Battles for Seoul
The Patton Tank, Part Two:
Pattons in Korea
By Arrigo Velicogna, Ph.D.
Everything changed on 25 June 1950. Kim Il Sung, former school bully, former bandit, former Soviet Army Colonel, and the man Comrade Stalin had appointed to lead North Korea, sent his North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) across the 38th Parallel to invade the Republic of Korea. Spearheading the NKPA were scores of T-34/85 tanks, kindly donated by Comrade Stalin. Tank operations had moved from theory to practice.
The U.S. Air Force has wrecked this T-34/85 at Suwon, 7 October 1950.
The Republic of Korea Army (ROK) had no tanks of its own, only M8 armored cars and M3 halftracks, the U.S. State and Defense Departments having deemed the transfer of tanks to the ROK provocative. They had no aviation, their F-51 fighters (a re-designation of the famed P-51 to have Air Force and Navy mission designation aligned), were still stuck in Japan. Their antitank park rested on scarce 57mm M1 anti-tank guns, M9 bazookas, a smattering of 105mm M2 short-barreled howitzers that could be used in an AT role, and courage. On the plus side they had two powerful allies, President Harry Truman and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.
Truman, an old field artillery colonel and probably the officer who fired the last US artillery round of World War One, and MacArthur, the longest-serving US Army officer, rose to the occasion. After being informed of the invasion, and having uttered the famous “a last gift to an old soldier” line, MacArthur phoned Truman. The exact contents of the phone call between Tokyo and Washington are not recorded, but their result was.
The United States would have supported the Republic of Korea, despite what Kim, Comrade Stalin, and Chairman Mao had assumed. Furthermore, that support would involve the full might of the United States. Paraphrasing commander Camparelli: “Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, everything we got.” MacArthur was to oversee an “arrogant display of strength.”
The US Air Force was the first on the scene, sending transports to evacuate US personnel and dependents from Korea, and fighters to provide top cover. In the process Air Force F-82 Twin Mustangs drew the first blood. The Navy got second, plastering North Korean airfields. The Army third, sending troops to stem the tide. The Marines, well they got last, messed up a bit, but were sure to rewrite history in their way, as Colonel Kenneth Estes, USMC (ret) pointedly note in his “Into the Breach at Pusan.” With them, in drib and drabs came M24 Chaffees, M4A3E8 Shermans, M26 Pershings, and, finally, M46 Pattons.
A Marine M46 comes ashore at Inchon, Korea. April 1952.
The invasion was not a sudden outburst of violence, just an escalation of a civil war that had been fought, and had involved the United States, from the “Rice Riots” of 1946. What was a sudden shock for the American military establishment, was the conventional nature of the assault. Bradley, who was then sitting as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Collins having been proved utterly wrong in their predictions on the future of war . . . as usually happens with people predicting revolutions and drastic changes in the nature of war, some could even call them charlatans . . . if not because Collins actually blamed himself squarely for his failure to grasp the necessities of the cold war, something quite rare. It also exposed Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson as an incompetent who had basically left the US military bare and bereft of deployable assets. MacArthur’s Far East Command Forces in Japan were short of medium tanks (as described in a previous daily content on the M26 Pershing), and the logistical infrastructure in the United States was not capable to support a major theatre war and a large-scale tank modification program at the same time. For a while the emergency required emergency solutions.
M26 Pershings were issued to units at the same time as Patton tanks to ensure that tanks were available to deploy. The first M46s arrived in Korea with the 6th Medium Tank Battalion in August 1950. They would not see combat until the following month. The 6th Tank Battalion had been in training in the States at the outbreak of the war and was entirely equipped with M46 Pattons instead of the mix of Shermans and Pershings fielded by the other Army tank battalions. Officially the battalion was part of the 2nd Armored Division, having been formed in 1946 with companies from the 66th and 67th Armor Regiments. When ordered to Korea in July it was attached to the battered 24th Infantry Division, the same unit that deployed Task Force Smith.
The battalion supported the 24th Infantry Division in the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, but its first tank vs tank action was in support of the ROK 1st Infantry Division in the advance across the 38th Parallel toward Pyongyang. The Pattons engaged enemy armor and infantry at Kojodong and then entered the North Korean capital on 19 October 1950 still supporting General Paik’s South Koreans. After taking Pyongyang the 6th Tank Battalion was part of the relief force that linked with the 187th RCT after the latter drop at Sukchon/Sunchon.
MacArthur’s triumph was cut short by the Chinese intervention. Mao’s decision to send the People’s Liberation Army into the fray, albeit disguised as “volunteers,” took not just the Far East Command, but the whole US military establishment by surprise, sparking a controversy that still lingers. According to some it was MacArthur’s reckless pursuit to the Yalu that forced Mao to intervene. Yet Secretary of State Dean Acheson had pushed for smashing North Korea and reunifying the peninsula under the UN banner from July. Both Truman and the new Secretary of Defense, General of the Army George C. Marshall, had instructed the Far East Command to cross the 38th Parallel. MacArthur was eager to move north, but so was Washington.
Others claim that MacArthur ignored intelligence in September and October of a mounting buildup north of the Yalu River and deliberately misled Truman at the Wake Island conference. The latter are taking clues from Averell Harriman’s recollection of the meeting. Yet General Courtney Whitney’s notes contradict Harriman and show that both Truman and Bradley were equally dismissive of a possible involvement of Communist China. Furthermore, Bradley even assured that any move south would have been followed by the use of atomic weapons over China. But as Alan Millet points out not only was the whole intelligence community unable to present sound evidence of Chinese intentions, but, more importantly, Mao was not reacting to the UN advance. Chairman Mao for his own reasons had already decided to get involved in Korea from the start, and was just working to build consensus within his own clique. Just saving North Korea was not the objective of the PLA’s intervention. Mao sent his troops to just finish the job started by Kim Il Sung. The PLA was determined to reach the sea and smash everything in its path.
M46 tanks of the 6th Tank Battalion in Tiger paint scheme, 7 March 1951.
That meant a change of mission for the 6th Tank Battalion. The battalion fought several sharp rearguard actions all the way from northern North Korea to south of Seoul. Pattons were lost in combat and abandoned. A train carrying replacement tanks was literally abandoned in panic in Pyongyang when General Walton Walker took the debatable decision to abandon the city. The tanks were left on their railcars and had to be destroyed by USAF airstrikes. The war of the 6th Tank Battalion, still the only formation in Korea equipped with M46, had taken a turn for the worse.
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