Deafening artillery and mortar fire soared across the 38th parallel before dawn on Sunday, June 25. In the early morning light, 135,000 soldiers from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) flooded into South Korea. Heavy Russian-made tanks crushed stupefied defenders. Marauding fighter planes hummed overhead, strafing at will.
The Republic of Korea faced the merciless reality of extinction.
As North Korean troops advanced, Kim Il Sung spoke on the radio at 9:30 AM, claiming that his forces were repelling a southern invasion. “‘The South Korean puppet clique,’” the leader warned ominously, “‘will be held responsible for whatever results may be brought about by this development.’”
The driving force of the North Korean invasion came directly at Seoul. South Korean forces standing in the way numbered 95,000 poorly trained soldiers without tanks, armor-piercing bazookas, or heavy artillery. Organized resistance quickly fell apart in the onslaught.
The exception came forty-five miles northeast of Seoul at Chuncheon. There, the ROK 6th Division fought bitterly against North Korean forces from June 25 to 27, many choosing death over flight. Only the complete collapse of the South Korean army on both flanks necessitated their withdrawal.
At 6 AM on June 27, South Korea’s government announced its evacuation from Seoul on the radio. With the rumbling of artillery fire growing louder in the distance, panic consumed the city. Refugees fled south. “Everyone,” Professor Yu Chin-Ho recalled of the atmosphere, “seemed to be in an insane hurry to save his own life. It was the animal instinct without propriety, shame, or self-respect.”
South Korean President Syngman Rhee, safely removed from the fighting in Taejon, spoke on the radio that evening, consoling the populace with news of foreign aid and words of support from General Douglas MacArthur.
Combat raged north of Seoul while that broadcast aired. Struggling to save the capital, the ROK 1st Division deployed suicide squads—armed with Molotov cocktails and grenades—attempting to destroy enemy tanks at any cost. One of its companies “fought on the hill above Seoul until its last man had been killed,” General Matthew B. Ridgway noted with admiration after the war.
Amid the thundering terror of that night, Professor Yu witnessed the last officials of the South Korean government fleeing Seoul:
…piercing through the pattering of the rain drops was the sound of the engines of fast moving motor cars…I climbed up the stairs in darkness…and looked outside. On the highway in front of the Noryangjin station cars were running at full speed, with headlights that made a continuous stream of glittering lights…The Government of the Republic of Korea! In those speeding cars must be the important persons of the political world…I was overcome by loneliness and hopelessness…Then I noticed that the sound of gunfire from the north was increasing its tempo.
In the hours that followed, ferocious fighting reached the outskirts of Seoul—“the cannonade…came like thunderclaps, interspersed by machine-gun fire”—prompting the ROK Army to blow up the Han River bridge; a “sheet of orange flame tore the sky,” as the indomitable war correspondent Marguerite Higgins put it. Early on the morning of June 28, much of the smoke-filled city was under North Korean control.
The invaders, an eyewitness named Lee Kun-Ho remembered, wasted no time in blanketing the city with signs: “People’s Army, Mansei!” and “Kim Il Sung, Mansei!” The DPRK flag abounded. The Korean People’s Army itself, Lee noted with some astonishment, “was composed of surprisingly young boys. There was a group of young girls also.”
As those events transpired, U.S. President Harry Truman—acting in the aftermath of a June 25 United Nations Resolution condemning the North Korean invasion—promised South Korea prompt air and naval assistance. The ROK Ambassador to the United States, Chang Myon, and his First Secretary, Han Pyo-Wook, heard this news on June 27 at Washington airport and broke down in tears. A subsequent UN Resolution, passed later that evening, formally authorized member nations to expel North Korean troops with force.
By June 30, President Truman ordered the use of U.S. ground troops to stall North Korea’s rapid advance. With the nearest infantry division days away, General Douglas MacArthur ordered 403 soldiers from the 21st Infantry Regiment—then enjoying occupation duty in Japan—to depart for the front lines immediately.
Though warned of impending casualties, the men of “Task Force Smith”—named after its Lt. Colonel, Charles B. Smith—failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. Leaving for the battlefield, the soldiers, as quoted by the historian Max Hastings, “‘figured to be a week in Korea, settle the gook thing, then back to Japan.’”
As they flew to Pusan, U.S. planes bombed North Korea for the first time on July 2, hitting the city of Yonpo. The following day, bombers struck Pyongyang—a city the American pilots nicknamed “Ping-Pong Balls.” If there was ever such a thing as War Without Mercy, it was the horrifying conflict in the air that would soon unfold over North Korea.
By July 5, the ill-fated men of Task Force Smith dug in near Osan, about 20 miles south of Seoul. Starting at 7 AM, those inexperienced soldiers— outnumbered a 100-to-1—fought savagely against North Korean tanks for seven hours. Running out of ammunition, and nearly surrounded, they eventually fled to avoid imminent annihilation. It was the beginning of a long retreat south that would not end until the Pusan Perimeter in early August.
In the midst of that battle, war correspondent Marguerite Higgins witnessed some of the first fighting between American and North Korean troops, recording:
When orders to attack first went out to the fifty-odd youngsters in our bazooka team they gazed at the tanks as if they were watching a newsreel. It took prodding from their officers to make them realize that this was it—that it was up to them to attack. Slowly, small groups of them left their foxholes, creeping low though the wheat field towards the tank. The first swoosh from a bazooka flared out…We could see enemy soldiers jump from the tank, and machine guns began to chatter…
Alas, the men of Task Force Smith exchanged their lives for precious time, losing 156 souls in that engagement.
It was only the beginning of an unspeakable tragedy for the Korean peninsula that would burn for three more years and smolder into the present day.
Picture source: Wikipedia commons
For eyewitness accounts of the fall of Seoul, see:
- Marguerite Higgins, War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat
Correspondent (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1951)
- John W. Riley, Jr., and Wilbur Schramm, The Reds Take a City: The CommunistOccupation of Seoul with Eyewitness Accounts (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1951)
For the military history of the conflict, see:
- Max Hastings, The Korean War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987)
- Walter Karig et al., Battle Report: The War in Korea (New York: Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1952).
- Allan R. Millett, The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came from the North (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010)
- Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967)
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