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Into the Breach at Pusan
The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in the Korean War
By Kenneth W. Estes
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The Marine Corps and the Korean Crisis of 1950
In the latter half of June 1950, with the outbreak of America's first major conflict of the Cold War just days away, personnel attached to U.S. Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., were looking backward rather than forward. These staff officers had their attention fixed on the ceremony that would commemorate the seizure of the fort at Derna on 4 July 1805 by a handful of leathernecks and a small army of Mediterranean mercenaries—the feat immortalized by the line "to the shores of Tripoli" in the opening stanza of the "Marines' Hymn." The commander of the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet planned to send some of his marines to dedicate a plaque at that site, still known to locals as "the American fort," heralding that occasion as "the first return of marines to the scene of this triumph."
In short, no one in the marine corps anticipated that within two months' time several thousand of its men, organized into the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade, would be fighting a determined enemy in mortal combat in a distant Asian nation, the Republic of Korea. The story of how the marine corps met that challenge has formed an enduring part of its history, culture, and traditions. However, establishing the history of this opening campaign by the marine corps in the Korean War requires a more open and balanced telling, in more realistic terms, than one usually finds in the official histories and other postwar publications. The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade formed part of a large reinforcement effort by the U.S. armed forces, sent at the war's outset to turn back the invasion of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) by forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). Although little indication emerges from marine corps reports, considerable efforts by many combat units fighting at the same time as the marine brigade were needed to save the Republic of South Korea from catastrophe in the beginning stages of the conflict.
There are a number of myths—or at least exaggerations—concerning the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade and its operations in the Pusan Perimeter. The official history is especially problematic in that regard, "informing" readers that the brigade had a large proportion of World War II combat veterans; that it was the "fibre brigade" that saved the U.N. Command and the U.S. Eighth Army from destruction; and that it first validated the air-ground team concept of the postwar marine corps.
None of these assertions is true. By 1950, few marines at or below the rank of sergeant were veterans of the previous war, and even some staff sergeants had enlisted in 1945, too late to see the last marine corps battles of the Pacific War. As well, the brigade's three infantry battalion commanders and several of its company commanders lacked wartime experience commanding troops in the field, instead serving in ships' detachments and elsewhere. During the battle for the Pusan Perimeter, at least five regimental-sized "fire brigades" were fed into the lines in order to sustain the quasi-mobile defense conducted by the Eighth Army's commander, Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker; the marine brigade was only one of these. Nor did the brigade take part in the early and most desperate stages of the fighting, arriving on the scene only after the initial assaults by North Korean forces had been repulsed and the defenders had gained numerical superiority. What's more, the marine brigade never fought at under 90 percent strength, whereas the army infantry regiments frequently were at 50 to 60 percent "effectiveness." General Walker, because of his unfortunate death in at the end of the year (he was killed in a traffic accident on 23 December, just north of Seoul), never received deserved recognition as commander of an army that saved itself at Pusan. As for air-ground team innovation, the brigade fought a mere twelve days on the ground during the period 6 August to 5 September 1950, whereas the two day fighter squadrons flew almost every day throughout the Pusan Perimeter campaign, and sortied with aircraft flown by aggressive pilots who would bomb and strafe anywhere there were targets. These sorties mostly supported the Eighth Army, not solely the brigade, as asserted in the official history.
In the interests of using a balanced approach, one must begin with an assessment of the state of the marine corps on the eve of this crisis and the ensuing conflict; evaluate the conduct of the monthlong campaign; and then assess the telling of the tale, so to speak, as well as the background with which it came to be told in the official narratives.
At the same time that planning for the Derna commemoration was underway, the marine corps struggled to maintain a training regimen and study new organizations in the event of hoped-for budget increases. These measures were some of several responses to the stark reductions in the American defense establishment that had taken place since the end of World War II. For some in the corps, though, the future had begun to look a little brighter in the spring of 1950.
Toward a Force in Readiness
Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton watched with satisfaction as his marines of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (or "5th Marines") filed into their barracks at Camp Pendleton in mid-May 1950. A thirty-five-year-old Naval Academy graduate, Newton had spent World War II as a prisoner of the Japanese—a fate that had overtaken him on the war's first day when his unit, B Company of the American embassy guard detachment in Peking, China, was forced to surrender without firing a shot. Repatriated and returned to active duty in 1946, he had received postwar schooling and commanded a marine barracks and then a service support group before reporting to the battalion in January 1950. Pleased with his new assignment, he was further heartened by developments in the marine corps, which seemed to be emerging from the doldrums of postwar demobilization. The 5th Marines, recently reformed to become the first complete regiment to be restored to service in the 1st Marine Division, was proof that the corps was changing for the better after a period of decline. From Newton's standpoint, things were looking up.
Newton's positive view was reinforced by the regiment's performance in an amphibious landing exercise dubbed Demon III. Conducted in mid-May 1950 on the beaches of Camp Pendleton, California (the 5th Marines' home base), Demon III had a twofold purpose: to demonstrate the marines' ship-to-shore capabilities to visiting students from the Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and, most importantly, to provide the marines with much-needed training in the fundamentals of their trade. The exercise was a success, with all hands turning in an impressive performance; and upon its conclusion Newton stood outside one of the 1st Battalion's barracks and watched with justifiable satisfaction as his men went inside for a much-needed rest. Furthest from his mind at this point was the prospect of returning to Asia to wage war against a fierce and triumphant enemy.
Another cause for optimism was the performance of Marine Fighter Squadron 214 (VMF214) in Demon III. Famously known as "The Black Sheep Squadron"—the nickname a legacy of the Pacific War, when it compiled an outstanding combat record under the command of the legendary Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington—VMF214 had flown its Chance Vought F4U-4B Corsair fighters off the escort carriers USS Badoeng Strait and USS Sicily to conduct mock close air support attacks for Newton's battalion. The squadron's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Howard A. "Rudy" York led a finely honed group of trained and experienced pilots, all of whom, like himself, had flown combat missions from island bases and carriers in the Pacific War. Since July 1949, York had commanded the "Black Sheep" and imprinted the close air support of ground troops as a sixth sense among his band of veterans. The squadron's deep pilot experience had a simple cause: the corps had stopped recruiting and training pilots after the war, relying on its surplus to fill regular and reserve units alike. These veterans would provide a key advantage within the next few months.
But the high quality of the units taking part in Demon III was the exception rather than the rule for the marine corps in the immediate postwar period. The demobilization of many formations following the end of the war coupled with occupation duties in both Japan and China had drastically eroded the corps' war-fighting capabilities. Attendant to these developments, and contributing to the corps' decline, were losses in experienced personnel and material shortages. Defense reorganization initiatives undertaken during this postwar period had also introduced institutional pressures of no mean import.
The end of World War II in September 1945 found most of the marine corps, then some 458,000 strong, deployed in the Western Pacific Theater with the operating forces of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPAC), then consisting of III and V Amphibious Corps, totaling six marine divisions and four marine aircraft wings. Almost half of the corps, however, continued to serve in the traditional shore establishment organizations of security guard barracks for naval stations and bases, and as shipboard detachments on every battleship, aircraft carrier, and cruiser in the U.S. Navy.
Apart from demobilization concerns, the duties of Fleet Marine Force units consisted of disarming Japanese forces and occupying parts of Japan and China. Postwar planning centered on a ready force of two divisions and two aircraft wings, plus an adequate supporting establishment, balanced between the East and West Coast bases, for duty primarily with the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. Marines quickly terminated their occupation duties in Japan, but the deployments in China dragged on into early 1947, with a reprise in 1949 as the Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-Tung (Mao Zedong in modern transliteration) triumphed in the country's civil war. Nevertheless, by the end of 1946 barely fifteen thousand marines remained on the Fleet Marine Force rolls in the Pacific, and an even smaller number in the fledgling Atlantic counterpart.
The corps' great wartime expansion and the service of its divisions with the field armies and corps of the U.S. Army left no doubt in the minds of marine corps leaders that their service would fight in any future global conflict involving the United States. Postwar war plans emerged slowly as the tensions in Europe increased. In 1947, American planning focused on the first twelve to eighteen months of a general war with the Soviet Union. By 1948, the plans included sending a marine division and an army infantry division to Sicily. The first strategic offensive after the outbreak of war would launch eight British and twelve American divisions into the Persian Gulf, aimed at recovering oil fields presumably captured by the Soviets. These offensive moves both specified and implied marine corps tasks that would undoubtedly result in combat with first-line units of the Red Army. By the end of 1949, a new series of war plans provided for the commitment of marine corps formations to continental European battlefields. None of this could happen, however, if the U.S. Marine Corps ceased to exist as a military organization. Marine corps history and lore has reflected various attempts to extinguish it, mostly at the hands of the army and navy.
The "defense reorganization" of 1946–47 instituted the modern American defense establishment, including a U.S. Marine Corps oriented to service with the fleet and maintaining an amphibious warfare capability that it continues to guard jealously to this day. However, some of the marine corps leaders sensed too much critical scrutiny of the corps during the formative process of the legislation. A circle of advocates worked feverishly to counter perceived intentions of the army and air force to strip the ground and aviation elements of the corps away from the Navy Department to swell their own ranks and institutional prowess. A number of staff operatives searched for and provided information deemed crucial to legislative branch staffers and members, perhaps earning the oft-quoted charge by President Truman (who was judged by some to be an "enemy" of the corps) that "the only propaganda machine that rivals that of Stalin is that of the United States Marine Corps."
The National Security Act of 1947, which theoretically unified the U.S. armed forces, contained several key points that could have proven reassuring to the marine corps had there been no pre-existing hard feelings from the conduct of the Pacific War campaigns and the defense reorganization debates. The legislation recognized the corps as an independent service within the Department of the Navy, and identified the Fleet Marine Force as both ground and aviation units organized for seizing and defending advanced naval bases, and for conducting land operations incident to naval campaigns. Accordingly, the marine corps received primary responsibility for the development of doctrine, tactics, techniques, and equipment for amphibious operations, even though the army had conducted more of these in the last war than the corps.
Perceptions of efforts to dissolve the marine corps were not without foundation. Well before the Korean War began, the corps had experienced significant difficulties keeping itself intact. These difficulties were linked not only with interservice squabbling over roles and missions, but also to budgetary concerns. The legendary "reprieve" for the corps in the National Security Act brought no parallel fiscal relief, and the skeletal state of the Fleet Marine Force declined to its postwar nadir. The combat strength of the corps fell in 1948 to eleven understrength battalions of infantry, when each of its two divisions should have fielded nine. As the last battalions performing occupation duty in China returned to the United States, the corps further reduced the existing 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions to a mere three infantry battalions (each representing a cadre infantry regiment) and a single company of amphibious tractors (or "amtracs"). Similarly, tank battalions were scaled down to a single company equipped with obsolete M4A3 Sherman medium tanks. In World War II, by way contrast, these divisions had each boasted three regiments totaling nine infantry battalions as well as attached battalions of tanks and amtracs. Aviation strength held at eighteen active squadrons of fighter, transport, and observation aircraft backed by thirty reserve fighter squadrons.
At the same time, however, there were hopeful signs of resurgence in the Fleet Marine Force. With the return of the forces from China and Guam, sufficient personnel could be gathered to reform a complete 5th Marines of three infantry battalions in the 1st Marine Division, while fiscal year funding for 1950 would enable the divisions to expand under a new table of organization in which two of the three infantry regiments would be manned. Thus, the 5th Marines reformed during September 1949 at Camp Pendleton under the command of Colonel Victor H. Krulak with the first two battalions to return from overseas service.
Krulak, a protégé of Fleet Marine Force commander (as of June 1950) and future commandant Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, had won a Navy Cross in late 1943 on Choiseul in the Solomon Islands chain while leading a raid with his 2nd Parachute Battalion prior to the Bougainville assault. Stories of Krulak's tough demeanor and piercing manner in handling his officers and in inspecting his troops were legion. There seems little doubt that Krulak's character and command style were well-suited for guiding the 5th Marines through a grueling regimen of training and exercises. Under the new division commander, the equally tough, brainy, and brusque Major General Graves B. Erskine, the 1st Marine Division began to sharpen its combat skills after the years of postwar uncertainty.
Aviation remained least affected by the imbroglio in China. The pilot surplus at the end of World War II had posed initial personal hardships when it came time to thin the corps' ranks, but the active and reserve squadrons remained filled with combat veterans, to the extent that the recruiting of new pilots ceased until 1950.
By 1949, the thirty reserve squadrons all flew the same F4U-4B variant of the superb Corsair fighter and had also adapted to the same air-ground support tactics as did the regulars, thus conforming to the system devised in 1945 in the final stages of the Western Pacific Campaign. At twenty-two reserve bases, sixteen hundred veteran pilots flew their fighters on weekends and at other opportunities. A typical squadron mustered forty-seven pilots (two more than authorized) and had a waiting list of equally capable veterans eager to join. The pilots maintained their combat skills and the corps was able to draw on wartime stocks to keep its Corsairs in fighting trim. In addition, the pilots cycled through marine corps professional schools and duty assignments with ground and administrative organizations—which had not been possible in wartime-thus bonding them anew to their service.
Excerpted from Into the Breach at Pusan by Kenneth W. Estes. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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