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Marine Air Over Inchon-Seoul

 
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Marine Air Over Inchon-Seoul

Authors - Ernest H. Giusti & Kenneth W. Condit
Reprinted from the June 1952 issue of The Marine Corps Gazette
Reprinted with permission to The Korean War Educator.


Credit for the remarkable success of the Inchon-Seoul operation rightfully went to an Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force combination whose close cooperation insured the victory. Each service carried out its classical function with a boldness and dispatch which gave added assurance of success. But the function of the air component of the Marine team can hardly be termed classical. This component, the 1st Mar Air Wing, rendered close air support on such a wide scale and with such effectiveness that it assumed the character of an innovation.

The road to the achievement of an efficient air-ground team had been a long and hard one. Toward the end of WWII and in the years before the beginning of the Korean conflict a large share of the Marine Corps’ time, energy, and physical resources had been poured into the effort. The fateful Sunday of 25 June 1950 found the team ready for combat testing.

A preliminary trial came in August when the 1st Prov Marine Brigade (reinforced) helped stem the high tide of North Korean aggression in the Pusan Perimeter. [Footnote 1 – See E.H. Giusti, “Marine Air Support in the Pusan Perimeter,” Marine Corps Gazette, May 1952.] But a full-dress test was still needed to prove the efficiency of the team. It came at Inchon-Seoul.

By the end of August there was no longer much danger that the enemy would break through the perimeter and drive the UN forces into the sea. Even while the South Koreans and Americans were reeling back before the initial onslaught, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was planning a counterstroke. As early as 4 July he had decided to land at Inchon, seize the South Korean capital of Seoul, and cut enemy communications with the bases in North Korea.

As the summer days and weeks went by, the operation began to take shape. Joint Task Force 7, under command of VAdm Arthur D. Struble, was set up to carry out the amphibious phase of the operation. MajGen Edward M. Almond was given command of the U.S. X corps which was to be the major troop command. Phib Group One, Task Force 90 for this operation, was designated the attack force, while the 1st Mar Div was assigned as the landing force. After the amphibious phase was completed, Gen. Almond would assume command of operations ashore.

Air support planning was predicated on the basic decision to provide organic air for both JTF-7 and X Corps. Beginning on D-day, the air space over the objective area was to be the exclusive province of the air units of these two commands. Theirs would be the responsibility for all air support for the operation. JTF-7 included a Navy fast carrier task force (TF-77) whose job was to gain air supremacy over the objective and to furnish deep support and interdiction strikes. Close air support for the landing would be provided by aircraft of TG-90.5. This air support group of the attack force was made up of two CVEs, USS Sicily and Badoeng Strait, with VMFs-214 and -323 aboard. If necessary, the attack force commander could call upon the planes of TF-77 to reinforce his own close support units.

Air support for X Corps was to be provided by a tactical air command (TAC) organized under the control of the corps commander. Commanded by BrigGen Thomas J. Cushman, USNC, the components of this command were drawn from the 1st Mar Air Wing (MAW). The idea for this set-up came from Marines on X Corps staff. They convinced Gen Almond of the value of organic air support, and he used his authority as chief of staff of the theater to carry it out.

CG 1st MAW assigned MAG-33 to serve as TAC, X Corps. Its flying squadrons were VMFs-212, -312, and VMF(N)-542, but they were not to be assigned until the TAC, X Corps assumed control of operations in Korea. Until that time, they were assigned to MAG-12 for administration. The two carrier-based squadrons, which had come out to Korea as members of MAG-33, continued to be assigned to that group for administrative purposes.

D-day was set for 15 September, but before that date the air components of the invasion force had to be organized and transported to the theater of operations. Fortunately, the headquarters of MAG-33, MTACS-2, MGCIS-1, and VMFs-214 and -323 were already in the Far East and had gained invaluable combat experience from missions in support of the 1st Mar Brigade in South Korea. The two fighter squadrons had been operating during this period from the CVEs USS Sicily and Badoeng Strait, so it was a simple matter to designate them TG-90.5.

TAC, X Corps was not activated until 8 September. The three fighter squadrons for the TAC, VMFs-212, -312 and VMF(N)-542, were still enroute from the U.S. and would not arrive in Japan until about 14 September. But all these squadrons were at a high pitch of efficiency as a result of continuous training programs, and their personnel shortages had been made up by calling members of the organized reserve to active duty. Headquarters of the 1st MAW and MAG-12 were located in Japan. They did not control operations but confined their activities to administrative support of their subordinate squadrons.

During the first two weeks in September, planes of JTF-7 flew missions designed to isolate the target area. On the 4th and 5th, TF-77 launched strikes from the fast carriers against rail and highway installations in northeast Korea. They were followed on the 7th, 8th, and 9th by the Marine flyers of TG-90.5. Rail lines, rolling stock, and bridges between Pyongyang and Seoul were hit, planes from VMF-323 knocking out the main highway bridge leading south from Pyongyang. A total of 122 sorties were flown by the two squadrons on these days.

September 10 found the Marine pilots of TG-90.5 turning their attention to the island of Wolmi-do. Lying just off shore from Inchon and connected to the mainland by a causeway, this island was recognized as the key to Inchon. It would have to be taken before any landing could be made on the mainland, so a major effort was made to soften it up before the landing.

The first of three napalm strikes, six planes of VMF-323 and eight of VMF-214, roared off the carrier decks at 0600. Approaching the target from the north, the pilots made all their drops on the eastern side of the island. Smoke was so dense that the 14 planes of the second strike had to orbit for several minutes before they could dive down to repeat the pattern of the first strike. This time the enemy reacted with intense but inaccurate small caliber antiaircraft fire from the Inchon shore. At 1050, the third strike of the day, six planes from VMF-323 and eight from VMF-214, took off to make a final effort to burn out the enemy on Wolmi-do. As the pilots pulled away, the target area was burning fiercely, but it was impossible to make an accurate assessment of the damage.

On the 11th, the escort carriers returned to Japan for replenishment. The softening of the target was continued by destroyers and cruisers, accompanied by the fast carriers of TF-77. They worked over Wolmi-do and Inchon thoroughly on the 13th and 14th.

The Marine squadrons were back off Inchon on the 14th, flying combat air patrol over the target, while Navy planes from the fast carriers bombed and strafed enemy positions. VMF-214 launched four combat air patrols of four planes each, while VMF-323 launched two such flights. After each flight was relieved on station, the planes expended their armament in strafing runs on Inchon. In addition to the CAPs, VMF-323 flew a two-plane naval gunfire spotting mission, working with British and American cruisers and destroyers.

D-day morning was overcast, with cloudy skies and the threat of rain squalls. At 0500 the first strike, eight planes of VMF-323, took off to support the landing of the 3d Bn, 5th Marines on Wolmi-do. According to the tactical plan, Wolmi-do was to be secured first and artillery emplaced to fire on enemy positions on the mainland. The extreme tidal range of 31 feet required the use of a daring scheme of maneuver. In the morning high tide, 3/5 would land on Wolmi-do. Then the main landing of the 1st Mar Div would be made on the evening tide, giving the troops barely enough time to reach their objectives and dig in for the night.

The eight-plane flight from VMF-323 bombed the main north-south ridge of Wolmi-do, putting seven out of eight 500-lb bombs right on target. Following the bombing attack, the flight made a 10-minute sweep of the Inchon shore to see if there was any enemy effort to reinforce the island by moving troops across the causeway. The only sign of life was an armored car which was caught crossing the causeway and destroyed on the first pass by two Corsairs. At Love-2 the flight began strafing ahead of the first wave of landing craft, moving gradually inland. When the troops hit the beach, the planes were strafing only 50 yards ahead of them.

The Marines of 3/5 were ashore at 0630, moving rapidly inland against sporadic resistance from small disorganized groups of enemy. So rapidly was the initial advance that there was no need to call for close air support, although eight planes were continuously on station. These flights relieved each other at approximately two-hour intervals, and when there were no close support mission requests, they were assigned deep support targets in the Inchon area.

At 0950 the regular on-station flight of VMF-323 was given the first close support mission of the Inchon operation. The forward air controller (FAC) of 3/5 pointed out to the flight leader an enemy position near the lighthouse on Sowolmi-do, a dot of land connected to Wolmi-do by a causeway. Here a platoon of enemy was holding up the advance of a squad from A Co reinforced by a section of tanks. On the first pass, the planes dropped four 500-lb bombs, but as fire was still being received, they made another run, this time with napalm. The ground troops moved in without opposition.

Wolmi-do was secured at 1115. Now began the critical period when the tide receded, leaving the Marines isolated ashore. The enemy would have an opportunity to react to the landing and rush reinforcements into Inchon from the Seoul area. So interdiction became the main air task. Navy planes of TF-77 flew many of these missions, but they were assisted by Marines from the escort carriers. Both VMF-314 and VMF-323 flights ranged over the area between Inchon and Seoul, looking for signs of enemy movement. A few isolated vehicles, weapons, and supply dumps were attacked but no major troop movements were detected.

Other missions were flown to continue the softening up of Inchon preparatory to the landing. A VMF-214 flight attacked an enemy gun position and observation post on Observatory Hill, an eminence in the heart of the city dominating the landing beaches to be used by the 5th Marines. Five 500-lb bombs were dropped and the whole area was worked over with rockets. The pilots then dropped their napalm on the breakwater and strafed the water front with 20mm projectiles.

The final flight of the day, eight planes of VMF-323, reported in to the control agency at 1700 and was assigned missions in support of the landing. According to the landing force scheme of maneuver, the 5th Marines would land on Red Beach, opposite the city, and the 1st Marines were to come ashore on Blue Beach to the south. Upon reporting on station, the VMF-323 flight was divided into four-plane divisions and assigned missions at the two landing beaches.

The leading division was assigned an enemy mortar position in the Blue Beach area by the control center. A direct hit and a near miss were scored on this position, then the planes attacked a hill in the same area from which fire had been observed. Two napalm tanks and rocket fire knocked it out.

The second division attacked targets near Red Beach. They strafed, rocketed, and bombed two sets of enemy positions with undetermined results under intermittent antiaircraft and automatic weapons fire. By 1815, when the planes returned to the carriers, the pilots had watched four waves land on Blue Beach, and progress on Red Beach appeared to be equally rapid. So disorganized was the enemy that the Marines were able to advance very rapidly, securing their positions against a minimum of resistance.

D-plus-1 found the pilots of both Marine squadrons flying interdiction missions, attacking targets of opportunity as far as Seoul and Suwon. Altogether, they flew 72 sorties. The juiciest prize of the day fell to VMF-214 when the 0545 flight located six enemy T-34 tanks approaching the outskirts of Inchon. The eight Marine planes attacked, dropping six 500-lb bombs and two napalm tanks. One enemy tank was destroyed by direct napalm hit, another had its tread blown off, and a third developed a fuel leak. After the first flight had expended all its armament, a second eight-plane flight took up the attack. The relieving pilots found two of the tanks parked together. These they hit with napalm, burning both. Of the four remaining tanks, all were damaged. Destruction of the tanks was not without is price, however. Capt. William F. Simpson was killed when his plane crashed and exploded after taking hits on a strafing run.

By the morning of D-plus-2 (17 September), the ground troops of the 1st Mar Div had consolidated the beachhead. They were now ready to launch a two-pronged drive against their main objectives, Seoul and Kimpo Airfield. The 5th Marines were to advance northeast, take Kimpo, cross the Han, and attack Seoul from the northwest. The 1st Marines were to advance directly toward the city along the main highway and rail line. Both attacks jumped off on schedule and progressed at first against very little opposition.

In the air, planes of both squadrons were active at an early hour. A VMF-323 flight of four planes napalmed and rocketed an area target on a ridge in front of the 5th Marines. VMF-214 planes on an interdiction mission caught a group of about 400 enemy soldiers on the Suwon-Seoul road. Under strafing attack, the Koreans scattered and took cover in the ditches.

Up to this time, lack of close support targets had forced Marine pilots to fly missions of the interdiction or deep support type, in spite of the fact that they had been assigned specifically to provide close support for ground troops. But on the 17th there was a change. As the 1st Marines advanced along the main highway towards Seoul, it encountered bitterly resisting enemy rear guards who offered excellent targets for close support strikes.

Credit for the first close air support strike of the day fell to the pilots of VMF-214. At about 1500, an interdiction flight of five planes was contacted by a FAC and given a mission in support of the advance guard of the 1st Marines which was pinned down by enemy fire. Three 500-lb bombs and one napalm tank were dropped, neutralizing the target to the satisfaction of the FAC. A short time later, a VMF-323 flight of eight planes flew a strike in support of 2/1 units held up by enemy fire from a ridge running through the village of Pupyong. The target was well covered by napalm and rockets, and a 500-lb bomb which blew up a warehouse.

Frequent calls for air support came from the 1st Marines during the next two days as it pushed ahead along the highway leading to Seoul. VMF-323’s first flight on the 18th was given a mission in support of 1/1 on the western edge of the town of Sosa, where vehicles and enemy troops were attacked with 500-lb bombs and rockets. Later in the day, a VMF-214 flight of eight planes came to the aid of 2/1, held up by enemy fire from a ridge east of Sosa. A direct napalm hit was scored on the enemy troops on the ridge, and 500-lb bomb hits knocked out three mortar positions. The mission completed the pilots pulled away from the target with “well done” from the FAC.

First light on the 19th saw Corsairs catapulted off the carriers to return to the attack in support of the 1st Marines. During the day, the two squadrons flew a total of 24 close support sorties for this regiment. Typical of these missions was one flown by VMF-214 in support of 2/1. When the four planes of the flight reported on station, the FAC pointed out a long ridge from which enemy fire had pinned down two companies of Marines. There were also other enemy forces firing from buildings in the valley between the Marines and the main enemy ridge positions. On the initial run, the first plane put a rocket through a roof and the second dropped a 500-lb bomb through the hole. Then the planes turned their attention to the enemy on the ridge, working them over with bombs, rockets, and napalm. Enemy fire stopped. The Marines got up and walked across to take the ridge without firing a shot.

These strikes were the first to be controlled by the 1st Mar Div air support control agency, the air support section of MTAC-2. On the 18th they set up in a schoolhouse outside Inchon and began to control all aircraft assigned missions in support of the 1st Mar Div. The tactical air commander, X Corps and the components of his control agency, MGCIS-1 and the air defense section of MTACS-2, landed at the same time. On the 18th, BrigGen Cushman made a reconnaissance of Kimpo Airfield and on the next day the personnel of the control agency moved to the airfield and began to set up preparatory to assuming control of all air operations.

Kimpo had fallen to the 5th Marines on the 18th with very little opposition. On the 20th, the regiment crossed the Han under cover of an air strike by VMF-214 and pushed rapidly along the east bank toward Seoul. But the main air effort was again devoted to supporting the advance of the 1st Marines. Three close support strikes were flown against enemy ridge positions west of Yongdong-po, an industrial suburb of Seoul. One of these strikes, flown by VMF-323 in support of 2/1, demonstrated the versatility of the Marine close air support organization. Because of a communications failure, the FAC was unable to contact the flight leader, so he relayed his instructions through the division control agency. After the planes had bombed and napalmed the target, they were advised by the division that “it was a 4.0 strike, right on, and a company was moving up to take the ridge.”

Often the mere presence of Marine planes seemed to terrify the enemy. A clear demonstration of the fear which Corsairs inspired in the North Korean troops came early in the morning of the 21st. Four Marine planes with empty guns and bomb-racks were enroute home from a mission when they received an emergency call from 1stLt Norman Vining, FAC of 2/1. F Co was pinned down and taking heavy casualties in a fiercely burning village just west of Yongdong-po. Smoke and flames made it impossible for the Marines to locate the enemy who poured small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire in upon them from the outskirts of the village. The North Koreans, on the other hand, had only to fire into the flaming holocaust to find their targets.

Under the circumstances, Lt. Vining coupled improvisation with normal procedure. He improvised by calling for immediate help from the unarmed planes passing above the village and requested strike aircraft through normal channels. The Corsairs overhead responded at once, and Lt. Vining started them making dummy runs on the surrounding enemy positions. For the next 20 minutes, the Marine pilots flew their patterns just as they would have flown them on live runs, and the deception was so effective that the enemy’s volume of fire fell off by an estimated 75 percent. With the arrival of the unnamed planes, the company suffered 37 casualties, but from the time they started their dummy runs until the end of the engagement casualties were few.

Later that day Marine air had another opportunity to render badly needed aid to a ground unit. The task fell to four Corsairs of VMF-214. While orbiting over the control agency the pilots were assigned an urgent mission in support of E Co of 2/1. In a matter of minutes the planes were over the target area approximately one mile west of Yongdong-po and in contact with the FAC.

On the ground the situation was difficult. After clearing a small hill along the right of the battalion’s zone of action, E Co had been in the process of moving to the main Inchon-Seoul road. The enemy had quickly returned to the high ground in force and taken the Marines under heavy small arms and automatic weapons fire. Men of the company were in positions in single file along a railroad embankment and although they were in no danger of being overrun, they were unable to move without taking casualties. Behind them lay a two to three hundred yard stretch of rice paddies fully exposed to fire from the nearby hill. Lateral movement was also prohibited by enemy fields of fire.

This was the situation when the FAC moved up a secondary road to a point on the company’s right flank where he could observe the area and requested the air strike. As soon as the VMF-214 planes reported, the FAC oriented them on target and directed them to make their firing runs parallel to the railroad embankment. The Corsairs, closely controlled by the FAC throughout the attack, dropped their bombs on the slope to within 100 yards of the Marines. Rockets were fired within 75 yards. And strafing was carried out within 30 yards of the embankment.

So successful was the air support in reducing enemy fire that E Company was able to move to the secondary road and thence to the main highway without casualties.

This day saw the amphibious phase of the operation officially ended with the assumption of command ashore by Gen. Almond. Control of air operations passed to Gen. Cushman, the TAC, X Corps. Fighter aircraft of the TAC began to arrive at Kimpo Airfield on the 19th, when six planes of VMF-212 and six of VMF(N)-542 flew in from Japan, to be followed the next day by six more planes of each squadron. The remaining planes arrived on the 22d and 23d. On the 21st, an exchange of squadrons was made between MAGs-12 and -33. VMFs-212, -312, and VMF(N)-542, formerly under MAG-12, were not assigned to MAG-33, while VMFs-214, -323, and VMF(N)-513 were transferred to MAG-12.

The next day, 22 September, was a refueling day for TG-90.5. Of the two carrier-based Marine squadrons, only VMF-323 was available to furnish air support for the ground units driving on Seoul. This squadron almost doubled its average number of daily sorties to compensate for the lack of VMF-214 aircraft. They were reinforced by half of the planes and crews of both VMF-212 and VMF(N)-542 which had begun operations from Kimpo on 20 September.

For both VMF-212 and -323 take-off time on the morning of 22 September was 0550. Flying from Kimpo, the eight Corsairs comprising VMF-212’s first strike of the day were less than five miles from the scene of the fighting. By 0615 they had reported on station, been assigned a close support mission, and reported over target to the FAC. The target was entrenched enemy troops holding up 3/5 as it moved on Seoul from the northwest. During the next 25 minutes the North Koreans were subjected to a lethal dose of sixteen 260-lb bombs, 45 rockets, and 1200 rounds of 20mm cannon fire. By the time the VMF-212 Corsairs had expended their ordnance, six VMF-323 planes had completed the longer flight from their carrier base and were ready to continue close support for 3/5. The battalion was now closing in on Hill 296 and the FAC directed the VMF-323 planes to attack a troublesome enemy mortar position located on the reverse slope of a flanking ridge. The flight, led by Capt James K. Johnson, struck the position with two napalm tanks and four 500-lb bombs, effectively neutralizing it. Next the Corsairs turned their attentions to enemy troops observed in the area. Thirty rocket and strafing runs were made and heavy casualties were inflicted upon them. Against light resistance the men of 3/5 had seized the crest of Hill 296 by 0938.

As the day wore on, the need for air support grew. Men of the 5th Marines were now hitting the enemy’s main defensive line which followed the ridges protecting the northwest approaches of Seoul. North Korean attacks to regain the important ground increased steadily. By dark 3/5 had successfully utilized 11 controlled air strikes to help frustrate enemy intentions.

Also on 22 September, three air strikes were flown in close support of 1/5 which encountered determined resistance in seizing Hill 105 on the regiment’s right flank. And two controlled strikes were flown in support of the Army 32d Inf Regt southwest of Seoul.

From 23 through 25 September, the tempo of air support operations was stepped up as the friendly troops gradually slogged their way forward against steadily growing opposition.

During these three days the Badoeng Strait was out of action for replenishment, taking with her VMF-323. But as the Badoeng Strait departed, the Sicily arrived so that VMF-214 was available to provide air support commencing early in the morning of the 23 September. The 23d was also the arrival date of VMF(N)-542. The 1st MAW now had three full-strength squadrons committed to combat operations.

This achievement was nicely timed. The next three days, 23, 24, and 25 September, saw the 1st and 5th Marines cracking through the hard crust of Seoul’s outer defenses and into the suburbs of the city itself. And Marine air was put to good use.

From 23 through 25 September the three squadrons flew a total of 275 combat sorties, the majority in close support of friendly troops assaulting Seoul. Of the six strike flights flown by VMF-214 on the 23d, the last, airborne at 1600, rendered particularly outstanding service. This five-plane division, led by LtCol Walter E. Lischeid, CO of VMF-214, reported in to the control agency and was immediately assigned to close support of 1/5. The battalion, after capturing Hill 105 on the previous day, had had all it could do to keep possession. On Hill 105, men of 1/5 anchored one end of the 5th Marines’ line, and 3/5 the other end on Hill 296, but the ridge line between the two hills was strongly held by the enemy. Both hills were important terrain features overlooking the city, and the North Koreans kept un-remitting pressure on the two battalions of the 5th Marines.

Small unit counterattacks, automatic weapons, mortar, and high velocity fire were unleashed against the Marines who continued to hold to the ridge tops. The earlier flight had helped relieve pressure against 3d Bn and now the last fight of the day, VMF-323, was detailed to do the same for the beleaguered 1st Bn.

The flight approached 1/5’s zone of action at 7,500 feet and established contact with the FAC. The controller pinpointed the target, an enemy concentration of troops and automatic weapons on a ridge only 150 yards from Hill 105. And two Corsairs made the first attack with napalm, rockets, and 20mm shells. Two accurate napalm drops scored hits on the ridge and the volume of enemy fire fell off appreciably. The other three planes now joined the attack and all five Corsairs laced the top and slopes of the high ground with a combination of rocket, 20mm, and dummy runs. So effective were these attacks that the flight was called off and assigned a second target, two antiaircraft guns located just beyond the silenced ridge. This time the attack was initiated by the trio of bomb-carrying planes. Hits or damaging near misses were chalked up for all three, and the positions were reported neutralized. All five planes then turned to working over the area with both live and dummy runs. By the time the Corsairs broke off the attack and turned homeward, they had spent one hour and five minutes over the target area. Before them still lay a 40-minute flight back to the Sicily and touchy carrier landings aboard a baby flattop, but they carried with them the comforting knowledge that they had helped fellow Marines in a bad situation.

The next day, 24 September, saw VMF-212 setting a 1st MAW record for combat sorties flown in Korea by one squadron in a single day. Operating only in daylight hours, 12 flights flew 46 sorties against a wide variety of targets as VMF-212 Corsairs ranged all over the X Corps’ objective area. And a run down of the missions carried out by squadron planes on the 24th reflects the flexibility of Marine aviation and the versatility of its pilots.

Flight number Type of Mission Target
1 Close support Gun emplacements
2 Search & attack Enemy troops
3 Combat air patrol Over enemy-held Suwon Airfield
4 Search & attack Railroad cars & trucks
5 Search & attack Trucks
6 Close support Troops & barracks area
7 Close support Troop positions
8 Close support Troops & gun positions
9 Miscellaneous Surrender-leaflet drop
10 Close support Troops & gun positions
11 Search & attack Targets of opportunity
12 Close support Troops & gun positions

Also on 24 September the fifth flight of VMF-323 Corsairs spotted and attacked four T-34 tanks in 2/5’s zone of action. TSgt Truman G. Bunce destroyed one by a direct hit with a 500-pounder, while the rest of the division claimed a second, probably destroyed by napalm, and a third damaged by rockets and strafing. The squadrons seemed to have a proclivity for enemy tanks, for the next flight found two more in the same general area. One tank was chalked up to Capt William J. Longfellow, whose dead-on napalm drop engulfed the machine inflames; the remaining T-34 was destroyed by a combination of rockets, bombs, and 20mm strafing. Of the 10 planes participating in the two attacks, five were damaged by the intense and accurate antiaircraft fire which abounded in the air over Seoul.

On this day, too, the 1st Marines crossed the Han and advanced into the western part of the city. While in the northwest sector, 2/5 cracked the enemy’s main line of resistance by seizing the high ground lying between Hills 105 and 296 despite heavy casualties. Along the ridge line, which had been subjected to repeated air strikes and artillery fire for two days, the battalion counted more than 1,200 enemy dead, an eloquent but mute testimony to the effectiveness of the Marine air-ground team.

On the morning of 25 September, take-off time for the first Tigercat of VMF(N)-542 was 0230. This single-plane reconnaissance flight initiated a long and full day of operations. The first two flights were single-plane night reconnaissance and attack missions. These flights, by spotting and attacking enemy artillery and mortar muzzle flashes, discouraged his use of night harassing fires. With the coming of daylight, the squadron turned to interdiction and close support strikes. Seven interdiction sorties ranged behind enemy lines, shooting up tunnels, rolling stock, and trucks. There were also eight close support sorties flown against the enemy holding up the advance of ground Marines in Seoul. The final three flights of the day were solo heckler hops over the X Corps area. Thus ended a typical day of VMF(N)-542 operations—literally a day without end, for before the last Tigercat had landed, another was aloft to initiate another day of around-the-clock operations.

During the night of 25-26 September, the Sicily left TG-90.5 for maintenance work, and was out of action for the remainder of the operation. But as the Sicily steamed away, it was replaced by the Badoeng Strait with VMF-323 aboard.

The next two days, 26 and 27 September, saw Marine air pouring it on the enemy whenever and wherever he could be found as the struggle for Seoul reached its climax. In this period the 1st Marines slugged its way through the center of the capital, and the 5th Marines moved into the northwest sector. The 7th Marines, attacking in a generally easterly direction just north of the city, threatened the main escape corridor, while the 32d Infantry crossed the Han and occupied the southern outskirts.

Dawn on the morning of the 26th found VMF-323 and the two squadrons at Kimpo with planes aloft to initiate the 48-hour period which was to break the core of enemy resistance. Perhaps the most profitable strike of the day was flown by five VMF-323 Corsairs. This flight, led by Capt. Warren P. Nichols, was launched from the Badoeng Strait at 1359 and reported on station above Seoul at 1430.

Its first assignment, a search for enemy troops on the northern edge of the city, was fruitless—clouds of smoke, which billowed up to 6,500 feet, seriously hampered visibility. But at 1530 the Marine pilots’ luck changed. A tank-infantry patrol of the 32d Infantry, probing the eastern outskirts of the capital, bumped into a strong enemy concentration at the Seoul Junior College, and called for close support. The mission was assigned to the VMF-323 flight and in only a few minutes the Corsairs were snarling over the scene of the fight.

The first target assigned was an artillery piece which had been subjecting the patrol to accurate fire. Quickly and efficiently the FAC talked the flight leader onto the target and when the pilot spotted the gun he fired two smoke rockets to pinpoint its location. Using the rocket smoke as a reference point, all five planes attacked the piece. Each Corsair made two runs, firing two rockets on one run and strafing on the other. The gun was silenced.

Friendly troops had meantime been drawing withering fire from several hundred enemy soldiers dispersed through the wooden buildings of the school. The FAC gave these structures as the next target. This time the attack was made with 500-lb bombs and napalm. The three bomb-carrying planes dropped their loads first and all three 500-pounders struck the cluster of buildings, splintering several and damaging others. Equally accurate were the closely following napalm drops made by Corsairs. In a moment the school became a pyre of broken timbers and searing flames.

Panic-stricken enemy survivors deserted the shambles in headlong flight. Among them was a group which attempted to escape in a truck and more than a dozen sedan automobiles of a uniformly dark green color. The Marine pilots, reasonably sure that group included enemy “brass,” attacked with a vengeance. Flying a circular pattern, the Corsairs hosed the column with a steady stream of rockets and 20mm shells. Seven of the sedans were burned and others damaged. The truck, jam-packed with troops, was also destroyed. In executing their attack the planes had moved about three miles north of the friendly unit, but they still had contact with the FAC. The flight was now called back to attack an armored car, which had been spotted by the patrol as it attempted to flee east from Seoul. In three or four minutes the Marine pilots were back. They attacked the car and two accompanying jeeps with five rockets and about 600 rounds of 20mm shells. Hits and near misses were scored against all three vehicles, and though they did not burn they were immobilized. Time was running out and ordnance low when the FAC assigned the Corsairs still another target, a small factory sheltering North Korean soldiers. And five rocket hits soon set it afire. By this time the moment when the planes would have to turn homeward was fast approaching, but the Marine pilots were determined to make every bit of ordnance count. A last sweep was made along the highway leading east from the capital. Isolated and assorted types of transport were discovered, and at 1535 the Corsairs pointed for their carrier roost with empty guns and bare racks. All five planes were safely aboard by 1711. Later, the area of the Junior College was occupied and ground reports estimated 300-500 enemy casualties inflicted by this flight alone.

On the next day fighting inside the city reached its highest pitch, and 19 strikes were flown in close support of ground units in and around Seoul. The roughest ground fighting was reserved for 2/1, which had the mission of clearing the main street of the capital against a wily and determined enemy. The North Koreans had constructed a series of four-sided barricades composed of sandbags, eight feet high and five feet wide, located at the intersections of the main avenue with other wide streets. These strongpoints inevitably contained anti-tank guns and heavy automatic weapons.

For D Co, which spearheaded 2/1’s drive on the 27th, barricade busting became the rule of the day. And Marine air played a vital if unique role in the reduction of these obstacles. The procedure was essentially simple but the results were devastating to the enemy. When the company bumped into a barricade the FAC directed the flight on station to attack it, and the planes snarled down through the heavy smoke of the burning city. Despite the thick smoke, location of the target was not difficult. Pilots spotted the wide and straight thoroughfare cutting through the heart of the city almost at once, and friendly tanks pounding away at the contested barricade virtually pinpointed the strongpoint. Marine pilots had learned through bitter experience that Seoul was a flak trap, but it did not deter them from making their runs, often at roof-top height. The enemy was subjected to accurate doses of napalm, bombs, rockets, and 20mm shells. When the planes broke off their attack, tanks and infantry moved in for the kill, and other Corsairs started working over the next barricade. The pattern was repeated again and again through the day, and by nightfall 2/1 had fought its way through the city. In the morning the 1st Marines, and the 5th which had advanced through the northwest sector, met only slight resistance. Later in the day Seoul was declared secure and the scene of the battle moved north and east of the capital.

The 28th of September also saw the arrival at Kimpo of another Marine squadron, VMF-312.

Seoul was secure but ground units still had need for close support beyond the city, and lucrative targets were plentiful along roads of the enemy’s retreat. VMF-312 lost no time in going into action. On the first day of full operations, the squadron flew 35 sorties, 16 in close support of Marine ground units northeast of Seoul, and nine on search and attack missions.

Close support continued to be in high demand. The 7th Marines resorted to Marine air frequently as it pushed north along the Seoul-Uijongbu road to block the main artery leading to Pyongyang, the enemy capital. The strongest opposition developed on 2 October when an estimated 5,500 North Koreans attempted to bar the path at Nuwon-ni. Fighting was close and savage, but with the aid of 14 close support strikes, the Marines broke through the enemy rear-guard and occupied Uijongbu in the afternoon of 3 October. This was the last fight of any size for Marines in the Inchon-Seoul operation. As the need for close support diminished, the emphasis of air operations swung toward deep support, although a number of strokes were flown in close support of Army infantry units.

The end of the Inchon-Seoul operation was signaled on 7 October, but Marine air operations cover the period from 7 September to 9 October. During these 33 days pilots of five Marine squadrons flew approximately 2,774 combat sorties, the majority in close support of infantry units. Flying from the Sicily, VMF-214 was in action against the enemy 16 of these days, and flew 484 combat sorties. VMF-323 aboard the Badoeng Strait was in action 22 days and contributed 784. Operating off Kimpo Airfield from 20 September to 9 October, VMF-212 and VMF(N)-542 flew 607 and 573 combat sorties respectively, while VMF-312 flew 288 from 29 September to 9 October. [Footnote 2: Two VMF-312 planes began operating from Kimpo on 20 September. By 29 September they had flown 38 combat sorties.]

During the Inchon-Seoul operation the five squadrons were in action an average of 18 days, and the average number of combat sorties per squadron per day was approximately 32.

In terms of plane losses and casualties the cost of the 2,774 combat sorties was remarkably low. Eleven planes were shot down by enemy ground fire, and casualties, though always painful, were only six pilots and one aircrewman killed in action and two pilots wounded.

Inchon-Seoul was over. The painstaking days, months, and years spent in perfecting close air support had been justified, and the basic doctrines and procedures validated. But with the end of the Korean War seemingly in sight, Marine air had still not realized its full potential. True, an important preliminary trial had been passed in the Pusan Perimeter. True, a big test had been equally successful at Inchon-Seoul. Yet, two vital questions lacked answers. One of these, how effective will close air support be when the enemy controls or contests the air space over the front lines, still remains unresolved. But the other, what is the potential of close support when climate, terrain, and tactical conditions strain men and machines to the limit, found its answer only two months later—in the “breakout from the Reservoir.”

 

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