HONG KONG — Sept. 15 was the 50th anniversary of the famous Inchon amphibious landing by U.S. forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which so decisively turned the tide of battle in the early stages of the Korean War.
After their initial invasion of the South on June 25, the North Korean People’s Army simply swept aside the South Korean, U.S. and U.N. troops.
Very quickly, MacArthur’s forces were driven back to a small perimeter in the southeastern corner of South Korea around the major port of Pusan. There the hastily constituted Eighth Army under Gen. Walton Walker conducted a dogged defense of the Pusan perimeter.
That effort could not disguise the fact that all the news from Korea was bad, from the noncommunist point of view.
Then came Inchon, seemingly out of the blue for the watching world, and, for a brief while at least, roles were reversed. Suddenly, three months into the Korean War, all the news was bad from the communist point of view. But it need not have been — if only Kim Il Sung had listened to Mao Zedong.
Even today, the battle at Inchon stands out as something different. It was audacious. It was dramatic. And, immediately at least, the victory was both sudden and complete.
Today, there are few reminders at Inchon of what happened 50 years ago, in contrast to the numerous Pacific islands where the detritus of the fighting still exists as a grim reminder of World War II.
Wolmi Island, which played such a key part in the battle, is no longer an island, having been joined to the mainland by land reclamation.
On the sea front, where the U.S. Marines once clambered up the sea wall from their landing ships on their scaling ladders, there is a long line of excellent seafood restaurants.
Broad highways and new, fast train-tracks from Seoul are making their way past the port city to the islands beyond where the Inchon International Airport is nearing completion.
There is only one clear and poignant reminder of that famous day. On a hill overlooking Inchon port, an imposing statue of MacArthur, accompanied by words of gratitude for what he did for the people of South Korea, looks down on the scene of his great victory.
But there is something missing on the plaque of MacArthur’s Inchon statue. It fails to mention that MacArthur fought, and won, two battles over Inchon — one against the all-conquering North Koreans, and one against the U.S. military establishment, with the battle fought in the heart of Tokyo.
Amazingly, MacArthur first thought of an Inchon landing when he flew to Suwon, some 32 km south of Seoul on June 29, four days after the invasion began. There he saw the South Korean military and civilians retreating in full flight, yet he quickly perceived that a landing at Inchon could be used to cut the North Korean supply lines as these were extended further south.
MacArthur got his aides to start planning “Operation Blueheart” with an Inchon landing in mid-July 1950, but this effort was soon abandoned as halting the NKPA advance, before it pushed the U.N. forces into the sea, became the top priority.
But even as he abandoned “Operation Blueheart,” MacArthur set about planning “Operation Chromite,” with a Sept. 15 landing at Inchon already set as the target date.
The trouble was that many of his commanders (MacArthur was commander in chief Far East as well as commander in chief of the U.N. Command in Korea and supreme commander of the Allied Powers within Japan) were opposed, including some of the U.S. Navy admirals and marine generals who would carry the main burden if any landing took place. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington were skeptical. All the opponents of a landing at Inchon had many rational arguments on their side.
To mention only two, the approach to Inchon was through a relatively narrow passage easily controlled by guns on Wolmi Island. Inchon had the second largest tidal range of any port, reaching as much as a 10-meter difference between high and low tides. There were many others, such as those high sea walls that the marines would have to scale. The American Eighth Army objected to the withdrawal of marine regiments from defending the Pusan perimeter in order to take part in what was obviously an extremely hazardous operation at Inchon.
Despite the opposition, MacArthur never wavered in his insistence that the Inchon landing should take place on Sept. 15.
The end result was that the First Battle of Inchon was fought on Aug. 23 — in the conference room of the Dai Ichi Building in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district, where MacArthur had his headquarters.
By a strange, and probably not accidental, coincidence two marine generals strongly opposed to the landing, were not present at the conference, or were not invited, but the army and the navy chiefs of staff had flown in from Washington to join many other admirals and generals in one last effort to dissuade MacArthur from taking what they saw as too big a risk. All the arguments against the operation were lengthily rehearsed, concluding with one admiral asserting that “the best I can say for the operation is that it not impossible.”
MacArthur listened to the criticisms puffing away on his corncob pipe. When all the doubts had been aired, he rose and delivered a passionate 45-minute oration that turned that first battle of Inchon decisively in his favor.
Sadly, no tape exists of what was clearly a stunning presentation. Crucially, MacArthur made the criticisms against the operation into a strong argument for continuing, not abandoning, it.
“The very arguments you have made as to the impracticalities involved will tend to insure for me the element of surprise. For the enemy commander will reason that no one would be so brash as to make such an attempt. If you — experienced American specialists in amphibious operations — think Inchon is almost impossible, then so will the communists.”
Methodically, MacArthur demolished all the opposition arguments, using historical parallels to great effect, before concluding with a typical flourish, as his voice sank to a whisper
“I can almost hear the ticking of the second hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die. Inchon will succeed, and we will save 100,000 lives. We shall land at Inchon, and I will crush them.”
Which is, of course, exactly what happened. An intrepid navy lieutenant, Eugene Clarke, relit a disused lighthouse to guide the way for the 260 ships of the Inchon armada.
The heavy guns of four cruisers, two British and two American, pulverized Wolmi Island with a two-day bombardment.
The North Koreans failed to counterattack in the crucial 12 hours, made necessary by the tidal range, between the early morning marine landing on Wolmi Island and the marine landing in the evening on Red and Blue beach, before attacking Inchon town.
Kimpo airport was captured two days later and Seoul itself was handed back to the South Korean administration by MacArthur himself in a ceremony in Seoul on Sept. 29.
Caught between the anvil of the Eighth Army breaking out of the Pusan perimeter, and the hammer of MacArthur’s troops interdicting their supply lines, the NKPA disintegrated and fled.
So why did MacArthur — against all the odds, against all the opposition — push for the Inchon landing so vigorously? For his detractors, it was his massive ego, and belief in his own infallibility. For his supporters, it was his strategic grasp and his audacity. Both sides miss two crucial factors — MacArthur’s knowledge of history, and his reliance on his intuition.
Much has been made of MacArthur’s use of the parallel of the British storming of the heights of Abraham to capture Quebec in 1759, as he won the First Battle of Inchon in the Dai Ichi Building.
As those cruisers opened fire on Wolmi Island, MacArthur noted that it was the 191st anniversary of that Quebec battle. Much less has been made of the fact that MacArthur was also guided by Asian history. He was probably the only U.S. general who knew that the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese, the other major East Asian powers, had all chosen, at various times, to enter Korea through Inchon (though generally through unopposed landings). For MacArthur at least, Inchon was historically a place of strategic significance.
But MacArthur also relied on his intuition. MacArthur would not have appreciated the doctrine popular in today’s Pentagon that you only strike when you can bring massive force to bear. For MacArthur, you strike when you know you can win — and his intuition told him that the North Koreans had left themselves open to defeat by leaving their flank relatively unguarded at Inchon.
In fact, the same intrepid Lt. Clarke made a risky personal reconnaissance and confirmed that MacArthur’s intuition was correct a few days before the landings actually took place.
But the great untold Inchon story is that MacArthur’s intuition, about North Korean weakness, was nearly defeated by Mao Zedong’s intuition.
According to recent historical research, as the North Koreans faced stalemate around Pusan, Zhou Enlai detailed a section head in the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, one Lei Yingfu, to forecast what the Americans would do.
After studying the issue, Lei relayed his judgment that the U.S. would try to mount an amphibious operation at one of six places but that MacArthur would probably chose Inchon.
Zhou ordered Lei to brief Mao Zedong on the same day that MacArthur was fighting that first Battle of Inchon in the Dai Ichi Building. Mao’s intuition quickly picked up the validity of Lei’s estimate and ordered that the forecast be immediately passed on to North Korean President Kim Il Sung.
Just to make sure, Mao ordered the information be passed to Kim on two channels rather than just one. Not to be outdone, Kim’s Russian advisers also warned Kim that the Americans would attack from the sea.
MacArthur’s intuition about North Korean weakness was born out by events because Kim ignored all these warnings from the Chinese and the Russians. We shall probably never know why.
Had Kim heeded Mao’s warning, Asia today might well be a very different place. Instead, Inchon was one crucial step in the process whereby both South Korea and Taiwan are today vibrant economies and developing democracies, and the reunification of both Korea and China has, as yet, proved an elusive dream.
Yet, in one crucial way, MacArthur did not act on his own intuition in the weeks after the Inchon landing succeeded.
As he was deluged with praise for the Inchon success, MacArthur admitted to a friend that the operation would be remembered as long as military strategy was studied but “it would not be considered one of the decisive battles of the world if the Chinese Communists entered the Korean War.”
Once again, how right he was. Even before the Inchon landing, China was preparing to do just that.
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