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My Brush With History

The Twenty-Second Great Battle

June 2024
6min read

Gen. MacArthur designated the author as engineer of the Marine invasion at Wonsan, and told him to accompany the first wave. This would sharpen his mind, MacArthur said, "like an imminent hanging."

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.

“You are all pusillanimous,” Gen. MacArthur told us. “Always strike for the objective."

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.

Charged with the task of building that bridge, I was faced with three major difficulties. First, in order to meet the deadline, we had to start work before the far bank was completely secured. This resulted in numerous casualties to our bridge builders. The second difficulty was that the Han River was tidal, with fierce alternating currents; the third was that the river was wider than the amount of bridging of any single type that we had available. As a result, we established a foundry on the south bank, where we manufactured connecting links to join the three kinds of bridging we had on hand. As dawn broke on September 25, we calculated that it would take at least 10 hours to complete the bridge. Nevertheless, we received word from General MacArthur’s headquarters that he and President Rhee would arrive at Kimpo Airport at noon and cross the Han in jeeps. Through the superhuman effort of our engineers, and taking risks that the remaining parts of the floating bridge did not need to be anchored to withstand the tides, the party crossed the river on schedule. Later that day I wrote my wife that I had prayed that General MacArthur could really walk on water.

Having had such success on the west coast, General MacArthur made the mistake of believing that we could repeat the feat by invading the east coast at Wonsan. Here, however, the North Koreans had heavily mined the area, and it took three weeks to get forces ashore.

A second—and far costlier—mistake was the general’s assertion that the Chinese would not enter the war. Having captured two Chinese soldiers from a reconnaissance force, we invited General Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence officer, to come see for himself that these were in fact Chinese troops. The unbelieving general asked me why I felt certain that the prisoners were Chinese and not North Koreans.

“Look at the epicanthic fold of their eyes,” I said. “Only the Chinese have such eyes.”

“Don’t give me that anthropological jazz,” he said.

Several days later the Chinese hit in force and surrounded the U.S. Marines on the high plain of the Chosin Reservoir. As the corps engineer, I got the task of building a runway inside the perimeter so that planes could evacuate the hundreds who were wounded and killed daily, and who were augmented by even greater numbers of casualties inflicted by the 30-degree-below-zero weather. Our plan for constructing the runway was to set small charges of dynamite to break up the frozen earth, which would then be bulldozed smooth. We established two large tents with space heaters at the ends of the proposed runway, each tent housing a bulldozer. After the charges were set off, a bulldozer would leave the warming tent and smooth out the earth between the first and second warming tents. The one flaw in the plan was that the frozen earth stuck to the warm blades of the dozers. We tried operating the dozers in the sub-zero weather without the use of the warming tents, but it proved too cold. Our solution was to ask for an airdrop of several hundred pounds of ski wax from Tokyo. Rubbing the blades down with wax in the warming tents proved to be the solution (although I was maligned by U.S. reporters who asserted that I had requested the ski wax for recreational purposes).

The plan was to have the Seventh U.S. Army Division establish successive perimeters that would allow an orderly evacuation at Hungnam. I was given one final task, that of blowing up the harbor facilities once the troops had been evacuated. Our shrinking perimeters held, and the troops and most of the supplies were successfully evacuated. I later learned that one of our brash lieutenants had booby-trapped the only working flush toilet at the adjoining city of Hamhung.

Our Korean interpreter, a young officer who had studied medicine in the United States, convinced the X Corps commander that we should evacuate as many refugees from North Korea as possible. Some 10,000 old men, women, and children filled every available space.

The demolition of the harbor was spectacular and proceeded without a hitch. I now found myself on the beach with two jeeps and six enlisted men. But soldiers dismantling mortar shells in the small vessel that was to carry me off to the USS Mt. McKinley apparently dropped a cigarette into the powder, and my escape craft blew up. Our only hope lay in trying to get one of the U.S. aircraft flying over Hamhung to land and pick us up. Unfortunately, our radios could not contact either the aircraft or the Mt. McKinley, which sailed off. Then one of our ingenious enlisted men had the idea of using abandoned powdered milk to spell out HELP in six-foot letters on the asphalt runway. Braving small arms and artillery fire, a C-119 landed and took us off to safety. Several hours later I was enjoying a Christmas Eve dinner with my family in Tokyo.







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