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The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter

The Korean War, 1950-1953

Veterans' Day

B. L. Kortegaard

This site brings together in one place a small picture of the infantry weapons and history of the Korean War. But, 50 years removed from when I bounced around in a VP at Inchon, preparing the site has left me numbed at our generally abysmal performance.

Given the huge disparity in artillery, armor, air and naval support, the United States should have crushed North Korea's offensive within the first month of our entry into the war. We should have crushed the Chinese as easily, if necessary.

But then, we should only have crossed the 38th parallel far enough to establish better defensive positions for the South.

No need to use nuclear weapons. No need to start WWIII.

But since the victorious close of WWII our nation's main concern was self-gratification. Our political leaders' main concern was staying in office. Our military leaders' main concern was not upsetting any higher level of command. As one consequence, our nation could not easily provide fighting forces who were adequately armed and psychologically prepared to fight.

In the end, we were saved national humiliation by a small cadre of cynical professionals, and an uneven sprinkling of resolute units and proud individuals. Our capable few who are always prepared.

Against all odds.

Upon reflection, history shows this pattern is one we repeat over and over.

The thing is, I had forgotten all that.

Armed Forces of North and South Korea

Korean War Bibliography

On Sunday, 6/25/50, preceded by a long and intensive barrage of artillery and mortar fire, 90,000 Russian -armed North Korean (NK) troops in seven assault infantry divisions smashed headlong into totally unprepared units of the army of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The Inmun Gun were led by over 150 T34/85 tanks, and closely supported by seventeen hundred 122mm howitzers and SU76 self-propelled 76mm guns. Over 200 Russian-supplied YAK ground-attack aircraft gave them total domination of the skies.

The ROKs had eight divisions, but only four deployed along the 38th parallel, and they only partially. Much worse, they had no air force, only 2.36 inch rocket launchers, no recoilless rifles, no heavy mortars, no medium artillery ... and no armor. The T34s, arguably the best tanks developed in WWII, advanced in a line-ahead formation. After scores of ROKs died under their treads, trying desperately to stop them with satchel charges and hand grenades, the tanks began moving through the survivors as though they weren't there. At the same time, their infantry formations attacked in an inverted Y formation, sweeping around ROK opposition with the arms, encircling them, and finally crushing them.

In two days, Seoul was abandoned to the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th Korean People's Army (KPA) divisions, and the KPA 6th division was moving swiftly down east of the rugged Taebaek mountains. In the first week, more than 34,000 ROKs, a third of their army, were killed, captured, or missing.

Although the ROKs had fought desperately, inflicting severe losses on the assault troops, this did not slow them down. The high cost of success to the KPA (or NK) wasn't apparent to US observers, an intelligence lack with serious consequences later. By the third week, the NK were brushing aside our own unprepared 24th division.

The North Koreans were pros. A third of them fought in the Chinese civil war, and whipped the rest into fighting shape before they crossed the 38th parallel. They wiped out 5 ROK divisions in as many weeks. Had they not paused to re-group, had they simply continued their violent assault until they either won all or lost all, they would probably have captured Pusan and all of South Korea before America had time to marshal enough force to stop them.

But they did pause, shortly after meeting American troops.

In fact, the NK easily won most of their initial battles with us. Truman's Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, had not only virtually disarmed our ground forces, he had forced a change of mind-set for their training, resulting in an army much more prepared to be friendly garrison troops than to fight for their lives against a fearsome and vicious enemy.

The NK simply crushed 24id's 34th Regiment, overwhelming them with numbers, better equipment, and better fighting ability. When this became generally known, the fighting spirit of other US units was sometimes hard to find.

The most serious example was 25id's unreliable all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment. 24th Infantry coined the term "Bug Out" and illustrated it, as around Sangju where 24th units abandoned their machine guns and mortars without being attacked. Exposing the flanks of adjacent regiments without warning offered the enemy access around our front lines, endangering all Eighth Army. At Muchon-ni, when our disciplined, competent 27th Infantry re-captured positions fled by 2/24 they found the battalion's abandoned crew-served weapons still in place.

Even more tragically shameful, when some of our best men in other regiments were wounded, they were abandoned by their comrades to the cruelties of the enemy.

I realize these facts are politically incorrect, and many creative attempts are being made today to discount or deny them. Such revisions of history do injustice to those troops who did stand their ground and fight, and may do harm to those who must stand and fight in the future. In the case of the 24th, when it was finally integrated with other infantry units a year later the issue of race began gradually fading into military history.

Note 1: Not all the 24th ran. Pfc William Thompson of 3/24 Heavy Weapons was one of our few who are always prepared to fight. Although his whole battalion had fled, he manned his machine gun alone until he was killed. (As I write these notes, I wish with all my heart I could go back in time with a BAR, a bandolier of magazines, a box of Mark IIs, and stand with him. He got The Medal, posthumously, but I think he'd rather have had someone take his back).

From the first six months of the Korean War one fundamental lesson was taught our nation yet again, and hopefully by now has been learned. The need to always keep our combat troops well armed, physically and psychologically prepared to fight, and to fight as teams, remains a vital lesson for us today, and forever.

Note 2: True understanding of the concept of "Team" and its vital importance in infantry combat is best gained by study of successful teams in Company or Battalion size. The Marine Brigade and the 27th Infantry Regiment action reports are well worth careful reading between the lines, as are those from elements of 1stMarDiv's later fight-out from Chosin. Although not part of Pusan Perimeter battles, little mentioned at the time but now recognized as a classic example of small unit team coordination in combat is the capture of Maryang San by the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Army.

In addition to isolated individuals, 24id's Task Force Smith, 1/21, had earlier fought well, although heavily outnumbered. First Battalion's gallant delay of two NK assault divisions gave the NK their first inkling that the US was entering the war. Going into Korea on July 1 with 16,000 men, the 24th Infantry Division was down to less than 9000 when they were relieved by the 1st Cavalry Division on July 22. By helping cause the NK to re-group before continuing their onslaught, 24id and their 21st Infantry Regiment bought time to help save South Korea.

Astonishingly, the US and UN used that time to act rapidly and resolutely. Driven by the energetic UN Secretary-General, Norwegian Trygve Lee, unopposed in the Security Council because of the absence of a petulant USSR, and supported by the belated awareness of the Truman administration of the true Soviet intentions, the UN authorized international use of force to drive the NK back to their borders. With this authorization, in spite of the Truman Administration's near-emasculation of our Army and Marine Corps, General MacArthur used the time to assemble powerful infantry and armour forces, and move them into an area around the southern port of Pusan, to form a defensive perimeter. The NK used the time to consolidate their gains and stage to continue the attack.

The NK seriously began an assault on the Pusan perimeter on August 4. For the next 6 weeks, the issue of whether or not we could hold that perimeter, or would be crushed within it, was in doubt.

When they finally crossed the Naktong and began their violent assault along the entire Perimeter, simultaneously, only 98,000 NK were attacking about 180,000 US and ROK troops. We were well equipped, with 600 main battle tanks against only 100 NK T34s, in excellent defensive positions, supported by far superior artillery, and we had overwhelming air superiority. Yet the NK came within a hair of wiping us out.

The fighting during the first two weeks of this Second Battle of the Naktong was some of the most violent during the Korean War, with proportionately heavy casualties. For instance, about August 24, near Masan, 7500 NK with 25 tanks daringly attacked 20,000 US troops with 100 tanks, and almost broke through for what would have been a cataclysmic bloodbath at Pusan.

In part, this early NK success was owing to the Truman administration having reduced our Army from tough professional soldiers to poorly armed civilians in uniform, fit for garrison duty but completely unprepared for the savagery of combat.

In part, it was because the NK were the reverse. Prepared, veteran, resolute and ferocious.

In part, it was because General MacArthur's Intelligence Section grossly underestimated the casualties inflicted on the NK by the ROKs (estimated 31,000 when in reality the NK had taken 58,000 casualties, to about 76,000 ROK casualties). From the outset, NK conscripted South Koreans into their army, giving the appearance of strength, but these forced recruits had not the years of experience at guerilla warfare possessed by the veteran NK, let alone the will to destroy their own country. This lack of correct military intelligence led to a great over-estimation by Far East Command of NK strength, and a lowered confidence in our front line forces.

The NK continued to menace the perimeter in early September. On September 6, they broke through at Yongchon, forcing ROK headquarters to evacuate Taegu. This time, UN forces bent but they didn't break, and on September 7 General Walton Walker finally proclaimed "Our lines will hold".

When the 5th Marines, a proud regiment of our best fighting men, were withdrawn from his command, General Walker became less confident. The Marines had been consistently effective during the Naktong Bulge fighting. They usually had won their battles with the NK while Army units usually had not, and often about half of Army casualties were MIAs while the Marines usually had none.

But by early September the Army had been able to bring in its better trained infantry units from Hawaii and elsewhere, and was steadily improving in overall combat efficiency.

For example the 35th Infantry Regiment, the 'Rock of the Nam', well deserved the Distinguished Unit Citation it won there. Other units such as our 1st Cavalry Division and 27th Infantry Regiment were also fighting with determination and effectiveness. Against our larger numbers, superior artillery and armor, and total air supremacy, although the NK were still confident and ferocious they were no longer nearly good enough to seriously threaten Eighth Army.

Note: Most of the units I mention are ones I culled from military records only because I remember them from those times. There were many more that fought gallantly in defense of the Perimeter, particularly small units and individuals. Unit for unit, Eighth Army was badly out-fought by the veteran NK, but any man who has faced fire and steel for his country and stood his ground deserves respect. More, in bravery and sacrifice many of our individual soldiers equalled the best fighting men of any army, anywhere, any time.

For the Inchon invasion, Army Major General Almond tried to substitute the 32nd Infantry, almost half manned by raw ROK recruits with no amphibious training, for the 5th Marines, but would have had to relieve 1stMarDiv commander General O.P. Smith to push through such an astonishing order. Ultimately, it was decided to let the 5th Marine Regiment mount out with other Marine units at sea, to help formation of the 1st Marine Division and X Corps. On September 15, the 5th led the way when our brilliant General Douglas MacArthur, with statregic prescience and unflinching nerve, sent the 1st Marine and 7th Infantry divisions storming ashore at Inchon, 100 miles behind NK lines, and soon there were no lines.

Finally able to fight in the kind of fluid action they were trained for 1st Cavalry division led a breakout, and the Pusan Perimeter battle was soon over.

The Road to the Yalu had opened.

As with all Communist armies, the NK army had political leadership at all command levels. This leadership reflected the policies of the NK government, as well as Communist ideology. The NK government was, and remains today, brutal and ignorant. The war they began was brutal and merciless.

The UN estimates that 26,000 South Koreans were murdered in the first few months of the war by the invading KPA. Mostly on grounds they had opposed North Korea politically. Over 7,000 civilians, ROKs and US troops were tied up and shot in Taejon alone.

Hundreds of US troops were murdered in this way during the war. One example was Hill 303. Twenty-six mortarmen of H Co. 5th Cav had mistaken advancing NK 3rd division troops for ROKs, and were taken without a fight. Their hands were tied behind their backs with communication wire and cord. Two days later, on August 17 when 5th Cav units moved to retake the area, the NK murdered the helpless prisoners with submachine gun fire.

The NK also often tortured and mutilated prisoners. As particularly gruesome examples, the NK 7th Division tied a few captured 25th Infantry Division prisoners, and cut off their feet before murdering them. They castrated and cut the tongues from still others. These atrocities were most frequently discovered in the confused fighting in the rear areas, while retaking ground which the NK had infiltrated.

There is no public record of the total number of civilians, ROKs, and United Nations forces tortured, mutilated and murdered by the KPA by the war's end.

There is no public record that any of the murderers were identified, much less tried and executed.

Civilians suffered heavy casualties during the actual fighting, as well. From both sides.

At the Naktong, for example, the 1st Cavalry division blew up scores of civilians, along with a bridge destroyed to deny the NK access. In an earlier instance, on 6/28, the ROKs blew up the last 3-lane bridge across the Han, without warning, killing about 800 soldiers and refugees.

In this way began one of the most vicious and most misunderstood wars the United States has ever fought.

Combat Actions in Korea

Battle of Pusan Perimeter

Causes of the Korean Tragedy ... Failure of Leadership, Intelligence and Preparation

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