All along the 38th parallel—the boundary between North and South Korea—the invaders met little resistance.
In a six-pronged drive the Communist troops swept south. One North Korean force seized the isolated, virtually indefensible Ongjin Peninsula in the northwest corner of the republic. Another, spearheaded by tanks, drove down the Uijongbu Valley toward the Southern capital of Seoul, which lies on the western side of the peninsula, only about 40 miles south of the 38th parallel. A full Northern division surrounded the central Korean railway terminus of Chunchon, just south of the border.
Still another drive headed down South Korea's east coast, with the objective of joining forces with four amphibious groups which had been landed behind South Korean lines.
"Countermeasures." The North Korean radio broadcast war whoops. According to the Communist version of events, the Southerners had invaded the North and were being "repulsed." Cried a North Korean communiqué: "The People's Republic will be obliged to resort to decisive countermeasures."
Nobody should have been particularly surprised by the "countermeasures." For months the Northern army had limbered up in small-scale raids across the border. The South Korean Defense Minister Sihn Sung Mo had warned last month that an invasion from the north must be expected. Nevertheless, the slender organization and uneasy morale of the young Korean Republic suffered badly under the first blow.
In South Korea's bustling capital of Seoul, surrounded by sawtooth granite hills, army jeeps carrying loudspeakers roared through the streets, urging soldiers: "Go and join your units immediately." Buses and trucks were commandeered by the army to transport troops to the front. No one was quite sure where the front was; it seemed to be moving rapidly toward the capital. Seoul's jails, which contain many political prisoners suspected of plotting against the Southern regime, were heavily guarded by jittery police.
U.S. Ambassador John Muccio made a reassuring broadcast; at the same time he ordered some 1,800 American civilians in Korea evacuated forthwith.
Guiding Hand. The South Korean army made a valiant effort to overcome its initial confusion. Within 24 hours after the invasion's start, the Southerners had succeeded in halting temporarily the most dangerous Northern drive, even managed to counterattack across the border and captured the Northern town of Haeju.
Brigadier General William L. Roberts, until recently head of the 500-man U.S. military mission in Korea, had called the Korean army "the best doggoned shooting army outside the United States." There was some question whether the army had enough to shoot with. In the South, Koreans made a frantic plea to the U.S. for more ammunition; they were believed to have only a ten-day supply.
The Korean navy (consisting of small patrol craft) announced that it had sunk a Russian gunboat in Korean territorial waters. A government spokesman claimed that some North Korean tanks were manned by Russians, and it was reported that behind each North Korean pilot sat a Russian observer to give aid & comfort. No one was quite sure just how heavy a role Russian personnel played in the North Korean army, but there could be no doubt that Moscow's guiding hand was present.
"Hard Up." The South Korea cabinet declared: "The Republican army is fervently counterattacking. . . We will persevere." On the second day, the Southern army's crack 7th and 2nd Divisions mounted a counterattack in the vital Uijongbu Valley. Northern artillery fire sent them reeling back. Then Northern tanks ripped into the 20,000 Southern troops in the valley. An estimated 10,000 Northern troops and 50 tanks drove closer & closer to the capital. (In Washington's Pentagon, where U.S. staff officers were following the fighting in Korea on the basis of intelligence reports, a wall map showed a long, narrow red finger stabbing at Seoul—like the "deadman" in a lobster.)
All night long, Seoul was kept awake by convoys rumbling through the streets. Next morning Northern planes machine-gunned the city streets.
American military advisers spoke worriedly of the collapse and utter confusion of Korean troops under artillery fire. Korean government officials spoke bitterly of inadequate U.S. aid. A spokesman issued a statement from President Syngman Rhee: "The President is greatly disappointed with American aid. . . It is very difficult to save anything. We have nothing to stop those tanks [with]. Our soldiers are very brave. They sacrifice themselves against the tanks . . . Korea is very hard up because aid was so slow. It is too little and too late."
For two sickening days, it looked as if Rhee might be right. Most discouraging was the situation in the air. The Southern "air force," consisting of 70 trained pilots with ten AT6 training planes (seven of which were shot down almost immediately) and a handful of Cub liaison planes, faced the North's estimated 175 fighters and bombers. On the invasion's first day, General MacArthur had dispatched ten F51 Mustang fighters from Tokyo to help the hard-pressed South Koreans. It was dishearteningly little. Meanwhile U.S. fighter planes, covering the air evacuation of U.S. citizens from Korea, were attacked by North Korean Russian-built fighters, shot down four Red planes.
At the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, clerks burned secret papers. President Rhee and his cabinet moved to Taejon, 90 miles to the south. Communist tanks were reported entering Seoul. It looked as if South Korea were just about finished. The Northern radio broadcast a triumphant appeal to the South to surrender.
Hope in Balance. But the Communist mood of triumph was premature. Slowly, the anxiously watching world saw sign after sign that there was still plenty of fight left in the South Koreans—and in the U.S. First, General Mac Arthur's Far Eastern headquarters in Tokyo called reports that Seoul had fallen a result of "war hysteria," announced that only "isolated forays" of the enemy had reached the suburbs of the South Korean capital. Then came encouraging reports that the Southern army had rallied, had hurled a furious counterattack at the invaders and turned them back from Seoul. Several towns to the north of the capital were reported recaptured.
The South Korean government had hopefully warned the population not to be frightened by "strange-looking" aircraft, i.e., American planes. South Koreans anxiously waited for the strange-looking planes to appear in the sky. For hours, hope teetered in precarious balance with despair. Then came the electrifying news from Washington: the Yanks were coming.
To the people and to the Army of South Korea it meant that there would be American planes overhead to help them; that there would be American warships, American weapons and matériel of all kinds. To them it meant that the world's most powerful nation had clearly sided with the distant, strange little republic of Korea.
To the world—and particularly to Communism—it meant far more.
Moscow was widely believed to have launched the Korea attack as a "reconnaissance in force," as a test of American determination. If that was Moscow's purpose, it had succeeded. By this week, Moscow ought to be well-informed on the subject of American determination. The U.S. had dawdled, temporized, compromised in Asia. But the Red attack in Korea had at last shocked it into action—long overdue action not only on Korea but also on strategically crucial Formosa and the Philippines.
It was late, all right, for Korea, which was still in serious danger of being overrun by the Communists; it was late for all of Asia. But there was a good chance that it was not too late.