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Lt. Gen. Walton Walker Defied General of the Army Douglas MacArthur

Courage Under Fire

In the fall of 1950, the United Nations forces in Korea under General of the Army Douglas MacArthur seemed about to achieve one of the greatest turnaround victories in military history. In July 1950, the UN forces, composed mostly of American troops, tenuously held just a small corner of land in the southern tip of South Korea known as the Pusan Perimeter. By November, thanks to the dramatic amphibious landing at Inchon in late August, MacArthur had three prongs of troops advancing toward the Yalu River that served as the border between North Korea and Communist China. It was a dramatic turnaround that had few parallels in military history.

Thanks to Inchon, MacArthur was at the pinnacle of his immense reputation. No one in the American high command, not even President Harry Truman, dared say or do anything to stop him. But the Chinese Communists not only dared – they were sending hundreds of thousands of troops south as part of a plan to ambush and destroy the UN troops.

As Walker watched MacArthur’s plane lift off, he suddenly said, “Bullshit.” Walker’s aide, Maj. Layton “Joe” Tyner, and pilot, Capt. Eugene Michael Lynch, standing nearby, were shocked. Walker never used profanity.

Together with the Army’s Tenth Corps and the Marine Corps’ First Marine Division, Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s Eighth Army was one of the three northbound offensives. Walker was acutely aware that the rugged mountainous terrain made mutual support impossible should any of the drives come under serious attack. Complicating things further was that all three drives were spread thin, and dependent on a long, fragile logistics network of poor mountain roads that could easily be cut off by a determined enemy.

Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker

Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker and Brig. Gen. John H. Church greet Gen. J. Lawton Collins, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, upon arrival in South Korea. U.S. Army photo

On Nov. 24, 1950, MacArthur, with his entourage, flew up from Tokyo to visit Walker and take a quick aerial tour of the front. MacArthur’s meeting with Walker lasted about five hours. After he was done, MacArthur climbed back into his airplane. As Walker watched MacArthur’s plane lift off, he suddenly said, “Bullshit.” Walker’s aide, Maj. Layton “Joe” Tyner, and pilot, Capt. Eugene Michael Lynch, standing nearby, were shocked. Walker never used profanity. They received their second surprise when, instead of climbing into his L-17 observation airplane for their flight back to headquarters at Pyongyang, Walker stepped into a military police jeep and ordered the driver to take him to the nearby command post of 24th Division commander Maj. Gen. John Church. There, Walker told Church that if Col. Richard Stephens, commander of the 21st Infantry, whose regiment was leading the advance “smells Chinese chow, pull back immediately.” With those words, Walker crossed a moral and career Rubicon.

During their meeting, MacArthur had ordered Walker to maintain an all-out attack. Instead, Walker countermanded his superior and transformed the thrust into a reconnaissance in force. As historian John Toland wrote, “To a layman, Walker’s action may not seem important, but for a professional soldier, it was the most difficult decision of his military career. It comes when a commander is forced to choose between an irrational order by his superior and the safety of his men. Such a decision was called by Gen. Matthew Ridgway the greatest challenge a combat leader must face.”

Lt. Gen.Walton H. Walker

Lt. Gen.Walton H. Walker, Commander, U.S. Eighth Army (left), and Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, Commander, 24th Infantry Division, examine a map near the front lines somewhere in Korea. U.S. Army photo

The reason for Walker’s decision was that the frontline intelligence he was receiving completely contradicted MacArthur’s assurances of easy victory. Walker didn’t know how many enemy troops were nearby, but what he did know was that to continue as MacArthur ordered was madness – the men in his army would be destroyed. Walker had no moral alternative; even if it meant the end of his career, he had to countermand MacArthur’s order.

MacArthur, who had never liked Walker, had decided to relieve him. Before he could do so, on Dec. 23, 1950,  Walker was killed in a traffic accident when a civilian truck collided with his jeep. He was posthumously promoted to full general on Jan. 2, 1951.

On the night of Nov. 25, three Chinese Communist armies launched a counter-offensive against Eighth Army and Tenth Corps. It was followed a few days later by a similar attack against the First Marine Division.

Walker organized the most difficult of all military maneuvers, a retreat during battle. His mobile defense during the withdrawal proved so skillful that Walker was able to save most of the Eighth Army. But, in a sense, it was a pyrrhic victory. MacArthur, who had never liked Walker, had decided to relieve him. Before he could do so, on Dec. 23, 1950,  Walker was killed in a traffic accident when a civilian truck collided with his jeep. He was posthumously promoted to full general on Jan. 2, 1951.

MacArthur himself was not long for Korea. Increasingly at odds with the Truman administration, MacArthur’s defiance finally caused Truman to relieve the general on April 11, 1951, and replace him with Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, who had assumed command of the Eighth Army following Walker’s death.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...