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This week in history: China enters the Korean War

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John J. Muccio, United States ambassador to Korea, who was decorated with a Medal of Merit, watches President Truman pins the Distinguished Service Medal on the shirt of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during a ceremony at the airstrip on Wake Island, in this Oct.

John J. Muccio, United States ambassador to Korea, who was decorated with a Medal of Merit, watches President Truman pins the Distinguished Service Medal on the shirt of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during a ceremony at the airstrip on Wake Island, in this Oct. 14, 1950, file photo.

Associated Press file photo

On Nov. 25-26, 1950, the Chinese Army entered the Korean War in earnest with a violent attack against the American and United Nations forces in North Korea. The 300,000-man Chinese offensive caught the U.N. forces off guard, largely because of U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's belief that China would not openly enter the war, and vastly expanded the conflict.

The Korean War began when communist North Korean forces invaded democratic South Korea on June 25, 1950. The unexpected surprise attack pushed the South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) forces and the small number of American troops in the country to the southeastern corner of the peninsula, holding a line around the city of Pusan. With a United Nations mandate approved to defend South Korea from northern aggression, the United States and its allies began sending troops to hold the Pusan perimeter.

In September, MacArthur, who commanded the U.N. forces from Tokyo, launched a surprise amphibious raid behind North Korean lines, with the intent of trapping North Korean forces in the south and cutting them off from a line of retreat. Moving too slowly, MacArthur was unable to trap the North Koreans, but the Inchon landings did force the North Koreans out of the south in a panicked rout.

With the south now liberated, MacArthur's forces began the invasion of North Korea. The advance proved successful, as the U.N. troops moved steadily, defeating North Korean units in a series of engagements along the way. Despite his success, MacArthur's advance caused serious consternation in Washington, as many believed that as the U.N. forces approached the border with China, the large Asian nation, with its seemingly endless reserves of manpower, would enter the fight.

One year earlier the communists had succeeded in conquering China, forcing the legitimate Chinese government into exile on Taiwan. The new People's Republic of China, with its leader Mao Zedong, was an enigma. Nobody knew for sure what position China would take if the entirety of North Korea, which shared a nearly 900-mile-long border with China, fell to the U.N. forces. Did Mao believe that the U.N. troops would then invade his country in order to restore the legitimate government?

In the book “15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century,” historian Stanley Weintraub wrote that on Oct. 8, “(President Harry) Truman cabled MacArthur … warning of 'the possible intervention of Chinese Communist forces.' Four days later, on Oct. 12, a contrary CIA assessment argued that 'barring a Soviet decision for global war,' Chinese involvement 'will probably be confined to continued covert assistance.’ ”

So concerned with the possibility of Chinese intervention, Truman had ordered MacArthur not to approach the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. To be sure, MacArthur's forces had been battling smaller units of Chinese forces fighting alongside North Korean troops since late October. The belief was that these soldiers were volunteers, no doubt countenanced by the Chinese government, but not acting for it.

MacArthur agreed with the CIA and refused to believe that Mao would be so reckless as to take on the might of the world's greatest superpower, armed as it was with nuclear weapons. Additionally, he perhaps also believed, as the CIA did, that communist China was dancing to the tune that Joseph Stalin was calling from Moscow. What many failed to understand, however, was that despite his communist alliance with the Soviet Union, Mao was eager to prove himself to the world as his own man.

For Mao, however, the conflict reflected not only a foreign policy within the context of the Cold War, with whatever potential advantages and risks came with it, but participation in the war had an important domestic angle as well.

In the book, “The Rise and Fall of Communism,” historian Archie Brown wrote: “(Mao) saw that there would also be opportunities to be exploited. External threat could help consolidate domestic control, and by taking the fight to the Americans, Mao would strengthen his prestige among Communists internally. He was certainly ready to make use of heightened tension as an excuse for cracking down on even potential opposition. The number of executions of their own citizens by the Chinese Communists increased sharply after the Korean War began.”

To this end, Mao had been moving Chinese forces away from the coast facing Taiwan and moving them into position near the Korean border. To his inner circle, Mao stated his readiness to help the North Koreans during the summer, and by the fall, with his communist ally in retreat, he was preparing 300,000 soldiers for intervention.

On Nov. 24, MacArthur launched a major offensive, what was intended to finally defeat all North Korean forces and end the war. U.S. troops and their allies were told that they would be home before Christmas. Though the advance appeared to make headway, American and allied units failed to maintain cohesive lines and often lost contact with one another. The Chinese counter-attack began shortly before midnight on Nov. 25.

One unit that bore the brunt of the Chinese onslaught was the United States Army 2nd Division, Ninth Regiment. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Lt. Gene Takahashi had been, along with his family, among the over 100,000 Japanese-Americans interned in the United States during World War II. In Korea, Takahashi served in the Ninth Regiment’s Love Company, made up of about 170 men, where he commanded a platoon. The company had crossed the cold but relatively shallow Chongchon River and held a perimeter on its west bank. Unaware of the impending Chinese assault, the company had little ammo and few grenades.

When the Chinese attacked, Love Company was taken completely by surprise. The company's captain had been hit, and Takahashi held the perimeter for as long as he could before ordering his men to fall back to higher ground. Rallying his men, who were dropping like flies to Chinese bullets and bombs, Takahashi set up a position on the hill.

In the book, “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” historian David Halberstam wrote: “Sergeant First Class Arthur Lee … one of Takahashi's best men, was handling a machine gun just to his left. If Takahashi was going to die taking on what appeared to be the entire Chinese Army, he was glad it was next to Lee. … Suddenly the only sound coming from Lee was a gurgle. He had been hit in the throat and was drowning in his own blood. The others fought on, and the Chinese made charge after charge, getting closer to their little knoll all the time, until they finally pushed the Americans off the hill. Almost every man was killed.”

Love Company was completely destroyed. Takahashi and a few survivors were taken prisoner by the Chinese but were able to escape and make it back to American lines.

MacArthur was forced to admit that the Chinese had indeed entered the war in earnest. On Nov. 28, he sent a message to Washington in which he stated that “We face an entirely new war” and that the Chinese had appeared “in great and ever-increasing strength.” His disregard for Truman's warnings had led to disaster, though it is impossible to know if China would have intervened even if the U.N. forces had not advanced so far north.

The conflict lasted two and half more years. With Chinese help, the North Koreans were able to push back the U.N. forces to the approximate pre-war border. By the time hostilities ended in the summer of 1953, Stalin was dead, MacArthur had been relieved of command, and Truman was no longer in office. Mao, however, remained in power until his death in 1976. Approximately 3 million Chinese troops took part in the war, and an estimated 400,000 to 1,000,000 were killed in the conflict, though China's official number was only 152,000. Total U.N. military deaths, including Americans, numbered around 170,000. More than 1 million more Korean civilians were killed in the conflict.

Today, a state of war still exists between North Korea and South Korea.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com