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  • James Houser

September 10, 1950 - The Inchon Landing

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 10, 1950. The North Koreans have invaded the South and driven United Nations forces into a tiny perimeter on the southeast coast. To break the bloody stalemate, UN Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur has launched a desperate, risky gamble to land an amphibious assault force at Inchon. What follows will turn the tide of the Korean War, be MacArthur’s greatest triumph – and sow the seeds of his fall from grace.


On June 25, I described the beginning of and reasons for the Korean War. I will post that link here: (COPY LINK). If you already know what the Korean War was, on with the show.


The Communist-supported North Korea, under Kim Il-Sung (the grandfather of Kim Jong-Un) had led a crushing attack deep into American-supported South Korea starting on June 25, 1950. Spearheaded by a brigade of Soviet-provided T-34/85 tanks, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) quickly overran most of South Korea’s forces and seized Seoul. If no one else had gotten involved, it would have been all over in a month, and Kim Il-Sung’s government would have reunified the peninsula under his North Korean government.


The United States getting involved in Korea was not a foregone conclusion in 1950. The United States military was completely, totally, in every way not ready for such a commitment, and even then, most of its troops were still deployed in Western Europe to face off a possible Soviet invasion. The Cold War had just begun, and America had placed its reliance and security on nuclear weapons. The only forces immediately at hand to resist the North Koreans were four understrength, poorly trained infantry divisions doing lax occupation duty in Japan.


When South Korea’s president Syngman Rhee appealed to the United States for help, though, Harry Truman was surprisingly inclined to take action. Even though the United States had purposely avoided making any commitment to defend South Korea, Truman believed that Communist aggression had to be checked somewhere. The recent collapse of China to Mao’s Reds in 1949 had been a body blow to American ideas of world order, and now it looked like the problem was only spreading.


This fear of a “chain reaction” of Communist invasions and the need for “containment” to prevent their spread – a policy later known as the “Truman Doctrine” - proved the deciding factor. When American diplomats reported on June 27 that the Soviet Union was not interested in intervening in Korea, Truman made the fatal decision. With the backing of the United Nations, Truman ordered US naval and air forces to begin openly assisting South Korea. By July 1, six days after Kim’s attack, the first US troops arrived in South Korea at Busan…


…and they got rolled. The story of Task Force Smith, the initial commitment of American forces to defend South Korea, has become legendary. A detachment of less than 600 American GIs, poorly equipped and trained, and with few antitank weapons, made contact with the enemy north of Osan on July 5. They were overrun with shocking, almost insulting speed, with the KPA tanks just crashing through their lines and continuing on their merry way. Soon Task Force Smith was slammed by infantry and artillery as well, and retreated in disorder and panic, losing almost 40% of its strength in the process.


The humiliation didn’t end there. American units continued to arrive on the peninsula in dribs and drabs, too small to provide any real resistance but too large to be ignored. The 24th Infantry Division suffered heavily in a running fight near Taejon throughout mid-July, which resulted in its units being chopped up. Its commander, Major General William F. Dean, was captured after knocking out a T-34 himself with a bazooka. If my research is correct, Dean was the last U.S. Army general to have been made a POW.


The first weeks of the Korean War were, in short, a humiliating experience for an American military that was supposed to be the world’s dominant power. The battles around Taejon, though, did manage to stave off the KPA’s advance long enough for more American troops to arrive. These forces, along with the remaining South Korean units, established a defensive line around the key port of Busan, in the southeast corner of Korea. As the North Koreans crowded around them, there seemed to be a very real danger that the UN forces would be thrown into the sea – and the United States Navy might not be able to pull off a Dunkirk.


Throughout August and into September, the Battles of the Busan Perimeter would consume American attention and resources. The 2nd and 25th Infantry Divisions, and the 1st Cavalry Division, had arrived to shore up the lines, but even with four American divisions in the fight the North Koreans drove a hard bargain. The bitter battles along the Naktong River saw Americans, South Koreans, and arriving Englishmen fight tooth and nail to hold their shrinking toehold on the Asian mainland. I’m not exaggerating this fight: it was some of the toughest combat American soldiers have ever participated in. Against ferocious North Korean attacks, the Allies held – but for how much longer?


Over in Japan, one man had that question on his mind. The hero of two World Wars, controversial political figure, former Chief of Staff, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur had been given the title of United Nations Supreme Commander when the war broke out. From his headquarters in Tokyo, he had overseen the struggle in Korea – though he had not visited the mainland even once. His intervention, however, had probably saved South Korea; American air attacks were tearing North Korean supply lines apart, and even if American forces had arrived in packets, those packets had proven enough to slow down Kim Il-Sung’s advance. But what to do next?


I’ve talked about MacArthur before, particularly my personal distaste for him, but he was a complex man of many good and bad qualities and a towering paradox of a human being. It is true that MacArthur was colossally vain, ambitious, and flamboyant, a shameless self-promoter. He was important and supremely aware of it, could not acknowledge errors, and deflected blame to others; he was a high-strung, easily offended, baffling, exasperating, somewhat ridiculous man who rubbed many the wrong way. At the same time, he was brilliant, charming, iron-willed, bold, and extraordinarily brave. Even if he became a paragon of American conservatism, the Constitution he gave Japan was breathtakingly liberal, even more than the U.S. Constitution. As a general, his undeniable successes were marred by sharp failures – usually brought on by his own arrogance and overconfidence.


But we’re not harping on the failures today. Instead, we’re going to talk about what was possibly his finest hour.


MacArthur was determined to break the deadlock at Busan. He had thundered and raged at Washington, but only received a few more divisions as reinforcement. Most of the U.S. Army was still needed for the defense of Europe, since Truman and his administration suspected a Soviet move there if they pulled troops out. MacArthur was given a few units, but no more. He would have to do a lot with a little, and the units he had were barely holding the Busan Perimeter as it stood. Packing more units into that tiny pocket would not do a lot of good.


Instead, MacArthur proposed a sweeping amphibious assault. He had gained a great deal of experience in planning off-the-cuff seaborne invasions during the Pacific War against Japan, and was convinced that this could break the stalemate. Rather than push more troops into Busan, MacArthur decided to swing all the way around the Korean Peninsula and land at the port city of Inchon, on Korea’s west coast just west of Seoul. This landing would place U.S. forces in the rear of the North Korean army and in prime position to cut Kim Il-Sung’s supply line, isolating the Communist army that was battering away at the Busan Perimeter to the south.


Getting behind the enemy is always a good tactic, but what made MacArthur’s plan so risky was not the concept but the location. Inchon is the antithesis of a good landing spot for an amphibious assault. The tidal range is 37 feet, one of the largest in the world and certainly the largest in Asia, meaning that ships that came into Inchon harbor at high tide would be virtually stranded in the mud come low tide. Thus, an invasion had to be quick. Troops needed to be off the ships with all their equipment within a short window, and it would be 12 hours before another landing could be made. This meant that the initial invasion force would be limited, and no rapid reinforcement or quick withdrawal would be an option. If the invasion force ran into trouble, it would be doomed.


It took all of MacArthur’s cajoling, bellowing, and persuasion to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff to agree. The best the naval staff could say for the plan was that it was “not impossible,” but instead of taking this as a warning, MacArthur seemed to take it as a challenge. Despite their pleas to land anywhere else, MacArthur perceived – correctly – that this was the most decisive move he could make, and anything else was likely to just create a new isolated perimeter. MacArthur was going to go for the jugular, and he finally secured the reluctant consent of his superiors to do so.


MacArthur cobbled together a ramshackle invasion force consisting of the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division (both understrength), grouping them under the command of Edward M. Almond’s X Corps. They arrived in such poor condition that elements of other units had to be drained from Busan to beef them up. Transported by the Navy’s Joint Task Force 7, the ragtag American force set out for Inchon, with Douglas MacArthur himself on board to supervise the riskiest amphibious assault in American history. The official start date for Operation Chromite was September 10, 1950.


The invaders faced two major challenges *in addition to the tides* at Inchon – both of which had sent the Chiefs of Staff into anxious fits when MacArthur had described his plan. The first was the fortified island of Wolmido, which dominates the outer rim of Inchon harbor. American planes had been pounding it since September 10, but it was still heavily fortified by North Korean soldiers and would inflict terrible flanking fire on any attacking force. To take the island first, though, meant waiting 12 hours before launching the next attack – which would give the defenders at Inchon precious time to prepare for the attack.


The next problem was attacking Inchon itself: the city was protected by a seawall. Combined with the tides, this meant that any attacking force would have to climb directly from the ships over the wall, exposing themselves immediately to enemy fire. There were no Normandy beaches: the Normandy beaches would be a relative godsend compared to the issues of landing at Inchon. There was no real solution to either of these issues; they were just some of the many risks MacArthur ran by landing at Inchon.


The Marines landed on Wolmido on the morning of September 15, 1950, after five days of bombardment. The Air Force had been pummeling the island with napalm and pinpoint airstrikes, and the Navy had followed up with their own plastering of the fortress island. The assaulting Marines secured the island surprisingly quickly, mopping up all defenders within a few hours at the cost of 20 wounded Marines. As they finished up the fight, the tide receded, and everyone held their breath for the next assault.


The second landings came in two prongs in the evening of September 15. To the north, the 5th Marines and a battalion of South Korean marines came crashing into the sea wall. Under heavy mortar and machine gun fire from the KPA positions, they used ladders to scramble up and over the edifice. Farther south, Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Marines formed the second prong, and began to fight their way into the suburbs of Yongdungpo. The invasion was fraught with peril; many ships from both forces were pulled by the current into the harbor, where they disembarked directly inside the city. Tanks and heavy equipment landed under galling fire. Supplies were short everywhere, and the landing forces were completely exposed.


It should not have worked. But it did. The air and sea bombardment, as well as the aggressiveness of the landing forces, made the KPA resistance brief. Within an hour and a half of the first landing, the Marines had seized the high ground at Cemetery Hill, and by morning of September 16 the two prongs had linked up. Within 24 hours of the Inchon landing, the bridgehead was secure and the city was under their control. X Corps quickly secured its objectives around Inchon, and within days was hammering at the gates of Seoul itself.


The Inchon assault cost 20 men killed and 200 wounded. Regarded as next to impossible by everyone from the men who carried it out to the men in Washington, only one man had believed in it – Douglas MacArthur. In fact, the North Koreans had regarded it as impossible as well – which was why they only had about 1,000 men in Inchon when the attack occurred, a fact that MacArthur correctly guessed. Say whatever else you want about MacArthur, and I have said plenty, but the success of the Battle of Inchon was due almost completely to his determination, intuition and moral courage. (And not a little arrogance.)


The Inchon landing was timed to coincide with a second attack: on September 16, the day after the great landing at Inchon, September 16, the UN forces down in Pusan began their breakout from the perimeter. Within a few days they were driving the North Koreans back everywhere, forming the hammer that drove the Communists onto the anvil of X Corps in their rear. After days of tough fighting, the X Corps secured Seoul on September 25, and within two weeks, they had driven completely across the peninsula. Cut off from their bases in the north and assaulted from two sides, the KPA was virtually destroyed. Remnants struggled north, slipping by American forces, or fled into the mountainous interior of South Korea. By September 29, South Korea was fully recovered from Communist occupation.


It was a magnificent triumph: from being on the verge of total defeat a month beforehand, the Americans and South Koreans had destroyed their foes and won a glorious triumph. MacArthur, basking in glory, was riding high – especially on September 30. That day, he got an eyes-only message from the Truman Administration: “We want you to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th Parallel.” This was a sea change in American policy: instead of just liberating South Korea, MacArthur now had a blank check to drive north and reunite the Koreas. He leapt at the opportunity, and on October 1 began to follow the shattered North Koreans across the 38th Parallel.


In MacArthur’s greatest victory, though, were the seeds of his destruction – for on September 29, the Chinese had warned that they were prepared to intervene if the United States crossed the 38th Parallel. MacArthur discounted the notion. He guaranteed President Truman that the Chinese would not interfere, and he seems to have believed it. As American soldiers and Marines advanced north, they were promised they would be home by Christmas; the war was almost won. They spread out as they advanced deeper into North Korea, growing careless and lax, unaware of the storm that was about to break upon them.


MacArthur was a dramatic character, and the Korean War was about to be the culmination of his Shakespeare-level tragedy. For the Chinese were coming. MacArthur, who had just done the impossible when everyone told him he couldn’t, failed to see the warnings that stared him in the face as the snow began to fall across the mountains of Korea.


The fortunes of war would turn once again when the dragon came from the north.


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