In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953

In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953

by John Toland

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A history of the Korean War with soldier’s-eye views from both sides, by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Rising Sun and Infamy.

 Pulitzer Prize–winning author John Toland reports on the Korean War in a revolutionary way in this thoroughly researched and riveting book. Toland pored over military archives and was the first person to gain access to previously undisclosed Chinese records, which allowed him to investigate Chairman Mao’s direct involvement in the conflict. Toland supplements his captivating history with in-depth interviews with more than two hundred American soldiers, as well as North Korean, South Korean, and Chinese combatants, plus dozens of poignant photographs, bringing those who fought to vivid life and honoring the memory of those lost.
In Mortal Combat is comprehensive in it discussion of events deemed controversial, such as American brutality against Korean civilians and allegations of American use of biological warfare. Toland tells the dramatic account of the Korean War from start to finish, from the appalling experience of its POWs to Mao’s prediction of MacArthur’s Inchon invasion.
Toland’s account of the “forgotten war” is a must-read for any history aficionado.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504025652
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 72,044
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

John Toland (1912–2004) was one of the most respected and widely read historians of the twentieth century, known for writing without analysis or judgment and allowing the characters and their actions to speak for themselves. He was the author of two novels, a memoir, and more than a dozen works of nonfiction, including Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography and The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. Upon its original publication in 1991, In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953 was hailed by the New York Times for its “panoramic” scope and its skill in presenting “the soldier’s-eye view of the war.”

Read an Excerpt

In Mortal Combat

Korea, 1950-1953

By John Toland


Copyright © 1991 John Toland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2565-2


A Time of War

(June 24–25, 1950)


On the murky night of June 24, 1950, Soviet 122-mm howitzers, 76-mm guns, and self-propelled guns were already emplaced along the 38th parallel. One hundred fifty Russian-built T-34 tanks were cautiously moving forward to their final attack positions along with some 90,000 combat troops, all trained by Soviet military advisers. The Korean People's Army was poised for its surprise invasion of the South.

On the other side of the 38th parallel, four understrength Republic of Korea divisions and one regiment were on the front lines. For months there had been warnings of a major invasion. But rumors and alarms had come so often that most of those up front imagined this was going to be another uneventful night. Enlisted ROK soldiers from farming villages had recently been given fifteen-day leaves to help their families with the crops. Already outnumbered, the ROK front line that night was dangerously depleted.

The cry of "wolf" had come so often that some frontline commanders were in Seoul celebrating the grand opening of the officers' club at ROK Army headquarters. Also present were most of the ranking officers of the Ministry of National Defense. It was a gala affair and later reminded some Americans of the military parties in Honolulu on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack. They too had been on a Saturday night.

At the officers' club, many Americans were present, including the American ambassador, John J. Muccio. Born in Italy, he had served in Latin America and was popular at parties where — a fifty-year-old bachelor with an eye for the ladies — he enjoyed singing Spanish love songs. He was not large but gave the impression of being so with a huge head atop broad shoulders. His jet black hair had scarcely a streak of gray, and the bow tie he invariably sported added to his dapper appearance.

He was born for the post in Seoul, according to his first secretary, Harold Noble. "The Republic of Korea was so new, it had so much to learn, it was bound to make so many mistakes, and its officials were so thin-skinned in their personal and national pride, that Muccio's relaxed calmness and sympathy were ideal. He genuinely liked Koreans and most Koreans genuinely admired, liked and respected him."

Unfortunately the most important man in South Korea, President Rhee, was repelled by his familiarity and joviality, disparagingly referring to him in private as "that fellow Muccio," even though he was aware that the ambassador was also dedicated, efficient and intelligent.

On that evening of June 24, the buoyant bachelor was, as usual, the life of the party. Also present were a number of KMAG officers. These Americans had been organizing and training the ROK Army for the past two years. Their commander, Major General William Roberts, shared the general feeling of confidence in the ability of the green ROK Army to repel any North Korean attack. But the man Roberts deemed most essential to his command, Captain James Hausman, was by no means so sanguine. Regarded by Roberts as the father of the ROK Army, Hausman should have had the rank of a full colonel.

In a futile attempt to get him a promotion, General Roberts had written a friend in the adjutant general's department: "He is an organizer of the first water; he is tactful and quite a persuader. He moves Brigades and Divisions around, organizes the Secretary of War's office, organizes the General Staff and tells them what and how to do it, but still he is not a Regular Officer because his educational requirements are short."

Hausman was only thirty-two and had already served sixteen years in the army. When his mother died, he had enlisted as a private, using his brother's birth certificate because he was underage. He had fought in World II as a captain and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 he was sent to Korea. Although he knew nothing about the country or its people and had little formal education, he soon realized that if he started the job of training ROK troops, he couldn't help them if he thought like an American. Within a year of close work with the ROKs, he understood their abilities and limitations and, unlike most Americans, realized that they could become excellent soldiers with proper training and equipment. Hausman now held the most important assignment in KMAG: he was not only the adviser to the ROK chief of staff but was also the American officer President Rhee chiefly relied on for counsel.

It was dark by the time Reverend Larry Zellers of the American Methodist Mission in Kaesong, the ancient capital of Korea, drove up to his home, a few miles from the 38th parallel. He had been warned by a neighbor, a KMAG officer, Captain Joseph Darrigo, not to head north into his driveway with lights on. He ignored this advice; moreover, there had been no sign of military activity in town, so he assumed it would be another uneventful night.

Like Zellers, few in South Korea went to bed with any fear that by dawn their lives would be disrupted by a bitter civil war. In Tokyo, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Far East Command, was soundly asleep in his bed at the United States embassy. For two years he had been warning Washington of a possible North Korean thrust, but there had been no alarms from Seoul.

In Washington it was near noon, and President Harry S. Truman's busy day had been taken up by far more important matters than Korea: the increasing Communist threat in Europe and the fate of the fledgling North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

By midnight scattered but heavy rain was falling along the 38th parallel. All was quiet on the long front — except for a slight mysterious rumbling a few miles north of the parallel, as trucks and tanks moved up slowly to the final attack positions. Kim Il-sung's seven divisions had successfully completed their secret movement to the edge of the parallel along with an armored brigade, a separate infantry regiment, a motorcycle regiment, and the Border Constabulary Brigade — an elite, internal security force trained and supervised by Soviet officers. These 80,000 men were now in place alongside 10,000 others already positioned along the parallel. Yet another 10,000 were in reserve.

Half of this force and most of the Russian T-34 tanks were concentrated in a forty-mile arc on the west end of the peninsula. This was to be the main attack on Seoul and would follow the Uijongbu Corridor, the ancient invasion route to Seoul. One of the first targets would be Kaesong, home of Zellers and Darrigo. A few miles away, North Koreans were quietly re-laying railroad tracks they had torn up long ago. Infantrymen began loading into a long train for a highly organized attack on the old capital.

Although Commander in Chief Kim Il-sung had fought in the Soviet army, neither he nor his deputy, Marshal Choe Yong-gun, had experience beyond a battalion level and had to rely on Russian advisers. In late 1948 the USSR announced that all its armed forces had left Korea, but Kim had refused to allow a United Nations commission to enter North Korea to verify this claim. According to U.S. Army intelligence reports, some three thousand Russians still instructed and supervised the Korean People's Army, with as many as fifteen Soviet officers advising each infantry division. Other reports indicated that Premier Kim received weekly instructions from Russian ambassador Terenty F. Shtykov, a colonel general, who had formerly commanded all Soviet occupation forces.


The South Korean defenders were caught completely by surprise. The only frontline American adviser, Captain Joseph Darrigo, Reverend Zeller's neighbor, was wakened at daybreak. As he jumped out of bed, shell fragments hit his house at the northeast end of Kaesong. He pulled on his pants and darted down the stairs, shoes and shirt in hand. Small-arms fire rattled against the house. Darrigo and a houseboy jumped into a jeep. Although they met no enemy troops, Darrigo knew from the volume of fire that a heavy attack was under way.

As he reached the circle at the center of town, he was shocked to see North Korean soldiers unloading from a long train at the station. There must have been two or three battalions, perhaps an entire regiment! As troops from the train advanced into town, Darrigo stepped on the gas and raced south toward the headquarters of the ROK 1st Division located just across the Imjin River at Munsan.

All along the front bombardments wakened ROK soldiers. Yet in the confusion and lack of communications, each isolated group imagined it was being hit by just another raid.

The telephone jangle roused Captain Hausman about four-thirty A.M. He hurriedly dressed, and in a few minutes he was at KMAG-ROK headquarters. Soon the ROK chief of staff arrived. An imposing sight, Major General Chae Byong-duk weighed almost three hundred pounds and more than deserved his nickname of Fat. He ordered the 2nd Division, already on its way to Seoul from Taejon, to launch a coordinated attack with the 7th Division, located at Uijongbu some twelve air miles north of Seoul. However, Brigadier General Yu Jai-hung, commander of the 7th Division, didn't even know the whereabouts of all his units. He had been roused by a phone call from his intelligence officer. "Commander, the enemy are shelling along our whole front!" Yu ordered him to issue an emergency call to all officers. But it was Sunday morning and a third of his troops were on leave. He had two regiments on the line, some 4,000 men; and his third regiment was south of Seoul. It was a miserable situation. He'd have only about a quarter of his strength to stop the enemy. He remembered meeting Mr. Dulles at the 38th parallel just a week ago and telling him how desperately they needed help from America. Since Dulles had been understanding, Yu felt sure that America was going to come to their aid. But when?

Although rain was pouring down along most of the parallel, there were only light, occasional showers in Seoul. First reports of the fighting were coming into KMAG headquarters, but they were considered too fragmentary for relaying to the American embassy.

Colonel Paik Sun-yup, the twenty-nine-year-old commander of the 1st ROK Division, in town on temporary leave for supplementary training, was wakened at seven by his G3 (operations officer) and told that Kaesong had fallen. An affable, talented officer, Paik was highly regarded by the Americans, who called him "Whitey," since paik in Korean means white. He dressed and hurried to the street. There were no taxis, so he flagged down a jeep and ordered the driver to take him to ROK Army headquarters.

He rushed into Fat Chae's office.

"Do you think it's all right for me to get back to my unit?"

"What are you talking about?" exclaimed Chae angrily. "You've got to get back there!"

Paik ran to the American compound and pounded on the door of his senior adviser, Lieutenant Colonel Lloyd Rockwell, who had spent the night in town. He had a car. "War has come! The North Koreans, they've taken Kaesong!"

Rockwell was surprised, but in a short time the two were at the home of the commander of the 11th Regiment. From there Paik telephoned division headquarters and ordered the 11th Regiment and other units to fall back to defensive positions near Munsan, a village just south of the Imjin River. Then he and Rockwell raced north to Munsan, where they met Captain Darrigo, who told them what had happened at Kaesong. Two of Paik's regiments, the 11th and 13th, were by now engaged in bitter fighting on the near side of the river. After making a reconnaissance, both Paik and Rockwell agreed they should blow up the bridge — the only one for miles, despite the fact that the 12th Regiment had not yet withdrawn across it. An engineer activated the detonation plunger, but nothing happened. The detonating cord was cut. Despite this setback, Paik's men on the south side of the river kept firing so steadily that the North Koreans could not cross the bridge. Neither could Paik's exhausted 12th Regiment.

At the same time, some fifteen miles to the east two North Korean infantry divisions, the 4th and 3rd, supported by tanks of the 105th Armored Brigade, were heading south for Uijongbu, only twenty miles from Seoul, along two roads. The 1st Regiment of the 7th ROK Division had been hit so hard by the initial attack that a desperate message was sent to the minister of defense in Seoul. Key points had fallen and immediate reinforcements were required.

Farther east, in Chunchon, a company of the 6th ROK Division was in reserve. The commander, Captain Rhee Dai-yong, was on the way to the library when he heard artillery. But he thought nothing of it until a messenger told him it was a real attack and that he didn't have time to change from khakis to combat wear. Forty of his 116 men were on weekend pass, so he sent a truck to bring them back to the base. With those men on hand, also in khakis, Rhee headed north to battle.

Up river some thirteen miles, Whitey Paik's 13th Regiment was battered but still holding. It had no antitank weapons. The Americans had left only small 2.36-inch bazookas, whose rounds were bouncing as harmlessly off the Russian-made tanks as Ping-Pong balls. Already ninety men had volunteered for suicide attacks. Some, carrying high explosives, threw themselves under the treads, some rushed forward with satchel or pole charges, while others leaped on top of tanks trying desperately to open hatches and drop in grenades. Few tanks were destroyed, but the enemy was slowed down and, though almost outflanked, the northern line held.

Later that morning at the North Korean forward GHQ, the news was good. The enemy was fleeing in such confusion that important bridges weren't even being blown up. The 2nd KPA Division reported that all regiments were moving ahead without delay, having covered five kilometers during the past hour. One Soviet colonel was so impressed he exclaimed, "You fellows are faster than the Soviet army!"

At ten A.M. command headquarters was ordered to move forward. Soon a motor convoy wound its way westward, past the serene waters of Lake Hwachonho. They moved without interruption to a village just five kilometers from the parallel. By then the two Russian colonels had left, having confirmed the execution of the offensive they had planned.

Major Ju, the North Korean translator, was jolted upon learning that the first broadcasts from Pyongyang stated that Rhee's corrupt forces had started the war by seizing cities and towns north of the parallel. The broadcasts went on to announce that the Korean People's Army was now on the counteroffensive, liberating towns by the dozen. A true Communist, Ju felt, would not spread such a blatant lie.


Excerpted from In Mortal Combat by John Toland. Copyright © 1991 John Toland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Maps,
Prologue: Tools of History,
1. A Time of War (June 24–25, 1950),
2. "We've Got to Stop the Sons-of-Bitches No Matter What!" (June 25–26),
3. "There Goes the Bridge!" (June 27–28),
4. "Our Forces Will Not Last a Day" (June 28–30),
5. "Here, Have Some Earth to Eat" (June 30–July 10),
6. The Fall of Taejon (July 12–21),
7. A Private Takes Command (July 19–31),
8. "General, This Is Complete Chaos and Desolation!" (July 11–August 13),
9. The Battle of the Naktong River (August 14–23),
10. "This Is an Impossible Situation" (August 31–September 7),
11. Inchon (August 21–September 15),
12. "It's a Piece of Cake!" (September 15–19),
13. Crossing Two Rivers (September 16–22),
14. The Fall of Seoul (September 23–29),
15. Across the 38th Parallel (September 29–October 15),
16. "Many, Many Chinese Are Coming!" (October 14–26),
17. The Death March (Late October–November 8),
18. Mao Sets a Trap (October 26–November 17),
19. Even Victors Are by Victory Undone (November 6–26),
20. Trapped (November 27–28),
21. Chaos on Two Fronts (November 28–29),
22. "You Don't Have the Chance of a Snowball in Hell!" (November 28–29),
23. Bloody Retreat: Running the Gauntlets (November 30–December 1),
24. "We're Going Out Like Marines"(December 1–4),
25. The Breakout (December 5–11),
26. "Your Dad Has Had an Accident" (December 11–29),
27. The Third Chinese Campaign (December 31, 1950–January 20, 1951),
28. "The Old Man Will Get Us Out" (January 24–February 20),
29. Ridgway in Action (Late February–April 5),
30. "Jeannie, We're Going Home at Last" (April 6–25),
31. Prisoners of War (April 25–Early May),
32. The Last Chinese Campaign (May 1–30),
33. The Negotiations Begin (May 31–August 23),
34. "An Utterly Useless War" (Early August–November 26),
35. "I Agree with Ridgway's Stand" (Late November 1951 — Early February 1952),
36. Friend or Foe? (February 7-Late February),
37. "An Unholy Mess" (February–April 28),
38. "I Was Forced to Be a Tool of These Warmongers, Made to Drop Germ Bombs" (May 23–September 28),
39. "Can Ike Win the War?" (October 3, 1952–April 1, 1953),
40. The Rhee Rebellion (February–June 20),
41. A Time of Peace (July 8–September 6, 1953),
About the Author,

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