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Marine Artillery in Korea

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Marine Artillery in Korea

Author - Kenneth W. Condit
Reprinted from the November 1952 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette
Reprinted with permission to the Korean War Educator

The Korean War has proved again the truth of Napoleon's remark that "it is by fire...that battles are won...It is with artillery that war is made."  Confronted by an enemy who relies upon "human sea" assaults, the UN forces have had to depend on superior firepower to overcome the enemy's superiority in numbers.  Artillerymen of the 11th Marines have done their share to stop the mass attacks of the Communists.  And the fire of their howitzers has proved invaluable in blasting enemy caves and bunkers.  Operating under a great variety of conditions, the Marine artillerymen carried out an extremely difficult amphibious operation at Inchon; they operated in the mountains of northeast Korea in the dead of winter; and they participated in large-scale land warfare as part of Eighth Army.

For the 11th Marines the Korean War began on 2 July 1950, the date the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was alerted for Korea.  The artillery battalion was in training at Camp Pendleton, and though it was organized into three four-gun batteries under peace-time tables of organization, it was at a high peak of combat readiness. On 13 July the battalion sailed with the brigade for the Far East.  Arriving in Korea on 2 August, it was soon engaged in the desperate fighting to hold the perimeter around the port of Pusan.

While this fighting was still in progress, Gen. MacArthur was preparing his counteroffensive.  As early as 4 July, the UN commander had begun to prepare an amphibious operation to seize Inchon and Seoul and on 22 July the 1stMarDiv learned it was to spearhead the Inchon landing.  D-day was set for 15 September, only fifty-four days away.

On the 25th, the 11th Marines was far from ready for combat.  In addition to Headquarters and Service Batteries at peace-time strength, there was only one firing battalion, the 1st, on duty with the brigade in Korea.  The regimental commander got a good start on the build-up to war strength when elements of the 10th Marines were redesignated as units of his command.  Two 105mm howitzer battalions, 1/10 and 2/10, became 2/11 and 3/11; while 3/10, a 155mm howitzer outfit, became 4/11.  These units arrived at Camp Pendleton on 5 August.

The next ten days were filled with feverish activity.  Equipment was drawn and loaded aboard ship, and personnel from reserve units joined the regiment to bring it up to full war strength.  Very little training was accomplished because all hands were busy mounting out.  The 2d and 4th Bns, which were scheduled to leave for the Far East on 15 August, did not fire a single round; while the 3d Bn, which left two weeks later, did only a limited amount of firing.  None of the units received its equipment in time to calibrate guns and radios.  In some instances, the gear was not issued to the batteries until after they reached Japan.

Lack of training was a serious problem, particularly in the 3d and 4th Battalions where the urgency of build-up demanded the assignment of many officers and men who were not qualified artillerymen.  But all hands were eager and quick to learn, and key officers and NCOs quickly whipped their outfits into shape once they got in combat.  This was done so successfully that not a single round fell short on friendly troops.

The 11th Marines, less the 3d Battalion, departed on schedule and landed at Kobe, Japan, on 29 August.  A few days later the regimental commander and his staff were briefed on the division plan.  The landing was to be carried out in two stages.  At dawn 3/5 was to land on Wolmi island just offshore from the port.  Then on the afternoon tide the main force would land on the mainland.  At this time the artillery was to go ashore on Wolmi to support the advance inland.  To provide additional general support, the Army 96th FA Bn, a 155mm howitzer outfit, was to be attached.

On the basis of this information, the artillery plan was drawn up.  Only five days remained to complete the work before the troops embarked for Inchon.  To add to the difficulties, suitable maps of the landing area were almost impossible to obtain, the regimental and division staffs were too widely separated for proper liaison, and the Navy tractor area plan did not arrive until the day of departure.  Although some aerial photographs of Wolmi were available, it was impossible to tell whether there were sufficient position areas for three battalions of artillery on the island.

On 9 September the 11th Marines departed for Inchon in nine LSTs and the AKA USS Washburn.  Six LSTs and the AKA lifted the main body of the regiment from Japan, while the three remaining LSTs carried the 1st Bn from Pusan.  Arriving off Inchon on 15 September, the ships moved to the designated tractor area and prepared to launch DUKWs loaded with troops and equipment.  Meanwhile, a reconnaissance party landed on Wolmi with assault troops of 3/5.

Preparations to land the regiment in DUKWs were interrupted by an order from the LST flotilla commander to beach the ships.  Before this could be done, new instructions were received reverting to the original plan, but by this time the LSTs were out of position, so an orderly ship-to-shore movement was impossible.  Forming in ragged columns, the DUKWs made their way to shore as best they could.

By 1845 the firing batteries of the 1st and 2d Bns began crossing the beach, and by 2145 they were in position ready to fire.  Lack of space prevented the 4th Bn from landing until the next day when it went ashore on the mainland.  Heavy smoke over the city and lack of targets limited fires to a few rounds during the first night.

Very little opposition was offered by the enemy to the landing, and infantry troops moved rapidly inland.  By the 21st they had advanced about fifteen miles and were on the outskirts of Seoul.  To support the advance, 1/11 fired in direct support of the 5th Marines, and 2/11 in direct support of the 1st Marines.  General support for the 5th Marines was provided by 4/11, while the 96th FA Bn performed the same mission for the 1st Marines.  Artillery units had to displace frequently to keep within range to deliver supporting fires.  During these five days, 1/11 displayed six times, 2/11 five times, and 4/11 three times.  The battalions moved forward a battery at a time so that there would be no interruption of fire support.

The frequent displacements were not the only problem confronting the 11th Marines.  The infantry scheme of maneuver created a wide dispersal of units by calling for a two-pronged advance on Seoul.  The 5th Marines, advancing north and then swinging around to approach the city from the northwest, was separated from the 1st Marines, pushing directly towards the city on the Inchon-Seoul highway, by as much as eight miles.  To assure proper control during this movement, 1/11 was attached to the 5th Marines.

Complicating the control problem, communications difficulties plagued the artillery regiment throughout the operation.  Untrained communicators and worn out or improperly tuned equipment were largely responsible.  For the first five days, control of operations was actually in the hands of the battalion commanders.  But by the 19th, communications problems had been licked sufficiently so that regiment could exercise effective control.  At this time 1/11 was detached from the 5th Marines.

During the advance on Seoul, the enemy had offered relatively little opposition.  But all this changed when the Marines attacked the capital city and its industrial suburb, Yongdong-po.  The North Koreans put up a fanatic resistance to the 5th Marines on the hills to the northwest and in the city itself, where houses had been turned into fortresses and innumerable blockades had been thrown across the streets.  The 5th Marines received excellent support from 1/11 and 4/11 in their attack on the hills west of the city.  But when the infantry entered the city streets, artillery was of limited value.  There were relatively few good artillery targets.  To destroy a house merely made it a better defensive position because the enemy could hide in the rubble; and tanks, with their pin-point fire, were more effective for destroying roadblocks.

Artillery came into its own in delivering defensive fires and on two occasions played a major role in breaking up North Korean counterattacks.  The first attack struck 2/1 on the night of 20 September and was immediately taken under fire by 2/11.  The accuracy of the maps of Seoul and the information on the location of the enemy made it possible for 4/11 to fire unobserved missions with excellent effect.

This performance was repeated on the 26th when 3/1 was counterattacked.  Again 2/11 poured fire into the attacking North Koreans.  This time both medium battalions, 4/11 and the 96th FA, delivered highly accurate unobserved fire.

On the same day, elements of Eighth Army, which had broken out of the Pusan perimeter, linked up with X Corps troops at Suwon.  Seoul fell on the 27th, and by 7 October Eighth Army took over from X Corps.  But there was to be no respite for the Marines of the 1stMarDiv.  Plans were already being made for further operations.

To pursue the advantage over a disorganized enemy, Gen MacArthur ordered Eighth Army to attack directly north towards Pyongyang, the enemy capital, while X Corps made an amphibious landing at Wonsan on the east coast.  Before this assault landing could be carried out, rapidly advancing ROK troops occupied the city.  On 26 October the 1st Marine Division landed unopposed at Wonsan and prepared to push on to the Manchurian border.

The large area assigned to the division, with the resulting dispersal of forces, compelled the division commander to attach artillery battalions to infantry RCTs.  The 1st Bn was attached to Regimental Combat Team-5, the 2d to RCT-1, and the 3d to RCT-7.  As a result, it was never possible for regiment to exercise effective centralized control of the artillery fired in support of the division.

The Marines had hardly landed at Wonsan when the intervention of the Chinese Communists produced a brand new war.  Only seven days after landing, 3/11 with RCT-7 went into action against the new enemy.  Ordered forward to relieve a ROK regiment on the road to the Chosin reservoir, the RCT was attacked by a Chinese division in the Sudong gorge.  For four days the RCT was heavily engaged.  Throughout the engagement 3/11 delivered excellent offensive and defensive supporting fires.  The most spectacular mission came on the night of 6 November when the Chinese reserve regiment was caught moving into frontline positions and mauled so badly it had to withdraw.

Problems encountered in this engagement were typical of those confronting artillerymen throughout the operation.  In the mountainous terrain good position areas were far and few between, and even though artillery was granted priority, it was often hard to find enough level ground to emplace a battery, much less a battalion.

Artillery operations were restricted even more by the necessity to operate within the infantry perimeter.  Operating with regimental-size or smaller combat teams in enemy-infested territory, this was the only way to provide security for the artillery units.  But from within the perimeter of an infantry regiment, many targets were at very short ranges.  To provide 360-degree coverage, it was necessary to lay the batteries on different azimuths.  In some cases, the howitzers could not be brought to bear without shifting trails.  Under these conditions, it was very difficult to mass fires.  Short ranges and high hills combined to require a great deal of high angle fire.  Gen Almond, the X Corps commander, who visited 3/11 in position for high angle fire at Sudong, thought the battalion looked like an AAA outfit.

Following the defeat of the Chinese division at Sudong, the Marines pushed on towards the Chosin reservoir.  Enemy opposition was negligible, although there were many signs of the presence of hostile forces.  By the middle of the month, the Marines were confronted by a new enemy, the cold.  Temperatures went down below the zero mark, presenting artillerymen with a whole new set of problems.  Truck and bulldozer engines had to be turned over every half hour during the night to prevent them from freezing.  The ground was frozen so hard that it was impossible to dig in the trails of the howitzers, and it took several minutes for the howitzer tubes to return to battery after firing.

In spite of the cold, the advance continued, and by 27 November RCTs-5 and 7 had reached Yudam-ni on the western side of the reservoir.  With the exception of H Battery still in Hagaru, the attached artillery elements were emplaced at Yudam-ni to support their RCTs.  Under new orders from Gen MacArthur calling for participation in an envelopment movement with Eighth Army, both RCT-5 and RCT-7 were ready to attack west.  To give general support to the attack, 4/11 was moved up to Yudam-ni.

RCT-1, relieved by Army units of security missions to the south, was now deployed at selected strong-points along the MSR to the coast.  Its artillery elements were distributed over a wide area.  D Battery was at Hagaru in support of the 3d Bn; E Battery supported the 2d Bn at Koto-ri; and F Battery was helping the 1st Bn to hold Chinhung-ni.

But the great "end of the war" offensive never got rolling.  On the 25th the Chinese struck Eighth Army, and two days later they attacked X Corps.  The 1stMarDiv bore the brunt of the attack, and by the morning of 28 November all the Marine perimeters were isolated.  The two most advanced, Yudam-ni and Hagaru, were under heavy attack by eight enemy divisions.

Typical of these fights was the defense of Yudam-ni.  Here the three artillery battalions--1/11, 3/11, and 4/11--were in position to support the attack to the west when the enemy stuck.  It was obvious that the howitzers should be redeployed to provide the best coverage all around the perimeter.  But before this could be done, it was necessary to establish some form of centralized control.  Regimental headquarters was to have moved forward to Yudam-ni but was caught at Hagaru by the Chinese attack.  To remedy the deficiency, an artillery group was formed under the command of the senior battalion commander, LtCol Harvey Feehan of 1/11.  Under his direction, the batteries were spotted around on different azimuths to cover all avenues of approach.

Artillery made every effort to meet all requests for fire missions but was handicapped by ammunition shortages.  With the MSR cut, airdrop was the only means of resupply.  But only about 1200 rounds of 105mm ammunition were dropped and of these only about 600 were usable.  No effort was made to drop 155mm ammunition, as an equivalent weight of 105mm was more valuable in minimum range missions against enemy attacking infantry frontlines.  To conserve the limited amount of the heavier caliber ammunition, 4/11 limited its fires to counterbattery and heavy troop concentrations.  This restriction was justified by the enemy's limited use of artillery.

Further to handicap the artillery units in their delivery of fires, they were required to provide infantry replacements.  On the 28th, artillery units furnished seven officers and 314 men.  The next day they were called upon to supply an additional four officers and 164 men.  As a result, it was not always possible to man all the howitzers.  In 4/11, for instance, one platoon (two howitzers) in each battery had to be put out of action, but all the weapons were laid, and the crews shifted from one piece to another depending upon the direction of the targets.

After two days of heavy fighting, the Marines at Yudam-ni were ordered to withdraw to Hagaru.  This was to be the first step in a general withdrawal of the whole division to the coast.  As a preliminary step, the two RCTs redeployed into a valley running south of the town and astride the road to Hagaru.  Artillery and service units were displaced first, followed by the infantry.  Then, on 1 December the withdrawal began.

Artillery tactics during the withdrawal called for a leapfrogging of units.  As the main column moved out, it was covered by a unit emplaced at the point of departure.  Near the head of the column were other units which would advance about 5,000 to 6,000 yards and emplace to fire both forward and back.  At this point, the units at the point of departure would displace forward to repeat the process.

Typical of these withdrawals was the movement from Hagaru to Koto-ri.  RCT-7 led off, while RCT-5 held the Hagaru perimeter until the vehicle trains had moved out.  Near the head of the RCT-7 column were G and I Batteries of 3/11, and L Battery of 4/11.  These units pulled out of Hagaru at 1300 on 6 December, and by 1800 G Battery had emplaced about halfway to Koto-ri in a position to fire back towards Hagaru.  L Battery remained in the column, as it was to go all the way to Koto-ri before emplacing to cover the movement.  With G Battery emplaced, H Battery, which had remained in position at Hagaru, displaced and joined the column.  RCT-5 followed the same procedure, with A and C Batteries moving out with the head of the regimental column and B Battery remaining in position to support the rear guard.  By 0300 A and C Batteries were in position about three miles south of Hagaru.

During the night both 1/11 and 3/11 batteries were attacked by the enemy.  About 2300 the column was stopped by a roadblock 1500 yards south of the G Battery position.  H Battery pulled out of the column and moved forward, reaching the G Battery position by 0600.  As dawn approached the enemy began a heavy mortar barrage in preparation for an assault on the artillery position.  Both batteries went into position to bring direct fire to bear and opened up at ranges within 500 yards.  So effective was the fire that the assault never materialized, and after about two hours the enemy withdrew.  The 1st Bn had a similar experience when the Chinese, using automatic weapons and grenades, attacked A and C Batteries.  The Marines fought back with small arms and 105mm howitzers.  C Battery fired about 100 rounds of direct fire into the enemy, breaking up the attack.

With the coming of daylight, the artillery units rejoined the column and proceeded to Koto-ri without further incident. Using these same tactics, the 11th Marines continued to support the withdrawal of the 1st Marine Division from Koto-ri to the sea. By 15 December, the Marines had completed outloading and had sailed for South Korea. Following a period of reorganizing and training and a brief anti-guerrilla campaign, the 1st Marine Division was committed to the Eighth Army front.

The Marines were to participate in Operation Killer, a limited-objective offensive designed to keep the pressure on the enemy, inflicting maximum casualties and preventing him from mounting a counteroffensive. Jumping off on 21 February, the Marines moved methodically ahead and had achieved their objectives by 4 March. Operation Killer was so successful that it was continued at once under the name of Operation Ripper.

For artillerymen these operations were war “by the book.” The 11th Marines’ headquarters was able to control the artillery supporting the division, to mass fires, and to deliver TOT (time on target) missions. The 105mm battalions were assigned in direct support of the same regiments they had supported in previous operations. To supplement the general support fires of 4/11, the Army 92d Armored Field Artillery Bn was attached to the 11th Marines until 20 March.

Marine artillerymen were impressed by the good qualities of the self-propelled 155mm howitzers with which this Army battalion was equipped and the aggressive way the “Red Devils” of the 92d used their equipment. Not only could these weapons move over the ground more rapidly than a towed howitzer of the same caliber, but they could go into and out of action with great speed.  In the few instances when it was necessary to shift trails, the self-propelled weapon proved much easier to move.  For short periods, the 11th Marines also had batteries of 8-inch howitzers of the Army 17th FA Bn attached.  These heavy artillery pieces were powerful and extremely accurate and were used for precision fire against enemy bunkers and artillery positions.

As the Marines moved slowly forward, the enemy conducted delaying actions from successive hill positions. For artillery as well as for infantry, one attack was much like another. Typical of these actions was the attack of the 1st Marines on Hill 166 south of Hoengsong. During the night before the attack, howitzers of 2/11 kept up harassing and interdiction fires to keep the enemy awake and to soften him up. At 0800 an air strike came in and hit the target hill, while the infantry moved up to jump-off positions. When the planes retired, artillery and 4.2-inch mortars fired their concentrations. Infantry and tanks attacked under cover of the artillery and mortar fires. As each howitzer had been individually registered, it was possible to keep the fire on the objective until friendly troops were within 100 yards of the enemy positions. At this point, the artillery lifted to fire on the next ridge, and 81mm mortars began hitting the reverse slope of the objective. Under the cover of these supporting fires, the assault troops had no difficulty in seizing the hill.

This pattern was repeated time and again as the Marines moved methodically ahead. After a month of this sort of fighting, the artillery was confronted with an additional problem by the attachment of the Korean Marine Corps (KMC) regiment to the division. With four infantry regiments and only four battalions of artillery, the balance of arms was upset. The ordinary procedure of providing a 105mm battalion for direct support of each infantry regiment and a 155mm battalion for general support of the whole division could no longer be used. As an expedient the division shifted the direct support battalion along with forward observers and liaison officers from the reserve regiment to the KMC’s when they were in the line. But there was a very real danger of getting caught short if it were ever necessary to commit all four infantry regiments.

These fears were realized on 23 April when the Chinese launched a major offensive and broke through the ROK division on the Marines’ left. To refuse the exposed flank, the 1st Marines was ordered to occupy blocking positions with two battalions, while the other battalion reinforced the 7th Marines. It was necessary to assign 4/11 to a direct support mission, as no other artillery unit was available. Forward observers and liaison officers were provided partly by Headquarters, 11th Marines and partly by the over-run Army 987th FA Bn, whose survivors had been attached to the 11th Marines. Although 155mm howitzers are not ordinarily used in direct support, Marines of 4/11 fired these missions with excellent effect. On the night of 23 April they brought fires within fifty yards of friendly troops and helped to break up Chinese attacks. One enemy column of 500 men, advancing through a valley on which the howitzers were registered, suffered an estimated fifty percent casualties.

All along the front enemy attacks were met by Marine artillery fires. Reinforcing fires came from the Army 213th AFA Bn which was attached to the 11th Marines, and from the 92d AFA Bn now a part of corps artillery. There were so many targets that it was impossible to take them all under fire. But the fires which were delivered were extremely effective. According to the testimony of one Chinese prisoner, artillery fire frequently broke up troop concentrations, making it very difficult for the enemy to mass for an attack. During the period of heavy enemy attacks, 22 to 24 April, the 11th Marines had fired 527 missions, consisting of 12,844 105mm rounds. Enemy casualties inflicted by artillery fire were estimated at 5,000.

Although by 24 April the Marines had beaten off the enemy attacks, still the gap on the left created by the break-through remained. In danger of being outflanked, the Marines were ordered by Eighth Army to withdraw. During the next eight days, the division pulled back to successive defensive positions for a distance of about thirty miles before the Eighth Army was able to stabilize the front. This withdrawal requires four successive artillery displacements, carried out by echelon so that the infantry was never without artillery support. By 30 April the 1st Marine Division was deployed along a new defensive line, and the Chinese attacks had been stopped all along the line.

Following the collapse of the Chinese April offensive, Eighth Army ordered defensive positions to be prepared in depth with mine fields, wire entanglements, and prepared fields of fire. On 16 May the Chinese returned to the attack, striking this time at the U.S. 2d Infantry Division and at ROK units on the east. Again the enemy achieved a breakthrough, but timely shifting of reserves slowed down the attack. As the main enemy thrust struck the UN forces to the east of the Marine positions, the 11th Marines was free to support the hard-pressed 2d Infantry Division. Heavy concentrations were fired in harassing and interdiction missions, but, as very few specific targets had been assigned, the effect was merely to saturate an area with undetermined results.

By the 20th, the enemy attacks had lost their momentum. An immediate counteroffensive was ordered, and by 15 June, UN forces had advanced some thirty miles. At this point they ran up against the enemy main line of resistance. Both sides dug in, and the war settled down to a stalemate, with neither side willing to attempt a major attack. Shortly after, truce negotiations were started.

As the truce delegates were holding their first meetings to discuss a cease-fire agreement, the enemy opened up with his heaviest artillery fires of the war. From that point on, counterbattery fire became a vital mission for Marine artillerymen. Beginning on a modest scale in July, the enemy gradually increased his fires both in volume and accuracy. At first he followed the Japanese practice of firing single weapons from cave positions, but by the end of the month he was massing battery fires. The 76mm guns with which the enemy began his effort were soon supplemented by 122mm howitzers, captured American 105s, and even by a few 152mm weapons. Infantry positions were the first enemy targets, but he soon began firing on artillery emplacements as well. On 1 November, 2/11 was shelled by 76mm guns and 122mm howitzers. About 120 rounds fell in the battalion area, killing one man, wounding four others, and causing serious damage to the galley, the water trailer, one gun, and most of the battalion motor transport.

In response to the increasing enemy artillery fire, the 11th Marines put into operation a counterbattery plan for the first time since the commitment of the 1st Marine Division to Eighth Army in February. Counterbattery and other fires against enemy artillery were primarily the responsibility of 4/11. In June this battalion had devoted a mere two percent of its effort to this type of mission. But the next month the figure jumped to fifteen percent. During the succeeding months, this percentage gradually increased until it reached twenty-two percent in April 1952.

More than two years have elapsed since the 11th Marines first arrived in Korea. During that time the Marine artillerymen have demonstrated their versatility by performing all types of missions. They have made an amphibious landing, engaged in mountain warfare, and participated in large-scale land operations. The end of the war is still not in sight. In fact, the enemy continues to build up his forces. But whatever happens, the 11th Marines stand ready to meet the challenge.


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