Korean War Series: Second Battle of Seoul.

“The tension from these little forays
whittled us pretty keen . . . . I think if one’s own mother had suddenly leapt out in front of us she would have
been cut down immediately, and we all would probably
have cheered with the break in tension.” – PFC. Morgan Brainard, 1st Marines describing the tension he and his fellow Marines felt fighting house to house in Seoul.

After the success of the Incheon landing and the capture of the Kimpo Airfield, the stage was set for the UN to drive on to it’s final objective in Operation Chromite; the liberation of the South Korean Capital of Seoul.

Crossing the Han.

On 20 September 1950, the 1st Marine Division began crossing the Han River, intent on securing the high ground beyond the river, dubbed Hill 125. The North Koreans held the hill, and were determined to make the crossing of the Han difficult. The 1st Marine Division undertook the crossing of the Han as if it was an amphibious operation. The Marine Corps had spent the Second World War conducting such operations against numerous Japanese held islands in the Pacific. With supporting arms from both field artillery units on their side of the river and Marine Corps aircraft overhead, the Marines pounded the far side of the river, to include Hill 125. While this went on, the first Landing Vehicle Tanks (LVT’s) began crossing the Han.

American and South Korean Marines crossing the Han River in an LVT. Photo Credit: Battle of the Barricades.

The North Koreans on Hill 125 opened up on the first assault wave. When company I of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines landed on the far shore, the North Koreans shifted their fire to them. This let up pressure so the follow on waves of the battalion could cross easier. Company I pushed up the hill, securing it with the support of Marine Corsairs overhead dropping bombs on the North Korean Battalion ordered to hold the hill. Once Company I took possession of the hill, the rest of the Battalion crossed with extreme ease.

With the crossing of the Han secured, the American and South Korean forces thought the drive to the outskirts of Seoul would be easy. While the Marines crossed the Han on the 20th, the North Korean high command sent the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment and the 25th North Korean People’s Army Brigade to Seoul to defend it and the surrounding area. The total force numbered around 5,000 NKPA troops.

With the Han crossing complete, what followed was three days of tough fighting in the ridges that led to Seoul. The NKPA put up a stubborn resistance, however the combination of American air superiority and the Marines’ use of infantry/tank tactics ground on to the outskirts of Seoul itself.

Fighting in Seoul.

The estimated 20,000 NKPA troops in Seoul, along with their civilian sympathisers, had built barricades and other defenses throughout Seoul to make it a difficult nut for the X Corps to crack. Colonel Chesty Puller had told a correspondent that he imagined the North Koreans would defend Seoul in a way that would require the X Corps to end up destroying the city. His ominous prediction would prove too true.

Marines taking cover behind one of the many NKPA barricades that made life difficult for the X Corps. Photo Credit: CBS News.

Fighting in a city is a scary undertaking for those tasked with it. Most assaults are designed to put the enemy in front of you, and your combined arms fix the enemy in that position while you flank and destroy them. In an urban setting, the enemy can be all around you. The buildings provide concealed, elevated positions from which snipers can fire on you. The tight streets, sewer systems, and narrow alleyways can provide the enemy plenty of escape routes, only to pop up somewhere else and try to kill you. Tanks, the tool of modern warfare, are limited in their effectiveness. Their mobility is restricted to streets, which are surrounded by buildings, a number of which can house an enemy soldier with an antitank weapon. Unless you do not care about civilian casualties, blasting these buildings down with tank or aircraft is not an option. So each building has to be cleared by infantry, and anyone who has had to clear a building that potentially is housing enemy soldiers, can tell you it is a frightening experience. Today, the military has what is called Military Operations on Urban Terrain or M.O.U.T training to prepare them for the challenges of urban warfare. They did not have this in 1950.

During World War Two the Marine Corps had a few examples of fighting in urban areas on Saipan and Okinawa, but those urban areas on those islands were nowhere near on the same scale as the South Korean Capital of Seoul.

The X Corps, the combined unit of the 1st Marine Division and the Army’s 7th Infantry Division that landed at Incheon, launched it’s assault into Seoul on the morning of 25 September 1950. The success of the assaults was measured by yards, with the two lead battalions of the 1st Marine Division only advancing 2,000 yards that first day. The Marines, who are designed for rapid amphibious assaults, found a new challenge in their current war; assaulting a large urban area.

In one of the most iconic photographs of the Second Battle of Seoul, U.S. Marines fight through the city. Photo Credit: New York Times.

In the coming days, the soldiers and Marines of the X Corps, along with their South Korean allies, fought block by block, house to house, and even hand to hand against the North Koreans in Seoul. Every block of the city was heavily contested, every barricade had to be destroyed or maneuvered around. When ground was gained, the North Koreans would counter attack to try and retake it. By the 27th of September, Allied forces had captured the French Embassy and raised the American flag over it. Additionally, they captured the Soviet embassy, took down the Soviet flag and raised the American flag over it. MacArthur declared the city secured on the 27th, however sporadic fighting continued within the city until the 29th.

Marine PFC Luther Leguire raising the American Flag over the American Consulate in Seoul during the fighting. Photo Credit: Korean War Association.

Following the success of Operation Chromite and the 8th Army’s breakout of Pusan, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) was retreating to their side of the 38th Parallel. President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave General MacArthur authorization the cross the 38th Parallel in pursuit of the NKPA. Beyond this authorization, there was no demarcation as to where MacArthur was to stop. MacArthur had every intention of moving right up to the Yalu River, the border between the Communist Chinese territory of Manchuria and North Korea.

The Chinese, intending to keep a communist buffer with the democratic south by the way of North Korea, began to secretly amass troops in Manchuria with the intention of intervening if the UN forces got too close to Manchuria. Ever the warrior, MacArthur intended to annihilate the NKPA, and even call China’s bluff, by driving right up to the Yalu. On 1 October the Republic of Korea (ROK) I Corps crossed the 38th Parallel, three months after the North Koreans had smashed their way south and five days later the ROK II Corp crossed as well.

On 9 October the US Eighth Army crossed, marking the first American forces to enter North Korea. The scope of the war had changed, and as the weather cooled and as the Korean Peninsula headed into fall, a shifting tide in the war was felt by those who were there. Time would tell how far American forces would go into North Korea, and what the consequences would be for such an action.

Sources

Alexander, Joseph H. (Colonel USMC, Ret.) Battle of the Barricades. U.S. Marines in the Recapture of Seoul. Marine Corp Historical Center. Korean War Commemorative Series.

Memory Bank Recapturing Seoul. Korean War Legacy Foundation. https://koreanwarlegacy.org/chapters/recapturing-seoul/

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