Korean War Brief History

This section is a brief history of the Korean War, a war often referred to as the forgotten war. But 5.7 million American men and women served in that three-year war, along with allies from the United Nations, on the ground, in the air, at sea, or in support of those who directly fought. Loss of the memory of their sacrifices is not an option.

The U.S. 7th Infantry Division M-4 Sherman tank in the background was disabled by an anti-tank mine on this road in Korea, 28 February 1951.  Engineers in the photo are searching for other possible mines in the vicinity
The U.S. 7th Infantry Division M-4 Sherman tank in the background was disabled by an anti-tank mine on this road in Korea, 28 February 1951. Engineers in the photo are searching for other possible mines in the vicinity.

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June 1950 Invasion of South Korea

38th Parallel Sign

When World War II ended, the United States accepted the surrender of the Japanese in Korea south of the 38th parallel. At the same time, the Soviet Union (USSR) accepted the Japanese surrender north of that line. Although the US and its western Allies intended that Korea become an independent democracy, the Soviet Union had other plans. The period 1945-1950 saw escalating tensions and cross-boder skirmishes as Communist rule was consolidated in the North and they probed for weakness in the South.

On 25 June 1950, troops of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, the North Korean government) invaded South Korea, armed and equipped with Soviet weapons and politically supported by both Communist China and the USSR. They crossed the 38th Parallel, the official border between the two countries, and quickly moved south. President Harry Truman, a strong anti-Communist, ordered U.S. forces in the Far East into action on 27 June, and three days later authorized air attacks in North Korea. Also on 30 June, President Truman ordered a naval blockade of the Korean coast and authorized the Commander in Chief Far East, General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur, to send U.S. ground troops into Korea.

America's Armed Forces had suffered from years of punishing fiscal constraints since the end of World War II just five years earlier. Nonetheless, that war left a vast potential for recovery. U.S. military stockpiles held large quantities of relatively modern ships, aircraft, trucks, tanks, military equipment and production capacity that could be reactivated in a fraction of the time necessary to build them anew. More importantly, the organized Reserve forces included tens of thousands of trained people -- sometimes called "retreads" -- whose World War II experiences remained reasonably fresh and relevant. Pres. Truman mobilized the Reserves for duty in the Korean conflict.

The crisis in Korea was the first major test for the young United Nations, founded in 1945. The United Nations Security Council met immediately on 25 June to consider a response. The Soviet Union, boycotting the UN because the international body did not recognize Communist rule in China, blundered by deciding not to attend. On 27 June the U.S. proposed UN intervention in Korea with armed force. With the Soviets absent, not there to wield their veto, the resolution passed. In practical terms, the use of force was backed largely by the United States plus the South Koreans themselves. However, in addition to South Korea and the U.S., 15 other UN member nations sent military forces to oppose the Communist attack. Although the UN force was potentially much larger than the DPRK army, a quick response was essential before N. Korea overran the entire Korean peninsula.

The North Korean onslaught was initially very successful. Seoul, the South Korean capital, fell by the end of 28 June. During the summer of 1950, the U.S. and United Nations allies scrambled to contain North Korea's fast-moving army, assemble the forces necessary to defeat it and simultaneously begin to respond to what was seen as a global military challenge from the world Communist block. The first days of July represented the high-water mark of the DPRK invasion, and, by the end of that first week, US, South Korean, and UN troops were solidifying a defense line around the port of Pusan, near the south-eastern tip of the Korean peninsula. July-August 1950 and the first half of September saw a doggedly successful defense of that corner, called the Pusan Perimeter, as an increasingly desperate North Korean army tried mightily to break it.

Inchon Landing and Counterattack

Four LSTs unload men, vehicles, supplies and equipment while high and dry at low tide on Red Beach, Inchon, Korea 16 September 1950, the day after the initial landings there
Four LSTs unload men, vehicles, supplies and equipment while high and dry at low tide on Red Beach, Inchon, Korea, 16 September 1950, the day after the initial landings there.

In a brilliant stroke conceived by MacArthur, on 15 September the 1st Marine Division, under the command of Major General Oliver P. Smith, staged a surprise amphibious assault at Inchon on Korea's west coast, not far from Seoul. The North Korean army, weakened by its attempts to break the Pusan Perimeter, was suddenly confronted with a grave threat in its rear. The Marines were poised to move inland to retake the capital and decisively cut the already tenuous North Korean supply lines. After only five days, the Marines closed on the approaches of Seoul. In house-to-house fighting, the Marines wrested the city from its Communist captors by 27 September and completed all objectives of the Inchon-Seoul campaign by 7 October. Buoyed by success, MacArthur ordered a second amphibious operation at Wonson, on North Korea's east coast, executed on 20 October 1950 after clearing extensive mines. By then, the collapse of the North Korean force had become a rout and the US/UN force was rolling up the territory of North Korea.

A hundred miles to the southeast of Seoul, the Pusan Perimeter's defenders went on the offensive on 16 September. After resisting for a few days, the now-isolated North Korean army retreated and progressively collapsed during the rest of the month. On the 27th, U.S. Army units moving southwards from Seoul met those coming up from Pusan. The DPRK Army was in full retreat.

Chinese Intervention in the Korean War

The Chinese government was alarmed by the failure of the DPRK invasion and the increasing possibility that the US-led UN forces would soon occupy North Korea. After a period of mobilization, on 13 and 14 October Chinese forces began to enter North Korea. That ominous fact got little notice at first and then was mistakenly assumed to mean that the Chinese troops were there to protect hydroelectric plants along the Yalu River. By early November, field reports from Korea were clear: the Chinese intervention was big enough to launch a large-scale counteroffensive. Intelligence confusion continued until MacArthur and his staff finally understood that their offensive toward the Yalu was over and victory was not near. On 28 November 1950, MacArthur reported that he faced 200,000 Chinese PLA troops and a completely new war. MacArthur's troop estimate was significantly wrong, but the "new war" part was exactly right.

In early December 1950, the single road from Chosin reservoir to the sea was blown by the Chinese soldiers at a critical point, blocking the retreat of the 1st Marine Division. The 20-foot gap was repaired by the Marines on 9 December 1950, after a near-impossible airdrop of Treadway bridge sections. In this photo, Marines resume their march south toward the port of Hungnam with the repaired bridge in the background carrying jeeps across the gap
In early December 1950, the single road from Chosin reservoir to the sea was blown by the Chinese soldiers at a critical point, blocking the retreat of the 1st Marine Division. The 20-foot gap was repaired by the Marines on 9 December 1950, after a near-impossible airdrop of Treadway bridge sections. In this photo, Marines resume their march south toward the port of Hungnam with the repaired bridge in the background carrying jeeps across the gap.

The Chinese intervention, along with increased material support from the Soviet Union, rescued the nearly defeated North Koreans. MacArthur's army was thrown back south of the 38th Parallel, midway into South Korea. At the northernmost part of that fight, almost at the Yalu River, the 1st Marine Division, and US Army units, confronted the Chinese in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir. During extremely cold weather of Nov-Dec 1950, they faced overwhelming numbers of Chinese Army troops in below zero temperatures and steep mountain terrain, one of the most difficult campaigns of any war. The Marines managed an orderly retreat to the port of Hungnam where they were evacuated. The survivors of that combat will always be known as The Chosin Few.

Korean War Stabilization and Stalemate

After two months of costly attacks, the Chinese and North Korean armies had regained much of their position, but were exhausted. Starting on 25 January 1951, Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway's Eighth Army, assisted by land and sea-based air power, pushed northward from their lines in a sharp series of carefully-planned offensives. By late April, they had recaptured almost all of South Korea and were digging in along a serpentine front line generally well above the old 38th Parallel border. In mid-May, the enemy again pushed back, gaining ground across the peninsula, but at such great expense that UN forces quickly recovered most of what had been lost, and more. Only in the west, where terrain was unsuitable for an advanced front line, were the Communists allowed to retain some formerly South Korean territory.

President Truman and Gen. MacArthur disagreed on many issues and MacArthur did not respect the civilian authority over the military. On 11 April 1951, MacArthur was relieved of command, turning over his duties to Lt. Gen. Ridgway.

The winter and spring campaigns of 1951 were a transition between the mobile battles of 1950 and the static positions of the rest of the conflict. The defeat of the Communist advance into South Korea and the restoration of a firm defensive line roughly along the 38th Parallel decided the outcome of the war and guaranteed the future of South Korea. By the middle of 1951, the front lines had stabilized near where the war started twelve months earlier. Negotiations began amid hopes that an early truce could be arranged. But this took two more frustrating years, during which the contending land forces fought on, with the U.S. Navy and Air Force providing extensive air and gunfire support, a constant amphibious threat, relentless insweeping and a large logistics effort.

As the war ground on, it grew increasingly unpopular in the United States. After President Dwight Eisenhower took office in January 1953, negotiations for an end to the war were revitalized. On 27 July 1953, after the failure of a final Communist offensive and with a new regime in the USSR, an armistice agreement was finalized ending the fighting. No peace was ever signed. Moreover, the tensions of the Cold War between the West and the Communist Block continued and a substantial contingent of US troops remained in South Korea into the 21st Century.

Korean War Significance for the U.S. Air Force

North American XF-86  Sabre S/N 45-59597, the first one built, circa 1948
North American XF-86 Sabre S/N 45-59597, the first one built, circa 1948.

When the Korean War started, the U.S. Air Force was only three years old as an independent service. USAF had gained that independence based on the idea that strategic bombing could win a war independently of ground and sea forces. Since 1945, USAF was focused on preparing for nuclear war, and most of its meager funding had been directed toward that mission. Therefore, when the Far East Air Force (FEAF), the U.S. Air Force command in Asia, was ordered to Korea in June 1950, it was composed of aging aircraft and too few men to fly them. Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenburg called FEAF "the shoestring Air Force."

The situation in Korea was the opposite of what the USAF had prepared for. North Korea was an agricultural nation with few industrial or military targets since North Korea received most manufactured goods and supplies from China and the USSR. Therefore, strategic bombing would have little affect on the course of the war and correspondingly little ability to force a favorable outcome. Other types of missions, often requiring close coordination with land or sea forces, were required. At the end of the war, only 0.2 percent of all missions flown by the Air Force were strategic bombing. In contrast, almost half consisted of ground interdiction (tactical bombing).

While strategic bombing had little impact in Korea, interdiction was more successful. There were very few roads or railroads leading from the north to the south creating the opportunity for raids focused on the few NKPA supply routes to stop the flow of reinforcements and supplies. Early in the war, NKPA tanks were particularly vulnerable as they were not escorted by anti-aircraft guns. When the tanks traveled at night, they drove with headlights on.

The interdiction effort was successful. At the front, NKPA gas tanks were empty and troop rations were reduced from rice, fish, meat, and vegetables to merely rice. When the Chief of Staff of the NKPA 13th Infantry was captured in September 1950, he testified that, "half of our personnel had lost the stamina necessary to fight in mountainous terrain."

Korea was the first conflict during which most of the air-to-air fighting involved jets. The swept-wing North American F-86 Sabre fought the North Korean MiG-15 fighters, designed in the Soviet Union. By the end of hostilities, the F-86 had shot down 792 MiGs at a loss of only 76 Sabres, a victory ratio of 10 to 1.

Korea also saw the first significant combat use of helicopters.

Recommended Books about the Korean War

Troops and tanks near Chosin, December 1950
Troops and tanks near Chosin, December 1950.

  • Inch'on 1950: The Last Great Amphibious Assault
  • Breakout is a gripping narrative of the Chosin Reservoir campaign in Korea, 1950. In this series of battles, 12,000 men of the 1st Marine Division held off bitter cold and 60,000 Chinese regulars under logistically impossible conditions.

See also Books About the Korean War.

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