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On 27 September, MacArthur received the top secret National Security Council Memorandum 81/1 from Truman reminding him that operations north of the 38th parallel were authorized only if “at the time of such operation there was no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist forces, no announcements of intended entry, nor a threat to counter our operations militarily…” On 29 September MacArthur restored the government of the Republic of Korea under Syngman Rhee. On 30 September, Defense Secretary George Marshall sent an eyes-only message to MacArthur: “We want you to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th parallel.”
On 30 September Zhou Enlai warned the United States that it was prepared to intervene in Korea if the United States crossed the 38th parallel. Zhou attempted to advise North Korean commanders on how to conduct a general withdrawal by using the same tactics which had allowed Chinese communist forces to successfully escape Chiang Kai-shek’s Encirclement Campaigns in the 1930s. North Korean commanders did not utilize these tactics effectively.
By 1 October 1950, the UN Command repelled the KPA northwards, past the 38th parallel; the ROK Army crossed after them, into North Korea.:79–94 MacArthur made a statement demanding the KPA’s unconditional surrender. Six days later, on 7 October, with UN authorization, the UN Command forces followed the ROK forces northwards.:81 The X Corps landed at Wonsan (in southeastern North Korea) and Riwon (in northeastern North Korea), already captured by ROK forces.:87–8 The Eighth United States Army and the ROK Army drove up western Korea and captured Pyongyang city, the North Korean capital, on 19 October 1950.:90 The 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (“Rakkasans”) made their first of the only two combat jumps during the Korean War on 20 October 1950 at Sunchon and Sukchon, North Korea. The missions of the 187th were to cut the road north going to China, preventing North Korean leaders from escaping from Pyongyang; and to rescue American prisoners of war. At month’s end, UN forces held 135,000 KPA prisoners of war.
Taking advantage of the UN Command’s strategic momentum against the communists, General MacArthur believed it necessary to extend the Korean War into China to destroy depots supplying the North Korean war effort. President Truman disagreed, and ordered caution at the Sino-Korean border.:83
China intervenes (October – December 1950)
Chinese forces cross the Yalu River.
On 27 June 1950, two days after the KPA invaded and three months before the Chinese entered the war, President Truman dispatched the United States Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait, to protect the Nationalist Republic of China (Taiwan) from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On 4 August 1950, with the PRC invasion of Taiwan aborted, Mao Zedong reported to the Politburo that he would intervene in Korea when the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Taiwan invasion force was reorganized into the PLA North East Frontier Force.
On 20 August 1950, Premier Zhou Enlai informed the United Nations that “Korea is China’s neighbor… The Chinese people cannot but be concerned about a solution of the Korean question”. Thus, via neutral-country diplomats, China warned that in safeguarding Chinese national security, they would intervene against the UN Command in Korea.:83 President Truman interpreted the communication as “a bald attempt to blackmail the UN”, and dismissed it.
1 October 1950, the day that UN troops crossed the 38th parallel, was also the first anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On that day the Soviet ambassador forwarded a telegram from Stalin to Mao and Zhou requesting that China send five to six divisions into Korea, and Kim Il-sung sent frantic appeals to Mao to request Chinese military intervention. At the same time, Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces themselves would not directly intervene.
In a series of emergency meetings that lasted from 2–5 October, Chinese leaders debated whether to send Chinese troops into Korea. There was considerable resistance among many leaders, including senior military leaders, to confronting the United States in Korea. Mao strongly supported intervention, and Zhou was one of the few Chinese leaders who firmly supported him. After General Lin Biao refused Mao’s offer to command Chinese forces in Korea (citing poor health), Mao called General Peng Dehuai to Beijing to hear his views. After listening to both sides’ arguments, Peng supported Mao’s position, and the Politburo agreed to intervene in Korea. Later, the Chinese claimed that US bombers had violated PRC national airspace while en route to bomb North Korea before China intervened. On 8 October 1950, Mao Zedong redesignated the PLA North East Frontier Force as the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA).
In order to enlist Stalin’s support, Zhou traveled to Stalin’s summer resort on the Black Sea on 10 October. Stalin initially agreed to send military equipment and ammunition, but warned Zhou that the USSR’s air force would need two or three months to prepare any operations. In a subsequent meeting, Stalin told Zhou that he would only provide China with equipment on a credit basis, and that the Soviet air force would only operate over Chinese airspace, and only after an undisclosed period of time. Stalin did not agree to send either military equipment or air support until March 1951. Mao did not find Soviet air support especially useful, as the fighting was going to take place on the south side of the Yalu. Soviet shipments of materiel, when they did arrive, were limited to small quantities of trucks, grenades, machine guns, and the like.
Immediately on his return to Beijing on 18 October 1950, Zhou met with Mao Zedong, Peng Dehuai, and Gao Gang, and the group ordered two hundred thousand Chinese troops to enter North Korea, which they did on 25 October. After consulting with Stalin, on 13 November, Mao appointed Zhou the overall commander and coordinator of the war effort, with Peng as field commander. Orders given by Zhou were delivered in the name of the Central Military Commission.
Soldiers from the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division in action near the Ch’ongch’on River, 20 November 1950
UN aerial reconnaissance had difficulty sighting PVA units in daytime, because their march and bivouac discipline minimized aerial detection.:102 The PVA marched “dark-to-dark” (19:00–03:00), and aerial camouflage (concealing soldiers, pack animals, and equipment) was deployed by 05:30. Meanwhile, daylight advance parties scouted for the next bivouac site. During daylight activity or marching, soldiers were to remain motionless if an aircraft appeared, until it flew away;:102 PVA officers were under order to shoot security violators. Such battlefield discipline allowed a three-division army to march the 286 miles (460 km) from An-tung, Manchuria to the combat zone in some 19 days. Another division night-marched a circuitous mountain route, averaging 18 miles (29 km) daily for 18 days.
Meanwhile, on 10 October 1950, the 89th Tank Battalion was attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, increasing the armor available for the Northern Offensive. On 15 October, after moderate KPA resistance, the 7th Cavalry Regiment and Charlie Company, 70th Tank Battalion captured Namchonjam city. On 17 October, they flanked rightwards, away from the principal road (to Pyongyang), to capture Hwangju. Two days later, the 1st Cavalry Division captured Pyongyang, the North’s capital city, on 19 October 1950.
On 15 October 1950, President Truman and General MacArthur met at Wake Island in the mid-Pacific Ocean. This meeting was much publicized because of the General’s discourteous refusal to meet the President on the continental US.:88 To President Truman, MacArthur speculated there was little risk of Chinese intervention in Korea,:89 and that the PRC’s opportunity for aiding the KPA had lapsed. He believed the PRC had some 300,000 soldiers in Manchuria, and some 100,000–125,000 soldiers at the Yalu River. He further concluded that, although half of those forces might cross south, “if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter” without air force protection.
A column of the U.S. 1st Marine Division move through Chinese lines during their breakout from the Chosin Reservoir.
After secretly crossing the Yalu River on 19 October, the PVA 13th Army Group launched the First Phase Offensive on 25 October, attacking the advancing UN forces near the Sino-Korean border. After decimating the ROK II Corps at the Battle of Onjong, the first confrontation between Chinese and US military occurred on 1 November 1950; deep in North Korea, thousands of soldiers from the PVA 39th Army encircled and attacked the US 8th Cavalry Regiment with three-prong assaults—from the north, northwest, and west—and overran the defensive position flanks in the Battle of Unsan. The surprise assault resulted in the UN forces retreating back to the Ch’ongch’on River, while the Chinese unexpectedly disappeared into mountain hideouts following victory. It is unclear why the Chinese did not press the attack and follow-up their victory.
The UN Command, however, were unconvinced that the Chinese had openly intervened due to the sudden Chinese withdrawal. On 24 November, the Home-by-Christmas Offensive was launched with the US Eighth Army advancing in northwest Korea, while the US X Corps were attacking along the Korean east coast. But the Chinese were waiting in ambush with their Second Phase Offensive.
On 25 November at the Korean western front, the PVA 13th Army Group attacked and over-ran the ROK II Corps at the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, and then decimated the US 2nd Infantry Division on the UN forces’ right flank.:98–9 The UN Command retreated; the US Eighth Army’s retreat (the longest in US Army history) was made possible because of the Turkish Brigade’s successful, but very costly, rear-guard delaying action near Kunuri that slowed the PVA attack for two days (27–9 November). On 27 November at the Korean eastern front, a US 7th Infantry Division Regimental Combat Team (3,000 soldiers) and the US 1st Marine Division (12,000–15,000 marines) were unprepared for the PVA 9th Army Group’s three-pronged encirclement tactics at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, but they managed to escape under Air Force and X Corps support fire—albeit with some 15,000 collective casualties.
By 30 November, the PVA 13th Army Group managed to expel the US Eighth Army from northwest Korea. Retreating from the north faster than they had counter-invaded, the Eighth Army crossed the 38th parallel border in mid December.: 160 The UN morale hit rock bottom when commanding General Walton Walker of the US Eighth Army was killed on 23 December 1950 in an automobile accident.:111 In the northeast Korea by 11 December, the US X Corps managed to cripple the PVA 9th Army Group while establishing a defensive perimeter at the port city of Hungnam. The X Corps were forced to evacuate by 24 December in order to reinforce the badly depleted US Eighth Army to the south.:104–11:158
Map of the UN retreat in the wake of Chinese intervention
During the Hungnam evacuation, about 193 shiploads of UN Command forces and materiel (approximately 105,000 soldiers, 98,000 civilians, 17,500 vehicles, and 350,000 tons of supplies) were evacuated to Pusan.:110 The SS Meredith Victory was noted for evacuating 14,000 refugees, the largest rescue operation by a single ship, even though it was designed to hold only 12 passengers. Before escaping, the UN Command forces razed most of Hungnam city, especially the port facilities; and on 16 December 1950, President Truman declared a national emergency with Presidential Proclamation No. 2914, 3 C.F.R. 99 (1953), which remained in force until 14 September 1978.
Fighting around the 38th parallel (January – June 1951)
With Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgway assuming the command of the US Eighth Army on 26 December, the PVA and the KPA launched their Third Phase Offensive (also known as the “Chinese New Year’s Offensive”) on New Year’s Eve of 1950. Utilizing night attacks in which UN Command fighting positions were encircled and then assaulted by numerically superior troops who had the element of surprise. The attacks were accompanied by loud trumpets and gongs, which fulfilled the double purpose of facilitating tactical communication and mentally disorienting the enemy. UN forces initially had no familiarity with this tactic, and as a result some soldiers “bugged out,” abandoning their weapons and retreating to the south.:117 The Chinese New Year’s Offensive overwhelmed UN forces, allowing the PVA and KPA to conquer Seoul for the second time on 4 January 1951.
B-26 Invaders bomb logistics depots in Wonsan, North Korea, 1951
These setbacks prompted General MacArthur to consider using nuclear weapons against the Chinese or North Korean interiors, intending radioactive fallout zones would interrupt the Chinese supply chains. However, upon the arrival of the charismatic General Ridgway, the esprit de corps of the bloodied Eighth Army immediately began to revive.:113
UN forces retreated to Suwon in the west, Wonju in the center, and the territory north of Samcheok in the east, where the battlefront stabilized and held.:117 The PVA had outrun its logistics capability and thus was forced to recoil from pressing the attack beyond Seoul;:118 food, ammunition, and materiel were carried nightly, on foot and bicycle, from the border at the Yalu River to the three battle lines. In late January, upon finding that the PVA had abandoned their battle lines, General Ridgway ordered a reconnaissance-in-force, which became Operation Roundup (5 February 1951):121. A full-scale X Corps advance gradually proceeded while fully exploiting the UN Command’s air superiority,:120 concluded with the UN reaching the Han River and recapturing Wonju near Seoul.:121
In mid-February, the PVA counterattacked with the Fourth Phase Offensive and achieved initial victory at Hoengseong. But the offensive was soon blunted by the IX Corps positions at Chipyong-ni in the center.:121 Units of the US 2nd Infantry Division and the French Battalion fought a short but desperate battle that broke the attack’s momentum.:121 The battle is sometimes known as the Gettysburg of the Korean War. The battle saw 5,600 Korean, American and French defeat a numerically superior Chinese force. Surrounded on all sides, the US 2nd Infantry Division Warrior Division’s 23rd Regimental Combat Team with an attached French Battalion was hemmed in by more than 25,000 Chinese Communist Forces. United Nations Forces had previously retreated in the face of large Communist forces instead of getting cut off, but this time they stood and fought. The allies fought at odds of roughly 15 to 1.
In the last two weeks of February 1951, Operation Roundup was followed by Operation Killer, carried out by the revitalized Eighth Army. It was a full-scale, battlefront-length attack staged for maximum exploitation of firepower to kill as many KPA and PVA troops as possible.:121 Operation Killer concluded with I Corps re-occupying the territory south of the Han River, and IX Corps capturing Hoengseong.:122 On 7 March 1951, the Eighth Army attacked with Operation Ripper, expelling the PVA and the KPA from Seoul on 14 March 1951. This was the city’s fourth conquest in a years’ time, leaving it a ruin; the 1.5 million pre-war population was down to 200,000, and people were suffering from severe food shortages.:122
Chinese soldiers surrender to Australians, 24 April 1951.
On 1 March 1951 Mao sent a cable to Stalin, in which he emphasized the difficulties faced by Chinese forces and the urgent need for air cover, especially over supply lines. Apparently impressed by the Chinese war effort, Stalin finally agreed to supply two air force divisions, three anti-aircraft divisions, and six thousand trucks. PVA troops in Korea continued to suffer severe logistical problems throughout the war. In late April Peng Dehuai sent his deputy, Hong Xuezhi, to brief Zhou Enlai in Beijing. What Chinese soldiers feared, Hong said, was not the enemy, but that they had nothing to eat, no bullets to shoot, and no trucks to transport them to the rear when they were wounded. Zhou attempted to respond to the PVA’s logistical concerns by increasing Chinese production and improving methods of supply, but these efforts were never completely sufficient. At the same time, large-scale air defense training programs were carried out, and the Chinese Air Force began to participate in the war from September 1951 onward.
On 11 April 1951, Commander-in-Chief Truman relieved the controversial General MacArthur, the Supreme Commander in Korea.:123–127 There were several reasons for the dismissal. MacArthur had crossed the 38th parallel in the mistaken belief that the Chinese would not enter the war, leading to major allied losses. He believed that whether or not to use nuclear weapons should be his own decision, not the President’s.:69 MacArthur threatened to destroy China unless it surrendered. While MacArthur felt total victory was the only honorable outcome, Truman was more pessimistic about his chances once involved in a land war in Asia, and felt a truce and orderly withdrawal from Korea could be a valid solution. MacArthur was the subject of congressional hearings in May and June 1951, which determined that he had defied the orders of the President and thus had violated the US Constitution.:79 A popular criticism of MacArthur was that he never spent a night in Korea, and directed the war from the safety of Tokyo.
General Ridgway was appointed Supreme Commander, Korea; he regrouped the UN forces for successful counterattacks,:127 while General James Van Fleet assumed command of the US Eighth Army.:130 Further attacks slowly depleted the PVA and KPA forces; Operations Courageous (23–28 March 1951) and Tomahawk (23 March 1951) were a joint ground and airborne infilltration meant to trap Chinese forces between Kaesong and Seoul. UN forces advanced to “Line Kansas,” north of the 38th parallel.:131 The 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (“Rakkasans”) second of two combat jumps were on Easter Sunday, 1951 at Munsan-ni, South Korea codenamed Operation Tomahawk. The mission was to get behind Chinese forces and block their movement north. The 60th Indian Parachute Field Ambulance provided the medical cover for the operations, dropping an ADS and a surgical team and treating over 400 battle casualties apart from the civilian casualties that formed the core of their objective as the unit was on a humanitarian mission.