Human bullets at the gates of hell
In the Korean War, China’s soldiers fought UN-led forces to a standstill and paved China’s path to its current superpower status, but at great cost
On Monday in South Korea, the 68th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War was greeted with somber ceremonies remembering the sacrifices of countless lives.
But in China, where the war was one of the first rungs on the ladder of national ascent, it deserves to be celebrated in more virile fashion.
In October 1950, following the defeat of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea, and with US-led United Nations forces striking into North Korea, the front line was approaching China’s Yalu River border. Mao Zedong stated that North Korea and China were “as close as lips and teeth … if the lips are gone, the teeth are cold.” With this dictum in mind, “The Great Helmsman” defied the advice of most of his colleagues and generals, deploying troops into the rugged mountains of North Korea in October 1950.
It was a huge risk.
Mao was heading a shaky, newly-established, desperately poor communist state that was still engaged in a militarily confrontation with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces on Taiwan. Also, China’s military legacy was dire. In the Opium Wars, the First Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion, China had been humiliated by foreign military forces.
In World War II, China had been the most under-rated – and arguably, the most under-appreciated – of the allied forces.
However in Korea, Mao’s fighting men would do their country proud.
His lightly armed peasant soldiers secured a friendly state, humiliated a superpower and battled UN forces to a standstill. Their achievements would shock the free world, forge a new national myth and pave the way for China’s ascent to superpower status. After a century of troubled slumber, the sleeping dragon had finally awoken.
The ‘human wave’
Having defended South Korea, victorious US forces – South Koreans, US, British, Australians and Turks at this stage of the war – stormed into North Korea in October 1950. Their enemy melted. Following the September Inchon Landing masterminded by General Douglas MacArthur, North Korean forces had been crushed.
With Kim’s forces on the retreat, civilians greeted UN troops with gifts and cheers. But as they advanced deeper into the enemy state and the Manchurian Winter began its descent, civilians disappeared and an eerie silence fell over the battlescape.
An historic turning point had been reached. UN forces were advancing into the jaws of the greatest ambush of the 20th century.
As the final advance to the Yalu River began, UN forces were engulfed in a terrifying new enemy. He appeared to deploy huge numbers, but moved like a ghost. Lacking radio sets he was silent; no electronic intelligence was monitored. And he was invisible: A master of camouflage and concealment, he moved fast, cross-country, under the cover of night.
He was Beijing’s Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, or CPVA – actually, regular line divisions; the CPVA nomenclature was a fiction to prevent open war between Beijing and Washington. And he struck with an innovative, but widely misunderstood tactic.
Under cover of darkness, Chinese troops massed before a UN position. To the sound of bugles and gongs – strange and terrifying sounds themselves – men would storm forward in closely packed ranks, volleying hand grenades and seeking to overrun automatic weapons.
The assault was an awesome sight. UN troops who saw it roll in compared it to crowds pouring out of sports stadiums when gates open after matches. One veteran recalled seeing a hill in the distance changing color. It took him seconds to realize what he was looking at: thousands of enemy charging down the slope.
The CPVA aimed to “grab the enemy by the belt buckle” to invalidate air support and artillery: Max Desfor, an AP photographer who won a Pulitzer in Korea, said the fighting was closer than in Okinawa in 1945. And most combat took place at night.
While the frontal assault went in, other Chinese units would be infiltrating into the UN rear, preventing the embattled unit from evacuating their wounded or bringing up supplies of ammunition. When the unit tried to withdraw, usually in vehicles down a dirt road, it would be halted by roadblocks and mown down in ambushes from high ground.
The tactic was called “human wave.” The term borrowed was from ancient tactician Sun Tzu, who advised commanders to “attack like water” – flowing over or around enemy positions.
Using it, the CPVA inflicted the worst defeats suffered by both the US Army – the destruction of two regiments of the 2nd Infantry Division in “The Gauntlet” at Kunu-ri ,1950 – and the British Army – the annihilation of the Gloster battalion after a three-day stand at the battle of the Imjin River in 1951 – since World War II.
Command posts estimated they were facing two million enemy; in fact, CPVA numbers was barely one tenth of that. Panicked UN units charged southward, pell-mell, in a “scorched earth” dash that left North Korea smoldering. It was the longest retreat in US military history: “The Big Bug Out.”
There was one heroic episode – the breakout of a division of US Marines, together with British commandos and US and South Korean soldiers – through eight divisions of CPVA in the mountains around North Korea’s frozen Chosin Reservoir. But otherwise, UN forces had not just been defeated; they had been humiliated.
China’s intervention was launched in October. By Christmas, North Korea was clear of UN troops. It was a tremendous achievement by under-equipped light infantry, operating without air cover.
Meet the ‘human bullets’
Many CPVA troops were highly experienced, having fought against the Japanese in the 1930s and ’40s, and against fellow Chinese in the civil war. Indeed, many of the first wave deployed to Korea were turned Nationalists; Mao considered them cannon fodder.
Nearly all were tough. Most were of peasant stock, used to long marches, rugged terrain, poor weather and meagre rations. Their commander-in-chief, Marshal Peng Tu-hwai, was a wily guerrilla general, greatly respected by his men. Years later, Peng would demand the modernization of China’s army to prevent the huge casualties his men suffered in Korea and would fall afoul of Mao’s cultural revolution. He has since been rehabilitated.
And they were equal-opportunity warriors. One of the first killed was Mao Anying, the “Great Helmsman’s” eldest son.
They faced fearsome firepower. Massed automatic weapons; heavy artillery; ground attack fighters; and a hellish munition that combined an incendiary, naphta, with palm oil to create a gel that burned at eight times the heat of boiling water and stuck to anything it touched – napalm.
According to US POW interrogation reports, some Chinese troops ironically called themselves “human bullets,” while the crossings over the Yalu River were dubbed “The Gates to Hell.”
They were not as brutal as North Koreans – John Lee, a South Korean who fought alongside US Marines reckoned they were “not people of the sword” – but could be extraordinarily brave: At Imjiin River in 1951, they swarmed British tanks with their own bodies, leading UN observers to (grudgingly) dub them “fanatical.”
And they fought fair. While the South Korean Human Rights Commission has investigated atrocities committed by US, South Korean and North Korean forces, none are on record from the Chinese.
Though captivity proved traumatic for many UN troops – medicine was scarce, the weather was harsh and rations were poor – the Chinese proved generally fair captors. Derek Kinne, a POW famed for his acts of resistance in the Chinese-run camps would say years later: “I don’t know why my head did not come off,” a reference to the brutal treatment suffered by POWs in Japanese hands in World War II.
Victory in the north, stalemate in the South
But while they had cleared North Korea, securing China’s “lips,” the CPVA’s New Year’s Day offensive into South Korea took place at the end of a tenuous logistics line, stretching far back into Manchuria. They captured Seoul on Jan 4 – a date seared into South Korean memory as the nadir of their national fortunes – and battle raged throughout the first half of 1951.
But now, UN forces had learned to use firepower versus manpower, and operated along an extensive front, rather than the rapier thrusts along the North’s road net. Seoul was retaken in May.
Peng launched his biggest offensive in April 1951. The aim was to annihilate US forces in a giant human wave that deployed a third of a million men. After that, he expected Washington to sue for peace. When the offensive failed, fighting settled down into static warfare. In this positional warfare, the infiltration tactics could not longer work. Chinese tunneled deep into hillsides and the war became a grim struggle of artillery barrages, sniping patrols and occasional attacks for objective with names like Heartbreak Ridge, the Bloody Hook and Pork Chop Hill.
After years of carnage, the fighting came to a halt after the death of the chief prosecutor of the war – Soviet leader Josef Stalin – in July 1951.
A legacy of national pride
On Monday in Dandong, the Chinese city across the Yalu River from the North Korean city of Sinuiju, the main bridge is still truncated – a victim of UN bombs during the war. On the Yalu bank, the statue of a lone CPVA soldier stands facing south, saluting south toward the country he saved.
That country remains an ally: Beijing and Pyongyang are linked by the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty. Its second article obliges both to oppose any country or coalition that might attack either nation. It is set for renewal in 2022.
The legacy of the war runs deep.
“The most prominent impact on China was the revival of national pride. For the first time in over 100 years, China had met major powers on the battlefield and stood their ground,” said Ra Jong-yil, a South Korean historian, who noted that ethnic Chinese in places as distant as Singapore hailed CPVA victories. “That is a big pride – the indignity of defeat at the hands of Western powers was over.”
This is particularly critical for modern China, said Ra, who opines that while ideology is waning in the communist nation, nationalism is rising.
The national museum of the “The War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea” stands on a hill above Dandong. Outside squats a collection of armored vehicles and aircraft; inside are exhibits and images of the war, including a giant diorama of Kunu-ri.
Most striking is the huge monument to the war that stands in its forecourt. A statue depicts an embattled Chinese unit: A desperate man hurls a boulder, another stabs downward with a bayonetted rifle, while a casualty slumps, dead, over his machine gun.
It may be one of the grimmest war memorials on earth – reflective of a very long butcher’s bill. Only in 2010 – the 60th anniversary of the start of the war – did Beijing release the number of casualties suffered by the CPVA: Mao’s war in Korea cost China 183,108 dead sons and fathers.