While the Chinese secretly moved into North Korea, Truman flew to Wake Island in the mid-Pacific for a meeting on October 15 with MacArthur. Although the meeting was apparently cordial, the two leaders came away from it despising each other. MacArthur regarded the entire affair, which had been Truman’s idea, as a publicity stunt to aid the Democrats’ chances in the upcoming congressional elections in November. For his part, Truman was repelled by MacArthur’s evident sense of self-importance. Truman may have had the elections in mind when he scheduled the meeting, but he also wanted MacArthur’s assurance that the invasion of North Korea would not lead to Chinese intervention. MacArthur replied that there was “very little” chance of that happening, and even if the Chinese did decide to cross the Yalu River, the U.S. air force would “slaughter” them.
When UN forces first moved into North Korea, their orders expressly prohibited them from approaching the country’s border provinces with China or the Soviet Union. Only ROK forces would be allowed to pursue the enemy that far northward, to avoid possible clashes between U.S. troops and those of the communist giants to the north. But again, with easy victory in sight, MacArthur decided to stretch his authority. On October 24, without consulting the military Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Washington, he ordered UN commanders “to drive forward through the north with all speed and with full utilization of their forces.” The JCS was disturbed by the order, but once again did not restrain MacArthur.
In the summer fighting in South Korea, U.S. troops had suffered from the brutal heat. Now the Americans fighting in North Korea were beginning to suffer from the onset of the bitter winter cold. Many of them had not been issued heavy winter clothing, and they longed for a warm, dry, comfortable barracks back in the United States or Japan. Still, with the NKPA soldiers fleeing before them, Americans were confident that the worst was past them. After all, General MacArthur had declared that the troops would be “home by Christmas.” Pvt. James Cardinal of the 5th Cavalry Regiment wrote his parents after taking part in the capture of Pyongyang: “There’s a rumor going around that the 1st Cavalry Division is returning to Japan pretty soon, now that the war is over. I certainly hope so. I’m sick of this country and this war.” Some soldiers were so confident that they even abandoned their heavy steel helmets in the belief that they would not see any more combat.
But it soon became apparent that such confidence was misplaced. The war was not over by a long shot. The first clash between the advancing UN forces and the CCF came on October 26. An ROK battalion that had reached a position about 40 miles south of the Yalu was set upon by the Chinese and destroyed. Other ROK units were hammered in the week that followed. Despite the fact that some Chinese soldiers had been captured in the fighting, MacArthur at first refused to believe that the CCF was involved at all. Finally convinced that there were Chinese in North Korea, he suggested that the Communists had sent in only a token force of fewer than 20,000 troops.
The first CCF attack on U.S. troops came on November 1. Chinese soldiers attacked the 8th U.S. Cavalry, which was occupying the town of Unsan. The attack came as a total surprise. The Chinese cut off the Americans’ line of retreat and inflicted heavy casualties in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Chinese soldiers, with bugles and whistles blowing, swarmed over U.S. defenses. The 5th Cavalry, which tried unsuccessfully to break through to relieve the encircled 8th, was also hard hit. Capt. Norman Allen of the 5th Cavalry wrote home to his mother shortly after the battle at Unsan, “Anyone who says they aren’t [Chinese] is crazy!” The next day marines near the Chosin Reservoir engaged the Chinese but fared better than the Eighth Army’s soldiers. The marines beat back the CCF attackers and were able to continue their advance.
In another ominous development, Chinese MiG-15 fighter planes began to challenge UN control of the air south of the Yalu in early November. The first U.S. plane was downed by a MiG on November 8. U.S. pilots dubbed the area just south of the Yalu “MiG alley” and were angered that they were not allowed to follow the MiGs in hot pursuit when Chinese pilots flew back across the Yalu to sanctuary in Manchuria. But the British—members of the UN team that was nominally in charge of the war—insisted that there be no hot pursuit; they feared any action that might provoke a full-scale Chinese intervention, and Washington went along. The Chinese, for their part, avoided direct attacks on UN military ground forces from the air.
MacArthur, finally convinced of the reality of Chinese intervention, ordered U.S. planes to bomb the bridges across the Yalu linking Manchuria and North Korea. Truman, hearing of the order and fearing the consequences of accidental bombing of Chinese territory, at first countermanded it. But after MacArthur warned of a “calamity of major proportion” unless the bridges were bombed, Truman relented. It made no difference, because the bombers were unable to destroy all the bridges, and in mid-November the Yalu froze solid, allowing troops and supplies to cross without the use of bridges.
The JCS were having increasing doubts about MacArthur’s plans for victory. They questioned whether the United States should shift its strategy, halt its military offensive, and seek a political settlement to the conflict. MacArthur, responding on November 9, still insisted that he could destroy any forces the Chinese were prepared to commit to the war. He now planned to launch an offensive in late November to bring the war to “complete victory.”
Having given the UN forces a bloody nose, the CCF suddenly halted their attacks and withdrew to their hidden positions on November 7. MacArthur, who still underestimated the number of Chinese troops in the country, was once again lulled into overconfidence. The Eighth Army, which had pulled back to more defensible positions after the first Chinese attacks, resumed its advance in the second week of November.
On November 23, Thanksgiving Day, UN troops in Korea ate a special turkey dinner, flown or trucked up to the front. It was, Pvt. Arthur Cohen of the army’s 2nd Division wrote in his diary, “the best meal we had in Korea.” Some of the soldiers at the front even enjoyed the luxury of hot showers and a change of clothes. On the next day, November 24, UN forces renewed their offensive, prepared to win the war and be home for Christmas. Already a small unit from the army’s 7th U.S. Division had reached the Yalu River at Hyesanjin. Pvt. Paul Martin of the 1st Marine Division remembered that “the sweet smell of victory was again in the air.” That was when disaster struck. Army historian Roy Appleman would later write that in the month that followed Thanksgiving 1950, “a series of disasters unequaled in our country’s history overwhelmed American arms.”