Inchon: MacArthur Overcomes the Doubters

Inchon: MacArthur Overcomes the Doubters
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Seventy years ago, on Sept. 15, 1950, at 5 a.m., Wolmi-do and Sowolmi-do Islands, which guarded the harbor at the South Korean port of Inchon, came under air and naval bombardment by U.S. forces. At 6:30 a.m., the U.S. 5th Marine Regiment exited its landing craft and came ashore on the north end of Wolmi-do. At 8:00 a.m., the Marines attacked a small North Korean garrison on Sowolmi-do. By noon, both islands were in American hands, 200 enemy soldiers were killed and 140 captured. Seventeen Marines were wounded. 

On board the Mount McKinley, 70-year-old General Douglas MacArthur sent a message to the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “First phase landing successful with losses slight. Surprise apparently complete. All goes well and on schedule.”

Due to the tides off Inchon — some of the world’s highest — the main assault on Inchon didn’t begin until 6:30 p.m. The 5th Marines and 1st Marine Division made the initial assault on Inchon and established beachheads. The next day, the Marines moved toward Ascom City and Kimpo Airfield. On Sept. 17, the 7th Army Division landed at Inchon and proceeded forward on the right flank of the Marines. MacArthur came ashore the same day. The Inchon landing was a resounding success.

Landing at Inchon almost didn't happen

The landing at Inchon — which saved South Korea and caused North Korean forces to retreat across the 38th Parallel — almost didn’t happen. MacArthur conceived the landing at Inchon on June 29, 1950, four days after North Korea — with Soviet and Chinese support — invaded South Korea. He flew from his headquarters in Tokyo to Suwon near the Han River and observed, in his words, “the pitiful evidence of the disaster I had inherited.”

The South Korean army was in full retreat. The communist advance could only be stopped, he believed, “by a counterstroke that could in itself wrest victory from defeat.” The next day, MacArthur requested authority to use American ground forces to attempt to stabilize a crumbling front and prepare for a counter-offensive. As his most comprehensive biographer D. Clayton James noted, MacArthur was already thinking in “the narrower dimension of a theater strategy that could trap the enemy army by a surprise amphibious envelopment.”

Planning for Inchon began three days after MacArthur returned to Tokyo, but it soon ran into opposition in Washington among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At meetings in Tokyo on July 13-14, Army Chief of Staff J. Lawton Collins expressed serious reservations about the plan due to Inchon’s high tides. MacArthur revised the plan and submitted “Operation Chromite” to the Joint Chiefs on July 23. He suggested a date of Sept. 15 for the landing. “I am firmly convinced,” MacArthur wrote, “that an early and strong effort behind [the enemy’s] front will sever his main lines of communications and enable us to deliver a decisive and crushing blow.” A frontal attack, he explained, would be protracted and expensive in lives.

Plenty of problems to consider in landing at Inchon

In subsequent meetings with President Truman’s envoy Averell Harriman and three other high-ranking generals, MacArthur gave what one general called “a brilliant 2-and-a-half hour presentation” of the merits of the Inchon plan. He persuaded them to recommend Chromite to Truman, but the Joint Chiefs remained un-persuaded. Biographer James wrote that the Chiefs “were concerned primarily with persisting questions about navigating the narrow port channel that might be mined, coping with the huge tidal problem, draining men and material from the Eighth Army, and linking up with [General] Walker’s army from the Naktong area.” 

A final meeting on the Inchon plan was held on Aug. 23 at MacArthur’s headquarters in the Dai Ichi building in Tokyo. General Collins, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Forrest Sherman, other Navy and Marine officers listened as one briefer after another pointed out all that could go wrong with Operation Chromite. As the naysayers expressed their doubts, James wrote, MacArthur remained mostly silent, puffing on his pipe. 

MacArthur convincing, but there was still hesitation

When it was time for MacArthur to respond, he did so in dramatic fashion. Speaking without notes for about 45 minutes, MacArthur, James wrote, spoke “eloquently, . . . commanding every officer’s attention.” “Surprise,” MacArthur said, is the most vital element for success in war.” He explained that the doubts expressed by the Marine and Naval briefers would likely be shared by enemy commanders and “ensure for me the element of surprise.” The high tides, the terrain, and other obstacles are “substantial and pertinent,” he acknowledged, “[b]ut they are not insuperable.” 

He reminded the officers of the success of his amphibious operations in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. Then he reached farther back into history: “Like Montcalm [at Quebec], the North Koreans would regard an Inchon landing as impossible. Like Wolfe, I could take them by surprise.” The only alternative to his plan, MacArthur said, was a “continuation of the savage sacrifice we are making at Pusan.

“Are you content,” he asked, “to let our troops stay in that bloody perimeter like beef cattle in the slaughterhouse?” 

MacArthur then waxed geopolitical. “It is plainly apparent,” he said, “that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest. The test is not in Berlin or Vienna, in London, Paris, or Washington. It is here and now — it is along the Naktong River in South Korea. ... I can almost hear the ticking of the second hand of destiny,” he said. “We must act now or we will die.” 

MacArthur admitted that Inchon was a gamble, but he concluded with supreme confidence: “We shall land at Inchon and I shall crush them.” 

The doubters were impressed — who could not be — but they were not fully convinced. MacArthur later recalled that in his mind he heard his father’s (Gen. Arthur MacArthur) voice: “Doug, councils of war breed timidity and defeatism.” In late August, with great reluctance, the Joint Chiefs and President Truman approved the plan with reservations.

Success at Inchon got attention

“He had done it,” writes MacArthur’s most recent biographer Arthur Herman. “He had defied the critics, the naysayers, the odds, even nature herself in the shape of tides and typhoons.” Two weeks after the landing, South Korea’s capital was retaken. The scenes in Seoul were grim. North Korean forces and communist secret police forces had massacred more than 25,000 civilians. Mass graves containing American POWs were discovered. For MacArthur, it was reminiscent of Japanese atrocities in Manila during World War II.  

At Seoul’s National Assembly Hall, MacArthur, standing alongside South Korean President Syngman Rhee, thanked American and UN forces and “the grace of a merciful Providence” for the liberation of Seoul. He then led all assembled in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Victory and success breed admirers. President Truman sent a message expressing his “warmest congratulations in the victory which has been achieved under your leadership.” Defense Secretary George Marshall telegrammed: “Accept my personal tribute to the courageous campaign you directed in Korea.” A message from the Joint Chiefs stated: “You have given new inspiration to the freedom-loving peoples of the world.” Admiral Bull Halsey wrote: “Characteristic and magnificent. The Inchon landing is the most masterful and audacious strategic stroke in all history.” Dwight Eisenhower complimented MacArthur on “a brilliant example of professional leadership.” Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshida said: “The world owes an infinite debt of gratitude” to MacArthur. Winston Churchill called Inchon “a perfect job.”

Inchon was perhaps the greatest strategic performance by America’s greatest general of the 20th century. 

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