You Can’t Get There From Here: The Inchon Story

By Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired

            In commemoration of the 50th  Anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, we have collected several stories from our Alumni about their wartime experiences. These include surface gun duels at Inchon, aviation feats like those depicted on our cover, Marine combat operations, and a view of the war from the Yard.  To set up the perilous state of U.S. forces at the outbreak of the Korean War, we have excerpted First to Fight below.

            The following is an excerpt of Chapter 8 from General Krulak’s book, First to Fight, (Annapolis, MD. Naval Institute Press, 252 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos.)

            The 28th of March 1949 was a melancholy day in the history of the Marine Corps—and no cause for rejoicing by the other services either. On that day Louis A. Johnson was sworn in as Secretary of Defense. The Corps had not been altogether pleased with James Forrestal, his predecessor, but it came to regard the Forrestal regime with nostalgia compared with the stewardship of Johnson.

            An attorney who had been moderately successful in West Virginia politics, Johnson had formed a friendship with President Truman when the latter was in the Senate, based on their Army service in France in World War I and their association with the American Legion. Later he served as finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee. He was appointed to the Defense position with the understanding that economy was to be his watchword. At the time Truman was surfeited with the Navy and Marines, and Johnson’s appointment was preceded by a general understanding that the president wanted the two maritime services brought to heel. Johnson’s attitude is characterized by a conversation he had with Admiral Richard L. Connally shortly after his appointment:

            “Admiral [he said], the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”

            President Truman was dissatisfied with the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947. Even with the 1949 amendments that created a JCS chairman and enlarged the functions of the secretary of defense, the modified law had still not gone far enough in concentrating military authority at the top, certainly not far enough to please Truman’s most trusted military advisor, General Marshall. On the basis of the 1949 changes, the president undertook to curb the Navy and Marine Corps through administrative and fiscal actions. This was what the new defense secretary was busy doing until war and
Congress intervened.

            The secretary had starved all of the services—and very nearly had killed the Marines—by a program of severe budget cuts. When he took office, Johnson found a very austere Marine Corps, which included eleven infantry battalions and twenty-three aircraft squadrons. He decreed that in fiscal year 1950 the Corps’ fighting forces would be reduced to eight understrength battalions and twelve aircraft squadrons. For the fiscal year beginning in July 1951 he directed that the number of battalions be reduced yet again, to six. His aspirations were plain. He intended to diminish progressively the fighting units of the Corps and, ultimately, to transfer what remained to the Army and the Air Force.

            Johnson’s plan, where Marine Corps aviation was concerned, was far advanced. In an off-the-record speech at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, he declared that he was taking action to do away with Marine aviation and that papers to accomplish the Marines’ transfer to the Air Force were on his desk.

            This was too much. Major General C. C. Jerome, a respected Marine aviator, alerted Representative Carl Vinson, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a staunch Navy/Marine supporter, and a firm believer in the National Security Act in its original form. Vinson made short work of the heavy-handed secretary. He called Johnson to his office and delivered a lecture on those provisions of the National Security Act that expressly forbade such transfers of major combat functions. Then he obliged the secretary to write him a memorandum saying (albeit untruthfully) that no such step as transfer of Marine aviation to the Air Force was under contemplation and, in any event, that he would consult with the appropriate congressional committees before even considering an act of this sort.

            Johnson worked his will on the Marines in other ways, however: in curtailment of appropriations for equipment, ammunition, supplies, and people, and through a policy of exclusion in various aspects of tactical training and planning. He approved the action of Admiral Forrest Sherman, the chief of naval operations, in assigning the bulk of the Navy’s amphibious ships to train the Army, thus precluding the Corps from practicing at its statutory specialty. And in strategic planning by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Marines were allowed no part at all. Commandant Cates persuaded Navy Secretary John L. Sullivan to intercede, asking that the Marines be permitted to take part in JCS discussions when their interests or operational employment were involved. Sullivan, for his pains, received a rebuke from Johnson:

            “I cannot see any justification for giving the Commandant of the Marine Corps a special role not accorded to the chiefs of various other arms and services which are integral parts of the Army, Navy and Air Force.”

            This is another way of saying that Johnson saw the Marines on a par with the Army Nurse Corps or the Navy Bureau of Supplies and Accounts.

            These were major matters, but the secretary was not above some pettiness too. He crossed the Marine commandant off the list of those Washington officials authorized a chauffeur and a limousine and off the list of service chiefs for whom a special gun salute was prescribed on ceremonial occasions. He forbade celebration of the Marine Corps birthday.

            Taken all together, Johnson’s erosive actions where the Marines were concerned had an effect for which he has never really been brought to account. Largely through his actions, at the outset of the Korean Conflict, the Fleet Marine Force, the expeditionary element of the Corps, was pitifully anemic, having shrunk from its World War II peak of more than 300,000 men to only 27,656. Of these, some 8,000 were serving in a greatly attenuated 1st Marine Division (war strength 12,000) at Camp Pendleton in California. Its companion 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, at only 3,700 men (war strength about 12,000) was at El Toro, forty miles away. Things were little better on the East Coast. The 2d Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC, had 9,000 men and its companion 2d Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point a few miles distant had only 5,300.

            In the basic combat units this pitifully small figure equated to three infantry battalions and three tactical aircraft squadrons on the West Coast and three infantry battalions and four tactical aircraft squadrons on the East Coast. All of these formations, plus units of supporting artillery, engineers, tanks, air control, and supply were gravely understrength. Despite the Johnson austerities, however, the Marines had managed to attain a respectable state of training. The officers and noncommissioned officers were professionals—many with World War II experience. Their air and ground equipment—almost all of World War II vintage—was often threadbare, but they had kept it in good repair.

            At the time (1949-1950), I was in command of the 5th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, CA, the only infantry regiment in the 1st Marine Division. We felt the dead hand of starvation everywhere. War strength for the regiment was 3,900 men. We suffered along with 1,800. Each infantry battalion was short one of its three rifle companies, each of which had two instead of the prescribed three platoons. Artillery and other supporting elements were correspondingly reduced, and service troops had been even more severely curtailed. Training presented a real challenge because of the limitations on ammunition, repair parts, and gasoline. But there was nothing Louis Johnson could do to prevent us from maneuvering up and down the brown hills of the 120,000-acre Camp Pendleton reservation. Supported by 1st Marine Aircraft Wing planes (to the extent that they had fuel to fly), we trained at length and with much intensity. Indeed, we spent so much time in the field that the wife of one of my men reproved me, “My kids have forgotten what their father looks like.”

            While training ashore presented few problems, training in landing operations was a different matter because the Navy’s meager amphibious shipping resources had been assigned mainly to work with the Army.

            One stroke of fortune came in early 1950 in a directive for the 5th Marines to stage an amphibious demonstration at Camp Pendleton for the Army Command and General Staff College. We were given an array of precious resources, most important, sufficient amphibious shipping to embark the regiment. With the understanding assistance of the Navy commander involved, Rear Admiral James H. Doyle (later to distinguish himself at Inchon), we were able to parlay our programmed one-day demonstration into three rehearsal landings and a five-day amphibious exercise. But that was our only taste of saltwater in a twelve-month period, and the same unhappy situation prevailed on the East Coast.

            Put in other terms, on 25 June, when the North Korean blitz of some 75,000 men drove south across the 38th Parallel, the Marines’ existing air/ground expeditionary force was tiny and emaciated. But what there was of it was ready to go.

            The Korean crisis became a reality for the Marines just five days later. On 30 June, the Fleet Marine Force Pacific headquarters in Hawaii received a cryptic message query from the chief of naval operations. Prompted, we later learned, by Commandant Cates, it asked:

            How soon can you sail for combat employment in the Far East: (a) A reinforced battalion: (b) A reinforced regiment?

            I had reported for duty as force operations officer only two days before, having relinquished command of the 5th Marines on 15 June. After studying the message for a moment, I drafted a reply and took it to the chief of staff. Referring to the JCS message, it read:

            “(a) 48 hours. (b) Five days, including a Marine aircraft group.”

            The chief of staff read the proposed reply and said, “How do you know we can do that?” I answered, “I don’t, but if we can’t, we’re dead.” He released the message.