September 16, 2023

1952. "Korea: Our Biggest Military Lesson"

Lessons of the Korean War
"Pfc. Roman Prauty, a gunner with 31st RCT (crouching foreground), with the assistance of his gun crew, fires a 75mm recoilless rifle, near Oetlook-tong, Korea, in support of infantry units directly across the valley," June 9, 1951 (source)

From This Week magazine, July 6, 1952, pp. 4-5, 12, 14:


An expert reveals what our Army, Navy and Air Force have learned in their bitter struggle. This costly knowledge can save our country and the world.

CBS correspondent Bill Downs talked to GIs, flyers, Marines in Korea, to generals and admirals there and in Washington for this article.

"It breaks your heart," the young second lieutenant was saying. "Those kids don't even know how to dig." It was in the early days of the Korean war. The lieutenant was returning to his unit. He had been wounded two weeks before and was still pale and limping, but determined to leave the Pusan hospital to get back to his men.

"I tried to teach them," he continued, "and after we took some casualties, they learned fast enough." He shook his head and again said, "But we lost a lot of boys because they didn't know how to dig."

The young Navy rating had come topside for a breath of fresh air. "What do you mean, 'the great United States Navy?'" He spat over the rail. "Do you realize that when this mess in Korea started, the United States Army was actually sailing more ships than the Navy?"

And still later, the ancient 28-year-old jet pilot, just rotated from the battles over the Yalu River, toyed with his drink in a Washington tavern. "This isn't loose talk," he declared. "You'd find it out in any read room on the spot." He gripped the glass and set it on the table for emphasis. "If we were flying those MIG-15s, we would have aces over there with 40 aircraft to their credit. We would clean out that Communist 1,000-plane air force in combat in six months."

The Lesson of Weakness

Korea has been a gigantic military proving ground that revealed in bloody detail the mistakes and inadequacies of the United States armed forces. The cost has been high—more than a hundred thousand casualties. Those casualties will have been in vain if US military leaders—and the American people themselves—do not learn the lessons of this war.

When the Korean conflict first broke out, it became apparent how tragically weak the United States has become in five years of uneasy peace. American military planning, understandable perhaps, was directed at the defense of this country in event of a third global war. The possibilities of the atomic weapon and its delivery to any spot on the earth's surface occupied most of the attention of the policy-makers.

The US Army was not a combat force. Particularly in Japan it was more of a gigantic social club, broken into unmilitary units for the necessary occupation duty softened by the easy life of a conqueror.

General Walton Walker, later to die in Korea while commanding the Eighth Army, had recognized the dangerous situation created by the state of the troops and command of our forces in Japan and only some three months before had started to reorganize the scattered occupation units into a fighting force. He also had ordered toughening maneuvers. But the job was barely under way when the Communists crossed the 38th Parallel.

Lessons came quickly in Korea. The American fighting man is the most mobile soldier in the world. He has more wheels per unit than any other Army. But in the precipitous valleys and bad roads of Korea, wheels are not much good near the front. In the early days, it was the enemy who had the mobility, simply because he could climb the mountains. The American soldier had to learn how to walk again, a fact giving rise to the criticism that "they have the best shoes and the worst feet in the world." And when winter came and the shoe-pac shortage developed, they no longer even had the best shoes.

Frontier Fighting

The American infantryman also had to relearn a lot of things he had forgotten. He had to learn to fight as his great-great-grandfather did on the frontier with the perimeter defense of the wagon trains against the stealth of the Indian. Night attacks and infiltration often put as many of the enemy behind him as in front of him. He also learned that while the Garand M-1 rifle is an excellent weapon in daytime, its value is dubious against a mass night attack by a fanatic enemy when firepower counts more than accuracy or range

On the other hand, the value of the new recoil-less weapons was proved to him—particularly the 3.5-inch bazooka with its shaped charge which proved so effective against enemy tanks.

The shortcomings of the Army often are more obvious than deficiencies in the other services. But the Air Force had parallel faults. The morale of the pilots in the early days of the fighting was complicated by the fact that many of them could breakfast at home, fly their missions to the battlefront and then return home to their families.

And only recently has the most glaring weakness of the Air Force been revealed: the fact that the Russian-built MIG-15 swept-wing jet fighter is a superior flying weapon to our F-86 Sabre Jet. The MIG engine weighs less and is more efficient. The plane itself is lighter and stripped of safety gadgets which American planes carry—gadgets which have value for flying in the United States but which are useless over North Korea. And the MIG-15 can outperform the Sabre in every department at altitudes over 12 thousand feet. Most jet fighting is done between 25 and 35 thousand feet.

Although it is not the intention here to go into the "Great MacArthur Debate," one of the reasons that the Air Force command concurred in the decision not to attack Manchuria was that the aircraft industry in this country was in critical condition. The major strategic bombing plane on hand at the time was the obsolescent B-29, then in process of being replaced by the B-50 and other models.

Had the decision been made to bomb Manchuria, an admittedly costly venture, there would have been no new B-29s to replace those in Japan and Okinawa when they were lost.

The lesson here is easy: the nation let its aircraft industry lapse into dangerous inactivity. It takes four to seven years to develop a fighter plane and longer than that to develop a bomber.

Such limitation of action in a larger conflict could prove to be a national disaster.

But the most valuable lesson to come out of Korea was that all the atom bombs, jet aircraft and battleships in the world cannot replace the infantryman—the man with the gun who moves in and occupies real estate.

The lesson has been learned in Korea. The question is, has it been learned at home? In Congress?

The Lesson of the Enemy

First they called the enemy "Gooks." Marines and soldiers soon learned that the derisive term "gook" did not adequately describe the well-organized army of the North Koreans which poured south to the perimeter.

For the Korean war gave the United States and her United Nations allies the first measure of the new Red military power in the Far East. The lesson has been a valuable one.

Although the Air Force maintains complete mastery of the air over the battlefront, the enemy has also proved that no amount of aerial attack can completely halt a determined force from advancing. Even though enemy supply lines are blasted continuously, a walking army can live off the land and walk its supplies to the front under cover of darkness.

The enemy also proved that new and complicated weapons often are less effective than older, simpler ones. The Communists' most effective weapon was the simple Russian copy of the old Thompson sub-machine gun—the kind that became famous in the Stalingrad fighting. Crude by American standards, it is easy to handle and seldom jams.

One infantry officer said, "It can probably fire under water." The finely tooled American carbines easily jammed with Korean dirt.

And a more subtle lesson also was learned from the Communist—that a man's race has nothing to do with his ability to fight. In this connection, Korea proved that a non-segregated American army is as effective as any that has fought in any war under the Stars and Stripes.

The Communists taught the Air Force that even on so primitive a battlefield as Korea, they are capable of accurate and efficient use of antiaircraft weapons—and they have good ones.

And in the most recent fighting, it is obvious that the Communists have powerful radar equipment which can pick up and count the number of planes which take off from Seoul's Kimpo Airport, and relay the information to the MIG fighter bases across the Yalu. That is the reason there is seldom surprise on our fighter sweeps in North Korea and why the Sabre jets almost always are outnumbered by two to one or more when they arrive at their destination.

In short, Communist power in the Far East is not only grounded in overwhelming masses of men, but also in the modern scientific equipment, such as electronically laid antiaircraft fire, excellent communications and extremely efficient radar operation.

"Combat School"

The United Nations air forces have maintained their edge over the Communist air force—even though outnumbered—simply because our pilots are better trained and their combat techniques far superior to anything the Communists have to offer. But as the aerial fighting progresses, the enemy too is becoming better trained.

As one pilot put it, "We feel as if we're running a combat school for the Communists when we go up there."

But the most sobering lesson we have learned from the enemy in Korea is that the Soviet Union as of this moment appears to have opened a technological gap that will take the United States time to close and surpass. At present, the US Air Force has kept that gap closed through tactics and training in its pilots. They cannot keep it closed forever.

The Lessons Applied

Colonel "Mike" Michaelis, one of the outstanding field commanders in Korea, was raked over the coals at one time when he declared in effect that "we spend so much time teaching the GI what he's fighting for that often he's not taught how to fight."

For the Army, the lesson most quickly learned was that American training methods had to be tightened up. General Matthew Ridgway, when he took command of the Eighth Army, messaged the Pentagon that he wanted no soldiers who could not climb a Korean mountain as fast as any native and still be able to fight when they got to the top.

The Marines proved the value of tough training. It is now under way wherever American troops are stationed around the world.

The Korean war also underlined the lesson that American military power hits hardest when all branches combine to deliver the blow. The result has been that never before has there been seen such cooperation between the ground, air and sea forces as has been developed on that embattled peninsula. Close-support strafing and bombing were developed in the last war—but the "cab rank" attack, wherein spotter planes and ground observers are able to call in planes from an aerial attack above them, never before was practiced with such efficiency.

The Navy's bombardment of enemy front-line positions along both coasts, on order from the Army, was never so extensive. And the Naval air arm for the first time used jet planes off carriers in combat operations. The Navy's blockade of the Korean coast has been complete. Naval gunfire has interdicted the road and rail center of the east coastal town of Wonsan for more than a year.

And of longer-range importance, the Navy has been able to refine and develop its mobile supply system, making it for more rapid movement of supplies and rendering our Pacific fleet completely self-sustaining. This is of paramount importance in case a major blockade of the Asian coast becomes necessary.

But perhaps the most important development—both for the Air Forces and the infantry—is the development in Korea of new uses for the long-ignored helicopter.

Its use in rescuing men from behind enemy lines and from the sea has been unprecedented. As a flying ambulance, it has saved countless lives by quick ferrying of casualties to the rear.

And finally it became a combat aircraft, carrying Marines behind the enemy to capture a mountain peak without having to climb the mountain.

The Korean war has been fought without two of America's most popular weapons—all-out strategic attack from the air, and the atomic bomb. There were valid reasons for withholding both.

It was decided that extension of the bombing program into Manchuria would risk a third world war while the nation was unprepared to fight one and while the critical condition of the US aircraft industry could not replenish losses incurred in such a bombing program.

No Targets

Regarding the atomic bomb, the sparsely settled and mountainous terrain of Korea simply offers no targets worthy of this weapon. Although tactical atomic weapons are now in development, to use such weapons in Korea would supply the enemy and his allies with valuable intelligence of our progress. Also it is felt that we do not presently have enough fissionable materials stockpiled to waste any.

And finally, the reaction of the Oriental peoples throughout the Far East was a factor in withholding the atomic bomb. It was feared that such mass destruction might alienate those whom we someday hope to draw out of the Communist camp.

The Korean war, which started out with the unfortunate name of a "United Nations police action," has developed into what history may record as a most fortunate trumpet call of alarm for the free nations of the world. History may also record that Josef Stalin made Communism's biggest mistake when he ordered the North Koreans across the 38th Parallel in June, 1950.

For the Korean war aroused the most powerful nation in the world to a sense of its own weakness.

Restating these mistakes shows how they are interrelated:
1. Our policy-makers concentrated too heavily on global defense and the atomic bomb.

2. Our infantrymen had forgotten how to walk and lacked tough combat training.

3. Some of the Army's finely tooled weapons were too specialized for all-purpose fighting.

4. Our pilots flew into action in planes designed more for training safety than combat performance.

5. Our aircraft industry had fallen behind Russian aviation in the output of highly maneuverable jet fighters.

6. We made the classic military error of underestimating the enemy.
But over and above these lessons, the Korean war taught that in this modern world, peace is only preservable through strength, and that if we value freedom, justice and the dignity of the individual, we must be willing and able to defend them.

The men who have suffered and died in Korea will not have given their lives uselessly if we remember what it has cost so much to learn.