“Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are merely advancing in another direction.” – General Oliver P. Smith, Commanding General 1st Marine Division addressing his subordinate commanders as to the Division’s withdraw to Hungnam from Haguri 4 December 1950.
The promise of “having the boys home by Christmas” made by General Douglas MacArthur at the end of November 1950 was proven by the first week of December to no longer be on the table. What had been seen as a sweeping Allied victory was now bordering on a full route. The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) had the goal of destroying the American units in North Korea, including having their sights set on complete annihilation of the 1st Marine Division. The only hope for the Americans and their Allies was the port of Hungnam. They had to get there first.
Fight to Hungnam.
Following MacArthur’s insistence on speeding north to end the war, the X Corps was spread out along the Main Supply Route (MSR) when the Chinese attacked. This led to the Chinese being in amongst the lines of the Marines, attempting to sever their only escape. To their credit, the Marines had set up various defensive positions at key villages in their drive north. This allowed them to keep the MSR open now that it had been determined that a withdrawal was needed. General Oliver P. Smith, Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division, determined on 30 November 1950 that their positions were no longer tenable and the withdrawal was needed to save the division.
Being surrounded by the enemy, the X Corps, with the 1st Marine Division at the head, wouldn’t necessarily be withdrawing, but fighting their way to the port city of Hungnam 70 miles away. The port was the lifeline; every effort was being made to move as many ships there to get men and material out of North Korea before they were swallowed up by the Chinese. This was Dunkirk for Korea. Between X Corps and Hungnam was 70 miles of winding mountain roads, Siberian wind fed artic weather, and relentless Chinese assaults that seemingly never ended.
The X Corps would withdraw along the winding roads, having to fight through roadblocks the Chinese in the surrounding hills threw up to delay the force. The Chinese would hide out during the day, because Allied aircraft circled overhead, dropping ordnance in an attempt to defend the troops. At night, the sounds of Chinese bugles and whistles rang out, as waves of Chinese soldiers crashed into the Allied lines. It became a close in fight, as wave after wave of PVA soldiers assaulted the Allied lines and overran them. Even with these breakthroughs the defenders held on and by morning they were back to their slog south.
The condition of the Chinese soldiers during this time need explanation. Veterans who encountered these soldiers noted that at first they thought some of the Chinese had black boots on. When the prisoners that the Allies took were examined, the “black boots” they were thought to have were actually the Chinese solders’ severely frostbitten feet! These soldiers were flight in -30 degree weather in bare feet! Veterans noted that if the Chinese overtook an American position, the Chinese would break off the attack to plunder for food and cold weather gear.
10 December 1950 – 24 December 1950
Consolidating after their break out from the Chosin Reservoir at the port of Hungnam, North Korea, with the Chinese on their heels, X corps begins its evacuation to Pusan, South Korea. While the Chinese plan was to destroy the Allied forces in North Korea, it failed to do so, though the Allies sustained heavy losses both in combat and frostbite cases in the subzero weather. The task of a waterborne redeployment with an overwhelming enemy force at the door was no small task. The Marines, being an amphibious force, were accustomed to ship movement, however Army and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces that made up the rest of the X Corps were not.
Once the plan was developed to move X Corps in this manner, General Almond, commander of X Corps, gave a consolidation deadline for the move to the Pusan area of 27 December 1950. This gave the multi branch, multi national force of 105,000 men, plus 91,000 refugees fleeing the Chinese wave, and the additional 350,000 tons of supplies just two weeks to execute. The evacuation from Wonson concluded on 10 December, was a small scale operation (over 3,000 troops 7,000 refugees and 10,000 tons of cargo, small compared to the Hungnam) and a good instructive operation for the Hungnam operation.
The defensive perimeter that protected Hungnam during this redeployment gradually got smaller and smaller as units were redeployed out of the port. Combined naval and air forces kept up a steady rate of fire to help the defenders keep the port in operation. The plan was to create a ring of fire around the port, using the combined naval gunfire and sustained air bombardment. This kept the Chinese from overwhelming the defenders and ultimately led to the survivors of the Chosin campaign being redeployed to Pusan. In a matter of a few months, the peninsula had seen a North Korean incursion, the Allies drive them back, and now the Chinese onslaught that drove the Allies out of North Korea.
Eighth Army Withdrawal From Pyongyang.
On the other side of the Peninsula the Eighth Army was also falling back from the North Korean Capitol of Pyongyang, facing a Chinese onslaught of their own.
On 23 December 1950, Eighth Army Commander General Walton Walker was involved in an automobile accident just outside of Seoul. His Jeep collided head on with a truck and the General was flung from his Jeep, killing him.
General Walker is credited for saving the Eighth Army in the opening weeks of the war. His leadership kept the Pusan Perimeter intact ensuring that the whole of the Peninsula didn’t fall to the Communists. On top of the crushing wave of Chinese troops turning the tide of the war that seemed just weeks before to be almost over, the Eighth Army lost is beloved commander in a vehicle accident.
On 26 December Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway would arrive in Korea and take command of the Eighth Army. As 1950 drew to a close, it seemed that the war in Korea was once again going badly for the Allies. The Chinese drive south didn’t stop at the border, they continued to drive on. As 1951 dawned, the tide of the war had shifted again, control of the Peninsula was once again up for grabs.