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All in a Day's Work:
The Engineers and Shore Party in Korea

 
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All in a Day's Work

Author - Lynn Montross
Reprinted from the September 1952 issue of The Marine Corps Gazette
Reprinted with permission to The Korean War Educator.


It is always the ball carrier, of course, who wins the applause when the crowd at the stadium goes wild with enthusiasm. The man running interference may have set up the touchdown, but he must content himself with the recognition of a few spectators who know the game.

By the same token, it is seldom that the general public gives the supporting arms enough credit for the ground gained by the infantry. Even newspaper correspondents sometimes fall into this error, but the men of the rifle companies know better. They know that the objective might never have been taken if the supporting arms hadn’t done such a competent job of running interference.

No better examples could be found in the 1st Marine Division than the engineers and shore party—jacks of all military trades and masters of them all. Although their functions may coincide or even overlap, one is an old member of the military family and the other a newcomer. Engineers have been helping to win wars since the day of Alexander the Great, but it took the U.S. Marine Corps to create a shore party unit where none had existed before.

The time was late in 1941, and the occasion the New River amphibious training exercises. Since the turn of the century of the Marine Corps had been approaching its mission of amphibious warfare, but it was not until the 1930s that modern techniques were shaped in annual training exercises held in cooperation with the Navy. At the North Carolina base an object lesson was taught when an entire Marine rifle battalion had to be pulled out of simulated combat and used for unfamiliar duties on the beaches, including the unloading of boats. The Marine Corps responded by organizing and training specialists for such tasks, and this was the conception of the shore party.

Many of the secondary missions of the new unit, it is true, have from time immemorial the job of the pioneer infantry—such light engineering tasks as road upkeep, salvage operations, and maintenance of supply dumps. But when the chips are down in an amphibious assault, the shore party comes into its own with such specialties as reconnaissance and marking of beaches, unloading ships, controlling traffic, removing mines, setting up communications, and establishing dump and supply points.

Napoleon had a word for it. “I may lose battles,” he once remarked, “but I do not lose minutes.” This might well have been the motto of the Marine engineers and shore party at Inchon. For there were no minutes to spare when the 1st Mar Div hit the beaches on 15 September 1950 as the landing force of X Corps. The planners had deemed it necessary to take several calculated risks, and they put it up to the engineers and shore party to win a critical race against time and tide in the rain-swept darkness of D-Day.

The 1st Engineer Battalion was commanded by LtCol John H. Partridge and the 1st Shore Party Battalion by LtCol Henry P. Crowe. Each unit had been represented by a company in the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, so that neither battalion was complete until the remaining elements arrived for the Inchon landing. A good deal of field experience had been acquired by the men who served in the brigade, and the others had received shipboard instruction as well as some practical training at Kobe.

Harbor topography and an extreme tidal range of 31 feet made Inchon a hard nut to crack for an amphibious operation. As if the narrow and winding channel did not offer difficulties enough, the inner harbor was commanded by the enemy shore batteries of Wolmi-do Island. Even after this barrier had been passed, the only feasible approach to Inchon consisted of a narrow strip of mud flat surmounted by a sea wall. Over these beaches, if such they might be called, two Marine regiments had the problem of capturing an Oriental seaport of 250,000 inhabitants in a few hours.

The solution, as Navy and Marine planners saw it, lay in the risk of a double-barreled assault utilizing both periods of high tide. Wolmi-do was to be taken early in the morning, and the attack on the mainland deferred until later afternoon even though the enemy would have the whole day for final preparations. As an added risk, eight LSTs, combat-loaded with high priority supplies for the Inchon assault, were to be beached at H+30 under the muzzles of enemy guns. Engineers and shore party specialists had the task of unloading these supplies before the morning high tide, so that the LSTs could be retracted and other ships beached with more supplies and equipment.

Green Beach of Wolmi-do offered less trouble on the morning of D-Day than had been anticipated. Enemy shore batteries had already been unmasked and silenced after the destroyers of Joint Task Force 7 goaded them into premature fires. So effective were the preliminary naval bombardments and air strikes that little organized resistance was met by the landing force, the 3d Bn of the 5th Marines. Progress might have been most costly, however, if a squad of engineers had not been on hand to remove some 300 Russian antipersonnel bombs. The shore party was represented by a team which unloaded LSTs, assisted by the engineers as more of their units landed. Off-shore mud flats prevented the solid beaching of these craft, so that corduroy roads had to be hastily built out of the ramps. Enemy small arms fire interfered at times, but the engineers took a few prisoners without incurring any casualties of their own.

During the next several hours the engineers and shore party elements swarmed over the battered island, transforming it into an advanced base for the assault on Inchon. The 1,000-foot concrete causeway leading from Wolmi-do to the mainland was scanned for mines, then repaired so that Marine tanks could cross. A good day’s work had already been accomplished before 1730, when the landing boats churned the water as naval gunfire and rockets made the Inchon target area heave with explosions.

The 5th Marines were to hit Red Beach, opposite the heart of the city, while the 1st Marines landed on Blue Beach in the rear of the peninsula on which Inchon was located. Low visibility led to confusion and delay on both beaches, and not enough ladders had been provided for the infantry to scale the seawalls. The result was chaos in some areas when the advance elements of the engineers and shore party landed at 1800 on Red Beach. Fortunately, the preliminary bombardment had reduced enemy resistance to sporadic small arms and mortar fire.

The shore party reconnaissance section put up the beach markers under automatic weapons fire which riddled the center marker while it was being erected. Some measure of order was soon restored as traffic controls were instituted. But it was not until 1910 that the eight LSTs approached Red Beach, bringing more engineer and shore party units as well as cargo. This delay meant that little or no daylight would be left for the unloading of the supplies vitally needed by the two combat regiments driving into the city.

No calculated risk of D-Day was fraught with more serious consequences, but the planners had not erred in depending on the engineers and shore party. The light of a burning brewery furnished illumination as the dozers punched holes in the seawall. Each of the LSTs was loaded with 100 tons of block cargo to be manhandled—50 tons of ammunition, 35 tons of rations, and 15 tons of water. Progress was slow at first, since the cramped and crowded strip of beach did not permit the normal location of dumps. But the engineers and shore party were experts at this job, and as early as midnight they had the situation under control. All of the LSTs were unloaded and beach exit roads constructed before the deadline of the morning high tide.

On Blue Beach, with its difficult offshore conditions, the assault plan called for 10 pre-loaded LVTs to be beached with high priority supplies for the 1st Marines. These craft were so delayed that they mired down after encountering receding tides. Shore party units planned to unload them by hand across the mud flats, but the assault on Inchon made such good headway that the supplies were not needed before the morning high tide.

Traffic direction, POW control, evacuation of casualties, and road construction were some of the other jobs handled by the engineers and shore party during the assault. The logistical problem did not end when more LSTs reached Red Beach on the morning tide, for several of them grounded too far out in the mud flats for unloading. But the supply crisis had been safely passed by the afternoon of D+1, when it became evident that the tidal basin could be made operative without major repairs.

Twenty-four hours after the first landings, Inchon had been secured and the two Marine assault regiments were poised for the drive inland toward Kimpo Airfield and Seoul. This same afternoon, the great concerted offensive of the Eighth U.S. Army opened in southern Korea. Thus while X Corps advanced on the enemy’s principal airfield and communications center, the Eighth Army would be hammering at him from the opposite direction. The purpose of these combined operations was nothing less than the destruction of the 13 divisions of the North Korean Army which had driven almost to the southeastern tip of the peninsula. United Nations forces had been trading space for time since the first Communist aggressions, but now at least they were ready to strike a decisive blow.

At Inchon the beachhead was expanded so effectively during the first 36 hours that the X Corps landing force never lacked for essential supplies. This logistical support enabled the two reinforced Marine infantry regiments to drive eastward at dawn on 17 September, taking parallel routes for a final converging advance on Seoul. The 5th Marines seized Kimpo Airfield that afternoon as the 1st Marines pushed along the main highway toward the industrial suburb of Yongdongpo. Meanwhile the Marine engineers and shore party were preparing for their next big job—the crossing of the Han. That broad tidal river lay between the Leathernecks and Seoul, and every hour of grace aided the defenders of a capital claiming 1,500,000 inhabitants before the war.

Planning as well as execution of the river crossing was left by X Corps to the 1st Mar Div. Marine engineers had shipped out from Kobe with 7,000 tons of gear, but they had only 300 feet of M4A2 bridging. This total fell more than 100 feet short of being enough to span the Han at a site chosen primarily for tactical purposes. The obvious solution, therefore, was a ferry made up of rafts for the crossing of the tanks and heavy vehicles.

At 0800 on the morning of the 19th the Marine engineers shoved off from Kimpo with their bulky equipment just as the 5th Marines crossed the Han in amphibious landing craft (LVTs). The attack on enemy forces defending the right bank reached its height as the engineer column swelled the torrent of combat traffic on the single road. Four hours of actual construction work were required to assemble the six pontoon M4A2 sections, powered at first by assault boats and later by LCVPs trucked from Inchon. And at 1300 the first Marine tanks were crossing in support of the infantry.

A second ferry was put into operation the following day, and advance elements of the 1st Shore Party Bn arrived to share in its maintenance. This unit now reverted to 1st Mar Div control after having taken part in Inchon port development under the operational control of the 2d Engineer Special Brigade. On the 20th, as the 5th Marines met increasing resistance across the river, shore party teams established evacuation stations and supply dumps on both banks while regulating LVT and DUKW traffic.

Operation of the two ferries gradually passed from the engineers to the shore party. The tidal range and muddy banks limited the crossings to periods of low tide, so that traffic regulation was of prime importance when a long train of vehicles accumulated. Cargo trucked to the south bank was reloaded in LVTs or DUKWs, and the shore party set up a traffic circle that would not interfere with ferry operation.

In the zone of the 1st Marines the engineers and shore party found it necessary on 22 September to replace a 120-foot span of a bombed concrete bridge across the canal at Yongdongpo. Work was delayed several hours that afternoon until enemy mines could be removed from a cleverly-concealed field on the far bank. Then it was discovered that the concrete bridge was about two foot narrower than the outer panel of the double-single Bailey bridge used to span the demolished section. The engineers solved this problem by placing massive timbers over the concrete to support the outer panel of the Bailey bridge. And though the resulting structure was not a gem of architectural beauty, vehicles were crossing over it by 1730 the following afternoon.

On the 24th the shore party regulated river traffic as the 1st Marines crossed the Han opposite Yongdongpo in LVTs and DUKWs. Elements of the 7th Marines had already moved up to the left of the 5th Marines, after debarking at Inchon on the 21st. Thus for the first time the 1st Mar Div was operating with three infantry regiments abreast as the assault on Seoul reached the stage of street fighting. The enemy had not neglected his opportunities for mining routes through the city, and the grim job of removal feel, as usual, to the engineers.

When the Inchon-Seoul operation came to a successful finish on 7 October, the engineers and shore party had the job of outloading from Inchon for a new X Corps amphibious landing on the other side of Korea. Wonsan was to be the objective of an assault originally scheduled for the 20th. Not much time remained, of course, for the planning and execution of a landing to be followed by a drive across the peninsula to unite with the Eighth Army and cut off the escape of the fleeing remnants of the beaten North Korean army.

So thoroughly had that army been beaten, however, that its collapse made the new operation unnecessary. In the west the Eighth Army advanced by leaps and bounds to take the NK capital, Pyongyang. And on the eastern coast two ROK divisions of X Corps occupied Wonsan without a fight. There was nothing left for the 1st Mar Div except an administrative landing on the 25th after a week of delay while enemy mines were being removed from Wonsan harbor.

Planning for the landing had been based on the report of a 1st Mar Div advance party flown to Wonsan under the command of LtCol H.H. Figuers, executive officer of the 1st Shore Party Bn. Two other officers and 15 enlisted men from this unit were also included.

Unloading at Wonsan commenced on the night of the 25th, with shore party groups being assigned the responsibility for the beaches. Problems were posed from the outset by sandbars offshore and areas of deep sand between the water line and solid ground. Tractors had to be used to pull wheeled vehicles to high ground, and sand ramps were built out into the shallow water to facilitate unloading from small boats. Despite such difficulties, the work continued around the clock as floodlights provided illumination for the cranes at night. Meanwhile, though no enemy action developed, shore party elements set up a perimeter defense on the exposed flank of the southern beaches.

On the 31st, after six days of unremitting effort, the job was finished. Bulk cargo amounting to 18,402 tons had been put ashore in addition to 4,731 vehicles. Shore party units moved into the dock area of Wonsan with a mission of improvement and operation, and on 6 November the battalion was put under X Corps control to unload the 3d Inf Div.

Meanwhile, the 1st Eng Bn was tackling every conceivable engineering task. While one unit operated a sawmill, other Marine engineers were busy repairing a railway, converting coaches to stretcher cars, building bridges, constructing strips for observation planes (OYs), establishing water points, destroying hoards of enemy explosives, and wiring the new division forward command post and hospital at Hamhung.

In addition to their other duties, the engineers doubled as infantry. On 3 November, when the 7th Marines fought it out with a Chinese Communist division on the advance to Hagaru, a squad of Dog Co, 1st Eng Bn, filled a gap in the line at a critical moment. This was only one of the firefights in which engineers participated before the invaders from Red China had enough.

If any undertaking could be singled out as most important, it was probably the improvement of the main supply route from Hamhung to Hagaru. At a time when optimism prevailed both in Tokyo and Washington, the command of the 1st Mar Div took a soberly realistic view of the situation. Although the Chinese had withdrawn after their first contacts early in November, the Marines prepared for trouble by repairing the mountain road until it was fit for tanks.

A preliminary survey made with tank officers indicated that the difficulties were formidable. From the railhead at Chinhung-ni to the Chosin Reservoir, the sharply-winding trail might have been described in many areas as a narrow shelf with a cliff on one side and a chasm on the other. Long stretches would have to be widened, or reinforced and a good deal of work remained to be done on bridges, by-passes, and culverts.

So essential was the task that all available engineer units were drawn from other assignments. The Chinese were not the only new enemy, as cold weather added to the trials of the engineers by the second week of November. Much of the power of the dozers had to be expended on breaking soil frozen as hard as concrete. And though the pan could be filled only with difficulty, it was almost as hard to empty when damp earth stuck to cold steel.

Techniques often had to be altered or improvised, and the engineers came up with some ingenious solutions. Lt Nicholas A. Canzona managed even to solve the problem of heating a river inexpensively. His platoon of Able Co. had the job of replacing a blown span of a concrete bridge on the MSR east of the reservoir. It was necessary to install a new pier between existing concrete piers, but every attempt to sink a foundation in the river bottom was futile—the water soon froze again after holes had been chopped in the ice.

Canzona thought of digging a dam site upstream to create a new channel, and he tried to keep the water in a fluid state by heating it with 55-gallon drums of burning oil. The consumption of fuel proved to be prohibitive, but the engineer officer was not stumped. Finding a large quantity of carbide left by the enemy in Hagaru, he filled his drums and generated a hellish temperature with the new fuel. At the cost only of keeping the carbide wet and lighted, Canzona was able to divert part of the stream into a new channel while his platoon constructed the pier foundation.

Enemy demolitions might have multiplied the troubles of road maintenance and repair if the North Koreans had not allowed such large hoards of explosive to fall into the hands of the Marines. In a single three-day period, from 15 to 17 November, the engineers burned 103,700 pounds, or nearly 52 tons, of Russian dynamite stored in the Sudong area.

By the 18th the MSR had been improved to such an extent that the first tanks got through from Chinhung-ni to Hagaru. That same day found the engineers breaking ground for an equally important project ordered by the command of the 1st Mar Div—the construction of a C-47 airstrip at Hagaru. Supplies and ammunition were being trucked forward to that base as the Marines continued to make ready for a possible CCF counterstroke.

The engineers had just finished OY strips at Koto-ri and Hamhung. Snow added to the difficulties of the Hagaru job, and motor graders and 5.8-cubic-yard scrapers were sent up from Hamhung. Apparently the Marine engineers were plagued by “sidewalk contractors” even in sub-zero weather, for this dry comment appears in a field report of 20 November:

“Dozer work was pleasing to the eye of those who wanted activity but contributed little to the overall earth moving problem of 90,000 cubic yards of cut and 60,000 cubic yards of fill.”

On the 22d, with the strip 10 percent complete, lower temperatures made it almost impossible for the dozers to get a bite of the granite-like earth. The engineers paused only long enough to weld steel teeth on the blades. But when the pan was filled, the earth froze to the cutting edges until it could be removed only by means of an air compressor and jack hammer.

Under these circumstances, it is not remarkable that the Hagaru airfield was far from complete when the Chinese struck in overwhelming numbers on the night of 22-28 November. The amazing thing is that Marine engineers had managed in only 10 days and nights to make the strip operative for C-47s. During the next 10 days hundreds of wounded and frostbitten men would owe their lives to this achievement which permitted them to be evacuated by air. The C-47 pilots deserve equal credit for the skill and daring of their landings on an inadequate strip, since not a single casualty was lost in a plane crash.

The enemy made a tremendous effort to shatter the Hagaru perimeter, and service troops from more than 30 outfits fought alongside the 3d Bn of the 1st Marines. Some of the engineers took part as infantry, and others continued to work on the airfield, regardless of enemy sniping at men silhouetted by the floodlights.

On the night of the first onslaught the Chinese actually swept over the field and took momentary possession of engineer equipment. Then Lt Robert L. MacFarland organized a group of his own men and headquarters personnel for a counterattack. Naturally, the engineers were annoyed at this interruption in their work. And in the words of their commanding officer, Col Partridge, they “started out after the Chinese and kicked them off the strip.”

The successful defense of Hagaru provided a base for the 5th and 7th Marines when they cut their way through from Yudam-ni. During this march the engineers were often out in front, their dozers removing wrecked vehicles, destroying enemy roadblocks, or constructing by-passes.

The engineers also had a share in the fighting breakout of the 1st Mar Div from Hagaru to Hamhung. They participated as infantry in a dozen hot clashes, and at Koto-ri they added 300 feet to the OY airstrip, so that C-47s could land. Thanks to this accomplishment, another wholesale evacuation of casualties occurred as the long column of vehicles wound its way toward Chinhung-ni.

On 9 December the headlines of the world marveled at the airdrop of a 24-ton Treadway bridge to the Marines by the Combat Cargo Command. Less spectacular but no less vital was the assembling and installation of the sections by the 1st Eng Bn. For the division faced the prospect of abandoning all its vehicles and equipment unless the engineers could put a floor over 29 feet of gaping space left when the Chinese blew a bridge at a point where no by-pass could be constructed.

The engineers could and did. First it was necessary to transport the steel sections in Brockway trucks during a blinding snowstorm on the night of the 8th. A hole in the road brought the train to a halt, but the engineers always were resourceful. Lacking any other material, they packed the hole with snow which held up while some 1,700 vehicles passed.

In the morning, before starting work on the bridge, the engineers had a fight for possession of the area with Chinese pouring in mortar and automatic fire. The enemy was evicted with a heavy loss in killed and wounded as well as some 60 prisoners. Once these preliminaries were out of the way, it took only three hours to rebuild the abutment with railway ties and install steel treadways widened with plyboard sections. At dusk on the 9th the first vehicles crossed. At this moment of triumph a new disaster threatened when the tread of a tractor crashed through a plyboard section. But the engineers succeeded in extricating the vehicle and making immediate repairs. And on the 11th they blew the bridge after the division had brought out its equipment to Hamhung.

Now it was the turn of the Marine shore party, as Gen Douglas MacArthur ordered the deployment of X Corps to southern Korea. Thus was initiated the “amphibious operation in reverse” as 100,000 troops, 90,000 Korean refugees, and 350,000 measurement tons of cargo were outloaded from Hungnam and other ports in two weeks. The possibility of enemy action could not be discounted, but the naval guns of Task Force 90 and strikes of Navy, Marine, and Air Force planes kept the enemy at a respectful distance while the 3d Inf Div held the Hungnam perimeter.

The 1st Mar Div was first to sail, but most of the shore party elements stayed for the finish. They had a leading part in the planning as well as execution of the X Corps outloading, and on occasion they took a hand at providing security.

Meanwhile a shore party detachment had gone ahead to Pusan and Masan to unload the 1st Mar Div on its arrival. The division went into Eighth Army reserve, and in January came the “Pohang guerrilla hunt” as the infantry cut to pieces an NK division that had infiltrated through the mountains into southeastern Korea.

The remainder of 1951 found the Marines committed to large-scale land operations as a unit of the Eighth Army. In operations Killer and Ripper they were the spearhead of X Corps in the slugging advance from Wonju to Hwachon. And during the CCF counteroffensives of April and May the Leathernecks returned to the operational control of X Corps on the eastern front. There they were holding an important sector in the Punchbowl area when operations came to a standstill with the summer’s truce conferences.

Road maintenance was such a problem in the Korean mountains that the endless task absorbed most of the efforts of the shoe party as well as engineers. Supply depended entirely on human transport in the more rugged areas, and the engineers had responsibility for hiring and supervising hundreds of South Korean porters organized into companies. This employment provided food and wages for the refugees, and it was often the sole means of bringing food and ammunition to the combat troops.

For weeks, the engineers and shore party had only such routine jobs as road upkeep, mine removal, and supply or salvage operations. Many of the original officers of both battalions were rotated in the summer of 1951, and LtCol John F. Kelsey took command of the engineers as LtCol H.H. Figuers and LtCol Harry W. Edwards succeeded in turn to the shore party command. There must have been days when their men never wanted to see a Korean road again, but even the versatile engineers and shore party sometimes came up against a task they had never encountered before.

One of these rare occasions took place in April after a unit of the 1st Mar Div captured the Hwachon dam. The Chinese had recently opened the gates to flood the surrounding area and caused some delay in military operations. Eighth army ordered that the gates and penstocks be jammed so that the enemy could not repeat if Hwachon fell into his hands again. IX Corps had no record of an available dam expert, but it was the conviction of Col Partridge that “if you look hard enough in an engineer battalion in a Marine division, you can find anything.”

This proved to be true when the engineers produced two hitherto unrecognized hydrostatic specialists, one of whom was preparing a thesis for his PhD degree. Unhappily, the knowledge of these experts was never utilized, for the Chinese reoccupied Hwachon in their April counteroffensive after Eighth Army ordered a general withdrawal.

A few months later the shore party varied its routine by helping to create the tactics of the future. The opportunity was provided when the 1st Mar Div jumped off in the Inje-Changhang area of eastern Korea as the Eighth Army launched a new drive after a quiet summer. On 11 October 1951, the 3d Bn of the 7th Marines made tactical history with a helicopter landing behind the main line of resistance.

The commanding officer was LtCol Edwards, lately of the 1st Shore Party Bn, and a platoon of his old outfit had charge of loading and landing operations. While one section stowed gear into the helicopters, the other section prepared to hit the ground first with machetes and clear a site for the infantry landings.

The success of this first large-scale helicopter lift may have opened up new and exciting possibilities for tomorrow’s amphibious operations. So rapidly have tactics developed in the Korean testing ground that only a rash prophet would dare to predict the course of events. But t least it is certain, whatever the future may hold, that the Marine engineers and shore party will be in the foreground as usual, running interference for the combat troops.

 

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