Korean War—June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953
Tearing Up the U.S. Paper Tiger in Korea
PART 1: How 300,000 Chinese Troops Snuck into Korea and Kicked the Ass of the U.S. Armed Forces
Revolutionary Worker #1059, June 18, 2000
June 25, 2000 marks the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. This war—which ended in July 1953 without a permanent peace treaty between North and South Korea—was a political and military disaster for U.S. imperialism. One of the key factors in driving U.S. forces out of North Korea was the internationalist support by the newly formed revolutionary government led by Mao Tsetung in the People's Republic of China. This two-part series in the e RW focuses on the military strategy of the Chinese People's Volunteers—and how the Chinese commanders applied the Maoist method of people's war to defeat the armed might of the U.S. forces.
On June 25, 1950 the Korean People's Army (KPA) — army of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—let loose a full-scale attack, pushing aside the troops of the reactionary Republic of Korea along the 38th parallel (the line demarcating North and South Korea). A civil war had begun. The United States—which had been training and arming the Republic of Korea (ROK) army as part of its own plans to gain a foothold in Korea — used the KPA offensive as an excuse to launch its own war of aggresression against the Korean people.
After the defeat of Japan in World War 2, the U.S. imperialists were looking for a way to replace Japan as the main dominator in all of Asia. Korea, which had been subjugated by Japanese imperialism, seemed to the U.S. a good base from which to carry out its imperialist intrigue in that area. When Japan surrendered at the end of the war, Korea was occupied by the Soviet Union (which had fought the Japanese in the north), and by the U.S. imperialists in the south. In 1948, U.S.-backed forces in southern Korea established the puppet Republic of Korea (ROK) under the despotic rule of Syngman Rhee. A month later, leftist forces in the northern part of Korea established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) which was supported by many of the political parties in the South. The country was artificially divided at the 38th parallel, which became the border line between North and South Korea.
From the moment Korea was divided, armed conflict was the order of the day. Syngman Rhee, whose puppet army had been built up by the United States, declared that he would militarily unite all of Korea. In turn, the Democratic People's Republic had been building up its own armed forces in anticipation of all-out war. Finally, in response to serious ROK provocations across the 38th parallel, the KPA swept over the border and in three days were in Seoul, the Southern capital.
Immediately, the U.S. began to bomb the Korean People's Army, and then called on the rest of the United Nations—which was basiically a bloc of the other Western imperialists—to condemn the invaasion of the South by the Democratic People's Republic. The Soviet Union had been boycotting the UN because of its refusal to admit the People's Republic of China. The UN rubberstamped a U.S. plan to invade Korea, with 15 nations agreeing to send troops to fight against the DPRK armies. But in reality, this was a war of aggression fought by the United States—with relatively small scale involveement by other imperialist-led troops—under the UN banner.
The U.S. Air Force quickly gained control of the air space over Korea. By June 30th, the U.S. had sent in ground troops to try to stop the KPA offensive. Further, the United States Navy positioned its 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait between the mainland of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the island of Taiwan (which is also part of China). The stationing of the 7th Fleet in Chinese waters was designed to thwart the continuing struggle of the PRC to liberate Taiwan, where the defeated Chinese Nationalist government and army had fled at the end of the Chinese Civil War. The timing was intended to put People's China on notice not to come to the aid of the Democratic People's Republic in North Korea.
But at this stage of the fighting, the U.S. was not able to stop the drive of the Korean People's Army. By fall, the KPA had the ROK/U.S.troops nearly surrounded at Pusan on the extreme southern end of the Korean peninsula. The Korean People's Army was on the threshold of victory when the U.S. launched an amphibious attack further north at Inchon in the rear of the DPRK armies on September 15, 1950. The KPA soldiers were caught in a vise between the U.S. troops who landed at Inchon and reinforced U.S./ROK troops who broke out of the encirclement at Pusan. Contributing to their dilemma, the KPA forces were operating a long way from their supply bases in the North and were badly in need of fresh weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. Unfortunately, the Korean People's Army was overwhelmed and had to retreat to the North, back across the 38th parallel. The ROK capital of Seoul was re-captured.
The U.S. and ROK armies, having driven the KPA out of the South, committed horrendous atrocities against the Korean people, murdering tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Anyone suspected of aiding the Korean People's Army was targeted for elimination.
Meanwhile, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had asked for help from the People's Republic of China. The Chinese revolutionaries had been keeping a close eye on the military situation in Korea and were deeply concerned with the developments in the war. This was especially so when the U.S./UN forces crossed the 38th parallel into the North in pursuit of the retreating Korean People's Army.
The Chinese knew that the U.S. imperialists had grand schemes of dominating Asia, and they were worried that the U.S. would attack China itself. During the Chinese Civil War, the United States had backed up the reactionary Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek; in 1949 the U.S. had increased its military presence in Vietnam, and now they had their 7th Fleet in Chinese waters.
It was clear to the Chinese revolutionaries that the U.S. wanted Korea as a base to extend its control over Asia. But even beyond seeing the imperialist's moves as a threat to their own security, the revolutionaries in China saw the war in Korea as a just war for all the world's people in their fight against imperialism. By entering the war, it had the opportunity to strike a mighty blow against the United States.
China took great risks entering the war in Korea. The Chinese Communist Party had just come to power in 1949, and it was trying to consolidate the government. At the same time, the economy had to be rebuilt from the devastation of the long years of Civil War. The U.S. had used the atomic bomb against Japan as a threat against the Soviet Union and socialism worldwide. The U.S. 7th Fleet was in Chinese waters. And U.S. General MacArthur had already argued that the United States should bomb China as a pre-emptive move to keep the People's Republic out of the Korean War. The U.S. imperialists were longing to crush the People's Republic of China and the kind of future that it represented for mankind. The Chinese leadership knew that the U.S. would find any pretext to invade its territory if Korea were defeated.
So, both out of the necessity to defend themselves and to defeat the plans of U.S. imperialism to dominate the world's people, the Chinese fulfilled their internationalist responsibilities and came to the aid of the Korean people's just war. The revolutionary leadership mobilized the masses throughout China to gear up for war. Their attitude was bold. They declared that even if China were to be attacked with the full fury of the armed might of the United States, their struggle for liberation would only be extended for a few more years. And in the spirit of waging a just war to advance the cause of humanity, the Chinese People's Volunteers joined the struggle in Korea.
CHINA CROSSES THE YALU
Political and military leaders in the U.S. really didn't believe that China would send troops to Korea. So, taking advantage of the enemy's skepticism, the Chinese military commanders opted for maximum surprise in the battle plan drawn up for the Chinese People's Volunteers in Korea. They wanted to stun the imperialists by moving all their troops into Korea undetected. Immediately, they stepped up preparations to secretly move some 300,000 soldiers through Manchuria and across the Yalu River bordering North Korea. Guides from the Democratic Republic aided their entry into the country, and the Korean masses helped hide the Chinese soldiers from the watchful eyes of U.S. pilots. Even bourgeois authors have had to admit that the ferrying of the Chinese People's Volunteers into Korea was one of the greatest strategic deceptions in military history.
Originally, China's plan was that the People's Volunteers would primarily take up defensive positions around Pyongyang, the Northern capital. Together with the retreating troops of the KPA, they could stiffen the defense of the DPRK and stop the drive of the imperialists into the North. At the same time, guerrilla units from the KPA would strike the enemy in the rear. While the U.S./UN troops were held by the defensive line around Pyongyang, CPV units were to infiltrate behind the imperialist forces, attack, and annihilate whatever portions of the invading armies they could.
But the U.S./UN troops were moving much more quickly than the Chinese leadership had at first anticipated. On Oct. 8th, in fact, the U.S. got the green light from the other Western imperialists in the UN to militarily "unify" all of Korea. Facing a rapidly changing war situation, the Chinese command altered its plan.
As the U.S./UN troops pushed further northward toward the Yalu, the CPV realized that, despite increased danger, an opportunity would present itself to inflict major defeats on the U.S./UN forces. The U.S. army was in a mad dash to get to the Yalu River—to conquer all of Korea. The Chinese leaders saw that the U.S./UN forces were divided into two main parts, each advancing on either side of a rugged mounntain range. The U.S. Eighth Army was on the west and the X Corps was on the east. Their troops were stretched thin, and the mountains between the two forces would prohibit any support from one should the other be attacked. Referring to the U.S. advance, one bourgeois commentator observed, "This was no coordinated army-wide steamroller on all corridors... Instead, the attack resembled a series of rapier (light sword—ed.) thrusts of individual units along roads that promised the swiftest penetration. There was little physical contact between the various columns. Each was free to advance as fast and as far as it could, without considering the gains (or problems) of the others."1
The U.S. commanders thought they would have a cake-walk to the Yalu. The demoralized KPA was offering little resistance and the U.S. command had not yet learned that the Chinese People's Volunteers were in Korea. But despite warnings from China that the U.S. troops must withdraw from Korea, they pushed on even faster. U.S. General MacArthur openly bragged about killing all the communists in Korea. But in their arrogance, the U.S. commanders had made a terrible blunder. A CPV commander quipped, "Now we'll see who will wipe out whom."
FIRST OFFENSIVE BY THE CHINESE PEOPLE'S VOLUNTEERS
The first attacks on the troops advancing on the western side of the mountains were made against a forward group of ROK troops accompanied by U.S. tank units. The Chinese People's Volunteers first cut the ROK supply line and set up roadblocks behind these troops to take away their escape route. Then, the CPV launched a sudden, fierce attack on the flanks (sides) of the ROK position. By the time the smoke cleared, 2,700 ROK soldiers had been killed or captured. The enemy was shocked beyond belief.
A couple of days later, a more major offensive was made against a combined force of ROK troops and units of the U.S. Eighth Army in the vicinity of Unsan. (See <%-2>map.) The CPV lit great fires, sending clouds <%1>of smoke into the air which obscured U.S. air observation for days and shielded the Chinese troops as they attacked.<%0>
The U.S./ROK detachments had taken up positions north of the city of Unsan. The ROK 15th Regiment was on the right flank, the U.S. 1st and 2nd Battalions occupied the center, and the U.S. 3rd Battalion was to the left and behind the U.S. 2nd Battalion. The first strike was made at night against the enemy's weakest link — the ROK 15th Regiiment, whose units disintegrated rapidly. The Chinese then assaulted and penetrated the U.S. 2nd Battalion's position on both the left and right flanks at the same time. As the CPV summed up in one document, "Surrounding [translator's note: double envelopment] tactics are a great threat to the enemy, and it is easy to succeed with such measures. The enemy has no great strength, their morale is low, and fighting ability is not good. Not only is their rear unguarded, a strict watch is not kept, but the enemy are careless of their guard to the front. Thus we can easily succeed in breaking through their lines and going around them."2
Many authors have noted that in their operations, the People's Volunteers were extremely disciplined and kept their missions firmly in mind. One historian gave an example: "It seemed that the CCF [Chinese Communist Forces]3 came at our positions from all directions. At least once a column of Chinese marched right past part of F Company in its perimeter position without paying the slightest heed to it, apparently being on an assigned mission to go straight for Hill 216 on the east side of the road, get behind the task force there, and cut the road at that point..." One 1st Lt. Sawyer described, "<|>`The padding of feet and soft clanking of equipment were unmistakable... How I knew that it was Chinese and not American feet, I cannot now say, but perhaps it was because of the rhythm. Anyway, though I could see nothing in the darkness [it was an overcast night, with only an occasional opening of moonlight], I estimated that at least a company was passing behind us...' After a while the sound died away. Sometime later, about daylight, Sawyer heard heavy small-arms fire and mortars behind his position..."4
The Chinese soldiers had accomplished their task. They could have easily stormed the vulnerable U.S. positions but did not waste the time so as to quickly get around the back of the imperialist troops and encircle yet larger numbers of the enemy. Once they had totally surrounded the enemy, the Chinese units could then go back and deal with any foe they had passed up.
Prior to the attack the Chinese soldiers blew whistles and bugles. Many U.S. soldiers have testified that the noises in the darkness were unnerving to their troops, who thought that this was some kind of psychological warfare meant to freak out them out. But as CPV commanders later explained, the Chinese forces did not have a lot of Western technology, not even enough radios, in order to communicate with their troops on the battlefield. So Chinese field commanders used more primitive means to maintain contact among their troops in the heat of battle—mainly with bugles, whisstles, lamps, runners, and signal flags as their chief means of communication to coordinate their units in battle.
Meanwhile, the CPV had found the juncture between the U.S. 1st and 2nd Battalions, advanced along the ridge lines between the two, and commenced an attack against the U.S. 1st Battalion as well. As one bourgeois military expert explained, "It is a maxim in military theory that the best place to amass for an offensive strike is where enemy units have boundaries. It is here that weakness usually is found. The larger the boundary, the greater the weakness is apt to be, and the greater the chance for exploitation of a success. The Chinese throughout the Korean War demonstrated their ability by thorough night reconnaissance and patrolling to find unit boundaries, whether platoon, company, battalion, regiment, division, or corps."5
By launching a powerful attack against the enemy's weak point, the CPV forced the ROK Regiment and the soldiers of the 1st and 2nd U.S. Battalions to retreat south to the Chongchon River. But many never made it as the CPV had already set up roadblocks to cut the escape route.
The U.S. 3rd Battalion so far had not seen any action, but that was about to change. They were in a weakened position because they had been ordered to retreat and were getting ready to move when the blow fell. Military writers have written that they were more vulnerable to attack because they were not dug into a tight defense and didn't have their guard up as they should have.
The Volunteers, though, had to figure out how to move across the open ground in front of the 3rd Battalion. The CPV had started the main offensive against the U.S./ROK positions at night. But now it was daylight, and they would be more exposed to the deadly U.S. firepower. To solve the problem, the CPV soldiers put on captured uniforms of the ROK army, and, holding their breaths, marched in formation right up and into the U.S. encampment! Once inside the U.S. camp, they blew bugles to signal an all-sided assault against the enemy troops. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting broke out, but the Chinese troops were forced to withdraw as they were outnumbered within the U.S. camp. The U.S. soldiers on the ground called in air force fighter-bombers, but the air strike did little damage to the Chinese units who continued to be shielded by the huge fires they had set earlier. The U.S. pilots just couldn't see through the clouds of smoke.
The CPV waited until night and again attacked the 3rd Battalion. This time, they fired mortars into the U.S. camp before they attacked. Military analysts have explained that mortars fit perfectly into the Chinese style of fighting close-up to the enemy. They could be hand-carried into battle so they didn't interfere with the mobility of the CPV units moving over the rugged Korean terrain. Mortars were deadly weapons in the hands of the Chinese warriors. Dubbed by military writers as "the poor army's artillery," explosives fired from the tube weapons burst among the U.S. soldiers causing a great number of casualties. An observer noted, "Occasionally the Chinese used mortars to inflict casualties and, by watching closely for movement in removing these casualties, to locate the front line of a UN position. After establishing what they believed to be the front, the CCF dropped white phosphorous mortar rounds on the lines as markers, while assault troops crawled as close as possible and, in skirmish formation, rushed the front line."6
Mortar fire kept the U.S. soldiers pinned down under cover during the daytime, while the CPV made further assaults at night. With each assault, the Chinese troops moved ever closer to the U.S. camp, making it even more difficult for the U.S. to call in air support for fear of hitting their own troops. After a couple nights of attacks, the 3rd Battalion was forced to break up into small parties to try to sneak past the Chinese who surrounded them. But most were captured or killed in the attempt. The U.S. 3rd Battalion ceased to exist as a fighting unit in Korea and is referred to in history books as "The Lost Battalion."
In two days of fighting, the CPV not only decimated sections of the U.S. and ROK units involved, they also annihilated elements of the ROK 12th and U.S. 5th Regiments who were sent to their rescue. Unfortunately, the CPV was not able to totally block the retreat of all the U.S./ROK units. If they had, the Chinese Volunteers possibly could have annihilated many more U.S. troops and handed the imperialists a decisive defeat.
PEOPLE'S WAR VS. IMPERIALIST FIREPOWER
The blows of the Chinese People's Volunteers shook the imperialists, who never thought that a mighty army such as themselves could be beaten by "inferior" troops. And the CPV had much to sum up after the First Offensive.
The Chinese had gained a wealth of experience fighting technologically superior enemies during the War of Resistance Against Japan, and the Civil War against the reactionary Chinese KMT army of Chiang Kai-shek.7 They brought their knowledge to bear in Korea. While fighting the U.S. armed forces directly was clearly different in important aspects and required learning warfare through warfare, the revolutionary forces re-affirmed the correctness of their fundamental approach. As Mao Tsetung had said, "Our strategy is `pit one against ten' and our tactics are `pit ten against one'—this is one of our fundamental principles for gaining mastery over the enemy."
A pamphlet published in China further explains that method:
"The method of concentrating a superior force to destroy the enemy forces one by one is a concentrated expression in a military struggle of the concept of tactically taking the enemy seriously... In military struggle, we take full account of the enemy and make a full estimate of his strength, therefore we stress the need to prepare fully for every battle and not to fight any battle unprepared or without assurance of victory. We are against any calculations for easy success based on luck. We are against taking the enemy lightly and advancing in a reckless way. We strive to make sure we will win every engagement we fight, otherwise we avoid battle. Comrade Mao Tsetung said: `It is common sense that several hefty fellows can easily beat one.' In each and every battle we concentrate a force two, three, four or even five or six times the size of the enemy force we intend to deal with. In this way we ensure victory. At the same time, we take pains to study and perfect the art of directing battles and watch for chances to destroy the enemy's forces one by one by taking advantage of his weaknesses, mistakes, internal contradictions and other conditions favorable to us."8
Still, fighting the United States, the CPV was up against an even more vastly superior army, technologically speaking. The enormous firepower of the U.S. could be devastating. They had the most modern tanks and artillery. The U.S. Air Force dominated the skies. And the U.S. imperialists had devised all kinds of diabolical weapons like napalm.
One bourgeois author described the inferiority of the Chinese arms compared to that of the U.S: "An astonishing fact about the Chinese Communist Forces in Korea was that they defeated American troops with the heaviest firepower of any army in the world and with total command of the air —and the Chinese did it almost wholly with weapons no larger than mortars. Their rifles and machine guns were a mixed lot from many sources, including American weapons captured from the [KMT] Nationalists, or World War 2 Japanese weapons confiscated in Manchuria at the war's end... They also relied on hand grenades and, as a weapon against tanks, satchel charges of TNT explosives. Satchel charges of about 5 and 20 pounds each were carried by antitank sections. If laid on the tracks or under a tank, a satchel charge could disable it."9
Rather than be awed by all the U.S. weaponry, though, the CPV studied the weaknesses of the imperialists. They observed that because the U.S. army relied on their advanced technology, they were only good at fighting from a distance with their long range weapons. So to upset the advantage the U.S. had in firepower, the Chinese employed a style of fighting that would take them close-up to their enemy.
Like panthers, the Chinese soldiers would use stealth in approaching U.S. positions. They would move and fight mainly at night, pouncing on the enemy with hand grenades and bayonet charges. Surprise was a key element in their plan of attack. And the imperialist troops proved again and again that they had no stomach for close-in fighting. But the Chinese army had rich experience with this kind of combat, learned during the Chinese Civil War. With the war in Korea imminent, their military command instructed all units to train intensely for this way of fighting.
But with the changing circumstances of war, and the technological strength of U.S. forces, the Chinese People's Volunteers had to continually sum up battle experience and devise new ways of fighting. They carefully and soberly analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Once new tactics were proven in combat, the People's Volunteers popularized them throughout their ranks. One example of such a document was entitled Experiences Gained in Three Battles since Entering Korea:
"When counter-attacking, do not do so in full strength. In order to avoid confusion, light, aggressive assault teams should be organized, consisting of 10-15 men, each equipped with hand grenades, bayonets, and sub-machine guns...these teams must stay under cover in suitable locations until they take up combat positions, which should not be more than 40-50 meters [about 50 yards] from the MLR [Main Line of Resistance]...
"When the enemy advances, the artillery is not supported by infantry. We can turn this time to our advantage. On the defense, the enemy surrounds his artillery with mines, wire entanglements, and infantry support. This is hard to attack.
"Before entering into combat, we should try to locate enemy artillery according to <%-2>our estimate of the situation and information<%0> from prisoners. Light special units should be organized. These special units break through the enemy lines until they reach the enemy artillery position by stealth. These units should be trained to act quickly, silently, bravely, and to fight fiercely. They should not reply to enemy fire, because at night both observation and communication are difficult and it is not easy to distinguish between friend and foe; the enemy fire is likely to be without effect. By advancing quickly, without regard to casualties, the specialized team can accomplish its mission; to reach and destroy the enemy artillery...
"Our experiences have taught us that daylight movement and combat are possible, provided our units are intermixed with the enemy in confusion (in the case of attack) and we have penetrated deeply inside the enemy territory..."10
TO BE CONTINUED
1. Alexander, Bevin, The First War We Lost. Hippocrene Books, 1986, p. 261.
2. Appleman, Lt. Col. Roy E., Disaster in Korea, the Chinese Confront MacArthur. Texas A & M University Press, 1989, p. 110.
3. Chinese Communist Forces is the term used by bourgeois historians for the Chinese People's Volunteers.
4. Appleman, p. 128-129
5. Appleman, p. 84.
6. Alexander, p. 303.
7. The KMT (Kuomintang) army was a reactionary Chinese political force and army serving U.S. imperialist interests. Despite this puppet role, bourgeois commentators usually (mis)name the KMT as the "Nationalists."
8. Li Tso-Peng, "Strategy: One Against Ten, Tactics: Ten Against One." Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1966, pp. 4-5.
9. Alexander, p. 301.
10. Appleman, p. 110.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)