During the two Korean War battles of the Naktong Bulge, Marine Corsairs put on a virtuoso performance in support of Leathernecks fighting on the ground.
In the late summer of 1950, North Korean troops twice broke through the Pusan Perimeter along the same bend of the Naktong River. In both instances they gained access to a road network that positioned them to thrust deep into the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula and capture the all-important port of Pusan. And in each case the U.S. Army called on the Marines to save South Korea.
During the two battles to restore the perimeter, a big part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade's punch came from the close air support provided by its air component, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 33. The unit"s performance was not only critical to the success of the brigade but also displayed the cohesion between air and ground that existed in the Corps-a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) personified 30 years before MAGTFs had in fact become part of Marine doctrine.
MAG-33 included two fighter squadrons, VMF-214 and VMF-323-both flying Vought F4U-4B Corsairs-an observation squadron, VMO-6; and an air-control unit, Marine Tactical Air Control Squadron 2. The air group was headquartered at Itami, Japan, and commanded by Colonel Allen C. Koonce until 20 August 1950 and then by Colonel Frank G. Dailey, father of future Marine general and current National Air and Space Museum Director John R. Dailey. The two fighter squadrons were sea based, each flying off an escort carrier. VMF-214, the Black Sheep Squadron, was in the USS Sicily (CVE-118) and commanded by Major Robert Keller during the first battle and Lieutenant Colonel Walter Lischeid during the second battle, while Major Arnold Lund commanded VMF-323, the Death Rattlers, deployed on board the USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116).
First Battle Begins
On the night of 5 August, the crack 4th Division of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) began crossing the Naktong, which constituted most of the western Pusan Perimeter, where the river made a wide western bend. Within a week, the communist troops had routed elements of the U.S. 24th Infantry Division and overrun the "Naktong Bulge," the area formed by the bend. The Corps, living up to its moniker, "Fire Brigade," was pulled off an offensive on 14 August, forfeiting ground gained in hard fighting to the south. On the 17th, the battle to restore the perimeter along the Naktong began, with the Marines launching a head-on attack against their objective-heavily defended Obong-ni Ridge, later also known as "No-Name Ridge." It was a daunting position to assault frontally, but the terrain and the assignments of supporting Army units precluded the Marines from attacking elsewhere.
A powerful air and artillery barrage softened the target. Eighteen MAG-33 Corsairs participated in the strike, and although the two fighter squadrons had a total of only four napalm tanks, the F4Us still laid an impressive amount of ordnance on the objective. Observing the strikes, 24th Division commander Major General John H. Church commented that Obong-ni Ridge appeared to be "floating."1 Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise's 2d Battalion, 5th Marines then initiated the ground attack.
Despite the shellacking, the ridge's defenders did not go down easily. The struggle for the heights lasted all day and was as vicious and bloody as any South Pacific battle. Machine-gun fire, mortar fire, and grenades took a heavy toll on the Marines. The ridge provided the North Koreans plenty of protection. They had dug in on both its slopes. When the communists came under air or artillery fire, they hunkered down in their reverse-slope positions, but when Marine riflemen advanced, the enemy defended from their forward-slope positions.
Corsairs circled overhead, dived on the North Koreans when called upon, and acted as eyes for the land-bound Marines, providing them with real-time battlefield reconnaissance. While the NKPA trenches and earthworks shielded the enemy from everything but direct strikes, Marine pilots were determined to make those pinpoint attacks. One Marine rifleman watched a Corsair that, after failing to knock out a gun emplacement during a 30º to 45º dive, climbed high directly over the target. When only a speck in the sky, the Corsair rolled over on its back, pulled through into a vertical dive and came screaming down on the target. At the last moment, a bomb fell clear of the blue fighter and silently slid downward to explode directly on the enemy position, obliterating it in a cloud of dust and smoke.2
Despite the North Koreans' strong defenses and tenacity, the Marines made progress. At 1100, immediately after MAG-33 pilots blasted NKPA positions on Hill 109, a platoon of Company D managed to seize the height near the northern end of the ridge. The platoon, however, had only 15 Marines still standing and was forced to fall back. Meanwhile, Marines of Company E, clawing up Obong-ni south of Company D, neared their assigned ridge-top objectives. They too called in an air strike to precede their final assault, but the Marine pilots, overly eager to direct their 20-mm cannon fire against the enemy, accidentally strafed some of the company's Leathernecks.3
The fighting that morning left the 2d Battalion staggered and suffering 60% casualties. At 1300 Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray, the 5th Marines' commander, ordered his 1st Battalion to advance in relief of the 2d. As the fresh Leathernecks moved forward, fire from the Black Sheep and Death Rattlers' Corsairs, as well as from Marine tanks and artillery, devastated the enemy positions along the hills.4 By 1500, riflemen of Companies A and B, 1st Battalion, had resumed the attack and, like the 2d Battalion, come under withering enemy fire. The effects of Marine combined arms, however, began to tell during the afternoon assault.5
Company B, advancing on the right, gained the crest of the ridge and by late afternoon was dug in on its northernmost heights, Hills 102 and 109. But Company A, attacking on the left, was held up by intense communist fire. As darkness fell, the unit consolidated its position below the ridge's crest. The Marines expected the worst.6
They did not have to wait long. At 2000, in the gathering hazy, dusty darkness, the clanking of treads announced the presence of four enemy T-34 tanks grinding along the road that passed around the northern end of Obong-ni Ridge and led to the rear of the Marine positions. A forward air controller (FAC) called in an air strike, and within minutes MAG-33 Corsairs had the tanks under attack. A direct hit gutted the trailing vehicle, and the North Korean infantry around the T-34s scattered. Marine M-26 tanks and gutsy Leathernecks armed with 3.5-inch rockets and 75-mm recoilless rifles then moved in and knocked out the other three steel
The battlefield settled into an uneasy peace until 0230 when, out of the darkness, the North Koreans launched a sudden and determined assault against the Marines' lines. At some points the NKPA troops broke through and hand-to-hand fighting ensued. One platoon of Company A was overrun; elsewhere the Marines managed to fight off the assault. As dawn broke, Companies A and B still held their lines, but at a high cost: 175 of the 375 Marine defenders were casualties of the night's horrific assault.8
The attack, however, was the NKPA 18th Regiment's last gasp, and the unit was hardly prepared to face the morning's maelstrom of Marine combined arms. Corsairs of VMF-323 were over the battlefield at dawn and ready for action as Companies A and B continued the previous day's advance. At 0734 Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton, the 1st Battalion's commanding officer, called for an air strike on a nest of machine guns. Nine minutes later, a Death Rattler pilot silenced the guns by planting a 500-pound bomb directly into the enemy position. The strike came so quickly and so close to an advancing platoon of Marines that all of the Leathernecks were knocked off their feet and one of them was even killed. Five minutes later, however, the survivors seized the crest of the ridge's Hill 117.9
Routing the Enemy
Throughout the morning, an inferno of supporting fire preceded advancing troops of the 1st and 3d Battalions, 5th Marines, as they swept the remaining North Koreans from Obong-ni and seized the next height west of the ridge, Hill 207. Describing one of the morning's Corsair attacks, a correspondent wrote: "You could see the smoke and fire flash of the rockets leaving the wings, and then would come the great tearing sound the rocket made in flight, and then the roar of its bursting against the hill. And after the rockets had gone, you would see the little round dots of smoke in the sky as the wing guns fired, and all the crest of the hill in front of How Company was a roaring, jumping hell of smoke and flame and dust and noise."10 It is little wonder that one North Korean prisoner, when asked which U.S. weapon he feared most, replied, "the blue airplanes."11
The communist soldiers who survived this meat grinder took panicked flight, a trickle at first then a flood, as masses of them fled west toward the river. The Black Sheep had the "late shift" that day and did not launch their first strike until 1229, giving them a timely arrival to the enemy rout. Targets were in the open-troops, tanks, field artillery, and vehicles bared for imminent destruction. Listening in on the strike frequency on board the Sicily was her skipper, renowned World War II aviator Captain John S. "Jimmy" Thach, who later described one particular strike:
start shooting really before they got to the ridge, with rockets. After the first
one came down, the Marines on the ridge were standing up and looking. They
wanted to watch the shells! The last pilot that came down after they'd put these
rockets in there called the controller again and he said: "Would you please have
the people in the front row be seated. I can see the back of their heads in my
gunsight and it makes me nervous!" That's how close these Corsairs were.12
As the F4Us flew over, firing their cannon, empty shell casings showering from the wings dropped on the Marines watching below. A forward air controller radioed one pilot, "Your cartridges are falling on us-keep it up!"13
Captain Emmons Maloney flew into the battle area with a division of Corsairs and while awaiting target assignment, heard an excited call from a FAC: "Catch them now, they're going across the river!" The F4Us circled and wheeled above the enemy troops, each in turn making runs on the retreating North Koreans.
Captain Howard J. "Mickey" Finn, a Black Sheep pilot, flew as a TAC (tactical air controller-an airborne FAC) that day. Of all the missions he had flown in the Korean War, this one stood out. Finn recalled being impressed with the "excellent control from the ground," how the aviators and Marine infantrymen worked together until the grunts recaptured the ridges. By making dummy runs-attack dives with no ordnance expended-Corsairs could herd the enemy in the direction ground controllers wished to move them so as to maximize their vulnerability. The enemy was utterly defeated, he remembered, and the North Koreans "began to pour across the Naktong River. The planes strafed them in the river, along the roads, and in the rice paddies. We could see the enemy in military formation."14
Another Black Sheep pilot also found the day's action particularly memorable. Many years later Don Conroy, the legendary "Great Santini," told his son, Pat, that the aviators had been told to "keep the North Koreans on their side of the Naktong River. . . . I radioed to Bill Lundin. I was his wingman. 'There they are. Let's go get 'em.' So we did." When asked how he knew he got them, Conroy responded: "Easy, they were running-it's a good sign when you see the enemy running. There was another good sign-they were on fire."15
According to the Sicily's war diary, a flight of Black Sheep Corsairs strafed the "retreating Reds with 20 mm and incendiaries." The enemy was killed in such numbers that the river was "definitely discolored by the blood." Enemy soldiers were indeed killed by the hundreds; an estimated 300 bodies floated in the Naktong and littered its banks.16
At 0645 the next day, 19 August, the 3d Battalion's Company H seized the Marines' final objective in the Nankong Bulge, Hill 311. With the Pusan Perimeter along the river restored, the grunts of the brigade were taken off the line for a rest. Meanwhile, the Black Sheep and Death Rattlers tag-teamed between replenishment runs to Sasebo, Japan, and missions to various Korean hot spots in support of Army units.
Second Battle of the Naktong Bulge
On 1 September, however, the North Koreans launched a series of all-out attacks against the perimeter. Along the Naktong, elements of four divisions overwhelmed the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, and the communists surged even farther east than they had in August. The Pusan Perimeter and the port of Pusan were again in dire peril.
The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade's ground troops quickly got the word to move back toward the Naktong. But they were not going without their Marine close air support squadrons, VMF-214 and VMF-323. The Black Sheep, however, had just begun their first period of liberty since arriving in the Korean war zone a month earlier. The pilots had flown their aircraft off the Sicily to Itami airfield, Japan, and headed for liberty in nearby Kobe. At about midnight, Colonel Lischeid, the Black Sheep skipper, got the word to recall his aviators.
A Douglas R5D transport that was flying the rest of squadron-the enlisted men and some of the officers-to Kobe got a radio call: Divert to Ashiya air base, Japan, from where air strikes are to be launched against the North Koreans in the Naktong Bulge. Early the next morning, the pilots were back at Itami. They fired up their F4Us and flew into the U.S. Air Force base at Ashiya, where they joined up with the squadron's other Marines.
Although the ground Marines were not to re-enter combat until the next day, 3 September, VMF-323, which had also relocated to Ashiya, and VMF-214 were ordered to launch air strikes immediately. The squadrons' aircraft mechanics, however, wondered how they were going to get their planes ready; their equipment and tools were still on board the carriers. As has often been the case with Marine aircraft mechs, they improvised to provide combat-ready birds for aircrews. Staff Sergeant Floyd P. Stocks, a plane captain in VMF-214, wrote: "We worked like madmen to keep things going. With no tools it was rough. They brought a few screwdrivers and pliers down from SMS-33 [Service and Maintenance Squadron 33] and that was it." Stocks also noted what all Marines who work on Air Force bases often find out: "There was a nice club there. We had good steaks to eat and beer to drink."17
On the first day of the Ashiya-based strikes, the Black Sheep flew 12 sorties to the bulge, although their only available ordnance were 20-mm shells for the wing cannon.18 The aviators were further hampered by the weather near the Naktong, which was not conducive to good air support. Major Keller and his flight of VMF-214 Corsairs gained contact with a strike controller and were given a target. A solid layer of clouds, however, hung low over the mountainous selected area. Keller led his flight down anyway and broke through in a valley. The Leatherneck pilots flew through it several times but never found the reported target.
The weather that day also fouled up Colonel Lischeid's strike. The VMF-214 commander's flight had a "messy time clobbering up the enemy troops and installations"; nevertheless, the Corsairs left "many fires" where they had strafed. On his final pass, pulling off through the smoke and wet haze, Lischeid lost sight of the other Marine aircraft and was on his own for the flight back to Ashiya.19
The next day, the 5th Marines, in conjunction with Army troops, commenced its ground assault on enemy positions about four miles east of Obong-ni Ridge, outside Yongsan. MAG-33 Corsairs were overhead during the day in direct support of the 1st and 2d Battalions' attacks, averaging only seven minutes from strike request to ordnance on target. During one morning attack, Death Rattler pilots dropped napalm on NKPA troops firing on 1st Battalion Leathernecks as they made their way through a rice paddy.
The Black Sheep did not launch any morning sorties because they were notified at 1030 to prepare to redeploy to a forward base at Taegu, South Korea. The order was later rescinded, and instead they were told to launch combat strikes from Ashiya immediately. In half an hour, the first of four combat missions VMF-214 would fly that day to the Naktong Bulge was airborne. Black Sheep pilots strafed and rocketed communist troops who were holding up the 2d Battalion and ravaged enemy troops, equipment, and supplies in support of Army units operating in the bulge near the village of Kang-ni.20
The next day, advancing Marines came upon the results of the air strikes and artillery fire outside Kang-ni. According to the Marine Corps' account of the Naktong battles, the road, hillsides, and ridgelines were littered with hundreds of dead North Korean soldiers. Destroyed communist tanks, vehicles, mortars, anti-tank guns, and "enough small arms, ammunition, and gear to equip several hundred men" were also strewn across the countryside.21 The Marines and soldiers made good progress during the day. Black Sheep pilots flew supporting sorties, hitting enemy troops and equipment and attacking NKPA tanks maneuvering behind the front lines. They knocked out one of the armored vehicles. The squadron, however, did sustain a casualty. Major Kenneth L. Reusser's F4U was hit by enemy fire during his last mission of the day as he attacked a truck convoy escorted by enemy tanks. Reusser bailed out, landed in a rice paddy well fertilized with human waste (as was common in Korea), and was rescued within minutes by a helicopter. At Ashiya the next morning, the other pilots welcomed him back with appropriate remarks regarding his body odor and his poor headwork in selecting a landing zone.22
The next day's weather-heavy rain and fog-precluded any close air support for the Marine infantrymen and Army troops battling east of the Naktong, a fact that the North Koreans quickly discovered. They consequently launched a vicious counterattack against the ground Marines. Although the going was tough, a heavy dose of Army artillery and reinforcements arriving at a critical time helped the Leathernecks push the North Koreans back to the Naktong. That night, the Marine brigade was pulled off the line, and Army troops filtered into its hard-won positions overlooking the river. The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade had a scheduled port call at Inchon.
The Army's Impression
The close air support flown by Marine aviators in the Naktong fights epitomized the mission the Corps had always envisioned for its aircraft. The attacks also made a deep impression on envious Army troops who had never seen anything like them. Colonel Paul Freeman, commander of the Army's 23d Infantry Regiment, wrote to Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway in Washington:
have artillery; and communications must be direct and simplified. . . . The
Marines on our left were a sight to behold. Not only was their equipment
superior or equal to ours, but they had squadrons of air in direct support. They
used it like artillery. It was, "Hey, Joe, this is Smitty, knock the left of that ridge
in from Item Company." They had it day and night . . . General, we just have
to have air support like that or we might as well disband the Infantry and join
the Marines. . . .23
After newspaper accounts portrayed Marine close air support in a favorable light and its Air Force counterparts as lacking, Lieutenant General Gerald E. Stratemeyer, commander of the Far East Air Force, asked General Walton Walker, the Eighth Army commander and the chief customer of Air Force close air support, for a comment to shore up the air service's public image. Stratemeyer's timing, however, was off. Walker got his request during the first battle for the Naktong Bulge, when the Marine air-ground team was putting on a virtuoso performance of coordination and combat power.
Walker initially lauded the Air Force, writing, "I have every praise for the cooperation and assistance of [Fifth Air Force commander Major General Earle E.] Partridge and his people, and have gone on record in this regard." But then Walker turned, asserting that "the vast majority of officers of the Army feel strongly that the Marine system of close air support has much to commend it." Walker acknowledged that he agreed with them, and he ended with a real punch: "I feel strongly that the Army would be well advised to emulate the Marine Corps and have its own tactical support aviation."24
Major Allison is head of the Oral History Unit, Marine Corps History and Museum Division, Quantico, Virginia.
1. Ernest H. Giusti, Mobilization of the Marine Corps Reserve in the Korean Conflict 1950-1951 (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 1967), 23; Capt John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret.), Fire Brigade: U.S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter, Marines in the Korean War Commemorative Series (Washington, DC: Marine Corps Historical Center [MCHC], 2000), 38-40. back to article
2. John Cole, interview with author, 27 May 2003, tape recording, Marine Corps Oral History Collection, MCHC. back to article
3. Chapin, Fire Brigade, 39-40; Lynn Montross and Capt Nicholas Canzona, USMC, U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, vol. 1, The Pusan Perimeter (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 1954), 183-187. back to article
4. Montross and Canzona, The Pusan Perimeter, 187. back to article
5. Montross and Canzona, The Pusan Perimeter, 189-192; Chapin, Fire Brigade, 41. back to article
6. Chapin, Fire Brigade, 41-43. back to article
7. Montross and Canzona, The Pusan Perimeter, 192-193. back to article
8. Chapin, Fire Brigade, 44-46. back to article
9. Chapin, Fire Brigade, 46; Montross and Canzona, The Pusan Perimeter, 200. back to article
10. Chapin, Fire Brigade, 46-47. back to article
11. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977), 385. back to article
12. Adm John S. Thach, USN, interview by Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen, 1970-71, transcript, Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library, National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, FL, hereafter noted as Naval Aviation Museum. back to article
13. LCol Emmons S. Maloney, USMC, interview with the author, 15 March 1999, tape recording, Marine Corps Oral History Collection, MCHC. back to article
14. Capt Howard J. Finn, USMC, interview by S.W. Higginbotham of the Provisional History Platoon of Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 16 April 1951, interview summary, Marine Corps Oral History Collection, MCHC. back to article
15. Pat Conroy, "Colonel Don Conroy's Eulogy," 28 May 1999, e-mail attachment from Col Howard A. "Rudy" York, USMC, to author, copy in possession of author. back to article
16. Sicily War Diary, 18 August 1950; Chapin, Fire Brigade, 47; Montross and Canzona, The Pusan Perimeter, 200-206. back to article
17. SMaj Floyd M. Stocks diary, Personal Papers Collection, U.S. Marine Corps Research Center, Quantico, VA. back to article
18. VMF-214 Summary of Monthly Operations, September 1950, VMF-214 records, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). back to article
19. LCol Walter E. Lischeid letters to Joan Lischeid, Personal Papers Collection, Marine Corps Research Center, Quantico, VA; LGen Robert P. Keller, USMC, interview by author, 28 August 1998, Pensacola, tape recording, Marine Corps Oral History Collection, MCHC; LCol John S. Perrin, USMC, interview and telephone conversation with author, May 1999, May 2003, tape recording and notes, Marine Corps Oral History Collection, MCHC. Perrin flew in Keller's division and recalled this mission as a particularly hairy undertaking. back to article
20. VMF-214 Summary of Monthly Operations, September 1950 VMF-214 records, NARA; Montross and Canzona, The Pusan Perimeter, 215-229; Chapin, Fire Brigade, 54-58; Lischeid letters. The near-Taegu redeployment was an interesting proposal since no air units were operating from there at the time. The Air Force considered it overly hazardous to the safety of their aircraft. back to article
21. Chapin, Fire Brigade, 58; Montross and Canzona, The Pusan Perimeter, 228-229. back to article
22. Lischeid letters, VMF-214 Summary of Monthly Operations, September 1950. back to article
23. Quoted in Andrew Geer, The New Breed: The Story of the U.S. Marines in Korea (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952) 94-95. back to article
24. Letter found in LGen George E. Stratemeyer, The Three Wars of Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer: His Korean Diary, ed. by William T. Y'Blood (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999), 132. back to article