During the predawn hours of 25 June 1950, North Korean communist forces unleashed a furious assault across the 38th parallel against the largely unprepared and ill-equipped army of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Driving the South Koreans out of Seoul, their capital city, the North Koreans pursued demoralized ROK Army units and large crowds of refugees as they streamed southward toward the port city of Pusan. Urgent high-level meetings were quickly convened at the United Nations and in Washington, D.C., to consider options for responding to North Korea’s naked aggression.
By 29 June, President Harry S. Truman authorized the American supreme commander in Asia, General Douglas MacArthur, to use forward-based U.S. sea, ground, and air forces to assist directly the beleaguered South Koreans. MacArthur immediately deployed major elements of Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker’s Eighth Army to stem the communist tide. Although not directly ordered to do so, Marine Commandant General Clifton Cates at about the same time notified the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California, to begin preparations for a possible deployment to Korea.
The 1950 Korean Peninsula emergency was not the first time the Marine Corps had been called to service in that then-remote region. In 1871 a U.S. naval expedition had fought a brief but violent conflict against Koreans opposed to the Navy’s charting of the Han River. By the end of the expedition, nine of the mission’s Sailors and six of its Marines had earned the Medal of Honor. In 1950, however, the situation was entirely different. This time the Koreans—at least the ones from the south—wanted the Americans there.
After weeks of intense fighting following the initial North Korean assault, U.S. and South Korean forces were being steadily pushed into a pocket surrounding the port of Pusan. Due to the urgency of the situation, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Forrest Sherman, at the urging of General Cates, convinced the Joint Chiefs of Staff to offer MacArthur a Marine regimental combat team to be accompanied by a Marine air group for immediate deployment to the Pusan perimeter. MacArthur enthusiastically accepted the offer.
As Cates soon discovered, however, putting together a ready combat team was easier said than done. During World War II, the Corps had grown to a record 474,000 Marines and ended the conflict able to field six combat divisions. But by 1950, the peacetime Marine Corps had been allowed to atrophy to only 74,279 men and could barely scrape together a single full-strength division. Most of the 1st Marine Division’s battalions were short at least one entire rifle company.
On the bright side, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, as the emergency force came to be called, was fortunate to have been formed around Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray’s highly cohesive 5th Marine Regiment. Murray noted, “We had been extremely lucky, in the previous year we had virtually no turnover . . . so that we had a regiment which, for all intents and purposes, had been together for a full year, training.” Moreover, 90 percent of the quickly assembled brigade’s officers and 66 percent of its staff non-commissioned officers were seasoned World War II combat veterans.
The 1st Provisional Brigade was rushed overseas, and its initial elements landed at Pusan on 2 August 1950. The critical nature of the situation was quickly apparent to the brigade’s commander, Brigadier General Edward Craig. He began referring to his command as “the fire brigade” and likened its role to that of a fire department arriving at the scene of a raging inferno. It was not long before the brigade was engaged in heavy combat with the enemy. Along the perimeter, Craig’s Marines and U.S. Army forces conducted local offensives, defended hills, and fought extremely violent and close engagements with tenacious and well-disciplined North Korean troops. Although it lost hundreds of men, the fire brigade inflicted much heavier casualties on the enemy.
Meanwhile, Marine Air Group 33’s two fighter squadrons, flying from carriers, and its night fighter squadron, operating from Japan’s Kyushu Island, steadily bombed, strafed, and rocketed North Korean positions. General Craig characterized the squadrons’ performance around Pusan as “the best close air support in the history of the Marine Corps.” After a month, General Walker’s combined forces had largely stabilized the Pusan perimeter.
The performance of the Marines at Pusan had been superb, but there would be no rest for the weary. To reverse the military situation on the peninsula, General MacArthur planned an amphibious “end around” of the North Koreans closely pressing the U.S. and ROK forces at Pusan. Selecting for the operation the port of Inchon, located on the western coast of the peninsula just west of Seoul, MacArthur stated he “must have the Marines,” and General Cates was determined that he would have them.
The Marine landing at Inchon was scheduled for 15 September 1950. Pulled out of the Pusan line, Craig’s men were soon joined by the main body of the 1st Marine Division as well as the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW). Piecing together units as rapidly as possible, the Marine Corps had its legendary Guadalcanal “Blue Diamond” division ready for Inchon just in time. While the landing and follow-on operations were touch-and-go for a while, the seizure of Inchon accomplished MacArthur’s goals. Seoul was recaptured, and nearly simultaneously the Army staged a breakout from the Pusan perimeter. The North Korean army was soon fleeing in disarray north of the 38th parallel. Marine amphibious forces and follow-on Army combat units, supported by Marine and Navy air power, had indeed reversed the entire military situation and were then driving the remnants of the North Korean army toward the Yalu River and the border with communist China.
After Seoul was retaken, the 1st Marine Division re-embarked on board Navy transports. On 26 October, the Marines landed at the North Korean port of Wonson, on the east coast of the peninsula. The division was soon advancing north to the Chosin Reservoir. During this period of the conflict, the nimbleness of Marine amphibious forces proved highly valuable and caused the North Koreans great consternation.
The possibility of communist China entering the war had been largely discounted by General MacArthur, but by late October thousands of Chinese troops had crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. On 25 November, some 180,000 of them slammed into South Korean forces and then hit the U.S. Army’s scattered divisions just south of the Yalu. In the east, 120,000 more communist troops struck the 1st Marine Division at Chosin as well as the Army’s 3rd and 7th divisions. Just as Inchon had changed the course of the conflict, so too did the arrival of the hordes of hardened Chinese fighters.
Battling in extreme cold, the Marines at Chosin fought a gallant and determined defensive action against waves of Chinese attacks. Nonetheless, it was clear to 1st Marine Division commander Major General O. P. Smith that his force was being rapidly surrounded and it was necessary to conduct a fighting retreat to the sea. The struggle between the Marines and Chinese troops during November and continuing into December ranked as the bitterest combat of the war. Nonetheless, the Marines were able to carry out a successful retreat that established the campaign as one of the most historically significant in Corps history; no less than 14 Marines earned the Medal of Honor, seven posthumously. In sum, more than 700 Leathernecks were killed or died of wounds during the retreat, while Marines on the ground killed or wounded more than 20,000 enemy troops. By the time the Chinese reached the coast at Hungnam on 27 December, the 1st Marine Division had been successfully evacuated.
The Marines returned to familiar ground near Pusan to rest and refit. But the military situation for the U.S. and allied effort in Korea had gone from bright to bleak. During the year, Marine and Army forces engaged Chinese and North Korean troops in a series of offensives and counterattacks as the war slowly devolved into a series of valley, ridge, and hill fights at places with nicknames such as “The Punchbowl,” “No-Name Line,” and “Yoke Ridge.” By year’s end, the conflict had largely become a stalemate, and armistice talks were finally initiated.
Many American outposts and sections of the front took on a World War I–like appearance, as Marines and Soldiers dug and manned miles of trench lines and machine-gun bunkers. U.S. forces and the enemy traded casualties as peace talks dragged on. During September and October 1952, fighting at “Bunker Hill” and “The Hook” became especially intense. The combat was brutal, continuous, up close, and frequently hand to hand. Raiding and patrolling skills were highly valued as Marine infantry fought equally determined Chinese soldiers. Particularly hard fighting took place during the month of March 1953 for possession of Marine outposts Reno, Carson, and Vegas in what became known as the “Nevada Cities” campaign.
Aviators of the 1st MAW, meanwhile, were instrumental in supporting Leathernecks on the ground, interdicting the flow of communist supplies, and engaging enemy aircraft. But the air wing’s role was not without controversy. During the war, the Corps and the U.S. Air Force worked through a fight over Marine aviation’s close air support of Marine ground combat units. The Air Force saw that as a wasteful use of offensive tactical aviation, whereas the Marine Corps regarded it as an essential element of the evolving Marine air/ground task force (MAGTF) concept. Colonel Paul Freeman, commanding officer of the U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Regiment, directly observed the effectiveness of Marine close air support. Writing to Army Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgeway in Washington, Freeman noted that “we just have to have air support like that or we might as well disband the Infantry and join the Marines.”
During the nearly three years of fighting in Korea, Marine aviation also pioneered the use of rotary-wing aircraft in combat. In fact, helicopters flown by Marine pilots proved fairly resilient to enemy ground fire. Flying reconnaissance, medical evacuation, and vertical-assault missions, aviators of Marine Transport Squadron 6 carried out 22,367 missions, 7,067 of which were medical evacuations, in 35 months of combat operations. Another squadron, Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 161, flew similar missions and was credited with evacuating 2,748 seriously wounded Marines and offloading 7.5 million pounds of cargo.
On 27 July 1953, all warring parties finally signed an armistice. By the end of the conflict, the Corps had grown from its initial scratch force of 74,000 Marines to more than 249,000 officers and men. During the three years of fighting, a total of 42 Marines earned the Medal of Honor, 221 received the Navy Cross, and more than 1,500 Leathernecks received the Silver Star. But the war was costly in terms of human life. More than 4,500 Marines were killed in action and another 26,000 wounded—nearly double the casualties incurred by the Corps in World War I. Their sacrifices, however, were not in vain, as the United Nations response to the aggression of North Korea had preserved the freedom of the Republic of Korea.
The fighting on the Korean Peninsula had once again proven the efficacy of having a versatile and ready amphibious force available for combat at a moment’s notice. While the Marines were not the first to fight in the Korean War, once U.S. commanders made the decision to commit them, they were eminently successful and possessed a spirit and élan that would have made preceding generations of Leathernecks proud. On all occasions, as journalist Hanson Baldwin noted in a 1950 New York Times column, “the Marines were ready to fight.”
Charles R. Smith, ed., U.S. Marines in the Korean War (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2007).
Fred H. Allison, “Perfecting Close Air Support in Korea,” Naval History, April 2006.
Merrill L. Bartlett and Jack Sweetman, Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the United States Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008).