Today virtually every American is aware of the tag line: The Few. The Proud. The Marines. In 1950 the emphasis would have been on “the few,” as the Marine Corps was just 74,000 men strong, less than ten percent of its World War II size, and well on its way to being reduced to a purely ceremonial role. But in the early months of the Korean War, a relatively small contingent of Marines brought South Korea back from the brink of Communist takeover and drove the invading North Korean army back into North Korea. In the process, those soldiers may have saved the service itself, proving that nuclear weapons had not made the Marine Corps obsolete.
In the book “The Darkest Summer” (Simon & Schuster) author Bill Sloan tells the story of the dramatic first three months of the Korean War, including the reversals of fortune engineered by the Marines at the South Korean port cities of Pusan and Inchon. Knowing that failure at Pusan and Inchon would have spelled doom for South Korea—and the Marine Corps as we know it—Failure interviewed Sloan by phone to discuss why Washington left South Korea vulnerable to attack, and how the Marines turned the tide in what is now commonly referred to as America’s “forgotten war.”
Why did the U.S. government downsize the American military so dramatically after World War II?
It was perfectly logical and justifiable that it should be downsized to some extent, because we had over 12 million men in the armed forces at the end of the war, and in peacetime you don’t need anything like that large an army. But the Truman administration was a little overzealous in their budget cutting efforts and in addition to cutting the fat they started hacking into muscle and bone. It was a response, I think, to the phenomenal success of the atomic bombs in ending WWII. There was a lot of sentiment among military men and civilian politicians that since we had nuclear weapons we didn’t need a large, well-trained conventional force.
In “The Darkest Summer” you discuss how the U.S. Army was unprepared for a shooting war. Why were the Marines in even worse shape—on the “brink of extinction,” as you put it?
There was a movement underway in Washington that originated with President Truman and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson to “unify” the American armed services. That didn’t necessarily mean they were going to roll everything into a single organization. But they wanted to discontinue any duplication that might exist. The idea was to save money, make each service more efficient, and give each one a more clearly defined role in any future war.
The Marines—unfortunately for them—were the smallest of the four major services, and also the ones whose activities tended to overlap or infringe on those of the others. So in protecting their own turf, the Army, Navy and Air Force all ganged up on the Marines. Dwight D. Eisenhower—supreme Allied commander in Europe in WWII—was outspokenly in favor of reducing the Marine Corps to ceremonial-type duties and having no units larger than a regiment. General Carl A. Spaatz, former commander in chief of the Army Air Forces, felt the same way. He didn’t want the Marines to have aircraft and infantry companies and amphibious landing capabilities, because those all infringed on the territory of the other services.
Why did Truman and American military commanders pay no heed to intelligence that indicated North Korea might invade its southern neighbor?
The situation in Korea was such that Washington feared the South would attack the North, which was one reason why it withheld modern weapons from the South Korean army. South Korea had a fairly large army, but it was poorly trained and poorly equipped. Its soldiers had nothing but rifles, light machine guns and light mortars. They had no tanks and very few artillery pieces, and the ones they had were obsolete.
On the other hand, North Korea’s army had a lot of veterans who fought against the Japanese and Chinese nationalists during and after WWII. And they were equipped with modern Soviet-built weapons such as T-34 tanks. So when the North Koreans invaded, their blitzkrieg-type strikes were led by tanks, and the South Koreans didn’t have much choice but to retreat because they didn’t have anything to fight with.
Why did the U.S. “draw the line” after taking relatively little interest in South Korea?
Even though President Truman was as much to blame as anyone for gutting our military establishment after WWII, a lot of credit needs to go to him for having the nerve and fortitude to not allow South Korea to be swallowed up without a fight. He ordered all of the U.S. air and naval forces in the Far East into action. He also committed ground troops, even though he didn’t have them close at hand, other than occupation troops in Japan who had received minimal combat training. He was very much unprepared, but you have to give him credit for having the courage to say: We’re not going to put up with this. We’re going to fight.
After being on the losing end of a one-sided conflict early on, tell me about General Douglas MacArthur’s plan for turning the tide of the war.
Within the first few days after the North Koreans invaded, MacArthur asked for help from the Marine Corps. He had Marine divisions under his command during WWII, and he wanted to get the Marines in action, because he knew that they were the best and most seasoned fighting force.
Within two or three weeks the U.S. was able to put together the First Provisional Marine Brigade, which consisted of 6,500 troops, with supporting aircraft units, artillery and tank battalions. If this force had been delayed a couple more weeks, my personal opinion is that the American forces would have been driven into the sea. But the Marines landed at the port of Pusan—the only place they could land in South Korea because the rest had been overrun—halted the North Korean advance, and forced the North Koreans to retreat. But it was touch and go for quite some time after the Marines arrived.
Talk a little more about Pusan, and then Inchon.
Pusan was the biggest port in South Korea, the only port of any size that the Americans still held after the initial North Korean onslaught. If Pusan had been lost, South Korea would have been lost, because there would have been no way to land reinforcements or re-supply the forces already there.
Inchon was another major harbor—the harbor for the capital city of Seoul—and was taken by the North Koreans within the first 48 hours of the war. MacArthur conceived a plan to land the Marines there, 150 miles behind the North Korean lines that were menacing Pusan. The idea was to have the amphibious force landing at Inchon and the defenders of Pusan attack from the north and south at the same time. It worked like a charm. The landing at Inchon was possibly the most successful amphibious operation in the history of amphibious warfare. It convinced Washington that MacArthur was the smartest military guy in the world and that they shouldn’t question his decisions or authority.
Did the U.S. succeed in the Korean War?
Yeah it did, because the U.S. saved South Korea. But it could have come out a whole lot better if MacArthur had been reined in, instead of [allowing him to] advance north, closer and closer to the Manchurian border. By the end of the third week of October 1950, the U.S. had captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang as well as every other major city [in the country], and could have established a strong defensive line—say, roughly 100 miles north of Pyongyang—that was much more readily defensible than the 38th parallel. But MacArthur would not stop. He kept pushing his forces further and further north. And Truman didn’t have the foresight or guts to tell him to stop. Truman should have fired MacArthur in October 1950 instead of waiting until the following spring, because by then the Chinese had jumped into the war with hundreds of thousands of troops and had driven the Americans out of North Korea and back down into South Korea. The Americans were never in danger of being driven into the sea, but they had to fight very hard to reclaim Seoul.
If Truman had been able to rein in MacArthur, it would have saved a lot of American lives, greatly strengthened South Korea, and weakened North Korea to the point where there almost wouldn’t have been a North Korea. We lost that opportunity, but we accomplished our goal going into the war. And in the last 60 years South Korea has been transformed from one of the poorest countries in Asia to one of the most prosperous and progressive.