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Inchon invasion a turning point in Korean War
INCHON, South Korea (CNN) -- On September 15, 1950, the United Nations-led invasion of the Yellow Sea port of Inchon turned the tide of the Korean War.
That conflict began on June 25, 1950, when the Soviet-supplied North Korean People's Army invaded South Korea and swept down the peninsula. Within days, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered a naval blockade of the Korean coast and authorized U.S. ground troops to be sent to the Far East.
Those troops landed in Pusan at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and fought desperately in defense of the Pusan Perimeter.
Meanwhile, the Inchon invasion, code-named Operation Chromite and considered one of the riskiest amphibious assaults in history, was being put together by Far East Commander and U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
When other military leaders voiced concern about the difficult terrain of the proposed landing site, MacArthur said, "We shall land at Inchon, and I shall crush them." The invasion turned out to be one of the most successful amphibious assaults in military history.
MacArthur had determined that capturing Inchon -- at the peninsula's midpoint -- and the nearby air base at Kimpo would enable U.N. troops to mount a major assault on Seoul. The South Korean capital, just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the landing site, was a key road, rail and communications link for the North Korean People's Army.
Planners chose September 15 for the invasion because Inchon's notoriously tricky tides, which had a range of 33 feet (10 meters), would be at their highest then, allowing military vessels to carry the troops over the harbor's mud flats and close to shore.
Six destroyers, known as the "Sitting Ducks," sailed up the narrow Flying Fish Channel on September 13. Their mission was to find out -- the hard way -- what North Korean troops had on the island of Wolmi-do, which commanded the entrance to Inchon Harbor. The ships anchored within range of concealed North Korean guns, making themselves tempting targets.
The shore soon lit up with gun flashes. The destroyers fought back in a slugging match that lasted an hour, and they returned the next day. The crew of the ships suffered only one death and eight injuries.
"By D-Day the fortifications were reduced so that our Marines could land and do their great job with minimal casualties," said retired U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Schelling, who commanded the USS Lyman K. Swenson, one of the destroyers.
Eighteen-year-old Howard Leazer was working in the depths of the destroyer USS Collett, loading shells and powder to be hoisted to the ship's guns. He recalls being so busy it was only when he was relieved hours later that he found out his ship had been hit several times.
Before dawn on September 15, a U.S.-led, nine nation U.N. naval fleet with bigger guns crept up the channel in the middle of the night. They were guided up the narrow channel by a beacon atop the Palmi Do lighthouse which had been lit by U.S. Navy Lt. Eugene Clark. Clark, with a small U.S. and South Korean team, had been conducting reconnaissance for two weeks.
The ships and U.S. and British warplanes pounded Wolmi-do, destroying the North Korean guns.
A few hours later, 1st Division U.S. Marines overran "Green Beach" on the island and sealed off the causeway leading to Inchon. Phase One of the invasion ended with the outer harbor secured and 17 U.S. troops wounded.
Fighter planes and B-29 bombers hit nearby North Korean airfields to prevent aircraft there from joining the battle. Allied naval gunfire also covered the approach to Inchon, to ward off any North Korean troop advancement.
In the afternoon on September 15, rising tides covered Inchon's mud flats, and two assault forces of Marines hit the beaches. One group went in past Wolmi-do's north side to land on "Red Beach," the waterfront near Inchon's industrial area. The other group landed on "Blue Beach" to the south of the city.
Marines at Red Beach used ladders to scale the sea wall or crept through holes made by naval bombardment. To their left, North Korean soldiers put up an intense fight from trenches and a bunker. But some 20 minutes after landing, the Marines took Cemetery Hill. It took them a few hours and sporadic gunbattles to reach the top of Observatory Hill.
Marines on Blue Beach also faced a high sea wall. The two regiments ashore were in contact the next morning, creating a solid line around Inchon and making escape unlikely for any North Korean forces still within the city.
Some 13,000 Marines had poured off the flat-bottomed landing craft and gone ashore that day, at a cost of 20 men killed, 1 missing in action and 174 wounded.
On the U.S. Army Web site's Korean War anniversary page, Pfc. Clyde Queen Sr. describes what it was like after he waded through mud and climbed one of the sea walls.
"By now, the beach was black from smoke, and darkness was setting in. Someone yelled there were snipers in a hut, sitting up on the side of the hill to our right. A flamethrower torched it off. We heard screams from inside the hut. No one came out."
Ships carrying the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Division arrived the next day.
By September 18, 10th Corps ground troops routed several hundred North Korean troops and secured Kimpo Airfield. The 10th included the 1st Marine Division, with its attached South Korean Marine Regiment and the U.S. Army 7th Infantry Division (including more than 8,000 South Korean soldiers) plus artillery, engineer and other support elements.
Within 12 days of the invasion, the troops had pushed inland to take control of Seoul and break the back of the North Korean invasion force.
On October 7, the allied forces that had been pinned down on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula broke out of the Pusan Perimeter, and, with the North Korean troops in full retreat, Operation Chromite was declared a total victory.
The offensive turned the course of the war. But after Chinese forces entered the conflict on the side of North Korea, it soon became a stalemate, and a truce was signed on July 27, 1953.
The United States still keeps 37,000 troops in South Korea under a defense treaty.
The Associated Press contributed to this report, written by CNN.com Senior Writer Linda Petty.
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