The Twenty-second Great Battle

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On June 27,1950, two days after the North Koreans invaded South Korea, I received a memorandum: “Subject: Appointment as Official Spokesman. To: Lieutenant Colonel Edward L. Rowny. 1. Effective immediately, in addition to your duties as Plans Officer, G-3 Section, FECOM [Far East Command], you will act as my official spokesman. 2. You will brief the press daily, telling them all they need to know and nothing they need not know. Signed: Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, FECOM .”

General MacArthur, dissatisfied with the performance of his public relations officer, assigned me the nerve-racking job of dealing with the press. For the next two months I lost many pounds and almost my mind dealing with the Alsop brothers and other journalists who came to Tokyo to cover the Korean War. I felt nothing but relief when on September 1, 1950, I joined the invasion forces as the engineer of X Corps.

Those “duties as Plans Officer” included working on the Inchon invasion. By late July the North Koreans had driven the troops of the United States, South Korea, and our other allies into the southern part of Korea.

General MacArthur decided that the best way to avoid abandoning the nation was to mount an invasion on its west coast. He directed the three of us working in the Plans Section to brief him on our individual concepts. One of my colleagues selected the boundary between the opposing forces as the site of the invasion, the textbook solution of attacking the hinge of the two forces; the other chose a site several miles north of the front line where the invading force could receive the benefit of our ground artillery. I picked a spot some 20 miles to the north, believing that the better landing beach and element of surprise would outweigh the benefit of our artillery.

After listening to our presentations in silence, General MacArthur strode to a large map of Korea and with a heavy marking pen drew an arrow 100 miles to the north through Inchon to the capital of Seoul, which stood some 20 miles from Inchon on the northern bank of the Han River.

“You are all pusillanimous,” he said. “Always strike for the objective, and the objective here is Korea’s capital. What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

One of us said that the enemy would likely be protecting Seoul, another that the waters around Inchon would be mined. I argued that the 31-foot tide, the second greatest in the world, would make the landing extremely difficult. General MacArthur ordered us to invade Inchon on September 15, 1950.

Meanwhile, the general faced a more formidable obstacle than us: The Joint Chiefs of Staff were opposed to the plan. General MacArthur invited them to Tokyo to listen to his concept for the Inchon invasion. In a session lasting six hours, I witnessed one of the greatest dramatic presentations imaginable. The general displayed a remarkable grasp of detail and impressed his audience by recounting the similarity of his plan to such great battles of history as Arbela, Marathon, and Tours. He demonstrated point by point how his plan fitted Clausewitz’s principles of war. When the Chiefs objected, he admonished them in Napoleon’s dictum: “Never take the counsel of your peers.” Enthralled and cowed, the Chiefs agreed to approve his plan.

Following the briefing, General MacArthur gave each of us a bear hug. To me, he said, “Rowny, this invasion will not only succeed but will become known as the twenty-second great battle of the world.” At West Point, I had often studied the mural at Washington Hall, where we had our meals, that depicted the 18 greatest battles of the world. I subsequently wrote three historians and got three different answers to which were the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first great battles.

Designated the engineer of the invading force, I was particularly anxious that the plan succeed. General MacArthur let it be known that he required the planners of the invading force to accompany the first wave. This, he said, like an imminent hanging, would sharpen our minds.

Fortunately, we achieved complete surprise; the waters were not mined and the beach was lightly defended. Marines, storming ashore from small landing craft, quickly dispatched the defenders. At the next high tide, LSTs unloaded tanks, artillery pieces, and vehicles and then lay nervously like beached whales until the tide permitted their return. The invasion was a resounding success. Within a week we had mopped up the sporadic resistance south of the Han River. It was General MacArthur’s plan to escort President Syngman Rhee over a bridge into Seoul following the Inchon landing.