Dunkirk of Korea
November 26, 2008
One of the largest military and refugee evacuations in American military history concluded on Christmas Eve, 1950, as the X (US) Corps was evacuated from the port of Hungnam, Korea. The corps [containing the 3rd and 7th Infantry Divisions, the 1st Marine Division, and part of the 1st Republic of Korea (ROK) Corps] numbered over 100,000 Soldiers and Marines. Almost that many Korean civilian refugees were also evacuated.
It was a stunning turnaround for a unit that had conducted the brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon only three months before, and then, after a second landing at Wonsan and Iwon, had joined with the Eighth (US) Army and pushed all the way to the border with Manchuria at the Yalu River. This offensive liberated the South Korean capital city of Seoul, captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, and nearly destroyed the North Korean army. The tide, however, turned against the United Nations (UN) forces with the arrival of Communist Chinese Forces (CCF) in late November. In its first large-scale, cross-border assault, CCF forces attacked X Corps and Eighth Army forces in northeast Korea and began to drive them back toward the sea. Their offensive was slowed by the valiant stand by Marines of the 1st Marine Division and Soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division at the Chosin Reservoir. General Douglas MacArthur, UN Forces Commander, realized that the introduction of Chinese forces made this a Aca,!A"whole new warAca,!A? and saw the untenable positions of the two units. On December 8, 1950, he ordered them both to withdraw immediately to the south. The Eighth Army under Lt. Gen. Walton Walker abandoned Pyongyang and began to withdraw overland, while the X Corps under Lt. Gen. Edward M. (Aca,!A"NedAca,!A?) Almond began to move toward the port of Hungnam.
From December 9 to 24, 1950, the X Corps conducted retrograde operations toward Hungnam. This included securing the beach and port facilities, opening lanes for rearward passage, conducting rear security for withdrawing forces, setting demolitions, and preparing to move thousands of refugees. The plan called for an orderly withdrawal, using phase lines as the forces slowly contracted a perimeter around the port. The local civilians, however, panicked when UN forces began to withdraw and immediately started to leave along with the army. These refugees created traffic control problems all along the perimeter and through the evacuation zone, but they were also a humanitarian problem and one the X Corp had not anticipated. In the end, Lt. Gen. Almond ordered the inclusion of some of the refugees in the evacuation. This eventually accounted for nearly 100000, evacuees, though many thousands more were left behind.
Although this operation signaled an operational defeat of the UN forces, the evacuation itself was a stunning tactical success. Despite comparisons to the British evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, this withdrawal was different in several ways. First, it included evacuation of all Soldiers and equipment, so hundreds of vehicles and weapons were also evacuated. Second, while the withdrawal was conducted under moderate pressure, the CCF did not attack as strongly as it could have and thus allowed the X Corps the time it needed to coordinate the escape. Finally, it required movement by both air and sea, a very complex operation for the time.
President Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea awarded the Korean Presidential Unit Citation to the X Corps in recognition of the rescue of the Korean refugees. Army Chief of Staff J. Lawton Collins summed up the success in a message to General MacArthur: Aca,!A"This brilliant achievement of the combined armies in support of the X Corps is a tribute to sound planning and efficient execution by courageous officers and men of all ranks. The entire Army joins me in admiration of a signal military accomplishment by the X Corps and in hearty thanks to our brothers in arms of the other services for their splendid cooperation.Aca,!A?