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The Battle For Seoul

Marble Bar

Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons - USMC (Retired)

Director of Marine Corps History and Museums

Marble Bar

Addressing Amphibious Warfare School
Quantico - Virginia - 15 March 1985

Marble Bar

Thirty-five years ago, I was sitting where you are sitting today. I was a member of what was then called the "Amphibious Warfare School, Junior Course." The student body was made up of first lieutenants, captains, and majors. The Amphibious Warfare School, Senior Course, corresponds to today's Command and Staff College and had lieutentant colonels as students.

On graduation I was ordered to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune. So were a good number of my classmates. I was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines; and as a major, was given command of Weapons Company. The battalion had just come back from the Mediterranean and we were still unpacking expeditionary boxes when, on 25 June, the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel. In short order we moved west on a troop train to Camp Pendleton where we became the 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, with about ten days to build from our half-strength peacetime tables of organization to war-time strength, before sailing from San Diego. Our regimental commander was Colonel "Chesty" Puller. We landed at Inchon on 15 September and that was the first we saw of the 5th Marines which had come up from the Pusan Perimeter. We did not see the 7th Marines until we reached Seoul.

We were successful at Inchon and Seoul - and that success I think can be attributed to the quality of leadership at all levels. From the division commander, Major General Oliver P. Smith, on down, virtually every officer and non-commissioned officer was a World War II veteran. In my company I had corporals who could do a platoon sergeant's job and do it well, and in fact were so soon doing. The Reserves that filled up our ranks at Camp Pendleton were outstanding - indistinguishable from the Regulars.

Also, a great advantage we had was that a remarkable number of the officer's knew each other well even though the Division had come together on the battlefield. A large proportion of the captains and majors had just graduated, as I, from the Junior Course.

I don't know what you have in your syllabus now, but in those days we spent a good deal of time with the fundamentals of tactics and techniques, with many, many map exercises, command post exercises, and field exercises. We knew the school solution and we were ready to apply it.

In an infantry battalion of that time there were three rifle companies - we would soon learn that we needed four rifle companies - a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company. In my weapons company I had a heavy machine gun platoon - the heavy machine gun of the day was the water-cooled .30 caliber Browning, a superb weapon - an 81mm mortar platoon, and an anti-tank-assault platoon. The anti-tank platoon had 3.5-inch rocket launchers - which we just gotten to replace our 2.36-inch launchers - flame throwers, and demolitions. As Weapons Company commander I was also the battalion's Supporting Arms Coordinator. I am a believer in weapons companies and I am a believer in organic supporting arms coordinators.

Now for the Battle for Seoul.

You have heard the broad outlines of the battle. Now I will tell you how it was at the company and battalion level, at least how it was at my company, and my battalion level. Here I want to say, and those of you who have been in combat already know this, that every man has his own war, his own battle. I am speaking today not as a historian but as a participant. A historian can be objective. A participant cannot; he can only be subjective. I will tell you of the battle from my own narrow perspective.

We had landed, as I have said, at Inchon on 15 September. In the advance on Seoul, the 5th Marines were on the left and the 1st Marines on the right. The 5th Marines took Kimpo Airfield on the 17th and crossed the Han River northwest of Seoul on the 20th. They would have three days of hard fighting taking the high ground immediately northwest of Seoul. Meanwhile, the 7th Marines had unloaded at Inchon the afternoon of the 21st and reached Kimpo that evening. The 1st Marines crossed the river on the 24th and the next day, 25 September, both the 1st and 5th regiments went into the city itself. The 7th Marines, in reserve, crossed the river and took up a position behind the 5th Marines. General Almond, the X Corps commander, who on 21 September took personal command of the operations ashore, ordered the U.S. Army's 32d Infantry Regiment, followed by the 17th ROK Regiment, also to cross the Han on 25 September and occupy "South Mountain" to the east of Seoul. The North Korean commander, Major General Wol Ki Chan, had chosen to ignore the occupation of South Mountain and concentrated his forces first on the high ground northwest of Seoul and then on the defense of the city itself. For this he had about 10,000 troops. At the battalion and company level we were only dimly aware of these developments.

Our attack began at 0700 on the 25th. RCT-1, with the 2d KMC Battalion attached, was given a zone of action about a mile wide going right through the center of the city to the high ground to the northeast. The 2d KMC Battalion was to mop up behind us and then revert to its own regimental control. The 5th Marines were to come into the city on our left from the northwest and the 7th Marines, committed to combat for the first time, were to the north and left of the 5th Marines.

The mission assigned the 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, was to advance along the axis of Ma Po Boulevard to seize Duksoo Palace, taking the railroad station en route. To give you an analogy: this was rather like crossing the Anacostia River and moving up Pennsylvania Avenue to capture the Captitol, taking Union Station along the way. And we had to do this in one day. General Almond wanted the city secured by 26 September.

We had heavy going all day. George and How Companies were in the assault, with George on the left and on Ma Po Boulevard itself. Item Company was in reserve. As Weapons Company Commander and Supporting Arms Coordinator I had a most frustrating day as we were operating under a very restrictive fire plan. Damage to the city and civilian casualties were to be held to a minimum; hence, we could not get artillery support, except for directly observed targets and we could not get close air support at all. Our Corsairs had done a superb job from Inchon to Seoul, but air was ruled out of the picture once we got into the city itself.

I want you to visualize Ma Po Boulevard. It was a wide avenue. Seoul, of course, was a much less modern city than it is now. Ma Po Boulevard was a solidly built up street, mostly two and three story structures of stucco or masonry construction, and occasional more impressive buildings - churches, hospitals, and so on - often enclosed with a walled compound. The street itself was interrupted by repeated echelons of barricades. These barricades were made for the most part of large rice straw bags filled with earth. Other reports to the contrary, you didn't blow up these barricades or push them aside. They were much too heavy and inert for that. We had to contend with them in place. Not all of them were defended. Those that were defended had long-barreled Soviet-made anti-tank guns - 45mm if my memory serves me - heavy water-cooled Maxim machine guns - the equivalent of our Brownings - and rather awkward looking anti-tank rifles. There were also plenty of small arms fire and sniping from all sides.

You have heard that we went through the interior walls of the buildings. Perhaps there was some of that but I saw none of it. The house-to-house fighting was chiefly a matter of grenades, M-1 rifles, and BAR automatic fire.

We had the intermittent support of tanks. The battle tank was the M-26 Pershing and our tankers had received them just before the Inchon landing. The tanks were at their best when they were being used as an assault gun. They were in direct support of us rather than attached; therefore, they came and went pretty much as they pleased. Back at the Junior Course we had frequently argued the respective merits of supporting arms assigned - that is, organic - or attached. This was particularly true when our battalion was operating more-or-less independently which was a good part of the time.

By the middle of the afternoon the situation was about as follows:

George Company had reached what the company commander thought was Duksoo Palace, but could not get across a small bridge to get to it.

How Company had reached a railroad station but the company commander was having a hard time convincing anyone he was there because the map would indicate that the railroad station was to the right of George Comapny and he was insisting that he was in front of George Company and that George was calling down artillery fire on him.

Our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Ridge, sent me forward to see if I could straighten things out. I found the George Company commander in a highly agitated state. I also found that he was very wrong in his map reading. he was about a mile short of Duksoo Palace. What was in front of him was something else. We later found out that it was a girl's school. I said "Let's make one more try to get across the bridge." I couldn't get him an artillery preparation, but I promised to give him the best I had with my 81mm mortars which were close behind George Company. We drenched the other side of the bridge with a couple hundred 81 mortar shells, but the attack failed. George Company commander was nearly distraught. He said, "Take my bars, I've had it."

All of this was reported to Colonel Ridge who ordered me to stay with George Company and to organize the defense for the night. I put a road block across the boulevard on our side of the bridge, manning it with two rifle squads, a heavy machine gun section, a rocket squad, and a 75mm recoilless rifle section from the regimental Antitank Company. Our attached engineers put in a field of anti-tank mines on the bridge itself. There was a section of tanks with us and I asked them to stay, but they said they had to go back to re-arm and re-fuel and they would see us in the morning.

There was a sizable hill to the left rear of the road block with a house on it. George Company set up its command post in the cellar of the house. I established the battalion observation post - that is to say, my radio operator, my runner, and myself immediately in front of the house. Behind me was a set of steps that led down into the cellar. Item Company was on the high ground on the right of the battalion sector and How Company, which had become disorganized during the day, was to fill in the center of our position. The battalion CP was about a half mile to the rear in a brick-walled compound.

My communications consisted of the normal radio nets - we were then using the SCR-300 - and wire from the OP back to the battalion switchboard and also direct lines from the OP to the 81mm mortar battery position which was about 150 yards to the rear of the road block.

At about midnight Colonel Ridge ordered me to send out a patrol to make contact with a similar patrol which was being sent out by 5th Marines. I could hear heavy firing to my left front and it was obvious that the 5th Marines were heavily engaged. I doubted if a patrol could get to them. I was told to send out the patrol anyway. I formed up a patrol, under a Corporal Collins, of eight Marines from George Company, three young Koreans who had joined us, and a Marine from Weapons Company to guide them through the minefield we had laid on the bridge. I felt I was kissing them goodbye.

The patrol got off at about twelve-forty-five. Almost immediately I received another call from battalion. We were to jump off in a night attack at 0130. I argued the point. A night attack? Without reconnaissance or a rehearsal? What were our objectives?

Unknown to me, Colonel Ridge had already made these same arguments to Colonel Puller who had already made them to General Smith who had already made them to General Almond, but General Almond was adament. In late evening an aerial reconnaissance report had told him that the enemy was streaming northward out of the city. At 2009 he had sent the following message to General Smith:

"You will push attack now to the limit of your objectives in order to insure maximum destruction of enemy forces. [Signed] Almond."

I was told that the attack would be preceded by an intensive 15-minute artillery preparation. About this time I heard a fire fight to my front and I knew my patrol had been intercepted. Several members of the patrol filtered back across the bridge reporting that they had been ambushed,

I was sitting in the open, getting ready for the jump-off, when I heard the sound of armor clanking down Ma Po Boulevard. I flashed a mechanized warning over the tactical net and then reached for my hotline to the road block. As I did so the lead tank fired its first round. These were Soviet-made T-34s with 85mm guns. That first round cracked behind me as I dived for the cellar steps. My radio operator did not follow me. That first round had gone right through him. Like for us, it was apparently SOP for the North Korean tankers to have an armor-piercing round in their tank chamber. If it had been high-explosive shell rather than AP I would have been dead.

I asked that the artillery preparation which had gotten ready for our attack be fired and in minutes it came thundering down on the enemy column.

A short while later a sergeant telephoned me from the road block that they had knocked out the lead tank with a combination of 75mm recoilless, 3.5-inch rocket, and heavy machine gun fire. The lieutenant in charge of the road block was wounded and he, Sergeant Caldwell, had taken over.

At about 0230 enemy small arms reached a crescendo and I began hearing the distinctive brrrp brrrp of their sub-machine guns signalizing the beginning of their assault. I estimated that we were being attacked by at least a battalion supported by 10 to 12 tanks. All this time our artillery had continued to fire. I asked that they shorten their range to the minimum that would clear the mask of high ground we were occupying. The 81mm mortars were already firing at minimum range. This high-angle fire plus heavy fire from George Company and my heavy machine guns broke up the assault.

At about 0315 the artillery liaison officer telephoned me that they would have to cease barrage fire or the tubes of their guns would burn out. As soon as the artillery stopped firing, the tanks started moving again. In the light of the burning buildings I could see three of them clearly, rolling forward on Ma Po Boulevard about 500 yards to my front. I asked for renewed artillery fire. While waiting for it, I engaged the tanks with two of my heavy machine guns. I could see my tracers whanging off the face plates of the tanks. This momentarily silenced the tanks. I asked for and was given the fires of a 155mm battery. I adjusted the fires on the tanks and asked that the guns be held on target for a repeat if necessary. The 155mm fire crippled the tanks, apparently making them immobile, but they continued to fire. Luckily for us they were shooting high and the rounds were going over our heads.

I was worried over what would happen when daylight came and they could see to adjust their shooting. I also wondered if they could get together for another infantry assault. I called battalion and asked them to find out what time would be first light. The answer that came back was, as I remember, 0526. I called down to the road block and asked that a 75mm recoilless rifle be sent up to me on the hill. By this time only one enemy gun was still firing at us. Afterward I learned that it was a self-propelled 76mm gun, a near-twin to the T-34 tank. I pointed it out to the recoilless rifle gunner and told him to shoot as soon as there was enough light to get a clear sight picture. I told him he would get only one chance. He did as he was told and we got the gun. However, we were so intent on getting off that round we forgot about the back blast of the recoilless rifle. It bounced of the mud-and-wattle side of the house behind us and knocked us head-over-heals. We thought it very funny at the time. And that is how the night ended.

Throughout the night, First Sergeant Rocco Zullo of George Company had been a paragon of leadership, striding up and down the line ensuring that his riflemen stayed in action. I was also tremendously proud of my machine gunners. I had ten heavy machine guns on the line and during the night they fired 120 boxes - that is to say 30,000 rounds - of ammunition. Four of those guns were with me on the hill and they fired 80 boxes - 20,000 - of those rounds. But not all men, not even all Marines, are brave in combat. As daylight came, many of the bodies huddled in the foxholes that I thought dead popped up out of their holes like so many prairie dogs.

Four battalions of artillery had fired for us and I was told we emptied out all the shells of their on-postion reserves as well as an Army supply point.

In the full flush of morning I was ordered to send out a patrol to ascertain the damge we had done and what still remained in front of us. A section of Marine tanks came rumbling up from the rear. I formed a tank-infantry patrol with the tanks and a half-strength platoon. Our engineers went out on the bridge to pick up the unexploded mines. They found them all except, as it turned out, one. The patrol went forward and - you guessed it - one of the tanks hit the missing mine. The rifle platoon took something like 19 casualties, almost as many as the whole night's fighting cost us.

When we got through counting we put the score at seven tanks, two self-propelled guns, and eight anti-tank guns. We also swept up 83 prisoners. I put the enemy dead at about 250; someone else higher up raised the figure to 475 to 500.

That was the end of the heavy fighting in Seoul. The city was declared secure on 27 September, and three days later, as you have heard, President Syngman Rhee and General Douglas MacArthur made a triumphal re-entry into the capital.

Marines would not again be engaged in serious urban combat until the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the Battle for Hue. Coincidentally, the Marines in the Battle for Hue would again be battalions from the 1st and 5th Regiments. There are similarities and there are differences in the two battles. I think it would be very instructive if you were to have a panel of battalion commanders and company commanders from these two battles discuss them with you. Such battalion and company commanders are available in the Washington area.

Marble Bar

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