INCHON to NORTH KOREA
by Colonel Francis Fox Parry, USMC (Ret)
Copyright © 1989 by Francis Fox Pary
Crossing the Han
Early on the evening of September 1, 1950, we slipped majestically out of San Diego's magnificent harbor and headed into the setting sun. It was an unforgettable experience. As a Marine band played "Goodnight, Irene," a favorite of the moment, the thousands of troops crowding the deck of the USS Bayfield broke into song. The families and loved ones swarming on the dock soon joined in. As we eased past Point Loma into the darkening Pacific, the harbor reverberated with that haunting refrain.
Although 3/11 [3d Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment] was spread over seven ships, I directed that each battery commander and key staff officer do his best to conduct whatever training was feasible. On the Bayfield the FDC [fire direction center] and communications section, among others, were able to get in urgently needed drills. In fact, the FDC had to be organized and trained almost from scratch since we had brought only four trained men from Camp Lejeune, or about one third of the needed complement. That the FDC was rendered functional at all in the less than three weeks available and under the crowded conditions aboard ship was commendable. That it was managed with such success was in equal measure due to Major [Jimmy] Callender's knowledge and dedication and the quality of the Reserves we received at the last minute at Camp Pendleton. About 170 men, or about 25 percent of our strength, joined the night before we embarked. The Reserves were mostly from the state of Oregon and Houston, Texas. Many were college students or recent graduates of the University of Oregon or Oregon State. Their intellectual capacity was such that they needed to be told the details of their jobs only once. Jimmy's FDC was filled with men who had scored over 140 on the General Classification Test (GCT), high scores even for officers.
The FDC, the three firing-battery executives, the eighteen gun-section chiefs and their gunners, and the communicators that tie them all together make up the gunnery team. The gunnery team is is the heart of the field artillery battalion. It is a heart that must beat powerfully and with precision, promptly converting observer calls for fire into battery fire commands. The fire commands are then quickly translated into range and deflection settings for each howitzer. The speed and accuracy of this operation is the real measure of an artillery battalion. Of course, the battalion must be positioned and repositioned tactically so that it can do its gunnery job most effectively. The battalion must also be protected from interfering forces and supplied with ammunition. The FOs [forward observers], the communicators, and the service elements are also a vital part of the battalion, but it is the gunnery team that must deliver the battalion's firepower in appropriate quantity where and when needed. This takes knowledge, training, teamwork, and dedication to the fine points of gunnery at every level. That proficiency in this critical area was attained despite the handicaps (not the least of which was the cold fact that the FDC had not controlled a single round of the battalion's fire in training) speaks volumes about the caliber of 3/11 personnel.
After a calm crossing we steamed into Kobe harbor the afternoon of September 16 only to learn that our stay in Japan would be hours, not months. I was able to assemble the battery commanders and staff from their several ships and formulate a landing plan. This consisted primarily of every unit commander using his initiative to gather his people and equipment as rapidly as possible and move to the assembly area. We were scheduled to get under way for Inchon at first light, so there was no troop liberty. A few officers did go ashore for dinner and visited a geisha house, but our hearts were not in it.
On September 21 we landed at Inchon, which was by then a rear area. The front lines were well inland, near Kimpo Airfield. For almost three days near the beach and in an assembly area inland, we strove manfully to recover all our equipment, much of which was still crated or in boxes that we had never seen. The most critical shortage was communications gear--radios and field telephones. Some were never found. (We fired our first fire mission with the FDC manning a field telephone borrowed from Item Battery.)
With the 7th Marines across the Han River sweeping almost unopposed toward an investment of Seoul from the north, I requested permission to cross the river so that we could provide more effective support. Regiment concurred, and we made ready to cross at first light. 3/11 Headquarters crossed the tidal Han, at that point about 100 yards wide, in a DUKW. We watched as pontoon barges pushed by LCVPs ferried the eighteen truck-drawn 105mm howitzers across. Then, to my annoyance, tanks began to cross. Much of the FDC and communications section, as well as the ammunition trucks, were left stranded as the tanks monopolized the barges. I DUKWed back across the river to discover why my units had been delayed.
The river crossing was controlled by the 1st Shore Party Battalion, commanded by a colorful, tough hero of the Pacific island campaigns, Colonel Henry P. "Jim" Crowe. I sought him out and pleaded my case. He was unmoved. After agreeing that 3/11 had priority for the river crossing, he explained, "Your battalion has eighteen howitzers, right?"
"That's right, Sir," I replied.
"Well, Major, I ferried eighteen howitzers across the river, so what's your problem?"
"My howitzers are practically useless without our fire-direction center, communications section, and ammunition trucks."
The gnarled old colonel turned away, dismissing me with a wave of the hand. "I took your battalion across as ordered."
Locating the nearest field telephone, I called the division G-3, Colonel Al Bowser, who years before had been my equitation instructor at Quantico. An artilleryman himself, Bowser instantly grasped my dilemma. "Get Colonel Crowe on the line for me, Fox," he directed. Crowe took the phone, listened briefly, fixed me with a withering glare, and issued the necessary orders to complete the delivery of 3/11 to the north bank of the Han on a priority basis.
By the time the last vehicle was across, the day was half over but we were able to move up along the Han about 10 miles and occupy a firing position behind some hills to the west of Seoul. We fired the batteries in before dark.
That 1st Marine Division was capable of creditable action in a matter of weeks after being assembled from two division shells and filled out by Reserve units from around the country is remarkable; that it could successfully execute an assault landing as difficult as that at Inchon in September 1950 was a near miracle. Dedicated Marine Regulars and Reservists with Pacific War experience still fresh had bailed out the nation's political leadership, which did not deserve so kind a fate.
The 7th RCT's sweep to invest Seoul and the advance on up the valley to Uijongbu was not strongly opposed. The 1st and 5th Marines had broken the back of North Korean resistance; the 7th faced only rear-guard action. It was, nonetheless, a most useful shakedown for the 7th RCT [regimental combat team], which was far more heavily weighted with Reserves than the rest of the division. We were aware of the desperate need to hone military skills and round the RCT into top physical condition.
After an active firing period devoted mostly to support of Dog Company, 2/7 [2d Battalion, 7th Marines] (which had strayed into the 5th Marines' sector and encountered a North Korean battalion), 3/11 displaced to the north of Seoul preparatory to the push to Uijongbu. While we were awaiting the arrival of the firing batteries at the selected position, 1/7 came up the road and began to bivouac in "our" field. I found the redoubtable Lieutenant Colonel Raymond G. Davis and advised him that the field was already staked out for our firing batteries.
I had seen little of Ray, who was three years my senior, since we had first met with Colonel [Homer] Litzenberg at Camp Pendleton. (Both of us had complained to Litz about our battalions being split among so many ships.) But I knew something of his background. A Georgian, he had started out as an artilleryman and had been Bob Luckey's executive officer in the 1st Special Weapons Battalion on the Canal. Later, at Cape Gloucester, Davis took over 1/1 and launched his brilliant career as an infantry commander. He had a cool demeanor, bright blue eyes, and a reputation as a tough, dynamic leader. He had won the Navy Cross as a major commanding 1/1 on Peleliu. He was not a man with whom one sought a confrontation.
I declared respectfully, "Colonel, I'm putting the battalion in position in this field; they'll be coming up the road shortly."
"We've marched 18 miles and the men are exhausted." Ray rejoined, "This is as far as we go."
So 1/7 bivouacked on the edge of the field and in the adjacent woods.
As the batteries arrived minutes later, I emplaced them as planned in the field. An hour or two later when the firing batteries began to register, Ray apparently thought better of his stand and pushed his tired troops on to a quieter rest area. There are better places to relax than cheek-to-jowl with cannonading artillery.
This minor confrontation illuminates what from then on became standard practice in the 7th RCT--3/11 had priority in the selection of firing positions. Although priority was not critical around Seoul, it became so in the more confining mountains of North Korea.
For the drive north, which was supposed to be a 10-mile tank-infantry dash to Uijongbu, a battery of Marine 155mm howitzers and a battery of Army antiaircraft artillery-automatic weapons (AAA-AW) were attached to 3/11. According to accepted tactics, the tracked vehicles that carried the dual-40mm AAA guns and quadruple .50-caliber machine guns, were distributed throughout the motor column. The 155s and my own Item Battery were left in position to support the advance, their fire controlled by Item Battery's battery fire chart beefed up by battalion FDC personnel and communicators. Several tanks, however, were immobilized by mines, thus forming effective roadblocks. Anxious to deploy George and How batteries in a forward position from which we could reach beyond Uijongbu, we were frustrated not only by the tanks but also the tracked AAA. It was necessary to order the AAA to take position on the edge of the road so that we could maneuver the firing batteries through them and on up the road into position. We learned, in fact, that attaching an AAA battery to a field artillery battalion is not a good idea. It is well nigh impossible to site the tracked vehicles so that they do not interfere with artillery displacements, communications, and ammunition resupply; their desire to reposition themselves is frequently disruptive; control of their often indiscriminate fire is difficult; and they attract attention. In short, a field artillery battalion is better off without whatever contribution AAA makes to local security. My recommendations to Colonel Litzenberg on the subject were forthright, and the 7th RCT had no AAA attached thereafter.
That night we fired from both forward and rear positions. As long as we had enemy targets under fire from the rear, it was inadvisable to move Item Battery forward. This was our first experience with a split FDC, a practice that was to become commonplace up north. During this period Captain Ben Read and I visited the front lines atop a hill a few miles north of Seoul. While Ben checked in with his liaison officer and the infantry battalion commander, I went on to see the FO in that sector. Second Lieutenant Donald H. Campbell was a Reserve from Aptos, California, who had never conducted a fire mission. I instructed him in the simplest terms I knew for fifteen minutes. That night, he called in a fire mission and was able, with a little patience and assistance from the FDC, to bring fire to bear on an enemy target.
Don was not unique. Eight of my nine FOs were Reservists, and I suspect that most were at least rusty in firing technique if indeed they had ever fired a live mission at all. These largely untried observers, important keys to 3/11 success, were our major weakness--our only serious one. The light action around Seoul and to Uijongbu was an opportunity to give these officers some urgently needed training. It was not much but, they learned their trade. By the time they were called upon to produce in the Korean northland, they were ready.
Historians and other commentators have already challenged the advisability of General MacArthur's sudden command to halt 1st Marine Division north of Uijongbu. The division withdrew to Inchon and eventually performed an amphibious end-around to Wonsan. That it removed ground pressure from the retreating North Koreans is indisputable. That it gave the Chinese a few more days to prepare to intervene also seems incontestable. But it is doubtful that MacArthur's sudden command made much difference to the ultimate outcome. At the time some of us at Uijongbu jumped to the parochial and, in retrospect, silly conclusion that General MacArthur wanted a U.S. Army division to be the first to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea. Our cynicism was not without some foundation, however. For example, we had learned that despite the fact that supplies of all kinds were needed by front-line troops, the first pontoon bridge across the Han had remained unused for many hours until MacArthur arrived to cut the ribbon to inaugurate its use.
At Inchon we boarded the USS Aiken Victory and the USS Titania and ships of the Supreme Command, Allied Powers, Japan (SCAJAP)--LST QO44 and LST Q092. We voyaged down the Yellow Sea, through the Korea Strait, and up the Sea of Japan to cruise off Wonsan while the Navy painstakingly swept the harbor of mines. It was an eerie experience, sharing the LST with a Japanese crew who only five years earlier had been our mortal enemies. For each of the three meals every day, the Japanese would eat first. The crew cleaned up the kitchen, mess hall, and wardroom swiftly and efficiently and then turned them over to our cooks and messmen. We ate entirely different meals. One afternoon we even had pizzas--a morale booster even though only a modest culinary success. We languished from October 15 to October 26 on the LST, most of the time boring holes in the water off Wonsan. There were no unpleasant incidents between Marines and Japanese.
About a week before we landed at Wonsan, we suffered our first officer casualty. Captain Robert A. Thompson, our logistics officer and CO of Service Battery, had developed an eye infection so serious that he had to be transferred in open sea by breeches buoy to a destroyer for further delivery to a hospital ship. Bob had done a superior job under the most adverse conditions from rounding up ammunition at Camp Pendleton to outfitting the battalion with vehicles and equipment, to providing logistic support from Inchon to Uijongbu, to embarkation aboard ship at Inchon. To say that he was not missed would be untrue. But we had such a wealth of talented officers--the like of which I have never seen before or since in a single battalion--that his replacement did not represent a serious problem.
This was not altogether accidental, for the 3/11 command philosophy stressed the accumulation of talent. Three of my most valuable officers--Major Callender and Captains Read and McLaurin--had been sought and acquired at Camp Lejeune. At Camp Pendleton we had scoured the base for competent officers, artillerymen, and otherwise. At Inchon I discovered Captain Robert T. Patterson languishing in an inconsequential job in 4/11 and talked Major Bill McReynolds into giving him to me on the promise that I would find him a good billet. (As a first lieutenant in Okinawa, Bob had commanded K/4/15, and I knew his worth.) Of course, there are situations when an overabundance of talent will cause you problems, but combat is not likely to be one of them. Officers are killed, wounded, become sick or are transferred to other units, and having a capable replacement on hand may be the difference between giving superior or mediocre support to the infantry.
Once ashore at Wonsan we were somewhat annoyed that Bob Hope and his touring troupe were already entertaining the servicemen in the area. We were soon apprised, however, that there was serious business ahead. On October 27, 3/11 was again attached to the 7th Marines. I reported to Colonel Litzenberg at his CP, a schoolhouse just north of Wonsan, and learned that the 7th RCT would spearhead 1st Marine Division's dash northward to the Yalu River--the border with China. Inasmuch as little resistance was expected, we were to make all haste, with the infantry leapfrogging battalions by truck whenever possible. As soon as new winter clothing could be drawn from Division, we were to get under way. A long winter campaign in the mountains of North Korea was not anticipated, and the skimpy cold-weather gear available was a far cry from the clothing and equipment with which Korean veterans of future winters would be outfitted. Our shoe-pacs presented particular problems. I wore the same paratrooper boots that I had worn on Okinawa because the liners of the shoe-pac tended to freeze to the foot when they became sweaty and then cooled off.
Major Dave Mell, the 7th Marines logistics officer (S-4), was urged to think in terms of "plus 700" for all supplies needed for the trek north. Although surprised at our requirements for gas, communications replacements, and ammunition, he took on this additional burden without complaint.
Stripped down so that all gear and ammunition could be carried in organic transport in one trip, 3/11 covered the 65 miles to Hamhung over steep mountain roads. The roads were well suited to ambush, but we arrived without incident. After a situation briefing at I Republic of Korea (ROK) Army Corps Headquarters, I positioned the battalion facing west in a field about a mile south of the bridge into Hamhung. While awaiting the arrival of the infantry battalions by train, we reconnoitered the broad valley stretching west from Hamhung up to where the ROK lines were drawn. It was a pleasant 30-mile drive up the narrowing valley in the autumn coolness. We drove alongside a clear, swift-running stream. Our 1:250,000 map told us that the stream would accompany us up the mountains to the Chosin Reservoir, which was less than halfway to our objective on the Yalu.
At Majon-dong, a hamlet a mile from the head of the valley, I came upon a U.S. Army major and captain, military advisors to the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army's 26th Infantry Regiment, who informed me that "Chinese volunteers" had met the ROKs head-on and had driven them back from Sudong. They were now trying to regain suitable ground to facilitate the passage of lines by the 7th Marines. Returning to Hamhung, I reported to Colonel Litzenberg and was directed to lead the regimental column to Majon-dong in the morning. Just after Reds Miller, Jimmy Callender, and I had turned in at about 11:00 P.M., there was a rapping at the window of the school building we were using as a CP. There were two Marines with a jack-o'-lantern--a real pumpkin they had scrounged somewhere, complete with a candle inside. The troops were not going to let Halloween slip by without notice.
About midnight Colonel Litzenberg telephoned to order 3/11 to move across the river into Hamhung immediately--reportedly, a Chinese Communist division was moving on us from the southwest. With the 7th Marines north of the river, we were in an untenable position; he wanted us to move within the city and to be prepared to shoot to the southwest. An unplanned night displacement is one thing. Add to this the imponderables of a strange Asian city and a moonless night, and you have the ingredients of a disaster.
My small reconnaissance party, made up chiefly of the three firing-battery commanders, plunged determinedly into the inky night in search of an appropriate battalion position. Reds was to form up the battalion, lead it to a designated site, and wait for us. We probed cautiously through the city in almost total darkness, casting about for a suitable park or open area. After poking down one street after another, careful to maintain our bearings, we came upon a sizable schoolyard. By the time we made our way back to the rendezvous area, Reds was getting a little nervous. He had kept the battalion moving around in a circle several blocks on a side, preferring some movement to sitting in suspenseful waiting. We reached the schoolyard at about 3:00 A.M., put the batteries in position, and did a little digging in. Since our orders for the morning still stood, we moved out again at first light.
As we proceeded slowly up the peaceful valley along a route that was to become famous before the month was out, I had ample opportunity to ponder the lesson of the unpleasant night. The message seemed clear: Reconnoiter positions in all directions, no matter how seemingly improbable the chance of occupation. At 9:00 A.M., we went into position at Majon-dong to await the arrival of the 7th Marines. That night we went to sleep without having fired a round.