Disaster in Korea

In honor of Memorial Day, here’s a retro review from February 3, 2001.

My father-in-law served in this war though the events covered in this book took place before he got there.

Review: Disaster in Korea: The Chinese Confront MacArthur, Roy E. Appleman, 1989.Disaster in Korea

Roy Appleman started working on this book when he was a combat historian in the US Army during the Korean War and continued into the 80s. By examining military records and interviewing many of the participants at all levels, he brings a great deal of detail to bear on a narrow focus: the experiences of the United States Eighth Army (with attached Turkish, British, and South Korean units) in the Korean War from November 24th, 1950 to December 26th,1950.

That detail can be mindnumbing at times, especially for a life-long civilian like me. A large portion of this book is taken up with such details as when x platoon detached from Company Y to occupy Hill Z. Appleman tries to be as clear as possible and substitutes organizing his history around units for a straight chronological telling of events. On occasion, he stops to remind us what is happening elsewhere simultaneous to the events he is covering or backtracks to place things in context. There are plenty of maps, many of them detailed, but the book could have used even more.

The book doesn’t start to get really interesting until about half way through when Appleman takes up the harrowing retreat of the 2nd Infantry Division from Kunu-ri. This account, even more than the rest of the book, is drawn from post-combat interviews since most of the official records were lost. It tells of an approximately six mile retreat, done by some units at night in subzero temperatures, down a narrow road while under enemy fire from both sides. It is an example of confused command, bad coordination between units, and courage and cowardice.

After the retreat from Kunu-ri, we get the details of Operation Bug-Out, its unofficial title in some quarters, when the UN forces fled approximately 300 miles south of their most northernly positions in Korea.

All this detail, while boring at times, is sometimes quite informative to those unacquainted with the details of military logistics. I gleaned, in passing, some understanding of how advances and retreats are planned, the intricacies of the quartermaster’s work, and the coordination of artillery support with the infantry.

As you would expect from the author of the US Army’s official history of the first five months of the Korean War, this book is also partially intended as a case study for professional military men. Appleman criticizes the actions of everyone from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and MacArthur to the behavior of privates. He restates the frequent criticism that MacArthur’s notion of reunifying Korea was foolish. Korea’s border with China was unpatrollable by the forces MacArthur had to say nothing of his misreading of Chinese intention and capabilities. The Joint Chiefs of Staff should have denied MacArthur permission to advance to the Chinese border. Appleman also notes a general lack of ground reconnaissance to scout out the disposition of Chinese forces before and after their second offensive. It was failure to maintain contact with the enemy which was partially responsible for the decision not to form a defensive line at the waist of Korea in December 1950 even though the Chinese did not, indeed could not, follow the retreating forces.

On the mid-levels of command, Appleman also notes problems. In the withdrawal from Kunu-ri, Colonel Freeman’s controversial decision not to perform a rearguard action for the retreating column is covered. Appleman sees it as a breakdown in coordination and the chain of command. Appleman also notes how General Walker had units in reserve but did not use them in a northward attack to clear the Chinese roadblock between Sunchon and Kunu-ri. He mentions, but has no explanation for, the British Middlesex Battalion’s failure to support the retreat as ordered.

On the lowest levels, Appleman notes a general lack of discipline, with some notable exceptions, about maintaining supplies and equipment and also armor units failing to support infantry in clearing Chinese from the sides of the Kunu-ri-Sunchon road.
Appleman also stresses that his account corrects two misconceptions in the history of the Korean War. Chinese General Lin Piao, a legendary figure from the Long March, did not lead troops in the second Chinese offensive of the war, and the Chinese did not exploit a gap between the Eighth Army and the X Corps. Rather, they punched a whole in the front and exploited it.

Military professionals and veterans of the events covered should find this book valueable. Casual readers of military history will find parts slow going, but the book should ultimately reward their attention.

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