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FreightWaves Classics: The importance of logistics in the Korean War

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, 71 years ago today. It is often termed “the Forgotten War” in the United States. Coverage of the conflict was censored and decades later it is largely overshadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War. 

However, the three-year war, which pitted communist and capitalist forces against each other, set the stage for seven decades of ongoing tension among North Korea, South Korea and the United States.

This FreightWaves Classics article will provide a brief overview of logistics during the first months of the war. More complete information is available from many sources.

The start

On the night of June 25, 1950, 10 divisions of North Korea’s Korean People’s Army (NKPA) launched a full-scale invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea). The NKPA’s 89,000 men moved south in six columns, catching the ROK Army by surprise. The result was a complete rout of the South Koreans, who were unprepared for war. 

Numerically superior, NKPA forces eliminated isolated pockets of resistance from what was left of the 38,000 South Korean soldiers before it began moving steadily south. Most of the ROK forces retreated, and by June 28, the North Koreans had captured Seoul, South Korea’s capital (only 25 miles south of the border separating the two countries). The South Korean government and the remnants of its shattered army retreated further south.

North Korean troops and tanks invade South Korea in the early days of the Korean War. (Photo: East Asian Research Center)
North Korean troops and tanks invade South Korea in the early days of the Korean War. (Photo: East Asian Research Center)

The Security Council of the United Nations voted to send military forces to prevent the complete collapse of South Korea. The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet dispatched a task force led by the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge; the British Far East Fleet also dispatched several ships. The U.S. and British ships provided air and naval support, blockaded North Korea and launched aircraft to delay NKPA forces. However, while these efforts slowed the North Korean army, it did not stop the advance southward. 

President Truman ordered ground troops to South Korea to supplement the naval and air support. Although the 24th Infantry Division of the US Eighth Army was stationed in Japan, cuts in military spending after World War II limited the overall strength of the U.S. military in the Far East. The 24th was understrength and equipped with outmoded equipment. Despite these limitations, the division was ordered to Korea.

The 24th Infantry Division’s mission as the first U.S. in Korea was to meet the initial North Korean advances alongside the South Korean army, hoping to delay much larger North Korean units from joining the fight. The mission was essentially to “buy time” for UN reinforcements to arrive. 

UN troops disembark in Pusan. (Photo: U.S. Army)
UN troops disembark in Pusan. (Photo: U.S. Army)

While the 7th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division and other Eighth Army supporting units moved into position, the 24th was alone for several weeks. The first battle between elements of the 24th and North Korean troops took place on July 5; American troops were defeated badly at Osan. This was repeated over the following month as the 24th was defeated and forced southward by the stronger and more heavily equipped North Koreans.

The 24th made a final stand at Taejon, which was almost 87 miles south of Seoul. What was left of the infantry division was almost completely destroyed. However, they bought the UN forces time, delaying a further North Korean advance until July 20. By that date what was known as the Pusan Perimeter had been established. With UN units arriving daily, the Eighth Army assembled a force of combat troops that was roughly equal in size to the NKPA forces in South Korea.

Over the next two weeks, North Korean forces repeatedly beat South Korean, U.S. and other UN forces in a series of battles. Although they were steadily pushed back, the South Korean forces increased their resistance further south in an effort to delay NKPA units as much as possible. U.S. forces were also pushed backward until they defeated North Korean forces at the Battle of the Notch on August 2, 1950. A short lull took place prior to the NKPA attack on the Pusan Perimeter.

A C-119 "Flying Boxcar" brings supplies to U.S. troops in South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A C-119 “Flying Boxcar” brings supplies to U.S. troops in South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Logistics/support services were critical

The success of U.S. and UN operations in Korea were due in large part to the logistics and support activities. Historians have noted that “Without extensive and efficient trans-oceanic shipping, the tens of thousands of service people and the hundreds of thousands of tons of ‘beans, bullets and black oil’ needed every month to prosecute the war would never have reached a war zone that was some 5,000 miles from the U.S. West Coast and about twice that far from eastern seaboard ports.”

In addition, warships off the coast of Korea needed underway replenishment. Without it the effectiveness of naval forces would have been significantly less. In addition, without well-equipped and effectively staffed bases in Japan (about 600 miles from South Korea), sea and air operations against the Communist troops would have been incredibly difficult. Moreover, without that support it has been noted that during the crisis periods of the summer of 1950 and the winter of 1950-51, the efforts would probably have been impossible. 

Without the South Korean ports and other facilities, the insertion and ongoing resupply of large numbers of ground forces needed could not have been accomplished; moreover, local naval operations would have been very difficult.

The legacy of World War II

Like a number of other aspects, the logistics and support efforts of the Korean War that were used depended significantly on the legacy of World War II. Transport ships, long-range aircraft and a great deal of the other equipment used in Korea had been built for World War II and had been kept because it might be needed again. Those who restarted the logistics and support system used in Korea, and kept it running thereafter, had first-hand experience from the fight against Japan and Germany.

Unloading fuel, the lifeblood of armored warfare, in Pusan. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Unloading fuel, the lifeblood of armored warfare, in Pusan. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The scope of the logistics effort

The logistics and support capabilities and facilities in Korea were very unstable during the first 10 months of the conflict. In the summer of 1950, the NKPA moved through South Korea toward Pusan and the last remaining port and airfield in the country. 

As the war progressed, UN troops pushed the NKPA back deep into North Korea. Then Chinese troops came to the aid of the North Koreans and pushed back into South Korea. At that point the front stabilized in the late winter and spring of 1951. 

So the Korean conflict wore on, month after month through 1950, 1951, 1952 and into 1953. In the early months, the need to meet the supply, training and repair demands of a dynamic combat situation meant using all necessary means. Later, the effort became more routine; however, the needs were never routine. 

In some months, the volumes of personnel, cargo and fuel sent to Korea met or exceeded those of some months of the Pacific Theater of 1941-45. This was a result of the constant nature of Korean War naval operations (World War II operations were more sporadic), as well as the greatly increased fuel and ordnance demands of modern aircraft.

From July into September 1950 as well as in January and February 1951, only Pusan was left as a major seaport for the resupply needs of the UN forces. From March 1951 until the United Nations Command reached an armistice with China and North Korea on July 27, 1953, Inchon and other ports were taken back by UN troops. By recapturing those ports, personnel, weapons, ammunition and supplies reached the UN forces in sufficient quantities to ensure that there were never any significant shortages.

As the NKPA was pushed back into its own country, South Korea provided space for logistics and supply depots, training areas, hospitals, air bases and command centers; all vital to a modern war machine. 

An aerial view of the Port of Pusan in 1950. 
(Photo: U.S. Army)
An aerial view of the Port of Pusan in 1950.
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Major events in fall 1950

UN forces staged the Inchon invasion in mid-September 1950. By the end of November, the UN had access to logistics ports along both coasts of North Korea, providing staging areas for supply support for its ground forces. Concurrently, airfields had been built throughout South Korea (and some in North Korea as well), making possible greatly enhanced air supply and combat operations. 

The UN forces had essentially beaten the NKPA by November 1950. However, China entered the war at that time, and the major Chinese offensive that began in late November captured many of the new facilities, including all those in North Korea and many in the northern half of South Korea. 

Due to the Chinese onslaught, supply depots were either evacuated, captured or had to be destroyed; hundreds of tons of valuable materiel were lost. Once again, the port of Pusan was  the primary resupply center. Many of the air bases built by the U.S. were captured; land-based combat aircraft were withdrawn to bases in Japan. As had been the case during the first months of the war, this meant long flights to the combat zone (which significantly reduced bomb loads and time in the target areas). However, the situation never reached the desperate levels of July and August.

The logistics of war

Less than a week after the invasion by North Korea, the US Far East Command directed the Eighth United States Army on July 1, 1950, to assume responsibility for all logistical support of the United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea. This included the armed forces of the ROK, U.S. Army and British Army forces operating in Korea, as well as support for the ships of Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand that were also contributing to the effort. 

When the Eighth Army became operational in Korea, this logistical function was assumed by rear elements that remained in Yokohama, Japan. The Eighth Army’s dual role – combat in Korea and logistical support for all troops fighting there – lasted until August 25. Then the Far East Command activated the Japan Logistical Command, which assumed the logistical duties previously held by the Eighth Army.

Supplies needed to support the American and South Korean armies came through the United States and Japan. Whatever could be used from stocks in Japan or procured from Japanese manufacturers was obtained there. 

The equipment and ordnance supplies available to the U.S. forces in Korea in the first months of the war was due largely to the Far East Command’s “roll-up” plan, which had been in effect since 1948. The plan ordered the reclamation of ordnance and other viable supplies left over from World War II from the U.S. Pacific island outposts. 

Unloading tanks at the Port of Pusan in 1950. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Unloading tanks at the Port of Pusan in 1950. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Challenges

During the first two weeks of the war, the ROK Army lost almost all of its equipment. Re-equipping the ROK Army was a major logistical problem in July 1950. In August, the U.S. contracted Japanese manufacturers to produce thousands of vehicles for the ROK (mostly cargo and dump trucks); first deliveries were made in September. However, a much larger  challenge faced by UNC was a shortage of ammunition. When the war began and until the Pusan Perimeter engagements, the UNC’s forces had to rely mainly upon the U.S. stock of  surplus ammunition from World War II. However, much of this malfunctioned or no longer worked (up to 60% did not work); therefore, ammunition was frequently in short supply. In particular, high explosive anti-tank ammunition was particularly scarce; this changed as U.S. and Japanese manufacturers increased production as part of “Operation Rebuild.” By the end of 1950 this operation had expanded to employ nearly 20,000 people at eight Japanese manufacturers. However, ammunition remained in short supply for much of the war.

A lack of armored vehicles was also a serious issue that confronted the UNC. In order to meet the demand, a variety of old armored platforms were hastily rebuilt and modified for shipment  into the Pusan Perimeter. Sherman medium tanks and half-tracks from World War II were pulled from stocks and rebuilt for use in Korea. During the first weeks the Chaffee light tank was the primary armored vehicle used by the Americans because it was the model most readily available and most combat-ready; however, it performed poorly against heavier North Korean tanks. 

A 60-ton crane for offloading supplies is towed to Pusan in 1950. (Photo: U.S. Army)
A 60-ton crane for offloading supplies is towed to Pusan in 1950. (Photo: U.S. Army)

All U.S. weapons used during the first months of the war had been used in World War II; most were in poor condition. During August, six tank battalions (about 415 tanks) arrived at Pusan. By the end of August there were more than 500 UN tanks assembled there. 

A key issue that strained the UN logistics system was that there was no previously drafted resupply plan. Supply consumption rates differed among various units; due to a lack of coordination, some UN units faced supply shortages while others would request more material than they actually needed. 

On July 9, the US 2nd Infantry Division, with several armor and antiaircraft artillery units, was ordered to proceed to the Far East. The next day, General MacArthur (commander of UNC forces) requested that the 2nd Division be brought to full war strength, if possible, without delaying its departure. He also reiterated his need for the units required to bring the four infantry divisions already in the Far East to full war strength. By August 7, the US 9th Infantry Regiment was operational in Korea. However it would be the end of the month before the rest of the 2nd Infantry Division arrived in Korea.

After World War II, the U.S. Army developed the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) concept based on experience from the European Theater. The U.S. Army wanted a highly mobile hospital unit that could be as close to the fighting as possible to increase the survival rate of casualties. When war broke out in Korea, all MASH units were undermanned and Korea’s mountainous terrain prevented easy transport, making it difficult for the MASH units to operate in the Pusan Perimeter battle. The 8055th MASH was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division on July 9 and was the first unit to arrive in Korea. Two more hospitals, the 8063rd and 8067th, joined UN forces in the Pusan Perimeter battles. The MASH units were often overwhelmed with casualties due to shortages of transport. The units operated on men that were too critically injured to be transported. Casualties who could be moved or could not be treated in a MASH were taken by air or sea to U.S. Army hospitals in Japan.

Food for its troops was another logistical challenge confronting the UN in the first weeks of the war. There were no C rations in Korea and only a small reserve in Japan. The Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army immediately began moving all available C rations and 5-in-1 B rations from the United States to the Far East. At first, field rations were primarily the less nutritious and palatable World War II K rations. The UN had to rely on the U.S. stock of World War II-era rations for this phase of the war. 

A sea of supplies at an airbase in Japan stands ready for loading into C-119 Flying Boxcars for delivery to front-line areas in Korea. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A sea of supplies at an airbase in Japan stands ready for loading into C-119 Flying Boxcars for delivery to front-line areas in Korea. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Air resupply

An emergency airlift of critically needed supplies began almost immediately from the mainland U.S. to the Far East. The Military Air Transport Service (MATS) Pacific Division expanded rapidly after the war began. The airlift was expanded by chartering aircraft from civilian airlines.  In addition, Canada lent the UN a Royal Canadian Air Force squadron of six transports, and Belgium added several DC-4s to the effort. The MATS fleet of about 60 four-engine transport airplanes operating before June 25, 1950, was expanded to approximately 250 aircraft. In addition, there were MATS C-74 Globemaster and C-97 Stratofreighter aircraft flying between the mainland and Hawaii.

The Korean airlift operated from the mainland via three routes. The first left from McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, flew to Anchorage, Alaska, and Shemya in the Aleutian Islands before arriving at Tokyo. This was a distance of 5,688 miles and flying time between 30 and 33 hours. A second route departed from Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco, passed through Honolulu and Wake Island before arriving in Tokyo; the trip was 6,718 miles and took 34 hours. A third route was from California to Honolulu and Johnston, Kwajalein, and Guam Islands to Tokyo. This was a distance of 8,000 miles and a flying time of 40 hours. The airlift moved about 106 tons daily in July 1950. 

The need and use of aviation gasoline during combat and resupply operations in the early months of the war was one of the most serious issues facing the UN logisticians. Ocean tankers could not keep pace with the consumption rate. Although it never forced the UN to halt its air operations, on several occasions the situation became very serious, and was only fixed by Japanese supplies. Throughout the war, the demand for gasoline for military consumption left Japanese gas stations with no fuel to sell at times.

The airlift of critically needed items from the mainland U.S. slowed at the end of July as ship convoys  began to meet on-the-ground requirements. After the first weeks of the war, efforts were made to reduce the volume of airlifts to Korea from Japan. By July 15 (only three weeks after the invasion by North Korea), a daily ferry service from the Hakata-Moji area to Pusan to resupply the Eighth Army began. 

A Red Ball Express-type system was organized. It had a daily capacity of 300 tons of critically needed supplies. The Red Ball made the rail trip in Japan from Yokohama to Sasebo (737 miles) in around 30 hours, and to Pusan in a total of about 53 hours. The first Red Ball Express train with high priority cargo left Yokohama on July 23. Regular daily runs became effective two days later. The Red Ball train arrived in Sasebo and cargo was transferred directly from the train to a ship, which sailed daily to Pusan.

By August the daily rail and water Red Ball Express from Yokohama to Sasebo to Pusan was operating efficiently; it could promptly deliver supplies in Japan to Korea. On August 5, it delivered 308 tons; on August 25, it delivered 949 tons. The success of the Red Ball Express eliminated the need for nearly all airlifts of supplies from Japan to Korea. The Red Ball Express delivered supplies to Korea on average from 60-70 hours; it was more cost-effective than airlifts, as well as being more consistent and reliable.

A supply ship steams between Japan and South Korea. (Photo: Marines.mil)
A supply ship steams between Japan and South Korea. (Photo: Marines.mil)

Sea resupply

Cargo ships of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy were responsible for the majority of resupply by sea. However, the need for ships caused the UNC to charter private ships and bring other ships out of the reserve fleet to supplement the military vessels being used. 

The most developed port in Korea was Pusan, which was at the southeastern tip of the peninsula. It was the only port in South Korea that had dock facilities large enough to handle a sizable amount of cargo. Its four piers and quays could berth 24 or more deepwater ships and its beaches provided room to unload 14 Landing Ship Tank (LST) vessels. The port had a potential capacity to process 45,000 tons daily. However, the daily discharge of cargo rarely exceeded 14,000 tons because of a lack of skilled labor, large cranes, rail cars and trucks.

The distance in nautical miles to Pusan from the principal Japanese ports was 110 nautical miles from Fukuoka, 123 nautical miles from Moji, 130 nautical miles from Sasebo, 361 nautical miles from Kobe, and 900 nautical miles from Yokohama. Moving troops from the U.S. West Coast to Pusan took about 16 days; the trip for heavy equipment and supplies on slower ships took longer.

Bombing North Korea's ports and cities helped decrease its logistical and re-supply efforts. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
Bombing North Korea’s ports and cities helped decrease its logistical and re-supply efforts. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Moving supplies to the front lines

The primary Pusan-Seoul railway and road was critical to haul supplies to the front. A good railroad system built by the Japanese (who occupied North and South Korea during World War II) extended northward. Secondary rail lines ran westward along the south coast and northeast near the east coast of South Korea. The South Korean railroads were the key to the UN transportation system in Korea.

U.S. Army logistics units worked around the clock during July 1950 to organize trains from Pusan to the rail-heads near the front. By July 18 they had established a regular daily schedule of supply trains over two routes: the main Pusan-Taegu-Kumch’on line with a branch line from Kumch’on to Hamch’ang; and the Pusan-Kyongju-Andong single track line up the east coast with a branch line from Kyongju to P’ohang-dong. However, as the battle front moved south, trains were restricted. On July 1 the UN Command controlled 1,404 miles of track; by August this had shrunk to 431 miles of track because of the advances made by the North Koreans.

In July, 350 trains moved from Pusan toward the front. These trains included 2,313 freight cars loaded with 62,950 tons of supplies. Also leaving Pusan were 71 personnel trains carrying military units and replacements. Since the Korean railroads had been built by Japan, repair and replacement items were bought or borrowed from the Japanese National Railways and airlifted to Korea. Among the most important purchases was 25 standard-gauge locomotives. 

The 20,000 miles of Korean roads were not up to American or European standards. Even the best of them were narrow, poorly drained and surfaced only with gravel or rocks. According to Eighth Army engineer specifications, there were no two-lane roads in Korea. The best roads were narrow, with bottlenecks at narrow bridges and bypasses, sharp curves and grades up to 15%. The Korean road network, like the rail network, was principally north-south, with few lateral east-west connecting roads.

The main Seoul–Pusan railway and road was integral in bringing supplies to the front. (Photo: U.S. Army)
The main Seoul–Pusan railway and road was integral in bringing supplies to the front. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Conclusions

Historians have made the point that logistics was among the key factors in how the war progressed. As the disparity in logistics capabilities widened between the UN and North Korean forces, well-supported UN troops were able to hold along the Pusan Perimeter, while the morale and the fighting quality of the North Korean People’s Army deteriorated as resupplies became increasingly unreliable. This ultimately culminated in the UN recapturing Seoul, the key logistics center of the war, and the collapse of the North Korean logistics system.

As the battle for the Pusan Perimeter continued, logistics were increasingly important to the outcome of individual engagements. UN units faced the challenge of re-equipping the ROK Army and supporting a massive force of troops in a large-scale war that it had not anticipated or planned for. 

However, numerous historians have praised U.S. Army logistics planners who organized a working logistics system for the UN forces. At the beginning of the war, the U.S. had an advantage in materiel that had been left behind from World War II, and it relied on these supplies to equip units in the first critical weeks while new supplies were produced and shipped. 

Another of the UN’s critical advantages was air superiority. Several nations contributed large air forces to the UN so that materiel could be transported quickly. Concurrently, U.S. Army planners established Pusan as the main port for supplies. The UN also had an advantage in that the port of Pusan was the most developed port in Korea. These advantages ensured that UN forces had mostly stable lines of supply for the battle.

U.S. aircraft attack a North Korean train with rockets and napalm in 1950. (Photo: U.S. Army)
U.S. aircraft attack a North Korean train with rockets and napalm in 1950. (Photo: U.S. Army)

North Korea had the advantage of planning its invasion in advance and organizing a pre-established logistics network. However, the NKPA was not able to keep its logistics network running efficiently. Moreover, UN bombing raids on NKPA supply lines disrupted the North’s logistics significantly. The bombing did not stop the North Korean supplies; however, the NKPA did lose a portion of its supplies throughout the war. 

Though initially successful, North Korean forces could not mount an effective air defense, and were rarely able to impede the UN logistics network. The NKPA supply network limited its combat actions; the North’s logistics could not keep pace during an offensive. Therefore, NKPA units were almost completely unsupported during key engagements, which reduced their fighting ability. The logistical inefficiency of the NKPA prevented it from besting the UN units in the Pusan Perimeter. This allowed the UN troops to hold long enough for the Inchon counter-attack. The landing at Inchon (behind North Korean lines), collapsed the NKPA front and ultimately ended the battle of the Pusan Perimeter in September 1950.

A B-29 Superfortress during a Korean War bombing run. B-29s conducted the majority of air interdiction raids against North Korean supply lines. (Photo: Public Domain)
A B-29 Superfortress during a Korean War bombing run. B-29s conducted the majority of air interdiction raids against North Korean supply lines. (Photo: Public Domain)

FreightWaves salutes all U.S. Armed Services and United Nations veterans of the Korean War. Thank you for your service and your sacrifices.

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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