in the cross fire of the tanks and infantry."

Another officer described a similar scene:

"They let us through the town, then came at us from the hills and from the rear. Those tanks must have been there all the time, hidden behind those deserted-looking houses. We (shot dead a lot of Korean soldiers) but you can’t get a tank with a carbine."

M1 Carbine
The semi-automatic M1 Carbine, standard issue weapon for American troops in Korea; M2 Carbines, which could also fire on automatic, were also issued

Elsewhere the panic of being overrun was felt even more acutely. 

'Chicago Tribune' correspondent Marguerite Higgins was embedded with the KMAG and later described the scene when they realised they were surrounded. After a colonel had talked about getting to the nearby airfield, an enraged sergeant spouted:

"Those sons of bitches are trying to save their own hides. They're afraid there won't be room for everybody."

Higgins related how "every mess sergeant, jeep driver, code clerk, and correspondent had just one idea – to get hold of every and any vehicle around. Any South Korean who owned four wheels and was unlucky enough to be near headquarters that night was on foot from that second forward. That was the fastest convoy ever formed, and probably the most dishevelled."

They eventually got out, finding a channel that was free of enemy troops. They were right to be afraid. Of the 7,000 confirmed American POWs during the war, only 60 percent would survive. They may also have remembered or heard about MacArthur being trapped on a narrow toe of the Philippines during World War 2, only to be rescued by aircraft before his men fell into the hands of, and were cruelly mistreated by, the Japanese.

But of course, stealing vehicles from South Koreans and leaving them to be captured instead was no better. Hordes of them became refugees as they streamed down the roads. 

In the chaos, the main bridge over the Han River that led to the capital city, Seoul, was blown while people were crossing it. This killed many and cut off much of the ROK's army north of the river.

They fought their way across, leaving equipment behind, and fled south to regroup and fight another day. 

By June 28, Seoul was in enemy hands.

The NKPA initiated the usual round of executions of military and civilian leaders. Adult males were conscripted as manual labourers; then adult females were as well. But civilians were at least 'comforted' by the pictures of their new 'dear leaders' Stalin and Kim Il-sung - that they were required to hang in their homes. 

Kim_Il_Sung_Portrait-2 by Gilad Rom
Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea (image: Gilad Rom)

They were also given a song to learn:

"Marks of blood on every ridge of the Jangbaek*

"Marks of blood on every ridge of Amnol* (*both are Korean mountain ranges)

"Still now over the blooming free Korea

"Those sacred marks shed brilliant rays

"O dear is the name, our beloved general

"O glorious is the name, General Kim Il Sung."

Up the peninsula

Meanwhile, the UNC's naval and air forces went into action, and ground troops were rushed into the south. 

They landed at the port city of Pusan (or Busan), from which a defensive 50-mile by 50-mile perimeter was established. Before long, 180,000 UNC troops were ready to take on the 98,000 men of the now-depleted NKPA. 

They brought with them better-made American bazookas and heavy M-26 Pershing tanks, able to take on the T-34s. 

It wouldn't be easy counter-attacking up and down the peninsula though. In his book on the conflict, Carter Malkasian offers a bleak depiction of the challenging landscape:

"The terrain of Korea is not optimal for a blitzkrieg. Only 150 miles (240km) wide, the peninsula is suited for a strong in-depth defense." 

"Most of the country is comprised of rugged hills with steep slopes, intersected by valleys. The roads primarily run through these valleys. The Taebaek mountain range runs north to south through the entire eastern half of the peninsula.

"Even in the flatter western half, narrow valleys, rice paddies, and jagged hills make mobile warfare difficult.

Climatic conditions are no more conducive to military operations. The summers are very hot and humid. The winters, on the other hand, are extremely cold, with near Arctic conditions… In the spring, melting snow creates large floods and mudslides, which restrict movement."

But the head of the United Nations Command (UNC) was General Douglas MacArthur and he had a simple answer to all of that: Bypass it.

Coming seemingly out of left-field, he proposed an amphibious assault on the port city of Inchon (or Inch'on), from which UNC troops could march straight to Seoul, recapture it, then cut off, encircle and strangle the supply lines of the NKPA troops, besieging Pusan.

It was a massive gamble: The difference between high and low tide, which alternated twice daily, was six metres. If they got it wrong, the worst of Inchon's natural defences – vast mud flats and high sea walls – might stop them in their tracks. Nobody wanted a re-run of Omaha Beach.

And even if they got it right, marines spear-heading the assault would still likely face tough resistance from the man-made defences once they got ashore. 

Would it be the success of 1944's D-Day in Normandy or the failure of Gallipoli? If it were the latter, a huge chunk of MacArthur's forces might be spent and the entire war lost. 

But the general was confident, in part because he knew the very difficulty of the thing engendered surprise. 

And there was something else very important working in MacArthur's favour: He'd invaded Inchon once before.  

At the end of World War 2, US forces entered Korea through this same entry point. 

Inchon Landing from Inchon Campaign book
A map showing the invasion of Inchon (image from 'Inch'on 1950' by Gordon L Rottman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
Inchon 1950 CAM162-58 3D map
A 3D map of the Inchon area, with the movements of MacArthur's amphibious troops shown by the blue arrows (image from 'Inch'on 1950' by Gordon L Rottman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

As it had turned out, the Japanese he'd come ashore to fight had already been defeated and the general instead met up with his then-Russian allies. 

The non-battle of 1945 wouldn't go to waste though, serving instead as a dress rehearsal for its 1950 successor, 'Operation Chromite'. 

The plan this time called for seizing the island of Wolmi-do (codenamed 'Green Beach') on the first high tide - it jutted out and defenders left upon it would have harassed attacking marines on either side. 

So at 5:33 am on September 15, 3 Battalion of the 5 Marine Regiment (of 1 Marine Division) stormed the island. 

Clambering up and over the seawall, they got ashore without a single combat death.

The first wave to land on Beach Red was made up of four landing craft, vehicle and personnel (LCVP) from Inchon campaign
Marines of the first wave attacking Wolmi-do (image from 'Inch'on 1950' by Gordon L Rottman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

A second wave was planned for the next high tide, at 5:30 pm, when the other battalions in 1 Marine Division came ashore at Red and Blue Beaches, to the left and right of Wolmi-do. They fought their way into the city and linked up.   

By the end of 'D-Day', the Americans had sustained 109 casualties, including 21 fatalities, but they'd taken Inchon.

Next, they fought their way out and then up the Inchon-Seoul supply route. 

Fierce fighting erupted, reducing the capital to rubble as they worked their way through it, but by September 27, American and UN flags flew over the city.

U.S. Marine raises the U.S. flag at the American consulate in Seoul, Korea, while fighting for the city raged around the compound, Sept. 27, 1
A US Marine raising the American flag in Seoul

Flag-waving aside, when South Korean forces moved back into Seoul they were sometimes little better than the North Korean occupiers who'd just left. 

William Stueck's 'The Korean War: An International History' features a report by a London Times correspondent which asserted that South Korean police and patriotic groups ruthlessly persecuted anyone suspected of having collaborated with the communists:

"The reporter described a visit to a village outside Seoul during which he had observed police activity of the most brutal kind.

"'Interrogation is a neat word' to them, he wrote, 'like liquidation: In this case it meant beatings with rifle butts and bamboo sticks, and the insertion of splinters under fingernails'."

After the recapture of Seoul, the UNC broke out of the Pusan Perimeter in the south and linked up with their comrades at Osan. 

Map showing strategic plan and outcome of MacArthur's offensive from Campaign book
The result of MacArthur's Inchon landing was that UNC forces, in blue, linked up and cut in half the North Korean forces, in red (image from 'Inch'on 1950' by Gordon L Rottman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The NKPA were routed, some taking refuge as guerrillas in the Taebaek mountains; in one case, the chief of staff of the 13 North Korean Division shot his commanding officer dead because the general had wanted to fling men senselessly at the enemy. They were now allowed to retreat. 

But the North Koreans had been cut off and were being surrounded. In the process of fighting their way back to the 38th Parallel, they suffered 150,000 casualties, 125,000 of them as POWs. 

The UNC forces, by contrast, had sustained a comparatively light 18,000.

Crossing the Korean Rubicon

Unfortunately, the very success of this operation would be its great undoing.

Further north, allies of Kim's regime in China and the Soviet Union were eyeing events with increasing alarm. 

Having a unified and pro-American capitalist Korea on their doorsteps was not a prospect they welcomed. Manchuria was an important industrial region to the Chinese, and it would be lost first if the US and its allies ever crossed the border into China. 

Russia also shared a border with North Korea, albeit a smaller one, and Stalin pledged material support for the North Koreans and Chinese, including planes and pilots from the Soviet Air Force.

Beyond this, there were also ideological considerations. Mao Zedong said at a Politburo meeting to his CCP colleagues on August 4: 

"If the US imperialists won the war they would become more arrogant and would threaten us. We should not fail to assist the Koreans. We must lend them our hands in the form of sending our military volunteers there."

'Military volunteers' being the operative phrase. Any Chinese contingent that entered the war would be labelled the PVA (People's Volunteer Army*) and most definitely not the PLA (People's Liberation Army), the state army of China (the PRC).

Officially, deploying the latter would be tantamount to a declaration of war on the US, and that would trigger the wider conflict the larger powers were trying to avoid.

(*The PVA was also known as the CPVA, Chinese People's Volunteer Army, and the CPV, Chinese People's Volunteers).

Air support was something the American and UNC forces had on their side; here an F9F Panther bombs enemy trucks (image from 'F9F Panther Units of the Korean War' by Warren Thompson © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

China warned the Americans not to cross the 38th Parallel, the original boundary from which the DRNK forces had struck out. But MacArthur, already headstrong and belligerent, received mixed signals from Washington.

A resolution passed at the UN Security Council had called for the reunification of Korea under Rhee's ROK umbrella. The JCS (Joint Chiefs) and Secretary of Defense assured him the government was behind him and that he should "feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th Parallel".

But a week later, President Truman, fearful of triggering an escalation, met with the General on Wake Island in the Pacific. He told him that reunification could not happen if it led to wider war. MacArthur assured the President there were no signs of any imminent intervention by the USSR or the PRC. 

Besides, now was their chance. The UNC forces were 200,000-strong and they had their enemies on the run – enemies, that, by the way, no longer had any tanks or artillery. 

Unbeknownst to MacArthur, what the North Koreans did have, at that very moment, in fact, was vast numbers of Chinese allies sneaking over the Yalu river. 

These ranks were packed with yet more hardened veterans from the Chinese Civil War who had been trained to attack at night so they could use stealth to compensate for their material disadvantage. 

Two weeks after MacArthur had dismissed any concerns of a coming escalation, the First Phase Offensive began. 

Back down the peninsula

To the men on the ground, this attack came like a tidal wave of manpower that simply overwhelmed them.

News of the attack was also one of a series of disasters that was overwhelming Truman. It was beginning to seem like events had been conspiring against him since the Wake Island meeting. 

He'd been foolish enough to believe the famous last words of 'Dugout Doug' (a derisive nickname for MacArthur) - that the boys would be home by Thanksgiving. There was no chance of that now. 

Voters punished him at the polls for it that November in the 1950 mid-term elections, drastically reducing the Democrats' majority in Congress. 

Terrific - now the Republicans could be an even bigger pain in the neck. They'd harped on incessantly about neglecting the defence of South Korea, even though many of them had voted down the Korea Defence Bill as well as Democrats; and they wouldn't shut up about him losing China to the communists.

Any conversation with Secretary of State Dean Acheson would have revealed that Chiang was an idiot who'd squandered every advantage American support had given him, and whose dictatorial mismanagement had turned vast swathes of the Chinese population against him.

But the Grand Old Party were hearing none of this. Any foreign policy setback added weight to the 'soft on communism' stick they used to whack the President.

Moreover, Truman had also survived an assassination attempt.

On November 1, two pro-Puerto Rican independence radicals had got into a huge gunfight with Secret Service agents outside Blair House. (The President had been staying here because the White House was being renovated). 

The assailants were both shot dead and the President was fine, but it had been yet another problem on Truman's plate. 

Still, at least MacArthur's reports from the front had remained upbeat. The Chinese entry into Korea would not hurt the war effort, he opined confidently. There were only 60,000… alright, 100,000 of them… 

…or perhaps, just maybe, there might be 200,000, absolute tops.

(There were 300,000).

When the trap of the Second Phase Offensive was sprung on November 25, UNC and ROK forces were almost surrounded and had to bolt down the Korean west coast.

The 'Big Bug-Out' - the largest and longest withdrawal in US military history – had begun.

Captain Charles Bussey of the 77 US Engineer Combat Company described the retreat in 'Firestorm at Yechon':

"We'd been humiliated, debased, overwhelmed – routed… The newswriters would slant it all to sound like a minor setback. Take it from me, however, it was carnage. Intelligence said they hit us with one-third of a million men. I believe it. They turned our Army into a leaderless horde, running headlong for Pusan. Our soldiers had lost every bit of confidence in all of their leaders, from the commander in chief down to platoon leaders."

A large part of that loss of faith in commanders came from them being out of touch, of course. 

At first, MacArthur disregarded the dire reports and had the US 2 Division hold its ground. When it finally was permitted to retreat on November 28, the escape route had been cut off.

An entire Chinese ('volunteer', or CPV) army, the 38 (the equivalent of a US corps) was pursuing 2 Division. What's more, the Chinese were good at buttoning themselves down in the hills, where they resisted napalm airstrikes meant to dislodge them. 

26 December 1950 US Marines move forward after air support hits the enemy in the hills
An image of US Marines being supported by air strikes in December, 1950

From here they launched their own bombardment of the escape route with small arms, mortars, grenades and satchel charges. This destroyed vehicles (including tanks), but the airstrikes hampered them enough that American soldiers were still able to trickle out. 

2 Division had suffered 5,000 casualties, a third of their number. 

Elsewhere, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir erupted as X Corps, consisting of 1 Marine Division, 7 Infantry Division, and other elements of the US Army, were surrounded and attacked by the 120,000 men in the Ninth CPV Army Corps (the equivalent of a Western army). 

Though this was actually the lesser of two evils.

There were two Chinese Army corps storming down the peninsula – the other one, the Thirteenth, had 180,000 men. This, no doubt, was small comfort to the men stuck at Chosin. 

Fortunately, 1 Marine Division, which had carried out the Inchon landing, was an elite formation composed of Second World War Pacific Theatre veterans. The attack on them came on the night of November 27, and it cut off the 5 and 7 Marine Regiments and surrounded the 1 Marine Regiment. One Marine, Corporal Arthur Koch, described the Chinese frontal assault on the 5 Marine Regiment in the book 'Breakout', by Martin Russ:

"It was enough to make your hair stand on end… When the bugles died away [the Chinese used these to coordinate attacks in the dark], we heard a voice through a megaphone and then the blast of a police whistle. I was plenty scared, but who wasn't? I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw them in the moonlight. It was like the snow coming to life, and they were shouting and shaking their fists – just raising hell… The Chinese didn't come at us by fire and maneuver… they came in a rush like a pack of mad dogs. Even though I was ready it was a terrible shock.”

Despite being tenacious opponents, the Americans found that the CPV soldiers made rudimentary tactical mistakes, like hanging around on a captured hill for want of new orders, making easy targets in the meantime.

The Borinqueneers, Puerto Rico's 65th Infantry regiment in Korean War (232-464) Feb 2 1951 assault on Chinese
Puerto Rican troops fighting in the winter of 1951

By the time they had broken out, the Americans had sustained 4,400 battle casualties at Chosin reservoir, the Chinese 20,000. 

Most of these were from the cold. On the American side, those suffering from frostbite had toes and fingers snapped off with forceps by medical staff. Noses and ears were also removed. For the Chinese, many of whom were transplants from warmer parts of China and who had inadequate clothing, the cold must have hit them even harder. The Korean War was definitely not as funny as MASH.

Getting closer to midnight

The entry of the Chinese sent MacArthur into overdrive. He made multiple arguments for expanding the war, and suggested various ways to do so.

Niall Ferguson's 'Colossus' features some of his key proposals:

"MacArthur's argument was, first, that 'limited war' was undermining the morale of the American forces in Korea; secondly, that the United States should escalate its operations against China, attacking the Chinese airfields in Manchuria and blockading the Chinese coast; thirdly, that the Chinese Nationalist forces in Formosa (now Taiwan) should be mobilized on the side of the United States; and finally, that up to fifty atomic bombs should be dropped on Chinese cities. The alternative to 'victory' was 'appeasement', which would merely 'beget new and bloodier war'."

Had MacArthur lost his mind? When Truman and the Joint Chiefs had tried to restrain him, the old general had started flapping about the dire need for escalation. Was this the same man who not that long before had been so sanguine about the possibility of China joining the war?

The President had no intention of World War 3 starting on his watch. Unfortunately, that wasn't the impression he gave the country, and the world, at a November 30 press conference.

Asked by a reporter how far he would let MacArthur go and if use of the atom bomb was being considered, Truman simply replied: "All options are on the table".

It made sense to seem strong from within the echo chamber of the American government – he didn't want to lend any weight to the Republicans' accusation that he was 'too soft on communism'. This wasn't the 'golden age' of 1950s America remembered now. It arguably was a golden age economically, but at the time it was experienced as an era of great paranoia. 

The communist menace seemed hellbent on taking over the world. American POWs in Korea, subjected to 'communist re-education', became objects of pity and suspicion. 1962's 'The Manchurian Candidate' featured a brainwashed Korean POW returning to the US re-programmed as a political assassin. 

There was a kernel of truth to this. Espionage was an element of the Cold War and Russian spies were uncovered within the US. But the State Department was decidedly not crawling with hundreds upon hundreds of Soviet Agents, as alleged by Senator Joseph McCarthy. 

In any case, Truman's comments, meant to assuage potential criticism, weren't only heard by the Republicans. Outside of Washington, press coverage of Truman's nukes line caused commotion across America, and consternation across the world. This was, after all, the same Harry Truman who had consented to dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. 

So now, Worrier in Chief of the concerned international coalition was British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. According to Brands, Attlee's Labour party, believing the Americans to be reckless and MacArthur a lunatic, rebelled against their PM in the House of Commons and practically threatened mutiny.

The French distrusted MacArthur even more, and the West Germans were firmly convinced that atom bombing China would lead to a Soviet nuclear reply against them.

Rushing over to the US, Attlee and others urged Truman to dissuade his UNC commander from doing anything rash. 

The President, of course, had been trying to wage a limited war from the beginning. He took the bull by the horns and reasserted control by giving prominence to MacArthur's subordinate, Eighth Army Commander Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway.

MacArthur's philosophy of war was simple: "Once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end". He would later say in an address to Congress: "War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory".

Ridgway, on the other hand, understood the new political topography. He was both tactically shrewd and politically sensitive, pursing the same victory as MacArthur, but with an awareness of where the line was. He was, in other words, just what Truman needed.

When the Third Phase Offensive came on December 31, 1950, and the Fourth on February 11, 1951, Ridgway was astute enough to pull UNC forces back, forcing the enemy to overstretch their supply lines so they could then be more easily counter-attacked.

Eighth Army fights back Jan Feb 1951
The Fourth Phase Offensive and US Eighth Army counterattack, Jan – Feb, 1951 (image from 'The Korean War' by Carter Malkasian © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

His own assaults – Operation Killer, Operation Ripper and Operation Rugged – were designed as cautious, piecemeal advances backed up by close-knit artillery and air-support. He'd give the communists a hiding without overstretching himself and threatening Manchuria in the process.

And that's exactly what he did. By the end of this phase of the war, the UNC had sustained 20,000 casualties to the enemy's 53,000. 

But MacArthur wouldn’t stand idle. He hated Ridgway's strategy. The old general had publicly contradicted his commander in chief on several occasions, inviting dismissal for insubordination each time. Firing him would have been very difficult and costly for Truman, but eventually MacArthur would give him no choice.

On March 24, he again issued a contradictory statement that said escalating the war was, effectively, a no-brainer. It would, he claimed, easily precipitate a complete military collapse within China.

Next, he effectively went behind Truman's back to the opposition, making it plain to the Republicans in Congress that he completely disagreed with Truman's approach and laying down what he thought should be done instead. 

To the Truman Administration and the Joint Chiefs, MacArthur must have sounded like a broken record. Again, they told the Republicans that, yes, of course an escalation in Korea might trigger World War 3, and no, Chiang Kai-shek's forces could not be utilised. That would provoke China, and in any case, they were far less reliable than Americans.

When MacArthur’s letter to the Republicans was read aloud in Congress by Senator Joe Martin on April 5, the President finally sacked him. Ridgway was now UN Commander in Korea, US Commander in the Pacific, and a full general by May 11.  

Truman addresses the public in the wake of the MacArthur firing and defends his strategy

It was a hugely unpopular move. The President's approval rating crashed to a low of 26 percent, according to Gallup (while MacArthur's soared to 69). "Why die for a tie?" became the cynical refrain, mocking Truman's limited war. But the President stuck to his guns, reasoning in his memoirs: 

"Time and again General MacArthur had shown that he was unwilling to accept the policies of the Administration. By his repeated public statements he was… setting his policy against the President's… If I allowed him to defy the civil authorities in this manner, I myself would be violating my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution."

Rather less formerly, when biographer Merle Miller asked Truman about the episode more than 10 years later, he asked the former President to clarify in his own words why exactly he had removed the general. A former artillery captain in World War 1 and always quietly confident on military matters, Truman is said to have responded: 

"I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. That's the answer to that. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail."

According to Niall Ferguson, what happened next brought the US closer than it had ever been to a military coup. Characterising MacArthur as a modern-day Caesar, Ferguson says the general's decision to return home and "raise hell" was the Cold War equivalent of Caesar crossing the Rubicon.

The general "strutted through the streets of New York in an impromptu parade that is said to have drawn a crowd of up to seven million".

Cheered on by street protestors, the right-wing press and many in government, "[MacArthur's] address to Congress was a bravura performance, running the gamut of mawkish sentiments from the pious to the patriotic. It was watched on television by thirty million people and punctuated by thirty eruptions of applause from the people’s elected representatives. 'We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God!', exclaimed a delirious congressman. One senator 'felt that if the speech had gone on much longer there might have been a march on the White House'."

Republicans launched the MacArthur Hearings in June of 1951, seeking to undermine Truman's strategy with their star witness, Douglas MacArthur. But the Truman Administration had a star witness of their own – Omar Bradley.

Combo Omar Bradley and MacArthur
Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (left) and Douglas MacArthur (right)

Another World War 2 hero, Bradley had dealt with MacArthur during that conflict and judged him to be a megalomaniac. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs his testimony also had more weight than the former general's.

Pointing out that MacArthur had effectively committed insubordination by articulating a foreign policy that differed from that of the President, Bradley said simply:

"Red China is not the powerful nation seeking to dominate the world. Frankly, in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." 

Getting sucked into a war with China would, after all, expose Europe to a potential Russian threat. 

For now, the opposition died down. 


The 'right' war in Korea, on the other hand, kept going. 

On April 22, the Fifth Phase Offensive began. When it did, a huge hole was punched in the middle of the UNC line by a sudden attack that demolished much of the 6 ROK Division. 

The 29 British Brigade also bore the brunt of an attack in the west near the Imjin river. Located in a keystone position between the 1 ROK Division on their left and the American forces to their right, 29 Brigade had to hold fast to prevent a breach of the line. Disarray would have followed if allies on either side had been divided and then outflanked.    

And precisely because it was such an important position, the Chinese threw everything they had at the British.

The Gloucestershire Regiment (the 'Glosters') was located at Gloster Crossing. When the Chinese attacked them four times within two and a half hours with mortars, artillery, and machine-guns, they were forced to withdraw to a rise named Hill 235 (later dubbed ‘Gloster Hill’).

Here, they were surrounded, their excellent Centurion tanks prevented from getting in to rescue them when the lead vehicle was taken out and left blocking the narrow pass below.

As they repelled wave after wave of Chinese attacks through the night, their lifeline became a radio message to the Americans, an attempt to get urgently needed support. 

Unfortunately, the two allies proved to be divided by a common language. Asked what their situation was, when the Glosters' commander indicated that they'd got into 'a spot of bother' and that things were "a bit sticky", this appears to have been lost on US comrades.

As pointed out in 'Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain', this actually meant something akin to 'we're running out of ammo and being slaughtered'. Unfortunately, the Americans didn't understand that this was a perfect example of the famous British understatement - the urgency of the situation essentially got lost in translation.

Left without the support they so desperately needed, the Glosters' situation descended into chaos, including hand-to-hand combat and, in some instances, chucking tinned food at their attackers. 

When they were finally authorised to withdraw, only 39 members of the battalion made it back to the UNC lines, the rest (approximately 95 percent of the unit) having been killed or captured. 

The remainder of 29 Brigade, not so badly stuck as the Glosters, were able to make use of the Centurion tanks and escaped in much greater numbers. The whole brigade had lost 1,091 men overall in the three-day battle - with half of these casualties attributable to the Glosters.

But the fighting was far costlier for the Chinese. An entire division was consumed by the Battle of the Imjin River (meaning they sustained more than 10 times as many casualties as the Glosters). And, by the time the Fifth Phase Offensive was over, they had suffered 102,000 losses, compared to 39,700 for the UNC forces.

Not that a better balance of dead and wounded was much comfort to Western troops caught up in the savage fighting on the ground, nor the South Korean civilians displaced by it.

As the Chinese steamroller put Seoul in jeopardy for the second time, many fled to Pusan, expecting a re-run of what had happened the previous year.

They ended up in dirty refugee camps with limited food, water, and electricity. Some women turned to prostitution, others chastising them for it, calling those seen walking with American men 'Western whores'. 

The racism went both ways, with many Americans looking down on the Korean 'gooks'. In one instance, up to 100 South Korean civilians were shot dead by American soldiers who feared that North Korean soldiers might be hiding amongst them.

With her brother on her back a war weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-26 tank in Haengju, Korea, June 9, 1951
A Korean girl carrying her brother, an M-26 Pershing tank behind her

But many Americans admired their South Korean allies and their ability to endure severe hardships. The conscripted ROK forces suffered far more casualties than their UNC counterparts.

As in the north, the war sapped supplies and led to inflation, causing widespread suffering amongst civilians as well.

But many South Koreans didn't want a quick end to the fighting if it brought a divided peninsula. They felt abandoned by the compromising of Truman, and his predecessor FDR, and they saw the arrogance, vanity and authoritarianism of MacArthur as acceptable character flaws innate to strong leaders. 

Indeed, although nominally democratic, Syngman Rhee's government was also authoritarian (and corrupt). Somewhat counter-intuitively to us, he was more revered by the people than he was by the national assembly that had granted him the presidency (Korea had indirect elections). Because of this, Rhee wanted more direct democracy, at least at this point, because many of the people tolerated his undemocratic character more than the electors did. 

That would change in due course, as would the war, and leadership in the US.

The war would settle into a stalemate characterised by trenches, bunkers and piecemeal assaults. 

Even though the large-scale battles were over, these raids in no-man’s-land were fraught with danger. Troops were given flak vests made of fibreglass plates, but while they offered some protection from shrapnel, they couldn't stop a bullet. Casualties still mounted. One marine, Corporal Martin Russ, put it this way:

"We scoffed at the estimate of Chinese casualties. From the little experience I've had in raids and from the stories I've heard of other raids, I'll bet the Chinese suffered half the number of casualties that we had. When we raid the Chinese, we get clobbered. When the Chinese raid the marines, they get clobbered worse. But they are a bit more intelligent about it; they don't make raids very often."

These more limited attacks were designed to strengthen the hand of negotiators from both sides. They'd agreed to try and hammer out an end to the conflict once the war of movement ground to a halt in 1951, and a better military situation engendered a better political outcome.

There were several sticking points, the most salient of which was the location of the division between north and south. It was now north of the 38th Parallel and the communists wanted it returned to this demarcation. 

The UNC and South Korean delegates refused. It was geographically indefensible, unlike the rockier terrain they held now.

Kumsong bulge and final armistice line 1953
A map showing the 'Kumsong bulge' which the communists flattened out with more attacks, and the final armistice line where the DMZ would be set up (image from 'The Korean War' by Carter Malkasian © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

As the talks, and the war, continued in this way, thousands of miles away, at the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago, there was the potential for a change. The air there was brimming with giddy anticipation about the convention's keynote speaker: Douglas MacArthur.

He'd been offered a chance to run for the nomination for president in 1948, and had been honoured. But he'd refused to either campaign or officially step out of the ring, dooming his chances. 

The same pattern was now on display, with adulating fans urging him on while he again held back. According to Michael Schaller in 'Douglas MacArthur: The Far Eastern General', MacArthur (and his supporters) hoped for a deadlock at the convention between frontrunners Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower, another World War 2 general, and Senator Robert Taft. The result might lead to him being nominated as a kind of compromise between those two without the hard work of campaigning, which, it became increasingly clear, just didn’t come easily to the old general.

As he began his speech, punctuated as it was with applause, his time seemed finally to have come. He was strong, he was legendary and, as the speech went on, he was… surprisingly boring.

Out of uniform, removed from the formalities of a military situation, without the glamour of his past achievements hovering over him, MacArthur's rhetorical torpor proved to make him politically rather dull. The delegates needed soaring rhetoric and inspiring leadership, which they found instead in Ike Eisenhower, who would go on to win the presidency that November.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower, who was President at the end of the Korean War

There were political changes taking place in Seoul too. In May 1952, Syngman Rhee declared martial law and used it to chuck those 'pesky' electors he didn’t like in jail. As Malkasian points out, this made a mockery of everything the UNC had been fighting for.

The trouble didn't end there. 

At this point, the negotiations were largely getting stuck on the issue of prisoner swaps. The POWs trapped in the north wanted to return home but many of those in the south didn't. To the communists, this exposed the lie of the 'socialist utopia' their societies were meant to be, and it was a huge loss of face, something particularly humiliating in the Asian world.

The idea of simply giving the communist POWs a choice of which country to go back to wasn't a straightforward option either. The dynamic within camps was often one involving hardline ideological gangs intimidating dissenters into adopting their position. 

So individual screening of prisoners in a neutral country or countries agreed to by both sides, or a screening in Korea by representatives from a neutral country were the kinds of compromises discussed. The Communist powers seemed to be moving towards an agreement, but then, as Stueck explains, the UN negotiators drew a wild card from the deck:

"(On) 18 June, with an armistice apparently only days away, Syngman Rhee thrust himself into the spotlight, calling into question the viability of the agreements so arduously negotiated at Panmunjom-or of any armistice at all."

Arduous negotiations was the official face of the US government, but it seems something approaching quiet desperation, or perhaps just exasperation with Rhee, was the private face. So concerned were they that Rhee might torpedo a negotiated end to the war, that a plan, 'Operation Ever-ready', was concocted to remove him from power.

Speaking to the Washington Post upon the declassification of the plan in the late 70s, Standford University history professor Barton Berstein said:

"The reason they didn't use... [Everready] is because there was no alternative to Rhee no good, strong anti-Communist leader to replace Rhee with."

So as it was, he stayed in power, for now. But he would severely test the patience of his allies. About the most destructive thing he did for the prospect of a negotiated close to the war was the sudden release of 27,000 Communist prisoners, the 'wild card' that could have derailed the talks. 

As Stueck points out:

"Lest anyone doubt the origins of the event, Rhee himself announced, 'I have ordered on my own responsibility the release of the anti-Communist Korean prisoners'."

They were referred to as 'escapees' because, officially, from that point on, they were meant to be rounded up. Naturally, the South Korean President did what any government would do with an 'escaped' enemy – he offered to give them guns.

The transcript of a 1953 House of Commons meeting involving, amongst others, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and the MP Desmond Donnelly, shows just how undiplomatic Rhee was being:

"May I also ask if the attention of the right hon. Gentleman has been drawn to the Press reports that President Rhee is now seeking to recruit some of these escaped prisoners into the South Korean Army?"

In the end, it was up to the US President, Eisenhower, to clear up the mess. 

He refused to recapture the escapees, but territory recaptured from the UNC by the communists in a final offensive helped compensate for the prior loss of face. This, perhaps along with continued military pressure from the UNC, may have been what eventually convinced the communist delegation to agree to a ceasefire.

Both sides signed the armistice on July 27, 1953, preserving North and South Korea as distinct political entities.

In the north, the personality cult of Kim Il-sung would be transferred to his son Kim Jong-un, and then his son Kim Jong-nam, who rules there to this day.

In the south, Rhee's continued autocratic tendencies would also make the First Republic of South Korea an oxymoron.

Drafting laws to allow him to remain longer in power, curtailing press freedoms and blocking the opposition from voting (all under the guise of 'national security'), Rhee got increasingly dictatorial. 

He labelled one of his main political opponents a communist before imprisoning and swiftly executing him. The death of another one while he was in the US getting a stomach operation deprived Rhee of any real competitors and he got 90 percent of the next election's vote (allegedly). 

Not stopping there, he was set on getting his protégé Lee Ki-poong elected to the office of Vice President, which is held separately in South Korea. Lee, despite his public appearances being limited by illness, won roughly 82 percent of the vote. The election, of course, was corrupt, with democratic rallies suppressed and the stuffing of ballot boxes with pre-marked ballots widespread. 

The people took to the streets. When the body of a student protestor washed up at Masan Harbor, the official cause of death was drowning. What other protestors found instead, once they'd forced their way into the hospital, was the kid's skull split open by a tear gas grenade that had been shot directly at him (and patently not fired up at the regulation 45 degrees). Rocks had also been tied to the body in an attempt to sink it. 

Rhee tried to isolate the protestors, claiming they were being provoked by communist agents. No one was convinced and the president was forced into resignation. The next day, Rhee's erstwhile protégé and vice president, Lee Ki-poong, died along with his entire family in a mass suicide pact. Such was the dark side of lost face in Asia.

For his part, Rhee escaped Korea on a plane flight, courtesy of the CIA.

His country would go through more cycles of autocracy, reform and turmoil. This included the dictatorial "Yusin System" introduced by Park Chung Hee, father of Park Geun-hye, who was impeached for corruption this March. Chung-hee survived an assassination attempt in 1976, but another attempt succeeded in 1979.

Park's successor, Chun Doo-hwan, would attempt reform during the 1981-1987 Fifth Republic, leading to the more democratic Sixth Republic, which lasts to this day.

In the background of this continuing struggle for freedom has been a war that never officially stopped. An armistice may have been signed, but a peace treaty wasn't and so the Korean War is technically still going on. How long this non-end to the conflict will continue is anyone's guess. One can only hope that the economic cooperation favoured by South Korea's new president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will prove to be more influential and enduring than Kim Jong-un's bellicosity. If it does, maybe one day true democracy might take root in North Korea as well.  

Cover image: The Korean War Memorial in Washington DC (picture by Max Pixel)

For more on the Korean war, read ‘The Korean War’ by Carter Malkasian, ‘Inch’on 1950’ by Gordon L Rottman or look at ‘F9F Panther Units of the Korean War’ by Warren Thompson to learn more about one of the jets that was used in the conflict. Visit Osprey Publishing’s website for more military history.

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