Home / Korean War / Korean War Outbreak: A Study in Unpreparedness
Korean War Outbreak: A Study in Unpreparedness
By Dale S. Marmion

The outbreak of the Korean War is a classic example of an army facing battle totally unprepared. Numerous histories of the Korean War have been written and many historians have discussed the outbreak of the Korean War. A point they nearly all agree upon is that the combined forces south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea were unprepared for what turned out to be a long and extremely grueling war. That is, war, and most certainly not “police action,” as it has sometimes been referred to, raised catastrophic havoc with soldiers on the ground during the initial stages of the action that devastated the Korean Peninsula and Korean people.

Although this theory is contested by some because of the early and dramatic success of the US and combined UN forces after the landing at Inchon, it is generally agreed by experts that we were unprepared for the Korean hostilities in 1950 as they unfolded at the outbreak of the war. It has been a common mantra often coined to justify military budget increases that we were a “Hollow Force ” and classically unprepared to face the rudimentary, even outmoded, and ill equipped force that we faced in the North Korean aggressors. This was after we had victoriously emerged from W.W.II as the undisputed number one power in the world. In a very real sense, after the Japanese capitulated with an unconditional surrender on the battleship Missouri, the Pacific became undoubtedly an "American Lake.” Why after such a hard fought but overwhelming victory in 1945, and undisputed power in the Pacific and East Asian theater, were we so unprepared to face a foreign enemy only 5 years later?

“No More Task Force Smiths” became a common Army adage to recall the initial stages of the Korean War and its often exampled readiness failings. Like "Remember the Alamo" this often coined expression refers to the first task force quickly put together in Japan and sent to Korea to engage the North Korean aggressors. Both forces were totally unprepared, ill equipped, heavily outnumbered, and thrust into the jaws of combat in order to buy time for additional fighting forces to build up elsewhere. The North Korean advances made short work of the South Korean resistance and rapidly moved down the Korean peninsula. The North Korean attack south was so quick that haste both helped define and influence the makeup of the task force. Hasty planning and execution is always a force detractor both in and out of war.

There is little documented evidence to suggest that any prior planning or suggested strategies of action anticipated victory in the field. However, General Douglas MacArthur did state that this deployed force intended to be “an arrogant display of strength,”[1] – arrogant maybe, a successful display of strength much more problematical. However, from this seemingly cryptic comment can be perceived a glimmer of an asserted possibility of success, or as General MacArthur suggested, intimidating to the North Koreans. This glimmer belies a certain lack of substantive operational knowledge that necessarily underlies any projection of success at all. However, lack of substantive operational knowledge, supply and logistic health or not, and current readiness be damned. Ready or not, immediate action ordered by General MacArthur was unavoidable.

After going to Korea and viewing the rapid course of the battle and South Korean Army withdrawal first hand, for General MacArthur success was defined as buying as much time for space given, as possible. This meant that however unprepared, units were to be deployed from Japan immediately in hope that they would delay the advance and buy time for additional units to deploy before Korea was overrun. In this, the strategy proved successful.[2] However, this strategy was purchased at a considerable cost in human casualties because of unpreparedness.

It was also believed prior to the outbreak of the war that air power could neutralize any threat to the Korean Peninsula. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) even recommended that some or all of the 45,000 ground forces in Korea would be better used elsewhere. The JCS further reported that “from a strategic viewpoint… Korea is of little strategic value to the United States and that any commitment to United States use of military force in Korea would be ill-advised and impracticable in view of the potentialities of the over-all world situation and of our heavy international obligations as compared with our current military strength.”[3] The State Department concurred.

First of all, there was no actionable intelligence to prepare the hastily put together task force for what to expect. This lack of intelligence was at several different levels for different reasons. From a national policy level Korea was considered of little strategic importance. American policy makers simply considered Korea less vital than other areas of Asia.[4] The United States was hell bent on checking the spread of Soviet communism albeit in Europe, not in East Asia.[4] Secretary of State Dean Acheson effectually stated in a 1950 speech that no commitment existed to include Korea in the established Pacific defense perimeter that ran from the Aleutian Islands to Japan, through the Ryukus (Okinawa) to the Philippines. Outside this stated perimeter there was no military commitment or obligation to support.[5] Considering this stated policy, some experts have alleged that neither North Korea nor the other major communist states, USSR or China, were convinced that the U.S. would commit to a full-scale defense of South Korea if invaded.[6]

Lack of intelligence plagued every echelon of decision making and operations throughout the Korean War. Intelligence was gathered in Korea by several different organizations that did not share information with each other. The Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) gathered intelligence for the State Department that further sifted and selected intelligence reports for Washington. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was the civilian agency collecting intelligence in Korea. There were only four agents in Korea however, and with the three agents in Japan made only seven total, and they were responsible for collecting intelligence throughout the entire Far East. Their reports were further sifted by the Ambassador’s offices before passing to Washington. The Korean Liaison Office (KLO) was a covert operation set up to be the eyes and ears of Far East Command under General MacArthur and reported to his G-2. No one knows why these organizations did not share information.[7] The intelligence that finally did reach Washington was of little substantive value and if any of it now can be considered in hindsight as possibly useful to the ensuing conflict, was largely ignored. This was because Korea was not considered important.

The head of KMAG, Brigadier General William L. Roberts was also responsible for training the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA). His praise of ROKA’s capabilities was magnanimous. He reportedly did not think that the North Korea could successfully invade South Korea. For Time magazine he stated prior to the outbreak of hostilities that the ROK army is the “best doggone shooting Army outside the United States."[8]

This same BG Roberts, in charge of training the ROK Army, was supposedly an armor expert, and when discussing the Korean terrain and armor in the same breath, he inexplicably assessed the Korean terrain as inimical to armored warfare and thus dismissed the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) armor. There was thus no provision for enhanced ROKA training to prepare for the contingency of ROKA armor. He never mentioned the threat of North Korean (Soviet) armor or the ability to defend against it in this hilly, mountainous country. This was an expert assessment.[9]

Orders given to LTC Smith by the division commander, MG William F. Dean were also lacking in actionable intelligence and substantive operational planning.

“When you get to Pusan, head for Taejon. We want to stop the North Koreans as far from Pusan as we can. Block the main road as far north as possible. Make contact with General Church. If you can’t find him, go to Taejon and beyond if you can. Sorry I can’t give you more information—that’s all I’ve got. Good luck, and God bless you and your men!”[10]

What transpired during the initial engagement of the war was anything but an arrogant, intimidating display of American strength. First, there was no actionable intelligence to prepare the hastily put together task force for what to expect. Second, the briefed objectives were unclear. So unclear, that the men sent to do the fighting didn't have a second notion just what they would be facing or why. Thrown into the breach in order to buy time for space, into the fray went Task Force Smith unprepared.

Task Force Smith (TFS) was made up of elements of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment consisting of 2 under strength rifle companies, B and C; one-half a Headquarters Company; one-half a communications platoon; a 75-mm recoilless rifle platoon of four guns and four 4.2-inch mortars, about 406 men. Both companies combined had six 2.36-inch bazooka teams and four 60-mm mortars. Soldiers were equipped with 120 rounds of ammunition and two days of rations. They were supported by a battery of the 52d Field Artillery commanded by LTC Miller O. Perry of 134 men. This force as thrown together and rapidly deployed is aptly named for LTC Charles B. Smith who was chosen by Major General Dean, the 24th Infantry Division Commander, for his experience as a wartime leader in W.W. II, notably at Guadacanal as a Battalion Commander.[11]

In what would later be known as the Battle of Osan, began for TFS at 0700, July 5, 1950. The men of TFS were positioned to first meet columns of Soviet built T-34 tanks who were in pursuit of the retreating ROKA. As the first column of tanks moved in range the men of TFS hit them with recoilless rifles, bazookas, mortars, and conventional non-armor-piercing artillery rounds, the result being no significant damage whatsoever. Some of the bazooka rounds did not explode because they were so old and could not penetrate the armor. Then the forward deployed howitzer fired all of its HEAT rounds damaging 2 tanks but was finally overwhelmed by fire from the 3rd tank.[12] When issued this limited amount of effective ammunition no preparation had considered for the possibility of a tank assault.

After all, BG Roberts, who was in charge of training, didn't consider Korea tank country, and ammunition of all kinds in theater was old, ineffective, and in short supply. The men were not adept at their warrior tasks and remained confused and uninformed, or ignorant. And as G.I.s will often complain, they were treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed full of….………….. misinformation. By their own admission, members of TFS such as Bill Wyrick, Platoon Leader, 2d Platoon, C Company effectually stated at a memorial to the Battle of Osan and TFS in Korea on July 5, 1998, that the vanguard of UN and US Forces thought they were there to aid with a withdrawal. Philip Day, another Platoon Leader of TFS said "that he didn't know what to expect when he found out that he was being deployed to Korea. Like many other soldiers, he thought that they went to Korea to help evacuate US citizens."[13]

The battle raged on for several hours. The NKPA columns kept moving up behind the tank advance and about 1100 hours two regiments, the 16th and 18th of the 4th NK Infantry Division began maneuvering into offensive posture and deploying deadly force of arms engaged the men of TFS. It must be said that this unprepared, poorly trained, more poorly equipped force ultimately put up a courageous stand against the approximately 5,000 NKPA soldiers. They did their job. Amazingly they were able to hold out for about 3 hours. At approximately 1430 LTC Smith finally ordered the withdrawal. At this time TFS was suffering from communication breakdown, ammunition depletion, and were rapidly being outflanked. The ordered and tactically planned withdrawal that allowed for covering force gradually became a hasty retreat with equipment, dead, and some 25 seriously injured left behind. This hasty retreat further broke down into a confused and disorganized rout.[14] One North Korean officer later told historian John Toland that the American forces at the battle seemed "too frightened to fight."[15]

By nightfall 250 of TFS's men had straggled back to the American lines with about 150 more killed, wounded or missing. They continued to straggle in over the next several days. As late as 5 days later, men from the 2d Platoon, B company reached Chonan 30 minutes before the NKPA regulars.[16] During the breakout offensive of the Pusan perimeter, US troops moving north discovered shallow graves that contained bodies of men belonging to the 24th Infantry Division. All of them showed positive signs of being shot in the back of the head, their hands bound by communications wire.[17] The implications of such a travesty are clear, and make the initial, poorly planned, "arrogant display of American strength," shockingly costly, and at the time dangerously close to a routed defeat, if it were not for, the eventually remarkable good fortune, resiliency, and persistent tenacity of those same American and later combined United Nations forces.

Cries for rapid and wholesale demobilization after World War II rang paramount without any significant opposition. It didn't matter that not only seasoned warriors but experienced technicians were furloughed out of the services in droves. After all, they won the big war and deserved to go home. The logical result was that there were very few seasoned warriors with TFS. General George C. Marshall described it thusly. "For the moment, in a widespread emotional crisis of the American People; demobilization has become, in effect, disintegration, not only of the armed forces but of all conception of world responsibility and what it demands of us."[18]

Reconversion of America's vast war production machine and the retooling of its factories to peacetime moneymaking products was quick and without concern for the remote possibility of any future conflict. "The rush to dispose of vast stocks of military equipment and supplies and rapid conversion of its productive capacity, and the failure to retain the capability to quickly remobilize this capacity sowed the seeds of the nations' unpreparedness for its next war."[19] Secretary of Defense Forrestal's report to the President and Congress in 1948 brought this controversy clearly home to US leadership. "We have scrapped our war machine, mightiest in the history of the world, in a manifestation of confidence that we should not need it any longer. Our quick and complete demobilization was a testimony to our good will rather than to our common sense."[20]

Although the average soldier that fought in the Korean War wore regular army serial numbers as had all other soldiers in the past and present they were an entirely new breed of soldier. They were products of a post war drawdown and social philosophy that bred unpreparedness. They were probably as contented a bunch of fat and happy G.I.s as had even existed up to this point in American history. Was it their fault that they had forgotten that the basic function of an army is to fight and if need be to die on the battlefield? Their basic philosophy was that gooks can't fight and that when this police action was over they would soon be back to their comfortable life in Japan where a lieutenant made as much as a high Japanese cabinet official, all G.I.s had their own shoeshine boy or mamasan and hard, realistic training was nonexistent.[21]

Disorganized retreat or rather flight was the norm at the early stages of the Korean War. "Men threw away their shoes, because it was difficult to walk in the mud. They had no canteens, and they had no food. They were tired and dispirited, and some were bitter. Some of them grew dizzy and sick in the hot Korean sun." They told bitter jokes like: "If this is a police action and I'm a policemen then where the hell's my badge?" and "Damn these crooks over here got big guns!" None of them had been told why they were in Korea, or why the U.S. was fighting North Korean Communists. None of them cared. They only wanted to get back to Japan."[22] "They represented exactly the kind of pampered, undisciplined, egalitarian army their society had long desired and at last achieved. They had been raised to believe the world was without tigers, then sent to face those tigers with a stick. On their society must fall the blame."[23]

Retreating in the face of the enemy was the order of the day. In the first few days of fighting in July alone saw more officer casualties proportionately than any since the Civil War.[24] We were trained in the tactical doctrine of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) which did not apply to the enemy tactics and terrain of Korea. The enemy would crash into our neatly displaced units sacrificing on abundance of manpower, pinning us down, infiltrate our rear then cut us off and cut us to pieces during the inevitable retreat. At this point all too many were either captured or just massacred. This happened over and over again. There was a total lack of team effort among the 25th Infantry Division (ID), 7th ID, 24th ID, and 1st Cavalry Division. Again and again the same old theme held true, there were too few veterans, the Soldiers were not properly equipped and poorly trained just 5 short years after achieving the greatest victory in the history of the world. "The abiding weakness of free peoples is that their governments cannot or will not make them prepare or sacrifice before they are aroused."[25]

Hard, realistic training was, and is very often unpopular because it sometimes results in injuries and triggers full blown investigations of possible safety protocol violations. Everyone admits that hard realistic training results in less dead on the battlefield, but a Soldier killed during training causes Congress to come down hard on officers, because safety protocols must have been violated for it to have occurred. In these unpopular circumstances senior leaders show no inclination to back up their junior leaders who implement the hard, realistic training. Many brave Generals who wouldn't have thought about exposing themselves to enemy fire think twice about any course of action whatsoever when faced with a congressional inquiry.[26]

In almost all instances new recruits rifles were not zeroed, their mortars untestfired and new machine guns still oozed cosmoline.[27] When ambushed, leaving their trucks to move up into the steep Korean hills they dropped like flies. This clearly depicted lack of training. Their legs unused to hard pulls, gave out. More men dropped of heat exhaustion than NKPA bullets. Lacking water and discipline they drank from rice paddies and contracted dysentery further aggravating troop morale.

As noticed in TFS' first encounter with the NKPA ground weapons and proper ammunition had been developed but not procured and issued for use. The Army was told to make due. Make due and "in an arrogant display of strength" intimidate a determined foe to back down, turn tail and run. Vehicles didn't run, radiators clogged, engines gone, tires and tubes had a few miles left in them and came apart on the Korean roads, In Japan most small arms were unserviceable, rifle barrels worn smooth, mortar mounts were broken and there were no spare barrels for machine guns. Radios were short and did not work.[28]

During the war the logistical tail continued to wag the dog. We continued to put more men on the ground to the tune of tens of thousands. It is well documented that while we had at least 10,000 men in three different Corps headquarters, rifle companies that did 90% of the hard fighting, where the metal meets the meat, were all too often at 25% strength.[29]

The Doolittle Board of 1945-46 met and listened to numerous complaints about the services abuses resulting from prevailing officer-enlisted man relationships. In an Army that grew so much during 1941-45 abuses of leadership were easily uncovered and too numerous to mention. To counter this, the board made some drastic, sometimes questionable recommendations that were implemented wholesale like the rapid troop demobilization and drawdown. Due to the board recommendations the caste system of the Army was modified. Captains ceased to be gods, and sergeants, the backbone of the Army, were told to be one of the boys. Junior officers had their power to discipline taken from them and couldn't inflict punishment short of a formal court martial or easily reduce ineffective NCOs. A sergeant, by shouting something at some sensitive yardbird, could now get his officers into a whole heap of unwanted trouble. Sergeants that figured out the score started fraternizing with the men. Sergeants began to lead by popularity and not example or stern authority. Unpreparedness and logistic deficiency festered in the post WWII Army.[30]

"The infantry battlefield cannot be remade to the order of prevailing midcentury opinion of American sociologists."[31] If this were true, it would be necessary for Generals and Admirals to have advanced degrees in Sociology. The problem is not that Americans are soft, complacent, or most likely to take the path of least resistance, but that they will not individually or as a people face the fact that military professionals, while some have ideas about society that are distrusted and must be watched in accordance with the parameters wisely laid down by our founding fathers, still know better than anyone else how war is won. The sociologists and psychologists of Vienna had no answer to the Nazi bayonets, when they crashed their doors. Mentally disarmed and afraid, wholesale capitulation was the only course of action left to the educated engineers of society faced with the reality of cold hard steel. However, the soldiers of democracies in WW II most certainly had an answer.[32] History bears this out. Ever prepared, manned, properly equipped, and trained is the order of the day for the soldier. Not to do so is to repeat tragedy in history as exampled during the early stages of the Korean War.

* * *

Show Notes

* * *

© 2024 Mark E. Bennett, Jr.

About the author:
Mark Bennett is an Army Major and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior pilot. He attended the United States Military Academy for his undergraduate studies and completed a master’s degree in military history through Norwich University. Mark has lived around the globe, most recently living in France, but still calls North Carolina home. He is married to a former Army Officer and is the proud father of one daughter. He is the son and grandson of United States Marines.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙