Korean War: Counter Attack
The United States Marine Corps
The United States committed ground forces to the defense of South Korea on 30 June 1950, immediately alerting the 24th Infantry Division for deployment from Japan to the peninsula. On the same day, the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Fleet Marine Force’s Pacific headquarters how long it would take for Marines to deploy from the United States. Col. Victor Krulak, the assistant chief of staff, answered that a battalion combat team could be under way in 48 hours and a regimental combat team in five days.
At the time, the U.S. Marine Corps was on a thoroughly peacetime footing. Each battalion only had two rifle companies rather than three, and each rifle company only two platoons rather than three. Artillery batteries operated four guns rather than the allotted six. Nevertheless, the Marines had to get to Korea at full strength and get there quickly.
“If we can’t,” Krulak said, “we’re dead.”
Failure would prove that the Marine Corps had no place in the United States’ Cold War military.
Krulak built the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade around the 5th Marines. Marines from other units – almost all of them regulars - streamed into San Diego to flesh out its companies, battalions and batteries. The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade did not quite make Krulak’s timetable, steaming out of San Diego on 14 July. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Edward Craig, flew to Japan a few days later. The Marines landed in Japan on the 29th and were immediately sent onward to Pusan, attached to the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, and flung into a counter-attack against the North Korean 6th Infantry Division on 6 August.
The brigade fought in the Pusan Perimeter until early September, when it merged with the newly-reactivated 1st Marine Division and in the middle of the month landed at Inchon. The battles of both the brigade and the division are re-created in our Panzer Grenadier game, Korean War: Counter Attack. Here’s a look at the Marine units included in the game.
The 1st Marine Provisional Brigade included one tank company, drawn from the 1st Marine Division’s organic 1st Marine Tank Battalion. During the years after World War II, Marine tankers trained on aging Sherman tanks, many of them in poor physical condition. But Krulak knew that new M26 Pershings had been received by the Marines for use in the projected invasion of Japan, and then squirreled away in the Marine Corps storage facility in Barstow, California. Krulak managed to wrangle enough of these as-new Pershings to equip the full company, but they only arrived at Camp Pendleton one day before they had to be loaded aboard their transport for the long sea voyage to Japan. The tank crews immediately trundled their new machines to Pendleton’s range for a live-fire exercise: two rounds apiece. While the crews were mostly experienced tankers well able to handle the tank, they had never fired its 90mm gun before.
Things did not get easier when the Marines reached Korea. The Navy amphibious dock ship carrying the Pershings flooded its well deck to launch landing craft, but the Pershings had been parked on the same deck and were flooded as well. They needed immediate field repair before they could even be unloaded, and the water damaged the 90mm ammunition loads of several tanks; 300 rounds had to be replaced. When the tanks were finally capable of movement and loaded aboard railroad flat cars to move to the Naktong front, the crews were told to gain additional gunnery practice by firing at passing hillsides from the rail cars.
In 1950 all stateside Marine tank battalions were equipped with the M4A3E8 “Easy Eight” Sherman with a 76mm main gun. These were left behind by the 1st Tank Battalion when it deployed to Korea, except for the support versions. The M4A3E9 (we called it the M4Dz in the game) carried a 105mm howitzer in place of the 76mm gun and the M4A1 “dozer kit” which fitted a bulldozer blade to the front of the tank (which could be raised and lowered). And the Marines also had their beloved flame-throwing tanks, in this case M4A3E8 “Easy Eight” Shermans fitted with a flame-thrower in the turret.
The United States was not caught totally unprepared for the North Korean attack: War Plan SL-17 had been readied for just such an eventuality, calling for a withdrawal into a perimeter around Pusan. Douglas MacArthur, the United Nations commander, immediately knew that when the time came to break out of the perimeter, he wanted to conduct an amphibious landing behind enemy lines. At first he planned to use the 7th Infantry Division for this operation, but when Marines became available they took the starring role.
Marines would be carried ashore by the LVT-3C amphibious tractor, an improved version of the “gator” that had landed troops across the Pacific during the Second World War. The LVT-3 appeared in 1945 and saw action at Okinawa. It could carry more cargo than previous Gators, including a Jeep, or 30 armed Marines. The LVT-3C added an armored roof and extended bow to make the vehicle more buoyant, at the price of slightly less armament.
For fire support once ashore, the Marines brought the LVT(A)-5, a vehicle introduced in 1945 to replace the LVT(A)-4 found in our Saipan game. It had the same turret as the M8 Scott assault gun with a short-barreled 75mm howitzer; the new model added a gyrostabilizer to the howitzer and placed it in a powered turret. In game terms it’s no different from the LVT(A)-4.
The three infantry battalions of the 5th Marines initially deployed to Korea with only two of their three rifle companies. Marine rifle companies had reverted to their 1945 table of organization just before the American decision to intervene in Korea, with their large 13-man rifle squads. Each squad had three fire teams, each built around a Browning Automatic Rifle. That organization made the Marine platoon larger than its Army counterpart, with considerably more automatic firepower. The other Marines in the fire team carried the standard M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle.
Also following the 1945 tables, the Marine weapons platoon wielded massive firepower. The weapons company had been broken up to assign one machine gun platoon to each rifle company (though called a Machine Gun Platoon, in Panzer Grenadier we use the WPN designation to differentiate it from earlier HMG organizations). Each of these platoons had three sections that could be assigned directly to the rifle platoons or kept as a whole platoon of their own.
On paper, the machine gun platoon wielded six Browning M1919 medium machine guns, with two in each section. But the platoon was also issued six additional M1917 heavy machine guns, to be kept in storage and issued in place of the medium weapons as situations demanded. Being Marines, in practice the platoons used as many of their machine guns as they could operate at once.
As the Marine rifle platoons gained firepower, so did Marine combat engineers, and that change is reflected in the PIO piece, with greater strength than the ENG we used to represent earlier Marine engineers. The PIO (“pioneer”) designation is one we’ve used for late-war upgraded engineers of several nationalities in Panzer Grenadier. First Marine Division had battalions of both combat engineers and pioneers, the latter responsible for shore parties during amphibious landings and construction tasks. But as Marines, they also saw front-line combat, serving as infantry and in combat engineer roles.
With the dissolution of the weapons company, the battalion’s platoon of 81mm mortars became part of the headquarters company. The ubiquitous French-designed mortar, or knockoff copies, served practically every combatant outside of the British Empire. As with the machine-gun platoon, the 81mm tubes could be swapped out for the much lighter 60mm weapon. Unlike the machine gunners, the mortarmen do not appear to have made much use of this capability.
Each Marine battalion also included a platoon of 75mm recoilless rifles, a weapon introduced at the end of World War II. Intended as an anti-tank weapon, they had little effect on the North Koreans’ T-34/85 tanks and chiefly served in Korea to bolster infantry firepower. Later in the 5th Marines’ recoilless rifle platoon acquired a legendary mare named Reckless who carried ammunition to the gunners by herself, without a human handler, despite heavy enemy fire.
Rounding out the battalion support weapons, each rifle company had a rocket squad armed with a pair of 3.5-inch “bazooka” anti-tank rocket launchers. Prestige gained in the Pacific War had brought the Marines to the front of the line for new weaponry, and the Marine “rocket men” were never saddled with the worthless 2.36-inch bazooka which could not easily damage the T-34/85.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.