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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.

At Inchon was a garrison of two thousand new conscripts and two harbor defense batteries of four 76mm guns, each manned by two hundred gunners. In addition, Russian land mines were being laid, trenches and emplacements dug, and weapons and ammunition arriving. There were plans to mine the harbor, but the work had not begun.

Espionage Helped Provide a Guiding Light

Kimpo Airfield, too, was an extremely worthwhile military objective. Located to the north of the Inchon-Seoul axis, it lay a mile inland along the left bank of the Han River, downstream—or northwest—of Seoul. It was the best airfield in Korea, serving the two million inhabitants of Seoul as well as the port of Inchon.

Espionage played a significant part in the planning stages from the Navy side. Recalled Ridgway, “The first step in Operation Chromite was to scout the harbor islands which commanded the straitened Channel. A young Navy lieutenant, Eugene Clark, was put ashore near Inchon on Sept. lst and worked two weeks, largely under cover of darkness, to locate gun emplacements and to measure the height of the seawall. So successful were his efforts that he actually turned on a light in a lighthouse to guide the first assault ships into Inchon harbor before dawn on Sept. 15th.”

Even MacArthur saw the light on the way in to shore on the morning of the 15th: “I noticed a flash—a light that winked on and off across the water. The channel navigation lights were on. We were taking the enemy by surprise. The lights were not even turned off.” (Apparently, he never learned of Lieutenant Clark’s daring mission.) “I went to my cabin and turned in,” he concluded.

Weather Takes A Turn For Worse

“All I fear is nature,” asserted Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Inchon invasion, too, was threatened by the sea and wind in the form of Typhoon Kezia, a 125-mile-an-hour storm that seemed destined to arrive precisely on time with Chromite’s Joint Task Force 7 invasion fleet in the Korean Strait. Naval planners nervously recalled the disastrous storm that had occurred during the invasion of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, and wondered if history might be repeating itself. MacArthur boarded his flagship the Mt. McKinley on the 12th. The vessel and its mates at sea were buffeted by howling winds and high seas when the storm suddenly veered north from the east coast of Japan on the 13th. But the worst of the terrible storm narrowly missed the invasion fleet.

As the countdown for Chromite approached, two diversionary bombardments took place by air to the south at Kunsan and to the north at Chinammpo, with the battleship USS Missouri blasting Samchok on the east coast right across from the real target, Inchon. Next came Wolmi-Do; beginning on Sept. 10 Marine Corsairs set most of its buildings afire.

Enemy Gets Ample Warning Of Invasion

 

By the 13th, the cat seemed to be out of the bag in the enemy camp: an intercepted Communist dispatch to Pyongyang read: “Ten enemy vessels are approaching Inchon. Many aircraft are bombing Wolmi-Do. There is every indication the enemy will perform a landing. All units under my command are directed to be ready for combat; all units will be stationed in their given positions so that they may throw back enemy forces when they attempt their landing operation.”

At last, 71,339 officers and men of the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Army, and ROK Marines were ready in their 47 landing craft to prove MacArthur either a seer or a reckless gambler who had bet on the wrong horse. According to one source, “Precisely at 0630, the U.S. Marines swept in from the Yellow Sea to face 40,000 North Korean troops.”

 

What would be the outcome—tremendous victory or ignominious defeat? In the event, the Battle of Inchon is most notable for two things: What didn’t happen that very well might have, and for the “about as planned” outcome that Douglas MacArthur had envisioned on that hill in South Korea just a short time before.

Did MacArthur Call It Right?

The initial landing force of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, lst Marine Divsion clambered ashore from their landing craft and scaled the sea wall, securing Wolmi-Do Island in a mere—and historic—45 minutes. Stated Ridgway, “The action opened at dawn with a heavy bombardment by American destroyers, whose skippers gallantly steamed up the channel under the very muzzles of enemy cannons, and by British and American cruisers. The first task was to neutralize Wolmi-Do, the little island that sat right athwart the channel, with all channel traffic within point-blank range of its guns.

“The island, however, was not nearly so strongly fortified as had been feared [MacArthur had been right in this assessment] and its guns were quickly silenced by the naval bombardment. Marine Corsair planes strafed the island beaches … and the Marines stormed ashore, scattering the dazed defenders.… Artillery was positioned on the island then to support the assault upon the seawall.”

Continues Ridgway: “In places, the Marines used ladders to scale the wall, which stood four feet above the prows of the Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs). Elsewhere the LSTs simply rammed holes in the wall, or Marines opened holes with dynamite, through which the assault troops poured.… By dark the advance elements … were securely dug in on their beachhead ready to repel counterattacks,” which never came, so complete and total was the surprise victory.

A Smug General Rolls Back Over To Sleep

And what of the man whose military genius had foreseen all this from the start? Aboard the Mt. McKinley, two NKPA MiG fighters were seen at 5:40 am beginning an attack on a cruiser to the front, leading General Courtney Whitney to alert MacArthur in his cabin of the danger. MacArthur simply said. “Wake me up again, Court, if they attack this ship,” rolled over and went to sleep.

After the bombardment began, he went to breakfast and then up on deck, commenting above the roar of the guns, “Just like Lingayen Gulf,” meaning his invasion of the Philippines in 1945. Later, Marine General Shepherd would recall, “His staff was grouped around him. He was seated in the admiral’s chair with his old Bataan cap with its tarnished gold braid [that Truman would mock a month to the day later] and a leather jacket on. Photographers were busily engaged in taking pictures of the General, while he continued to watch the naval gunfire—paying no attention to his admirers.”

“More People Than That Get Killed In Traffic Every Day!”

As the Marines had stormed ashore, elderly Korean civilians had gathered to watch them in awe, admiration, and relief at being liberated from their northern oppressors. The NKPAs also admired the Leathernecks, calling them “yellow legs” because of their distinctive leggings. Indeed, President Truman’s personal observer throughout the battle, National Guard Maj. Gen. Frank E. Lowe, also admired the men his boss had derisively called “The Navy’s police force,” leading the amphibious commander General Oliver P. Smith later to write, “As to personal danger, his claim was that the safest place in Korea was with a platoon of Marines.”

Back on the Mt. McKinley, MacArthur was told that there were 45 enemy POWs on Wolmi-Do, with U.S. losses being put at about six dead and 15-20 wounded, leading him to comment, “More people than that get killed in traffic every day!”

The landings were divided into a trio of Beaches: Green to take Wolmi-Do, and Red and Blue to seize Inchon proper, with the former to the north of the causeway linking Wolmi-Do to the port and the latter to the south of it.

Taking Of Red Beach a Sight To Behold

The main battle assault was at Red Beach. In the words of one Marine company commander, Captain Frank I. Fenton, “It really looked dangerous.… There was a finger pier and causeway that extended out from Red Beach which reminded us of Tarawa, and, if machineguns were on the finger pier and causeway, we were going to have a tough time making the last 200 yards to the beach.”

At 5:24 pm the Marines went in, and Herald-Tribune reporter Marguerite Higgins described the scene: “A rocket hit a round oil tower and big, ugly smoke rings billowed up. The dockside buildings were brilliant with flames. Through the haze it looked as if the whole city was burning.… The strange sunset, combined with the crimson haze of the flaming docks, was so spectacular that a movie audience would have considered it overdone.” Cemetery Hill was taken, and Miss Higgins came in with the fifth wave onto Red Beach.

“We were relentlessly pinned down by rifle and automatic weapon fire coming down on us from another rise on the right [Observatory Hill]. Capt. Fenton’s men took it, and the CO himself had a rather unusual experience, as related by the late Marine Col. Robert Debs Heinl, Jr, whose seminal work Victory at High Tide: The Inchon-Seoul Campaign, is without doubt the very best study in print on MacArthur’s Cannae: “Outside his command post on the hill., Capt. Fenton stood poised to relieve himself by the light of a star shell. As he did so, the hole at his feet came alive and a frightened Communist soldier, armed with burp gun and grenades, sprang out and cried for mercy. Momentarily transfixed, Fenton shouted for his runner, who disarmed the drenched captive.”