(Editor’s note: Pusan is now spelled and pronounced Busan. In this article, historical quotes and names–such as the name of the battle–will use the previous pronunciation in order to maintain contextual integrity.)
As the continued trouble in North Korea has hijacked our headlines with Kim Jong-un and President Trump trading jabs of rhetoric, pushing the globe ever closer to a nuclear exchange, perhaps we should consider history a bit and review what happened nearly 70 years ago this month on the Korean Peninsula.
The Battle of Pusan Perimeter was the first major conflict of the Korean War involving 140,000 UN troops from Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and of course, the United States. They were up against nearly 100,000 North Korean troops who had invaded the South Korean peninsula in late June of 1950.
UN forces, under the command of LTG Walton “Bulldog” Walker were forced to hold out at all costs, but his forces were running out of space as the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) were fighting hard to push them into the sea.
On the 29th of July, LTG Walker issued what is now called his “Stand or Die” order. “We are fighting a battle against time. There will be no more retreating, withdrawal or readjustment of the lines or any other term you choose. There is no line behind us to which we can retreat.…There will be no Dunkirk, there will be no Bataan. A retreat to Pusan would be one of the greatest butcheries in history. We must fight until the end.…We will fight as a team. If some of us must die, we will die fighting together.…I want everybody to understand we are going to hold this line. We are going to win.”
The Pusan Perimeter was a small 140-mile piece of land stretching from the Korean Straight to the Sea of Japan. As Bulldog Walker mentioned, this was the last stand for South Korea and her UN allies.
The forces under Walker’s command were a handful of badly depleted Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) divisions and the US Army’s 1st Cavalry, the 24th and the 25th Divisions. These would be bolstered by the British 27th Infantry Brigade, another US Army element, 2nd ID, as well as Marine units to include the 5th RCT and 1st Marine Brigade.
The terrain around Busan was both a blessing and a curse as it provided natural defenses against the North Korean enemy but its dense jungle provided little access to clean water and the heat was unbearable. In addition, at times, the terrain became near impassable and US forces became bogged down in the mud and were attacked by North Korean forces who had the higher ground.
LTG Walker also had the 5th US Air Force which provided him air superiority and allowed him to move his forces around the perimeter without detection, a key advantage which proved invaluable as the lines were so thinly manned over the huge perimeter, each division was holding fronts of up to 35 miles. However, thanks to a network of roads and rails and poorly coordinated thrusts by the NKPA, LTG Walker was able to hold fast and repel the enemy though the perimeter.
As August turned to September and the UN forces held on, the NKPA began to run out of three “B’s” bullets, bodies and beans. But the North Koreans weren’t out of the fight just yet, they added four divisions and managed to field 98,000 troops despite earlier losses. Starting on August 27th, the NKPA risked everything and executed a massive counter push. By the beginning of September, LTG Walker was hit with simultaneous attacks from five locations.
During the attack, the North Korean army broke through the lines and pressed the UN forces back during intense fighting. LTG Walker focused his efforts on securing Busan and shifted his reserve units as the defensive perimeter shrunk under the pressure of 70,000 NKPA troops. By September 12th, the offensive stalled as the North Koreans were overextended and thanks to aggressive and constant attacks by the US Navy and Air Force, their communications were a mess. At the same time, reinforcements from the 8th Army and X Corps landed on the 15th coupled together with additional tanks outnumbering the NKPA by a factor of 5 to 1, a breakout was launched the following day, Busan was saved, the battle for Busan was over.
All told, 14 North Korean divisions were destroyed and just 20,000 troops retreated to the north. The cost of this battle was high with over 4,000 dead from the 8th Army along with more than 12,000 wounded, another 2200 missing and 401 captured, and this was just the beginning of a war that would total more than 36,000 in less than three years. What would another war on that peninsula cost now that North Korea has nuclear capabilities and the willingness to use them at whatever the price to its own populace? One can hope we never find out.
Featured image courtesy of U.S. Army