Monday, May 26, 2008

Remembering Korea

Nobody wanted to call it a war, except those who fought in it. It could have been over soon after it began, thanks to General Douglas MacArthur's brilliantly planned and executed amphibious assault at Inchon, the success of which allowed Republic of Korea (ROK) and U.S. troops to capture the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in October of 1950, less than five months after North Korean troops had invaded the South.

Shortly after American troops entered Pyongyang, as the late David Halberstam tells in his last book, The Coldest Winter, word came that some ROK units that had proceeded north from the capital towards the Yalu River, the border with China, had encountered some resistance and needed help. Units of the U.S. First Cavalry, still wearing summer uniforms, were sent north for what was expected to be a quick mop-up against remnants of the defeated North Korean army. What ensued was a horror, as inexperienced commanders, brought over recently from stateside, deployed the troops poorly, and headquarters willfully ignored intelligence that showed a substantial deployment of Chinese troops in the area. MacArthur was determined to take his troops to the Yalu, while China had warned that it would consider any move into the North Korean provinces bordering the Yalu an act of war. MacArthur, confident in his knowledge of the "Asiatic mind", was sure they were bluffing.

The unit that took the heaviest hit in the Chinese attack was the Eighth Regiment of the First Cavalry, which had been deployed in a northern salient that, as one experienced soldier put it, made it stand out "like a sore thumb." After the Eighth's position had been almost completely overrun, a battalion command post, where many wounded had been taken, remained with a tenuous escape route to the south. The soldiers there realized that before long their defenses would fail and the command post would fall. As Halberstam describes it:

On midday of November 3, Peterson, Mayo, Richardson, and Giroux went over to the CP for a final doomsday kind of meeting. Because he was not an officer, Richardson [a sergeant first class] did not attend the meeting, but he knew what it was about. All of the officers, many of them wounded themselves, were talking about a forbidden subject--what to do with the wounded in the terrible final moment that everyone knew was coming. ...

What heartbreaking decisions for young men to make, Richardson had thought to himself and still pondered half a century later.
Of these four men, only Mayo escaped. Peterson and Richardson both were captured, and survived two and a half years in prisoner of war camps. Giroux was also captured, but died of his wounds. Overall, in this battle, the Eighth Regiment suffered eight hundred casualties, losing half its authorized strength.

The Korean War began at least in large part because of an unintentional omission from a speech by a consummate diplomat: Dean Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State, neglected to include South Korea within the Asian "defensive perimeter" of the U.S. It was prolonged by the willfulness, in the face of convincing conflicting evidence, of a great military commander. Remember this.