The PLA in the Korean War
In 1949, the Chinese communists won the civil war in China. This success emboldened Kim ll Sung to make several trips to Moscow to persuade Stalin to support reunification of Korea by force. Not until Kim convinced the Soviet dictator that a North Korean invasion would quickly subdue the South before the United States could intervene did Stalin give his approval. In late January 1950 Stalin finally gave his assent and dispatched large amounts of military aid and Soviet advisers to prepare the invasion.
American intelligence judged the DPRK could not destroy the Republic of Korea (ROK) government without Soviet assistance and that the Soviets would not provide such assistance, fearing it would spark a general war with the United States. In the spring of 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson defined America's strategic defense perimeter in Asia, which excluded the Korean peninsula. This confirmed Stalin and Kim's assessments of the strategic situation.
The North Korean People's Army (NKPA) invaded across the 38th Parallel with 135,000 men. The outnumbered Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), which does not have effective anti-tank weapons, field artillery, or combat aircraft, suffered heavy casualties. North Korean forces entered Seoul on June 28. The American X Corps amphibious assault at Inchon, Seoul's port city, started on Sept. 15, 1950. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of Far East Command and commander-in-chief of United Nations Command, planned to liberate Seoul and crush the NKPA between X Corps and Eighth Army, which began its breakout from the Pusan Perimeter on Sept. 16.
On July 13, 1950, the Central Military Commission made a decision to establish the Northeast Frontier Defense Army with the 13th Army Corps as the main force. The People's Republic of China (PRC), after warning the UN, intervened to prevent the destruction of the North Korean regime and the establishment of an American-allied Korea on its border. The Chinese offensive came as a surprise to General MacArthur and his field commanders, in spite of the fact that in Washington and other foreign capitals, there had been a sober apprehension that China would not stand idle if the UN forces advanced to the Yalu.
In early October, 1950, the CPC Central Committee made a decision to set up the Chinese People's Volunteers to fight against the U.S. aggression and aid Korea. The Chinese People's Volunteers entered Korea on October 19, 1950. China was able to infiltrate more than 200,000 regular army troops, euphemistically referred to as "volunteers," into North Korea without detection by UN intelligence, and deployed them to cut off the over-extended UN columns pushing toward the Chinese border.
Many of the soldiers were confident veterans of the successful civil war against the Nationalist Chinese forces. Although these forces were indeed poorly supplied, they were highly motivated, battle hardened, and led by officers who were veterans, in some cases, of twenty years of nearly constant war. Upon crossing the Yalu River, the Chinese forces employed in the initial attacks were given 4 or 5 days worth of cooked rations and between 40 and 80 rounds of ammunition. In bivouac, no Chinese soldier showed himself, for any reason. Discipline was firm, and perfect. Any man who violated instructions in any way was shot.
They came out of the hills near Unsan, North Korea, blowing bugles in the dying light of day on 1 November 1950, throwing grenades and firing their "burp" guns at the surprised American soldiers. Those who survived the initial assaults reported how shaken the spectacle of massed Chinese infantry had left them. Thousands of Chinese had attacked from the north, northwest, and west against scattered U.S. and South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) units moving deep into North Korea. The Chinese seemed to come out of nowhere as they swarmed around the flanks and over the defensive positions of the surprised United Nations (UN) troops.
By 06 November 1950 over 300,000 CCF soldiers organized into thirty divisions had already moved into Korea. Two army groups of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) attacked and defeated outnumbered UN forces in North Korea November 26 - 30, 1950, inflicting heavy casualties. The surprise and the ferocity of this Chinese offensive overran and destroyedthe most exposed UN forces -- the American and ROK divisions in the west and the U.S. Army task force at theChosin Reservoir -- and forced the entire UN front to fall back. After the attack, the Eighth Army broke contact with the Chinese and retreated into South Korea; X Corps was withdrawn by sea to South Korea where it joined Eighth Army. Two significant battles during this period included the 2nd Infantry Division's harrowing withdrawal through the Kunu-ri gauntlet and the 1st Marine Division's heroic efforts in the Chosin Reservoir battle.
The collapse of the Nationalist Chinese armies had come so suddenly that the victorious People's Liberation Army had picked up 2.25 million prisoners in the last two years of the war alone. These surrendered soldiers could neither be left to starve, nor could they be allowed to roam freely and cause trouble. These former "enemy" Chinese soldiers had to be temporarily absorbed into the People's Liberation Army in some capacity. Between 50 and 70 percent of the members of the units sent to Korea in the initial intervention were made up of former Nationalist Chinese soldiers, including the noncommissioned officers and junior officers.
The basic uniform was heavily quilted cotton, usually of a mustard brown hue that blended with the bleak Korean landscape. Warm in dry weather, the quilted uniforms were impossible to dry when soaked. The rubber-and-canvas tennis shoes worn by the Chinese soldiers provided no protection against the cold. In the winter of 1950, two-thirds of the Chinese casualties were from the cold, against one-third from combat. Chinese veterans later declared that 90 percent of the "volunteers" in Korea suffered from some degree of frostbite in the winter of 1950.
MacArthur meanwhile proposed four retaliatory measures against the Chinese: blockade the China coast, destroy China's war industries through naval and air attacks, reinforce the troops in Korea with Chinese Nationalist forces, and allow diversionary operations by Nationalist troops against the China mainland. These proposals for escalation received serious study in Washington but were eventually discarded in favor of sustaining the policy that confined the fighting to Korea.
Seoul was quickly retaken and at the end of March 1951 the UN troops were again north of the 38th parallel, in spite of determined opposition. China continued to rush fresh troops and equipment south to the front, and in late April 1951 mounted a major offensive oftheir own with the main weight of the counterattack down the historic Seoul invasion corridor. The UN lines heldand the Chinese were stopped outside of Seoul. A second Chinese offensive in May 1951 was thrown back with heavylosses from U.S. air and artillery. By June 1951 the UN lines were again ?rmly reestablished along the 38th parallel.
Until the Korean War, commanders of the Chinese People's Volunteers had not experienced the firepower-intensive joint operations conducted by the ground, air, and naval forces of advanced industrial states. Since the founding of the PLA in 1927 as the Red Army of Workers and Peasants, the experience of most commanders had been in irregular warfare fought with inadequately armed light infantry units. As it rotated forces in and out of Korea's battlefields, the PLA learned much about its own extensive deficiencies in firepower, combined arms warfare, logistics, and command and control. By the latter part of 1951, Soviet-supplied tanks and artillery began arriving on the battlefield in some numbers.
Although a number of issues separated UN and Communist negotiators, the chief stumbling block to the arrangement of a final armistice during the winter of 1951-1952 revolved around the exchange of prisoners. A considerable number of North Korean and Chinese prisoners had also expressed a desire not to return to their homelands. This was particularly true of the Chinese POWs, some of whom were anti-Communists whom the Communists had forcibly inducted into their army. In April 1952 UN officials revealed the results-only 70,000 of the 170,000 civil and military prisoners then held by the United Nations wished to return to North Korea and the People's Republic of China.
The final campaign, which lasted more than two years while the peacemakers bargained with threats and boycotts, sawsome of the heaviest fighting of the war as the Chinese and newly reorganized North Korean divisions mounted attacks and limited offensives to frustrate the UN negotiators and seize more real estate. By the spring of 1952 the UN faced a well-trained, battle-hardened, robust opponent who could not be easily defeated. Communist defenses consisted of a nearly unbroken line of bunkers, trenches, and artillery emplacements that stretched for over one hundred fifty miles from one coast of Korea to the other. Because of their overall inferiority in firepower, the Chinese and North Koreans had taken extraordinary efforts to harden their positions. They burrowed deep into the sides of mountains, creating intricate warrens of tunnels and caves capable of housing entire battalions of infantry.
Communist bunkers were often more solidly built than UN emplacements and were usually impervious to anything but a direct hit by bomb or shell. They were also generally better sited than UN bunkers and better concealed to avoid the prying eyes of hostile aviators, something UN soldiers did not have to worry about. Finally, the Communists built in greater depth than their adversaries, not just below ground, but on top of it, as they typically extended their fortifications up to twenty miles behind their front line. These emplacements were manned by over 900,000 men, approximately 200,000 more soldiers than the United Nations had under arms in Korea. Over the winter the Communists had also more than doubled the number of artillery pieces they had on the front lines, while the static nature of the war had like-wise permitted them to improve their overall supply situation, notwithstanding the best efforts of UN aviators to interdict Communist supply lines.
The year 1953 found 768,000 UN soldiers facing over one million Communist troops along battle lines that had not materially changed for nearly two years. The last two months of the war were some of the most horrific of the entire conflict. In less than sixty days Communist artillery had fired over 700,000 rounds at UN positions, while UN artillery had repaid the favor nearly sevenfold, sending over 4.7 million shells back at their tormentors. Approximately 100,000 Communist and nearly 53,000 UN soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded during those final two months of combat. For their trouble the Communists had gained a few miles of mountainous terrain and some grist for their propaganda mills, but these gains could not mask the speciousness of Communist claims that they had won the war.
On July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, marking the end of the War to Resist the U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. From March 15 to October 26, 1958, the Chinese People's Volunteers withdrew from Korea in batches and returned to China.
According to the United States, the Chinese losses were over 400,000, over 20,000 missing and nearly 500,000 wounded. The economic cost of the war in Korea to China proved crippling. Communist China's end position can only be considered a draw. Flexing their muscles in a show to the world of their new military might, the Chinese entered the war to rescue a communist ally, North Korea, and todemonstrate that China would not tolerate any military threat near its borders.
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