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Marine Corps Tank Battles in Korea
By Oscar E. Gilbert
Copyright © 2003
Oscar E. Gilbert
All right reserved.
The Unexpected War
After the end of World War I, it took the world two decades to plunge
itself into another cycle of destruction. In the aftermath of World War II,
it took less than five years, and the chaos and destruction that flowed from
it is still felt today.
The collapse of the Japanese Empire in August 1945 virtually
assured the eventual collapse of European colonialism in Asia.
Debilitated European colonial armies faced not only pre-war nationalist
movements, but well-armed and organized Communist groups and
resistance movements that the Allies had sponsored in the fight against
Japan. The Japanese had been merciless colonial masters, but the peoples
of Asia had seen European armies humbled by fellow Asians. The
European powers launched protracted and ultimately futile struggles to
reestablish their dominance.
America tried to preserve the peace (and the ante-bellum Nationalist
government) in northern China and to extricate itself from the remnant of
its own empire in the Philippines. In China, the primary tasks of the
Marine Corps were to disarm and repatriate the enormous Japanese army
in northern China and provide minimal security for non-Chinese in the
region. Unfortunately, both the Nationalist and Communist Chinese
factions were determined to resume the civil war placed on hiatus while
they fought the Japanese. As the power struggle escalated into full-scale
warfare, the American presence in China withered. Most Marine Corps
ground elements had left by 1947, and the last air units were withdrawn
by 1949. The most forward-based Marine presence in the Asia-Pacific
region, a single brigade based on Guam, was disbanded in 1947.
The legacy of Asian colonialism, as practiced by imperial Japan, also
posed an intractable problem. The strategically located Korean peninsula
had been fought over for centuries. Unbeknownst to most people, in 1882
the United States entered into a trade and protection treaty with the
"Hermit Kingdom" (Korea), but later stood by as the armies of China,
Russia, and finally, Japan, marched across the hapless country.
Japan annexed Korea as a "protectorate" after the Russo-Japanese
War and ruled it as a colony from 1910 until 1945. Japan was a harsh
ruler, and neither dissent nor nationalist sympathies were tolerated. In
March 1919, a fledgling Korean nationalist movement promulgated a
non-violent declaration of independence, and Japanese police
slaughtered thousands in the months that followed.
Japanese dominance in Korea ended in August 1945 when the Soviet
Union invaded the peninsula from Siberia. The Soviets leapfrogged
along the northeastern coast in a series of amphibious assaults and
overland marches against disorganized Japanese resistance. As had been
previously agreed, the United States occupied the southern part of the
peninsula up to an arbitrary line on a map-the 38th parallel. Both sides
installed a local government, an aggressive Communist "democratic
republic" in the north, and a squabbling and intractable "strong man
democracy" in the south. The United States and the Soviets withdrew
from Korea in 1948. The Soviets, however, left behind an entrenched
dictatorship, arms sufficient to equip a powerful army, and a large cadre
of combat-trained Koreans. Many North Koreans had been educated in
the USSR or had fought either with the Communist forces in the Chinese
civil wars, or in the Soviet Army in World War II.
The thankless presence in war-torn China was not the only problem
faced by the Marine Corps from 1945 through 1949. The deadliest threat
came from the halls of Congress, where a speedy movement was
underway to disassemble America's massive wartime naval and military
establishments. Each of the larger services fought to preserve its
manpower and programs. Once again the small Marine Corps appeared
the obvious target for massive budget cuts. Just as their predecessors had
once argued that the machine gun and massed artillery made amphibious
assaults impossible, a new generation of theorists argued that atomic
bombs, targeted against shipping and the troops crowded into a
beachhead, made amphibious assaults impossible. In other words, there
was no longer a need for amphibious specialists, and the Marine Corps
was deemed by many in Congress as an unnecessary luxury.
A War Department-Congressional alliance, with the sympathy of
President Harry Truman's administration, wanted to streamline defense
functions by absorbing land-based air assets into the newly independent
Air Force, and by having the Army assume all significant ground combat
functions. The Marine Corps, if it still existed, would once more be a
small naval security force, and would fill the old role of "colonial
infantry." Radical air power enthusiasts argued that the Air Force would
become the nation's means of projecting its might around the world.
Long-range bombers would be able to reach any spot on the globe and
A-bomb any enemy into submission.
The potential dissolution of the Navy was never a serious threat, but
the admirals still found themselves strategically disadvantaged. Just as in
the 1920s, the Army's generals were preparing to replay its role in the last
war, earnestly preparing for a conventional and nuclear struggle in
central Europe. They were not interested in allocating resources to aid the
Navy by capturing advanced bases.
Elements in the leadership of the Marine Corps were quick to
perceive a threat to their existence and launched a massive publicity
campaign in an effort to blunt Congressional tactics. The result was
codified in the National Security Act of 1947, which not only assigned
the Corps specific missions as amphibious specialists and the nation's
"force in readiness," but also specified minimum force levels. Ironically,
the Marine Corps found itself with more missions than it could
reasonably carry out, including the capture of advanced bases intended
for Air Force use. Another mission, in tacit acknowledgment of the new
global strategic situation, was the protection of American interests in the
Not content with simple survival, planners again sought to reinvent
the Corps along more modern lines. One promising new technology was
the helicopter, which would allow assault troops to be inserted into
enemy territory from ships standing far out to sea, where they were less
vulnerable to attack. Diffusion of the support ships over a larger area
would also make them an uninviting target for nuclear attack. By 1948, a
Marine Corps Special Board speculated on the potential role of the
helicopter for air assaults in support of amphibious operations, although
the Corps had only acquired its first helicopter in January of that year.
If the Corps had a visionary in matters of armored doctrine, it was Lt.
Col. Arthur J. ("Jeb") Stuart, the commanding officer of the 1st Tank
Battalion in the bitter battles on Peleliu and Okinawa. Assessing war
plans focusing on potential conflicts around the periphery of Europe and
Asia, Stuart advocated the development of better anti-tank weapons and
doctrine for the infantry to counter Soviet-style mechanized assaults, as
well as more effective utilization of the tank in amphibious assaults.
Stuart's vision also extended to the development of amphibian tractors
capable of providing more protection against hostile fire, and specialized
engineer vehicles for breaching minefields and defensive works.
Unfortunately, neither the fresh ideas nor the new missions came
with money attached. Despite the provisions of the National Security
Act, by 1950 shrinking budgets had reduced the two surviving active duty
divisions to skeletal proportions. The entire Corps consisted of eleven
under-strength rifle battalions in two divisions, when each division
should have fielded nine. Further plans were afoot to reduce the Fleet
Marine Force to six rifle battalions. There were also two active duty tank
battalions, the 1st and 2nd, supported by two Reserve tank battalions, the
10th and 1lth. The 1st Tank Battalion, which consisted of only a single
company of obsolete M4A3 tanks, supported the 1st Marine Division.
Training suffered as school units were reduced or eliminated. The
tank and amphibian tractor schools were merged into a single Tracked
Vehicle School Company in 1947. Tank crewmen were trained "on the
job," within active field units.
The strong suit of the Corps was its Reserve system, an outstanding
127,000-man reservoir. Its members trained weekly while pursuing
civilian careers. Of this number, 98% of the officers and 25% of the
enlisted personnel were wartime veterans. Limited funds and facilities,
however, handicapped effective training. Unfortunately, the Reserve
was ill-equipped. The Reserve 10th Tank Battalion, for example, had
only four worn-out M4A3s tanks, and a single VTR. Both active-duty
and Reserve tank units used late-war versions of the M4A3 medium tank
with improved suspension, armor protection, and armament. The
improved POA-CWS-H5 flame tank version of the M4A3 replaced the
older vehicles used in World War II. The H5 mounted the long-range
flame gun alongside either a 75mm. gun or 105mm. howitzer. By 1950,
the Marine Corps had standardized all their vehicles to the more powerful
105mm. howitzer. Not every tank, however, was actually fitted with the
larger weapon, and most remained in storage.
The newer M26 "General Pershing" tank was not yet in common
use. In 1945, the Corps Commandant authorized purchase of the M26,
and by late 1949 the Corps had 102 of these tanks on hand. Most were in
storage, and the two active-duty tank battalions had only five each, to be
used for "... training purposes limited to special exercises, experiments,
and demonstrations." The most operating experience with this new tank
was vested in the 2nd Tank Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The battalion eventually received ten of the new tanks, but requests for
additional vehicles were refused. The 2nd Division routinely deployed a
tank platoon to accompany the Battalion Landing Team aboard ship in
the Mediterranean. In 1948, Lt. Col. Robert Denig requested a sufficient
stock of vehicles to equip this platoon with five M26s, but the old M4A3s
were used on all or most of these deployments.
Although designed and constructed to counter the monstrous
German Panther and Tiger tanks in World War II, the M26 only saw
limited service in the waning days of the war in Europe. With thicker
armor, improved mobility, and a powerful 90mm. main cannon, it was
one of the most formidable tanks in the world. It was also one of the most
expensive to operate, and was significantly heavier than the old M4A3s,
which also made it harder to transport and land. There was another
drawback: the explosive power of the 90mm. shell was not as effective as
its 75mm. counterpart in the older tanks, which made the M26 less
desirable as an infantry support tank-and infantry support was still the
primary role of Marine Corps armor.
In addition to the main gun, the M26 carried two 30-caliber machine
guns, one coaxial (mounted to fire parallel to the main cannon), the other
low on the right side of the front of the hull. The latter gun was hard to aim
without tracer bullets. According to Nik Frye, a talkative and naturally
outgoing tank crewman, "The secret was to shoot at the ground, and then
track it [onto the target]." Most of these vehicles were stored at the
Barstow Depot in the California desert. Marine Corps doctrine also
provided for an anti-tank platoon equipped with five tanks as part of each
rifle regiment, but these units existed only on paper.
Warrant Officer "Willie" Koontz and Sgt. A. J. Selinsky had a
platoon of M26 tanks in Headquarters Company of the 1st Tank
Battalion. Basilo Chavarria, a quiet young man with a subtle sense of
humor, was raised in Texas and served for three years before he was
assigned to this platoon. "Before the Korean deal," he recalled, "they
decided that they were going to Barstow and pick up a platoon of M26s in
Headquarters and Service [Company]. Sort of a training [platoon].
Alternate guys went through.... June comes around, and here we are
with one platoon of M26s, and all the others with them old tanks."
Many of the tankers never saw the M26s. Bill Robinson was a strong
stocky man who had enlisted in 1946. By 1950, he was a technical
sergeant and tank commander in the 2nd Platoon of A Company. His
experience with the M26 tank before the war in Korea was all but
nonexistent. "I think they ran one school through to train a few men on
the new tanks," was about all he could say of that model.
The new and much smaller Marine Corps offered a chance for more
realistic training, but the opportunity passed by unrealized. Captain Gearl
M. "Max" English, a thin man with a strong east-Texas accent and
cackling laugh, was a veteran of the tank fighting on Roi-Namur, Saipan,
Tinian, and Iwo Jima with the 4th Tank Battalion. In 1950, Captain
English was in Headquarters and Services Company of the stunted 1st
Tank Battalion. "Things were happening," he said. "Somebody knew that
something was going to take place. We had an awful lot of maneuvers.
We only had the Fifth Marines. We were out night and day training with
Tankers always emphasized tank-infantry training. We broke our
asses to do something for them. We would play-fight all day long.
We would try to get them to stay in a foxhole and run a tank over
them, and oh, no, they wouldn't do that. We would take a couple of
crew members out of another tank, and put them in the same place
and run over it to show the infantry that it wouldn't hurt them. Then
we would tell the infantry to lay down like you're wounded, and let
us come pick them up. Oh, no, not! We lay our own troops down
there, and we would pick them up.
We trained to where they had confidence in us. That damn tank
can come over you without killing you. They can pick you up
and pull you in the escape hatch, and get you out.
A natural leader, English would put his experience to work in Korea,
where his ability to make quick battlefield decisions would be repeatedly
Another tanker, Joe Sleger, lamented that the new generation of
infantrymen were not very well informed about the power of tanks:
"They also took some of the tanks and went around to the infantry units
for indoctrination. Koontz went out one day, and he was giving the
lecture on the twenty-six [M26]. Some infantry guy there asked him if he
threw a grenade in the track, if that would hurt it." Sleger paused a
moment with a smile. "Old Willie said, 'I could stand here and I could
piss on that track, and it would rust through before it [a grenade] would do
The tall and quiet C. J.
Excerpted from Marine Corps Tank Battles in Korea
by Oscar E. Gilbert
Copyright © 2003 by Oscar E. Gilbert.
Excerpted by permission.
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