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Korea - back from the brink
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"In the moment of victory, tighten your helmet strap."

- Ancient Japanese proverb

In September 1950, less than five years after receiving Japan's unconditional surrender, American troops were back in combat - this time under the aegis of the United Nations. On June 25, a disciplined North Korean army commanded by battle-tested officers who had proven their mettle fighting alongside Mao's Red Chinese army rolled across the 38th parallel, sending the Republic of Korea's (ROK) army into a rout.

With the aid of American troops drawn from occupation duty in Japan, Supreme Commander of the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had tightened up South Korea's defense. The U.N. forces were now backed up against the southeast corner of Korea in a defensive position that became known as the "Pusan Perimeter." MacArthur had traded space for time so that reinforcements could be brought in.

MacArthur had no intention of fighting back up the peninsula, bloody yard by bloody yard. Any account of the '50s and the Korean War requires a closer look at Gen. MacArthur.

The most thoroughly researched and balanced account of Gen. MacArthur is undoubtedly Wm. S. Manchester's "American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964." Manchester, author of "Portrait of a President: JFK in Profile," and many other acclaimed works, was a Marine sergeant during WW II, having participated in several Pacific campaigns, and was severely wounded in the battle for Okinawa. His engaging book, "Goodbye Darkness," tells of his own battle with the Japanese and accompanying emotional demons.

In "American Caesar," Manchester uses over 700 pages to chronicle MacArthur's life. His writing is meticulous and will drive you to the dictionary. It is a "must read" for anyone who wants to begin to understand MacArthur and the circumstances that led to his impending clash with President Harry Truman.

A paragraph on the book jacket gives a flavor of the book and of MacArthur:

"He was a great thundering paradox of a man, noble and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, the best of men and the worst of men, the most protean, most ridiculous, and most sublime. No more baffling, exasperating soldier ever wore a uniform. Flambouyant, imperious, and apocalyptic, he carried the plumage of a flamingo, could not acknowledge errors, and tried to cover up his mistakes with sly, childish tricks. Yet he was endowed with great personal charm, a will of iron, and a soaring intellect. Unquestionably, he was the most gifted man-at-arms this nation has produced."

So after three months of retreat and defeat, what did the "American Caesar" have in mind for the demoralized U.N. forces?

MacArthur proposed an amphibious landing at Inchon, the approximate midpoint of Korea's west coast. The idea was to drive inland, cut the extended North Korean supply lines and trap the enemy between the invading force and the defenders of the Pusan Perimeter to the south.

The Navy and Marine Corps who had perfected that most complex of military operations initially were skeptical, if not outright opposed. The Port of Inchon had every "amphibious don't" you could think of - narrow winding channels that could be blocked by a single sunken vessel, rocks and shoals, treacherous tides allowing the narrowest window for landing, piers and seawalls instead of good beaches for landing - beaches that would turn into mud flats when the tide was out. The Navy and Marines preferred an alternative location.

The Army and the Joint Chiefs thought the plan reckless and outrageous. The Joint Chiefs were so opposed that they sent two of their members to Korea from Washington to dissuade the general.

Before a strategic conference of the two Joint Chiefs and commanders who would be responsible for the operation, MacArthur made his case in a 34-minute performance that held his audience spellbound. He convinced the brass, insisting that the Navy had never yet let him down. In the words of Manchester, the men of the 1st Marine Division "were now in the hands of the only army commander who really understood that kind of fighting."

Admiral Doyle who would execute the landing later averred, "If MacArthur had gone on stage, you never would have heard of John Barrymore."

Complex military operations seldom go as planned in dry runs, let alone when opposed by the real enemy. This was to be an exception. The enemy was caught totally by surprise. Inchon was lightly defended and quickly captured.

The Marines drove inland, captured Kimpo Airfield, and within a week captured Seoul. General Walker's 8th Army broke out of the Pusan Bridgehead and drove north, trapping 50,000 North Korean soldiers between MacArthur's gigantic pincers.

The Inchon landing would become a classic in the study of military strategy. After three months of besiegement, agonizing retreat and bitter defeat, MacArthur had broken the back of the North Korean Army, freed South Korea from Communist domination, and recaptured its capital in a mere 15 days.

There was talk of American troops being home for Christmas.

But not so fast. Some 40,000 North Korean soldiers still managed to escape the trap. General James Gavin of WW II fame, with a weapons evaluation unit, discovered revetments around Kimpo Airfield as good as any he had seen in Europe.

"Either the North Koreans were wasting their time, which seemed unlikely, or a first class power was about to enter the war," he observed.

There were ominous signs that this war wasn't over.

To be continued. ...

- Monroe resident John Waelti can be reached at