The "Sitting Ducks" of Inchon
By Captain Robert A. Schelling
(2100-ton) destroyers recommissioned from mothballs for Korean duty. Yes, many, many thousands of Tin Can Sailors served in Korean waters a half-century ago.
Following is an account of an event in which a proud bunch of Destroyermen sailed their six ships into harm's way at Inchon in September of 1950.
On 25 June, 1950 massed forces of the North Korean army: nine infantry divisions, 100 tanks, and heavy artillery1 crossed the 38th parallel and rolled like a juggernaut into South Korea. The South Korean army, outnumbered and outgunned, retreated down the peninsula. But by early August, U.S. and allied land, sea, and air forces had stabilized the front around what became known as the Pusan Perimeter.
Meanwhile, MacArthur had conceived a daring plan for an amphibious assault on the west coast city of Inchon, an end-around to sever enemy supply lines, capture Kimpo airfield, liberate Seoul, and support a breakout from the Pusan Perimeter. He had taken it up with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The Chairman and the Army opposed an Inchon landing2. The Navy's concern was the navigational hazards involved. As my late Naval Academy classmate Monroe Kelly who was on the planning staff said, "Make up a list of amphibious 'don'ts' and you have an exact description of the Inchon operation"3
Thirty-foot tides, five-knot currents, the 35-mile-long Flying Fish channel with few navigational aids, extensive mud flats, possibility of mines. And the Marines would have to land by climbing up sea walls.
There was one three-day period per lunar month when the tide would be high enough for the landing - the next one would occur on 15 September. On 23 August the JCS approved the 15 September D-Day. Three weeks for planning!
Vice Admiral Arthur D. Struble was appointed Commander Joint Task Force Seven. Under him Rear Admiral James H. Doyle, an experienced amphibious warfare officer, would command the Attack Force. Doyle's main components were the Landing Force, under Marine Major General Oliver P. Smith, the Gunfire Support Group under Rear Admiral John M. Higgins, and the Air Support Group of escort carriers with embarked Marine air squadrons under Rear Admiral Richard W. Ruble.
The Gunfire Support Group consisted of U.S. heavy cruisers TOLEDO (CA-133) and ROCHESTER (CA-124), British light cruisers JAMAICA and KENYA, and six destroyers.
The First Marine Division would make the assault landing, and the Army's 7th Division would follow ashore administratively two days later.
But there was a problem. The 300-foot-high island of Wolmi-do commanded the Inchon harbor entrance. It was judged to be fortified and would have to be reduced before the landings could take place. What guns did it have and where were they located?
The six destroyers (Task Element 90.62) of the Gunfire Support Group, MANSFIELD (DD-728), DEHAVEN (DD-727), LYMAN K. SWENSON (DD-729), COLLETT (DD-730), GURKE (DD-783), and HENDERSON (DD-785), would go into Inchon harbor on D-2 Day to find out the hard way - anchor around the island, draw enemy fire to reveal guns' positions, and take them out if they could. The cruisers of the Group would take stations in the outer roadstead.
We would go in at low tide at the start of the flood so the destroyers would ride at anchor with bows pointing to seaward in case we had to leave in a hurry. We rigged ship for towing as well, should one of us get into trouble.
My ship the LYMAN K. SWENSON returned to Sasebo from shore fire support missions on 8 September. There I learned (1) there was going to be an invasion of Inchon, (2) we were in it, and (3) we were sailing in four days. We left Sasebo on the morning of 12 September.
At 0930 on the 13th (D-2 Day) the destroyers in column led by the MANSFIELD and followed by the cruisers, entered Flying Fish Channel. At 1145, about 10 miles from our destination, we saw a lot of black things floating on the surface. They were mines! A mine's position is not measured from the surface, but rather from its anchor cable length above the bottom. Obviously, the North Koreans were expecting visitors at higher tide. How fortunate that we came in when we did!
Our ships exploded some of the mines with 20-mm and 40-mm gunfire. One destroyer was instructed to remain behind to destroy the other mines. Five ships stood on into the harbor while an air strike on Wolmi-do was in progress.
The destroyers anchored on station and at 1300 commenced a bombardment of observed and suspected gun locations. The enemy took the destroyers under fire with 3" (75-mm) guns as well as mortars - and even small arms. Each gun flash disclosed a target which received immediate counterbattery fire. Some guns were so positioned that their flashes were obscured; ships blasted away at their likely locations. Splashes fell around the destroyers and some hits were scored. Occasional small arms bullets whistled overhead. It turned out to be quite a slugfest against targets both on Wolmi-do and in Inchon. LYMAN K. SWENSON fired 499 rounds of 5-inch and 887 rounds of 40-mm that afternoon.
Defenses were obviously stronger and gunners more accurate on the seaward side of the island. The COLLETT took nine hits, one of them putting her Mark 1 main battery fire control computer out of commission. She continued to fire in local control. The GURKE was hit three times.4
At 1400 on schedule, the destroyers retired from the harbor. After passing to seaward of Wolmi-do LYMAN K. SWENSON again came under heavy fire from unseen guns. Fragments from a near miss killed one officer5 and wounded another. In late afternoon the Gunfire Support Group stood out to open sea.
Our bombardment had been a destructive one. Many guns were silenced, but obviously not all. So the next day we went ahead with the planned repeat performance. Destroyer entry was covered by cruiser gunfire and an air strike. The Tin cans lay-to instead of anchoring. Enemy response to this day's bombardment was sparse and inaccurate and no ships were hit. Wolmi-do was now judged ready for the taking.
D-day was 15 September. We would secure Wolmi-do before the main landings in Inchon. High tides were at 0659 and 1919. High-enough tide lasted only three hours, so we couldn't do both landings on the same high tide. We would land on Wolmi-do at 0630 on the morning high tide, and make the main landings at 1730 on the evening high tide.
The Advance Attack Group, consisting of three APD-destroyer-transports and the FORT MARION (LSD-22) with tank-carrying LSU landing craft in her well deck, would land the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines at Green Beach on Wolmi-do. The landing would be supported by six destroyers (the SOUTHERLAND (DDR-743) having replaced the COLLETT), and three LSMR rocket-firing ships.
The MANSFIELD's captain, Commander Harvey Headland, again led the way up Flying Fish Channel - this time between 0200 and 0500 on a dark, moonless night.6 A masterful feat!
The destroyers anchored and at 0545 commenced preparation fire. At 0615 the LSMRs commenced their rocket barrage; at 0625 there was an air strike by Marine aircraft. At 0630 the first wave landed. By 0800 the American flag was flying atop Wolmi-do. The Marines suffered 20 wounded in taking the island. 120 enemy were killed, 190 captured.7
We watched the tide go out and the extensive mud flats appear. Then we watched the tide come in. During this time ships conducted prescribed firing at specified target areas. Meanwhile, the transports were arriving in the outer roadstead area and putting their boats in the water.
For the main landings the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 5th Marines would land on Red Beach in the city of Inchon. The First Marines would land on Blue Beach south of the city.
Red Beach assault troops would be followed an hour later by eight tank landing ships (LST) loaded with vital logistic support. They would unload during the night, sitting in the mud until the next morning's high tide.
As H-hour approached destroyer preparation fire, air strikes, and LSMRs' rocket barrage caused lots of fires and smoke as assault landing craft gathered in the harbor. Although H-hour was more than an hour before sunset, the smoke and occasional rain squalls made it pretty dark.
The Marines landed amidst vigorous resistance at the beaches from mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire. But they pressed on, took the city, and reached their D-Day objectives during the night. Total Marine casualties for D-day were 174 including twenty killed in action.8
On D+2 Day our forces in the south started the "breakout" of the Pusan Perimeter, and the Army 7th Division started to come ashore. Meantime, the destroyers remained around Inchon providing call-fire missions for the Marines, mostly nighttime star-shell illumination. But in a few days the troops had advanced well beyond range of our guns.
On D+6 Day with the Fifth Marines on the western borders of Seoul and the First Marines entering Yongdungpo, Army Major General Almond assumed command of the forces ashore, and Joint Task Force 7 was dissolved.9
MacArthur had wisely chosen our Navy's tin cans to set the table, and our U.S. Marines to make the amphibious assault and defeat the enemy.
For almost three months our forces had been on the defensive. As of 15 September we took the offensive. In two weeks the North Korean army was defeated and on the run; Kimpo airfield and Seoul had been taken; and we had won that war. But the war went on for three more years.
To emphasize the significance of the destroyers' role: I recall at the departure conference our Gunfire Support Group boss, Admiral Higgins highlighting a statement in our operation order, "Wolmi-do must be taken at all costs." Yes, the success of the entire Inchon operation depended upon those six destroyers paving the way. We were spared both major damage and heavy casualties - thanks to the grace of God, and the aggressiveness and courage of a bunch of Tin Can Sailors!
The Gunfire Support Group destroyers received the Navy Unit Commendation.
An Associated Press correspondent10 aboard Struble's flagship filed a piece datelined 16 September. He referred to the destroyers as "Sitting Ducks," a term which was picked up by the press and by history books as well. So the destroyers made up a "Sitting Duck" flag which was flown at the yardarm on special occasions.
Epilogue: A ceremony commemorating the "Sitting Ducks" was held at the Memorial Hall for Inchon Landing Operation at Inchon, Korea on 14 September 2000 as part of the Inchon Landing 50th Anniversary observance.
The Sea War in Korea, Cagle & Manson, USNI Press, 1957
Sea Power, E.B. Potter, Prentice-Hall, 1960
U.S. Naval Operations - Korea, James A. Field Jr., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962
Inchon to Wonsan, James E. Alexander, USNI Press, 1996
USS LYMAN K. SWENSON Action Report serial 041 of 9/26/50
Robert A. Schelling
© Tin Can Sailors Inc. Used with permission