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Inchon: How General Douglas MacArthur Surprised North Korea (And Changed History)

Inchon: How General Douglas MacArthur Surprised North Korea (And Changed History)

How the tide was turned during the Korean War.

A City With Every Conceivable Handicap

And then there came the icing on the cake. “Beyond all this,” MacArthur recalled, “the Navy summed up [that] the assault landings would have to be made right in the heart of the city itself, where every structure provided a potential strong point of enemy resistance. Reviewing the Navy’s presentation, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Sherman concluded by saying, ‘If every possible geographical and naval handicap were listed—Inchon has ’em all!’”

Army Chief of Staff General Joseph Collins believed that, even if the landings were a success, MacArthur would not be able to retake Seoul, and might even suffer a complete defeat at the hands of the NKPA in the embattled capital’s suburbs. The specter of an Asian Dunkirk thus loomed, with MacArthur in no doubt that he must first defend Japan, and only then Korea.

And what about the Japanese Home Islands? Might they not be attacked by their traditional enemy, the Russian bear, while MacArthur was tied down in Korea? And what, too, of the Red Chinese? Might they not also sweep down from the north and crush the X Corps like a paper cup and then go on to do the same to the 8th Army in the Pusan Perimeter? The risks that MacArthur was running were enormous.

The Impossible Serves To Surprise

Now it was MacArthur’s turn to answer his critics at the Dai Ichi military summit conference. “The bulk of the Reds,” he recalled saying, “are committed around Walker’s defense perimeter. The enemy, I am convinced, has failed to prepare Inchon properly for defense. The very arguments you have made as to the impracticabilities involved will tend to ensure for me the element of surprise, for the enemy commander will reason that no one would be so brash as to make such an attempt.

“Surprise is the most vital element for success in war. As an example, the Marquis de Montcalm believed in 1759 that it was impossible for an armed force to scale the precipitous river banks south of the then walled city of Quebec, and therefore concentrated his formidable defenses along the more vulnerable banks north of the city. But Gen. James Wolfe and a small force did, indeed, come up the St. Lawrence River and scale those heights.

“On the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe won a stunning victory that was made possible almost entirely by surprise. Thus, he captured Quebec and in effect ended the French and Indian War. Like Montcalm, the North Koreans would regard an Inchon landing as impossible. Like Wolfe, I could take them by surprise.”

MacArthur Makes a Convincing Case

 

Turning to the assembled sailors, he intoned, “The Navy’s objections as to tides, hydrography, terrain and physical handicaps are indeed substantial and pertinent, but they are not insuperable. My confidence in the Navy is complete, and in fact I seem to have more confidence in the Navy than the Navy has in itself! The Navy’s rich experience in staging the numerous amphibious landings under my command in the Pacific during the late war, frequently under somewhat similar difficulties, leaves me with little doubt on that score.”

Gen. Collins had proposed another landing at the west coast port of Kunsan instead, thus canceling MacArthur’s prized Inchon plan, but the latter was having none of it: “It would be largely ineffective and indecisive … an attempted envelopment that would not envelop. It would not sever or destroy the enemy’s supply lines or distribution center.… Better no flank movement than one such as this!”

 

After his conclusion, Admiral Sherman rose and said, “Thank you. A great voice in a great cause.” As for the dangers of going up Flying Fish Channel, Admiral Sherman snorted, “I wouldn’t hesitate to take a ship up there!” leading MacArthur to exclaim, “Spoken like a Farragut!”

A 45,000-To-One Shot

When MacArthur had earlier stated, “If we find we can’t make it, we will withdraw,” Admiral James T. Doyle retorted, “No, General, we don’t know how to do that. Once we start ashore, we’ll keep going.” Later, Admiral Doyle would recall the overall scene thus: “If MacArthur had gone on the stage, you never would have heard of John Barrymore!”

In his final remarks, MacArthur was even more firm: “We must strike hard and deep! For a five-dollar ante, I have an opportunity to win $50,000, and that is what I am going to do.” Indeed, almost no one except those on MacArthur’s immediate staff liked or backed the plan. General Ridgeway called it a 45,000-to-one shot.

Only three dates were possible for the attempted landing because of the moon: September 15, October 11, and November 3; characteristically, MacArthur chose the first, even though when President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Operation Chromite, there were only a mere 17 days to D-Day. Yet another problem was security—or the total lack of it—as South Korean President Syngman Rhee, General Walker, the American news media (which kept silent at MacArthur’s request), and even Red spies in Japan all knew of it and, later, an NKPA officer correctly predicted the landing in an official dispatch that was found after the battle.

Troops Are Called In To Mount Up

Like Tsarist Marshal Mikhail Kutusov in Russia against the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, MacArthur’s basic strategy in these weeks was to buy time with space (the shrinking Pusan Perimenter) so as to build up his independent strike force and then smash the enemy in the rear at the time and place of his choosing, just as he had against the then-victorious Japanese Army in New Guinea in 1942.

To facilitate this, there was an unheard-of mobilization of troops and ships within Japan and the “mounting up” of Marines from all over the world, including American embassies, the U.S. Navy fleet in the Mediterranean, and the Marine Corps Reserve called up by the President to flesh out the needed muscle of MacArthur’s invasion armada. In the meantime, the beleaguered troops within the Pusan Perimeter kept buying the time needed in order for Chromite’s blow to assemble itself.

Chromite’s keys were simple: Land and secure the initial beachhead on the morning tide, land again in the evening with army troops and then, with the Marines, wage the land battle to defeat the surprised NKPA, cross the Han River, take Kimpo Airfield and then Seoul. After that, Walker would break out of the perimeter, link up with X Corps and drive the NKPA back to their frontier—and later beyond it.

An Unparalleled Leap In Mobilization

The Marine “mounting out” or build-up from scratch, especially, was impressive, with the lst Marine Division rising in strength from 7,789 men in June when the North Korean invasion commenced, to 26,000 men by D-Day, Sept. 15, an unparalleled leap in mobilization, to use the term used by Lt. Gen. Lem Shepherd.

Marine Reserves flooded in from posts around the world and homes across the country. During four frantic days, August l to 5, nine thousand officers and men reported for duty. Lamented a Pentagon planner, “The only thing left between us and an emergency in Europe are the School Troops at Quantico [Virginia].”

North Koreans Begin to Fortify

The NKPA, too, were strengthening their forces and positions, however, particularly on Wolmi-Do Island astride Flying Fish Channel, the literal key to the overall success of Operation Chromite. Notes Robert Leckie, “Little Wolmi-Do guarded all the approaches to the inner harbor. It was well fortified. More, Wolmi rose 351 feet above water and was the highest point of land in the Inchon area. Its guns could strike at Marines attempting to storm the port’s seawalls to the north and south. Wolmi would have to be captured to secure the flanks of both landings, but before it could, Wolmi would have to be subjected to several days of bombardment by air and sea, and this, of course, would forfeit that advantage of surprise so necessary to MacArthur’s plan,” thus making the island fortress seemingly the very nemesis at the heart of Chromite’s hoped-for success.

As what was now being called “Operation Common Knowledge” proceeded, the later problem of the port of Inchon itself came into sharper focus as well. The Marines were concerned that they would be landing under fire directly into a city of 250,000 people where warehouses and buildings were fortified. In addition, once the port was taken, the Marines would have to regroup and prepare for the expected NKPA counterattack that might well drive them back into the water with heavy losses, much as had happened during the Canadian raid on Dieppe in Nazi-occupied France in 1942.

The Top Priority: Retaking Seoul

Surviving this, they would have to cross the wide and swift Han River before they could reach Seoul, the coveted prize. Not only the South Korean capital, Seoul was also the linchpin of the country’s telephone, telegraph, rail-way, and highway networks.

And what of the defenders? In Seoul there was the 10,000-man 18th Rifle Division, reinforced by the Seoul City Regiment, an infantry unit 3,600 strong. There was also the hated 36th Battalion, 111th Security Regiment, plus an antiaircraft defense force unit armed with Russian 85mm guns, 37mm automatic cannon, and 12.7mm machine guns, and air force personnel numbering in the thousands.