The war in Korea, according to my late father, Johnny Villasanta, was easy to describe. It involved charging up one hill, up another, up the next and the next one after that. Of course, he was oversimplifying but any Korean War veteran will probably tell you the same thing.
War in Korea was essentially mountain warfare. This fact was dictated by Korea’s geography: three quarters mountainous with only a fifth of the land arable or flat. Eastern Korea is dominated by towering mountain ranges that run in an almost north to south direction. Most major cities, including Seoul (capital of South Korea) and Pyongyang (capital of North Korea), are in the western, less mountainous part of the country and within easy reach of the coast. The few major highways during the war were mostly in western Korea and ran through valleys dominated by hills and mountains.
The battles in this war show a consistent effort by both sides to seize and hold high ground. High ground enabled one side to outflank his enemy; to rain shells on him at leisure or to deny him mobility. In this war as in World Wars 1 and 2, possession of higher ground could destroy or save the lives of thousands of men.
And there was the Korean weather: as hot as the Philippines during the dry season, just as rainy but terribly cold during winter, a season the Philippines doesn’t have. The winter of 1950, the year the 10th BCT served in Korea, was the coldest in two centuries with temperatures falling to below minus 30 degrees Centigrade. Despite this sub-arctic climate, the “Chinese People’s Volunteer Army" (CPV) entered in the war, triggering a series of bloody battles in the snow that led to the UNC defeat at the Yalu River.
The men of PEFTOK acclimatized as best as they could to the painful winter cold but not as quickly as the Americans or other contingents whose countries had a winter season. Since the Philippines is without snow, Filipino soldiers had to contend with winter related afflictions (such as frostbite and chilblains) that were totally alien to their experience.
My father related an incident in which he and some men of the 10th BCT were on a truck making its way behind the front. Winter had just set in and the Filipinos in the truck were bundled in thick parkas, jackets and blankets. They passed a group of American artillerymen playing football. Some of these boys had taken off their jackets. Some were naked from the waist up; others were wearing shirts or undershirts. On seeing the shivering Filipinos, one GI yelled something like: “What’s the matter? Can’t stand a little cold?” The other GIs burst out laughing.
The defeat of the NKPA
When the 10th BCT shipped to Korea on 15 September 1950, the situation at the war front was taking a decisive and dramatic turn in favor of the UNC.
Outwardly, the UNC remained penned inside the “Pusan Perimeter,” a 140-mile long last ditch defense line it had doggedly defended against the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) since early August. While keeping the NKPA at bay, the UNC continued to receive reinforcements (mainly American) by sea through the port city of Pusan. The UNC would probably have lost Pusan in the first few days of the war if an alert warship of the ROK Navy hadn’t sunk the troopship carrying the NKPA battalion assigned to capture Pusan.
The first non-American UNC combat contingent arrived in August: the British 27th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade from Hong Kong consisting of units from Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. By September when our 10th BCT arrived and became the third UN combat unit to land in Korea, the UNC had gained a numerical superiority over the NKPA in men and a huge superiority in artillery and tanks. The UNC had complete air supremacy.
Uncoordinated attacks by the NKPA against the Pusan Perimeter continued to fail against a strengthening defense. On the other hand, massive UNC shelling inflicted growing casualties on the attacking NKPA while unremitting air strikes pummeled reinforcements and supplies along supply routes extending back to North Korea, which was also repeatedly bombed.
September 15, the day the 10th left Manila Bay, saw heavy fighting along the length of the Pusan Perimeter. The fighting diverted the attention of the NKPA away from a greater danger to their rear. That morning, the US X Corps (two divisions) made a surprise amphibious landing at the port city of Inch’on on the Yellow Sea. Inch’on, 25 miles west of Seoul and behind the NKPA lines, was considered an unlikely location for an amphibious assault as its 30 foot tides were the second highest in the world. It was precisely for this reason that MacArthur chose it as the site for his boldest military gamble.
Pushing rapidly eastward, the Americans cut the communications of all 14 NKPA divisions attacking the Pusan Perimeter and re-took Seoul on 29 September. The tide of battle was quickly turned and the NKPA divisions besieging Pusan trapped. On 16 September, the US Eighth Army burst out of the Pusan Perimeter and scattered the NKPA divisions facing them after hard fighting. The NKPA fled. By the end of September, the NKPA ceased to exist as an organized fighting force in South Korea.
Only some 30,000 of the 135,000 men in the NKPA that invaded South Korea on 25 June scrambled back home, mainly by way of the rugged eastern mountains. More than 30,000 NKPA regulars, however, were left behind in the south by the rapid NKPA retreat. Some of these filtered back northwards; others deserted while still others opted to continue fighting as guerillas. On 27 September, US President Harry Truman gave MacArthur permission to cross into North Korea to destroy remnants of the NKPA.
Communist Chinese intervention
The possibility of an end to the Korean War in 1950, however, was counterbalanced by the grim prospect of Communist Chinese intervention. A continuation of the UNC advance into North Korea brought both major UNC commands, the US Eighth Army in western Korea and the US X Corps in eastern Korea, closer to the North Korean border with the communist People’s Republic of China (PROC). One Chinese source said it was the threat that this advance posed to the integrity of the PROC (established only in 1949 after a brutal civil war) that decided the PROC in favor of intervention in Korea. On 2 October, Mao Zedong told Josef Stalin that the PROC would fight in Korea. The day before, the UNC captured Wonsan, North Korea’s only major port on the east coast.
On 8 October, the “Chinese People’s Volunteer Army" (CPV), consisting of some 80,000 men drawn from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), prepared to enter North Korea in secrecy. Eleven days later, the CPV began crossing the Yalu River into North Korea undetected by the UNC. More than 200,000 Chinese quietly moved into positions in North Korea opposite the UNC.
On 24 October, MacArthur ordered his commanders to advance as rapidly as possible towards the Yalu River separating North Korea from China. The next day saw the UNC meet the CPV in battle for the first time. In the next week, the CPV smashed a South Korean regiment that had reached the Yalu River and mauled a regiment of the US 1st Cavalry Division during attacks delivered in sub-zero weather. The Chinese continued to attack until 6 November when they quickly broke contact, having delivered their message that any further UNC advance northward would be met with force. Some 30,000 Chinese in the CPV 39th Army were involved in what they called their “First Phase Offensive.”
Undeterred by the punitive CPV attack, the UNC launched its “Home for Christmas” offensive on 25 November. After some progress, the UNC was violently counterattacked the next day by the CPV, an event that marked Communist China’s undeniable entry into the war. Both the US 2nd and 25th Infantry Divisions were attacked and hurled back by the Chinese “volunteers” in a four-day battle. The US Eighth Army (including PEFTOK) began to retreat in the west pursued by the CPV XIII Army Group (130,000-200,000 men in 18 divisions). The US X Corps in the east withdrew under heavy pressure from the CPV IX Army Group (120,000 men in 12 divisions).
By year-end, the UNC was forced out of North Korea. Seoul was lost to the CPV on 3 January 1951 but the UNC withdrawal stopped at the line of the 37th Parallel. The UNC’s military strength at the start of the New Year stood at close to 500,000 men of whom 270,000 were South Korean. Ranged against them were some 250,000 Chinese and over 100,000 North Koreans. More than 1,000,000 Chinese troopers were stationed in reserve near the Yalu River.
The Chinese fighting man
The bitter first defeats at the hands of the CPV had shown the UNC just how good the Chinese soldier was at his trade. Without tanks, little heavy artillery and no air support, the CPV had taken on a mechanized enemy with tremendous firepower and had defeated it, but at heavy cost.
Many of the men in the CPV were veterans of the wars against the Japanese and the Nationalist Chinese. They had won both wars and a number of the CPV divisions that fought in Korea had a tradition of victory on the battlefield. Their commanders were experts in guerilla warfare but had, however, no experience fighting a modern army such as the UNC.
Chinese divisions generally consisted of 10,000 men with three divisions generally comprising an army. The men of the CPV were mostly tough, disciplined and brave. It was not uncommon for them to march 18 miles a night on snow covered mountains and hills and be fit to fight afterwards. UNC air supremacy meant that the CPV did its marching at night, as did the German Army in the Normandy campaign during World War 2.
PEFTOK fought many hard battles against the CPV. After the Battle of Yuldong, one trooper from the 10th said that the Chinese “fight like devils.” My father described them as tough soldiers who really knew how to fight. “Matigas. Magaling lumaban,” (“They’re tough. They know how to fight”) are words my father used to describe the Chinese soldier. Our soldiers called the Chinese enemy “Insik” (the Filipino word for Chinese) or “Reds”.
During an offensive, the Chinese preferred night attacks and were masters at night fighting. All their major offensives in Korea were launched at night, including their Great Spring Offensive in April 1951 that brought about the Battle of Yuldong. Night attacks not only allowed the CPV to exploit its skills in this type of fighting, but also limited the effectiveness of UNC artillery and air power.
In an attack, the CPV consistently sought to turn the enemy’s flanks and surround him. The trapped enemy units were then chopped up and destroyed. The CPV tended to avoid frontal attacks although western media accounts at the time fostered the myth of the Chinese “human wave” attacks that sacrificed hundreds of men in vain frontal assaults. The CPV had excellent pre-attack reconnaissance and also took pains to learn as much as possible about the UNC units facing them. The British related incidents during which the Chinese (using loudspeakers) welcomed by name their units newly arrived at the front line.
A heavy mortar or artillery barrage followed by infiltration and infantry assault was the normal pattern of a standard CPV night attack. The first wave generally consisted of grenadiers who hurled hundreds of “stick” grenades at front line enemy positions. Infantry armed with submachine guns and rifles then rushed the enemy in waves, aiming to pierce his flanks or the links between units.
In the attack the Chinese preferred using “concussion grenades” that stunned the defenders and were less dangerous to their attacking troops because of fewer shrapnel. High explosive fragmentation stick grenades were used mainly in defense because of their greater killing power.
The CPV, however, was poorly armed and went to battle with a variety of weapons. A favorite weapon was the 72-round Type 50 submachine gun, a Chinese-made copy of the reliable Russian-made PPSh submachine gun proven in World War 2. Their rifles and machine guns were mostly Russian, Japanese and American. The American weapons were captured from the Nationalist Chinese. This multiplicity of the CPV's weapons complicated re-supply.
As for uniforms, the CPV fought in a quilted uniform heavily padded against the cold. This uniform was colored brown on one side and white on the other. They had practically no special winter clothing such as parkas or heavy jackets and thus suffered more from Korea’s harsh winters than their UNC opponents. The Chinese soldier did not wear helmets in battle but wore thick cotton caps with large earflaps.
Another great weakness of the CPV was its scarcity of supplies and its primitive communications that relied on runners, signal flags, gongs, bugles and whistles. Chinese sources reveal that CPV soldiers normally carried rations, ammunition and grenades for one week’s hard fighting.
A severely limited supply capability also forced the CPV into a “five days to fight and 10 days to replenish” schedule. This crippling lack of supplies was a factor in many of the CPV’s defeats in the war. In January 1951, two months after the CPV entered the war, the UNC discovered that the CPV had the resources for about two weeks’ intensive campaigning. The UNC response was to immediately counterattack after it detected a loss of offensive momentum by the CPV.
Leveling the battlefield
The massive UNC superiority in firepower, especially in artillery, literally “leveled” the battlefield in favor of the UNC. Overwhelming firepower also offset the general UNC disadvantage in combat experience. Most ROK soldiers, American GIs and UNC troops were “green” conscripts or reservists hastily committed to the war. As can be expected of green troops, they found the going hard at first and suffered accordingly. The Chinese considered the Americans especially vulnerable in night combat. Throughout the war, the UNC sought to inflict maximum casualties on the CPV during its withdrawals, and evaded CPV offensives by fighting delaying actions. The UNC relied on its firepower and air power to destroy CPV manpower while minimizing its own casualties.
During The Big Bug Out, American artillery fired more than 50,000 rounds a day to fend off the advancing CPV. To this incredible expenditure of metal was added thousands of tons of bombs and missiles dropped by UNC attack and bomber aircraft, mainly American, on CPV positions at the front and rear. American bombers killed Mao Anying, son of Mao Zedong, on 25 November 1950 in Pyongyang when they obliterated his artillery unit then on its way to the front. Captured Chinese soldiers said UNC air power was the weapon most feared by the CPV.
Americans and South Koreans
Americans officers headed the multinational UNC and, in the main, were responsible for the broad conduct of the war. The United States contributed the dominant share of UNC military power and suffered the most casualties among foreign combatants. Of the 1.6 million Americans who served in the war, close to 34,000 were killed in action while over 100,000 were wounded in action. More than 20,000 other Americans were killed by friendly fire or died from other causes. President Harry Truman, however, officially described the Korean War as a “police action” to skirt a provision in the United States’ Constitution that vested the right to declare war—and thus the right to commit US troops to combat overseas—only in the U.S. Congress. The United States did not declare war on North Korea.
The brunt of the fighting, however, was borne by the infantry divisions of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The ROK provided more than half the UNC’s military manpower and paid the heaviest price. More than 200,000 South Korean soldiers gave their lives to defend their country. South Korean military casualties are estimated to range from 600,000 to 800,000 men and may have approached 1,000,000 men. Poorly led, poorly armed and poorly trained at the start of the war, the men of the ROK infantry divisions (mainly young conscripts) bore the weight of the NKPA invasion and the CPV intervention.
Only 90,000 lightly armed and party trained South Korean soldiers without tanks, pitiful artillery support and no air power stood up to the surprise NKPA invasion on the early morning of 25 June 1950. South Korean accounts note with sorrow that entire regiments were destroyed in the uneven fight against the more than 135,000 NKPA that attacked South Korea without warning.
The NKPA used over 120 Russian-made T-34/85 tanks, an excellent World War 2 medium tank, to crush South Korea’s thin defenses. South Korean accounts report cases of incredible heroism by individual South Korean soldiers who, clutching explosives, hurled themselves against the T-34s. These men selflessly ignited the explosives, destroying themselves and the tanks in the process.
Despite inadequate equipment and indifferent leadership, the South Korean army fought in all the war’s major battles. ROK divisions were the hardest hit in all the CPV’s five offensives—the CPV saw them as the weak link in the UNC lines and “easy meat.” Their inability to resist the early Chinese offensives from 1950 to 1951, however, gave the CPV an advantage in morale during the first year of the conflict. According to one South Korean source, the CPV’s early victories led the South Koreans to consider the Chinese as “mysterious supermen” incapable of being defeated. The superiority in morale gained by the CPV over the ROK was overcome when the ROK stood up to the second phase of the CPV’s Great Spring Offensive in May 1951.
ROK divisions earned the respect of the CPV for their bravery and tenacity. One Chinese account said the CPV suffered greatly from the South Korean’s refusal to retire once an attack had been checked. Instead of retreating downhill as was the American’s custom, ROK infantry regrouped where they were stopped and resumed the attack. This tactic caused higher ROK casualties, but also inflicted higher casualties on the Chinese as well.
The ROK Army or “Yuk Gun” reached a peak strength of some 600,000 men during the war. Without the bravery and sacrifice of the South Korean soldier, the war would probably have turned for the worse.
The cost of conflict
The CPV suffered heavy losses because of its reliance on infantry power. Chinese casualties from 1950 to 1953 were estimated at more than 900,000 men by the UNC. Some western sources say the figure is more than a million. The People’s Liberation Army, however, placed total CPV casualties at close to 400,000 men, of whom 110,000 were killed in action. Another 30,000 men died of wounds and sickness. NKPA losses, according to the UNC, exceeded 500,000 men.
Estimated UNC (including ROK) combat deaths range from 200,000 to 450,000 men. Over 80 per cent of this total were South Korean. More than 500,000 UNC and ROK soldiers were either wounded or listed as missing in action. Civilian losses were enormous: upwards of 500,000 South Korean civilians were killed during the war. The number of North Korean civilians who died as a result of the war is harder to estimate, but published figures place this at from 1,000,000 to 3,000,000 persons.