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Changing the Game at Incheon

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Changing the Game at Incheon

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Marines use scaling ladders to storm ashore at Incheon in the amphibious invasion, September 15, 1950.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Within three days, North Korean troops streamed southward, capturing the capital city of Seoul and barreling their way toward the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. South Korean troops, completely surprised by the onslaught, found themselves outgunned and overwhelmed. Worried that the entire Korean Peninsula was about to fall to Communist North Korea, American troops stationed in Japan rushed westward across the Korea Strait where they defended the city of Pusan in fierce battles. American and South Korean troops fought the North Koreans until August 4, when the United States Army fortified a perimeter around Pusan to keep North Korean troops from taking the port city, the last bastion.

American General Douglas MacArthur was worried. Unless UN forces could quickly cut off supplies to the North Korean troops as they moved toward Pusan, they would continue to overwhelm the south in mass numbers, spelling disaster for the Republic of Korea. It was clear to the general that many more troops would be necessary to hold them back. He cabled Washington for help.

President Truman approved more ground troops. But where could they land undetected?

MacArthur believed that American forces could surprise North Korean troops by attacking them from behind. He decided to invade further north, by sea and from the west. That way, American troops could control the closest seaport to Seoul, the capital city. Once they landed, they could move south of the capital city, outflanking North Korean troops and sealing off the southern part of the peninsula. The plan was logical, but also brazen and fraught with danger.

The port of Incheon was the logical place for such a surprise invasion, but it had two major flaws. First, enormous tides flowed in and out of the city’s harbor [Video: Eugene Dixon – Incheon Landing] through a narrow and winding passage called Flying Fish Channel. Water levels rose and dropped an average of 20.7 feet each day, making the channel one of the greatest and fastest tidal basins in the world. According to U.S. Major General Courtney Whitney, it was so narrow that if North Korean troops sunk even one ship as it passed through certain sections, it could block all other ships from entering Incheon harbor, dooming the invasion.

The only way to land amphibious craft successfully would be to time the invasion perfectly with high tide. The tide would push the boats in quickly at 7:19 p.m., thirty-five minutes after sunset. Troops would disembark under the cover of darkness with enough supplies to fend off enemy attack until morning. Within two hours of landing, the tide would rush out, beaching the amphibious boats in the harbor’s mud and muck until the tide rushed back in again at 6:59 a.m.

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Personnel and equipment needed to save a man’s life are assembled at HQs of the 8225th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, Korea. October 14, 1951.

That’s if the boats were able to enter the harbor at all. The island of Wolmido, a massive natural fortress, jutted menacingly out of the sea at the entrance to the channel. If North Korean forces got wind of the surprise invasion, they might rush massive numbers of troops and artillery onto the island and unleash a ferocious attack on the invading ships, resulting in a bloodbath.

MacArthur shared his plan for Incheon with other military commanders. They balked at the danger. It was too risky, too unpredictable, too loaded with obstacles. MacArthur responded to them ominously, “The only alternative to a stroke such as I propose would be the continuation of the savage sacrifice we are making… with no hope of relief in sight. Are you content to let our troops stay in that bloody perimeter like beef cattle in the slaughterhouse? Who would take the responsibility for such a tragedy? Certainly I will not… We must act now or we will die.” The commanders listened to the headstrong general and President Truman gave him the green light.

American naval destroyers set sail toward the Korean peninsula through the edge of a typhoon. Angry waves tossed the huge ships around like little toy boats. The soldiers were anxious, scared, excited [Video: Edwin Hanson – Anxious Over Flamethrowers and Frogs] Many couldn’t sleep a wink. Stanley Cobane remembered that the seas were so rough that the “front end of the destroyer kept going underneath the water, [repeatedly] pop[ping] back up.” [Video: Stanley Cobane – The Waves Versus The Destroyer] They had all been briefed on the invasion and the dangers that might befall them. Visions of North Korean troops high on the hills of Wolmido raced through their minds. Would they make it through the channel unscathed? Or would they be slaughtered? And, if they made it to the beach at Incheon, would they be able to survive while low tide prevented them from retreating back to their destroyers? As the men prepared for what lay in store, the flotilla made its way around the tip of the Korean peninsula and sailed northward into the Yellow Sea toward Incheon.

At dawn on September 15, 1950, American naval forces opened fire on Wolmido. They pounded the island with great ferocity. Soldiers on the decks of the ships could see huge plumes of smoke billowing up from the island. Then, the bombardment eased. If there had been any North Korean troops on the island, Marines quickly neutralized them. The surprise attack was working. Wolmido was now secure. The attack could proceed to its next phase, the landing at Incheon.

Shortly after sunset, and exactly according to plan, U.S. Marines left the destroyers, boarded amphibious landing craft, and flowed through Flying Fish Channel into the harbor, swarming the beaches of Incheon. Waves of soldiers followed. [Video: Stanley Cobane – Launching and Landing at Incheon] It soon became clear that MacArthur’s gamble had paid off. Incheon had been very lightly guarded. American troops landed with relatively few casualties. They secured the harbor by daybreak on September 16.

Within three days of the invasion, American tank infantry forces moved 105 miles north to meet those who landed at Incheon. Eventually, they were able to help the South Koreans retake their capital city on September 27 and move northward, setting the stage for a robust and bloody confrontation with the North Koreans⎯this time on their soil.