The Inchon campaign
The summer of 1950 went poorly for the United States and the rest of the United Nations Command. North Korea attacked South Korea, a vulnerable country the American military was advising. Loss after loss piled up as U.S. forces and other United Nations allies scrambled to come to South Korea’s aid. By August 1950, U.S. and South Korean forces established the Pusan Perimeter, a defensive line surrounding Pusan, South Korea, and its critical port. The Pusan Perimeter enabled the U.S. and South Korea to blunt North Korea’s attempts to unify Korea under a Communist, pro-Soviet Union government. Execution of a bold amphibious landing at Inchon reversed the war’s course entirely. This landing, and the U.S.-led offensive that followed, caused many to believe that the war would be over before the end of the year. Reviewing this moment captures the great instability that typified the Korean War in its first year.
The process of getting the Inchon plan to fruition was not easy. Military authorities at the highest level of the U.S. government doubted whether the plan could succeed. Navy planners feared the Yellow Sea’s tides, which varied by as much as 30 feet at times. Marine Corps strategists worried about the difficulty in having Marines scale the large sea walls that surrounded Inchon. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned by what would happen if the operation failed. They knew the U.S. did not have ready reserves to replace the men who were lost. Douglas MacArthur, head of the Far Eastern Command, viewed the plan for the landing as a great opportunity to change the course of the war. His advocacy shepherded the bold Inchon landing plan over the Joint Chief’s objections.
MacArthur activated the X Corps to take part in the landings. Led by Edward Mallory “Ned” Almond, the X Corps was composed of the 7th Infantry Division, 1st Marine Division, and South Korean troops. On September 15, 1950, the soldiers, sailors, and Marines of X Corps landed at Inchon. Even though the Inchon plans had been leaked in U.S. media and throughout Japan, North Korea was unprepared for the landing. Key objectives were taken with far fewer casualties than past U.S. amphibious operations. MacArthur’s gamble was a smashing success.
After the fall of Inchon, U.S. forces focused on the former South Korean capital, Seoul, an objective twenty-five miles away. The Han River and over 20,000 North Korean soldiers occupying the city made capturing it more difficult. With the 7th Infantry Division on the 1st Marine Division’s southern flank, the Marines were able to fight toward Seoul. By September 22, 1950, the X Corps reached Seoul’s western edge. A hard fight for the city ensued. On September 29, 1950, the city fell to U.S. forces. A brief ceremony gave control of the city to South Korean president Syngman Rhee.
U.S. and South Korean forces made progress in southern Korea as the fight for Inchon and Seoul was waged. The Eighth Army broke out from the Pusan Perimeter. After some resistance, the North Korean forces were defeated at Waegwan, Chungam-ni, and the western port of Kunsan. While some North Korean forces broke into a chaotic scramble, others waged a fighting retreat that involved holding tight to certain positions in South Korea. These examples of North Korean resistance cost U.S. and Allied forces significant casualties. Despite this, North Korean soldiers soon found out that they could not defend the X Corps attacks near Seoul and Inchon and hold allied forces back in southern Korea.
Costly but thrilling victories after a painful summer caused United Nations leaders to debate going beyond the pre-war boundary set during the post-World War II U.S.-Soviet occupation of the peninsula. Military authorities believed that the North Korean Army had to be destroyed before real security could be achieved. A wounded North Korean Army would always lay in waiting to attack south. Others in the U.S. National Security Council cautioned against crossing the 38th parallel because they thought it might set off a Chinese and Soviet intervention. President Truman sided with his military advisers. On September 27, 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed MacArthur to move across the 38th parallel and destroy North Korea’s military. By October 9, 1950, U.S. forces had crossed the border. Before the month was over, important cities like Pyongyang and Wonsan fell to U.S. and allied soldiers. The war’s end seemed like it was on the horizon.
Given the optimism of this moment, Chinese intervention at the end of November 1950 came as a great surprise. Intelligence sources across the U.S and allied countries had reported Chinese concerns about their security. However, the excitement of Inchon and the bold offensive that followed caused U.S. leaders to underestimate the danger of Chinese involvement. Chinese intervention brought the war into a new phase.
The search for unaccounted-for remains from the Inchon campaign to the Chinese intervention started before the end of the war. From 1951 to 1956, Army Graves Registration Service and different divisional quartermaster units sought remains in South Korea. Though the rapid movement of units during this phase of the war made locating remains more difficult, over 20,000 individuals were located in this period. The DPAA currently maintains a semi-permanent office in South Korea to search for remains year-round. South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense Agency for Killed in Action Recovery and Identification also assists U.S. teams.