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Stand or Die - 1950 Defense of Korea's Pusan Perimeter

By David T. Zabecki 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: May 01, 2009 
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Soldiers of the U.S. Army 5th Regimental Combat Team engage North Korean troops along the Naktong River in 1950. (National Archives)
Soldiers of the U.S. Army 5th Regimental Combat Team engage North Korean troops along the Naktong River in 1950. (National Archives)

'There will be no Dunkirk, there will be no Bataan. A retreat to Pusan would be one of the greatest butcheries in history. We must fight until the end'

A short, fat, heavy drinker with a pugnacious scowl that led his troops to call him "Bulldog," Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker would not pass muster in today's appearance-conscious U.S. Army. Yet in 1950, his skill as a combat commander enabled him to win one of the most brilliantly fought defensive battles in all of military history. That victory—the defense of the Pusan Perimeter in the first months of the Korean War—gave United Nations forces time to muster the men, equipment and political will necessary to blunt the first communist military onslaught of the Cold War.

Texas-born and schooled at West Point, Walton Walker first went to war during the 1914 Vera Cruz Expedition. He went on to fight in World Wars I and II, and in the latter conflict he was General George S. Patton's most aggressive corps commander. Indeed, Walker's XX Corps earned the nickname "Ghost Corps," a reference to the lightning armored thrusts he spearheaded across Europe.

Walker's professional star only began to dim when he headed up the U.S. Eighth Army in postwar occupied Japan. He arrived in September 1948 to assume command of the army forces under General of the Army Douglas MacArthur's Far East Command (FEC). Since the end of World War II, the Eighth Army's four divisions had been the backbone of the occupation force, serving in an essentially constabulary role. During its time in Japan, the Eighth Army had degraded into a hollow force. Most regiments had shrunk from three to two battalions and lost their tank companies; light tanks substituted for medium tanks in the divisional armored battalions; few of the divisional artilleries claimed full complements of guns; most of the men were poorly trained and out of shape; and despite the relatively recent end of World War II, only about 10 percent of Walker's troops were combat veterans.

Walker started an immediate rebuilding program to return his command to combat readiness, but he faced even greater challenges. Congress had eliminated the Eighth Army's subordinate corps headquarters and corps artillery units in a misguided budgetary move, effectively making Walker a field commander, directly controlling divisions without the standard support structures. The command architecture above Walker was no better. A joint command, FEC was supposed to incorporate subordinate commands from each of the services, each with its own reporting and support channels leading to the Pentagon. While the Air Force and Navy both had such commands within FEC, the Army did not. As an Army officer, MacArthur insisted on micromanaging all Army-specific issues in his theater.

Given MacArthur's near Olympian status as conqueror of Japan and the only five-star general still on active duty in 1949, he pretty much got his way on everything. Unfortunately for Walker, MacArthur was an aloof and almost inaccessible commander. As a corps commander in World War II, Walker had enjoyed unrestricted access to his army commander, Patton, and frequent contact with the army group commander, General Omar Bradley. Walker even dealt with the theater commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, a personal friend. But in Japan and later Korea, Walker was forced to channel all communications with MacArthur almost exclusively through FEC's chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Edward Almond.

Known to some on the FEC staff as "Iago"—Shakespeare's personification of duplicity and deceit—Almond was widely disliked and distrusted by his peers and subordinates and remains one of the most controversial figures in modern American military history. A failure as commander of the 92nd Infantry Division in World War II, Almond was deeply jealous of Walker's outstanding record as a corps commander and kept him walled off from MacArthur, who meanwhile did everything he could to help Almond burnish his record and position himself for an eventual third star.

While Walker struggled to rebuild his four divisions in Japan, more than 100,000 troops of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) launched a surprise attack south of the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950. U.S. President Harry S. Truman decided to intervene, and the first contingent of combat troops from the 24th ID landed in Korea on July 2. Eleven days later Walker established the command post of Eighth U.S. Army in Korea (EUSAK) in Taegu, some 60 miles northwest of Pusan on the southeast corner of the peninsula.

As American units dribbled into Korea, the NKPA steamroller pushed Walker's meager forces back down the peninsula. The resulting string of losses started with the crushing defeat of Task Force Smith near Osan on July 5, followed by NKPA successes at Ch'onan on July 7–8, Ch'ongju on July 10, Choch'iwon on July 11–12 and the Kum River on July 15–16. On July 17, Walker assumed operational control of the badly battered and poorly equipped divisions of the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA). Three days later, the NKPA pushed the 24th ID from the key city of Taejon, capturing divisional commander Maj. Gen. William Dean. The newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division (1st Cav. Div.) lost Yongdong on July 25.

Initially, Walker had no choice but to fight a delaying action as he tried to build up sufficient force to mount an offensive. He also had to hold at all costs Pusan, the only deepwater port in South Korea. But by the end of July, Walker was running out of space. If he withdrew any farther, he would lack sufficient depth with which to maneuver the reserves necessary to block enemy thrusts and eventually mass for a counterattack and breakout.

On July 29, the increasingly dire situation prompted Walker to issue to division commanders what has become known as his "Stand or Die" order:

We are fighting a battle against time. There will be no more retreating, withdrawal or readjustment of the lines or any other term you choose. There is no line behind us to which we can retreat.…There will be no Dunkirk, there will be no Bataan. A retreat to Pusan would be one of the greatest butcheries in history. We must fight until the end.…We will fight as a team. If some of us must die, we will die fighting together.…I want everybody to understand we are going to hold this line. We are going to win.

At the time Walker issued his bold order, the forces under his command included five badly mauled ROKA divisions and the still understrength U.S. 24th and 25th infantry divisions and 1st Cav. Div. As the battle progressed, reinforcements arrived through Pusan, including the 5th Regimental Combat Team (5th RCT), the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade (1st Marine Bde.), the 2nd Infantry Division (2nd ID) and the British 27th Infantry Brigade (27th Inf. Bde.).

Walker ordered his beleaguered forces to withdraw behind the natural barrier of the Naktong River. By August 1, the Pusan Perimeter comprised an approximate 100-by-50-mile rectangle in the southeast corner of Korea. To the west, the main line of resistance ran along the Naktong, from the mountain town of Naktong-ni some 80 miles south; at the confluence with the Nam River, the Naktong cut sharply east, but the defensive line continued 20 miles due south to the coast. The northern boundary of the perimeter ran through the mountains from Naktong-ni to the town of Yongdok, on the east coast. The sea bounded the eastern and southern sides of the perimeter, and Walker could rely on U.S. Navy fire support along the perimeter's two coastal anchor points.

Walker made masterful use of his ability to operate on interior lines. The U.S. Fifth Air Force maintained total air supremacy, which meant Walker could move forces within the perimeter during daylight hours without fear of detection. An excellent rail loop within the perimeter connected Pusan with Miryang, Taegu and P'ohang-dong. The port itself, on the Tsushima Strait, was capable of handling 30 oceangoing ships at a time. Although Pusan had a daily discharge capacity of up to 45,000 tons, personnel and transportation shortfalls during the battle limited the average daily tonnage to about 28,000.

Walker initially positioned his three American divisions along the Naktong, from Waegwan south to the coast. The 24th ID held the center, with the 1st Cav. Div. on the right and the 25th ID on the left. North of the 1st Cav. Div., the ROKA 1st Division (1st Div.) held the Naktong up to the northwest corner of the perimeter. Manning the northern flank were the ROKA 6th Division (6th Div.) in the west and the 8th and Capital divisions in the center. The ROKA 3rd Division (3rd Div.) defended the northeast corner through Yongdok to the coast.

The North Koreans initially threw six infantry divisions against the western flank of the perimeter and four against the northern flank. The NKPA 105th Armored Division (105th Armd. Div.) was held in reserve. Although the 105th was armed with the highly capable Soviet T-34 tank, the unit had suffered heavy losses during its advance and was down to only about 40 operational tanks. But the North Koreans continued to send fresh forces down the peninsula, and by late August they were able to commit three additional relatively fresh divisions, two against the center of the Naktong line and one against the southern end near the coast.

Walker's force actually held a slight numerical advantage (some 92,000 troops to 70,000) in the first weeks of August. The majority of the NPKA soldiers were combat troops, however, while the majority of Walker's soldiers were the support troops necessary to operate the Allies' extensive logistics infrastructure.

Walker's strategy was to conduct a "mobile defense," in which a small portion of one's defending force holds a thin screen of forward strongpoints, while the bulk of the force is held in reserve as a counterattack element. Although a standard element of U.S. tactical doctrine today, the mobile defense did not exist in the Army's primary operations manual in 1950. Back then it was considered a theoretical and highly experimental concept, known as "defense on a wide front." The usual defensive pattern in 1950 would have been a "positional defense," in which the bulk of one's forces were deployed along a continuous line of fixed positions, with small, mobile reserve forces at key points in the rear.

A positional defense assumed a frontage of six to eight miles for each division. By contrast, each of Walker's four divisions along the Naktong had to hold fronts of 25 to 35 miles. This line of strongpoints was so long and thinly spread that Walker lacked sufficient troops to form the key large mobile reserve. Thus, he was forced to cobble together a series of ad hoc counterattack forces from troops in quiet sectors and newly arriving units, throwing them in whenever and wherever the NKPA penetrated his line. Thanks to a good network of roads and railroads within the perimeter, Walker usually managed to move his "fire brigades" where he needed them.

Still lacking subordinate corps headquarters, Walker was a one-man show. He continually moved by jeep and L-19 Bird Dog light aircraft to each point on the line as a threat emerged, personally overseeing the counter-attacks. Walker did, however, have a secret weapon: Colonel Eugene M. Landrum, his EUSAK chief of staff.

Landrum had commanded the American forces that recaptured the Aleutian island of Attu from the Japanese in World War II and, as a major general, later led the 90th Infantry Division during the brutal hedgerow fighting in Normandy in July 1944. While he'd been relieved of that command, and though he'd reverted to a colonel after the war, Walker always referred to him as "General" Landrum. Calm, unflappable, professional and a consummate team player, Landrum was an entirely different breed of officer from Almond, and Walker trusted him completely. Since a U.S. field army in 1950 was not authorized an assistant commanding general, Landrum was Walker's de facto deputy. His primary job was to keep track of all forces in Korea and conjure up the reserves to plug any holes. Whenever the "general" returned to headquarters, Walker's first question was, "Landrum, how many reserves have you dug up for me today?"

Between August 5 and 24, the NKPA attacked the Pusan Perimeter along four widely separated but converging axes. In the southwest, one NKPA division and one armored regiment advanced along the Chinju-Masan-Pusan axis, seeking to envelop the left of Walker's line. Walker reinforced the 25th ID with the newly arrived 5th RCT and the 1st Marine Bde. Designated Task Force Kean, the combined Army-Marine force on August 7 launched the first American counterattack of the war, hitting the NKPA 6th Div. at Chinju. The poorly coordinated counterattack stopped the North Koreans, but otherwise produced limited results. After five days of indecisive fighting, Walker prudently suspended the operation. He faced more serious threats farther north.

Simultaneously with the southern thrust, the North Koreans drove for the center of Walker's line, launching five infantry divisions echeloned in depth, supported by elements of the 105th Armd. Div. This double-pincer attack originated around Sangju and sought to envelop Taegu from both the north and south. Walker considered the southern thrust, through an area dubbed the "Naktong Bulge," the greater threat, as it endangered the vital Taegu-Pusan rail loop.

The North Korean thrusts were poorly coordinated, allowing Walker to shift his reserves between the two. He brought the 1st Marine Bde. and elements of the 27th Inf. Regt. north and attached them to the 24th ID. Counterattacking the NKPA 4th Div. on August 17, the 24th ID cleared the bulge by the following night. On August 24, Walker put the newly arrived 2nd ID into the center of the line and pulled the 24th ID back into reserve.

While the North Koreans were attacking in the center and south, two NKPA divisions north of Taegu forced their way across the Naktong and collapsed the northwest corner of the perimeter. Withdrawing south under intense pressure, the ROKA 1st and 6th divisions fell back into the 1st Cav. Div., forcing Walker to evacuate his EUSAK headquarters from Taegu to Pusan. Walker shifted the 27th Inf. Regt. north again, and with the ROKA 1st Div. they counterattacked. By August 18 the Americans and South Koreans had established defensive positions overlooking a long, flat, narrow valley that became known as the "Bowling Alley." The following day, Walker committed elements of the 23rd Inf. Regt. to reinforce the 27th. The battle dragged on for six more days and nights, as the NKPA 13th Div. tried unsuccessfully to push the Americans back.

As the series of battles was raging along the Naktong, the NKPA on August 9 attempted to infiltrate and envelop the northern perimeter with three divisions. The North Korean objective was to drive down the east coast, from Yongdok, through P'ohang-dong to Pusan. The northern flank was under the tactical control of the ROKA I Corps, but Walker committed a small task force of U.S. artillery and armor, and the South Koreans received massive FEC air and naval support. Naval gunfire compensated for the ROKA 3rd Div.'s artillery shortfall, forcing the NKPA to operate far inland. Regardless, the NKPA managed to push the South Koreans down the coast to Toksong-ni. The U.S. Navy evacuated the ROKA troops on the night of August 16–17, putting them back ashore the following day to establish defensive positions near P'ohang-dong, some 25 miles farther south. The 3rd Div. remained in the fight, but the Pusan Perimeter had collapsed southward to little more than half its original size.

The North Korean push in early August had amounted to a massive frontal attack, but a piecemeal one. On August 27, the NKPA launched another series of attacks against the same objectives, but this time the attacks were well coordinated. Despite heavy initial losses, they were still able to field some 98,000 troops. By September 3, Walker was beating back simultaneous attacks in five locations. Three days later, the North Koreans cut the key road running west to Taegu, forcing the ROKA 3rd Div. out of P'ohang-dong. In the center, the North Koreans almost pushed the 1st Cav. Div. out of Taegu by September 10 and drove the 2nd ID back into the Naktong Bulge, almost to Yongsan. In the far south, the NKPA broke through the 25th ID and advanced toward Masan.

Walker focused squarely on the security of Pusan as he continually shifted his reserves among danger points within the shrinking perimeter. He attached the 1st Marine Bde. to the 2nd ID and used the combined force to clear the Naktong Bulge for the second time. Simultaneously, he deployed the 24th ID's 21st Inf. Regt. to a central position, from which it could move quickly to reinforce the 25th ID, the 2nd ID or even the ROKA units up north. By September 7, Walker had committed the entire 24th ID to support the ROKA divisions.

Walker's defenses held on grimly, and the North Korean offensive peaked by September 12. The NKPA still had some 70,000 effectives in the field, but they had stalled all around the Pusan Perimeter. The North Koreans were off balance and dangerously overextended, their lines of communication under relentless attack by U.S. naval and air forces. Within the perimeter, the Eighth Army now fielded 84,500 troops and the ROKA some 72,000. Thanks to the massive logistics infusion through Pusan, the Americans now had more than 500 medium tanks in Korea, giving them a greater than 5-to-1 advantage in armor.

Walker, of course, knew of Mac-Arthur's plan to conduct a large-scale turning movement by landing an Army division and a Marine division deep in the enemy's rear at Inchon. While Walker was conducting his frantic holding actions along the perimeter, his EUSAK staff was working equally hard on the plans to break out, drive north and link up with the Inchon landing force, which was designated X Corps. By the end of August, Eighth Army had finally received subordinate corps headquarters—I Corps and IX Corps. The necessary support organizations were still en route, but that alone did much to ease Walker's command burden.

X Corps landed at Inchon on September 15, and the Eighth Army launched its breakout the following day. While other units of EUSAK held the perimeter and pinned the North Koreans in place, I Corps broke out just north of Taegu. The plan called for the 5th RCT and the 1st Cav. Div. to seize a bridgehead over the Naktong near Waegwan. The 24th ID would cross the river, followed by the ROKA 1st Div. and the British 27th Inf. Bde., and the combined force would then drive up the Kimch'on-Taejon-Suwon axis to link up with X Corps.

Walker's forces had a tough go of it at first. After nearly two months of brutal combat, they were exhausted, ammunition was short and they lacked the necessary river-crossing gear. The North Korean resistance finally broke on September 22 and started withdrawing the next day. Task Force Lynch—centered on the 3rd Battalion, 7th Cav. Regt., 1st Cav. Div.—finally linked up with the 31st Inf. Regt. of X Corps' 7th ID just north of Osan early on September 27.

The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter was over. Fourteen NKPA divisions had been all but annihilated. Only 20,000 to 30,000 of the NKPA troops that besieged Pusan returned to North Korea. But the defenders also paid a high price. Between July 5 and September 16, Eighth Army casualties totaled 4,280 killed in action, 12,377 wounded, 2,107 missing and 401 confirmed captured.

The Korean War was far from over, of course. After the linkup, the Allies crossed into North Korea and pushed toward the Yalu. In late October, the Chinese intervened, crossing the river and pushing the Eighth Army back below the 38th parallel. The war then settled down into a bloody stalemate that dragged on until the July 1953 armistice.

Despite Walker's brilliant defense at Pusan, many of his subsequent actions in Korea have come under heavy criticism. According to some military analysts, after the breakout Walker put too much emphasis on driving north to achieve a quick linkup and too little on destroying the NKPA forces deep inside South Korea. As the Allies moved into North Korea, coordination among his two corps and X Corps was poor. And, like all other Allied commanders, Walker was caught flatfooted by the Chinese intervention.

But one of the strongest arguments in Walker's defense is that while fighting the enemy, he still had to negotiate the bizarre command-and-control system. By any measure of sound military management, X Corps should have come under Eighth Army's control as soon as the forces linked up. That didn't happen. X Corps continued to report directly to FEC. Worse yet, MacArthur had put Almond in command of X Corps and retained him as FEC chief of staff. Thus, Almond had direct access to MacArthur, but Walker had to go through the X Corps commander (in his FEC chief hat) to reach MacArthur. There was no precedent for such an arrangement in all of military history, and it was a fiasco.

Despite this absurd command architecture, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were mulling Walker's relief when he was killed in a traffic accident on Dec. 23, 1950. In his hands-on style, the Eighth Army commander had been racing his jeep over icy roads to inspect forward battlefield positions. Captain Sam S. Walker (who retired from the Army as a full general in 1978) escorted his father's body back to the United States.

Whatever else MacArthur may have accomplished in Korea, he managed to secure a third star for his controversial chief of staff/X Corps commander. (Almond retired as a lieutenant general in 1953 after serving as commandant of the Army War College.) But justice sometimes prevails. When Eugene Landrum retired from the Army in February 1951, he was allowed to do so in his former rank of major general.

At Pusan, Walker had proved that a mobile defense was doable and demonstrated how to do it. As a result, the Army finally included the concept in the 1954 edition of FM 100-5, its primary operations field manual. Despite being under a cloud at the time of his death, Walker was promoted posthumously to four-star rank in January 1951. He may not have been a perfect general officer, but he was certainly one of America's greatest field commanders.

For additional reading, David Zabecki recommends: The Forgotten War, by Clay Blair, and South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, by Roy E. Appleman.


13 Responses to “Stand or Die - 1950 Defense of Korea's Pusan Perimeter”


  1. 1
    Dennis R Hopper says:

    No comment

  2. 2
    Jim Fitzpatrick says:

    I was station in Taegu (Daegu) from 1972 to 1974. At that time, I had the opportunity of seeing some of the defensive tunnels that had been constructed for the battle. In 2007, I returned for a visit. At Ap San Park, on the south side of Taegu, there is now a museum dedicated to the battle, and the Korean War in general. Many weapons (including a Sherman tank and an F-86) are on display. If anyone ever visits Korea, this is a very interesting attraction to see – and the park itself is quite a beautiful spot.

  3. 3
    Tony Tramonte says:

    Very interesting article. I was not aware of how good a job Walker did at the Pusan Perimeter. I had no clue on the bizarre arrangement with Almond wearing two hats.

  4. 4
    marshall schultz says:

    What happened in Korea should not have come as a surprise to anyone. We did what we always do after we win; we let down our guard! The fact that the early stages of the Korean war did not devolve from a tragety to a disaster can only be attributed to our soldiers valor. The polititions failed as usual! Much like what is happening today

  5. 5
    paul says:

    Busan was critical for stopping the N Koreans. No doubt about that. The thing not many know about Busan in Korean War is that N Korea attempted to take over (or destroy) Busan at the very beginning of the Korean War. N Korea had sent down a disguised cargo ship with a few hundred commandos aboard. The disguised car ship was intercepted by a S Korean patrol craft (formerly a US Sub chaser) near Busan and sunk.

    A webpage on this important ship.
    http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/010823.htm

  6. 6
    Walter D. Ryan says:

    Was there a troop ship named the Waton Walker during the Korean conflict?

  7. 7
    jd says:

    I just finished reading "The Coldest Winter" about the Korean War, actually I listened to is in my car, and I would recommend it to anyone who's interested in this conflict. It was very well written while giving a deep background on the political situation and players, good overview of the strategies and excellent front line accounts of the action. A perfect blend of what makes good military history and is often lacking in articles and books on various conflicts I remember that Walker was given a great deal of attention in the book, particularly of his Pusan defense, but later mentioned MacArthur's command issues which marred Walker's record when the Chinese attacked. I'd recommend the book to anyone interested in military history as it is good reading or listening, even to those without a specific interest in the Korean War.

  8. 8
    EricF says:

    I arrived in Pusan at the end of 1951 as part of the Eight Army and was stationed there until 1953. This was shortly after the North Koreans were driven back from the Pusan Perimeter. What I found when we first arrived was a country that evolution had completely bypassed and for us it was definitely a step back in history. There was a stench that we first detected while our troopship was still miles from shore. I couldn't believe how humans could live in a major city like Pusan without any of the basic infrastructure such as sewage handling or a central water supply. Sewage was dumped along the curb of the streets or next to a well that supplied the water. Rats as large as a small dog, had a field day. With this background I find it very amazing that this country and its people have within my lifetime managed to become such a major player in the world economy and because of a warped leadership the North Korean people to a great extent are still living like their southern neighbors did when I was there. I salute the South Korean People!

  9. 9
    Dr Chris Miller says:

    This is really an amazing story.I was glad to hear it. I tutor Korean students and one of them today was telling me the story of Busan in the Korea War. He said that the people from the rest of Korea converged on Busan and dug in to the hillsides and mountains. In fact, the roads were built over people's homes. If Walker was not planning on going anywhere, still less were the Korean people planning to retreat.

    Also, it is pronounced correctly Busan. Leave it to Americans to screw that up. Busan is the second biggest city in Korea, one of the most famous places to visit. It has the largest department store in the world, but unless you are flying in, plan to be stuck in traffic. There are only a few roads through the mountains, and on weekends and holidays the famous Korean traffic jams extend travel time. However, the scenery is beautiful. And you won't be driving over people's homes any more.

  10. 10
    TXMarko says:

    I had no idea who Walton Walker was until I read this article.

    There is a major freeway in downtown Dallas that bears his name, and it is mentioned by Traffic folks on all the networks daily.

    I assumed Walton Walker was some local political stooge; I humbly stand corrected.

    General Walker has my utmost respect for his service in multiple fields of Battle.

  11. 11
    Guaman says:

    I was at a meeting where the President of the Korean Society of Professional Engineers spoke. It was on or about the anniversary of either the end or the beginning of the Korean war. The events and dates are not so important as the sentiment expressed. The man thanked the United States for the sacrifices made to retain the freedom and independence of South Korea, explicitely including the many Americans who died or were wounded.

    He then went on to relate what that country has done with what was given them and it is truly inspiring.

    If one wants to see the difference between centrally controlled low freedom political system (communism) and what people do when unleashed, there is no better example than the two Koreas. See the night photos taken from space.

    All the rhetoric in the world will not overcome facts.

  12. 12

    [...] Battle of the Pusan Perimeter: Stand or Die ? 1950 Defense of Korea's Pusan Perimeter While far too often unjustly overshadowed by Inchon for no better reason than Dugout Doug [...]

  13. 13

    [...] defensive forces, soon became the target of the NKPA. Provoking his troops, Walker issued his “Stand or Die” order, and somehow managed to defend the Pusan Perimeter in a brilliant tactical effort. [...]



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