Author: Major William F. McEvoy
On 20 November, the advance guard of the main Marine Communist ambush awaited at Yudam-ni, west of the Chosin Reservoir. Little heed was paid to these enlisted soldiers, and the column continued north. During the night of 28 November, a new Chinese army seemed to rise from the ground as 8 Chinese divisions struck the 1st Marine Division. At the time of this attack, the 7th and 5th Marines were in Yudam-ni, and the 1st Marines were protecting the main supply route (MSR) with single battalions at Hagaru, Koto-ri, and Chin- hung-ni. Within two hours after darkness fell, Marine units all along the 53-mile MSR were simultaneously engaged by the Communists. On 28 November, Marine Corsairs provided support for the UN forces in numerous areas. Northeast of the Chosin Reservoir, VMF-323 planes supported the withdrawing ROK forces. To the west, VMF-312 and VMF-214 aircraft conducted their attacks in support of the Eighth Army, which was attempting to withdraw to more defensible positions. VMF-212 flew all of its sorties in support of Marine units near the reservoir. The Corsairs were most effectively used at this point to prevent the Chinese from massing their forces. Marine pilots were constantly strafing enemy concentrations and breaking up Communist attacks. On 28 November, enemy troop concentrations were attacked 29 times; on 29 November, the number of similar attacks jumped to 61. With their supply routes blocked in the south, the units of X Corps attempted to regroup and to establish defensive positions, as the bitter cold and supply shortages began to take their toll. Ammunition and medical supplies were air- dropped by Marine R4Ds and R4Q transports, while helicopters from VMO-6 made regular flights to evacuate the wounded. Marine R4D and Air Force R4Q transports shuttled day and night from Itami airfield in Japan to Yongpo airfield, bringing in vitally needed medical supplies and evacuating casualties to hospitals in Japan. Marine transports also flew supply and evacuation sorties into the short airstrip at Hagaru.22After four days of fighting the bitter cold and the fanatical Chinese Communists, 1st Marine Division's position became untenable. On 30 November, the decision was made for the Marines to break out of the encirclement and to return to the coast.
On 1 December, the 1st Marine Division wheeled about and, led by the 7th Marines, started to fight south toward Koto-ri and Chinhung-ni. This Marine withdrawal was destined to become an epic story of courage and survival, and, once again, Marine air support would play a decisive role. Never in Marine history had so much depended on a supporting arm, yet never had circumstances conspired so well to prevent Marine air from carrying out its mission. The low overcasts combined with the bitter cold and rugged terrain to render close air support missions almost impossible. The extreme cold also produced maintenance and logistic problems for 1st MAW units, as engine oil froze and mechanics were forced to perform delicate engine work while exposed to the extreme cold. Lack of fueling and bomb-handling equipment and spare parts also plagued 1st MAW squadrons, yet these obstacles were eventually overcome, and air support was avail- able to cover the ground elements fighting south. During the breakout, Corsairs from all the Marine squadrons participated in day-long strikes against the Chinese. OY-2 spotter aircraft flew artillery-spotting missions along the withdrawing column, while VMO-6's helicopters continued their medical evacuation and rescue missions. The crowded air above the UN column was filled with cargo planes dropping much-needed supplies, and the Corsairs were constantly wheeling and diving in attacks on enemy positions. Marine Corsairs ranged the length of the withdrawing column providing flank security, attacking enemy concentrations, and destroying enemy roadblocks and weapons.1st Marine Division received 36 close air support sorties during the daylight hours of 1 December, but the greatest effort was made in behalf of three Army battalions from the 7th Infantry Division. For three days, these Army units had fought a grim battle for survival against heavy odds and were in danger of being overrun by over 30,000 Communists troops. Captain E. P. Stamford, a Marine forward air controller as- signed to one of the beleaguered battalions, directed the Corsairs of VMF(N)-513 against the enemy, just as the Communists launched a fierce attack against the battalions. For a few moments, the fighting was touch and go, but as the Corsairs made repeated napalm, bomb, rocket, and strafing attacks, the enemy broke ranks and fled for better cover. In all, 46 Marine sorties were flown in support of these Army units, allowing them to eventually join up with the main withdrawing Marine force. Throughout the breakout, the Corsairs of VMF(N)-513 and the "Tigercats" of VMF(N)-542 were constantly on station at night over the scattered fighting fronts, silencing Chinese artillery and automatic weapons fire. Gun flashes revealed the enemy's guns, and Marine night-fighters proved that they could knock the guns out. Ground commanders noted that the mere sound of the night-fighters' engines would often be enough to silence the enemy artillery.
By 4 December, the Marine column
had reached Hagaru and the exhausted forces were able to enjoy a brief lull
in the fighting. However, there was no respite for the Marine fliers. On 4 and
5 December, Marine pilots flew a total of 297 sorties against enemy positions,
vehicles, and troop concentrations around Hagaru.24On the morning of 6 December,
the 1st Marine Division broke out of Hagaru and continued its attack toward
the coast. By 0715, 18 Corsairs of VMF-214 had reported on station and were
quickly put to work. After advancing only 2,000 yards from Hagaru, the column
was halted by intense enemy fire. As the Corsairs attacked the enemy positions,
81mm mortar fire was continued, even though the mortar shell trajectories were
higher than the altitude of the attacking planes. Rather than lose the firepower
of the 81s, the mortar gunners were instructed to aim at the tails of the attacking
aircraft to ensure that none of the planes were shot down. Under this combined
bombardment, the enemy guns were silenced in about an hour, and the column continued
On this day also, a new innovation was introduced to help control the crowded airspace over the withdrawing Marine column.
A four-engine Marine R5D transport, hastily equipped with additional communications equipment, was provided by VMR-152 and operated as a flying Tactical Air Direction Center. From its station above the column, this airborne TADC was in excellent position to receive radio transmissions from ground units and to control all aircraft supporting the division.
With its arrival at Koto-ri on 7 December, the 1st Marine Division had completed all but the last leg of its fighting withdrawal. VMO-6 immediately continued its medical evacuation missions by helicopter, and Marine R4D transports landed on the short airstrip at Koto-ri to assist in the evacuation. The airstrip at Koto-ri was so short that a landing signals officer (LSO) had to guide the large trans- port aircraft onto the field, using the same techniques employed on the carrier decks.
On 8 December, the Marine column resumed the attack to reach the safety of Chinhung-ni and, eventually, the port of Hungnam. A raging blizzard grounded all Marine aircraft on that day, but 9 December dawned bright and clear. By 0715, planes from VMF-312 were over the column, attacking both sides of the road. Flights from all the other Marine squadrons followed and kept up continuous attacks in support of the ground forces.
On 10 December, another chapter in Marine aviation history began with the arrival of VMF-311 at Yongpo airfield.
VMF-311 was the first Marine jet squadron to fly in combat, and until 14 December, VMF-311's F9F "Panther" jets flew interdiction sorties in support of the Marine column. The squadron was then moved to Pusan to operate with the 5th Air Force jets to cover the withdrawal of the Eighth Army.
By 1300 on 11 December, the last units of the Marine force reached Chinhung-ni, boarded trucks, and headed for Hungnam. With the departure of the 1st Marine Division for Hungnam and eventual evacuation by sea, the main task of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing was finished. VMF-312, VMF(N)-513, and VMF(N)-542 departed for Japan to join VMF-214, which had left Korea earlier. VMR-152 continued to evacuate supplies, equipment, and personnel. By 18 December, 1st MAW had completely withdrawn from the Hungnam area.
The fighting withdrawal was over. A Marine division and a Marine air wing, fighting against bitter cold and seemingly impossible odds, had severely mangled an enemy force vastly superior in strength. The courage and fighting ability of the ground Marine had been proved once more, yet the ground Marine was the first to demand that a large share of the credit for the successful withdrawal was due to their flying counterparts in 1st MAW. In the hour of greatest need, Marine airmen had not faltered.
Major General O. P. Smith, Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division expressed the sentiments of the ground Marines when he said: During the long reaches of the night and in the snow storms, many a Marine prayed for the coming of day or clearing weather when he would again hear the welcome roar of your planes as they dealt out destruction to the enemy.... Never in its history has Marine Aviation given more convincing proof of its indispensable value to the ground Marine. A bond of understanding has been established that will never be broken.
Although the fighting raged on for another two years before the Korean armistice was signed, the evacuation of the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Marine Air Wing at Hungnam marked the end of the initial phase of Korean combat for the Marine air-ground team. Marine units had fought well, and lessons had been learned.
During the early months of Korean combat, new tactical developments pioneered by 1st MAW greatly advanced the UN air effort and added to the 1st MAW reputation for versatility. Marine squadrons refined close air support techniques, developed an airborne tactical air control center, and proved that night close air support missions could be safely accomplished.
Of the new tactical air support developments in the Korean action, none had a more revolutionary effect than that created by the Marine helicopters of VMO-6.29 Marine helicopters reshaped battlefield logistics in Korea and pioneered techniques for vertical troop envelopment, aerial wire-laying, medical evacuation, and vertical re-supply.
At the end of the Pusan Perimeter campaign, BGen Craig commended the pilots of VMO-6 and said, "Marine helicopters have proven invaluable.... They have been used for every conceivable type of mission."
In the early campaigns at Pusan, Inchon, and the Chosin Reservoir, the squadrons of 1st MAW provided invaluable aerial support to the UN forces, and often determined whether battles were won or lost. Pilots, as well as ground crews, were taxed to their limits but delivered air support for the ground units both day and night. From 3 August to 14 December, Marine tactical squadrons flew a total of 7,822 sorties, and evacuated over 5,000 UN casualties.
5,305 of the 1st MAW sorties were close air support missions which were so accurate and deadly as to prompt UN commanders to comment on the effectiveness of Marine close air support. One such comment was made by Colonel P. L.Freeman, commander of the U.S. Army 23rd Regiment at Pusan. He stated: The Marines on our left were a sight to behold. Not only was their equipment superior or equal to ours, but they had squadrons of air in direct support.
They used it like artillery. It was, "Hey, Joe - this is Smitty - knock the left off that ridge in front of Item Company." They had it day and night. Marine air in Korea, from Pusan to the Chosin Reservoir, contributed significantly to the UN Military successes and truly earned its flight pay.
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