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My Brush With History

MacArthur’s Missed Signal?

June 2024
1min read

Why were twenty wounded American soldiers released on Thanksgiving in 1950, days before the Chinese attacked in Korea?

On Thanksgiving Day 1950, two months after General MacArthur’s masterly strategic stroke at Inchon, I was seventy-five miles south of Manchuria, posted to a battalion-sized 25th Infantry Division Task Force named for its commander, Lt. Col. Weldon G. Dolvin. Task Force Dolvin’s mission was to probe northward from the Ch’ongch’on River along the east side of its Kuryong tributary. This region had been the site of an earlier battle fought by elements of MacArthur’s favorite 1st Cavalry (really infantry) Division. It was rumored that “the Cav” had had “trouble” in the area and been withdrawn. Our division was its replacement.

A recent medical school and internship graduate, I was ordered to go north to a farmhouse situated between the only road in that area and the river and to bring medical supplies with me. After a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner I packed an aid kit and was directed to the house, where I found about twenty wounded American soldiers sitting or lying on the dirt floor of the kitchen. Captured in the previous engagement nearby, they had just been released. They were dressed warmly in the tan, padded-cotton uniforms we later came to know so well as Chinese-army winter issue. With clean wound dressings, splints for their fractures, and slings, the men had been so well cared for that I didn’t need any of the supplies I had brought along. The soldiers were quickly sent to the rear in task-force vehicles.

It was only in retrospect that I began to wonder about the episode, which was eclipsed a few days later by the massive Chinese assault and the subsequent 8th Army rout known as “the bug out.” We line soldiers were totally unaware of the Chinese military buildup and unable to read the uniform labels. But the good medical care the prisoners had received was clearly apparent. The North Korean People’s Army we had been facing until then had neither a reputation for medical expertise nor any tendency to release wounded prisoners in good condition. In fact it was notorious for shooting them.

It is inconceivable to me that the significance of this prisoner release would have been lost on division or 8th Army intelligence specialists. The source of the uniforms and their suitability for the approaching harsh Korean winter would also have been appreciated.

Was the Chinese commander attempting to signal to General MacArthur to stop his advance? I’m inclined to think so. Then what happened to that warning?

I suspect that returnee interrogation reports mentioning the Chinese uniforms and perhaps medical details as well were quickly relayed back to Tokyo and to the Supreme U.N. Commander there (MacArthur). I also suspect that the information got no farther and that its suppression may have become part of the fabric leading to General MacArthur’s defeat and later dismissal.

Whether President Truman or the Joint Chiefs of Staff knew the details of this episode when Truman fired MacArthur the following April, I just don’t know.

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