Key point: Stopping the Spring offensive was one important step in a much longer political battle.
By mid-April 1951, the war in Korea was nearly 10 months old. United Nations forces had suffered a reversal of fortunes in late 1950 with the entry of Communist China into the war, losing the South Korean capital of Seoul but later regaining it. Now the U.S. Eighth Army, a multinational force that was dominated by American leadership and troops, found itself engaged in limited offensive operations near the 38th Parallel in the wake of General Douglas MacArthur’s removal by President Harry Truman as U.N. Supreme Commander and U.S. commander in chief in the Far East. The new supreme commander, based in Tokyo, was General Matthew B. Ridgway, who had led Eighth Army out of the dark period following its collapse the previous December. Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet was named the new commander of the Eighth Army and took charge on April 14. Facing the UN forces in Korea were some 700,000 Communist troops, with an additional 750,000 available in Manchuria. Against this, Van Fleet fielded 230,000 men on the front line and 190,000 more in reserve.
Ridgway’s strategy was to eschew taking or holding of ground for its own sake in favor of killing as many enemy troops as possible. Korea was evolving into a war of attrition, and the Truman administration wanted a negotiated settlement. Maoist strategy disapproved of attritional warfare, promoting instead the concept of annihilation. Ridgway and Van Fleet both knew the Chinese were preparing a major offensive designed to drive Eighth Army completely off the Korean Peninsula. No negotiations would be possible until the Communists were convinced through a decisive battlefield defeat that annihilating U.N. forces in Korea was no longer a realistic possibility.
A massive attack by the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) and North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) was in fact long overdue. Their offensive had been delayed a number of weeks because, in part, of a secret CIA operation that intercepted a much-needed shipment of medical supplies and personnel bound for a Communist-held port. Supply in general had become a major problem for the Communist armies in Korea, as the weight of the UN aerial interdiction campaign was making itself felt. Meanwhile, the Eighth Army had stockpiled critical supplies, especially ammunition and fuel, in anticipation of the enemy offensive.
Ridgway and Van Fleet differed over the value of retaining Seoul in the face of an onrushing enemy force. Ridgway believed that the capital had no real military value and that the major stand, if necessary, should be made south of the natural barrier of the Han River. But Van Fleet thought that holding Seoul had immense psychological and political implications. To lose the city once again to the Communists would be unacceptable, if it could possibly be prevented. Van Fleet eventually was able to convince Ridgway. During the enemy offensive, an all-out effort would be made to save the capital.
The Spring Offensive
The Chinese were anxious to launch their attack. The commander in Korea, Marshal Peng Dehuai, wanted to act before U.N. forces could attempt a major amphibious landing behind Communist lines in North Korea. On April 14, Mao approved Peng’s plan for what became known as the Fifth Phase Offensive. Peng’s specific goal was to destroy five U.N. divisions and recapture Seoul as a May Day present for Stalin and Mao. Mao himself was looking for a clear-cut victory. After weeks of being on the strategic defensive, he wrote: “It is necessary for the contestants to have a decisive engagement. And only a decisive engagement can settle the question as to who wins and who is defeated.” The spring offensive would prove to be decisive, but not in the way that Mao intended.
On April 22, the Eighth Army was still attacking toward the main Chinese logistical center of the Iron Triangle in central Korea above the 38th Parallel. I Corps was on the left, with positions anchored along the Imjin River north of Seoul and farther east to the north of Line Kansas. Also north of Line Kansas were the two divisions of IX Corps, which occupied positions to the right of I Corps at the western edge of the Hwachon Reservoir. East of IX Corps was X Corps, which was arrayed near Line Kansas. Still farther to the east were two Republic of Korea (ROK) corps operating slightly above Line Kansas and extending all the way to the Sea of Japan north of the coastal town of Yangyang. There were six American divisions on the front line.
Signs of an impending enemy attack were mounting by the late afternoon of the 22nd. Aerial reconnaissance spotted large numbers of Chinese troops moving southward toward the advancing Eighth Army. Interrogation of prisoners had yielded information that a major offensive was imminent. In order to conceal their movements and hinder UN air attacks, the Communists had set fire to a large amount of scrub near the front line and were also using smoke generators to establish a gray haze over the battlefield. As late as the evening of April 21, the Eighth Army’s G-2 (intelligence officer), Lt. Col. James C. Tarkenton, still had been unsure of the nearness of the enemy offensive, but by 1900 hours on the 22nd, the U.S. 24th Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. Blackshear M. Bryan, was certain enough that he notified I Corps headquarters that he expected to be attacked at 2100 that night. “I think this what we have been waiting for,” he stated. His prediction proved generally accurate, but the ROK 6th Division in the IX Corps sector to Bryan’s right was the first to be hit by the Chinese assault. The Communists had chosen a night with a full moon to launch their new offensive.
A Disgraceful Rout
The weight of the onslaught fell on the western half of the Eighth Army front, against I and IX Corps. Auxiliary attacks were made on the flanks of the main assault and also east of the Hwachon Reservoir. The ROK 6th Division cracked immediately. From positions north of Route 3A, the South Koreans fled in panic south, east, and west, exposing the right flank of the 24th Division and the left flank of the U.S. 1st Marine Division and leaving several supporting artillery units uncovered against infantry attack. IX Corps commander Maj. Gen. William M. Hoge, in an after-battle report to Ridgway, stated: “The rout and dissolution of the [ROK] regiments was entirely uncalled for and disgraceful in all aspects. The fact that all units in the division from squads to regiments withdrew in disorganized confusion without offering resistance, and that weapons and equipment were abandoned to the enemy, indicated a lack of leadership and control of all grades of officers and noncommissioned officers.”
The 6th Division’s collapse meant that other units in the vicinity would have to move quickly to prevent the Chinese from infiltrating deep behind their lines. Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, immediately ordered forward a battalion of the 1st Marines to tie in with the 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion and shore up the Marines’ left flank. The Communist 120th Division failed to penetrate the Marine positions west of Hwachon, but Hoge nevertheless ordered the Marines to pull back to the Pukhan River and establish a new line anchored near the Hwachon Dam and swinging southwest to link up with the ROK 6th Division on Line Kansas. The ROK troops were reorganizing some three miles south of Line Kansas but failed to move into position as ordered by Hoge. As a stopgap measure, in mid-afternoon of the 23rd, Hoge ordered the 27th Commonwealth Brigade to block the Kapyong River Valley behind the ROK troops to prevent the Chinese from moving unimpeded down the valley and cutting Route 17 at Kapyong town. Brig. Gen. B.A. Burke’s forces occupied hills on both sides of the river, four miles north of the town.
The block was established by the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment on the right, and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on the left. These troops were supported by several U.S. units, including Company A, 72nd Tank Battalion. By 2200 hours on April 23, the ROKs in front of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade had disintegrated and the Chinese 118th Division was in contact with the Australians. During the night and the following day, bitter fighting took place on Hill 504, with the Chinese losing heavily but continuing to press the attack against the Australians, who were well supported by artillery and the U.S. tanks. By late afternoon of the 24th, the Australians were ordered to withdraw, taking up new positions near brigade headquarters at Chongchon-ni. The Canadian battalion on Hill 677 west of the river was attacked heavily on both flanks shortly after midnight on April 24-25. The U.S. tankers came to the Canadians’ assistance early on the 25th, and by 1630 on that day the enemy had withdrawn. The 27th Commonwealth Brigade had successfully prevented a breakthrough in the critical Kapyong sector, allowing the 24th Division time to pull back to better defensive positions.