You Can’t Get There from Here: The Inchon Story I

General MacArthur watching the Inchon Landing September 1950.

“When Inchon’s tides were at full ebb, the mud banks that had accumulated over the centuries from the Yellow Sea jutted from the shore in some places as far as two miles out into the harbor, and during ebb and flow these tides raced through ‘Flying Fish Channel,’ the best approach to the port, at speeds up to six knots. Even under the most favorable conditions, ‘Flying Fish Channel’ was narrow and winding. Not only did it make a perfect location for enemy mines, but also any ship sunk at a particularly vulnerable point could block the channel to all other ships.

The 28th of March 1949 was a melancholy day in the history of the Marine Corps—and no cause for rejoicing by the other services either. On that day Louis A. Johnson was sworn in as secretary of defense. The Corps had not been altogether pleased with James Forrestal, his predecessor, but it came to regard the Forrestal regime with nostalgia compared with the stewardship of Johnson.

An attorney who had been moderately successful in West Virginia politics, Johnson had formed a friendship with President Truman when the latter was in the Senate, based on their Army service in France in World War I and their association with the American Legion. Later he served as finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee. He was appointed to the Defense position with the understanding that economy was to be his watchword. At the time Truman was surfeited with the Navy and Marines, and Johnson’s appointment was preceded by a general understanding that the president wanted the two maritime services brought to heel. Johnson’s attitude is characterized by a conversation he had with Admiral Richard L. Connally shortly after his appointment:

Admiral [he said], the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.

President Truman was dissatisfied with the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947. Even with the 1949 amendments that created a JCS chairman and enlarged the functions of the secretary of defense, the modified law had still not gone far enough in concentrating military authority at the top, certainly not far enough to please Truman’s most trusted military advisor, General Marshall. On the basis of the 1949 changes, the president undertook to curb the Navy and Marine Corps through administrative and fiscal actions. This was what the new defense secretary was busy doing until war and Congress intervened.

The secretary had starved all of the services—and very nearly had killed the Marines—by a program of severe budget cuts. When he took office, Johnson found a very austere Marine Corps which included eleven infantry battalions and twenty-three aircraft squadrons. He decreed that in fiscal year 1950 the Corps’s fighting forces would be reduced to eight understrength battalions and twelve aircraft squadrons. For the fiscal year beginning in July 1951 he directed that the number of battalions be reduced yet again, to six. His aspirations were plain. He intended to diminish progressively the fighting units of the Corps and, ultimately, to transfer what remained to the Army and the Air Force.

Johnson’s plan, where Marine Corps aviation was concerned, was far advanced. In an off-the-record speech at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, he declared that he was taking action to do away with Marine aviation and that papers to accomplish the Marines’ transfer to the Air Force were on his desk.

This was too much. Major General C. C. Jerome, a respected Marine aviator, alerted Representative Carl Vinson, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a staunch Navy/Marine supporter, and a firm believer in the National Security Act in its original form. Vinson made short work of the heavy-handed secretary. He called Johnson to his office and delivered a lecture on those provisions of the National Security Act that expressly forbade such transfers of major combat functions. Then he obliged the secretary to write him a memorandum saying (albeit untruthfully) that no such step as transfer of Marine aviation to the Air Force was under contemplation and, in any event, that he would consult with the appropriate congressional committees before even considering an act of this sort.

Johnson worked his will on the Marines in other ways, however: in curtailment of appropriations for equipment, ammunition, supplies, and people, and through a policy of exclusion in various aspects of tactical training and planning. He approved the action of Admiral Forrest Sherman, the chief of naval operations, in assigning the bulk of the Navy’s amphibious ships to train the Army, thus precluding the Corps from practicing at its statutory specialty. And in strategic planning by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Marines were allowed no part at all. Commandant Cates persuaded Navy Secretary John L. Sullivan to intercede, asking that the Marines be permitted to take part in JCS discussions when their interests or operational employment were involved. Sullivan, for his pains, received a rebuke from Johnson:

I cannot see any justification for giving the Commandant of the Marine Corps a special role not accorded to the chiefs of various other arms and services which are integral parts of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

This is another way of saying that Johnson saw the Marines on a par with the Army Nurse Corps or the Navy Bureau of Supplies and Accounts.

These were major matters, but the secretary was not above some pettiness too. He crossed the Marine commandant off the list of those Washington officials authorized a chauffeur and a limousine and off the list of service chiefs for whom a special gun salute was prescribed on ceremonial occasions. He forbade celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday. Small things, all, in the context of national security but a measure of the man nevertheless.

Taken all together, Johnson’s erosive actions where the Marines were concerned had an effect for which he has never really been brought to account. Largely through his actions, at the outset of the Korean conflict, the Fleet Marine Force, the expeditionary element of the Corps, was pitifully anemic, having shrunk from its World War II peak of more than 300,000 men to only 27,656. Of these, some 8,000 were serving in a greatly attenuated 1st Marine Division (war strength 22,000) at Camp Pendleton in California. Its companion 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, at only 3,700 men (war strength about 12,000) was at El Toro, forty miles away. Things were little better on the East Coast. The 2d Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, had 9,000 men and its companion 2d Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point a few miles distant had only 5,300.

In the basic combat units this pitifully small figure equated to three infantry battalions and three tactical aircraft squadrons on the West Coast and three infantry battalions and four tactical aircraft squadrons on the East Coast. All of these formations, plus units of supporting artillery, engineers, tanks, air control, and supply were gravely understrength. Despite the Johnson austerities, however, the Marines had managed to attain a respectable state of training. The officers and noncommissioned officers were professionals—many with World War II experience. Their air and ground equipment—almost all of World War II vintage—was often threadbare, but they had kept it in good repair.

At the time (1949–1950), I was in command of the 5th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, California, the only infantry regiment in the 1st Marine Division. We felt the dead hand of starvation everywhere. War strength for the regiment was 3,900 men. We suffered along with 1,800. Each infantry battalion was short one of its three rifle companies, each of which had two instead of the prescribed three platoons. Artillery and other supporting elements were correspondingly reduced, and service troops had been even more severely curtailed. Training presented a real challenge because of the limitations on ammunition, repair parts, and gasoline. But there was nothing Louis Johnson could do to prevent us from maneuvering up and down the brown hills of the 120,000-acre Camp Pendleton reservation. Supported by 1st Marine Aircraft Wing planes (to the extent that they had fuel to fly), we trained at length and with much intensity. Indeed, we spent so much time in the field that the wife of one of my men reproved me, “My kids have forgotten what their father looks like.”

While training ashore presented few problems, training in landing operations was a different matter because the Navy’s meager amphibious shipping resources had been assigned mainly to work with the Army.

One stroke of fortune came in early 1950 in a directive for the 5th Marines to stage an amphibious demonstration at Camp Pendleton for the Army Command and General Staff College. We were given an array of precious resources, most important, sufficient amphibious shipping to embark the regiment. With the understanding assistance of the Navy commander involved, Rear Admiral James H. Doyle (later to distinguish himself at Inchon), we were able to parlay our programmed one-day demonstration into three rehearsal landings and a five-day amphibious exercise. But that was our only taste of saltwater in a twelve-month period, and the same unhappy situation prevailed on the East Coast.

Put in other terms, on 25 June when the North Korean blitz of some 75,000 men drove south across the 38th Parallel, the Marines’ existing air/ground expeditionary force was tiny and emaciated. But what there was of it was ready to go.

The Korean crisis became a reality for the Marines just five days later. On 30 June, the Fleet Marine Force Pacific headquarters in Hawaii received a cryptic message query from the chief of naval operations. Prompted, we later learned, by Commandant Cates, it asked:

How soon can you sail for combat employment in the Far East: (a) A reinforced battalion: (b) A reinforced regiment?

I had reported for duty as force operations officer only two days before, having relinquished command of the 5th Marines on 15 June. After studying the message for a moment, I drafted a reply and took it to the chief of staff. Referring to the JCS message, it read:

(a) 48 hours, (b) Five days, including a Marine aircraft group.

The chief of staff read the proposed reply and said, “How do you know we can do that?” I answered, “I don’t, but if we can’t, we’re dead.” He released the message.

To do (b)—provide a reinforced regiment and a Marine aircraft group at anything approaching full war strength—would take the bulk of the Fleet Marine Force resources on the West Coast. Only bits and pieces would be left of the 1st Marine Division and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Realistically, however, that is what they were there for.

We immediately alerted the troops on the West Coast to the possibility of imminent expeditionary deployment. The commandant of the Marine Corps, almost simultaneously, did the same thing. Two days later, on the morning of 2 July, we received a message directive to prepare an air-ground Marine brigade for combat employment overseas. Preparations went forward by word of mouth, being confirmed by messages on 6 and 7 July. The preliminary orders we issued to the forces involved said,

Take whatever is required and available in troops and equipment from the 1st Marine Division and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, plus what Marine Corps Headquarters provides from other sources, make a provisional brigade consisting of the 5th Marine Regiment Reinforced and Marine Aircraft Group 33, both at reduced strength, embark them in ships the Navy will provide and set sail for the Far East.

It was not easy but within four days of the initiating directive, units of the brigade, designated First Provisional Marine Brigade, had begun loading. The ground elements embarked in San Diego, the air elements in Long Beach, where the two attack squadrons went aboard the small escort carrier Badoeng Strait. By 14 July they were loaded and gone—a 6,500 man air/ground brigade—and they could have departed a day or two earlier had ships been available. Commandant Cates came from Washington to tell them goodbye. “Clean this up in a couple of months or I will be over to see you,” he said.

The steady performance of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in Korea under Brigadier General Edward A. Craig and the contribution of its air/ground team to the defense of the Pusan Perimeter are the substance of another story. It is important here to reflect only on the brigade’s validation of the Marine dictum—“Be ready to go with whatever you have.”

The departure of the brigade left the remaining Marine Corps fragments on the West Coast, both air and ground, in disarray—mainly sick, short-timers, and men in a disciplinary status. Unhappy as it was, the condition would not have been crucial had it not been for events taking place in Tokyo.

Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., had assumed command of Fleet Marine Force Pacific on 2 July. With the encouragement of Commandant Cates and Admiral Arthur Radford, commander-in-chief, Pacific, he went to the Far East on 7 July to get a sense of the state of affairs on the Korean peninsula. Independently, he had two other aims: first, to ensure that the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade would be employed as a unified air/ground formation; and, second, to investigate the prospects for committing additional Marine forces. He hitched a ride to Tokyo with Vice Admiral Thomas Sprague, taking an aide and me with him.

We went first to Yokosuka, the headquarters of Naval Forces Far East. Until 25 June it had been a sleepy little eddy in the backwash of postwar retrenchment. Now it had suddenly become a beehive of frenzied effort to do in emergency all the things that Johnson’s economies had made so difficult to do as a matter of routine. There General Shepherd made his plea that our air/ground brigade be employed as a unit and received a favorable response from the Naval Forces Far East commander, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, including assurance that the two fighter/attack squadrons from Marine Aircraft Group 33 would be able to support the ground units of the brigade from the escort carriers Badoeng Strait and Sicily.

The next day, 10 July, General Shepherd went to Tokyo to see General MacArthur. MacArthur was just entering the Dai Ichi Building as we pulled up. After a brief visit to the daily staff conference, we went to MacArthur’s office where he saw us almost at once. He described the bad situation on the Korean peninsula in unvarnished terms but voiced confidence that the North Korean blow would be absorbed by General Walton Walker’s Eighth Army forces, not, however, without hard fighting and heavy casualties. Then, he spoke eloquently of the need for an early counteroffensive and, with a few positive remarks about the conduct of the 1st Marine Division when it served under him at Cape Gloucester in World War II, he walked over to a map of Korea and said,

If I had the 1st Marine Division now, I could stabilize my front [he didn’t even have a front] and make an amphibious envelopment here—at Inchon on the west coast.

General Shepherd encouraged him to ask the Joint Chiefs for the division and for an accompanying Marine aircraft wing too. MacArthur responded enthusiastically, “You draw me up an appropriate message to the JCS,” he said, “and I will send it.”

We left MacArthur and went into an adjoining office where I borrowed the desk of an Army major, one of MacArthur’s aides, and assembled a simple message covering points outlined by General Shepherd. He took it in to MacArthur and was back in a minute or so with the word that the message was approved and would soon be on its way. When MacArthur put his signature on the message he set in motion a series of crash improvisations that have rarely been equalled in the Corps’ history.

The real significance of the moment emerges when one realizes that General Shepherd knew, without a long exchange of messages, just about what the Marine Corps could produce. Even more important, he knew if he generated a request for a division/wing team to go to war that Marines all the way up the line would support it. And they did. Later, on 14 August in a meeting at Camp Pendleton, Commandant Cates was eloquent—even stern—in impressing on General Shepherd how the Inchon undertaking was consuming the total resources of the Corps—but he never faltered in his support.

The Marines assumed, in advance of a national decision, that MacArthur’s 10 July request to the JCS would be granted, and they set about trying to reestablish some military capability in the 1st Division and 1st Wing. Since there were not enough men in the 1st entire Fleet Marine Force to make one division/wing team, Commandant Cates on 13 July took the first hard step. Through the chief of naval operations, he urged immediate mobilization of the Marine Corps Reserve, both air and ground.

President Truman was a realist. He was aware of the grave situation facing Army forces in Korea and perceived that without the reserves MacArthur’s crisis demand for Marines could not be met. He did not hesitate. Approval for mobilization of the Marine Corps Reserve ground elements came on the 19th and on the 22d for aviation units. On the 20th, twenty-two ground units were ordered to active duty and given only ten days to get to Camp Pendleton. Within the next fifteen days the whole of the Marine Corps Ground Reserve—138 units, more than 33,000 men—were ordered to active duty.

Concurrently, on the 23d, three Marine Corps Reserve fighter squadrons and six ground control intercept squadrons were ordered to active duty. In little more than a week, most of them had arrived in El Toro and were shaking down in Major General Field Harris’s 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Many had left good civilian jobs behind and were now contemplating how they were going to support a wife and possibly children on a corporal’s pay.

The 25th of July was a watershed date. On that day, just a month after the conflict began, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally announced approval of MacArthur’s request for a Marine division and wing and approved their expansion to war strength, less the elements of the 1st Brigade then enroute to Korea. This meant that two infantry regiments had to be created, since the 5th Marines—enroute to Korea—was the only infantry unit in the division.

In the wake of the 25 July decision a series of intra-Marine Corps crash actions began. On that day all Marine Security Forces (mainly detachments at naval stations) were reduced in strength by 50 percent. The 3,630 men thus produced were started on the way to Camp Pendleton and El Toro and all of them had arrived within ten days.

The reaction of the reserves to the sudden call made, to me, an interesting portrait of the American society itself. A minority made every conceivable effort to obtain a deferment—telephone calls, hardship affidavits, congressional influence, even spurious medical certificates. But the great majority of those called up responded promptly and enthusiastically. Others who were not called went to the nearest Marine Corps training center and pleaded to be included. In the end, the greatest problem was to determine those whose burning desire to go concealed a lack of essential training.

Concurrently, a directive was issued for a major cross-country transfer of 7,182 men from the Second Marine Division in Camp Lejeune to the 1st Division, all to report in two weeks, and individuals were ordered to Camp Pendleton from any location in the Corps they could be found. Finally, Congress passed legislation authorizing the president to extend enlistments for one year, thus making about 1,500 short-timers in Camp Pendleton and El Toro eligible to deploy.

Also on 25 July, amid all of the turmoil, a new division commander, Major General O. P. Smith arrived in Camp Pendleton. If it were necessary to describe the tall, thin white-haired Smith in a word, it would have to be calm, a quality he would greatly need in the days ahead. Smith found waiting a directive from the commandant of the Marine Corps to recreate the 1st Marine Division from the cascade of Marine reserves coming from civilian life and from regular Marines coming from a dozen directions within the Corps. He had to determine their individual state of training, to arm them, equip them, assign them to units—some of which had to be constituted from scratch—and to exploit the few precious hours available to give them some training. Weapons and combat supplies had to be provided for the greatly enlarged division, hardware in storage since World War II had to be depreserved, issued, and tested. The embarkation of the entire force had to be planned, including coordination with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing which was to embark at Long Beach.

Had General Smith’s peace-strength staff been twice its authorized war strength it would have been overworked. As it was, about one-third of it was already enroute to Korea with the 1st Marine Brigade and, it turned out, the division staff was not to be united until the members joined on the beach at Inchon the day of the landing.

The directive received by General Smith provided that two infantry regiments would be formed. The 1st Marines, to be commanded by the legendary Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, would consist mainly of men from Camp Lejeune on the East Coast plus men picked up locally at Camp Pendleton, and a few reservists. The last major infantry unit of the division to be formed would be the 7th Marines, under Colonel Homer L. Litzenberg. The organization was a classic example of barrel scraping. It comprised approximately equal numbers of reserves and men from the 2d Division in Camp Lejeune, except that the regiment’s third infantry battalion was to be the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, currently deployed in the Mediterranean, halfway around the world. The battalion was ordered to sail directly to the Far East, via Suez. The unit’s first sight of the 7th Marines was when they joined up on the beach at Inchon.

Colonel A. L. Bowser, whom I had relieved as operations officer of Fleet Marine Force Pacific on 28 June, had gone directly to Camp Pendleton, where he doubled as 1st Marine Division operations officer and chief of staff. He was mindful of the immense short-term job involved in planning and executing the embarkation and of the limited capacity of the staff. He hit on the idea of borrowing the Embarkation Section from the Landing Force Training Unit attached to the Navy’s Amphibious Training Command in San Diego. With the Navy’s concurrence, the unit stopped its training function and took over the entire division embarkation project. As Bowser put it, “They didn’t just advise us—they put the division and its equipment to sea from San Diego.”

Loading of both the division and the wing began on 8 August, even as the influx of personnel continued. The ships provided were largely of civilian origin, only six of the nineteen being regular U.S. Navy amphibious types. The nineteen ships had to be loaded in four different places with supplies and equipment coming from five different sources, and there were only ten days allocated to plan the embarkation, to assemble the people and material—both air and ground—and get the force aboard.

There was not enough of anything—dock space, marshalling areas, transportation—but, especially, there was not enough time. The plan provided that the ships were to sail to Japan, where everything would be unloaded, sorted out, and reloaded in combatant shipping. While this sounded reasonable, little did those involved realize the brief time they would have in Japan or the procession of hurdles they would face when they got there.

When the embarkation in San Diego and Long Beach was completed, we would have in or enroute to the Far East a Marine division/aircraft wing team of more than thirty thousand men, fully a quarter of whom had been peacefully pursuing their civilian careers three weeks before.

Meanwhile, everything that happened, it seemed, was an enemy of the clock. The City of San Diego would not permit ammunition to be loaded at its municipal piers, so every ship had to be moved to the North Island Naval Air Station to take on ammunition. Since most of the ships were civilian-owned and manned, they had to be loaded by civilian stevedores. But between Long Beach, where aviation units were loading, and San Diego, only sixty stevedore gangs could be mustered, against a minimum need for ninety. A proposal that they be augmented by Marines generated a threat by the stevedores’ union to call a strike. Despite the most determined efforts by the Navy, three of the civilian ships were late in arriving, and one Navy amphibious cargo ship, the Titania, developed a bad boiler. Already loaded, it had to be unloaded and its cargo moved into other ships, while the Navy set about getting a replacement.

Despite these and other impediments, it all came together—not smoothly, not neatly, but it came together—Marines from everywhere merged into combat units, the hardware of war moved into ships. The embarkation was a product of experience, improvisation, corner-cutting, risk taking, and refusal to accept no for an answer.

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