US Army performance in the Korean War

Discussion in 'Korea' started by Warlord, Jan 15, 2015.

  1. Warlord

    Warlord Veteran wannabe

    Lads, I have been reading about the Korean "Police Action" for a little over 3 months now, and time and again have come upon, what, opinions? accusations? points of view? regarding the generally poor performance in it of US Army units. In previous spells of Korean War reading, the books have been different, but the message has been the same.

    From the first "skirmishes" at Osan, to the hectic days of mid-1953, you find, to name a few, Lee Ballenger (a Seasoldier, it must be said) writing that the 1st MARDIV and the Commonwealth Division specifically requested no to be placed in the line flanked by Army units; countless stories of "bugouts" led by GI's hellbent for the rear; French officers heavily critizing the leadership and tactics of Army brass during the Battle for Heartbreak Ridge; etc.

    Of course, some units like the 23rd RCT, specially under Col. Paul Freeman, appear in the history books representing the other end of the scale, but overall, the balance mostly leans towards the negative.

    What do you lot think?
  2. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    The damn system just lost what I spent 10 minutes writing, so hear goes AGAIN.

    The negative view of US Army performance in Korea is exaggerated. Much of it goes back to the journalism of the time and to Don Fehrenbach's This Kind of War, which summarized and exemplified that view. Fehrenbach's was the first comprehensive history of the war and for many years there were no others. Many lazy writers (like David Halberstam) have simply repeated old stories from Fehrenbach and others without bothering to check them against the sources.
    The atmosphere of the time must be borne in mind. US Army units were criticized for not training and going 'soft' on occupation duty in Japan. Secretary of War Johnson was held responsible for the army's lack of preparedness, and while he was indeed a poor secretary of war criticism of him allowed the press to hit at Truman, the man who had appointed him. Truman was deeply unpopular at that time, and almost any accusation against his administration was likely to stick.
    Conversely, MacArthur was extremely popular with the public (though NOT within the army). People found it hard to believe that the Chinese and the North Koreans could actually fight, and impossible to believe that MacArthur and some other generals (Almond, Dean) could have made mistakes. It was much easier to blame the troops, the units, and the administration.
    The army did suffer from some handicaps, but many of these were not of its own making. Equipment was short in 1950, and the army as a whole was badly undermanned. We were, at that time, far too reliant on the USAF and its nuclear weapons and ground forces were neglected. Many good units had to be kept in Europe to support NATO. There was a great deal of rapid personnel turnover, making it hard to build units, and this got worse afer the war began. The army was not so quick to call up reservists as the USMC, and that hurt also. In order to fill units, the army resorted to using KATUSA, Korean troops attached to US units.This actually made things worse, as the first intakes of KATUSA had no training and few of them spoke English. The 1st Marine Division, by contrast, was up to strength in American personnel and had no KATUSA. Many commentators make no effort to take these handicaps in mind. On the positive side, most officers in army combat units had WWII experience, as did many senior NCO's.
    More balanced views of army performance in Korea have long been available. You should consult S.L.A. Marshall's books, The River and the Gauntlet and Pork Chop Hill, as well as Russell Gugeler's Combat Actions in Korea. Unfortunately the army's official history of the war was slow to appear and the army made the mistake of removing Roy Appleman, its best historian, from the project after only one volume. Appleman went on to write four books on his own, which are generally considered to be superior to the last army official volume. One of Appleman's books, East of Chosin, is a close examination and reevaluation of one of the most disastrous and controversial army actions of the war, the encirclement and destruction of the 31st RCT. While the 31st had some internal problems, the blame for its destruction rested mainly with higher commanders and above all with General Almond of X Corps. Appleman found that the 31st performed heroically against great odds and with very little help from outside before its final destruction. Indeed, by its resistance at a critical period the 31st may have saved the 1st Marine Division from annihilation. Few Marines recognized this at the time, but a new generation of USMC historians are now giving army units a fairer evaluation. More recent studies have also shown that the US Army in Japan did indeed train as hard and as much as possible despite shortages of men and equipment.
    When evaluating a book about Korea, you should do what you should do about any book. Begin by checking the notes and the bibliography. Then ask yourself: has this author dug into the sources, or is he merely repeating sixty-year old stories from secondary works? If the latter, then you need to read something else.
    Peccavi and Smudger Jnr like this.
  3. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Can well understand TTH's defence of the American Army in Korea and not having studied Korea too deeply, cannot comment but overall he must agree that their performance
    in other areas are questionable as in Viet Nam - Panama - The invasion of a British Island - various mid East fracas - Balkans - Iraq - Afghanistan - says it all for me

    as my experience with the US Army is based on Kasserine - Gabes - Bizerta - Palermo - Salerno and Anzio - forgetting the insistence of TWO corps of British Troops to

    finish off their war in Italy by their 5th Army

    I have yet to complain about the MEN of their Armies but rather the leadership of Eisenhower - Patton - Clark 0R Marshal's version of Strategy which was less than

    good and without good leadership - any Army is also less than good- as we proved to ourselves in that prior of 1939 - to the end on December '41 when Alanbrooke

    provided the leadership to win the war - it was NOT coincidence that the British Army became a winning force in 1942 - but the GOOD leardeship of both Monty and

    Alanbrooke - and others who got the message….. this is STILL wanting in the US West Point it seems

  4. Warlord

    Warlord Veteran wannabe

    Well, there seems to be a trend developing here which I had already thought about, but was waiting for my first turn to reply to make public: Was it then a case of mainly underperforming brass, sprinkled with logistics trouble and a pinch of "America First" mentality, 1950 style?

    Here are a few examples to support my point:

    • Task Force Smith got steamrollered because the FECOM standard-issue 2.35 bazookas didn't even tickle the T34s, which, in turn, were crewed by illiterate monkeys supposed to run for their lives at the mere sight of an american uniform
    • East of Chosin happened because of Almond, and it was only because of Smith's disregard for his orders to send his Marines wheeling west towards the 8th Army (which by that time was already bugging out after Kunuri) that they were spared a frozen death in the mountains of central north Korea
    • Ridgway almost lost Korea for good (but for heroics the like of the Gloster stand at the Imjin) after disregarding a lot of intelligence findings about a massive CCF buildup during the early stages of Operation Dauntless
    • De Shazo kept sending his 2ID in senseless head-on assaults of the heavy defenses of Heartbreak, and it wasn't until Monclar submitted and got approval for his plan that the butchery finally stopped

    However, when you have access to beyond-the-basics books like the ones TTH mentions - all of which I already had the pleasure of reading - written by those who were there, with information from the foxhole or the turret, you come to ask yourself if there wasn´t something else that wasn´t right with your everyday GI; a few more examples here:

    • The deadly foobar at Bloody Gulch
    • The mass court-martial of the 65th Infantry (Puerto Rican)
    • The valiant and timely stand by the Dutch at Hoengsong, which in turn had to save the survivors of yet another GI bugout, "Massacre Valley"
    • The especific request by Major General Cassels, that his Commonwealth Division was not to be flanked by US Army units while at the Jamestown line
    • The fact that out of 22 UN defectors after the war was over, 21 belonged to the US Army (the other was a Jock not specially fond of Queen and country, Andrew Condron)

    Even Marshall in "Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man In Action, Korea, Spring 1953" indirectly criticizes GI performance when he allows the reader to compare the Ethiopian troops skills depicted in "The Incredible Patrol", with, say, the US Army action in "Outpost Snook".

    Could it be then (and now, as Tom points out), at the rank-and-file level, a matter of a citizen army, brave but mostly amateur, which makes up in firepower what it lacks in military skill, compared with smaller but much more professional and mainly volunteer forces, backed up by centuries-old martial traditions?
  5. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    I am not familiar with some of the actions and works you cite so I cannot respond to the points you make about them. Equally, I am not up on the latest developments in Afghanistan and Iraq, so I can't comment on that either. In regards to the Ethiopian comparison, Marshall points out that the Ethiopians (unlike the US Army) had no rotation policy. This allowed their men to remain in the area and become thoroughly familiar with it and with the tactics of the Chinese, which American units with many new intakes and fewer experienced men were not able to do. This was not the fault of the men but of the policy.

    I cannot accept the blanket condemnations of US performance in WWII offered by Tom, so of course I don't regard them as relevant to the Korean case. He lumps together a dozen battles which comprised many separate actions in which performance by US troops varied from unit to unit, running the gamut from poor to superb. At Salerno, the 36th Division was new to action and suffered some severe reverses, while the US rangers fought very well indeed around Chiunzi Pass on the left flank. The collapse of 34th Division and 1st Armored Division at Kasserine is well known, but on the other side there was the fine performance of the US 9th Division artillery, which did a great deal to halt the German advance. So, which performance do you want to regard as "typical"? Cassino was not a disgrace to the US infantry, which came damned close to taking the place despite poor generalship by Clark. As to Bizerta, that was actually an American victory--won, I might add, by the same US 1st Armd Division which the Germans had beaten at Kasserine.

    As to centuries old martial traditions, the United States and its army are now nearly 250 years old and American troops served under the British flag for more than a century before that. Some of the historic regiments of the British Army in WWII were younger than some of the older units of our regular army, to say nothing of National Guard units like the Philadelphia Light Horse, Philadelphia Associators, and the Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, which went back to the 18th century and even earlier. So there is nothing in that point.

    There is a popular belief that a small but highly trained professional army is intrinsically superior to a larger conscript force. I cannot agree with this. Given proper training, good leadership, and sufficient experience, a conscript army will soon match the skill of a professional force. And numbers DO matter. In a major war of sufficient length, barring unusual circumstances (collapse of political will, for example) the larger force will win no matter how good the smaller opponent is. This was certainly true in our Civil War and in both World Wars. Trusting to elite armies will not work. The difference in skill is never as wide as one thinks it is, that difference narrows rapidly the longer a war goes on, and the difference is never sufficient to make up for the disparity in strength.

    As to TF Smith...well, yes, the 2.36 bazooka was outmoded. But was that the fault of the officers and men of the Task Force, or of the stingy procurement policy which delayed the arrival of the 3.5 model?

    I don't think O.P. Smith exactly violated his orders at Chosin. He did indeed attack westwards from Yudam-Ni in accordance with Almond's orders. He got nowhere, of course, but he did his best. Smith certainly did show a good deal more caution and wisdom than Almond or any other senior US commander, but even so his division was still badly dispersed when it was hit. That was partly Almond's fault--he pushed X Corps into the attack before all but a few of its units were concentrated or within supporting distance of each other. The 31st RCT paid the highest price for this failure, but that was not down to the men.

    You seem to be suggesting that there is some sort of American disease where combat performance is concerened, a tradition of slackness and unprofessionalism that stretches across the wars of the last 70 years. Do I exaggerate your point? I am most skeptical of such generalizations, not because I am American but because I have encountered similar generalizations where other armies are concerned. The Australians are supposed to have a tradition of aggressiveness and innovation (the "Digger Myth")and the Germans are supposed to have a "Genius for War" (despite losing them!) On the other end of the scale, the French are supposed to be "Surrender Monkeys" and everybody knows that Italians can't fight. I vividly remember that when the Falkands War began with British defeats, one disgraceful newspaper in New York (The Village Voice) printed the famous picture of Percival under the white flag at Singapore. As an American student of the British Army, I am constantly encountering ignorant Americans who view the British Army (especially in WWII) as slack, effete, amateurish, and over-cautious. In all these cases, you must look at the details to find out what the truth is, and that truth invariably is more complicated than the cartoonish images purveyed by the popular press and lazy historians.

    I have rambled a bit here. You may have read more about Korea than I have. The subject you have broached is worthy of more investigation, and I hope we get more people to participate in this thread. But in making our evaluations we must look at both positive and negative. In any case, I don't think your larger point about US combat failure generally will stand up. There are too many counter-examples.
    Slipdigit and Peccavi like this.
  6. Drusus Nero

    Drusus Nero Banned

    The U.S. Army in Korea was labouring under heavy disadvantages. Some where of there own making, many were not.

    First and foremost, the Pentagon and the Joint Cheifs of Staff are to blame for deploying units into the Peninsula with no clear idea of precisly what they were going to achieve there. Was it to liberate the South from Northern occupation? Was it to liberate the North and combine the two Koreas? Was it to push beyond the Yalu and establish a buffer zone at Chinese expense? None of this was made clear to Douglas MacArthur, whose performance after Inchon became increasingly erratic. He had to push his people harder and harder simply because no-one was quite sure when he should stop. "Big Mac's" confusion over objectives is reflected in his request to use tactical nukes. If he had clear orders, he would have been able to profile his Task Force to suit it's mission priorities, and would have known where to call a halt.

    A similar problem occurred in Veitnam, with body counts being the yardstick for success. No one thought to give correction to mission priorities, tasking troops and then giving them clear parameters for success or failure so operations could be terminated at the appropriate time.

    And, speaking of mission priorities, the U.S. Army in the early fifties was in the dead center of a transition period. The Cold War had unleashed the potential for a nuclear battlefield. Police Actions were not on the drawing board, and the Army was ill equiped to fight this type of war. It could be said that the Pentagon wasn't planning to fight any other type of war BUT a Nuke confrontation. The Chiefs wanted cutbacks to the numbers of soldiers on the ground in big proportions, let alone the mingeing amounts of equipment allocated.

    I'll continue this discussion later, because I have to go to work, but you should be able to see where I'm headed.

  7. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    I would agree that we need more input from others on this thread and not just book readers but people who were there with me in both Africa and Italy and see where
    it goes as my MAIN point is a lack of leadership - regarding our defeats at the Falklands - not too surprising as 22 marines could not hold 3000 Argentinians -

    thought you were well up on the battles of WW2 - OR even IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN - yet you seem to be able to comment here and there…

  8. Warlord

    Warlord Veteran wannabe

    Well, I posted these and other examples trying to backup my main original idea (the one I think worth of validation), which, by the way, mostly agrees with your line of thought. In my point of view, Korea (as the early days of american involvement in WW2) was a matter of an army toyed with by its own brass and attached politicians.

    You seem to be suggesting that there is some sort of American disease where combat performance is concerened, a tradition of slackness and unprofessionalism that stretches across the wars of the last 70 years. Do I exaggerate your point?

    I think so, because, e.g., I wouldn't be praising the Marines or Freeman's outfit (or the armour at Kapyong, or the Sabre jockeys in Mig Alley...) if it came to that regarding the whole of the US armed forces. However, thing is that there are a lot of examples that point towards the dark side, and you cannot help but wonder why...

    That's what I'm trying to find out for certain - or at least narrow down the possibilities - with the help of the war buffs around here (MORE INPUT, PLEASE!). No politics involved here, just ye olde academic discussion.
  9. idler

    idler GeneralList

    An interesting talk about a key change in US 'generalling' that dates back to the Korean War period:


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