Army Aviation

Army Aviation: Part I: 70 Years Ago: Korea

Looking Back, May 2023
By Mark Albertson

Army Aviation:
Part I:  70 Years Ago: Korea

The Korean War opened spectacularly on June 25, 1950.  In blitzkrieg-like fashion, over 90,000 troops of the North Korean People’s Army, backed by upwards of 150 Soviet-supplied T-34 tanks, crashed over the 38th parallel.  However strongman Kim Il-sung’s bid to unify the peninsula failed.  For in one of the decisive actions of the war, Kim’s army failed to liquidate the Pusan abscess in the southeast corner of South Korea; which together with General Mac Arthur’s bold stroke at Inchon on September 15, 1950, tilted the momentum in favor of the Republic of Korea and its UN allies.

Opening phases of the Korean War, condition at the front, July 13, 1950.

UN forces, including ROK troops[1] crossed the 38th parallel heading north.  With the North Korean People’s Army reeling, now was the time to unite the Korean peninsula under Syngman Rhee’s banner and bring the Korean civil war to a successful conclusion.  But as the advance drew nearer the Chinese border, the course of the conflict was suddenly changed in the most profound way.

Developing Pusan Perimeter, 14 July-1 August 1950.

On November 26, 1950, hordes of “volunteers’ from the Democratic People’s Republic of China slammed into United Nations forces closing on the frozen Yalu River.  UN troops were thrown back, retreating pell-mell over ground recently occupied.  Seoul once again fell to the Communists.  A UN counterattack checked the advance of the Chinese steamroller and promptly threw it into reverse.  Seoul changed hands for the fourth time before the seesaw phase of the conflict gave way to trench warfare.  Both sides became locked in a bitterly contested stalemate reminiscent of the Western Front, 1914-1918; a costly morass characterized by Communist flesh and blood battering itself senseless against the superior equipment and technology of the Allies.  This new war, bereft of movement, provided the habitat for that instrument of mobility that would showcase its promise for the future . . . the helicopter.[2]

* * * * *

In 1954, General James M. Gavin, U.S. Army airborne soldier extraordinaire, fashioned a game-changing criticism of the performance of Allied troops during the fall and winter of 1950.

The retreat of the UN Eighth Army from the Chinese flood, December 1-23, 1950.

Here we see the Allies breaking out of the narrow waist of North Korea and rolling across the swelling hinterland towards the Yalu River in rival prongs, Eighth Army and X Corps.  The spearheads, though, were not mutually supporting, and into the void poured 300,000 Chinese.

The Allied advance, wedded to heavy mechanized transport, was confined to the few roads available.[3]  This provided a golden opportunity for the foot-borne Chinese Communist Forces.

At the outset of the Chinese intervention, Mao’s forces relied on tactics used with great success against the Japanese in World War II and again employed to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies during the great civil war in China.  And this conventional army’s use of irregular warfare tactics enabled Mao’s troops to roll back UN forces in a retreat which sometimes resembled a rout.[4] We see here, then, that Mao-Tse-tung’s well-tried tactics of infiltration and maneuver worked to the disadvantage of the retreating UN armies, since being heavily mechanized restricted South Korea’s allies to the few roads then available.

However, like any other army, the farther south the Chinese Communist Forces rolled, the more of a strain the advance put on the Red’s rudimentary system of supply.[5]  This, together with UN stiffening, caused the Red steamroller to seize up, then be thrown back.  A Communist rally ended the UN counter thrust, giving way to a stalemate in and around the starting line of the war, the 38th parallel.  With the war mired in gridlock along the lines of France in World War I, the Chinese advantage of infiltration and maneuver based on control of the rugged Korean landscape no longer applied.  Chinese Communist Forces were consigned, then, to a form of warfare to which they were hardly prepared and with which lacked the technological capability to reverse; as opposed to some of the UN contingent—British, French, Canadian, Australian, as well as American forces—which had a history of experience with such a stalemate from the War to End All Wars.

General Gavin saw the problem differently.  His analysis was inspired, in part, by the disastrous retreat of the United Nations’ forces from North Korea during the winter of 1950-1951.  Again he understood that the manpower advantage enjoyed by the Communists enhanced their ability to dictate the ebb and flow of battle and insured their command of the countryside.  Thus he argued, “Cavalry is supposed to be the arm of mobility.  It exists and serves a useful purpose because of its Mobility Differential [6]—the contrast between its mobility and that of other land forces.  Without the differential, it is not cavalry.  Cavalry is the arm of shock and firepower; it is the screen of time and concentration.  It denies the enemy that talisman of success—surprise—while it provides our own forces with the means to achieve that very thing, surprise, and with it destruction of the enemy.”[7]

General Gavin goes on to explain the lack of mobility following the Inchon landings and how air cavalry might have altered the outcome in the winter of 1950-1951:  “Finally, when the landings at Inchon took place September 15 there was the promise of fluid action.  I was present at Inchon, and after the first crust of resistance was broken, it seemed to me there was nothing worthy of the name in front of X Corps.  The situation screamed for highly mobile cavalry forces to exploit this unprecedented opening.  We should have pressed south to the rear of the Naktong River in hours.  Instead, we took almost two weeks to establish a link between the two forces.  [He refers, of course, to the Pusan Perimeter.]  When the first breakout of our forces from the south perimeter moved northward it was a combined tank-truck column, essentially an infantry column limited in its performance by its road-bound equipment.  We are fighting an Asiatic army on Asiatic terms.”[8]

It is certainly not imprudent to consider for even just a moment, that in September 1950, General Gavin’s idea of air cavalry could have impacted the war.  “An estimated thirty thousand NKPA soldiers escaped over the border, with an additional thirty thousand in northern training camps.  Combined these numbers represented enough troops to fill six divisions, and South Korea’s military force were, if anything, even weaker then they had been before the invasion of South Korea.”[9]

Obviously here, General Gavin was asserting that air cavalry could have accomplished something road-bound troops could not have:  The cutting off for capture or even destruction of the 30,00 fleeing North Koreans before they crossed the 38th parallel to fight again; and, fight again they would.

But there was the larger picture.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President Harry Truman to cross the 38th parallel and destroy the NKPA to 1) To prevent another invasion of South Korea, and 2) unite the peninsula under the Seoul banner.  The National Security Council differed.  This august body urged the President to go no further than the agreed upon border.  By doing so, the President would be in accordance with the policy of Containment as put forth by George Kennan.[10]  In addition, an invasion of North Korea would only prompt responses from the Soviet Union and newly minted Red China; this was particularly true with the latter.  For North Korea provided that buffer zone between China and the Western satrapy of South Korea.  Add the Nationalist occupation of Formosa,[11] and one must readily appreciate Beijing’s political, strategic and historical sensibilities.  However on September 27, 1950, the Joint Chiefs ordered General MacArthur to proceed north, having won their point with President Truman over the NSC.

* * * * *

As UN forces advanced up North Korea, Beijing issued warnings not to approach the Yalu River.  CCF attacks on UN spearheads, primarily South Korean units, were seen by MacArthur as token gestures as opposed to the prelude of a major attack.  Yet between October 14-November 1, 1950, some 180,000 Chinese Communist Forces crossed the Yalu River.[12]

On October 15, General MacArthur and President Truman gathered together at Wake Island to discuss the final aspects of the war.  In answer to the President’s inquiry as to the chances of a Chinese or even a Soviet intervention, MacArthur replied, “Very little.  Had they interfered in the first or second months it would had been decisive.  We are no longer fearful of their intervention.  We no longer stand with hat in hand.  The Chinese have 300,000 men in Manchuria.  Of these probably not more than 100,000 to 200,000 are distributed along the Yalu River.  They have no air force.  Now that we have bases for our air force in Korea, if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang there would be the greatest of slaughter.”[13]

On the night of November 25-26, 1950, more than 300,000 Chinese “volunteers” slammed into the advancing UN forces.  The Chinese were helped measurably by MacArthur’s dispositions of Eighth Army and X Corps.  Both forces advanced as rival prongs, not as mutually supporting spearheads, separated as they were by the Jaeback Mountains; therefore, both forces were opened to being flanked.[14]

Battlefront, Korean War, November 23, 1950.

Chinese hordes filled the abscess between the UN spearheads with the obvious results.  The skies, though filled by UN air forces, could not stem the retreat south.  Here Gavin believed that air cavalry units could have linked the rival prongs of Allied troops; moved supplies and men to units cut off; provided blocking forces, seized and hold road junctions and bridges for retreating Allied troops.  Rotary wing aircraft, unimpaired by the rugged Korean landscape, could have offset the advantage enjoyed by the Reds and quite possibly have changed the complexion of the battle.  Of course, such use of the helicopter was not to be until Vietnam.[15]

However the stalemate in Korea proved to be the selling point for the helicopter as a viable tool in war.  For rotary wing aircraft proved effective in overcoming those earthly impediments which hinder ground transportation, and therefore, enhance the mobility of the foot soldier.  And the Marines showed the way.

The battleline of Korea, stalemate, 10 July-31 October 1951.

Part II next month.


[1]  ROK or Republic of Korea.

[2] See page 58, “Helicopters in Korea,” Part I, July 31, 2013, by Mark Albertson.

[3]  Hitler’s Wehrmacht faced a like predicament with the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.  Some 95 percent of Soviet roads were not paved.  Following rainy seasons and melting snows, many Soviet roads were reduced to quagmires, impeding the German Army’s mobility.

[4]  A better understanding of the Chinese Communist Forces’ initial success can be found on pages 103 and 104 of Mao Tse-tung’s On Guerrilla Warfare, where he writes, “When the situation is serious, the guerrillas must move with the fluidity of water and the ease of blowing wind.  Their tactics must deceive, tempt and confuse the enemy.  They must lead the enemy to believe that they will attack him from the east and north, and they must strike him from the west and south.

Guerrilla initiative is expressed in dispersion, concentration and the alert shifting of forces,”  In addition . . .

“. . . Throughout the Resistance War . . . our strategic line was to extend guerrilla warfare . . . we chose the positions where the enemy was relatively weak to concentrate our forces there and annihilate manpower.”  See page 139, People’s War, People’s Army, by Vo Nguyen Giap.  Both these able practitioners are bolstered by the writer who influenced them . . .

“. . . When the enemy is at ease, be able to weary him; when well fed, to starve him; when at rest, to make him move; move swiftly where he does not expect you.”  See page 96, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, translated by Brigadier Samuel B. Griffith, USMC, (Ret.).

[5]  What must be appreciated is just how much of an accomplishment the initial Chinese thrust really was . . . in the face of overwhelming UN (American) air superiority.  Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps Close Air Support bolstered by Air Force carpet bombing, could not stem the Chinese flood south.  This situation would arise again later in South Vietnam, where the concerted use of airpower could not eliminate the Ho Chi Minh Trail of supplies from North to South Vietnam.

[6]  Italics added.

[7]  See pages 54 and 55, “Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses!” Harper’s, April 1954, by Major General James M. Gavin,

[8]  See page 55, Gavin.

[9]  See page 29, “Breakout and Pursuit,” The Korean War:  The UN Offensive, 16 September-2 November 1950, by Stephen L.Y. Gammons.

[10]  Sovietologist and influential policymaker, George Kennan, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1947—an article famously seen to have been authored by a Mr. X—that America should, in response to provocations and threats of expansion, contain the Soviet Union.  This would insure that the West (primarily America) would not expend inordinate amounts of blood and treasure; while at the same time, playing to its economic and financial strengths to not only rein in Soviet ambitions, but eventually undermine same and see to its eventual demise.  Indeed, . . .

. . . “Kennan abhorred basing policy on sentiment.  He had little use for Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, but nevertheless believed the United States should oppose any attempt by the Chinese communists to forcibly take Taiwan.  He also warned in August 1950 that U.S. policy in Indochina risked putting the United States in a position of underwriting France in its efforts to maintain political control there, and assuming imperial responsibilities the way the U.S. had already assumed some of Britain’s.

“Despite this warning, Kennan initially supported America’s effort to contain communism in Indochina.  He was, after all, briefly a member of the Kennedy administration as the U.S. ambassador in Yugoslavia.  Gradually, however, Kennan soured on the Vietnam War, worrying that the United States was investing much more in that conflict than its interests required.  He did not believe that a communist victory would alter the global balance of power.  In 1966, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he invoked John Quincy Adams’ famous warning about not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and suggested that U.S. credibility would be better served by the ‘liquidation of unsound positions than by the . . . stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.’”  See, “George Kennan’s Geopolitics of the Far East,” The Diplomat, by Francis P. Sempa, 2015.

[11]  Former name of the Island of Taiwan.

[12  See page 10, “Korean See-Saw,” War Monthly, Issue No. 9, by Brenda Ralph Lewis.

[13] See page 761, Chapter XXXIX, “The Big Question,” South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, by Roy E. Appleman.

[14]  See page 10, The Chinese Intervention, 3 November 1950-24 January 1951, “Introduction,” by Richard W. Stewart.

[15]  See page 59, “50 years Ago:  Army Aviation:  Historical Perspective,” Army Aviation, November 30, 2013, by Mark Albertson.