By Sam Cox, Director of Naval History, 30 November 2020
Following the success of the United Nations amphibious landings at Inchon and Wonsan, by mid-October 1950 United Nations forces were driving northward in North Korea toward the Yalu River (the border between North Korea and China/Manchuria.) Meeting little opposition, “home before Christmas” fever began to grip U.S. forces despite Communist China’s warning that if UN forces crossed the 38th Parallel (the pre-war dividing line between Communist North Korea and Free South Korea) China would intervene in the war to prevent having hostile foreign forces on China’s border. On 19 October 1950, Chinese troops began crossing into North Korea at night undetected, resulting in a surprise defeat, one of the worst of the war, for the U.S. Army at the Battle of Unsan on 1 November.
In response to the Chinese incursion, the carriers of Task Force 77 were directed to attack the Korean-end of bridges over the Yalu River with the intent to forestall Chinese reinforcement and resupply. These carrier air strikes resulted in the first clashes between U.S. Navy jet fighters and Soviet-piloted MiG-15 jet fighters (with North Korean markings flying from Chinese bases in Manchuria.) On 9 November, Lieutenant Commander William Amen became the first Navy pilot (and possibly the first of any pilot) to shoot down a MiG-15, and within a week U.S. Navy pilots downed two more MiG-15’s without suffering any losses. The Soviets tried to keep their involvement secret and it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that the full extent of massive Soviet involvement became known.
Meanwhile, following the Battle of Unsan, Chinese forces disappeared into the mountains and forests of North Korea, resulting in a lull that created a false sense of security by UN Commanders that Chinese intervention would be minimal and easily defeated. However, in one of the greatest Intelligence failures (or operational failure to use Intelligence) in modern history, the Chinese infiltrated a force of over 300,000 men into North Korea at night through the mountains almost completely undetected. In late November, the Chinese took steps to try to lure UN forces further northward into a giant trap. It worked.
On 27 November 1950, on the heels of the worst Siberian blizzard in a century, the Chinese launched a massive surprise offensive against UN forces in western North Korea (U.S. 8th Army, South Korean and some British and Turkish units) and against UN forces in eastern North Korea (1st Marine Division, 7th Infantry Division, and South Korean I Corps.) The Chinese attack in the west was a debacle, as the Chinese (who fought at night) repeatedly threatened to encircle UN units resulting in the UN units withdrawing to prevent being encircled. This resulted in the destruction of most of the South Korean units and led to a pell-mell retreat by the U.S. 8th Army all the way back to the 38th parallel in which unit cohesion broke down and much equipment and weapons were abandoned.
On the eastern side of the North Korean mountains, the brunt of the Chinese offensive hit the 1st Marine Division, which had been carefully advancing northwards around Chosin Reservoir. Grossly outnumbered, four different groupings of Marines were surrounded and cut off from each other, with only one barely passable road though the mountains (with the Chinese on the heights) connecting them to each other and to the sea, 75 miles distant. Nevertheless, despite the odds, bitterly cold weather, and high casualties, the Marines retained their unit cohesion and fighting spirit, fighting their way back down the road and inflicting far more casualties on the Chinese than were inflicted on them. In what would become known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, the Marines would earn 14 Medals of Honor (seven posthumously) and would emerge at the end as an intact fighting force.
The Marines at Chosin were aided greatly by close air support from Marine and Navy aircraft flying from U.S. aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan despite abysmal weather and sea conditions. In one such mission on 4 December 1950 in support of the Marines, Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American qualified as a Naval Aviator, was probably hit by ground fire and forced to crash land his Corsair high in the mountains where he wound up alive but pinned in the wreckage of his burning plane. Brown’s wingman, Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas Hudner deliberately made a wheels-up landing near Brown’s plane in a desperate attempt to extract Brown from the cockpit. Marine helicopter pilot First Lieutenant Charles Ward made a dangerous attempt to rescue Brown, but neither Hudner nor Ward could get Brown out of the plane before he succumbed to his injuries and hypothermia. Ward was awarded a Silver Star and Hudner would be the first Navy recipient of a Medal of Honor in the Korean War. Jesse Brown was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his previous 20 combat missions.
With the front in the west collapsing, the Supreme UN Commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, ordered the UN forces in eastern North Korea to be evacuated by sea from the port of Hungnam, so they could be transported to the other side of Korea in an attempt to prevent Seoul from falling to the Communists for the second time in the war. The evacuation of X Corps (1st Marine Division, 7th and 3rd Infantry Divisions) and South Korean I Corps was a massive logistical undertaking by the U.S. Navy, completed on 24 December and dubbed “the Christmas Miracle.”
In the evacuation from Hungnam, 105,000 U.S. and military personnel, 91,000 Korean civilian refugees (including the parents of the current President of South Korea – one ship alone brought out 14,000 refugees) and 17,500 vehicles were extracted, with nothing of military value left behind, all with no loss to the enemy. Regrettably, there was insufficient room for many thousands more refugees desperate to escape the advancing Chinese Army (or what was left of it after the Marines, Naval Aviation, and sub-zero temperatures were through with it.) As the last ships pulled out, the port facilities in Hungnam were deliberately destroyed in a massive explosion set by U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Teams.
On 5 December 1945, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers from Fort Lauderdale Naval Station were lost on a routine overwater navigation flight over the Bahamas Islands. No trace of the planes or the 14 pilots and aircrewmen aboard has ever been found. Fragmentary radio communications indicated compass failure and disorientation of the flight leader as the likely cause leading to the planes running out of fuel and ditching at sea as a bad weather front moved in hampering the search and any possible survival. A PBM Mariner flying boat launched from Banana River Naval Air Station (now Patrick Air Force Base) to search for the missing Avengers probably exploded in flight with the loss of all 13 men aboard. Radar and visual sighting of a flaming aircraft falling from the sky indicated a sudden catastrophic end for the Mariner: although the exact cause of the Mariner’s loss was not determined, the planes were prone to gasoline vapor accumulating in the bilges. The exact cause of the loss of the five Avengers has also never been determined, however the “mystery” is one of the most enduring in aviation history and quickly became part of “Bermuda Triangle” and “Alien/UFO” lore (see the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which depicts the “return” of Flight 19 by the aliens.) I will cover Flight 19 in greater detail in the next H-gram.