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Command of the Sea: The Naval Side of the Korean War

MacArthur was determined to exploit his forces’ command of the sea. As early as July 4, 1950, he convened a meeting to discuss a proposed landing at Kunsan or Inchon, codenamed “Operation Bluehearts.” It proved impracticable at this early stage, but the 1st Marine Division was brought to readiness in the United States and sailed from San Diego in mid-August. The new plan, “Chromite,” selected Inchon as the landing site, primarily because it was only 25 miles from Seoul, whose liberation would hearten the South Koreans, and 16 miles from Kimpo Airport. On the other hand, it was the worst possible choice for a landing, having a large tidal range, a 7- to 8-knot tidal stream, and a very constricted approach, among other drawbacks. But boldness won the day, MacArthur reckoning that Inchon’s very unsuitability would lead the North Koreans to neglect its defenses. On Sept. 15, after several days of “softening up” by gunfire and bombing, the Marines went ashore, and by the end of the day, 13,000 troops and their equipment were safely landed, at a cost of only 21 dead and 275 wounded or missing. Kimpo fell on Sept. 17, followed by Seoul.

The hard fighting was done by ground troops, backed up by air power, but Inchon changed the course of the war. On Sept. 23, the North Koreans withdrew from the Pusan Perimeter, freeing considerable U.S. forces for offensive action, and by driving the enemy back almost to the 38th parallel, MacArthur showed that a proper integration of sea, land, and air power was the only way to get decisive results.

The hard fighting was done by ground troops, backed up by air power, but Inchon changed the course of the war. On Sept. 23, the North Koreans withdrew from the Pusan Perimeter, freeing considerable U.S. forces for offensive action, and by driving the enemy back almost to the 38th parallel, MacArthur showed that a proper integration of sea, land, and air power was the only way to get decisive results. However, his decision to pursue the beaten DPRK forces across the old frontier, although sound on paper in that its intention was to destroy the enemy’s army, proved disastrous, both strategically and politically. The U.N. advance into North Korea on Oct. 9, provoked Chinese intervention, enlarging the war and running the risk of overextending supply lines. China was simply too big to ignore, and the intervention of its land and air forces changed the diplomatic rules for Washington and its European allies.

AD-3 Skyraider

A Navy AD-3 Skyraider (top center) pulls out of a dive after dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on the Korean side of a bridge crossing the Yalu River at Sinuiju, into Manchuria, Nov. 15, 1950. U.S. Navy photo

For the navies, the first new commitment was to support an amphibious landing at Wonsan on the east coast, intended to capture its steel mills, power station, and port facilities. But the success of Inchon was not to be repeated with such ease. The Soviet Union provided sufficient advanced mines to the DPRK to allow a major trial of defensive mine warfare, not just at Wonsan but also at Hungnam in the north and Chinnampo on the west coast. Both Hungnam and Wonsan had good harbors, with a shallow shelf eminently suitable for mining.

F4U-4 Corsair

Vortices from its propeller encircle an F4U-4 Corsair fighter as it readies for launch aboard the USS Boxer (CV 21) prior to a strike against communist targets in Korea, Juy 21, 1951. Hovering to the stern of the aircraft carrier is a Sikorsky H03S-1 helicopter. U.S. Navy photo

The 1st Marine Division landed on Oct. 25, five days later than planned, because of the need to sweep the main channels clear of mines. But clearance of the whole area took 15 days in all, and the ROK Army captured the town before the Marines could get ashore. Sweeping had required nine minesweepers, three of which were sunk. The massive advantage of sea power had been nullified, temporarily at least. To quote Adm. Forrest P. Sherman, “If you can’t go where you want to when you want to, you have not got command of the sea.”

F2H Banshees

U.S. Navy F2H Banshees of Fighter Squadron 22 (VF-22) depart for a strike on North Korea as the USS Lake Champlain (CV 39) and the USS New Jersey (BB 62) maneuver with Task Force 77. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

By Nov. 21, ROK ground forces had reached Hyesan on the Manchurian border, the farthest point reached by any U.N. forces in the war, and U.S. and other U.N. forces were only 75 miles from the Yalu River at Sinuiju by Nov. 24. This was to be the limit of the U.N. advance, however, because two days later the Chinese forces counterattacked in strength, forcing an equally rapid withdrawal. For the first time, U.N. aircraft encountered MiG-15s operating from bases on the Chinese side of the border, an irritant that led to calls to bomb their bases. Now it became imperative to extricate the forces as soon as possible. Winter was closing in, making the position of the 1st Marine Division very vulnerable. Once again, naval support was essential to cover the withdrawal, as the Marines fought a rearguard action over the 78 miles between the Chosin Reservoir and Hungnam. Close support was provided by the U.S. Navy carriers Badoeng Strait (CVE 116), Leyte (CV 32), and Philippine Sea, which flew more than 200 sorties a day between them.

USS Essex

The USS Essex (CV 9) with a snowy deck during a blizzard off Korea, in 1952. Aircraft carrier operations during the Korean War were often hampered by rough weather. U.S. Navy photo

The next big Chinese offensive, known as the New Year Offensive because it was launched on Jan. 1, 1951, soon had U.N. forces heading back to the 38th parallel. To observers it looked all too like the retreat to the Pusan Perimeter, but this time the United States and its allies had the benefit of adequate resources, particularly naval air support. On May 11, the Australian government agreed to increase its contribution significantly by dispatching the light fleet carrier HMAS Sydney and two destroyers. The fact that the Australian carrier was virtually identical to the Royal Navy carriers already on station and flew the same types of aircraft simplified logistics and enabled her to be assimilated into the existing organization very quickly. Similarly, the Dutch destroyers Piet Hein and Van Galen had been acquired from the Royal Navy and could use the same spares.

Coalition Warships

Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy ships lie moored off of Yokosuka, Japan, after returning from combat patrols in Korean waters, Jan. 26, 1951. The ships are from left to right: HMAS Warramunga, HMS Charity, and HMAS Bataan. U.S. Navy Historical Center photo

In addition to providing air support from its carriers, the British Commonwealth ships carried out many subsidiary missions on the east coast, leaving the U.S. Navy carriers to concentrate on west coast operations. East coast operations included interdiction of minelaying in coastal waters by North Korean craft and supporting raids behind enemy lines by local guerrillas. The maze of small islands were ideal for such clandestine activities, but they were also vulnerable to counteraction by the North Koreans, and it was occasionally necessary to extricate the guerrilla groups or to neutralize attacks. In May 1953, a North Korean attempt to smoke these hornets out of their nests, the islands of Hachwira and Sanchwira in the Chinnampo estuary, was thwarted by massive intervention. On May 25, the battleship USS New Jersey (BB 62), accompanied by the cruiser HMS Newcastle, arrived on the scene. The giant battleship fired 32 16-inch shells at Amgak and batteries on the north side of the Taedong River, while the cruiser neutralized enemy gun positions with her 6-inch guns. A typhoon caused a number of moored mines to break adrift in the far north, near Changjin and Hungnam. Thirty were sighted and sunk, but the naval salvage tug Sarsi (ATF 111) hit one and sank off Hungnam. Attempts to salvage her were abandoned after rescue ships came repeatedly under fire at only 5,000 yards range.


ROK navy minesweeper YMS-516 is blown up by a magnetic mine during sweeping operations west of Kalma Pando, Wonsan Harbor, Oct. 18, 1950. Mines were a constant threat to U.N. ships during the Korean War. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

Winters in Korean waters were stormy, and maintaining a blockade and loitering on station were always wearing on ships and personnel. In October 1952, Hurricane Ruth vented its fury on the Australian carrier Sydney and her escort, the Dutch destroyer Van Galen. The carrier received a warning while at Sasebo in Japan, and she left harbor the same morning. By late in the afternoon, she was rolling violently (a maximum of 22˚ was recorded), and aircraft on the flight deck were being damaged. Ruptured long-range fuel tanks leaked gasoline fumes into the ship’s ventilation system, and water between decks reached the engine rooms. The hurricane reached its peak of ferocity near midnight, by which time a Firefly had been washed overboard. Not far from the battered carrier, a hired U.S. Navy troop transport, the SS Kongo Maru, had run aground on a small island, and another dozen ships were wrecked in the area. Only hard work by tugboats had saved the ships in Sasebo from a similar fate.

USS Begor

The USS Begor (APD 127) and a motor launch stand by in the foreground as the remaining U.N. supplies and port facilities are blown up during the evacuation from Hungnam, Dec. 24, 1950. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

In July 1952, the U.S. Navy changed its policy on west coast bombardments. In the future, there would be no indiscriminate firing, and fire support would only be directed at points where fall of shells could be observed. During the latter half of the year, a number of ships were damaged and suffered casualties because the enemy’s artillery became more accurate. Conversely, 7th Fleet doctrine laid great emphasis on interdiction, and there were rarely enough aircraft to spare for air support and air spotting. Similar conditions prevailed on the east coast, and on Aug. 6, the destroyer USS John R. Pierce (DD 753) was hit seven times and brought to a dead stop.

F2H-2 Banshees

Three U.S. Navy McDonnell F2H-2 Banshees (BuNo 124971. 124972, 124982) of Fighter Squadron VF-172 “Blue Bolts” are prepared for launch on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Essex (CV 9) operating off the coast of Korea. Between Aug. 23-25, 1951, VF-172 aircraft went into action for the first time. During one mission, in company with VF-51 F9F-2s. they escorted Boeing B-29s on high-altitude bombing missions over North Korea. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

On land, the Chinese offensive had finally been halted and then pushed back beyond the 38th parallel, and by July 1951, the Main Line of Resistance had been established. The climate was now more favorable to armistice negotiations, but that long drawn-out process was only peripheral to the naval activities of the U.N. forces. A bizarre feature of the war was the way in which hostilities continued for another 16 months from February 1952, after the last substantial obstacle to an armistice had been removed by patient negotiation. In July 1953, the Chinese launched very heavy attacks, and once again TF 77 provided valuable support to South Korean forces in counterattacks. A five-week extension of the war had cost 46,000 casualties, mostly South Koreans, and the communists had lost an estimated 75,000.

USS Bon Homme Richard

U.S. Navy ordnancemen aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CV 31) fusing 500-pound and 100-pound bombs on Douglas AD-3 and AD-4Q Skyraider planes of attack squadron VA-923, Carrier Air Group 102 (CVG-102), before a strike on Korea on Nov. 10, 1951. To the right is an AD-4W early warning plane (ND-350) of Composite Squadron VC-11 Det. G. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The Korean War occupies a unique place in history as the first attempt by a superpower in the nuclear age to use limited force to achieve its objectives. There were many who felt that the endless negotiations at Panmunjom were evidence that the United States and its allies had been robbed of a victory. But the passage of time lends a fuller perspective to this apparent failure. In fact, Korea is now seen as the first test case of the Western Alliance’s determination to face down communist attempts at subverting small nations. Although we now know that Truman never had the slightest intention of implementing MacArthur’s views on the use of nuclear weapons against China, this was a dominant fear among America’s allies. In fact, it can be claimed that the naval effort not only saved the day when the North Korean land forces first crossed the 38th parallel in 1950, but also contributed overall to the “management” of the conflict. By containing the conflict, the naval forces prevented it from reaching a point where a humiliating defeat for the United States could be used as an excuse for a pre-emptive nuclear strike, or even the lower risk of “hot pursuit” of the Chinese forces across the Yalu River into Manchuria. Against the background of the Cold War, Korea can be seen as a setback for Stalin’s strategy of encouraging surrogates to draw his enemies into piecemeal defeats. Critics of the 1953 armistice also conveniently overlook the fact that the Republic of Korea has prospered in the last 60 years, despite unrelenting hostility from the Pyongyang regime. Indeed, it is the North that has suffered economic collapse, and its incompetence is at last recognized as beyond rescue by Russia or China.

Hwachon Dam

A view of the Hwachon Dam after the U.S. Navy raid on May 1, 1951, that breached the dam. U.S. Navy photo

Korea saw the deployment of the entire range of naval power: aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers, down to small minesweepers and landing craft. Hostile forces were negligible in the sense that they could never offer battle to such an armada of ships, but could and did use local conditions cleverly to inflict inconvenience and even loss on the blockading forces. All arms contributed to the limited victory in 1953, but it was naval power that “held the ring” throughout.

USS Missouri

The USS Missouri fires 16-inch shells into enemy lines at Hungnam on Dec. 26, 1950. U.S. Navy photo

This article, and its companion piece about naval lessons of the Korean War, were written a decade ago by our late friend Antony Preston, who passed away on Christmas Day 2004. We reprint them here in the belief that no one could write these stories any better.

This article was first published in The Forgotten War: 60th Anniversary of the Korean War.

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