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Shinmiyangyo

The Other Korean War

 

 

 

Preface
Inchon Harbor, Korea - September 15, 1950

It had been a long day filled with the sounds of battle. Thousands of frightened young Marines crowded their landing craft. Only five years earlier most of them had been students finishing high school and learning world geography from both and accounts of veterans of the world war in Europe and the Pacific. Despite the broad expanse of the World War II Theater most of these young men had never heard of the Asian peninsula of Korea. Probably none could find it on a map. 

Still ringing in the ears of the young Marines of the 1st Marine Division were the words of the legendary Leatherneck commander of the first regiment, Colonel Lewis Chesty Puller: "We're the most fortunate of men. Most times, professional soldiers have to wait 25 years or more for a war, but here we are, with only five years wait for this one...We live by the sword, and if necessary we'll be ready to die by the sword. Good luck. I'll see you ashore."

The day was almost gone as the landing craft struggled against the treacherous tides to make their way to the shores at Inchon. Wooden scaling ladders protruded from the front of low profile barges that transported the Marines towards their destination. It was an amphibious assault against three enemies: the soldiers of North Korea, the quickly fading daylight hours, and the infamously dangerous geography of Korea's west coast. Indeed, the 1st Marine Division commander Major General Oliver P. Smith had noted, "Half the problem was getting to Inchon at all."

 

Operation Chromite

General Douglas MacArthur's most ardent detractors will admit that the surprise amphibious assault at Inchon, dubbed Operation Chromite, was a stroke of military genius. In a matter of days the highly successful operation broke the back of the North Korean invasion of the South, and liberated the capitol city of Seoul.

Prior to World War II the Asian peninsula of Korea (Corea) was undivided, first as an independent kingdom, then as a Protectorate of Japan (1910-45). Shortly before World War II came to a close the United States and Russia reached an agreement to divide the peninsula at the 38th parallel, for the purpose of accepting the surrender of Japanese troops. When war ended both nations worked hard to promote friendly governments, Russia suppressing the moderate nationalists and supporting Kim Il Sung in the North, the United States promoting United Nations supervised elections in the south. These elections led to the formation of the Republic of South Korea in August 1948. The following month the inhabitants north of the 38th parallel responded by establishing the People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). For the first time in history the peninsula was divided into NORTH and SOUTH Korea. 

On Sunday, June 25, 1950, the North Koreans attempted to reunite the two nations of the Asian peninsula. At exactly 4:00 A.M. nearly 100,000 DPRK soldiers, supported by tanks and 130 aircraft, attacked across the border. Three days later the capitol of Seoul, just fifty miles south of the border between the two countries, had fallen to the North. Within weeks Republic of Korea, U.S., and U.N. forces had been pushed all the way back to Pusan on the southeast coast. The NKPA (North Korea People's Army) held most of the peninsula and appeared close to uniting their land under the banner of Communism.

Throughout the months of July and August the United States moved quickly to shore up defenses at Pusan with supplies and an infusion of new troops. Throughout the period, from his headquarters in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur continued to hammer out the details for the landing a counterattack, beginning with an invasion at Inchon. 

Actually, Operation Chromite was planned and proposed in early July when the war in Korea was barely a week old. It was typically MacArthuresque, transporting a large force completely around the enemy to land behind them, thus blocking supply routes and cutting off any retreat. The harbor at Inchon afforded all strategic requirements:  

  • It was located almost directly opposite Pusan, far to the enemy's rear flank. A successful invasion would cut off the NKPA from their command in the north, as well as their supply routes.  

  • According to military intelligence reports the harbor was only lightly defended. The NKPA had committed the bulk of their invading force...some seven full divisions, to the effort at Pusan.  

  • Inchon was located only ten miles from the Seoul, the South Korean capitol which was now under enemy control. 

The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved MacArthur's planned invasion early in the war. The course of events in and around Pusan delayed implementation and changed the schematics of what was originally planned to commence on July 22nd with an assault by the 1st U.S. Cavalry. The 1st Cavalry was thrown instead into Korea east of Taejon, and General MacArthur turned his attention to the 1st and 5th Regiments of the 1st Marine Division to lead the Inchon invasion, along with the men of MacArthur's sole reserve unit in Japan, the Army's 7th Infantry Division.

D-Day was September 15th. Nearly 70,000 American soldiers and Marines approached Inchon in a task force of 320 warships supported by four air craft carriers. At 5:00 A.M. Marine Corsairs struck the small island of Wolmi-do, followed within an hour by the initial Marine landing. Half an hour later the small island at the approach to Inchon was under American control and 108 enemy had been killed, 136 captured. Marine casualties were light...only seventeen Americans wounded. 

While the island was the focus of the initial assault, the bulk of the X Corps assault force pulled back into the deeper waters of the Kanghwa Bay. The primary assault on Inchon itself would be much more difficult. General O. P. Smith had been more than astute in his observation that "Half the problem was getting to Inchon at all." Despite all of the tactical advantages Inchon posed for an amphibious assault to turn the tide of war in Korea, all of the geographical characteristics were negative.

 

The Mud Flats 

The city of Seoul sits on the Han River, which runs northwest to spill into Kanghwa Bay and the Yellow Sea. The infamous coastal tides are among the most dangerous in the world and have caused sand carried by the Han and numerous smaller rivers, to create large beds of soft mud. When the high tides are running the swift currents of two to three knots (and sometimes up to ten knots), make navigation extremely dangerous. When the tides recede, hundreds of yards of mud flats extend outward from the shoreline. An invading force approaching from the sea could quickly sink up to its knees while it struggled to gain the firmer ground of the peninsula. 

The men of the Third Battalion, 5th Marines that landed at Wolmi-do came in with the high tide, a tide range of 36 feet. When the tide withdrew the island was surrounded by a sea of mud separating the American force from the mainland as well as the rest of the assault force. The main assault planned to return with the high tide nearly twelve hours later to land on the mainland itself. The timing meant that their small landing craft would have to struggle against the currents, negotiate the treacherous rocks and mud flats, reach the shoreline, and disgorge the Marines. Upon landing, the Marines would face a 16-foot sea wall, which they planned to scale with the ladders carried in each LST. There would be only about two hours of daylight to reach the shore, scale the walls, and set up their defensive positions. It was a formidable, frightening task, for young men unaccustomed to war. It was made worse by the fact that the soldiers of the NKPA now knew the Americans were coming.

 

 

 

 

September 15, 1950
3:00 PM

Riding the crest of the incoming tide, the ships of the American task force carefully began their second approach to the harbor at Inchon. Battleships filled the air with a hail of rockets and explosions erupted all along the Korean shoreline. At 3:35 P.M. the men of the 1st Marine Division began loading in their landing craft. The LCVPs each carried 22 men and the needed scaling ladders. These shallow draft flat-bottom boats were well suited for shallow waters. Most would come in with the tide, unload at the shoreline, and then remain beached throughout the night as the tide withdrew. 

The Marines planned to strike at two locations, the remaining two battalions of the 5th Marine Regiment unloading at Red Beach while the entire 1st Regiment would forge its way across two miles of mud flats covered by shallow water, to land at Blue Beach.

 

Baldomero Lopez

At 5:33 P.M. the first landing craft reached Red Beach and dropped its gate. Frightened but determined Marines quickly lobbed grenades over the sea wall to discourage any enemy soldiers awaiting their arrival. When the scaling ladders were in place the assault began. From the rear of one of the landing craft a photographer snapped a picture. Leading the way, only his back visible to the camera, was 25-year-old Marine Corps First Lieutenant Baldomero "Punchy" Lopez. The young officer from Tampa, Florida would not only command his Marines into the foray....he would LEAD them.

All along Red Beach the Marines scaled the walls where they were met with a tremendous volley of fire from the enemy. Lieutenant Lopez led his Third Platoon of Company A towards a nearby trench; killing a dozen North Korean soldiers in the process. During the opening ten minutes of the invasion however, eight Marines were also killed. 

Lieutenant Lopez noted the heaviest enemy fire coming from two nearby bunkers. Quickly he destroyed the first, and then ordered his men to provide covering fire while he crawled towards the second. Nearing the enemy position the brave lieutenant rose to throw a grenade. A sudden burst of automatic fire raked Baldomero's body, shattering his right arm and puncturing his chest. Thrown backward by the force of the enemy bullets, the armed grenade fell from his shattered hand. 

Fighting intense pain and weak from loss of blood, Lieutenant Lopez dragged his body forward in an effort to retrieve and throw the grenade with his one remaining good arm. He was unable to grasp it firmly and realized it would detonate within seconds, killing or wounding some of his nearby American Marines. Unwilling to risk their lives, Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez pulled the grenade into the crook of his good arm and rolled over on it. Absorbing the full impact of the explosion, he was instantly killed, but his Marines were saved.

 

 

General MacArthur later referred to the landing at Inchon as one of the Marine Corps' "finest hours." By nightfall, most of the major objectives had been achieved. By the following morning Inchon was secure. More than 300 enemy soldiers had been killed, nearly 1,500 wounded. The Marines lost 20 men killed in action, 187 wounded. 

Twelve days later Gunnery Sgt. Harold Beaver ripped down the North Korean flag and raised the Stars and Stripes over the Government House in Seoul. 

The shattered body of Lieutenant Baldomero "Punchy" Lopez was returned to his hometown of Tampa for burial. Less than a year after his death, on August 30, 1951, his parents were invited to the Pentagon where Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball presented them a Medal of Honor in recognition of their son's heroism and sacrifice. 

First Lieutenant Lopez was the first of 42 Marines to receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War of 1950-53. He was not, however, the first Marine to earn the Medal of Honor for heroism in Korea.

Little known and rarely remembered by most Americans, was the amphibious assault United States Marines and Navy Bluejackets had made in these same waters nearly 75 years earlier. Barely ten miles from where Lieutenant Lopez had led his men into battle and sacrificed his life, a young Naval lieutenant had similarly led his men into armed combat. In the battle that followed, six marines and nine sailors earned the first Medals of Honor to be awarded for foreign service.* It was the Korean campaign of 1871, known to the Koreans as.....

Shinmiyangyo.

 

*During the American Civil War several Medals of Honor were awarded for the Naval battle at Cherbourg, France when the U.S.S. Kearsarge sank the C.S.S. Alabama.  While these Medals were awarded for service outside the United States, the Medals of Honor awarded for action in Korea in 1871 were the first awarded for foreign service against a foreign enemy of the United States.

Shinmiyangyo
The Other Korean War

Preface
History Repeated

The Hermit Kingdom
And the General Sherman

Amphibious Assault
The Landing at Kanghwa 

The Citadel
Valor on Two Sides 


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Special Acknowledgment to Mr. Thomas Duvernay who has spent several years researching the Shinmiyangyo.  Mr. Duvernay has established contact with the surviving family of Lt. Hugh McKee, but is anxious to establish contact with surviving family of other participants in this action.  We encourage you to visit Mr. Duvernay's website at www.shinmiyangyo.org.

 

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