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Recapturing Seoul

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Recapturing Seoul

With Incheon secure, U.S. Marines formed two columns and pushed eastward. As they marched down the highway toward Seoul, South Korea’s occupied capital, American planes dropped bombs and napalm on North Korean troops standing in the way. The Marines in the right column marched toward Yeongdeung-po, a major factory district just across the Han River from Seoul. Those in the left column headed toward Gimpo, the city’s main airport.

war sceneIn the early morning hours of September 17, 1950, as the left column approached Gimpo, they ran right into 250 North Korean troops commanding six T-34 tanks. The Americans, galvanized by their successful landing at Incheon, opened fire from their Pershing tanks and rocket launchers. A fierce firefight commenced. Richard Carey took his squad around an enemy flank. As he emerged from around a bend, he came face to face with a North Korean commander. Instinctually, Carey took out his pistol. The commander raised his hands. By reflex, Carey opened fire. At first, he thought he had killed the commander. But he had merely shot his belt off. The commander, stunned, surrendered his entire platoon. [Video: Richard Carey – March To Seoul] Meanwhile, all around them, bullets sprayed out as both sides fought to control the crucial road. When all was said and done, 200 North Korean troops lay dead, their tanks in smoldering ruins. The Marines, shaken but victorious, counted their dead, treated their wounded and pressed onward toward Seoul.

After a chaotic day and night, American Marine units succeeded in securing the airport, allowing UN planes to bring in more troops, supplies and fuel. By afternoon on September 18, Brig. Gen. Thomas Cushman’s Marine Air Group 33 arrived safely at Gimpo from Japan.

William Beasley recalled what it was like at Gimpo. He described how a fellow soldier, the number one gunner in his section, knocked out two North Korean tanks with a bazooka before being killed. That soldier was posthumously awarded the medal of honor. [Video: William Beasley]

Meanwhile, on September 18 and 19, the American 31st and 32nd infantry divisions landed at Incheon and quickly marched eastward to join their comrades near Yeongdeung-po. It was there where Richard Carey lost one of his squad leaders. He was in the process of surrendering to enemy troops when one of them shot him in the heart. [Video: Richard Carey]

The 5th Marines lined up along the rail lines west of the city, paralleling the Han River. The terrain was challenging. On September 21, they encountered a ridge of hills and set up camp for the night. Little did they know that beginning the next morning, they would battle North Korean troops tasked with defending the capital for four terrifying days. Eventually, the Americans took the ridge and advanced, but casualties were heavy on both sides. The Marines battled North Korean troops along the Han River in Yeongdeung-po. There too, the Americans eventually gained the upper hand, but the battles exacted a terrible toll.

With the airport and main highway now secure, the 32nd infantry crossed the Han River on September 25 in amphibious landing craft. South Korea’s 17th regiment crossed behind them. At the same time, the 7th Marine division crossed the river further west of the city and moved to shut off North Korean supply routes from the north.

By late in the day on the 25th, UN troops had Seoul surrounded. But North Korean soldiers and civilian sympathizers still controlled many urban blocks and were not about to give up the city without a fierce fight. UN troops went through the city block-by-block, building-by-building and engaged in bloody street fighting and hand-to-hand combat with their determined enemies. Felix DelGiudice, Myron “Jack” Leissler and Edward Hoth remember fighting through those streets. “We took casualties, and [the North Koreans] were pretty well entrenched. [Seoul] was demolished… We were streetfighting, it was pretty tough. We lost some people there. We divided down the main street. It was a fight.” [Video: Felix DelGiudice]

Charles Gebhardt recalled the scene in Seoul: “[The city] was rubble. To think this had been a big city… there wasn’t much left. The only thing… intact was the university. Otherwise, everything else [was gone]. Truthfully, I think I may have become a pacifist at that time, because I couldn’t see people living under such conditions.” [Video: Charles Gebhardt] James Argires explained that the buildings were poor, the roads were dirt. People seemed to travel by foot. There were no automobiles. People carried their packages on their backs. [Hungry] children followed us to capture our food to eat.” He tells the story of one boy who followed his unit across the city and up the Han River for a month. Astonished and amazed by the boy’s perseverance, Argires shared with him whatever food he could. [Video: James Argires]

On the 27th, the Marines captured the French Embassy and raised the American flag over it. Then, they moved on to the Soviet Embassy, took down the Soviet flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. Korea’s government headquarters was also secured with South Korea’s national flag. As fighting raged around it, American soldier Luther Leguire raised the Stars and Stripes over Seoul’s American consulate.

After twelve days of maneuvering, tense standoffs and often bloody battles, Seoul was finally under the command and control of UN forces. Three months after being invaded by the north, South Korea had its capital back. General MacArthur and South Korea’s President Syngman Rhee flew triumphantly into Gimpo, then traveled into the center of town for a military ceremony at the National Assembly Hall. There, MacArthur invoked God to declare the city free and led the gathered crowed in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Brushing back tears, Rhee thanked the American Marines who had fought so bravely to retake the city. Then, South Korean troops marched victoriously through the streets of the liberated capital.