After Communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the early stages of the Korean War were marked by huge advances up and down the Korean peninsula in which United States, South Korean and the United Nations (U.N.) forces fought against North Korean and Communist Chinese forces.

In November 1950, 300,000 Chinese soldiers attacked American and U.N. forces along the Chongchon Yalu and Rivers sending them into a chaotic retreat. Describing the fighting during the American retreat from the Chongchon River in November 1950, Reginald Thompson wrote, "It was a game of blind man's bluff in these wild rugged irregular hills in which the enemy moved freely, easily eluding the groping arms of the Americans by day, and sweeping down upon them blind in the night, with devastating fury and magnificent discipline. Not a shot was fired by the Chinese until they were within thirty yards of the target...Meanwhile the Americans were road-bound with the immense weight of useless weapons. The guns were rolled back. The great columns had gone into reverse. For a hundred miles the huge vehicles crammed the narrowing road lanes nose to tail." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey]

A ceasefire presented by the United Nations to China shortly after the Battle of the Chongchon River on December 11, 1950 was rejected by the Chinese government which was convinced of the invincibility of the Chinese “volunteer” army after its victory in that battle and the wider offensive that it had mounted. Mao Zedong and the Chinese leadership wanted to demonstrate China's desire for a total victory through the expulsion of the UN forces from Korea. [Source: Wikipedia]

As the Chinese troops approached the 38th parallel — about where the border between North and South Korea is today — the commanding Chinese general told Mao that Chinese forces sustained heavy casualties and lacked supplies and vehicles. In his judgement, the general said, it made sense to regroup and "fight again in the spring." Mao believed that stopping at the 38th parallel would give legitimacy to the international border so he ordered the "volunteers" to press head. Stalin provided 2,000 additional trucks. Chinese and North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel on December 31 and seized Seoul again on January 4, 1951 but were soon driven back.

Ridgeway Takes Over Leadership of American Forces

With U.S. and U.N. forces in Korea beleaguered and demoralized by their humiliating retreat in 1950, and American prestige and the future of South Korea on the line, American forces were turned around in a matter of weeks by Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, who led the 8th army.

Historian David Halberstam wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “MacArthur's daring landing at Inchon on September 15, 1950, pushed the North Koreans almost to the Yalu River on the Chinese border. MacArthur, however, had made a disastrous miscalculation — that the Chinese would not enter the war. In November 1950, 300,000 Chinese routed U.N. troops, forcing a retreat. It was at this dark hour, following the death of Lt. Gen. Walton Walker in a jeep accident, that Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway was ordered to Korea. [Source: David Halberstam, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2007]

“Ridgway, however taciturn in temperament, was also courageous and fair-minded. A brilliant tactician, he was also a general who was willing to share the hardships of life on the front. While MacArthur had conducted the war from Tokyo, never spending a night on the peninsula, Ridgway rarely departed South Korea. As a consequence, he earned the respect and even the admiration of the men he commanded.

“He was, moreover, a strategic genius. Immediately upon arriving in Korea, he had sized up the situation, soon discerning that the Chinese were ill-equipped and under-supplied. The key, he believed, would be to bring in American firepower, inflicting casualties on the Chinese until a stalemate was achieved. Only then, he was convinced, would the enemy be persuaded to come to the negotiating table.

“In every respect, his analysis proved prescient. By March 1951, Ridgway's leadership and tactical breakthroughs had turned near-certain defeat of U.N. forces into a stalemate. On April 11, 1951, President Truman removed MacArthur from command; Ridgway succeeded him as Allied Commander of the Far East. A cease-fire was declared on July 27, 1953. The peninsula remained divided at the 38th parallel.”

Ridgway’s Love of Intelligence

David Halberstam wrote in his book “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War”: “More than most senior American commanders of his era, Matt Ridgway had a passion for intelligence. The American Army had always taken its intelligence functions somewhat casually; the men assigned to intelligence duty tended to have been passed over in their careers, not quite good enough for the prized command positions. Often the lower ranks in the Army's intelligence shop were very good, but their superiors were not respected by their peers. Perhaps it was the nature of the modern American Army — it had so much force and materiel that when it finally joined battle, intelligence tended to be treated as a secondary matter, on the assumption that any enemy could simply be outmuscled and ground down. [Source: “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War”, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 499-501]

“There were a number of reasons for Ridgway's obsession with intelligence. Some of it was his own superior intellectual abilities; he was simply smarter than most great commanders. Some of it was his innate conservatism, his belief that the better your intelligence, the fewer of your own men's lives you were likely to sacrifice. A great deal of it was his training in the airborne, where you made dangerous drops behind enemy lines with limited firepower and were almost always outnumbered and vulnerable to larger enemy forces.... George Allen — who as a young CIA field officer in Vietnam briefed Ridgway daily for several weeks as the French war in Indochina was coming to its climax in 1954, later said he had never dealt with a man so acute and demanding, not even Walter Bedell Smith, who had been Dwight Eisenhower's tough guy in Europe and later took over the CIA. Ridgway's sense of the larger picture was so accurate, Allen believed, because of his determination to get the smallest details right. It was Ridgway's subsequent report on what entering the war in Indochina would mean — five hundred thousand to one million men, forty engineering battalions, and significant increases in the draft — that helped keep America out of the war for a time....

“The CIA, blocked from the Korean theater by MacArthur and Willoughby, was soon welcomed back. Starting at Eighth Army headquarters and running through the command, there was going to be a healthy new respect for the enemy. The Chinese had identifiable characteristics on the battlefield. They also had good, tough soldiers. Some units were clearly better than others, some division commanders better than others, and it was vital to know which these were and where they were. Now Ridgway intended to study them. There would be no more windy talk about the mind of the Oriental. The questions would be: How many miles can they move on a given night? How fixed are their orders once a battle begins? How much ammo and food do they carry into each battle — that is, how long can they sustain a given battle? Ridgway was going to separate battlefield realities from theoretical discussions about the nature of Communism. The essential question was: How exactly can we tilt the battlefield to our advantage?

Ridgway Prepares to Fight Back Against the Chinese

David Halberstam wrote in“Ridgway now intended to play at least as big a role in the selection of the battlefield as his Chinese opposites. For a time, he started his day by getting in a small plane and, with Lynch at the controls, flying as low as they could, looking for the enemy. With that many Chinese coming at his army, there had to be signs of them, evidence that they existed, but he saw almost nothing. That he found nothing did not, as had happened in November after Unsan, create a lack of respect for them — rather it brought greater respect for the way they could move around seemingly invisible. Gradually Ridgway began to put together a portrait of who the Chinese were and how they fought — and so, how he intended to fight them. The Chinese were good, no doubt about that. But they were not supermen, just ordinary human beings from a very poor country with limited resources. [Source: “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War”, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 499-501]

Not only did the Chinese operate from a large technological disadvantage, they had significant logistical and communications weaknesses. The bugles and flutes announcing their attacks could be terrifying in the middle of the night, but the truth was that, with only musical instruments, they could not react quickly to sudden changes on the battlefield. If they had a breakthrough, they often lacked the capacity to exploit it immediately. That was a severe limitation; it meant that a great deal of blood might be shed without their getting adequate benefits. In addition, certain logistical limitations were built into any attack they made — the ammunition and food they could carry was finite indeed. The American Army could resupply in a way inconceivable to the Chinese and so could sustain a given battle far longer.

“Ridgway spent his first few weeks in country pressing everyone for information about the Chinese fighting machine. By the middle of January, he felt he knew much of what he needed to know. This war, he decided, was no longer going to be primarily about gaining terrain as an end in itself, but about selecting the most advantageous positions available, making a stand, and bleeding enemy forces, inflicting maximum casualties on them. The key operative word would be "pyrrhic." What he now sought was an ongoing confrontation in which every battle resulted in staggering losses for the Chinese. At a certain point, even a country with a demographic pool like China's had to feel the pain from the loss of good troops. He wanted to speed up that moment, to let his adversaries know that there were no more easy victories out there for the picking, no second shot at a big surprise attack. If the war was to be a grinder then the great question was: which side would do the more effective job of grinding up the other?

“The first thing Ridgway realized was that it was a disaster to retreat once the Chinese hit. The key to their offensive philosophy was to stab at a unit, create panic, and then, from advantageous positions already set up in its rear, maul it when it retreated. All armies are vulnerable in retreat, but an American unit, because of all its hardware, condemned to the narrow, bending Korean roads, was exceptionally so. What the Chinese had done at Kunuri [where Turkish units were mowed down attempting delaying actions], Ridgway learned, matched their MO when they fought the Nationalists in their civil war. But no one, it appeared, had been paying much attention.

“The disaster at Kunuri, he believed, had not been writ so large because the Chinese were such magnificent soldiers or even had such an overwhelming advantage in manpower. Even as far north and as vulnerable as they were, if the American units had been well buttoned down at night, if each unit had had interlocking fields of firepower with reliable flanking units (and had not counted on the ROKs to protect them), the outcome of the battle might have been different. Even at Kunuri, the military had had the capacity to resupply the troops by air until the Chinese were exhausted. Ridgway's long training as an airborne man was critical to the strategy he sought now. He meant to create strong islands of his own, sustain unit integrity with great fields of fire, and then let the enemy attack. It was, he believed, why Colonel John Michaelis, with his Twenty-seventh Regiment Wolfhounds, had been so much more successful than other regimental commanders in the early part of the war. Michaelis was an airborne guy, and he did not mind if his men were cut off as long as unit integrity was preserved. He knew he could always be resupplied by air. What Ridgway wanted to do was start the Eighth Army moving north again — for reasons of morale as much as anything.

Counter Attack in January 1951

The United Nations forces were able to muster enough strength for a counterattack on January 25, 1951. One American soldier told the Washington Post, “It was an unbearably cold and we were not too well equipped....The Chinese had broken contact with us and it was our job to go out and find them and see how badly they wanted to fight.”

They found the Chinese on January 29th. Under the cover of fog they advanced on a Chinese machine gun placement led by their platoon leader Bob McGovern, “He went ahead of everybody, bless his heart.. He said, ‘Follow me,’ and away we went.” Near the machine gun placement he had his rifle shot from his hands but he continued advancing anyway firing his pistol and throwing grenade.” He “went up ahead of us and threw himself into the trench and wiped them out.”

U.N. troops retook Seoul in March, 1951 and pushed the Chinese and North Korean forces across the 38th parallel. Mao ordered a counterattack with 100,000 men that were quickly surrounded. Thousands died trying to fight their way out and 17,000 prisoners were taken. After that the battle line became stabilized very nearly along the 38th parallel. There it remained for two weary years, with bitter fighting but little change, while a cease-fire agreement was negotiated.

Bloody Stalemate in the Korean War

After a huge Chinese offensive from November 1950 to January 1951 and massive American counter-attack in early 1951, the war settled into a stalemate near the 38th Parallel. By July 1952 both sides had constructed such strong defensive lines that neither could undertake a major offensive without suffering World-War-I like losses. In 1952, North Korea and China had 290,000 men on the front lines and another 600,000 in reserve. The U.N. countered with 250,000 troops on the line, backed by 450,000 reserves. [Source: James I. Marino, Military History magazine, April 2003]

From 1951 on, both sides found themselves engaged in a war of attrition reminiscent of the Western Front, where men lived in tunnels, redoubts and sandbagged forts behind barbed wire defenses. The war was generally fought with artillery and mines and in set-piece battles; at night patrols ventured into no man's land to raid enemy positions. There were also meatgrinder "hill-to-hill" struggles. The result was the loss of a one million more lives or more. [Source: Returned & Services League Of Australia]

The fighting stalled at 38th parallel but that doesn’t mean the fighting that continued for another two years wasn’t vicious and bloody. There were some large pitched battles as well as hand to hand struggles with bayonets, shovels and knives. Near the present DMZ the fighting was so intense that some hills that looked like they were covered in snow were actually draped in white layers of phosphorus residue from the 300,000 bombs dropped on them. Other hills were called red because of the amount of blood spilled there

During the stalemate period bloody battles were fought from entrenched positions for relatively small tactical objectives at places with names like Pork Chop Hill, Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge. The artillery fire at some of these places was so heavy that hills were reduced by 20 feet. So many mines were laid that even today hikers occasionally get their legs blown off.

As the war settled into a stalemate it became apparent that a negotiated truce was the only solution. The U.N. and North Korean leaderships signed an agreement on 27 July 1953. This agreement technically brought the war to an end, but a state of suspended hostilities continued to exist between North and South Korea.

See Separate Article on Bloody Battles

Frigid Cold of the Korean War

North Korea in the winter is a very cold place with bitter winds come from Siberia and blizzards arriving from the Japan Sea. Many soldiers suffered from severe frostbite and froze to death. One American general said even Genghis Khan wouldn’t have tried North Korea in the winter.” Even though the frigid temperatures led to many casualties, they also had some unexpected benefits. One soldier who lost all of his fingers and both of his feet told National Geographic that the cold "kept many of us from bleeding to death, since the blood froze in our wounds."

Describing the impact of the cold on the fighting near the Yalu River, A.K. Starbuck wrote in Military History magazine: “Bitter winds from Manchuria churned over the steep, granitic mountains and treacherous valleys of North Korea. The coldest weather in at least 40 years gripped the land. Numbed and miserable soldiers tried to keep warm around makeshift fires made in empty 50-gallon drums. Medical units began treating their first cases of frostbite. More and more, Korea became the proverbial ‘Hell froze over.’ It was necessary to mix alcohol with the gasoline to prevent gas lines from freezing in the vehicles and equipment. Blood plasma had to be heated for 90 minutes before it could be used. Medicines that were water-soluble froze, and sweat that accumulated in the soldiers’ boots froze during the night. The terrain of northern Korea, with its long v-shaped valleys, high craggy mountain ridges and the lack of any real discernible roads, along with the incredible numbing cold sweeping across the forward-moving army, contributed the elements of tragedy that shaped the battle to come. [Source: A.K. Starbuck, Military History magazine, December 1997]

“The U.S. Army’s 7th Division and other units were not prepared for arctic warfare. Few of the fighting units had arctic parkas. Yet they were ordered forward. On November 21, they were ordered to move across a riverbed containing what they had been told would be only ankle-deep water that would present no problem. The night before, however, upstream dams had been opened and the water released. The soldiers waded into frigid, waist-deep water with chunks of ice floating in it. After several unsuccessful attempts, the crossing was called off. Eighteen men suffered severe frostbite and had to have their frozen uniforms cut off.”

Fighting During the Stalemate Period of the Korean War

By the end of May 1951, the battle lines were established where today's Demilitarized Zone exists — northwestward from the Han River Estuary in the west, less than 30 miles from Seoul, to the north of the 38th Parallel on the east coast. The war had definitely entered a new phase. The fighting continued, but there would be no further large-unit ground operations involving dramatic advances and withdrawals up and down the length of the peninsula. Whereas maneuver and a fluid battlefield defined the initial phase of the Korean War, the remainder of the war was characterized by stalemate reminiscent of World War I trench warfare. Instead of a conflict that had as its purpose (for both opposing armies) the reunification of Korea, the war became a holding action. The issue of achieving a decisive military victory was no longer paramount and neither side had any desire to expand the scope of the conflict. As such, prospects of achieving a military armistice appeared promising.

Armistice negotiations began at Kaesong in July 1951. But late in August 1951, after the truce negotiations had been suspended, the U.N. resumed the offensive in order to drive the enemy farther back from the Hwachon Reservoir (Seoul's source of water and electric power) and away from the Chorwon-Seoul railroad. Success in each of these enterprises would straighten, shorten and give greater security to the U.N. front line, and inflict damage on the enemy. The U.N. put a major effort in the X Corps zone, using all five divisions in that corps to prosecute ridge-top and mountain actions. The U.S. 1st Marine Division, with ROK marine units attached, opened a drive against the northern portion of the Punchbowl August 31.

Day to Day Fighting Around the 38th Parallel

"Korea was, most of all, a ground war, and 'gravel crunchers' — infantry grunts — had a miserable time," wrote Korean War veteran Angus Deming in Newsweek. "The terrain was as much an enemy as the one that was shooting at us. There was always another hill to climb, and the weather seemed to be of two kinds: unbearable heat or unbearable cold."

Describing the early action he saw in fighting near the 38th Parallel, James Brady wrote in Parade magazine: “Mostly it was small firefights, patrols and ambushes, usually at night. I learned about staying cool and not doing stupid things. When darkness fell, we sent patrols through the barbed wire and down the ridgline across a stream, the Soyang-Gang, trying to grab a prisoner or to kill North Koreans. Meanwhile they came up Hill 749 and tried to kill us.”

“The second night I was there, the Koreans hit us with hundreds of mortar shells, then they came swarming against the barbed wire, where our machine guns caught them. At dawn there were six dead Koreans hanging on the wire. Except for Catholic wakes at home, I’d never seen a dead man. That morning we tracked wounded Koreans by their blood in the snow. The following day, a single incoming mortar hit some Marines gazing in the sun. Two died: one lost his legs. I hadn’t been in Korea a week.”

Companies with 213 men came out of the war with 58 survivors. One soldier told the Washington Post, Soldiers were getting knocked off so fast you didn’t want to know the name of your buddy because he wouldn’t be alive the next day.”

Battle for Hill 400: Bad Ass Fighting

Julian Morrison wrote: “At one end of the eight-inch trench knife was 20-year-old lieutenant David Hackworth. The receiving end of the blade was pressed against the neck of one of his men, who, despite being a combat veteran, was refusing to continue up the volcano-shaped mountain toward the 40 waiting Chinese. "I'd just as soon cut your throat as screw with you," the lieutenant whispered. "You either go on this raid or die. Make up your mind." The soldier decided to Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse-that was the motto of the Wolfhound Raiders, a Special Forces unit. After a string of daredevil successes, they'd been given the daunting task of taking Hill 400-the region's highest point and a key North Korean stronghold. go. [Source: Julian Morrison, One of the Most Bad Ass Stories Ever Told, wolferadio11.wordpress.com, October 2, 2009. Dick Anderson resides in Oscoda, Michigan and is a Korean War Veteran.]

“At midnight on November 4, 1951, the 39 Raiders jumped off. Two hours later they were under the Chinese perimeter wire. Stealth was their greatest asset, so when Hackworth unexpectedly spotted a sentry's head sticking out of a trench, the Raider leader bellied up behind the enemy, who had fallen asleep on duty. For the second time that night, Hackworth grabbed his trench knife, and then in one swift move he cupped his victim's mouth, snapped his head back, and slit his throat. He continued down the trench.

“The Raiders were about to attack when one of their men, Jimmie Mayamura, reported that the enemy force was greater than anticipated-well over 200. But before the Americans could reassess the game plan, the hill exploded. U.S. artillery began to rain down like a steel curtain on the Chinese positions. The Raiders scurried forward but were met with a hail of grenades. Their only chance was to close with the enemy. Jack Speed led his men in a wild charge up the hill and piled into the trenches, guns blazing. The price was high: three Raiders killed, 20 wounded.

“One heavy machine-gun nest was raking another Raider position. William Smith and James Salazar volunteered to take it out. They ran forward. Salazar laid down suppressing fire as Smith hurled two antitank grenades toward the bunker. A direct hit. A thunderous explosion threw dirt, metal, and flesh in every direction. As they hurried back to their positions, both men were cut down. Smith's momentum carried him a few more feet, rolling him into Hackworth's arms, where he died.

“The Raiders fanned out and broke for the top of the hill, coming right up under their umbrella of 60 mm mortar support. The Chinese stood their ground and fought for their lives. "Grenade!" someone yelled. Hackworth dived for cover. A second later, the frag rolled under his chest. "His ass went into orbit-at least 10 or 15 feet," according to Jack Speed, who saw his CO hit the ground on fire, his left arm hanging off at the shoulder. "I yelled out, -.The Old Man's dead!'"

“As dawn broke, the battered Raiders found themselves scattered all over the battlefield: Chief Denny was shot in both arms, and Al Hearn, lying next to him, was blinded by a head injury, so Hearn held the rifle and Denny directed his fire. Tex Garvin was crippled with leg wounds but remained in the firefight; Speed got hit in the belly: "I stuck a handkerchief into the hole and just kept shooting."

“The Old Man wasn't dead. His machine gun had taken the brunt of the grenade's explosion. After getting an arm sling and a shot of morphine from a medic, Hackworth assembled every conscious Raider for one last push. The 20 warriors crested the hill and got pinned down by a screaming machine gun. Mayamura and Robert Evans rushed it. They knocked out the crew, but it cost them their lives. Evans died before hitting the ground. Mayamura got shot in the eye and died a few days later. But Hill 400 had finally been captured. As relieving units arrived, the 30-odd badly wounded men helped one another to the aid station. There they saw seven hauntingly familiar corpses, each draped with a poncho. Last year on October 8, surviving Raiders-Hackworth, Speed, John Lipka, Julian Morrison, and Dave Forte-reunited in Hampton, Virginia to relive the horror-filled night they took Hill 400.

461st Ordinance Ammunition Company, Wonju Korea 1951 and 1952

On his experience in the Korean War in 1951 and 1052, Dick Anderson wrote: “Our Company was made up of draftees from the upper middle west, primarily from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and some from Michigan, Wisconsin and South Dakota. The average age was about 22/23 years. Some had just finished college, others just beginning new jobs and a few newlyweds. The training cadre was a reserve outfit from Massachusetts. Basic training took place at Camp Atterbury, Indiana and advanced Ordinance training at the Aberdeen Proving grounds, Aberdeen, Maryland as well as those with a different MOS to other training areas. We were then gathered at Atterbury and shipped to Korea in mid 1951 by way of Yokohama & Sasebo, Japan and on to Pusan, Korea, then by train to Wonju. [Source: Dick Anderson, The American Legion, legion.org/yourwords http://www.legion.org/yourwords/personal-experiences/211611/461st-ordinance-ammunition-company-wonju-korea-195152 |**|]

“We took over a large ammo dump (as they are known) and spent our entire service there. We established a second ammo dump at Inge, Korea just north of the 38th parallel. We were not in what they would call a combat area, although we were really not that far from it. The fighting was and had been moving north.

“A main truck route came through our area and the one thing that really brought the fighting and sacrifice to us by our GI's and Marines, were the trucks (refrigerated) that were known as the Graves Registration unit and frequently went by in convoy with the bodies of those who had made their everlasting sacrifice and were making a final journey home.

Aerial Warfare in the Korean War

Carl A. Posey wrote in Air & Space Magazine: “Fought mostly with the weapons of World War II, this Korean War would also debut a new kind of aerial combat, in which jets fought jets.” The first air action of the Korean War took place three days after the invasion that started the war in June 1950: “four B-29s from the 19th Bombardment Group struck what military targets they could find in the narrow band between Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and the 38th parallel, just to the north of the city. [Source: Carl A. Posey, Air & Space Magazine, July 2015]

“The 98th Bombardment Group deployed its B-29s to Yokota Air Base, some 20 miles west of downtown Tokyo, and about 720 miles from the fight. Under the aegis of FEAF Bomber Command, the Superforts began chipping away at the advancing North Koreans. Back in the United States, mothballed B-29s were refurbished and aircrews recalled.

“Initially at least, there was not much to fear from flak or from North Korea’s prop-driven Yaks and Sturmoviks, which were easy targets for the North American P-51s and Lockheed P-80 jet fighters that escorted the bombers. Over Japan in World War II, B-29s had encountered so little opposition that all but their tail guns had been removed, saving weight for bombs and fuel. For Korea, the guns were restored.

“Dean Allan was a left gunner who signed up for a four-year tour in January 1951, seven months after the war had started. He remembers the routine followed by the B-29 crews who flew night missions from Yokota. Most mission days had a briefing at six in the evening outlining the target, weather, and, as Allan says, “what to expect. We’d load the aircraft about 1900.” After the preflight checks, he says, the “chaplain came out and wished us luck. We’d usually take off about dusk, fly south to the ocean, cross Japan. We’d test-fire the guns about halfway between Japan and Korea. By the time we crossed into North Korea, we were up to 29 or 30,000 feet.”

“What forced the B-29s into exclusive night missions was the arrival of Soviet-built MiG-15s, but in the early days of the air war, the greatest enemy was less the North Koreans than strategic dithering by competing staffs. Analysts, generals, and politicians in Washington and Tokyo, determined to keep the war little, nervously pondered what might provoke Soviet or Chinese intervention.

“The result was a crippling web of constraints on the people fighting the air war. Targets north of the 38th parallel were off limits, so strategic bombing could not do what it did best: Strike far beyond the battle line to cut the enemy’s paths of reinforcement and supply. Lingering memories of the fire-bombing of Japan took incendiaries off the table, along with the area bombing of cities. Only sites of military import would be hit. And God help anyone who strayed across the Yalu River, which separated North Korea and Manchuria.

“Target selection was done in Tokyo, where General Douglas MacArthur had set up headquarters to rule the United Nations campaign. But more often than not, those targets were not where they were thought to be. The maps available at the beginning of the conflict did not describe Korea very well. What looked like a bridge on an old map might be revealed as a shallow ford across a stream.

Air War in the Korean War Stepped Up

Carl A. Posey wrote in Air & Space Magazine: “By the end of the summer of 1950, it seemed possible that the good guys would lose. Republic of Korea and U.N. forces had retreated to a toehold around Pusan, in the extreme southeastern corner of the peninsula. B-29s were sent to relieve some of the pressure on the encircled troops, joining flocks of P-51 Mustangs, Douglas B-26 Invaders, and fighter-bombers (Grumman F9Fs, McDonnell F2Hs, and Douglas A-1s) from offshore carriers to provide ground support — no easy task for the B-29s, which bombed from 10,000 feet. Despite such efforts, the North Korean juggernaut threatened to push the U.N. forces into the sea.” [Source: Carl A. Posey, Air & Space Magazine, July 2015]

Before The Inchon landing in September 1950, “The B-29s from Yokota and Kadena flew in the vanguard of the advance, hitting trains, bridges, ammunition and fuel factories, and depots — anything that fed North Korean forces in the south. As the effort evolved into a full-blown strategic bombing campaign, the North’s heavy industry was added to the target list.

“Despite the labyrinthine process of obtaining U.N. approval for every change in targeting, the original constraints on the B-29s began to drop away. At first, the medium bombers were not allowed to hit targets within 50 miles of the Yalu River, and were forbidden to cross the line into Manchuria. The 50-mile limit soon dropped to 20 miles, then several, then “as close to the border as may be necessary.” By the end of October, U.N. forces occupied all of North Korea. Still, Chinese territory stayed off limits. By then, the bombing campaign had destroyed much of what could be destroyed from the air, and the Superforts seemed to have worked themselves out of a job. MacArthur sent two bomber groups, the 22nd and 92nd, back to the United States.

According to globalsecurity.org: With the appearance in late 1950 of the MiG-15 jet fighter the air war entered a new phase. It was apparent that the MiG-15 was superior to any aircraft then in the American inventory. The MiG pilots were also very good, being (for the most part) veteran Russian fliers. But a counter to the MiG-15 soon emerged in the superb F-86A (and later, F-86E/F) Sabre. Many of the Sabre pilots were veterans of World War II and their expertise showed. Soon the Sabres and MiGs were mixing it up over northwest Korea, an area that became known as "MiG Alley." While the war turned into a stalemate on the ground, MiG Alley remained a hot spot throughout the war. For a time the B-29s continued bombing targets in northwest Korea by day, but when MiG-15s shot down five Superfortresses in a week in October 1951, the big bombers began attacking only at night. Air Force bombers kept Chinese airfields in North Korea out of action, while F-86 Sabres succeeded in downing so many MiG-15 jet fighters in "MiG Alley" that American forces further south were free of enemy air attack. [Source: globalsecurity.org]

Bombardment of Korea

During the Korean War, North Korean planes dropped pamphlets that read "Americans, you will die!" Bodies were heaped on the roads, people were afraid to go out. Americans dropped 425,000 bombs on Pyongyang a city of 400,000 people before the war

The United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea, not counting the 32,557 tons of napalm, Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago professor who’s written several books on North Korea, wrote in “The Korean War: A History.” This compared with 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. “If we keep on tearing the place apart, we can make it a most unpopular affair for the North Koreans,” Defense Secretary Robert Lovett said after the napalm and aerial bombing campaigns of 1950 and 1951, according to Cumings. “We ought to go right ahead,” Lovett said. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, May 17, 2017 /]

Dean Rusk said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops. Air Force commanders complained that they’d run out of targets. “The physical destruction and loss of life on both sides was almost beyond comprehension, but the North suffered the greater damage, due to American saturation bombing and the scorched-earth policy of the retreating U.N. forces,” Armstrong of Columbia wrote. /

Civilian Bombing During the Korean War

Carl A. Posey wrote in Air & Space Magazine: “By the spring of 1952, the ground war in Korea had settled into a variant of trench warfare, with both sides taking and losing small patches of ground. Armistice talks... dragged on without much movement. In the air, however, there was no stalemate. Conventionally armed B-29s continued to hammer northern targets. Along the Yalu and around heavily defended targets, batteries of radar-guided searchlights illuminated the bombers at night, exposing them to radar-controlled flak batteries and to MiGs circling invisibly overhead. [Source: Carl A. Posey, Air & Space Magazine, July 2015]

“Each bomber typically carried thirty-nine 500-pound bombs with delayed-action fuses and at least one magnesium flare to illuminate the target area for photography and to light up the target for bombardiers farther back in the stream. After the final bomb run, the bombardier, who had been in control of the aircraft, would hand control back to the pilot.

“Conventional bombing” took “a toll on North Korea’s civilian population. “In The United States Air Force in Korea 1950 –1953" by historian Robert F. Futrell, he includes a description of the town of Huichon written by General William F. Dean, who was held prisoner in North Korea: “The city I’d seen before — two-storied buildings, a prominent main street — wasn’t there anymore. I think no important bridge between Pyongyang and Kanggye had been missed, and most of the towns were just rubble or snowy open spaces where buildings had been. The little towns, once full of people, were unoccupied shells. The villagers lived in entirely new temporary villages, hidden in canyons or in such positions that only a major bombing effort could reach them.”

“By the time the armistice was signed, on July 27, 1953, B-29s had more than paid their way. The old bombers had flown 21,000 sorties and dropped 167,000 tons of bombs. Says Allan: “By the time we left, there wasn’t any electricity in North Korea.” The bombers also paid a price. Thirty-four B-29s were lost in combat, and 14 to accidents or “other causes.” Police Action missed the armistice party. On November 19, 1952, about three weeks after Sorensen and the others headed home, the beloved B-29 was shot down by enemy fighters.

Civilian Bombing Missions the Korean War

Carl A. Posey wrote in Air & Space Magazine: “B-29 gunner Dean Allan remembers one of the strategies for surviving missions at this stage of the war. He says the bombers made their runs at staggered altitudes and three to five minutes apart, which forced the anti-aircraft gunners to keep readjusting their settings. “Usually it was one wing one day, another wing the next, flying every three to five days,” he says. Some of the missions, however, required the participation of all of the Japan-based wings, with up to 80 aircraft on the attack. [Source: Carl A. Posey, Air & Space Magazine, July 2015]

“Robert Sorensen was the copilot on Allan’s B-29, ominously named Trouble Brewer. “The key thing was don’t be illuminated by a searchlight,” says Sorensen. “MiGs were up there, but they had to get you in the light.” Far below the nocturnal raiders, Douglas B-26 Invaders scoured the countryside for targets of opportunity. “Often we would see line after line of trucks bringing North Korean supplies,” says Allan. “We’d tell [operations] and they’d send B-26s up.”

“The relationship with the Invader was symbiotic. B-26s were often tasked with shutting off the searchlights plaguing the Superforts. With an array of forward-firing .50-caliber guns, the B-26s were deadly strafers. But these attacks bathed them in light, and B-26 pilots, according to one of their number, were not keen on searchlight duty. “By the time we got back to Yokota, it was four or fiveam, often socked in,” says Allan. “More than once we had to go somewhere else.”

“On their ninth mission in Trouble Brewer, on June 24, Sorensen recalls: “We couldn’t land at Yokota, so we had to go to the next field. Kadena was too far away. We picked Ashiya air base in Japan, a fighter base with a 5,800-foot runway built for Zeros. We landed well, got on the brakes, but we could see we couldn’t stop. At the end of the runway was an embankment beyond which was a 500-foot drop into the Sea of Japan. We hit the embankment, bounced into it. If we’d bounced higher we would have gone over. The airplane broke in half.”

“The only casualty was the bombardier, who broke both ankles. The pilot and flight engineer went on to other things. The rest of the Trouble Brewer crew, with Max Kinnard as the new aircraft commander and a new flight engineer and bombardier, moved on to another B-29, which they named Police Action — “a wonderful airplane that got us home,” says Sorensen. “We finished 27 missions in total with our favorite old bird.”

“Kinnard was one of those generous commanders who share left-seat duties with the copilot. “After a couple of missions, he split left-seat time with me,” says Sorensen. “I logged about 200 hours of first-pilot combat time. Of all the pilots I knew during my five years in the Air Force, Max was the one who most clearly had ‘the Right Stuff.’ ”

“For one of the crew’s post-Korea reunions, Sorensen annotated his log of those missions with the detailed narrative that appeared in Futrell’s book. The brief matter-of-fact entry for June 9 describes a 6:45pm takeoff to bomb a railroad bridge. This is how Futrell described the flight: “…Four B-29s of the 19th Bomb Group were dispatched on a bombing mission against a railroad bridge at Kwaksan. Twenty-four searchlights locked on them and kept them completely illuminated. Twelve MiG jet fighters attacked them. One B-29 exploded over the target, a second went down somewhere over North Korea, and a third was badly damaged but managed to make an emergency landing at Kimpo.” After that mission, the B-29s had black gloss lacquer painted on their bellies.

“On July 30, Police Action joined 62 other B-29s for an attack on the Oriental Light Metals Company near Sinuiju, only four miles from the Yalu River. According to Futrell, it was the largest strike against a single target of the Korean War. The target was deep in MiG territory, but a thin stratus layer protected the bombers from the searchlights. Sorensen’s log is a summary of priorities: bridges, railroad marshalling yards, hydroelectric plants, factories, and supply centers. And of course dropping leaflets urging enemy troops to surrender.

“Police Action and the other medium bombers were also flying ground support, or “primer,” missions. “They’d give us a ground controller,” says Sorensen. “We put the bombs out in sequence, walked them right up the hillside. People down on the ground [would say] ‘Would you make one more run?’ On October 8 the crew flew Police Action into combat for the last time. It was one of 10 B-29s raiding the Kowan Supply Center in a daylight formation attack. The bombers had Navy F2H Banshee fighters for escorts — a “great way to end a combat tour,” noted Sorensen.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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