The amphibious assault at Inchon marked the Cold War rebirth of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The expertly planned and boldly executed air-sea-ground attack of September 1950, Operation Chromite, put to rest the post-World War II argument that globe-spanning warplanes armed with atomic bombs were all that was needed for the United States to fight and win wars of the future. Sea power projected ashore would enable the United Nations to preserve the independence of the Republic of Korea and limit the conflict to the Korean Peninsula. Throughout the Cold War, Navy-Marine Corps amphibious forces, aircraft carrier battle groups, and surface warships bristling with guns (and eventually long-range ship-to-shore missiles) discouraged aggression around the world and, when necessary, contributed to the success of American arms.
But all that was hard to imagine in the hot, bloody summer of 1950, as infantry and armored forces of Kim Il-sung's communist Democratic Republic of Korea stormed south into the Republic of Korea, decimating South Korean and American troops in their path. Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, had equipped Kim's forces with tanks, artillery, and military advisers. Mao Tse-tung, head of the People's Republic of China, had sent ethnic Koreans in his army back home, where the veteran soldiers bolstered the strength of the Korean People's Army. Both Stalin and Mao had endorsed Kim's decision to invade the south and promised him continued military support. The communist leaders did not expect U.S. or U.N. armed opposition to the North Korean invasion. Their estimation would be wrong.
Stemming the Red Tide
President Harry S. Truman was determined to make a stand in the face of this outright aggression, and he received U.N. backing for a multinational campaign to defend South Korea. The United States and other U.N. members immediately dispatched ground, air, and naval forces to the Korean battle zone.
One of Truman's first measures was to employ a powerful tool—the Seventh Fleet—to make clear to communist leaders that further actions to widen the war in the Far East would put their nations at risk. On 26 June, the President ordered the Seventh Fleet, then at Subic Bay in the Philippines, to steam close to Taiwan en route to Korea. The fleet's primary warship, the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45), sent 29 of her planes roaring north through the strait between the island and the mainland of China. Truman announced to the world that the action represented U.S. determination to oppose by force Chinese intentions to invade Taiwan, last refuge of the pro-American Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist government. Twice more during the Korean War, U.S. carrier task forces steamed along the coast of China and their combat planes flew over the country's almost defenseless coastal cities.
The message got through to the Chinese and the Soviets. Mao canceled plans to invade Taiwan, and Stalin forbade his naval and air forces from attacking U.N. warships or aircraft at sea off Korea. Fearing for the survival of his naval bases at isolated Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East and Port Arthur in China, Stalin kept his considerable Pacific Fleet submarine force close to home throughout the war.
American leaders then directed the U.S. Navy's primary resources for projecting sea power ashore—aircraft carrier, surface warship, and amphibious task forces—to change the course of the battle in Korea. Under the direction of Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, commander Naval Forces, Far East, U.S. and British aircraft carriers and surface warships bombarded the enemy divisions as they pushed farther and farther to the south. The attacks hurt the invaders but failed to stop their advance. By late July, the North Korean army had reduced the ground held by U.N. troops to the southeast corner of the peninsula behind the Naktong River. During August and early September, American Soldiers and Marines and South Korean troops under the direction of General Walton Walker's U.S. Eighth Army fought savage battles to retain that toehold, the "Pusan Perimeter." Ground commanders pleaded for reinforcements while allied political and military leaders considered ordering an evacuation of surviving forces to Japan.
Displaying a foresightedness that would earn him lasting fame, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of all U.N. and U.S. military forces fighting in the Korean theater, called for something else—a measure so bold, so unexpected, but so fraught with risk that it could change the course of the war almost overnight. As the victorious commander of numerous World War II amphibious assaults that liberated New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, and the Philippines from the Japanese, MacArthur understood what sea power could do. The forces under his Southwest Pacific Command, including Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet, U.S. Marines, and U.S. and Australian soldiers, had functioned as an unstoppable ground, air, and naval team.
The general proposed that Vice Admiral Arthur D. Struble's Seventh Fleet and other allied naval forces deploy the 1st Marine Division and American and South Korean soldiers far behind enemy lines at South Korea's vital port on the Yellow Sea—Inchon.
Ground troops moving east from Inchon could link up with the Eighth Army breaking out of the Pusan Perimeter. The enemy forces on the Naktong would have few good options: If they stood their ground and fought, their supply lines to North Korea would be cut behind them; if they fled north, they would be exposed to devastating air attacks before they reached the relative safety of mountains above the 38th parallel. In either case, a successful U.N. operation promised to liberate South Korea, badly maul if not destroy the North Korean army, and open the possibility of unifying the peninsula under President Syngman Rhee's pro-American government. Naturally, MacArthur's star would shine much brighter after such a victory.
'Inchon Is Not Impossible'
MacArthur's choice of Inchon as the landing site appealed to almost no one else in the chain of command. The port was situated far from the sea at the end of the tortuously curved, shoal-laden Flying Fish and Eastern channels and the Salwee River. The tidal range of as much as 35 feet promised to complicate assault, gunfire-support, supply, and reinforcement operations. Lieutenant Commander Arlie G. Capps, an officer on the Seventh Fleet's amphibious force staff, recalled how he "drew up a list of every natural and geographic handicap—and Inchon had 'em all." The enemy was expected to fortify Inchon and garrison it with strong, fresh troops in order to protect the nearby South Korean capital of Seoul and its Kimpo Airfield. The North Koreans might even lay Soviet-supplied mines in the water approaches to the port. Guarding the port itself was the fortified island of Wolmi-do.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington especially wanted to learn why MacArthur was proposing such a risky venture. Admiral Forrest Sherman, the Chief of Naval Operations, and General J. Lawton Collins, the Army Chief of Staff, flew to MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters on 20 August to learn firsthand about the planned operation. Admiral James Doyle, commander Amphibious Force, Seventh Fleet, conducted the briefing, at the end of which he stated: "The best I can say is that Inchon is not impossible."
MacArthur, then a much-revered and even idolized American military hero and combat leader, sat quietly as his subordinates expressed their obvious concerns about the operation's chances of success. The tall, supremely self-confident general rose slowly and calmly addressed the assembled flag and general officers in his usual measured, deep-toned, and histrionic voice. For the next 45 minutes he detailed why he believed the tactical obstacles at Inchon could be overcome and why the enemy would not expect a landing there. Turning to Admiral Sherman, the general emphasized: "The Navy has never let me down in the past and it will not let me down this time." He ended his oratorical tour de force with these words: "We shall land at Inchon and I shall crush them!" The Inchon landing—Operation Chromite—was on.
Admiral Doyle's staff determined that high tides would occur just after sunrise and just after sunset on D-day, 15 September 1950. Planners decided that a Marine battalion would storm Wolmi-do on the morning tide and defend the position until the primary assault regiments arrived with the evening tide to seize objectives at Red Beach north of the island and Blue Beach below it. Seventh Fleet destroyers, backed up by U.S. and Royal Navy cruisers, were expected to provide the Marines on Wolmi-do with direct fire support.
Since the invasion fleet would be far from Pusan and the supply bases in Japan, logistic support for the forces deployed ashore at Inchon would be critical. Admiral Doyle gathered 17 U.S. and 30 Japanese-manned tank landing ships (LSTs) and had them stocked with critical supplies. Some of the flat-bottomed vessels would be left intentionally high and dry on the beach between the evening and morning tides to ensure that the Marines ashore had sufficient ammunition, food and water, and medical supplies.
Another key objective in the preliminary phase of Operation Chromite was to convince the North Koreans that if the U.N. command launched an amphibious landing it would occur 105 miles to the south of Inchon at Kunsan. During the first week of September, U.S. Air Force bombers knocked out bridges and roads leading to Kunsan. Aircraft from the carriers HMS Triumph and USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116) bombed similar targets and railroads to the north of Kunsan. Landing near the port from the frigate HMS Whitesand Bay on the night of 12-13 September, Royal Marines and U.S. Army Commandos precipitated firefights with enemy troops to convince Pyongyang that a main assault was soon to follow. Despite those actions, leaked information on invasion preparations was so widespread in Japan that the press routinely referred to the pending action as "Operation Common Knowledge."
Nevertheless, North Korea's Kim not only failed to learn of the true destination of the invasion armada assembling in Japanese ports, but he disregarded warnings from Soviet and Chinese leaders that a landing at Inchon was possible. Pyongyang did not rush reserve forces to the area until it was too late.
Assault from the Sea
During the second week of September 1950, a mighty armada of 230 U.S. and allied warships, amphibious ships, and support vessels under commander Seventh Fleet/commander Joint Task Force 7, Vice Admiral Struble, sortied from Kobe, Sasebo, Pusan, and other ports and steered a course for Inchon. The fleet had to buck the heavy seas and high winds of Typhoon Kezia to arrive on Korea's west coast on time for the assault. General MacArthur, surrounded by ten of his favorite journalists, sailed on board Struble's flagship, the USS Mount McKinley (AGC-7).
On the morning of 13 September, Rear Admiral John M. Higgins' gunfire-support group, consisting of six U.S. destroyers followed by a pair of U.S. cruisers and two Royal Navy cruisers, proceeded with caution up Flying Fish Channel. With all eyes fixed on the waters ahead, a Sailor suddenly gave the alarm—mines! Flotilla crewmen exploded 17 of the feared weapons with machine-gun and small-arms fire, opening the passage. With many more mines visible on the shore, it was clear the enemy had only just begun trying to make the waterway impassable with a robust minefield.
As the destroyers and cruisers took position in the harbor, AD Skyraiders from the USS Philippine Sea (CV-47) attacked Wolmi-do with bombs, rockets, and cannon fire. Working to draw enemy fire, the destroyers opened up with their five-inch guns, which soon bathed Wolmi-do in fire and smoke. The response was not long in coming. Communist gunners ashore put seven rounds into the USS Collett (DD-730) and three into the Gurke (DD-783). Other fire hit the Lyman K. Swenson (DD-729), killing Lieutenant (junior grade) David J. Swenson. But the American "tin cans" won the contest, silencing the North Korean batteries with 998 five-inch rounds. The gunfire support group retired to seaward for the night and returned on the 14th to ensure no enemy guns would remain to menace landing ships and craft.
As the powerful invasion fleet steamed up the narrow channel leading to Inchon early on 15 September, a beacon suddenly shone from atop a lighthouse that had long been out of operation. Inside the lighthouse was Navy Lieutenant Eugene F. Clark. Earlier, the intrepid intelligence officer and guerrilla leader had landed on a nearby island, Yonghung-do, with a small party of South Koreans to learn about local tides, currents, and other information vital to allied amphibious planners. Clark and his men carried out their intelligence work and fought a pitched battle with communist defense forces, but there was a cost to their success—the enemy overran the island and executed 50 villagers who had helped Clark and his men. But the "Blackbeard of Yonghung-do," as Clark would soon be called, avenged them by repairing the light and helping to guide the invasion flotilla.
At 0520 Admiral Doyle hoisted the traditional signal to "land the landing force." As the men of the 5th Marines climbed down from transports into LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel), aircraft from the Badoeng Strait and the Sicily (CVE-118) and rounds from the gunfire support ships roared over their heads to hit enemy positions one more time.
Three minutes after L-hour, set for 0630, Navy landing craft put the Marines of Colonel Robert D. Taplett's 3d Battalion and 10 M-26 Pershing tanks ashore on Wolmi-do. The men of the assault battalion quickly moved across the blasted, pockmarked landscape and set up defenses behind a causeway that led to the mainland. The minutes ticked slowly by as the Marines waited for dusk, when the next wave of Marines would arrive to bolster their defenses.
Watching the battle unfold from the bridge of the Mount McKinley, and even at this early stage confident of success, MacArthur authorized the following message to be sent to Admiral Doyle's command: "The Navy and Marines have never shone more brightly than this morning." He then said to the officers gathered around him: "That's it. Let's get a cup of coffee."
But there was much more fighting to be done. As the main invasion force plodded up Flying Fish Channel, Navy and Marine aviators scoured Inchon and the surrounding countryside for targets. Spying a long row of carefully aligned and stacked wooden crates, Ensign Eldon W. Brown Jr. of Fighter Squadron 53 made a low pass and strafed them. Eldon's fire touched off a massive explosion that rocked ships in the harbor and sent a cloud of dust and debris sky-high. The enemy would sorely miss that ammunition in the days ahead.
Fighting from Beach to Beach and Street to Street
As the gunfire-support ships increased their prelanding fire, the remaining two battalions of Taplett's 5th Marines headed for Red Beach. At 1731, Navy coxswains brought their LCVPs right up to the sea wall at Red Beach and the embarked Marines went over the top to engage the enemy. The Americans did not have far to go; machine-gun fire cut down several Marines and pinned down others. First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez moved forward and took out one pillbox with grenades. He was about to do the same to another enemy position when gunfire hit him, causing him to drop his grenade. The brave young officer fell on the grenade to protect his men from the blast. For his exceptional heroism, Lopez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Behind the assault waves at Red Beach came eight Navy LSTs that were to remain there overnight and dispense ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies to the 5th Marines. As the landing ships got closer to the action, enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire raked the vessels, setting fire to trucks in the wells loaded with ammunition and punching holes in fuel drums. While some Sailors extinguished the flames, others opened up with their .50-caliber machine guns against what they believed were enemy positions, knocking out at least one North Korean weapon. Unfortunately, the "friendly fire" killed one Marine and wounded 23 others.
By nightfall and after much hard fighting, the 5th Marines had captured their D-day objectives, Cemetery Hill and Observatory Hill. The dog-tired men set up defensive perimeters and awaited enemy counterattacks they expected at dawn.
As fighting raged at Red Beach, 170 LVTs (landing vehicle, tracked), or "amtracs," with Colonel Louis B. "Chesty" Puller's 1st Marines embarked, headed for Blue Beach, south of Wolmi-do. Gun-equipped and armored LVT(A)s manned by the U.S. Army's 56th Amphibian Tractor Battalion went in with the first wave and peppered the shoreline with their gunfire. Despite rain squalls and drifting battle smoke that confused some of the LVT drivers, they disembarked their Marines without mishap. The regiment's three battalions quickly overcame enemy opposition, killing at least 50 North Korean soldiers, and pressed on to secure their day's assigned objectives.
By nightfall, the assault units at Inchon had been reinforced by the 11th Marines' two battalions of 105-mm howitzers and two companies equipped with Pershing tanks. During the night, the USS DeHaven (DD-727), Lyman K. Swenson, and the other destroyers and cruisers of Rear Admiral Higgins' bombardment group continued to provide fire support, including illumination rounds to deter surprise assaults by the enemy. Navy doctors and corpsmen worked throughout the night caring for the 174 fighting men and civilians wounded or injured on the 15th. An improvised surgical team on board LST-898 treated 74 of those cases. The D-day battle cost the lives of 21 Americans.
The enemy was not about to give up Inchon without a fight. On the morning of 16 September, a column of six North Korean T-34s (the T-34 was often called the best tank of World War II) headed straight for the invasion beaches. Marine Corsair attack planes operating from the Sicily dived on and destroyed three of the attackers, and soon afterward M-26 Pershing tanks of the 1st Marine Division eliminated the rest.
The following day, a pair of North Korean aircraft suddenly appeared over the invasion armada and bombed and strafed several ships. The attack caused minimal damage to the vessels assembled in the harbor but resulted in the death of one British seaman on the cruiser HMS Jamaica. The man's shipmates got their revenge when the Jamaica's guns downed one of the attacking fighters. Counterattacks against 1st Marine Division lines by communist infantry battalions and more T-34s hastily thrown into action were similarly unsuccessful.
With the beachhead secure, the division's two regiments pushed toward nearby Kimpo Airfield and Seoul. That same day, 17 September, General Walker's Eighth Army broke through enemy lines on the Naktong and headed north. Supported by South Korean marines, the U.S. Marines captured Kimpo.
On 18 and 19 September, the 1st and 5th Marines, supported by gunfire from the cruisers HMS Kenya, USS Rochester (CA-124), and Toledo (CA-133), pushed into the outskirts of Seoul against increasingly strong enemy resistance. Navy and Marine aircraft based afloat and at newly captured Kimpo Airfield lent their support to the Marine riflemen. Landing behind the 1st and 5th Marines at Inchon in succeeding days were the Army's 7th Infantry Division, the Republic of Korea's 17th Infantry Regiment, and the 7th Marines, a battalion of the latter transported all the way from the Mediterranean on board the transports USS Bexar (APA-237) and Montague (AKA-98).
In keeping with long-established amphibious warfare doctrine, Admiral Struble disestablished Joint Task Force 7 and turned over operational control of Chromite to Army Major General Edward M. Almond, commander of X Corps. Eager to seize the South Korean capital by the 25th, the general urged the Marines forward. But reinforcements dispatched to Seoul from all directions had stiffened enemy defenses. Marine casualties mounted as the men advanced street by street and house by house.
The enemy's fire did not discriminate between Marines and naval medical personnel. A Navy surgeon, Lieutenant Francis T. H'Doubler, was wounded twice when mortar fire hit the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines aid station just behind the lines. Chief Hospital Corpsman Wayne D. Austin immediately took over and, although wounded in the face and ankle, treated another 40 men before he was wounded yet again. Only when a replacement arrived did he consent to have his own wounds tended to. Austin was awarded the Navy Cross for his selfless dedication under fire.
A War's Momentum Shifted
On the 25th, even though General Almond had declared Seoul liberated, the communists launched three bloody nighttime counterattacks that caused not only heavy enemy casualties but heavy Marine losses. Gunfire could still be heard in the distance on 28 September, but that day President Rhee and General MacArthur presided over a downtown ceremony marking the liberation of South Korea's capital.
Another milestone had been reached the day before when elements of the 7th Infantry Division linked up at Osan with the famed 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. George Armstrong Custer's regiment was in the van of General Walker's Eighth Army that had smashed its way northwest from the Pusan Perimeter.
The amphibious assault at Inchon compelled the North Korean People's Army, so confident of success during the heady days of summer, to flee in disarray across the 38th parallel. Combat with U.N. ground, air, and naval forces killed or wounded more than half of the 70,000-man force that battled on the Naktong during July and August and in Seoul during September. Fewer than 30,000 enemy troops—exhausted, demoralized, and without their tanks and artillery—managed to straggle back into North Korea during September and October 1950.
The allied fleet's projection of combat power ashore at Inchon, and complementary threat to neutralize the coastal bases of China and the Soviet Union, dramatically altered the course of the war in Korea. The conflict would be limited to the Korean Peninsula. And carrier, gunship, and Navy-Marine amphibious forces reversed the tide of battle ashore. The decisive Inchon assault in September not only banished the specter of U.N. defeat prevalent in July and August on the Naktong, but precipitated the rout of the North Korean army and the liberation of South Korea.
Malcolm W. Cagle and Frank A. Manson, The Sea War in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957).
James A. Field Jr., United States Naval Operations, Korea (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center/Government Printing Office, 1962).
Edward J. Marolda, ed., The U.S. Navy in the Korean War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007).
Allan R. Millett, The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came From the North (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010).