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  • James Houser

November 26, 1950 - The Chinese Counteroffensive at the Yalu

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 26, 1950. The Korean War seems almost over. The American-led UN forces have advanced deep into North Korea and are approaching the Chinese border. General MacArthur is saying they’ll be home by Christmas. But there is a new enemy awaiting them in the mountains. The Allied army will go from the cusp of victory to fighting for its life when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army comes like a chill wind from the north.

It was never guaranteed that the Korean War would be anything but a regional struggle. On June 25, 1950, Kim Il-Sung’s Communist-backed North Korea, armed with Soviet military equipment and trained by Soviet and Chinese officers, launched a blitzkrieg of an attack into South Korea. The western-backed South Korea crumpled almost immediately, and it was evident that the South would shortly be overrun and absorbed if no one came to help them. The United States stepped up to the challenge, and Douglas MacArthur’s occupation force in Japan began to forward troops to the Korean Peninsula.

From the word “go,” it was clear that President Harry Truman was walking a fine line with the Korean War. By committing American, and later Allied, troops to the war he was upping the stakes considerably. It was the United States’ first commitment to a war on the Asian mainland, and by entering the conflict America had turned the Korean War from local issue to global issue. The United States leadership deceived itself, though; it thought that intervention only worked one way. While there were men in Korea and back in Washington who knew differently, who looked north of Korea at the giants of China and the Soviet Union with dread, these worries were dismissed. Why would the Communist powers intervene in Korea?

In September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur pulled off his strategic masterstroke when he landed the X Corps – 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division – at Inchon on the west coast of South Korea. This force recaptured Seoul within a week and turned the tide against the North Korean Army. September 1950 was a disaster for Kim Il-Sung’s veteran force, squeezed between the 8th Army advancing from the south and the X Corps squeezing in from the west. Most of the North Korean Army was shattered in this battle, and the exhilaration of victory led MacArthur to go one step too far. After getting permission from the United Nations and the Pentagon, on October 1, 1950 the Allied forces crossed the 38th Parallel into North Korean territory.

This move transformed the war. No longer were the Allies trying to restore South Korean integrity; now, they were making the conscious choice to invade North Korea and reunify the Korean peninsula under Syngman Rhee’s autocratic government. On October 19, 1950, the Allied armies entered Pyongyang. North Korean resistance had completely collapsed; they had suffered almost 350,000 casualties since June 1950, and only around 25,000 survivors of the invasion army had escaped across the 38th Parallel. The North Korean army had virtually ceased to exist, and nothing now stood between MacArthur’s advancing forces and the Yalu River which marked the border between North Korea and China.

The United States had little understanding of what was going on behind the curtain in China. In fact, the Chinese had been keeping very close tabs on the Korean War since it had begun and their concerns were growing. There’s an element of historical fear to this: the last time a hostile power had controlled the Korean Peninsula (read: Japan), they had launched a destructive invasion of China within a couple of decades. Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party had not been prepared for Kim Il-Sung to jump the gun, and viewed a unified Korean Peninsula under American occupation as an unacceptable security risk.

From the beginning of the Korean War, the Chinese had been sending military intelligence officers to the North Korean headquarters to obtain information and coordinate with the North Koreans. To conceal their intentions, and also due to the poor quality of Chinese roads and bridges, large numbers of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces began to slip north early and quietly. The PLA had been concentrated around Taiwan since the end of the Chinese Civil War, since that Nationalist haven was considered to be the bigger threat, but with the tide turning in the Korean War Mao decided to concentrate the PLA north of the Yalu River. Just in case.

On August 20, 1950, Premier Zhou Enlai – Mao’s partner in government – announced to the UN that China was concerned about Korean intentions and reserved the option to intervene in Korea if necessary. Behind the scenes, the Chinese concentration north of the Yalu continued undetected by American efforts, and the Soviets and Chinese continued to discuss what actions should be taken. Stalin was reluctant to escalate the war further – until October 1, when MacArthur crossed the 38th Parallel. At that point, Stalin sent a formal request to Mao for intervention in Korea, while affirming that Soviet forces would NOT intervene. It would be a Chinese show.

Many Chinese Communist leaders were extremely wary of tangling with the United States for good reason, but Mao and Zhou supported intervention. They appointed Peng Dehuai as the commander of Chinese intervention forces should they be required, while the intervention forces would be called the “People’s Volunteer Army.” (PVA) This would be the polite diplomatic fiction that would accompany the Chinese intervention in Korea. No, of COURSE China wasn’t at war with the United States! Those 300,000 men in Korea with their supply lines stretching into China were just *volunteers*, brave Communist comrades who had gone to help the North Koreans totally on their own.

As Chinese forces gathered, moving only by night and often making 300-mile marches in 19 days, General MacArthur and President Truman met face-to-face for the first time in a conference on Wake Island on October 15. The meeting was testy, as MacArthur had been rude and brusque in some recent communiques to the President. During the meeting, MacArthur discounted any possibility of Chinese intervention in Korea. He believed it would be too little, too late for the Communists, and expected that no more than 125,000 forces had assembled on the Yalu River. MacArthur made statements that implied that he welcomed a showdown with the Chinese, but also expressed assurance that they would not intervene.

Less than four days after MacArthur reassured the President that the Chinese wouldn’t dare intervene in Korea, on October 19, 1950, around 300,000 men of the PVA crossed into Korea totally undetected by American recon planes. The Chinese were in Korea; the only question was how long it would take for the United Nations to wake up to the fact. The answer was too long.

MacArthur had decided to continue his march to the Yalu River despite repeated Chinese diplomatic warnings that they would consider this an aggressive move. The northern portion of North Korea fans out from a narrow peninsula into a broader landmass as it connects with the Asian mainland, but like most of Korea it is also divided by a broad mountain range. MacArthur made the controversial – as it turned out, nearly fatal – decision to divide his army. The 8th Army of General Walton H. Walker would continue up the western coast, advancing from Pyongyang north to the Ch’ongch’on River and then to the Yalu. The X Corps of Edmond Almond, on the other hand, would travel by sea to the east coast port of Wonsan and advance north from there.

Between the two was a giant gap of mountainous and dense terrain, seldom penetrated by patrols and nearly unobservable by air cover. The core issue with this plan was that the UN forces would be divided and unable to assist each other, but MacArthur was willing to take this risk since the war seemed like it was almost over. There was no way, after all, that the Chinese would dare intervene.

These were not just American forces; each command had about as many South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) Army forces attached, along with a number of UN units. French, British, Canadian, Australian and even Turkish units had all arrived in the Korean Peninsula, making it a truly United Nations force. The UN forces advancing north through North Korea now numbered around 125,000 Americans, 85,000 South Koreans, and 20,000 Allied forces for a total of 230,000. The Chinese – whose presence was still unknown to the Allies – outnumbered them considerably with around 350,000 men in Korea. Worst of all, the Allies were completely unaware of the fact that the Chinese were even in the country.

On October 25, the Chinese made their presence known. In what the PVA called the “First Phase Offensive,” the advance units of the UN army were driven back at several points by unexpected and vicious attacks. The ROK (South Korean) II Corps was almost annihilated when it was surrounded at Onjong. The first clash between American and Chinese troops came on November 1, 1950, when the PVA’s 39th Army encircled and nearly destroyed the 8th Cavalry Regiment of 1st Cavalry Division near Unsan. The Chinese drove back the UN forces to the Ch’ongch’on River, alarmed everyone, and then…nothing. The Chinese, just as suddenly as they appeared, had vanished.

The Chinese method of attack, for anyone who was paying attention, had become apparent. The People’s Liberation Army was almost all infantry, highly mobile and masters of camouflage. They would use the terrain to maximum advantage and even massive units could not be found unless they wanted to be found. On the attack, they moved like a flood, always finding the point of least resistance and surging through it. Expert ambushers, tireless marchers, and with highly experienced officers from the Chinese Civil War, the favorite PLA tactic was the rapid encirclement. Identify the hard point, slip around it, and attack it from all sides. And when the battle started to go against them, they would just…leave. Live to fight another day. This was a totally different method of fighting from anything the Americans had ever encountered; it was like fighting an invisible man that would place you in a headlock without warning. Even the superior firepower and air power of the United States forces was hard-pressed to hold back the PLA’s encirclement tactics.

This, right here, was the moment that MacArthur should’ve stepped back and taken stock. It was now undeniable that the Chinese had intervened in Korea. His forces were strung out as they approached the Yalu, with a massive gap of uncleared terrain between the 8th Army and the X Corps. As you may have guessed by now, the Chinese were concealing hundreds of thousands of men in that gap, waiting for the moment to strike. The initial Chinese attack had disappeared as quickly as it had come, and even to this day historians are still unclear about WHY Peng and his PVA drew back after his initial success. One prominent interpretation is that this was a warning shot. The Chinese had warned MacArthur that they would take an approach to the Yalu as a provocation, and the First Phase Offensive had been a slap on the wrist. “This was a warning. Next time…”

But MacArthur chose the dubious interpretation that the Chinese had been defeated and retreated back across the Yalu. He pitched the late October/early November battles as a victory. The sudden “withdrawal” reaffirmed his prior beliefs that he was on the verge of victory. All American generals want their overwhelming victory, a decisive and clear-cut triumph, and MacArthur was not about to let the fear of a “possible” Chinese intervention stop him from reunifying the Korean Peninsula. And if the Chinese did come, he could beat them! “In war, there is no substitute for victory” would be one of MacArthur’s most famous sayings, and he believed it.

Winter had come. Any of my fellow servicemen who have gone to Korea know how brutal the winter can be, and this was in the mountainous northern borderlands. The snowdrifts piled up as American GIs, British Tommies, French fighters and South Korean soldiers advanced to the Yalu. The weather grew bitterly cold, and Jeeps and deuce-and-a-half trucks struggled on the icy, muddy roads. As their breath nearly crystallized in the North Korean mountains, the UN forces comforted themselves that they were on the verge of victory. MacArthur seemed to think so. Just one more push, and the Korean War would be won.

On November 24, MacArthur ordered the “Home By Christmas” offensive to begin. This was to be the last push to the Yalu River, and it aimed at wiping out the last resistance within North Korea. The 8th Army on the west coast advanced with three corps abreast, while the X Corps trekked north from Wonsan near the Chosin Reservoir. The 1st Marine Division, serving as X Corps’ spearhead, advanced over twisting mountain trails. The weather went from cold to deathly as the Americans and their allies advanced into the quiet white void of northern Asia. MacArthur maintained unwarranted confidence, believing that his 230,000 troops comfortably outnumbered the enemy and that they were in full retreat.

Though they didn’t know it, the UN forces were in mortal danger. All the signs were there, but MacArthur’s intelligence services totally dropped the ball and MacArthur himself was full of blind self-assurance. The final army intelligence report estimated PVA resistance at around 54,000 and reported that they were retreating across the Yalu. This figure was off by a factor of eight. There were almost 400,000 Chinese soldiers in Korea, and most of them were in that unobserved gap between 8th Army and X Corps. The north wind was about to descend on MacArthur’s army.

The markers of impending doom were clear. American forces discovered abandoned campsites, fresh footprints in the snow, and evidence of large units moving quickly ahead of them. But these were all assumed to be symbols of retreat. Even though MacArthur and his subordinates, Almond and Walker, expected resistance...they found none. It was quiet, too quiet, as the UN forces trekked toward the Yalu. By the 25th of November, though, a fair amount of resistance had begun to pop up along the Yalu itself, and the UN forces had come to a brief halt before planning to resume the offensive the next morning.

On November 26, 1950, the quiet broke. All along the 68 miles of Eighth Army battlefront, the Chinese launched a massive frontal attack from concealed positions. In the east, Chinese forces boiled out of the central mountains and quickly overwhelmed the South Korean II Corps - again. Surrounded by aggressive, veteran light infantry that exploited every weakness and found every seam, the Koreans crumbled into powder, leaving the flank of the US 2nd Infantry Division and its attached Turkish Brigade wide open to encirclement. Any resistance was bypassed, rather than attacked immediately, and the flood tide of the PVA slipped over and through the Allied line.

Though every American unit (also including the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions along with 1st Cavalry Division) found itself with the flood waters welling up to its waist, the 2nd Infantry Division was in the worst position of all. By the night of November 25, the 9th Infantry Regiment had been pushing into the region of the Ch’ongch’on River against sporadic Chinese resistance. As dawn broke on the 26th, they were suddenly assailed by Chinese troops from almost every side.

The PVA 120th Division blasted into the 9th Regiment on the north bank of the Ch’ongch’on, savaging the American units with bitter fighting. The Chinese would attack from an unexpected direction, advancing suddenly from the woodline with bayonets flashing, war cries resounding from the trees, and bugles tooting their attack calls. The snow of Korea was thick with men, bullets, and the dead and wounded, as the Americans struggled to hunker together. The Chinese encirclement tactics were perfect for cutting off and annihilating scattered units.

The 2nd Infantry Division of General Laurence B. Keiser was soon fighting for its life, reduced to a string of isolated units under constant attack by the Chinese troops. The 38th Infantry Regiment was totally surrounded, its supply lines cut by the PVA’s 119th Division. Chinese recon teams lured units into the open before decimating them with rifle and mortar fire. Sporadic support from American armored vehicles like Sherman and Pershing tanks was hampered by PVA bazooka fire or close-in infantry antitank attacks. The weather was atrocious, with temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit, as the American, Chinese and Korean troops grappled to the death in the frozen, bitter mountains of North Korea.

Though I’m focusing on the 2nd Division, the attacks of November 26 hit every unit in the UN army in a similar fashion. Though very few were actually overwhelmed and destroyed, it was a near-run thing, and the survivors only held on by the skin of their teeth. The destruction of the South Korean II Corps left the American forces of 8th Army not just in danger of defeat, but possible destruction. Though General Walker of 8th Army tried to continue the “Home By Christmas” attack, even ordering a resumption of the offensive on November 27, the commanders on the frontlines were having none of it. All the division commanders along the Ch’ongch’on ordered their units to fall back and regroup. In particular, Keiser’s 2nd Infantry Division was ordered to withdraw to set up a new defensive line at Kunu-ri, 20 miles to the south.

Kunu-ri is a small crossroads village, and was fated to become an infamous name in U.S. Army annals. As the Chinese offensive swelled to bursting against the 8th Army, Kunu-ri became one of the great bottlenecks for the American retreat. Chinese General Peng Dehuai recognized this fact early and planned to eliminate major American units by striking directly at Kunu-ri. He ordered the 38th Corps to move south as fast as possible through the gaps in the American line and take the village, or at the very least prevent an orderly American retreat.

All along the line, the American and Allied forces had to cut their way out through the quick-moving, encircling Chinese forces. Trucks and tanks slipped on the ice, and an irrepressible sense of desperation took hold in the retreating units. Like rabbits caught in a trap, they struggled through the increasing panic and turmoil to escape south. In many cases, the morale and discipline of the bedraggled, weary American draftees simply snapped. No event of this retreat was worse than the 2nd Division’s retreat from Kunu-ri.

With the Turkish Brigade covering their retreat to the east, the 2nd Division managed to evacuate its scattered units to Kunu-ri, but the Turkish Brigade was surrounded and nearly annihilated. Its performance was stellar and the Turks escaped, but by November 29 it had been forced south, away from the 2nd Division’s flank. This left the GIs of the 2nd Infantry Division facing a massive pursuing cloud of Chinese from three directions. The 2nd Division was now the eastern flank of the American line, and that meant they faced all those Chinese troops that had been hiding in the mountains. The 38th Infantry Regiment, surrounded on the 26th, took three days to cut its way south to Kunu-ri after the Turkish Brigade withdrew, but even Kunu-ri was no longer a safe haven. The next ordeal would be worse.

On November 30, as the 2nd Division staggered south, the Chinese flooded into Kunu-ri. Before the 2nd Division lay a narrow mountain path south to the next safe haven at Sunchon, but this road was the new target for the Chinese 38th Corps. They were threatening to sever it from both east and west, and the 2nd Division would have to run a gauntlet of machine gun and rifle fire. The PVA’s 113th Division set up a series of ambushes and interlocking fire positions all along 2nd Division’s only route of escape, and the rabbity panic only made the situation worse.

The 2nd Infantry Division staggered through “The Gauntlet” and in the process nearly disintegrated. It became nearly every man for himself as the narrow trail was littered with burning vehicles, dead men, and Chinese roadblocks as they pelted bullets and mortar shells into the fleeing masses. Wounded men would fight each other to get on an ambulance, or even hold on to the fender of a Jeep as it dragged them down the sodden, muddy road. Nearly six miles of road were being squeezed by the Chinese army, like a bug squeezed beneath a child’s fingers. Unit integrity vanished: artillery pieces were abandoned, wounded soldiers were left moaning and crying in forgotten ambulances, and fragments of battalions streamed out to cut their own way through the frozen woods.

Only the leadership of a few junior officers managed to save the 2nd Division. The road being completely blockaded, individual officers abandoned their vehicles and led their units in breakouts directly through the woods. Colonel Paul L. Freeman of the 23rd Infantry Regiment managed to manhandle his artillery down the road, and fired off almost 2000 shells – the last of his ammunition – directly in the faces of the Chinese troops that tried to follow. Lieutenants, Captains, and Sergeants managed to lead small parties into the hills to clear parts of the roadblock. The majority of the 2nd Division somehow managed to escape the Chinese stranglehold at Kunu-ri, and the last stragglers reached safety at Sunchon on December 1. The British and Canadian soldiers waiting for them at Sunchon managed to fend off the last Chinese attacks, and the Allies had escaped.

To tell all the stories from the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River would take more than this post. At the end of the day, though, the 8th Army managed to escape destruction only through the courage and determination of its junior officers. MacArthur’s arrogance, the failures of Allied intelligence, and the brilliant tactics of the Chinese Army had nearly turned the UN defeat into total disaster. As it was, the thing was bad enough: the 2nd Division in particular suffered almost 4,000 casualties, most of its artillery, and almost all its heavy equipment. It would not be combat effective for almost a month.

With no choice, the UN forces had to retreat south – and south – and south. Soon it seemed like the Chinese were unstoppable, but that’s a story for another time. For just as the 2nd Division was running the gauntlet, the 1st Marine Division was cutting its way out at the Chosin Reservoir. This tale, one of the great epics of American military history, deserves its own post.

Tune in tomorrow for one of the greatest moments in Marine Corps history: the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

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