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Seoul Saturday Night
Who desires peace, should prepare for war ... no one dare offend or insult a power of recognized superiority in action.
— From the Latin of Vegetius, MILITARY INSTITUTUIONS OF THE ROMANS
ON 8 JUNE 1950 newspapers of the city of P'yongyang, capital of Chosun Minjujui Inmun Kongwhakuk, the North Korean People's Republic, printed a manifesto of the Central Committee of the United Democratic Patriotic Front. The manifesto announced as a goal for the Central Committee, elections to be held throughout both North and South Korea, and the parliament so elected to sit in Seoul no later than 15 August, fifth anniversary of the liberation from Japan.
No mention was made of the Taehan Minkuk, the Republic of Korea, which south of the 38th parallel was United Nations-sponsored and American-backed, and of which Dr. Syngman Rhee was president.
The manifesto was picked up by Tass, Russian news service, and reprinted in Izvestia, 10 June 1950. By devious routes a copy of Izvestia came to the Library of Congress, untranslated from the Russian.
This manifesto made interesting reading. It was a storm signal. It seems a pity no one in the West bothered to read it.
But then, if it had been read, it would have been ignored. Storm signals had been flying for more than four years. In Asia, Nationalist China had fallen. There was Communist-directed war in Indo-China. World Communism, from its power base in Soviet Russia, undeterred by the nuclear bomb, continued its aggressive course, causing misgivings in the West, making its nations sign defensive alliances.
But the West did not prepare for trouble. It did not make ready, because its peoples, in their heart of hearts, did not want to be prepared.
It would not have mattered if anyone had read the P'yongyang Manifesto.
Senior Colonel Lee Hak Ku, thirty years old, was Operations Officer, II Corps, of the Inmun Gun, the North Korean People's Army, and all week he had been working very hard. Since 15 June 1950, every regular division of the Inmun Gun had moved from their normal billets and had been deployed along planned lines of departure just north of the 38th parallel. It had meant staff work, and lots of it.
Only now, as darkness fell on Saturday, 24 June, could Lee Hak Ku allow the hard lines of his square young face to relax, and to permit himself leisurely to enjoy a cigarette. In a people's republic Saturday night meant nothing, but every unit of the Inmun Gun had been in position since midnight 23 June, and for a few hours there was really nothing more to do.
And that was good staff work.
Standing relaxed in his somewhat shoddy Russian-style blue uniform with its flaring breeches and polished high boots, Senior Colonel Lee could review the turmoil and ferment of the last few days. Eighty thousand men had been moved, some divisions coming down from the high and distant Yalu, and it had all been done smoothly. Beyond doubt, the running dogs of the American imperialists, the South Koreans, suspected nothing.
The commander of the Inmun Gun, Chai Ung Jun, and his staff of veterans from the Manchurian wars, could take deep pride in their work. Since the meeting of high Soviet and Chinese Communist officials in Peiping in January to plan the invasion of the United Nations and American-backed Republic of Korea, the Inmun Gun had achieved prodigies for so small and so new an army.
There had been the dumps and depots to build near the parallel, to hold the mountains of arms and equipment shipped in by freighter from the Soviet Union. There had been the crews of the 105th Armored Brigade to train in the use of the Russian T-34, the main battle tank that had stopped panzer leader Guderian in front of Moscow, and young fliers to be accustomed to the intricacies of YAK fighters. And there had been the thousands of Korean-extraction veterans of the Chinese Communist Forces to reintegrate into the Inmun Gun. With Chiang Kai-shek defeated and his Nationalist remnants exiled to Taiwan, Red China could release her Korean-speaking soldiers; by June 1950, they made up 30 percent of the Inmun Gun.
On Friday, 23 June, shortly before midnight, 90,000 men stood ready in the misting rain. In addition to their 150 medium tanks and 200 aircraft, they had small arms and mortars in profusion, backed up by plentiful 122mm howitzers and 76mm self-propelled guns. They were seven infantry divisions, one armored brigade, a separate infantry regiment, a motorcycle regiment, and a brigade of the fanatical Bo An Dae, the Border Constabulary.
Beginning 18 June, Senior Colonel Lee Hak Ku and his brother officers had seen to it that their orders went out.
First, Reconnaissance Order 1, in the Russian language, had come down from Intelligence, directing that information concerning South Korean defensive positions along each division's projected route of attack be obtained and verified no later than 24 June.
The Inmun Gun had hundreds of spies across the parallel, many of them working directly for the American advisers to the South Korean Army. The mysterious officers in Intelligence, who wrote in Russian script, received what they asked for.
By 22 June the divisions issued their operations orders, in Korean. The 1st, 3rd, and 4th divisions attacked down the Uijongbu Corridor toward Seoul, armored elements leading. Other divisions attacked in the east. Common soldiers were to be told they were on maneuvers. Officers were to know it was war.
Red-eyed, smoking too much, young Senior Colonel Lee waited now in his Operations Post, listening to the torrential showers of the beginning monsoon slash down into the green paddies outside, smelling the pungent odors of earth and fertilizer the rains released. He was tired, but he was also spring-tight with a disciplined excitement, waiting for the hours to pass. He looked at his cheap watch. He did not have long to wait.
The orders had gone out, and he knew they would be obeyed. Aside from its fanatical core of Russian-and Chinese-trained veterans, there were many conscripts, rice Communists, in the ranks of the Inmun Gun. But even these men would obey.
Hesitancy, in the Inmun Gun, was cured neatly, efficiently, and permanently by the application of a pistol to the back of the head.
As Saturday waned, Major General Chae Byong Duk, Deputy Commander—under Syngman Rhee—of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, was not content. For "Fat" Chae, five foot five, two hundred and fifty pounds, darling of the Seoul cocktail set, was not completely a fool.
For years the Communists north of the parallel had been making trouble in the South. They made rice raids across the border; they fomented disorder and subversion in the cities. They incited and supplied the rebel guerrillas in the southern mountains, doing everything in their power to destroy the Republic of Korea. They kept a third of Fat Chae's Army tied down on constabulary work.
March, particularly, had been a bad month. But then, unaccountably, all activity had ceased. Fat Chae was worried.
Chae had talked to the Americans about it, but the Korean Military Advisory Group was not concerned. One officer told Chae that the Communists were becoming more sophisticated, settling down at last. The Americans seemed to feel that when Communists left you alone, it was all to the good. But Chae worried. He might be handier with a whiskey and soda than with command of the Army, but he was not completely a fool.
Chae had read Time, which three weeks before had printed a splendid article on the Korean Military Advisory Group and its work with the Korean Armed Forces. Like most people outside the United States, Chae Byong Dukknew that what Time printed was not only true, but official.
Time had said the Republic of Korea Army was the best outside the States. That was one thing that comforted him, as more and more reports reached Seoul from refugees from the northern regime, informers, and his own officers stationed along the parallel. Because General Chae Byong Duk had no great trust in Communists, despite the Americans.
But now the bright lights were coming on in Seoul, and, shrugging, Chae Byong Duk prepared for the evening's battle. As he got into his well-tailored American-style uniform, he knew that many of his officers from the border would be down this night, and before they departed their posts they would sign passes for many of their men, who also liked to get away now and then. The American advisers had been very persuasive with their discussions of troop morale.
It grew dark. General Chae prepared to go out. He could accomplish nothing by brooding, and he might accomplish a great deal drinking with the Americans.
As evening fell, among the teeming, raucous hordes of white-clad people thronging the streets and alleyways from North Gate to the massive railway station to the odorous reaches of 'Yongdungp'o, the talk was of rice and of rain. As always before the monsoon, the price of grain had skyrocketed; the green seedlings, already transplanted, were patching. Only the monsoon rains, with promise of a good crop, would bring ease to the people's mind.
Even now a great black cloud was forming over North Mountain, and toilers, shopkeepers, even yangban—those who did not work—watched it hopefully. There was prayer that a storm, indeed, was brewing.
Never far from the smell of the brown soil, or starvation, the desperately poor masses of Koreans talked of rain and rice.
But as the dark clouds soaked up the last of the fading daylight, the current of Seoul's social life quickened. It had been a hot and muggy day, with showers in the morning. At the Sobingo Gun Club on the banks of the Han, the KMAG officers and civilian members had worked up a fine sweat over the traps. With the last clay target shattered, they had eased their bodies with a short dip in the KMAG pool, followed by a long cool one at poolside.
Slowly, the American colony came to life. The largest American mission in the world was based in Seoul, two thousand strong, and they had had a busy week.
Foster Dulles had been in town. He'd got the usual tour, in VIP fashion: up to Uijongbu on the parallel, to be snapped staring across no man's land, surrounded by grinning ROK officials. The usual press release had to be handled smoothly: something about continuing American interest in South Korea, and the pride in its progress toward democracy and a vitalized economy. After that, Dulles got back on his plane at Kimpo, to his own and the American Mission's relief.
But from the roof gardens of the Naija to the lounge of the Traymore, in the carefully cordoned embassy bars where men and women gathered, there was no talk of crops. Over tax-free liquor, the colony laughed over Foster's visit, and over the official who had been caught keeping North Korea's Number One female spy. This man had even bought the woman a short-wave radio, and it was said the ROK's would shoot her.
In spite of American influence, the ROK's were still extremely brutal to leftist elements in their midst. Of course, they could not shoot the American official.
There had been a child, towheaded yet, the American wives in Seoul told each other. Some American couple would, of course, adopt it.
Now the embassy taxi service began to hum, ferrying couples from the Traymore to the Banto, and from the Banto to the Chisan. Two topflight cocktail parties were scheduled, and there was the regular Saturday night dance at that palatial symbol of midcentury Occidental culture, the KMAG Officers' Open Mess.
None of the Americans knew that Captain Vyvyan Holt of the British Legation had advised His Majesty's subjects to get out of town. Like Chae Byong Duk, Captain Vyvyan was uneasy. He had heard things.
American Intelligence, Seoul-bound, heard things, too. They reported them. But each report crashed headlong into a wall of belief that despite the recent takeover in Czechoslovakia, the unpleasantness in Berlin, and the military conquest of China, Red designs for the world were not too inimical to those of the West. And since Topside failed to worry, Intelligence relaxed.
So behind its walls and screens, carefully cordoned from the distasteful Orient about them, the American colony went about its Saturday-night business. It was no different from any other American colony, from the Straits of Gibraltar to Hong Kong, no better, and no worse. It was certainly no wiser.
As the bars filled in Seoul, Brigadier General William L. Roberts, lately commanding KMAG, the Korean Military Advisory Group, was on a States-bound ship. His time was in; he was going home. And his tour had been capped by an interview by Time.
Time had quoted him correctly: "The South Koreans have the best damn army outside the United States!"
The ROK's had eight divisions. Except those fighting guerrillas in the South, they were armed with American M-1 rifles. The guerrilla fighters had to make do with old Jap Model 99's. The ROK's had machine guns, of course, and some mortars, mostly small. They had five battalions of field artillery to back up the infantry divisions, all with the old, short-range Model M-3 105mm howitzer, which the United States had junked.
The best damn army outside the United States had no tanks, no medium artillery, no 4.2inch mortars, no recoilless rifles. They had no spare parts for their transport. They had not even one combat aircraft.
They didn't have any of those things because the American Embassy didn't want them to have them. KMAG was not under the United States Army, or even responsible to the aloof and powerful satrap in Tokyo, MacArthur. Because the United States was determined to show the world that its intentions in Korea were nonaggressive, KMAG was under the State Department.
Most KMAG officers recognized this policy was nonaggressive. But as they told their Korean colleagues, who asked plaintively about guns and jets, "You can't fight city hall."
Ambassador John J. Muccio had been instructed to take no chances of the South Koreans attacking the Communists to the north. An attack would certainly convince the Soviets that America was not really bent on co-existence.
Ambassador Muccio had taken none, though his First Secretary, Harold Noble, had announced, "The ROK's can not only stop an attack but move north and capture the Communist capital in two weeks."
Whether they could or not, such reassurance was good for ROK morale.
Lynn Roberts had told Time that while the troops were excellent, the Korean officers' corps was not so hot. After all, in only eleven months staffs and commanders could not be made and trained, starting from scratch. Lynn Roberts, a professional soldier, also knew that soldiers are only as good as their officers make them. But that kind of attitude sounded un-American and was not popular in Washington, and there was no point in playing it up.
Not knowing the kind of tough, doctrinaire, disciplined armies that were being built in Asia by the Communists from Vietnam to Manchuria, KMAG and Ambassador Muccio really did not expect the ROK's to have to fight.
Now, sailing home on Saturday night, 24 June 1950, Lynn Roberts' sense of timing, at least, was perfect.
As the music started up in Seoul, in Kokura, Japan, Major General William Frishe Dean was guest of honor at a 24th Division Headquarters costume party. Which was one way for infantrymen to try to forget Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and his fat-cutting, the supercarrier, the Strategic Air Command, and the nagging feeling that in the Atomic Age footsloggers might be obsolete.
Bill Dean came as a. Korean yangban, one of the aristocratic class who did no work, with a black stovepipe hat perched on his close-cropped head, and a long, flapping robe covered his two-hundred-pound, six-foot frame. The 24th Division Staff thought he was hilarious.
Bill Dean remarked to his wife, who also came dressed as a Korean—they had both been in the Occupation Forces—that he felt a bit ridiculous. Besides, as the evening wore on, the hard hat hurt.
It was Sunday morning in Seoul now, and the embassy bars were closing. Only a few dreaming—or drunken—young people still lingered in the KMAG Officers' Open Mess. It was almost dawn, and even the private parties were dying.
Any young officer who had not made out by now never would.
Excerpted from This Kind of War by T.R. Fehrenbach. Copyright © 1963 T.R. Fehrenbach. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 18, 2014
Written in the early 1960s, the book seems a bit dated. The book suffers from some prejudices that were common at the time. I found some of the reading interesting, especially the POW issues the United Nations faced with the North Korean and Chinese prisoners. It come across bit "politically incorrect" to a modern history buff. It's not a bad book though.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 27, 2014
I read quite a lot, and I have never encountered a book with more editing errors than this work. It got frustrating in fact. Other than that, an informative interesting read. Fife, Wife, Life are not interchangeable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 4, 2015
No text was provided for this review.