Korea: The First War We Lost

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Chapter 1: June 25, 1950

On the early morning of June 25, 1950, the army of communist North Korea invaded South Korea, and the world has never been the same since. The attack made real the fear of direct communist aggression against the West, raised in the Russian blockade of Berlin two years before. It appeared to validate the existence of a world-wide communist conspiracy of conquest. This specter of a far-reaching plot, actual or not, ensured that the McCarthy-era witch hunt for Red agents and sympathizers would be supported by many. The panic precipitated Europe to subdue its fear of the German army and allow West Germany to rearm as a Western ally. American response to the attack crystallized the practice of confrontation diplomacy with the communist world in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, and that affected American policy all the way through the Vietnam War years. Korea provided the opportunity for the spectacular zenith and caused the dizzying nadir of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, one of the most brilliant but contradictory leaders in American military history. Korea motivated the American people to undergo a weeks-long examination in Senate committee hearings of what the country should do about the war and communism. Yet by the end of the Korean War, it had become manifest to many Americans, though by no means to all, that the simple verities about total victory and the conflict between good and evil that had guided American policy for many years were inadequate in the dismaying world that arose from World War II.

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The North Korean army’s prime assault troops, 89,000 men in seven divisions and three independent units, attacked south from the 38th parallel boundary in six closely packed columns. They achieved total tactical and strategic surprise. Facing them were four understrength Republic of Korea (ROK) divisions and one regiment, totaling 38,000 men, and not all of them were on the line. Some ROK units were in reserve at various distances below the 38 th. Since no one had predicted the attack, large numbers of South Korean soldiers were away on weekend passes. South Korea’s other four divisions were spread out in various places to the south.

The North Korean numerical superiority was something on the order of five or six to one at the crucial points on the battle line where the North Koreans concentrated their effort. The North Koreans possessed three times as much artillery as the ROKs and nearly all of it outranged the South Korean guns. The North Koreans could shell ROK positions at will while standing well out of range of retaliatory fire.

But superior numbers and guns were not the decisive factors for the North Koreans, because they possessed an ultimate weapon: the tank. It is a bizarre fact, but five years after a world war which proved beyond all doubt the blitzkrieg capability of the tank to break great gaps in enemy defenses, the American-equipped South Koreans possessed nothing to stop a tank—neither a single tank of their own, nor armor-piercing artillery shells, nor combat aircraft, nor antitank land mines.

The North Koreans themselves had only 150 tanks, a ludicrous number compared to the thousands employed on both sides in World War II. But with little to stop them, they formed an omnipotent juggernaut that nullified whatever courage, devotion or tenacity the South Korean troops exhibited. The tanks themselves were Russian-built T34s, big thirty two-ton, heavily armor-plated, low-silhouette monsters that carried high-velocity 85mm guns. It was this tank, then equipped only with a 76mm gun, that was credited by German panzer leader Heinz Guderian with stopping the 1941 drive on Moscow.

The only weapons the South Koreans had which possessed even remote potential for stopping the T34s were American 57mm flat-trajectory antitank guns and 2.36-inch rocket launchers (bazookas). The 57mm guns were obsolescent relics of World War II and could halt the heavily armored T34s only with occasional lucky shots. One of the few partially vulnerable spots was the grating above the engine at the rear. The bazooka shells blew up harmlessly against the sides of the North Korean tanks or bounced off. Only the newly developed and still untested 3.5-inch super bazookas, hurriedly flown to Korea in the early weeks, were effective in some cases, but not all.

The North Koreans obviously knew the ROKs had no effective antitank weapons, because they adopted tactics that under normal conditions of warfare would have invited annihilation: they lined their armor in columns, one tank behind the other, on the narrow eighteen-foot-wide Korean dirt roads and headed south, their infantry strung out behind them.

Even a few antitank mines well placed in roadbeds could have stopped entire columns. Armor-piercing shells from some of the ROKs’ eighty-nine field pieces (short-range 105mm light howitzers M3, used in U.S. infantry cannon companies in World War II) could have destroyed a stalled column of tanks in minutes, as could have jellied gasoline napalm bombs from attack aircraft. But as the ROKs at first had none of these weapons, the North Koreans brazenly drove down the roads in daylight, destroying South Korean emplacements and any troops with the temerity to fire upon them, and opened virtually unopposed paths for the infantry to follow.

The North Koreans adopted their tactics not only because the South Koreans could not counter them, but because Korean terrain encouraged tanks to remain on the roads. About three-fourths of Korea consists of mountains which are difficult or deadly for tanks. Most of the relatively flat land in the summer of 1950 was covered with tiny, wet rice paddies divided by narrow raised walkways and embankments. In many of these paddies armor would have mired, and in nearly all it would have had difficult going. It was this appraisal of Korea’s terrain, plus judgment (largely erroneous, it turned out) that Korea’s one-lane bridges over small streams were too weak to support tanks, that United States military advisors cited in 1949 in denying a South Korean request for tanks. Perhaps the advisors reasoned that the Russians and North Koreans would draw the same conclusion and omit tanks from the North Korean arsenal. More likely, Americans used the terrain as an excuse to turn down the request for tanks because they feared South Korea’s pugnacious president, Syngman Rhee, would use them to attack the North, as he had threatened to do. Though the United States deliberately provided only defensive weapons to South Korea, it is a comment on the peculiarity of American thinking that the advisors failed to include any adequate means of defense against the tank. The first antitank mines were flown into Korea from Japan on June 30, the sixth day of the invasion. By that time the disarray of the ROK army was such that training in mine use and distribution of them took much time. Meanwhile, the T34s rolled on.

The North Koreans were very like their South Korean brethren in many ways. The soldiers of both states were largely of peasant origin, used to hard work, endurance and privation, stoic both in success and in failure, tenacious in what they believed, and largely obedient to their superiors. Koreans on both sides were able to march long and hard on short rations and still fight at the end. They could climb ridgelines and mountains without dropping from exhaustion and overexertion. In this, they were unlike most American soldiers, who were largely garrison troops, used to being carried in motor vehicles, with little physical conditioning and little experience in long marches and climbing mountains.

Although Koreans north and south of the 38th were much alike, their armies were quite dissimilar, for each army reflected the military doctrines of the respective armies which had created them: the Soviet Army and the U.S. Army.

The North Korean army’s overwhelming strength (89,000 men) lay in its seven assault infantry divisions, a tank brigade and two independent infantry regiments. It addition, the army had 23,000 men in three reserve divisions, and about 18,000 were in the Border Constabulary. Only 5,000 men were assigned to command and service units. In comparison, the South Koreans had only 65,000 in their eight understrength combat divisions, while they had 33,000 in headquarters and service troops. The South Korean army reflected the American military establishment: large numbers of support personnel as compared to fighting men. The North Koreans, on the other hand, exhibited perfectly the lean doctrine of the Soviet Army: every man possible was pushed to the front and given a weapon to fire.

The North Koreans had one additional manpower advantage in the short run: about one-third of their army was made up of Koreans who had served in the Chinese Communist forces in China and had been demobilized and returned to Korea about the time the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. These men gave the North Korean army a degree of battle experience and combat hardiness which the South Korean army at the outset largely did not enjoy.

Tactically, the North Koreans repeated time after time one technique which was marvelously effective: they engaged fixed enemy positions with direct frontal attacks or fire, then sent forces around both flanks, if possible, in an envelopment movement designed either to surround the enemy and then squeeze him into a small perimeter to destroy him or force him to surrender, or, if this failed, to cut off his retreat or reinforcements by means of roadblocks in his rear.

This system worked well in the fluid situation which existed during the summer of 1950, when there were no fully manned main lines of resistance extending over many miles which could not be flanked easily. It was especially successful in tactical situations in which the T34 tanks could move directly against enemy positions on the roads, pinning the enemy in place with fire, while North Korean infantry slipped around both sides of the positions to the rear. Even if one of the envelopments did not work, the other often did.

Double-envelopment tactics were natural to North Koreans. Flank envelopments have been basic techniques of war for thousands of years, but some soldiers have more success in carrying them out than others. When they could, the North Koreans followed the model of the greatest of all armies at envelopment, the Mongols of the thirteenth century under Genghis Khan and his successors. The Mongol method of attack was based upon their method of hunting, and Genghis Khan trained his armies by means of a great hunt each winter in peacetime. An army would begin by pressing the game backward, then the flanks of the army would advance ahead of the center, around the game and to the rear, encircling the increasingly terrified animals, then pressing them together from all points of the compass. The training for the Mongol soldiers consisted primarily in teaching them to prevent the escape of even a hare or a deer as the trap was closing. This required an incredible degree of control of all encircling elements. When it worked, practically no animals broke free on their own. For soldiers adept in corralling animals in a great hunt, hunting men became easy.

When envelopment worked for the North Koreans, and it often did, practically no organized units, and often few men, escaped the traps. Fortunately for South Korea, the North Koreans possessed no military genius like Genghis Khan who could expand this limited tactical concept into a far-reaching strategic plan to conquer the South in a single great coordinated campaign.

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