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The Pohang Guerrilla Hunt:
1600 Square Miles of Trouble

 
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Pohang Guerrilla Hunt

Authored by - Lynn Montross
Reprinted from January 1952 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette
Reprinted with permission to The Korean War Educator


Miles in Korea, as the men of the 1st Marine Division had learned to their grief, were more often vertical than horizontal. They seemed to twist violently uphill over a one-way trail, only to writhe their way up some steeper and higher hill. This impression was confirmed by the statistics. For the life of heavy-duty tires was 3,000 miles on Korean mountain roads as compared to an average of 15,000 to 20,000 in World War II.

Wear and tear on the human elements was also severe. And during the last five months of 1950 the men of the 1st Mar Div had made a complete tour of the peninsula, fighting their way about the circuit.

The round trip began at Pusan, where the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landed early in August and moved to an assembly area near Masan in Eighth U.S. Army reserve. Then came the hard-slugging operations of the Pusan perimeter, followed by a sea lift in September up the west coast to Inchon. Here the components of the 1st Mar Div were united in the target area as the landing force of X Corps for an amphibious assault on Inchon and a drive inland to capture Seoul. This objective had barely been secured when another sea lift took the division around the peninsula in October for an unopposed landing at Wonsan on the northeast coast.

A new war flared up from the embers of the old as Red China came to the rescue of the beaten North Korean forces in November. The 1st Mar Div, taking the full impact of the Chinese Communist counterstroke in the X Corps zone, cut its way to the seacoast in the famous breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. At the finish the Marines emerged as a fighting division with nearly all of their equipment intact. But the enemy had overrun northeast Korea, and in December the 1st Mar Div shared in the X Corps evacuation by sea from Hungnam to Pusan.

[Footnote: These operations of the 1st Mar Div have been described in consecutive issues of the Marine Corps Gazette in 1951—the Pusan perimeter in June; Inchon-Seoul in July and August; the mobilization of the Reserves in September; the Wonsan landing in October; the Chosin Reservoir breakout in November; and the Hungnam evacuation in December.]

It was the second landing at Pusan for many of the Marines, and they ate their Christmas dinner in the familiar surroundings of the same old area at Masan. To complete the circuit, the division passed again into the reserve of the Eighth Army.

Lifts by sea, lifts by motor and air and rail, lifts by shoe leather—every means of transportation had entered into the round trip. Amphibious assaults, street fighting, river crossings, mountain warfare, perimeter defenses, outloadings, and evacuations—all these, too, had been experienced in rapid succession during the past five months. The Leathernecks had qualified as tactical Jacks-of-all-trades, and in January 1951 it could hardly have surprised them to be assigned an anti-guerrilla operation as their first mission of the new year.

The problem was quite simple—on paper. About 1600 square miles in southeast Korea, most of them standing on end in mountainous terrain, were contained in the new sector of the Pohang-Andong-Yongdok area. North Korean troops in estimated division strength had infiltrated southward through the mountains for guerrilla operations. The 1st Mar Div had the mission of destroying this enemy, and staff officers were doubtless reminded of the old recipe for cooking rabbit which begins, “First, catch your rabbit!”

It was a problem in time and space, and any guerrilla-catching solutions were overshadowed by recent disturbing changes in the overall military picture. For the Eighth Army had just been dealt its second heavy blow in two months. Both defeats were at the hands of the Chinese Communists who crossed the Yalu in overwhelming strength to rob the United Nations forces of a victory already won.

Thirteen North Korean divisions had been battered into helplessness when the Eighth Army began its “end the war” sweep toward the Manchurian border on 24 November. A day later this offensive collided with the vanguard of an estimated 29 infantry divisions which the Chinese had massed in the mountains of northern Korea. Marching by night and hiding by day, these forces had maintained such an amazing camouflage discipline that their counterstroke of the 25th came by surprise. The II ROK Corps disintegrated on the right flank, making it necessary for other Eighth Army units to retreat or risk envelopment.

Next, the enemy poured into the gap between the Eighth Army and X Corps, striking the latter on the 27th. As the Marines began their Chosin Reservoir breakout, the Eighth Army continued its withdrawal in northwest Korea. Pyongyang, the captured North Korean capital, was abandoned on 5 December by UN forces which had recently stood within 37 miles of the Manchurian border. With the I and IX Corps fighting delaying actions, the Eighth Army fell back over ice-glazed roads choked with troops, tanks, vehicles, and refugees.

On the east coast the evacuation of Hungnam by X Corps had commenced, which meant that all Korea north of the 38th Parallel was being abandoned to the enemy. The five X Corps divisions were redeployed by sea to South Korea while the Eighth Army conducted a slow and orderly withdrawal to Line B. Extending from the Kumpo Peninsula on the west coast, this line passed through Choksong, about 30 miles north of Seoul, and then eastward to the coast of the Sea of Japan. The retirement had barely been completed when the commanding general, LtGen Walton J. Walker, was killed in a jeep accident. LtGen Matthew B. Ridgway, the new appointee, assumed command three days later after flying from Washington.

This was the situation on the last day of the year, when the 1st Mar Div went into Eighth Army reserve. Other X Corps units had already been taken into the Eighth Army in preparation for an expected CCF offensive on 25 December which failed to materialize. It could hardly have been imagined on that Christmas Day that the enemy had it in his power to strike exactly a week later and inflict another costly defeat on UN forces.

The blow fell in the bitter and breathless cold of New Year’s Eve. History repeated itself with painful fidelity during the last hours of 1950 as five ROK divisions gave way in the central and eastern sectors. Again, as in November, other Eighth Army units were compelled to withdraw to avoid envelopment.

Although the UN forces had not been surprised this time, they were hard-pressed by the “human sea” tactics of an enemy who was capable of clearing mine fields by the simple expedient of sending men ahead to be sacrificed. The attacking forces were believed to include six corps of the CCF 3d Field Army and a corps of the 4th Field Army, each containing three or four divisions. Since November the beaten North Korean army had been given a new lease on life, so that three reorganized corps were taking part along with the Chinese. Altogether, it was estimated that the Communists had massed a total of more than 450,000 men south of the Yalu.

In preparation for the expected blow, Gen Ridgway had disposed the Eighth Army with three units of I Corps on the left flank southwest of Seoul—the Turkish Brig, the 29th British Brig, the ROK 1st Div, and the US 25th Div. North of Seoul the US IX Corps comprised the 27th British Commonwealth Brig, the Greek and Philippine battalions, the ROK 6th Div, the US 1st Cavalry Div, and the US 24th Inf Div. The remainder of the line, from Kapyong to the east coast near Yangyang, was held by the ROK III, II, and I Corps, including from left to right the ROK 2d, 5th, 8th, 9th, and Capital Divisions.

Two divisions of the reorganized US X Corps, the 2d (with attached Dutch and French battalions) and the 7th, had been moved up to the important lateral roads of the Chongju-Wonju-Chechon area with a mission of countering a possible enemy breakthrough on the eastern front. The 1st Mar Div, in Army reserve, was assigned a sector in the vicinity of Pohang but directed to continue training and reorganization at Masan. The 187th Airborne RCT and the Thailand Bn held secondary defense positions near Suwon, while the US 3d Div, the ROK 11th Div, and the Canadian and New Zealand battalions were still farther back in reserve.

This was the lineup on 1 January when the enemy achieved his first deep penetrations in the ROK-held central and eastern sectors. Within 24 hours every UN unit in the front line was under attack except the US 25th Div and Turkish Brig on the left and the ROK Capital Div on the extreme right. The main CCF effort developed north of Seoul, where the ROK 1st Div was inundated near Choksong after putting up a good fight against nine attacking divisions. The breakthrough imperiled the left flank of the US 24th Div in the Uijongbu area, and the resulting withdrawal made it necessary to abandon Seoul and Inchon to the enemy.

It was an unusual experience for Leathernecks to find themselves in the role of bystanders while a battle was in progress. This phenomenon was explained by the fact that the 1st Mar Div had reached Masan with a shortage of 140 officers and 3,654 men after the heavy casualties of the Chosin Reservoir operations. Throughout January and the first week of February, replacements to a total of 104 officers and 3,283 men were drawn in various drafts from Japan, the Mariannas, the Philippines, and the United States. Even so, the division continued to operate on an understrength basis because of non-battle casualties sustained during this same period.

The news of the evacuation of Seoul and Inchon was depressing to Marines who had wrested those cities from the enemy in September. Thousands of Korean civilians fled in terror when the CCF invaders occupied the ROK capital on 4 January and the seaport the next day. As the second withdrawal from this area by UN forces since the beginning of the war, it was a moral blow to the cause. It was also a material setback, since it meant the loss of a valuable port and staging center. Once again, as a consequence, Pusan must become the primary receiving port for more troops and supplies than its facilities could handle efficiently.

When Seoul and Inchon could no longer be held, I and IX Corps with their attached forces were ordered to fall back to positions south of the Han River. Gen Ridgway gave both corps commanders the mission of inflicting “maximum punishment, maximum delay, consistent with the maintenance intact of your major units.” A heavy price in casualties was exacted from the enemy, but the frozen river was no barrier to Chinese who could cross on the ice. The right flank of UN forces in western Korea was endangered, moreover, by the rapid advance of invaders meeting little resistance in ROK-held areas to the east. These factors influenced a command decision to retire still farther south.

The phrase “withdrawal to prepared positions” has covered a multitude of strategic sins, but this time it needed no apology. Line D, Operations Plan 19, had been established to meet such an emergency, and the two corps carried out an orderly maneuver. Enemy pressure was less troublesome than the interference of hordes of Korean civilians fleeing southward. At Suwan, where large stocks of military supplies had to be evacuated, a screaming mob of 100,000 refugees milled into the railroad yard and stopped trains. Such demonstrations made it necessary for troop movements to be coordinated with a plan for channeling the civilian migration to assigned centers in southwest Korea.

Line D extended from the west coast through Ansong and Chechon to the eastern sectors, where a fluid situation prevailed as a result of enemy penetrations. In this area only the stubborn resistance of the US 2d and 7th Divs of X Corps had enabled the battered ROK 2d, 5th, 8th, and 9th Divs to be extricated. Here the front was still obscurely outlined all the way to the vicinity of Samchok on the east coast.

Until the lines became stabilized in this area, two enemy possibilities had to be recognized: (1) a large-scale CCF breakthrough which would endanger the flank of UN forces in central and west Korea; (2) the infiltration of guerrilla bands southward through the mountains for destructive raids on roads and rail communications.

Preventive measures were discussed on 8 January at Eighth Army headquarters. As a first step, Gen Ridgway ordered MaGen Oliver P. Smith, CG 1st Mar Div, to move from Masan up to the Pohang area. The Leathernecks were given the mission of blocking penetrations in force south of the Andong-Yongdok road and protecting the Andong-Yongchn MSR—a section of the UN lifeline from the port of Pusan. It was a broad assignment which might mean either a major battle or a guerrilla hunt. In any event, it would mean a good deal of strenuous outdoor exercise in a sector roughly 40 miles square, with the corners represented by Andong and Yongdok on the north, and Yongchon and Pohang on the south. The entire area was mountainous, especially in the center, and the secondary roads consisted of mere trails.

Enemy forces in unknown numbers had already infiltrated through gaps in the eastern sectors of Line D. Guerrilla activity was reported as far west as Tanyang, on the MSR of IX Corps, and as far south as Taejon, threatening the supply line of I Corps. Train ambushes occurred on 13 January in the Namchang area and to the south of Wonju. Other attacks took place on the rail line about 60 miles north of Taegu. In expectation of further attempts, trains were provided with a sandbagged car to absorb the shock of land-mine explosions, and a car containing guards with machine guns.

The tremendous possibilities of guerrilla warfare as an adjunct to large-scale military operations had been demonstrated time and again in WWII. Officers of the 1st Mar Div could have had no illusions about the importance of their new mission, therefore, when it was reported that large North Korean forces had infiltrated behind the UN lines toward Andong.

Movement of division units to the Pohang area began on 10 January with a motor lift of RCT-1, reinforced by the Div Recon Co, the 2d Bn of the 11th Marines, Charlie Co of the 1st Engr Bn, and Dog Co of the 1st Med Bn. This force had the mission of protecting the MSR between Uisong and Yongchon after occupying both towns.

Further Eighth Army orders of the 12th, calling for the securing of Andong, were carried out by the 1st Bn of RCT-1. Meanwhile the rest of the division moved by LST and motor to Pohang, where the last unit arrived on the 17th. RCT-5 sent patrols up the coast of Yongdok as RCT-7 occupied the center of the 40-mile square, with its CP at Topyong-dong.

Persistent reports of enemy penetrations north of Andong led to new division orders sending RCT-1 to that town with the responsibility for protecting the MSR as far as Uisong while RCT-5 patrolled from Pohang to Uisong. Missions of other units remained unchanged.

Indications of an enemy build-up were confirmed on 18 January when a 3/1 patrol, operating east of Andong, flushed out an undetermined number of North Korean troops. They took to their heels so earnestly that none was believed to have been killed or wounded. But the Leathernecks managed to catch three of them, and the prisoners identified their unit as the 27th Inf Regt of the NK 10th Div. Other units were the 25th and 29th Inf Regts, supported more in theory than fact by artillery, mortar, engineer, medical, and signal battalions. The division was so much understrength, however, that its estimated total of 6,000 to 8,000 troops consisted largely of infantry. A few mortars, according to the prisoners, were the heaviest weapons.

In September, following the Inchon-Seoul operation and combined Eighth Army offensive, the NK 10th Div had shared in the general North Korean collapse. From the Naktong front the tattered remnants fell back across the 38th Parallel to the vicinity of Hwachon. There a reorganization took place after the Chinese intervention gave a new impetus to North Korean efforts. Neither the troops nor equipment were available to bring the division back to full strength, but the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare does not depend on the heaviest battalions. And on 26 December the rebuilt 10th, commanded by MajGen Lee Ban Nam, departed Hwachon with a mission of infiltrating through the UN lines to cut communications and harass rear installations of the Andong-Taegu area.

A more promising field for such operations could scarcely have been found in all South Korea. For this area was bisected by the two main supply lines linking Pusan with the I and IX Corps of the Eighth Army.

The NK 10th Div got off to a good start by eluding UN troops, after unwelcome contacts near Wonju, and dodging eastward for a penetration through the mountains. Good guerrilla tactics aim less at fighting than undermining an opponent’s ability to fight, and the North Koreans continued to shun action while moving southward. Hiding by day and traveling by night over hill trails, they finally neared Andong on 18 February. There the loss of three prisoners to the Marines deprived them at the outset of the secrecy which is one of the most potent weapons of guerrilla warfare.

Although it had been a fortuitous encounter for the Marines, staff officers realized that this was only the opening round. If it came to a fight, there could be little doubt about the outcome. But it had to be recognized that the North Korean as well as Chinese soldier was at his best in such techniques as infiltration, surprise night attacks, and camouflage. A battalion of Orientals could crowd for concealment and warmth into a cave which a platoon of Marines would have found too cramped. In short, the enemy’s very weakness—his lack of heavy arms and equipment—was the strength of a highly mobile force operating in small and stealthy groups to prey upon communications.

The enemy had his problems, too. Military critics have agreed, on a basis of WWII experience, that several advantages are essential for effective guerrilla warfare. These requirements have been summed up by a military publication as follows:

“The support of the local inhabitants; a secure and well-organized base of operations; a reliable intelligence system, including good communications and a source of supply.”

It remained to be seen whether the NK 10th Div had these qualifications. Meanwhile, the 1st Mar Div had as its main task the responsibility of keeping open the 7th-mile stretch of MSR from Pohang to Andong. Strong points were set up as Pohang, Yongchon, Uisong, and Andong, so that the farthest distance between Marine reinforcements was 15 miles—the halfway point between Yongchon and Uisong.

Locating the enemy proved from the beginning to be a more difficult problem than defeating him. Motorized patrolling went on aggressively in all three regimental sectors. And though every effort was made to increase mobility, the Leathernecks did not sacrifice firepower. Whenever feasible, such patrols had the support of tanks or at least a 105mm howitzer.

Secondary roads and obscure mountain trails were covered on foot by “rice-paddy patrols.” Numbering from four men to a squad, these foot patrols ranged far out into the boondocks. On a single day the 5th Marines alone had 29 of these rice-paddy patrols in action as two motorized patrols kept watch over roads passable for vehicles.

The enemy contrived to make himself scarce for four days after his first unhappy contact with the 1st MarDiv. Only minor clashes were reported until 22 January, when a NK force estimated at about 2,000 was run down by a 1/1 patrol operating northeast of Uisong. The guerrillas paused long enough for an exchange of mortar and small-arms fire, then fled after breaking up into groups of 50 to 100. An estimated 200 casualties were inflicted by Marines who had no losses.

Information made it appear that the invaders were withdrawing from the zones of the 1st and 5th Marines into the mountainous center of the division sector, where the 7th Marines were operating. On 24 January, therefore, all three battalions of that regiment began a coordinated offensive. The enemy managed to avoid a large-scale action that day, but in the early hours of the 25th the regimental CP at Topyong-dong came under attack. The assailants, using small arms and machine guns, were identified as a company of the NK 25th Regt. They disengaged after an hour and a half, only to meet a second repulse later in the morning.

Both attempts, tactically speaking, were examples of sending a boy to do a man’s job. The Marines could have asked no greater favor than further displays of aggressive spirit, and 200 enemy obliged on the afternoon of the 25th by defending a hill west of Chiso-dong. Several 1/7 attacks were stopped by NK mortars and machine guns, but in the morning the Leathernecks took the position with the support of mortar and artillery fires.

All three battalions of RCT-7 continued to enforce eviction proceedings in the regimental zones with air and artillery support. Only in the vicinity of Haptong-ni did the Marine advance meet any opposition. There an estimated 400 men of the NK 25th Regt resisted in wooded areas with small arms and machine guns. About 150 were believed to have been killed by the Leathernecks in the two main fire fights.

Altogether, it was estimated that RCT-7 alone killed 250 guerrillas and wounded 500 in the three-day operation. The effectiveness of NK resistance may be measured by total 1st Mar Div losses of six killed and 28 wounded for the week ending on 28 January.

So far the effort of the NK 10th Div had shown symptoms of complete failure as a guerrilla operation. This is not surprising, since all the essentials for success were lacking. Far from receiving any support from the local inhabitants, the invaders had their own movements promptly reported to the Marines. Retaliations on civilians, such as burning a mountain village, did not improve relations. Nor did the enemy possess any of the other requisites for effective guerrilla warfare—a secure base, a source of supply, good communications, and an intelligence system.

As a consequence, the heavy toll of 10th Div battle casualties was probably exceeded by losses from disease and desertion. Typhus had reached the proportions of an epidemic before the end of January, according to a prisoner. Other PWs reported that low morale, resulting from inadequate food and rest was also thinning the North Korean ranks.

Even so, 1st Mar Div intelligence reports warned that 3,000 to 5,000 enemy remained in the sector during the last week in January. They were reported to be well armed with US machine guns and M-1 rifles captured in the recent CCF offensives. Some of the guerrillas, including the women used as burden bearers, were wearing US Army jackets and trousers.

The strategic nuisance value of such a force could not be discounted. Until it was destroyed, the Marines could only regard their sector as containing 1,600 square miles of potential trouble which must not be allowed to happen.

Such a mission was invaluable as a large-scale training exercise for the hundreds of new troops being absorbed into the 1st Mar Div. Some of them had arrived at Masan in time for a brief but vigorous period of indoctrination. Later arrivals went from Pusan directly up to the front. In either event, the replacements were given an unusual opportunity to learn by doing. Although Marine battle casualties continued to be light, there was no lack of danger and hardship. Thus a week in the mountains with a self-sufficient foot patrol was worth a month in a stateside training camp to newcomers instructed by Reservoir veterans.

During the three-day offensive of RCT-7, the other two regimental zones had few and minor contacts. Later in January, however, it was reported that the remnants of the NK 25th and 27th Regts were in flight toward the zone of RCT-5. The whole regiment was concentrated in the Yongchon area to deal a knockout blow, but the enemy stole away to the north in the vicinity of Topyong-dong.

Unrelenting Marine pressure throughout the first week of February wore the invaders down until groups larger than 50 men were seldom encountered. On the 3d, an NK 2dLt surrendered voluntarily to a RCT-7 patrol and brought three of his men with him. North Korean morale, he divulged, had sunk so low that all ranks were striving only for survival. The division commander, Gen Lee Ban Nam, had apparently become a victim of acute melancholia. He spent “nearly all his time,” according to the prisoner, in the solitude of foxholes dug into overhanging banks. There he brooded constantly over his predicament, but without arriving at any better solution than alternate hiding and flight.

Certainly the situation did not offer much to make Gen Lee Ban Nam happy, and the Marines continued to give him fresh causes for depression. His footsore remnants eluded RCT-5 only to stumble into the zone of RCT-1, northeast of Uisong. Neither rest nor sanctuary awaited them, for 1/1 and 2/1 penetrated into the mountains near Sangyong to surprise and rout a force estimated at 400—the last group of any size to be encountered.

About 75 men of the NK 27th Regt were killed. Excellent close air support was provided throughout the Pohang guerrilla hunt by 12 planes of VMF(N)-513, based at Pusan. Most of the other units of the 1st Mar Air Wing were in Japan meanwhile, preparing for redeployment in Korea when the need arose for further large-scale air operations. During this interim VMF(N)-512 flew 11 missions between 22 January and 11 February against enemy troops. Many other missions were carried out for the destruction of supply dumps.

On 2 February, in accordance with an Eighth Army directive, the 5th Korean Marine Regt was ordered to conduct operations on the left flank of the 1st Mar Div to intercept any possible enemy movement n the Andong-Yongdok road. By this time, however, it was becoming more and more apparent that the Marines had nearly finished their task. For the NK 10th Div was disintegrating into groups too small to do much mischief, even if they had not avoided contacts.

The invaders had accomplished little to compensate for their heavy losses. They had seldom come within striking distance of the Andong-Pohang MSR, and traffic had not been interrupted even on secondary roads. Not a single Marine patrol had been cut off and destroyed; and division battle casualties amounted only to seven killed, 38 wounded, and 10 missing from 27 January to 3 February, the second week of active operations.

A few destroyed villages and about a dozen unguarded road blocks, several of them booby-trapped—such was the extent of the damage wrought by the NK 10th Div. This record could not compare with the vigorous guerrilla operations of the NK 5th Div just after the Marine landing at Wonsan late in October. Although reduced to an estimated strength of three battalions, that enemy force cut the Majon-ni-Wonsan MSR so persistently that a reinforced Marine RCT had to be assigned for its protection. In contrast, the three infantry regiments of the NK 10th Div did little except provide training for Marine replacements. This was a timely favor, since the first rotation draft of five officers and 600 men—all of them chosen for merit as well as length of service—was due to depart on the USS Breckinridge in February. Thanks to the NK 10th Div, the places of these Leathernecks would be filled by new men with actual combat experience.

Gen Smith was able to report to CG Eighth Army on 6 February that the enemy in his sector had been reduced an estimated 60% in strength and no longer threatened the MSR. Small and isolated groups remained to be mopped up, he added, but the situation was sufficiently under control to justify the withdrawal of the Marines.

As early as 9 January, while conferring with Gen Smith at Masan, Gen Ridgway had made it plain that he intended to resume the offensive at his first opportunity. Barely a week later he launched the limited objective offensives followed until the Eighth Army had regained some of its lost ground. But the enemy struck back during the second week of February in the Wonju area, and a breakthrough by four CCF divisions created a menacing salient.

This was the situation on 15 February when the 1st Mar Div was assigned to IX Corps and alerted for relief by the 17th, 31st, and 32d regiments of the 2d ROK Div. The Marines were ordered by CG X Corps to begin their move to the area south of Wonju the next day in preparation for a new Eighth Army drive—the most ambitious attack planned since the January retreat.

As the 1st Mar Div left the Pohang-Andong sector, a few enemy groups were still hiding in the hills. But the area in general was as tranquil as if the invaders had never troubled its snowbound heights. The departing Leathernecks, in fact, might have been pardoned for concluding that the NK 10th Div and its gloomy commander were but creatures of the imagination—phantoms to be compared to the Flying Dutchman, the legendary ship condemned to sail on endlessly until the day of judgment. The destroyed NK 10th Div also seemed doomed to perpetual flight as its ghostly survivors made their way from crag to crag of the remote ridgelines.

 

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