The Chinese Intervention
3 November 1950-24 January 1951
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 of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. 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. Within hours the ROK 15th Regiment on the 8th Cavalry�s right flank collapsed, while the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 8th Cavalry fell back in disarray into the city of Unsan. By morning, with their positions being overrun and their guns falling silent, the men of the 8th Cavalry tried to withdraw, but a Chinese roadblock to their rear forced them to abandon their artillery, and the men took to the hills in small groups. Only a few scattered survivors made it back to tell their story. The remaining battalion of the 8th Cavalry, the 3d, was hit early in the morning of 2 November with the same "human wave" assaults of bugle-blowing Chinese. In the confusion, one company-size Chinese element was mistaken for South Koreans and allowed to pass a critical bridge near the battalion command post (CP). Once over the bridge, the enemy commander blew his bugle, and the Chinese, throwing satchel charges and grenades, overran the CP.
Elements of the two other regiments of the 1st Cavalry Division, the 5th and 7th Cavalries, tried unsuccessfully to reach the isolated battalion. The 5th Cavalry, commanded by then Lt. Col. Harold K. Johnson, later to be Chief of Staff of the Army, led a two-battalion counterattack on the dug-in Chinese positions encircling the 8th Cavalry. However, with insufficient artillery support and a determined enemy, he and his men were unable to break the Chinese line. With daylight fading, the relief effort was broken off and the men of the 8th Cavalry were ordered to get out of the trap any way they could. Breaking into small elements, the soldiers moved out overland under cover of darkness. Most did not make it. In all, over eight hundred men of the 8th Cavalry were lost�almost one-third of the regiment�s strength�in the initial attacks by massive Chinese forces, forces that only recently had been considered as existing only in rumor.
In retrospect the events on the battlefield in late October and early November 1950 were harbingers of disaster ahead. They had been foreshadowed by ominous "signals" from China, signals relayed to the United States through Indian diplomatic channels.
The Chinese, it was reported, would not tolerate a U.S. presence so close to their borders and would send troops to Korea if any UN forces other than ROK elements crossed the 38th Parallel. With the United States seeking to isolate Communist China diplomatically, there were very few ways to verify these warnings. While aware of some of the dangers, U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel, especially General MacArthur, discounted the risks. The best time for intervention was past, they said, and even if the Chinese decided to intervene, allied air power and firepower would cripple their ability to move or resupply their forces. The opinion of many military observers, some of whom had helped train the Chinese to fight against the Japanese in World War II, was that the huge infantry forces that could be put in the field would be poorly equipped, poorly led, and abysmally supplied. These "experts" failed to give full due to the revolutionary zeal and military experience of many of the Chinese soldiers that had been redeployed to the Korean border area. 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.
Perhaps the most critical element in weighing the risks of Chinese intervention was the deference paid to the opinions of General MacArthur. America�s "proconsul" in the Far East, MacArthur was the American public�s "hero" of the gallant attempt to defend Bataan and Corregidor in the early days of World War II, the conqueror of the Japanese in the Southwestern Pacific, and the foreign "Shogun" of Japan during the occupation of that country. He was also the architect of the lightning stroke at Inch�on that almost overnight turned the tide of battle in Korea. When he stated categorically that the Chinese would not intervene in any large numbers, all other evidence of growing Chinese involvement tended to be discounted. MacArthur and his Far Eastern Command (FEC) intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, continued to insist, despite the CCF attacks at Unsan and similar attacks against X Corps in northeastern Korea, that the Chinese would not intervene in force. On 6 November the FEC continued to list the total of Chinese troops in theater as only 34,500, whereas in reality over 300,000 CCF soldiers organized into thirty divisions had already moved into Korea. The mysterious disappearance of Chinese forces at that time seemed only to confirm the judgment that their forces were only token "volunteers."
The overall situation in early November 1951 was unsettled, but UN forces were still optimistic. The North Korean Army had been thoroughly defeated, with only remnants fleeing into the mountains to conduct guerrilla warfare or retreating north toward sanctuary in China. Eighth Army positions along the Ch�ongch�on River, halfway between the 38th Parallel and the Yalu, were strong. The 1st Cavalry Division had admittedly taken a beating, but two regiments were still in good condition, while the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions had generally recovered from their earlier trials. On the Eighth Army�s right flank, the 2d Infantry Division was in a position to backstop the vulnerable ROK 6th and 8th Divisions. In northeastern Korea, the units under X Corps were fresh and, in the case of the 1st Marine Division, at full strength. By the first week of November, despite the surprise attacks by what were still classed as small Chinese volunteer units, the United Nations forces as a whole were well positioned and looking forward to attacking north to the Yalu to end the war and being "home by Christmas."