I am still in South Korea. That’s country number 27 for those of you keeping track on the Around the World in 80 Days journey. At the end of the last article I stood on the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula. I told you that I had gone there for a reason that goes beyond the discussion of border walls.
At the end of World War II, Korea was divided in half along the 38th parallel between spheres of Communist and American influence. The communists took the north and the Americans controlled the south. From an American perspective, the goal was not an ongoing military occupation but the mopping-up of Japanese forces which had ruled Korea for 35 years and the establishment of a stable democratic nation. But on June 25, 1950, the Communist north invaded the south in a bid to take over the whole country. The North Korea People’s Army (KPA) drove south, occupied Seoul, and pushed UN forces all the way to Pusan on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.
It was a mistake.
The communists of North Korea and China grossly misjudged America’s resolve to protect the fledgling democracy then taking shape in South Korea. Actually, they misjudged Truman’s resolve, because Congress never declared war. A further miscalculation was the United States’ extraordinary logistical ability to put thousands of soldiers’ boots and armor on the ground in Korea with great rapidity. Reinforcing the US Eighth Army in what became known as the Pusan Perimeter, General Douglas MacArthur devised Operation Chromite. Chromite proposed a massive amphibious landing of US forces at Inchon on the west coast of Korea near Seoul, the recapture of Seoul, and then a drive straight across the Korean Peninsula cutting the KPA supply lines and their route of escape. In short, the plan called for landing 40,000 troops at Inchon to save 100,000 troops surrounded at Pusan.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff thought the plan sheer madness. General Omar Bradley said that seaborne landings were obsolete. The Navy and Marine Corps strongly objected. The tides, they argued, were too radical to facilitate such an operation. It would, they said, be an “Asian Dunkirk.” General Matthew Ridgway called it “a 45,000-to-1 shot.” Washington deferred to the majority of military opinion which was roughly divided along the lines of MacArthur vs everyone else. Murmurs of MacArthur’s arrogance in even suggesting such a plan were rife among those in the know.
But MacArthur, who, along with Robert E. Lee, is probably the greatest military mind America has ever produced, could not be moved. The Joint Chiefs tried to get him to give somewhere on something. Couldn’t he devise a less risky plan? How about a landing south of Inchon where the beaches were more secure, and the enemy could not fight from house to house as they could in Seoul, thus slaughtering American boys? For his part, MacArthur argued that such a landing would be pointless because it would not achieve the central goals of recapturing Seoul and cutting KPA supplies lines. Besides, if the Joint Chiefs thought the landing impossible, wouldn’t the enemy think that, too, and leave the beaches undefended? For him, it was Inchon or nothing.
When I consider MacArthur’s confidence in his plan, I marvel. A lesser man than MacArthur would have bowed to the pressure. Maybe any man but MacArthur would have bowed to the pressure. Outside of his staff, who would attack a tank with screwdrivers had he ordered it, the overwhelming weight of military opinion was against him. And some of those against him, like Omar Bradley and Matthew Ridgway, were men of considerable military reputations of their own. If I’m Douglas MacArthur and I know that Omar Bradley—who was, incidentally, the United States Army’s last five-star general—thinks my plan is a bloodbath in the making, I think my confidence would be sorely shaken and I would back down. Men generally need the support of others when making risky decisions not only to bolster their own flagging confidence in the face of opposition but so blame can be distributed among a variety of people should their plans fail. We all want to be able to say, “Well, so-and-so thought it was a good idea, too.”
MacArthur didn’t need that. Now, such a man is either an arrogant fool or a man possessed of extraordinary self-confidence for a reason. In MacArthur’s case, it was the latter. The man was a genius and he knew it. His track record of success is breathtaking. He scored the highest entrance exam in the history of West Point. He took more territory with less loss of life than any general in World War II. He was rightly nominated for three Congressional Medals of Honor and awarded one. Along with his staff, he wrote the Japanese constitution which remains, to this day, intact and is, along with the Marshall Plan, quite possibly America’s most enduring post-war achievement.
At a conference of military planners, MacArthur confronted his critics. He listened, unmoved, as they laid out all the reasons his plan would be a disaster. Army Chief of Staff General Joseph Collins said that even if the landing was successful, which was highly unlikely, MacArthur would be stuck on the beach and he would never be able to retake Seoul. Others concurred. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Forrest Sherman summed up the prevailing opinion: “If every possible geographical and naval handicap were listed, Inchon has them all!” Then, MacArthur rose to make his case. For 45 minutes he held court, addressing each and every criticism of his plan. Rear Admiral James Doyle later recalled MacArthur’s presentation: “If MacArthur had become an actor, you never would have heard of John Barrymore.” In the end, it wasn’t MacArthur who backed down. On the contrary, the Joint Chiefs backed down and reluctantly gave the plan their approval.
MacArthur, however, had no illusions about the risks he was taking and where blame would be placed if the plan failed: “If I fail, everyone will be after my blood…. I alone was responsible for tomorrow, and if I failed, the dreadful results would rest on Judgment Day against my soul.”
But MacArthur was imbued with an almost supernatural confidence in himself and in the men he commanded. On the morning of the landing, the fleet was sailing irresistibly toward Inchon when they were attacked. General Courtney Whitney recounts what happened next:
“Hurriedly dressing and going to the bridge, I learned that two enemy planes were attempting to bomb the cruiser just ahead of us. The pale lights of dawn had not yet dispersed enough of the darkness for me to follow the course of the action, but an officer reported that both planes were shot down before they could do any damage. I decided, however, that I had better awaken MacArthur because of this danger. When I went into his cabin and gently shook him, he woke, listened while I recounted the incident of the attack, and then turned over to resume his rest. ‘Wake me up again, Court,’ he said, ‘if they attack this ship.’”
Operation Chromite was a smashing success. Seoul was retaken, the Peninsula cut in half, and hundreds of thousands of KPA troops were encircled, captured, and destroyed. Eisenhower called it a “brilliant example of strategic leadership.” Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said of the victory, “The Inchon landing is the most masterly and audacious strategic stroke in all history.”
But the war wasn’t over. It was followed by three years of bloody fighting comparable only to America’s war with the Empire of Japan. MacArthur wasn’t infallible, and he was eventually, and famously, fired by Truman. I have (twice) read both David McCullough’s magnum opus biography of Truman—aptly titled Truman—and William Manchester’s biography of MacArthur, An American Caesar. Both books are superb. Unsurprisingly, each author takes the side of his hero. McCullough sees MacArthur as an arrogant ass who got what he deserved; Manchester, more evenhanded, is aware of MacArthur’s flaws, but sees Truman as no less prideful and possibly jealous of the general’s genius and popularity with the American people. Whatever the truth of the situation, one thing is certain: men like MacArthur provoke jealousy, especially among other men. Like Napoleon, he consistently disregarded the opinions of other generals and was consistently proved right in doing so. Operation Chromite was just more of the same. Needless to say, many were glad to see him go. MacArthur, like Patton, was never popular with his colleagues, though both were beloved by their respective staffs.
Almost seven decades hence, MacArthur is a name all but forgotten in America. I wager that few of America’s current generation of college students could tell you much, if anything, about him. I devote so much space to him because the regularity with which his name is mentioned here in the Far East has taken me by surprise. Every tour guide in Japan and South Korea referred to him with reverence. Here it is Truman who is forgotten.
Was MacArthur arrogant? The question never comes up. They simply don’t care and don’t question the results. It is the peculiar hobby of Americans to allow questions of personal tastes and politics to override more important considerations. The German High Command, for instance, did not believe the American papers when they proclaimed the firing of Patton for slapping a private. Surely it was a ruse! But it wasn’t. Had Patton lived in the age of social media, the liberation of Bavaria by Patton’s Third Army might never have happened, and that region would likely have been left to suffer a half century of communist rule. Lincoln, secure in himself, seems to be a rare exception to this affliction of statesmen. When pressed to fire General Ulysses Grant on the grounds that he was an alcoholic, Lincoln shot back: “I cannot spare the man. He fights.”
It was to the great good fortune of Japan and Korea that their collective fate fell to a man of MacArthur’s extraordinary vision and ability. Manchester was right to call him a Caesar because he certainly had that kind of power, and he wielded it for the good of the people he ruled. America is wanting a man of his gifts in the aftermath of operations in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. When he stepped ashore in Japan in 1945, he was confronted with a people as fanatical in their worship of their emperor and their way of life as any member of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Do recall that by inventing the Kamikaze, Japan provided the model for future suicide bombers. And yet, today Japan is a great democracy, ally, and awash in American pop culture. So, too, is Korea. One wonders what MacArthur might have accomplished in the Middle East.
But none of this is why I went to the DMZ either.
No, my purpose has to do with a decision MacArthur made early in the Korean War. Noticing the effectiveness of KPA commando raids on UN positions, MacArthur ordered the creation of an elite fighting force that was capable of striking behind enemy lines. In my next installment I will tell you the epic story of one of those units that operated here on the Korean Peninsula against impossible odds time after time. It is a story full of courage, adventure, tragedy, humor, friendship, and heroism.
And, yet, it is a story that I guarantee you have never heard before.