The Cold War's First Conflict

By Edward J. Marolda

The U.S. Navy and allied naval forces took full advantage of their power to seize and maintain control of the seas around Korea. At the outset of the war, the North Koreans had sent a merchant ship loaded with 600 combat troops on a nighttime mission to capture the critical South Korean port of Pusan. A vigilant U.S.-built patrol vessel of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy spotted the ship and sent her to the bottom. Shortly afterward, on 2 July, the U.S. cruiser Juneau (CL-119), British cruiser Jamaica , and British frigate Black Swan intercepted North Korean torpedo boats and motor gunboats off the east coast of South Korea and destroyed five of the communist combatants.

On 3 July, aircraft from the Valley Forge and the British carrier Triumph attacked the capital and war-making heart of North Korea - Pyongyang. The attack-plane squadrons bombed hangars, fuel-storage tanks, runways, nearby bridges, and rail yards. The Navy's new jet fighter, the F9F Panther, registered the service's first aerial victories of the war when Lieutenant (junior grade) Leonard H. Plog and Ensign Eldon W. Brown Jr. shot down two North Korean Yak-9s.

An even more vital task, however, was to help stop the North Korean Army from destroying desperately fighting U.S. and U.N. ground forces and conquering the entire peninsula. American and allied cruisers and destroyers shelled enemy units moving along coastal roads as Navy and Marine carrier-based air units struck communist troops and supply convoys heading south farther inland. At the same time, the ships of the Navy's Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) rushed reinforcements and supplies from the United States and Japan to U.N. troops holding a small corner of the peninsula around Pusan.

The onrushing communist divisions would have pushed U.N. forces into the sea or forced a bloody withdrawal like the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk had it not been for the fleet's support. A sad fact was that U.S. forces in the Far East were woefully unprepared to fight a war in the summer of 1950. Initially, the only available American troops were in Japan - four understrength, undertrained, and unready Army infantry divisions and a sprinkling of naval and air units. North Korean ground forces badly mauled and quickly bypassed the first U.S. Army units deployed to South Korea. With hard fighting by follow-on troops and fresh reinforcements and supplies brought in by sea, however, U.N. forces managed to hold the Pusan perimeter.

Contributing to the successful defensive effort was the work of the ROK Navy and its American advisers. Because the South Korean Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Sohn Won Il, was in the United States accepting the transfer of three U.S. warships when the war broke out, there was an immediate need for an experienced senior leader on the scene. With the agreement of the South Korean government, Admiral Joy tasked U.S. Navy Commander Michael J. Luosey with exercising temporary operational control of South Korea's navy. Luosey quickly organized inshore patrol sectors on the southern and western coasts, moved South Korean Marine forces to critical areas, and helped stiffen allied maritime defenses. Only recently established, the ROK Navy compensated for its small size by fighting with determination throughout July and August. With the return to Korea of Admiral Sohn and his three ships, South Korean naval forces redoubled the effort to destroy communist junks, motorized sailboats, and sampans trying to deliver reinforcements and supplies to the North Korean ground troops besieging Pusan.

Fighting side by side with the U.S. Navy from the beginning of the war were naval forces from eight other members of the U.N. coalition. The Royal Navy contingent included the carriers Glory , Theseus , Ocean , Triumph and ten cruisers and destroyers. Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Colombian, French, Dutch, and Thai naval forces also went into combat off Korea.

Amphibious End Around

Allied dominance at sea paid another huge dividend, enabling General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command and Commander-in-Chief, Far East, to reverse the tide of battle in Korea. Vice Admiral Arthur Struble, Commander Seventh Fleet, led 230 U.S. and allied amphibious and other ships into the Yellow Sea and toward the North Korean - occupied port of Inchon in mid-September 1950.

For days before the actual amphibious assault, naval gunfire-support ships and carrier aircraft attacked enemy defensive positions ashore at Inchon. Finally, at 0633 on 15 September, fleet amphibious landing craft disembarked the 1st Marine Division's 5th Marine Regiment on Wolmi Do, an island in Inchon Harbor. Following several days of hard fighting, during which additional Marines and South Korean and U.S. 7th Infantry Division troops joined the battle, the allies seized the port and nearby Kimpo airfield. On the 21st, U.S. Eighth Army units that had fought their way out of the Pusan perimeter linked up with the Inchon forces. Following a week of bloody, street-to-street fighting, the 1st Marine Division liberated Seoul, the South Korean capital.

The amphibious units at Inchon suffered 3,500 killed, wounded, and missing, but they inflicted 20,000 casualties on the enemy. Of greater strategic significance, the successful Inchon landing compelled the badly battered North Korean People's Army to flee north across the 38th parallel and brought about the liberation of South Korea.

Advance and Retreat

General MacArthur hoped to complete the destruction of the enemy army with another amphibious assault, this time at the North Korean port of Wonsan on the Sea of Japan. Once the Navy had landed the X Corps there, the troops were to advance to the Yalu River and North Korea's borders with the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. But the Navy discovered that the communists had filled Wonsan Harbor with between 2,000 and 4,000 Soviet-made magnetic and contact mines. Several U.S. and South Korean mine-clearing vessels were sunk before the task force opened a safe passage into the port. Meanwhile, hard-charging South Korean troops reached Wonsan. Finally, on 25 October 1950, the 1st Marine Division under Major General O. P. Smith landed and pushed into the looming and foreboding mountains of North Korea.

The Navy's inherent mobility and dominance at sea proved a boon to the allied cause not only in battlefield success but also in failure. The latter occurred when "volunteers" of the communist Chinese People's Liberation Army, which had crossed into Korea in October, emerged from the snow-covered mountains of North Korea in November 1950 and surprised Army, Marine, and South Korean units. The X Corps, comprising the 1st Marine Division, the U.S. Army's 3rd and 7th divisions, and three South Korean divisions, had to fight their way back to the coast in below-freezing temperatures and fierce winds. Naval aircraft operating from the fleet carriers Philippine Sea (CV-47), Valley Forge (CV-45), Princeton (CV-37), and Leyte (CV-32) and from several escort carriers heavily bombed and strafed Chinese troops attacking the withdrawing U.N. troops.

During these air operations to support their beleaguered comrades on the ground, Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas Hudner, Ensign Jesse Brown, and two other F4U Corsair pilots from the Leyte flew around the Chosin Reservoir in search of enemy troops. Brown soon reported that his plane was losing oil pressure, and he had to crash-land in the trackless, ice- and snow-covered mountains. The force of the impact separated his aircraft's engine from its fuselage and badly crumpled the plane. While he survived the crash, Brown was seriously injured and trapped in the cockpit. Hudner called for a rescue helicopter, but he knew it would take 30 minutes for the aircraft to get to the scene, so he decided to go to the assistance of his friend and squadron mate.

Hudner crash-landed his own Corsair in the snow close to Brown's plane and rushed to his aid. The lieutenant covered the ensign's head with a spare wool cap and wrapped his hands in a scarf. Using an axe, Hudner tried to free the pilot from the cockpit but every attempt failed. When the rescue helicopter arrived, the pilot told Hudner they had to leave the mountains before dark or they were in danger of crashing. With Brown unconscious and most likely already dead from his injuries and the cold, Hudner realized he had to leave his friend behind. They had done all they could for Jesse Brown, the first African-American naval aviator to die in combat. President Truman awarded Hudner the Medal of Honor for his brave attempt to save his comrade's life.

As this drama unfolded in the mountains, most of the X Corps' Marines and Soldiers had fought their way to the coast. As the retreating troops came within range, the battleship Missouri (BB-63), cruisers Rochester (CA-124) and St. Paul (CA-73), and numerous destroyers and rocket vessels used their firepower to establish a protective shield around the ground forces. U.S. and allied surface ships fired more than 23,000 rockets and 16-, 8-, 5-, and 3-inch rounds at communist units bold enough to approach the evacuation port of Hungnam.

On 24 December 1950, Rear Admiral James Doyle's Combined Task Force 90 completed the withdrawal by sea of 105,000 troops, 91,000 civilian refugees, 350,000 tons of cargo, and 17,500 military vehicles. Later that day, Navy demolition teams leveled the port facilities at Hungnam to deny them to the enemy, and the fleet steamed south. The units withdrawn from North Korea with most of their equipment were soon preparing to re-enter the fight for the preservation of the Republic of Korea.

Naval Power from the Air and Sea

By the spring of 1951 it was clear to both sides that neither would be able to achieve a decisive military victory on the Korean Peninsula without risking World War III. As a result, the communist and U.N. belligerents dispatched military representatives to Kaesong and later Panmunjom near the 38th parallel to arrange an armistice. Admiral Joy led the U.N. delegation that also included Rear Admiral Arleigh Burke, a future Chief of Naval Operations. The military-to-military talks, however, were stymied over the release of prisoners of war and other contentious issues and dragged on for another two years. In the meantime, communist and U.N. forces fought bloody battles back and forth across the 38th parallel, seizing and then giving up territory; Seoul changed hands four times during the war. In contrast to the rapid advances and retreats of 1950, World War I - like trench warfare characterized the fighting in 1951, 1952, and 1953. The contending ground forces slugged it out on the barren, wind- and snow-swept mountains of central Korea.

A vital mission of naval air power during this so-called "static war" phase was to bring the conflict to the North Korean rear areas and prevent heavy weapons, ammunition, supplies, and construction materials from reaching enemy troops along the front line. The Seventh Fleet's Task Force 77 and Task Force 95 did the heavy lifting. The former featured large-deck aircraft carriers, 11 of which would serve in the Korean War, while the latter included one light and four escort carriers. Navy combat squadrons operated from the carriers, and Marine aviation units flew from both the escort carriers and shore bases. The naval aviators piloted F9F Panther and F2H Banshee jets and the workhorses - propeller-driven F4U Corsairs and AD Skyraiders.

The fleet's fighter squadrons battled for control of the air with hundreds of communist MiG-15 jets and other combat aircraft flown by North Korean, Chinese, and Soviet air crews, and shot down 13 of them. Lieutenant Guy P. Bordelon became the Navy's lone Korean War ace when he downed five enemy "Bedcheck Charlies," aircraft that flew over U.N. lines at night and dropped bombs to disturb the sleep of the troops.

The attack squadrons focused their attention on enemy locomotives and rolling stock, bridges, tunnels, supply depots, power-generating dams on the Yalu River, and other vital targets. In one of the war's most dramatic and unusual missions, eight Skyraiders of Commander Harold G. "Swede" Carlson's Navy Attack Squadron 195, flying from the Princeton , breached the Hwachon Reservoir dam with air-dropped torpedoes. The squadron was thereafter nicknamed the "Dambusters."

Providing on-call, close-air support to troops on the front line was another critical responsibility of the carrier- and shore-based units. By the end of the war, naval air crews had flown 275,000 sorties over Korea, which represented 53 percent of the close-air support strikes and 40 percent of the interdiction missions flown by U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps planes. Naval aircraft dropped more than 178,000 tons of bombs, triggered over 274,000 air-to-ground rockets, and fired more than 71 million cannon rounds.

Combat power projected from the sea came from another source - the battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and rocket vessels of the Seventh Fleet. Marines and Soldiers facing Chinese "human wave" assaults eagerly sought fire from the 16-inch guns of the World War II - built battleships Iowa (BB-61), Missouri (BB-63), Wisconsin (BB-64), and New Jersey (BB-62). The fleet's surface warships also ranged along the Korean coast shelling communist railways, roads, supply caches, and troop concentrations. Allied estimates credited U.S. and U.N. surface ships, which fired 4 million rounds of naval gun ammunition, with killing 28,000 enemy troops and destroying thousands of buildings, trucks, bridges, and supply dumps. Enemy counterbattery fire failed to sink even one U.N. warship.

The prodigious air effort and its complementary surface-force bombardment operations undoubtedly denied the enemy vital munitions and saved the lives of thousands of American and allied soldiers fighting to take or hold ground at the 38th parallel; however, it did not completely cut the enemy's supply lines or prevent him from launching devastating offensives. Tens of thousands of North Korean civilians and military engineers repeatedly put bombed rail lines, bridges, and supply depots back in operation. Nighttime often cloaked communist supply movements. Moreover, enemy antiaircraft fire brought down 559 Navy and Marine aircraft, and MiGs claimed another five. The Korean War experience demonstrated that in the new era of limited conflicts, air power would not be a war-winning instrument. That lesson would have to be relearned 15 years later in the skies over Southeast Asia.

Off North Korea's Coasts

Throughout the Korean War, U.S. and allied naval forces denied the enemy use of the sea to transport troops and supplies. Control of the sea also allowed the U.N. command to threaten amphibious landings in the rear of the communist armies fighting along the 38th parallel. Burned once at Inchon, the enemy took the threat seriously and deployed large units along both coasts, where obviously they posed no danger to U.N. troops farther south on the front line. To keep the enemy guessing, the Navy conducted several naval feints and demonstrations. In Operation Decoy during October 1952, for instance, Seventh Fleet carriers, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers attacked communist defenses around Kojo, and the amphibious force operated as if to land the Army's 1st Cavalry Division near Wonsan. The Chinese and North Koreans rushed forces to the coast to defeat the nonexistent amphibious assault.

The Seventh Fleet also put special operations forces ashore on both coasts of North Korea and on many of the islands in nearby waters. The so-called "Siege of Wonsan" from 16 February 1951 to the end of the war prevented the communists from using North Korea's most important port on the Sea of Japan. U.S. Navy underwater demolition teams, or frogmen; U.S. Marines; and British and South Korean naval commandos frequently blew up highway bridges, supply dumps, railroad tracks, and railroad tunnels behind enemy lines.

A number of U.S. naval leaders took the initiative to take the fight to the enemy in the waters off northeastern Korea. Commander James A. Dare, commanding officer of the destroyer Douglas H. Fox (DD-779), used his ship's whaleboats offensively, as other resourceful officers had done throughout the Navy's history. He armed his best officers and Bluejackets with 75-millimeter recoilless rifles, small arms, demolition charges, grenades, radios, and tools for destroying fishing nets. At night they sortied in their boats five to seven miles from the ship (within range of the Douglas H. Fox 's radios and surface-search radar) to capture North Korean fishing boats and their crews. Operation Fishnet disrupted local fishing activity and denied the enemy sustenance as well as providing the fleet with vital intelligence on enemy gun positions and troop deployments. The American Sailors also put some psychological pressure on the enemy. The night before May Day 1952 - 1 May is an especially important date in the communist world - the Douglas H. Fox's whaleboat Sailors planted an American flag on a muddy island at the mouth of Hungnam Harbor. When the sun rose on the big day, the enemy soldiers' first sight as they looked eastward was Old Glory snapping in the breeze.

For U.S. and allied military forces to fight successfully on a peninsula almost 5,000 nautical miles from the West Coast of the United States and contiguous to the enemy nations of China and the Soviet Union required a massive U.S. Navy resupply effort. Hundreds of Military Sea Transportation Service troopships, freighters, and tankers were necessary to deliver the Army and Marine combat divisions, tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, ammunition, and fuel necessary to continue the war. During the three-year conflict, MSTS transported 5 million passengers, more than 52 million tons of cargo, and 22 million long tons of fuel.

Another herculean task for the Navy was keeping its aircraft carriers and surface ships on station and in the fight off the Korean Peninsula. To do this, fleet oilers, ammunition ships, and stores ships delivered their precious cargoes directly to the combatants through underway replenishment.

The Korean War was no exception to the rule that Marines and Sailors fight and sometimes die as members of a team. Navy Seabees helped build airfields ashore for Marine aviation squadrons, and Navy doctors and hospital corpsmen served in combat with Marine riflemen. Typical of these corpsmen was Hospitalman Richard Dewert, who was shot rushing to the aid of a wounded Marine. Despite his wounds, Dewert returned to the field of battle three times to help other downed men but was finally killed by enemy fire. Hospitalman Dewert was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service and sacrifice.

Responsible for the care of wounded and injured Sailors and Marines, ashore and afloat, the Navy deployed the hospital ships Consolation (AH-15), Haven (AH-12), and Repose (AH-16) to the combat theater. The vessels were staffed by hard-working and skilled medical professionals, including members of the Nurse Corps. The advent during the Korean War of helicopters enabled the speedy transportation of patients between ship and shore.

Helicopters also proved especially well suited to retrieving air crews from the sea. Aviation Machinist's Mate Second Class Ernie L. Crawford, crewman of a helicopter operating from the heavy cruiser Rochester (CA-124), was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in saving a downed, unconscious pilot. Crawford got the naval aviator safely into the rescue "bird" and then floated alone for 20 minutes in the freezing ocean while he awaited the helicopter's return.

In short, the Navy was essential to the U.S. and U.N. effort in the first major conflict of the Cold War. More than 1,177,000 Navy personnel served in Korea from 25 June 1950 to 27 July 1953, when the belligerents finally signed an armistice at Panmunjom. Combat took the lives of 458 Sailors and wounded another 1,576; 4,043 officers and enlisted personnel succumbed to injury or disease. Without the selfless dedication to duty of Navy men and women ashore and afloat, United Nations forces would not have been able to achieve the war's primary goal - to preserve the independence of the Republic of Korea and the freedom of its citizens.


Malcolm W. Cagle and Frank A. Manson, The Sea War in Korea (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1957). James A. Field Jr., United States Naval Operations, Korea (Washington, DC: 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).


Edward J. Marolda served as the Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the Navy. In 2017 the Naval Historical Foundation honored him with its Commodore Dudley W. Knox Naval History Lifetime Achievement Award. He has authored, coauthored, or edited nine works on the U.S. Navy’s experience in Vietnam. In support of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Oral History Program, he has interviewed Vietnam veterans and retired admirals Stanley R. Arthur and Joseph W. Prueher. At Georgetown University, Dr. Marolda has taught courses on the Cold War in the Far East and the Vietnam War. He holds degrees in history from Pennsylvania Military College (BA), Georgetown University (MA), and George Washington University (PhD).

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