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Sealift in the Korean War

On 25 June 1950, the young Cold War suddenly turned hot, bloody and expensive. Within a few days, North Korea's invasion of South Korea brought about a United Nations' "police action" against the aggressors. That immediately produced heavy military and naval involvement by the United States. While there were no illusions that the task would be easy, nobody expected that this violent conflict would continue for more than three years.

The very first US response to the Korean crisis was a decision to provide additional weapons and supplies to the South Koreans. Though swiftly overtaken by events, this represented the start of what became a huge effort to bring across the broad Pacific Ocean the men, equipment and abundance of other items needed to sustain mid-Twentieth Century warfare.

In the first month of the war, when the surging North Korean offensive had to be countered with the limited forces already in the theatre, transportation needs almost always exceeded supply. Every available means of conveyance was pressed into service. The aircraft carrier USS Boxer (CV-21), awaiting overhaul after a deployment, was loaded with urgently required Air Force and Navy planes and rushed to sea. Her trans-Pacific voyage, from 14 to 22 July 1950, set a speed record for that route.

Another very important achievement was the transportation of the First Provisional Marine Brigade, the only ready ground forces available in the U.S. and the first to leave for Korea. Using Navy amphibious shipping and escort carriers, the Brigade and its supporting Air Group started across the ocean in mid-July. In the first days of August, the Marines and their planes were in combat in the Pusan Perimeter.

In mid-September 1950 a daring amphibous invasion at Inchon fractured the North Korean war machine. When the U.S. X Corps went ashore at Inchon in September 1950, 13 USNS cargo ships, 26 chartered American, and 34 Japanese-manned merchant ships, under the operational control of MSTS, participated in the invasion. In the following two months UN armies pushed swiftly through North Korea. However, with victory seemingly in sight, China intervened openly, and the Soviet Union not-so-openly, on the side of their defeated fellow Communist neighbor. The UN was thrown back midway into South Korea.

Generally described as an "amphibious operation in reverse", the evacuation of Hungnam encompassed the safe withdrawal of the bulk of UN forces in eastern North Korea. It was the largest sealift since the 1945 Okinawa operation. In barely two weeks, over a hundred-thousand military personnel, 17,500 vehicles and 350,000 measurement tons of cargo were pulled out. In comparison with the retreat in central and western Korea, little was left behind. Even broken-down vehicles were loaded and lifted out. Also departing North Korea through Hungnam were some 91,000 refugees, a large number, but not nearly as many as had gathered to leave.

The first major unit to go was the First Marine Division, which arrived in Hungnam on 10-11 December 1950 after its successful fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir area. The Marines were followed by Republic of Korea troops, the U.S. Army Seventh Division and Third Division. The ROK First Corps was landed at Mukho, on the Korean east coast below the Thirty-eighth Parallel. U.S. forces were mainly taken to Pusan, where the influx initially overwhelmed that port's capacity.

Though the Chinese did not seriously interfere with the withdrawal, the potential threat they represented necessitated a vigorous bombardment by aircraft, artillery ashore and ships' guns. Air cover was available from nearby Yonpo airfield until that was abandoned on 14 December. Thereafter, for the final ten days of the operation, Navy and Marine carrier-borne planes handled the job. Naval gunfire was provided by two heavy cruisers and a battleship plus several destroyers and rocket ships.

Merchant ships played an important role in the evacuation of U.N. troops from Hungnam, following the Chosin Reservoir campaign. Together with Navy ships, the Merchant Marine and Navy evacuated over 100,000 U.N. troops and another 91,000 Korean refugees and moved 350,000 tons of cargo and 17,500 vehicles in less than two weeks. One of the most famous rescues was performed by the U.S. merchant ship SS Meredith Victory. Only hours before the advancing communists drove the U.N. forces from North Korea in December 1950, the vessel, built to accommodate 12 passengers, carriedmore than 14,000 Korean civilians from Hungnam to Pusan in the south. First mate D. S. Savastio, with nothing but first aid training, delivered five babies during the three-day passage to Pusan. Ten years later, the Maritime Administration honored the crew by awarding them a Gallant Ship Award.

Early in the new year, the Chinese army was in turn contained and forced to retreat. On 13 March 1951, the Secretary of Commerce established the National Shipping Authority (NSA) to provide ships from the Maritime Administration's (MARAD) National Defense Fleet (NDRF). These ships would meet the needs of the military services and other agencies of government beyond the capabilities of the privately-owned vessels of the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. During times of war, the NSA also requisitioned privately-owned merchant ships and made them available for military purposes. Immediately after its establishment, the NSA reactivated vessels to meet the urgent needs of America's European allies to help transport coal and other bulk materials to rebuild their defenses.

During the Korean War there were few severe sealift problems other than the need to remobilize forces following post-World War II demobilization. About 700 ships were activated from the NDRF for services to the Far East. In addition, a worldwide tonnage shortfall between 1951 and 1953 required the reactivation of over 600 ships to lift coal to Northern Europe and grain to India during the first years of the Cold War.

The commercial merchant marine formed the backbone of the bridge of ships across the Pacific. From just six ships under charter when the war began, this total peaked at 255. According to the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), 85 percent of the dry cargo requirements during the Korean War were met through commercial vessels - only five percent were shipped by air. More than $475 million, or 75 percent of the MSTS operating budget for calendar year 1952, was paid directly to commercial shipping interests. In addition to the ships assigned directly to MSTS, 130 laid-up Victory ships in the NDRF were broken out by the Maritime Administration and assigned under time-charters to private shipping firms for charter to MSTS.

Sealift responsibilities were accomplished on short notice during the Korean War. Initially American troops lacked the vital equipment to fight the North Koreans, but military and commercial vessels quickly began delivering the fighting tools needed to turn back the enemy. According to the MSTS, 7 tons of supplies were needed for every Marine or soldier bound for Korea and an additional one for each month thereafter. Cargo ships unloaded supplies around the clock, making Pusan a bustling port. The success of the U.S. Merchant Marine during this crisis hammered home to critics the importance of maritime preparedness and the folly of efforts to scuttle the Merchant Marine fleet.

In addition to delivering equipment to American forces - more than 90 percent of all American and other United Nations' troops - supplies and equipment were delivered to Korea through the MSTS with the assistance of commercial cargo vessels. A bridge of ships, much like in World War II, spanned the Pacific Ocean during the three years of hostilities.

Logistics and support activities were vital to the success of US and United Nations Korean War operations. Without extensive and efficient trans-oceanic shipping, the tens of thousands of service people and the hundreds of thousands of tons of "beans, bullets and black oil" needed every month to prosecute the war would never have reached a war zone that was some five thousand miles from the U.S. west coast and about twice that far from eastern seaboard ports. Without underway replenishment of warships off the Korean coast, the effectiveness of Naval forces there would have been substantially reduced.

Without well-equipped and effectively-staffed Japanese bases close to the combat theater, sea and air operations against the Communist aggressors would have been gravely hindered, and, during the crisis periods of summer 1950 and winter 1950-51, probably impossible. Without ports and other facilities in South Korea, the insertion and sustenance of the large ground forces needed to defend that country simply could not have been done, and local naval operations would have been hamstrung.

Like much else about the Korean War, its logistics and support effort depended extensively on the legacy of World War II. Transport ships, long-range aircraft and much of the other equipment used in supporting the war had been made during that great conflict and had been wisely retained against the possibility that it might be needed again. The senior officer and enlisted servicemen and civilian sailors and airmen who resurrected the logistics and support system in response to the Korean crisis, and kept it running thereafter, had largely learned their crafts in the struggle against Japan and Germany.

As the Korean conflict wore on, month after month through 1950, 1951, 1952 and into 1953, the early rush to meet the supply, training and repair demands of a dynamic combat situation became essentially routine. However, these efforts were never small. In some months, the volumes of personnel, cargo and fuel sent to the Korean area equalled or exceeded those of some months of the vast Pacific War of 1941-45. To a great extent this was a result of the constant nature of Korean War naval operations, contrasted with the more spasmodic operations of World War II, and the greatly increased fuel and ordnance demands of modern aircraft.

Shipborne logistics between the United States and the Korean War zone represented a huge job for the Navy, the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) and the Merchant Marine. Though the aircraft of the day could fly some high-priority items across the Pacific, the overwhelming majority of personnel, equipment and supplies necessarily had to go by sea. This included nearly all combat aircraft but the largest bombers, as those were the days before wide-spread aerial refueling permitted the global deployment of tactical aircraft.

Trans-Pacific steaming distances were (and are) vast. There are some 5000 miles from San Francisco to Korea, representing about two weeks at sea at a transit speed of fifteen knots. Thus, a ship needed at least a month, and frequently much more, to carry its cargo from the U.S. to Japan or Korea, unload, and return for more. Great numbers of cargo and passenger ships were required to keep the war machine functioning. A simultanous defense build-up in Europe compounded the shipping problem.

In the early months of the Korean War, the provision of shipping was nearly as great a problem as the availability of trained men and modern equipment. However, by the fall of 1950, logistics between the U.S. and the Korean war zone had become essentially routine. More shipping capacity had been brought into service, port facilities in Korea enhanced and logistics organization upgraded.

Privately-owned American merchant ships helped deploy thousands of U.S. troops and their equipment, bringing high praise from the commander of U.S. Naval Forces in the Far East, Admiral C.T. Joy. In congratulating Navy Captain A.F. Junker, Commander of the Military Sea Transportation Service for the western Pacific, Admiral Joy noted that the success of the Korean campaign. He said, "The Merchant Mariners in your command performed silently, but their accomplishments speak loudly. Such teammates are comforting to work with."

From the end of 1950 until the end of the conflict in mid-1953, materiel and people streamed back and forth across the Pacific, ensuring that the fighting forces in Korea received all they required to sustain the kind of war they were obliged to fight.By 1951, the trans-Pacific personnel transportation became more of a two-way operation as a routine program was put into place to send home veterans after they had spent a term in the war zone. Later in 1951, when it was clear that the conflict had stabilized and was unlikely to escalate into a broader Asian or World war, dependents were once again permitted to accompany military and naval personnel stationed in Japan. In addition, the shipping system brought home veterans of the combat effort, plus aircraft and other equipement that needed extensive refurbishment.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:23 ZULU