The bombs continued to fall with a thunderous roar on June 18, 1953.
For the previous five days, American F-84s, F-86s, and B-29s had carried out repeated bombing raids on the Toksan and Kusong irrigation dams, north of the Chongchon River, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The U.S. Far East Air Force (FEAF), The New York Times reported on June 20, hit the Toksan dam 12 times alone on the last day of the bombardment.[i] A North Korean communiqué, broadcast in Moscow, acknowledged the strikes, stating:
“The American Air Force continues to subject to bombing peaceful populated areas, which have no military objects whatsoever. Yesterday United States airplanes bombed the water reservoirs at Thaychon and Kusen. Great damage has been done.”[ii]
In reality, the damage was substantially offset by North Korean counter-efforts. Despite the zealous attempts of the U.S. Air Force to destroy the dams—consequentially producing mass floods that would ruin rice crops vital to the Communist war effort—the dams did not break. Kim Il Sung’s regime had learned from earlier strikes and ordered water levels reduced at Toksan and Kusong to heighten the earth protecting the irrigation dams. Work crews even labored to fix holes while the bombs rained from the sky.
Since May of 1952, American military planners—led vocally by Generals Otto P. Weyland and Hoyt S. Vandenberg, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff—had embarked on a new strategy to end the Korean conflict: “air pressure” would be used to crush the morale of the North Korean populace. An Air Force staff study report from April 1952 called for the use of aerial bombardments “‘to inflict maximum pressure on the enemy by causing him permanent loss…’”[iii] However, with few strategic military targets left in the DPRK, the bombing missions focused on minor military objectives that squeezed the civilian populace.
Implementing the strategy in June of 1952, U.S. bombing runs destroyed five hydroelectric dams at Fusen, Chosen, Kyosen, Funei, and Kongosan. Other operations followed throughout the summer. In Operation “Pressure Pump,” U.S. bombers napalmed thirty different areas of the North Korean capital. Thereafter, U.S. commanders—in an attempt to create chaos among the populace—ordered planes to drop leaflets reading “You Are Next” across North Korea before launching nighttime B-26 raids that leveled two cities. Though seventy-eight other potential targets were identified, the U.S. Department of State convinced the Air Force that the raids were counterproductive and only served to strengthen the resolve of the northern citizenry. The U.S. military largely returned to focusing on enemy units, for a time.[iv]
By May of 1953, though, with cease-fire negotiations stalled over the intractable prisoner of war issue, U.S. generals looked to new bombing missions that would foster instability north of the 38th parallel by reducing food supplies. Out of 283,000 tons of rice produced by North Korea annually, some 70% of the planting grounds, officials estimated, required the use of water stored in irrigation dams. The destruction of these dams would not only ruin much of Pyongyang’s rice crop but would also sabotage future harvests by washing away topsoil.
With these goals, the U.S. FEAF struck five irrigation dams in North Korea in May and June of 1953. F-84 Thunderjets launched successful attacks on irrigation dams at Toksan and Chason in mid-May, breaching both and flooding miles of surrounding rice fields. But DPRK officials responded to the new strategy quickly, and US bombing runs against the Kuwonga dam on May 21 and 29 failed to create similar results after work crews reduced water levels. Thus, massive bombings raids by the U.S. Air Force from June 13-18 failed to create the desired mass flooding.
Still, the Korean War had reached yet a new phase of escalation. With the threat of nuclear war hanging in the air, U.S. war planners—haunted by the ghost of Carl von Clausewitz—blurred the increasingly fine line between conventional and total war. On July 27, 1953, at 9:36 PM, just twenty-four minutes before the tenuous cease-fire ending the Korean War went into effect, a lone B-26 completed one last bombing mission over North Korea. The cacaphanous echo of that explosion remains to this day.
For Further Reading:
- Cumings, Bruce. North Korea: Another Country. New York: New Press, 2004.
- Cumings, Bruce. The Korean War. New York: Random House, 2010.
- Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
- Sherwood, John D. Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fight Pilots In the Korean War. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
[i]“Official Reports of Today’s Operations in the Korean War,” The New York Times, June 20, 1953. pg. 2
[ii] Ibid., “North Korean Communiqué,” pg. 2
[iii] Quoted on pg 160 of Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).
[iv] See: Bombing to Win, 160-163.