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Taechon, North Korea, Nov. 3, 1950 — A shivering British soldier, Private James Beverly, gazed north from a frosted trench dug into a hilltop outpost outside the town of Taechon.

 

He was not expecting to stay in this position, 40 miles south of the Yalu River, for long. Following the heavy fighting to defend South Korea over the summer, and the U.N. counter-invasion into the north in October, the North Korean People’s Army, or NKPA, had been virtually annihilated. Beverly’s battalion was anticipating an imminent return to its base in Hong Kong.

 

Beverly started. Ahead was a very odd sight indeed. A hillside, a couple of miles to his north, appeared to be changing color. Beverly could not quite make out what it was. With a jolt, he realized what he was seeing. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of soldiers were streaming down the hill. It was the drab color of their uniforms that gave the odd optical effect: They looked like a wave rolling down the slope.

These were not defeated North Korean soldiers. This was a new enemy, heralding a new war. In the winter mountains of North Korea, confident United Nations troops were about to suffer a traumatic, harrowing experience. The struggle to come would buttress the tottering North Korean state, reverberate around the globe and announce to the world that a new superpower was striding upon the global stage.

 

China had struck south.

 

North Korea on the brink

 

Following its invasion of South Korea in June 1950, United Nations — primarily American — forces had defeated the NKPA in the south by September. In October, U.N. forces — U.S., South Korean, British, Australian — surged north. Pyongyang fell. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung fled to the mountain fastness of Kanggye. His patron, Soviet leader Josef Stalin, prepared to wash his hands of the Korean revolutionary. With no intention of going to war with the U.S. for this rocky peninsula, Stalin suggested the remnants of Kim’s forces retreat into Manchuria and prepare for guerilla war. For Kim, the former anti-Japanese fighter, it must have seemed like a step back in time.

 

Kim’s fate — like that of so many Korean rulers dating back to antiquity — lay in the hands of the ruler of the Middle Kingdom. In 1950, this was Mao Zedong, newly minted leader of China. There was an obligation, for North Koreans troops had fought alongside Mao’s men in the Chinese Civil War against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists. And many international commentators, looking at the pattern of communist insurgencies across Asia in Malaya, Indochina and the Philippines, would turn to ideology to explain Maobehavior. Beijing, after all, was an ideological bed-fellow of Pyongyang and Moscow.

But there was another reason for China’s decision to intervene in Korea. For centuries, the Korean Peninsula had been a buffer state guarding China’s northeast flank. Ming China had fought a war in Korea against Hideyoshi’s samurai in the 1590s. Qing China had fought much of the 19th-century Sino-Japanese War in Korea. Now America — the nation which had supplied Chiang, and which now supported him on his island fastness of Taiwan — was advancing up the peninsula toward the Yalu River border. Party members, discussing the crisis, coined a proverb: “Without lips, the teeth get cold.”

 

Mao was no wilting flower. This was a man who believed “power grows from the barrel of a gun.” Although his new republic was barely a year old, he was already massing troops to invade Taiwan, and had marched into Tibet in mid-October. He believed that China would have to fight America sooner or later: better to do it in Korea, where the rugged mountains suited guerilla-style fighting, than in China itself.

 

Warnings were issued. Mao’s premier, Chou En-lai, told the Indian envoy to Beijing that China would not sit on its hands as U.N. units drove north. This was ignored by Washington. In a meeting with President Harry Truman in mid-October, U.N. forces commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the savior of South Korea and the master strategist who had overseen the brilliant victory of Incheon in September, was convinced that with U.S. Air Force now based in Korea, if China dared to intervene, it would be “the greatest slaughter in history.”

 

It was a terrible mistake by a man who claimed to understand the Asian mind. Mao’s men in Korea would not give the USAF a target to hit. From Oct. 19, the so-called Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, the CPVA — actually regular units of the PLA, though Beijing did not want to admit it — began infiltrating North Korea. By the third week of October, there were almost 200,000 hidden in the mountains south of the Yalu. Their strategy was to draw the U.N. forces north, then smash them in terrain that where their superior firepower and mobility would be of minimal effect. This strategy was encapsulated in a brutally simple saying: “Open the door; invite in the dog. Slam the door; beat the dog.”

 

Who were the CPVA? Chinese peasant fighters, immunized to hardship, poor rations and rough terrain. They were combat-experienced, having been at war — either with the Japanese, or during the Chinese Civil War — for much of their lives. And in these early days, communism had been good to them. The corruption, abuse and brutality customarily suffered by Chinese soldiers had been revoked under Mao. Many CPVA, were, in fact, turned nationalists. And they were fired with a passionate new spark. For over 100 years, China, the “Sick Man of Asia” had been humiliated as foreign powers bit off and swallowed chunks of their nation. Now, under Mao, China had stood up.

 

But they had no illusions about the task awaiting them in the Korean killing grounds. The Peoples Volunteers referred to themselves with grim irony as “human bullets.” the crossing points over the Yalu were dubbed “The Gates of Hell.”

 

Enter the dragon

 

They struck in the last week of October. A reconnaissance unit of the hard-driving South Korean 6th Division reached the Yalu. It was ambushed in the mountain passes by an unseen, unknown enemy. Other units drove to its aid. They too were shattered.

 

For the U.N. forces, the attacks were bewildering. The CPVA moved at night, or under cover of burning scrub and forests, making them invisible to air reconnaissance. The key tactic was to maneuver around U.N. units, infiltrating behind them and establishing roadblocks and ambushes in their rear. When these were in place, the Chinese soldiers would attempt to stampede U.N. units into the ambushes with a frontal attack.

 

And the attacks were terrifying. First, they would mass as close as possible in front of U.N. units. Lacking radios, the CPVA used bugles, gongs and whistles to signal the assault. U.N. soldiers could come to fear the sudden, discordant cacophony sounding in the darkness before they were engulfed in combat. While the Chinese had great skill at infiltration, camouflage and tactical movement, their attacks were sheer mass: a wall of tightly packed men running, firing submachine guns and hurling hand grenades — the “human wave.”

 

The Americans, too, received a terrible shock. A battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division was cut off from its rear, then overrun at the mining town of Unsan. Media, struggling to describe it, likened the attack to the massacre in a Western. James Beverly’s unit, the 27th Commonwealth Brigade, found itself fighting desperately out of a trap on the U.N.’s far western flank.

 

Then on Nov. 6, it all stopped.

 

Cautious U.N. patrols probed north. The enemy had not just broken contact, he had completely disappeared. Why? Perhaps it was just a warning, intelligence officers speculated. Or, as intelligence staff in Tokyo analyzed the events. It had been a nasty shock at first, but the U.N. had mastered the attack. He prepared to resume the offensive.

 

For two weeks, units at the front were reinforced. The 8th Army would strike in the west, on one side of central Korea’s mountain spine. In the east, X Corps would roll up the coast. The two forces — totaling some 300,000 men — would converge in the far north of Korea in a giant pincer movement that would destroy the communist forces, bring the war to a close and unite the peninsula.

 

On Nov. 23, U.N. units delivered prawn cocktail, turkey, mashed potatoes and canberry sauce across the peninsula. It was an incredible logistical feat to get supplies to men stationed in the tumbled-down villages, burnt-out towns and rugged mountains of Northern Korea. This was Thanksgiving 1950.

 

The following day, the big offensive jumped off. MacArthur branded it himself: “Home by Christmas!” he promised the troops. For the first two days, things proceeded according to plan. Units rolled toward the Yalu. Then it started to go very, very wrong.

 

Just 12 miles north of the U.N. front, the CPVA lay in wait. They had not retreated after their “First Offensive.” They had merely pulled back. Their supply situation was so poor that they could only sustain an offensive for a week. Meanwhile, under the noses of the U.N., they had been reinforcing, pouring more and more men across the Yalu. By the time the free world soldiers were enjoying their Thanksgiving banquet, as many as 380,000 CPVA troops had infiltrated Korea.

 

On the night of the 25th, the Chinese launched their counter-attack.

 

Gauntlet at Kunu-ri: epic of Chosin

 

Commanders looked in horror at battle maps. The entire right flank of the 8th Army had ceased to exist. The Chinese had struck the South Korean troops on the right of the line. These — the worst equipped and worst trained of the U.N. forces — were the easiest prey. Their collapse opened up a massive gap. The Turkish Brigade deployed east to cauterize the evisceration. They would win a formidable reputation for their effectiveness with the bayonet, but they too were savagely handled. The brigade lost a fifth of their strength.

 

The U.N. forces were finding themselves outmaneuvered. Channeled on the roads with their trucks, tanks and artillery, they were vulnerable to the Chinese waves attacking cross-country, who could appear at will, it seemed, on their flanks or in their rear. The defeat of the Turks exposed the flank and rear of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division. They had to get out.

 

Retreating from the town of Kunu-ri, they chose to drive south through a pass in the hills, rather than

advancing along the valley ridges. They were trapped in a six-mile ambush, with an entire Chinese division firing into them. Two regiments of the division were shattered in a nightmarish ordeal: “The Gauntlet.”

 

British soldiers holding open their line of withdrawal were appalled. Watching the shattered trucks drive by, men were reminded of Elizabethan sea battles, when blood poured from the scuppers of battered warships. The destruction of the South Korean Corps and the 2nd Infantry precipitated a huge flight. Headlights blazing in clouds of freezing dust, 8th Army drove from North Korea in convoys miles long, desperate to get back to the supposed safety of the South.

 

Kunu-ri was the worst defeat in post-World War II U.S. military history. The retreat from North Korea would be its longest ever.

 

On the eastern flank, in the X Corps area of operations, the U.S. 1st Marine Division found itself cut off 70 miles from the sea, surrounded by eight Chinese divisions in the area of the Chosin (or Changjin) Reservoir — a feature in the highlands of Hamgyeong Province, the coldest area of the peninsula.

But these men were elite troops. Unlike 2nd Infantry, they elected not to drive out, hoping to bounce any ambushes, but to hack their way through their enemies. In an epic struggle, the division concentrated and marched south. The marines cleared the ridges in infantry combat, calling in close air support that dropped so much napalm. They burnt everything in their rear. When the Chinese — in a move worthy of a Hollywood cliffhanger — blew a bridge in their rear that traversed a 1000-foot chasm, they bridged it with materials dropped from the sky.

 

It was a heroic, but harrowing ordeal. The marines made it to the coast, having decimated the Chinese units that had planned to annihilate them, though as many CPVA would die from the killing cold as the marine firepower.

 

Yet overall, the high-tech, weapon-heavy U.N., which had invaded North Korea in October, had been defeated and driven from North Korea by Christmas. It was an astonishing result for a guerrilla army that had no close air support, and few weapons heavier than mortars. The world was amazed. The prestige of China’s peasant soldiers soared. U.N. forces retreated into South Korea. On New Year’s Day, 1951, 267,000 Chinese and North Korean bayonets surged over the 38th parallel, heading for Seoul.

 

By February, the U.N. forces would learn to counter the CPVA, and began grinding back north. But the shock Chinese victory in the terrible winter of 1950 was never quite eradicated. In the mountains of North Korea, the soldiers of Red China proved that they were the “sick men of Asia” no more.

 

And while the last CPVA troops have long left North Korea, China’s historical desire to maintain a buffer state on her northeast flank remains unchanged to this day — a factor that ensures the survival of impoverished North Korea for the indefinite future.

 

Andrew Salmon is the author of “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951” and the upcoming “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: The Commonwealth vs. Communism, Korea 1950.”

 

 

February 5, 2011 at 2:50 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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