Fri, 15 Sep 2000

Fifty years after famous Inchon amphibious landing by U.S. forces

The following is the first of two articles by Harvey Stockwin on the landing of American troops in Inchon, Korea, in the early stages of the Korean War.

HONG KONG (JP): Friday Sept. 15 is the 50th anniversary of a turning point in modern East Asian history, the anniversary of what is certainly the most imaginative military operation at least in the second half of the 20th century.

It was a moment when sheer intuition (rather than rational calculation) guided critical decisions in a crucial conflict.

Friday is the 50th anniversary of the famous Inchon amphibious landing by American 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 Koreans People's Army (NKPA) simply swept aside the South Korean, American, and United Nations, 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.

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 in 1950, in contrast to the numerous Pacific islands where the detritus of the fighting still exists as a grim reminder of World War II.

Wolmi-do, 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 American Marines once clambered up the sea wall from their landing ships on their scaling ladders, there is a long line of excellent sea food 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 Gen. Douglas 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 the plaque fails to mention that MacArthur fought, and won, two battles over Inchon -- one against the all-conquering North Koreans, and one against the American 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 20 miles south of Seoul on June 29, four days after the invasion began. There he saw the South Korea military and civilian retreat 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 an "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 UN 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 C-in-C of the UN Command in Korea and Supreme Commander, Allied Powers within Japan) were opposed, including some of the US 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-do. Inchon had the second largest tidal range of any port, reaching as much as a 30 foot difference between high and low tides. There were many others, such as those high sea walls which the Marines would have to scale.