The Korean War was a major conflict on the Korean peninsula lasting from 1950 to 1953, between the communist forces of North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union and China, and the anti-Communist forces of South Korea, supported by a multinational United Nations force in which the US was largely represented. Because no Declaration of War was ever ratified by Congress the conflict was officially referred to as a police action. A far bloodier conflict than the Vietnam War (which killed 1.5 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians over the course of 15 years), the fighting resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2.5 million Koreans and Chinese in 3 years.
A Japanese colony until the end of World War II, Korea was then divided by the Yalta agreement into two administrative zones in 1945, along the 38th parallel, occupied by the Soviet Union and the United States. In both zones competing government organizations were created to rule a unified Korea, and military forces raised.
August 31, 1946, Harold J. Noble wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post entitled, "Our Most Dangerous Boundary." The author pointed out that the Soviet Union had garrisoned North Korea with a larger force than the Americans possessed in Japan and Manchuria. The Communists were disposed to invade at a moment's notice. Where the U.S. had a squad near the border commanded by a corporal, the Soviet Union had a battalion, commanded by an officer, equipped with motor transport, ninety per cent of which came from America. The Soviet Union had established a police state in North Korea and suppressed every political organization except the Communist Party.
In 1947, General Albert Wedemeyer made his report on China and Korea. The Korean part was suppressed. Wedemeyer said:
- "American and Soviet forces . . . are approximately equal, less than 50,000 troops each, [but] the Soviet-equipped and trained North Korean People's (Communist) Army of approximately 125,000 is vastly superior to the United States-organized constabulary of 16,000 Koreans equipped with Japanese small arms. The North Korean People's Army constitutes a potential military threat to South Korea, since there is strong possibility that the Soviets will withdraw their occupation forces and thus induce our own withdrawal."
Wedemeyer warned that this would take place as soon as "they can be sure that the North Korean puppet government and its armed forces . . . are strong enough . . . to be relied upon to carry out Soviet objectives without the actual presence of Soviet troops." General Lyman L. Lemnitzer said that before June 1950, when the attack occurred, no aid had been sent but a few hundred dollars worth of baling wire.
Comintern propagandist Owen Lattimore writing in the leftist New York Compass said that the U.S. should give Korea a "parting grant" of $150,000,000 and "let South Korea fall but not to let it look as though we pushed it." Attempts were made by the Soviet Union and newly established North Korean regime to unite the whole of Korea under Communist party control. Initially the confusion resulting from the United States-Soviet disagreement over unification enhanced the domestic rivalries of the two contending South Korean extremist camps. The Left, being an outspoken advocate of national wealth redistribution, gravitated towards the propaganda of the North Korea, and allowed itself to be utilized as a political instrument in the struggle to destroy the infant South Korean democracy. The Rightist element, incensed over the possibility that a redistribution of vested Japanese interests would constitute a precedent for the confiscation of Korean owned wealth, found itself in opposition with the left. This widening of the political chasm in South Korea was given impetus by a resort to terrorism for the Leftist agenda. The North Korean government injected a propaganda effort contrasting the alleged proletarian paradise of North Korea with what it termed the political and economic distress of the South.
Conditions inviting the North Korean attack were created by the United Nations which issued a resolution for withdrawal of both Soviet and American troops. Troops began withdrawing September 15, 1948, leaving only about 7500 Americans lightly armed. This left in South Korea 16,000 Koreans and 7500 Americans, both groups lightly armed, against 150,000 fully armed North Korean Communists. General Roberts, head of the U. S. Military Mission said the South Koreans were not permitted to arm adequately.
In the summer of 1950, North Korean forces under Kim Il Sung, 135,000 strong and supported by 200 aircraft, thrust southwards. The 95,000 strong South Korean army, created under US control, was unmotivated, inefficient and had been deliberately denied heavy weapons; within hours most formations had fled south, often abandoning their equipment. After a week, almost half of the South Korean army had disappeared.
A United Nations resolution, passed in the absence of the USSR, which was boycotting the UN at the time, condemned the attack and demanded the withdrawal of the North Korean forces. The United States was the most enthusiastic in pursuing these demands. A second resolution invited member nations to provide forces to repel the invasion, which the United States had already started doing.
The United States Air Force was the first (non-Korean) force to respond to the invasion. Initial action, however, was limited to making sure American citizens were evacuated safely. Once the first UN resolution was passed, attention turned to stopping the North Korean advance. USAF planes flew from bases in Japan and Okinawa, and two aircraft carriers were in the area, the USS Valley Forge and the British HMS Triumph. In addition, US cruisers and destroyers off the coast lent fire support to the retreating South Korean forces.
The North Koreans had the latest piston-engined fighters from the Soviet Union, but they were outclassed by the first-generation jet fighters flown by the USAF and the US Navy. UN aircraft made several strikes on North Korean air bases, and by July 5, the NKAF had lost over a hundred aircraft and the UN had complete air superiority.
No modern conventional war has been won without air superiority, but air power alone has never won a war, and the first months of the Korean War were a case in point. Air strikes by bombers and fighter-bombers slowed the North Korean advance, but the communist troops were just too numerous to stop, especially with the South Korean resistance crumbling. UN troops, mostly American, were sent in to help hold the line, but they were outnumbered, and forced back. In August, the lines finally stabilized along the Naktong River, establishing the Pusan perimeter.
Pusan is a large port on the southern tip of Korea, through which came thousands of UN troops and hundred of tanks and other heavy equipment. By August, enough troops had come through that they could successfully hold the line against the North Koreans. Knowing that time was not on their side, Kim Il-Sung ordered his soldiers to breach the line by any means necessary. The North Korean army attacked repeatedly, but every attempt failed.
Air power played a huge role in the defense of the perimeter. With the skies firmly in UN control, American and British fighters and bombers had free reign. B-29 Superfortresses, based on Okinawa, hit North Korean supply lines and rear areas. F-82 Twin Mustangs, F-80 Shooting Stars (America’s first combat jets), and propeller-driven medium bombers flew from Japan constantly, usually targeting North Korean troops. F-51 Mustangs operated from rough airfields inside the perimeter itself, some only a few minutes flying time from the enemy lines. In addition, the carrier USS Philippine Sea had arrived, and joined the Valley Forge and Triumph in strikes on the North Koreans. By the second week of September, UN planes were averaging around 700 sorties per day in support of the troops holding the line.
In early September, enough UN troops had entered Pusan that the perimeter was secure, and attention could be turned to a counter-attack. Time, for the North Koreans, had run out.
With the situation in the south finally stabilized, in September, 70,000 UN troops under General MacArthur, with massive support, landed at Inchon, near Seoul, surprising the exhausted North Koreans. The landings were an extremely risky operation; if any significant resistance had been encountered, the landing craft would probably have been stranded by the extreme tides of the landing zone, leaving the forces landed vulnerable to complete annihilation. However, they were lucky and only two days after the capture of Seoul from the 20,000 North Korean defenders was announced, it was actually achieved.
China joins the war
MacArthur struck north immediately, intent upon destroying the North Korean forces, and captured the North Korean capital Pyongyang in mid-October. China, feeling threatened by these developments, sent hundreds of thousands of well-motivated, veteran troops south from Manchuria, supported by Russian built MiG-15 fighters that were superior to any UN aircraft then in-country. By November the UN offensive had been halted, and by December it was mostly in ignominious retreat. In January the Chinese forces recaptured Seoul.
In March 1951, a UN operation recaptured Seoul. In April, General MacArthur, disagreeing with President Truman's concept of limited war, suggested publicly a massive nuclear bombardment of the whole of northern China and was sacked by President Truman. The subsequent Chinese spring offensive was halted, but only after the Battle of the Imjin River, where the British 29th Brigade, whose situation had been misunderstood by the American sector commander, was surrounded and partially overrun, suffering many unnecessary casualties - eventually making the total death toll for the US military comparable to that of WWII. (The situation had been reported as being "a bit sticky", which is British Army terminology for "extremely dangerous")
By June the communist forces had had enough and called for a ceasefire, although it took until 1953 before an armistice was signed. As several participants have never formally made peace, the conflict remains technically active today, even though there has been no major combat since 1953; the ceasefire line (Demilitarized Zone) remains heavily fortified and militarized to the present day.
The Korean War was the first conflict in which jet aircraft fought each other. (Both the Luftwaffe and the RAF had operational jets in WWII, but they never came into direct conflict.) Most jet battles took place near the Yalu River, in the airspace over north-western North Korea known as "MiG alley." The UN forces generally retained air superiority throughout most of the war, and air power helped compensate for the Communists' superior numbers on the ground.
The general lack of permanent runways in Korea hindered the use of jet aircraft and bombers, forcing the Allies to use piston aircraft. The F-51 Mustang was the most numerous Allied aircraft in the early months of the war. In November of 1950, the first of the MiG-15 aircraft appeared, and was able to outperform all Allied fighters until the introduction of the F-86 Sabre. The Sabre was arguably slightly inferior to the MiG-15, but the veteran American pilots eventually produced a kill ratio of approximately 12:1 in their favour. Many of these aerial dogfights took place in the northwestern corner of Korea, a place given the name 'Mig Alley' by Allied pilots.
Another noteworthy point during the Korean Conflict was the first significant use of helicopters, for transport, reconnaissance and rescue missions.
Overall, Korea was not a good place to deploy advanced aircraft. The climate provided extremes of temperature and much abrasive sand. The marsh-like rice fields and mountainous terrain were poor areas for runways, which tended to be rudimentary at best. The helicopter, however, proved itself in Korea, as it could perform the reconaissance missions of planes without airstrips and the transport tasks of ground vehicles without the need to cross the rugged terrain.
UN Multinational Forces
- South Korea
- The Netherlands
- South Africa
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Hearings before the Senate Committee on Armed Services and Committee on Foreign Relations, June 6, 1951.
- Hearings before the Senate Committee on Armed Services and Committee on Foreign Relations, June 6, 1951.
- New York Compass, Jan. 17, 1949.
- Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy, by Craig L. Symonds, the Naval Institute, 1995
- Rolling Thunder: Jet Combat from World War II to the Gulf War, by Ivan Rendall, Dell Publishing, 1997
- Battle, by R.G. Grant, DK Publishing, 2005