United States Military Logistics
in the
First Part of the Korean War,
Chapter 1

by Max Hermansen

University of Oslo,
Spring, 2000;
Supervisor: Professor Rolf Tamnes


     During July, August and September 1950 the tide was turned. In this short time in history, the flood of well-trained and equipped soldiers from North Korea went from almost complete victory and control over the Korean Peninsula, to nearly total defeat. The military machinery of the United States of America produced a tidal-wave the North Korean Peoples Army had no chance to stop nor to avoid.

     The sudden and well prepared North Korean attack from 25 June 1950 defeated and threw into disorder most of the military forces of the Republic of Korea. Large quantities of weapons, ammunition and other ordnance were lost, together with a lot of the soldier's moral strength. Even though two United Nation resolutions gave the political legitimization, only the USA had the necessary military potential and the will to use this force to save South Korea from becoming a part of a communist dominated Korea. Great Britain contributed early with substantial naval support, and nations like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada had in place or brought in a few air and naval units to fight the North Koreans. But it was the United States of America who stood up and made military units and the support they needed available fast enough to avoid a complete loss of all territory in Korea to an offensive enemy.

     This speed and the hard work to produce enough fighting power in a very short time, is fascinating to any military logistician. There are few other historical examples were the side under sudden attack have been able to be that flexible, find immediate solutions and beat back the enemy with the tempo as in the first part of the Korean War.

     It was a combination of the military resources the United States had in Japan and part of what was in the USA itself, and the capability to move this force to bear on the enemy, that made the victory possible. Less than five years after the defeat of Japan, in a totally changed political and strategic environment, America still had more than the needed experienced officers, transport and fighting ships and aircraft, tanks and trucks to take up the challenge and win the battle.

     This is not a study of the cold war, though the Korean War was an important part of the early years of the cold war. And its not primarily about the political and strategical level with its senior politicians, admirals and generals and how they made the big plans and gave the orders that made them happen. Neither is this primarily a study of the tactical level with shore bombardments, close combat, or the sorties of fighter aircraft.

     My approach is the operational level, the level between the strategic and the tactical level, and the logistics this level produced. Far East Command with its subordinate commands like Eight Army, Naval Forces, Far East, Far East Air Force, Pusan Logistical Command, and others like San Francisco Port, Military Sea Transportation Service and Military Air Transport Service, were the most important contributors in planning, directing and executing the logistics at the operational level in the Korean War.

     The Korean War could have ended in September 1950 and it could have ended in October 1950. With a brilliantly planned and executed strategic landing at Inchon in the middle of September 1950, more than half the North Korean forces were crushed and tens of thousands made into prisoners of war. There and then the United Nations could have decided not to cross the 38th parallel and not advance into North Korea. China could have decided not to enter the war on North Korea's side. But that was what they did in October 1950, as United Nation forces came closer to the border river of Yalu between China and North Korea. With the Chinese intervention, the Korean War went into its second phase, a totally different phase compared to the first phase of the war.

     This paper focus on the first three months of the Korean War, from the attack was launched from North Korea into the Republic of Korea 25 June 1950, until Seoul was recaptured in the end of September 1950. In these three months several decisive transformations took place. The first was the destruction of most of the Republic of Korea's military forces. The second was the build-up and use of U.S. military force to establish a defensive perimeter on Korean soil, and then to make a surprising strategic assault in the rear of North Korea forces. The third transformation was the almost complete exhaustion and wrecking of the North Koreans Peoples Army. The second and third phase could not have happened without a logistical system in the U.S. military forces to support the fighting itself.

The logistics of that time, and the logistics for the Korean War

     Where does the expression logistics actually come from? It is believed to come from the Ancient Greece and the word logistikos - "skilled in calculating", or the Latin word logista - a Roman or Byzantine administrator. But logistics is probably much more modern than that. The term is said to derive directly from the French maréchal or maréchal-général des logis, translated as "quartermaster general", and logis meaning lodging or quarters. It was established under Louis XIV when the maréchal des logis, like the Prussian quartiermeister, was responsible for billeting and subsequently for the routine administration of marches and camps. Today, the meaning according to Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary is just "organization of supplies and services, etc for any complex operation".

     Traditionally military logistics have been measured in two ways. One way has been to investigate the supply system, which have been used. These have normally been divided into three periods. In the first period military forces received most of what they needed from magazines and because of that had to stay close to these. The second is the napoleonic era where the forces lived by the land they passed through or occupied. And the third is what we have seen from the French-German War in 1870-71 with the supplies being furnished in a more or less steady flow from one or more bases. The other way has been concentrated around transport and the remedies used to transport increasingly larger amounts of supplies faster and faster. The development may be described as a continuing process without splitting it up into periods. I will in this paper try to look at both the total supply system as well as all kinds of transports used in the first part of the Korean War.

     Logistics has been given many different meanings and views. In military terms, the most including definition, is an excluding one; saying that logistics is everything except from the fighting itself. The British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery was a strong advocate for this definition when he said war was 90 % logistics. In such a broad definition it was common to include determination of requirements, production, storage, training, transportation, supply, distribution, maintenance, salvage, and disposal. In a narrow definition, logistics can be said to be just movement and supply of troops in the field. Logistics is then the function of keeping track of what you have got where, and the issue of these supplies.

     Logistics was well into World War II viewed very narrowly among most U.S. military. But the war with its massive production, transportation, and all sorts of supply, changed the term logistics. In the years before as well as under the Korean War logistics was described and used in a broad sense in the U.S. military. It involved men and material, requirements, to some extent production, certainly transportation, and many more like quarters and depots, communications, evacuation and hospitalization, personnel replacement, maintenance, administration, and a lot more. Several staff sections in the military establishment in Washington DC had names and tasks involving logistics. Far East Command had a logistics division (G-4). Eight Army organized a logistical command in Pusan and a Japan Logistical Command.

     In logistical thinking it is common to talk about "pipelines", meaning the flow of personnel, ordnance, food, petroleum, and other commodities from production and training, on to different means of transportation, and into a theatre or area where it is consumed. There were two such pipelines in the Korean War. The first and most important pipeline in the first part of the Korean War was the one going from Japan to Korea. This pipeline not only brought personnel and their supplies over to Korea itself. It also supplied air and naval forces with what they needed to conduct their missions from the air or the sea.

     The second pipeline was the one from the USA mainly to Japan and Korea. Quite a lot of the personnel and parts of the weapons and other equipment had a stop over in Japan on their way to Korea. And, as with the first pipeline, some of the supplies from the United States stayed in Japan to be used by air and naval units operating out of Japan. A very important characteristic for this pipeline was the enormous distance involved in transporting personnel and goods across the Pacific.

     Mentioning distances, it is natural to involve an other important term; time. Time is not just a central term for military operations, but also a central military logistical term. An attacking force will always try to achieve its goals as fast as possible, and not give the enemy a chance to breath, regroup or strengthen its defenses. This was very much the case with the North Korean attack. The Far East Command had to bring in its ground forces to Korea in time to build up a defensive perimeter while there still were land to build up such a perimeter on. It is doubtful this could have been done without Far East Command's headquarters and bases so close to Korea. Using the second pipeline, transportation of personnel and cargo across the huge Pacific Ocean, time was the worst enemy. The time needed to get personnel and supplies ready at the right seaport or airport, hopefully having the necessary lift capacity at the same place at the same time. The time needed to load aircraft and ships. The time needed to cross the Pacific, which even for aircraft at that time, was not a short one. The time needed to unload urgently needed personnel and supplies from aircraft and ships, often queuing up. And then the time needed to bring the cargo to the place where it was needed to fight the enemy.

     When war comes suddenly, unexpected and/or in the wrong way, which it often does, it is normal to expect disorder, break downs and even chaos in the logistical systems. To know what is where in what quantity and quality is often difficult. Trucks, ships and aircraft break down and transportation takes longer than estimated. An important part in this is friction, as defined by the world's greatest military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). He wrote "Das Handeln im Kriege ist eine Bewegung im erschwerenden Mittel." With this he meant that war in reality is not like the war you draw on paper. You think you are flying while in reality you are walking in mud. The question is then the degree of chaos and friction involved in the logistics of the Korean War.

     The effect of the actions of war upon the logistical system, are often severe. This is due to the fact that either side in a conflict knows it's important to stop their enemy from getting more personnel and their supplies into the war zone. They will therefore do everything they can to cut off the pipelines, and at the same time try to escort their own trucks, aircraft and ships with personnel and supplies. Air and naval units from the UN forces did what they could to stop the North Korean reinforcements and supplies to reach the front around the Pusan perimeter. But, as it seems, there was not any attempt or no capability from the North Korean forces to du the same thing towards the enemy's pipelines. Was it really the weather that was the must severe enemy to U.S. logistics?

     An other approach to military logistics could be to find out which logistical resource was most important or decisive to win the war. Was it the flow of personnel? Was it the availability of petroleum, oil and lubricants? Was it the presence of means of transportation? Was it the presence of the weapons and ammunition, and all other ordnance, needed to fight the enemy? Or was it the availability of food, water, and other necessary commodities?

     The Far East Command had enormous amounts of goods in storage. Why was it like this? Today's logisticians are working very hard to have as little as possible in storage, applying the "just in time" principle. In peacetime, its to expensive to have available all the stuff you actually would need in a war. In war you will have enemy action and friction, as mentioned above, which will take out part of your supplies. It would for these reasons be necessary to have more than the amount of ordnance, food and fuel that you would need for the actual fighting.

     I am concerned with the first three months of the war. The most of the United States industrial mobilization came after these three months, or at least the effect of mobilization came too late to influence this first turn of the war, from nearly disaster to victory. The industrial mobilization in Japan, though, could because of its closer proximity to Korea, and probably because of its greater slack in production and means of transportation, have had some effect on the first three months of the war.

Bibliography and primary sources

     Very much has been written about the Korean War. Persons and organizations from several countries have written general histories, some of them as official histories of the war. The military services in the USA have through their own historical agencies, published official historical reports of the war. In addition, several individuals, particularly in the U.S., have published their own view on the war, many without referring to sources and often with very anti- Communist sympathies.

     Plenty is written about political and strategic circumstances and conditions, flourishing as Soviet/Russian archives were opened to the public in the beginning of the 1990's. At a tactical level, there are also several books and articles with everything from personal accounts, to very detailed studies of a single battle. In addition there are a comprehensive literature on prisoners of war and those who were lost in action.

     Not much of what have been written about war is about logistics. The traditional historical approach to war and military power has been to focus on the battles themselves or the political and strategical affairs. The reason for this is probably found in the fact that logistics did not become a really important part of wars before the second half of the 19th century. When the soldiers could live on the land, or carry with them most of what they needed as they walked or sailed along, there wasn't much to say about logistics.

     A reason for not writing much about logistics in the Korean War could be that the logistical situation as a whole was acceptable and not even getting close to a catastrophe. The supply lines were, though they were very long from the USA to Japan and Korea, not seriously threatened by much more than bad weather. In addition the large quantities of materiel and ammunition from World War II must have helped a lot.

     Terrence J. Gough has published a bibliography called U.S. Army Mobilization and Logistics in the Korean War. The book has a well-arranged overview of primary and secondary sources. National Defense University Library has published a booklet called Logistics and Mobilization in the Korean and Cold Wars. Among other things, the booklet refers to different magazines from the fifties like Army Information Digest, National Defense Transportation Journal, Military Review, Quartermaster Review and U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.

     James A. Huston has with his book Guns and Butter, Powder and Rice; U.S. Army Logistics in the Korean War, written a comprehensive and thorough historical work. I have used Huston's work several places in my paper, though the book don't pay much attention to the other two U.S. services of the Korean War. Huston does not split the Korean War up into different parts or periods, and does not have the focus on the first three months of the war. The book has a chapter on each of the different logistical "commodities" in the war; ammunition (poverty and plenty), food and clothing, transportation, evacuation and hospitalization, and logistic services.

     Thus, now one else have focused much on the first three months of the Korean War with a logistical perspective, or I have not been able to find anyone else doing that.

     The archives from the staffs and units who took part in the Korean War are mainly in National Archives in Washington DC in the USA. They seem to be quite complete, though they are not very systematic organized. For example the task of finding the archives for the Naval Forces, Far East during 1950, was not easy and required professional help. And, it had to declassified.

     A few other parts of the material have not yet been declassified, not primarily because it should still be kept as secrets, but more because no one have asked for the declassification. A large portion of the material from the war, and especially the interesting parts, was to a very large extent classified. It seems that only totally plain things were unclassified.

     What you find at National Archives are a substantial amount of signals going to and from the different organs and units of the Far East Command, and between Far East Command and the military staffs in Washington DC. Periodical reports are quite common, and even historical papers exist for some of the units.

     One of the more peculiar items found in the archives, are the "Good News" Committee Contributions. They were established as a daily moral building feature. Because this was what it was, good news, it demands that one should not take everything in them literally. I have used the good news reports from G-4 from 19 July to 5 September several places in this paper.

     My conclusion is that there more than enough literature and an enormous amount of sources on the Korean War in general, and quite a lot on the first part of the Korean War.


logo Return to Carrie Home Page

Return to the Carrie Donated E-Books Home Page