By Edward J. Marolda
The Hungnam Evacuation by the U.S. Navy from North Korea of troops under the U.S. X Corps, including the U.S. 1st Marine Division, 7th Infantry Division, and 3d Infantry Division, and the Republic of Korea I Corps, including the 3d and Capital Infantry Divisions, took place from December 9 to 24, 1950. When the People's Republic of China intervened in the Korean War in late November 1950, its 250,000 ground forces threatened to cut off and destroy UN units operating in the mountains of North Korea. To prevent that catastrophe and to concentrate UN units in more easily defended terrain further south, on December 9 General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief, United Nations Command, ordered evacuation by sea of the U.S. X Corps.
Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, Commander Naval Forces, Far East, had already alerted Rear Admiral James H. Doyle, his amphibious commander, to prepare for such a contingency and begun deploying naval forces to waters off Hungnam on the east coast of North Korea. He dispatched other units, under Rear Admiral Lyman A. Thackrey, to Korea's west coast to handle evacuation from Chinnampo and Inchon, in company with British, Australian, and Canadian ships, of U.S. Eighth Army and allied forces. The mission at Chinnampo was accomplished between the 4th and 6th of December, although most of the allied forces made their way south in vehicles or on foot. In addition, during December and early January 1951, Thackrey's ships pulled 69,000 military personnel, 64,000 refugees, 1,000 vehicles, and more than 55,000 tons of cargo out of Inchon.
As the marines and soldiers, in biting cold and wind, fought their way out of encirclement at Chosin Reservoir and elsewhere in northeast Korea during December, several hundred Navy and Marine aircraft operating from airfields ashore and from the ships of Task Force 77 (aircraft carriers Philippine Sea, Leyte, Princeton, and Valley Forge, light carrier Bataan, and escort carriers Sicily and Baedong Strait) pummelled enemy ground troops. Other U.S. planes airdropped supplies. Conducting round-the-clock air operations from snow and wind-swept carrier decks and from unimproved airstrips ashore demanded the most of the sailors and marines working feverishly to help bring their comrades out of the frozen hills of North Korea.
When the allied ground units began moving into the defensive perimeter around Hungnam, cruisers St. Paul and Rochester, six destroyers, and three rocket ships of Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter's Gunfire Support Group (Task Group 70.8) stood by to put a ring of fire between the troops and the enemy. On the 23d, the mighty battleship Missouri steamed in and added shells from her 16-inch guns to the gunfire support mission. Between the 7th and 24th of December, these combatants fired 18,637 5-inch, 2,932 8-inch, 162 16-inch, 71 3-inch, and 185 40-mm rounds and 1,462 rockets in the direction of the already bloodied Chinese army, which wisely chose not to contest the evacuation.
In an orderly fashion, on December 10th the ships under Rear Admiral Doyle, Commander Amphibious Force, Far East (Task Force 90), began embarking the withdrawing ground troops and their equipment from Hungnam (and some ROK 3d Division troops from Wonsan further to the south). The marines, who had endured the hardest fighting, were the first men to board the evacuation ships. They were followed by the ROK units on the 17th and the U.S. Army divisions during the third week of December. By Christmas Eve 1950, Task Force 90 had embarked 105,000 military personnel, 17,500 tanks and other vehicles, 350,000 measurement tons of cargo, and 91,000 Korean civilians. Marine and Air Force transports airlifted out another 3,600 troops, 196 vehicles, and 1,300 tons of cargo.
Navy underwater demolition team personnel ensured that little of military value would be left behind for the enemy. As the fleet steamed away from Hungnam on December 24th, thunderous explosions rocked the waterfront, raised an enormous cloud of dust, and reduced piers, cranes, warehouses, and other port facilities to twisted rubble. While U.S. troops would not be home for Christmas, as General MacArthur had anticipated earlier, they would at least enjoy the relative safety and comfort of ships steaming in a sea controlled by the U.S. Navy and its allies.
In a classic demonstration of the flexibility and mobility of sea power, soon after evacuating these ground troops from North Korea, the UN fleet disembarked them at secure ports in South Korea. In a matter of weeks, these American and Korean troops were back on the fighting front defending the Republic of Korea from the Chinese and North Korean aggressors.
Alexander, Joseph H. Fleet Operations in a Mobile War: September 1950-June 1951. Naval Historical Center, 2001.
Buell, Thomas B. Naval Leadership in Korea: The First Six Months. Naval Historical Center, 2002.
Cagle, Malcolm W. and Frank A. Manson. The Sea War in Korea. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1957.
Field, James A. History of United States Naval Operations: Korea. Washington: Naval History Division, 1962.
Schnabel, James F. Policy and Direction: The First Year in series United States Army in the Korean War. Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1971.
Reproduced with permission from Tucker, Spencer C., ed. Encyclopedia of the Korean War: Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000.