Book Review: Into the Breach at Pusan, by Kenneth W. Estes

Into the Breach at Pusan: The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in the Korean War, by Kenneth W. Estes, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2012, $29.95

The word “provisional,” in a military sense, suggests a second-class unit supplementing the actions of more established outfits. Throughout history, however, one discovers provisional units taking part in the most difficult of military operations. With the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade re-formed in July 1950, combining the 5th Marine Regiment with Marine Air Group 33, plus mortar, weapons and artillery battalions and other subunits.

Into the Breach at Pusan shows that 1st PMG personnel entered the fray in Korea with a lack of wartime experience. Brig. Gen. Edward A. Craig was the exception that proved the rule. During World War I he had sent a telegram to his father, stating: “I’m entering the Marine Corps.” The reply he received read: “Do not join the U.S. Marines under any circumstances. A terrible bunch of drunks and bums. Father.” That attitude persisted among senior U.S. Army officers, such as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who in a conversation with Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer called the Marine inferior to the common American soldier.

Author Estes, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and author of Marines Under Armor (2000), follows the 1st PMG from Operation Demon III at Camp Pendleton, Calif., its landing at Pusan and its baptism of fire at Masan to the two Battles of the Naktong Bulge. He contradicts the official Marine Corps history claim that the brigade’s arrival saved the Eighth Army from chaos and panic. He points out that units of the Eighth Army were at 50–60 percent troop strength but still managing to secure the Pusan Perimeter, and that the Marine unit, at a more robust 90 percent strength, was one of five fire brigades that carried out counterattacks, while MAG 33 provided air support for all United Nations units as needed.

The author concludes with the claim that during World War II American infantry units initially lacked the basic skills and motivation to engage Japanese infantry in close combat because their commanders expected artillery to do the work, to the point that such doctrine devolved into a dependency. The American soldier clearly faced the same problem when fighting enemy forces in Korea, but the professionalism and flexibility of the 1st PMG changed the rules of the game. Into the Breach at Pusan is an extremely valuable book on the “Forgotten War,” with operational lessons worth remembering.

—Thomas Zacharis

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