An Amphibious Resurrection

By Kevin L Davies

“For all its undisputed Korean provenance, the name Inchon possesses a wonderfully resonant American quality. It summons a vision of military genius undulled by time, undiminished by more recent memories of Asian defeat.”

– Max Hastings1

“We shall land at Inchon and I shall crush them.”

– GEN Douglas Mac Arthur, 23 August 19502


The landing at Inchon, Korea – Operation CHROMITE – is one of the most important examples of amphibious warfare in history, as it is an example of maneuver warfare par excellence and rescued amphibious warfare from possible oblivion. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the importance of CHROMITE to the study of amphibious warfare.

On 15 September 1950, the men of the United States X Corps landed at Inchon, the port of Seoul, Korea.3 According to the Korean Institute of Military History, the objective of the assault, named Operation CHROMITE, was as follows:

  • To gain and secure a beachhead at Inchon.
  • To rapidly advance to the inland area to regain and secure Kimp’o Airfield.
  • To cross the Han River and recapture Seoul, the capital city of Korea.
  • To take up positions in the vicinity of Seoul until the time when they could link up with troops of Eighth Army who were supposed to move up north from the Nantong front.4

Not only did the X Corps complete the mission with a minimal number of casualties, but in doing so it also routed the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) and eliminated the desperate pressure the NKPA was applying on the beleaguered United Nations Command (UNC) forces in Pusan.5 This brilliant example of maneuver warfare demonstrates the need for professional amphibious forces to be maintained, as well as the importance of leadership when undertaking extremely risky operations. CHROMITE also demonstrated the need for commanders to understand the political implications of military operations, especially in a “limited war.”

Operation CHROMITE went ahead due to the leadership of one man, GEN Douglas Shoto MacArthur.6 Despite the initial unanimous opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several other ranking officers with extensive amphibious warfare experience, MacArthur persevered with his vision. Following a masterful display of argument and rhetoric at the 23 August 1950 meeting with representatives for the Joint Chiefs, he was able to gain their reluctant support for the operation.7 According to COL Donald W. Boose:

MacArthur’s confidence in the operation, in spite of the problems inherent in the landing site, was no doubt the product of his experiences in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) in World War II where he had seen such problems repeatedly overcome.8

At Inchon, MacArthur was taking a massive risk, and he knew it.9 This did not deter him from launching CHROMITE but rather served to motivate him as it meant that, for him, victory meant glory while defeat meant ignominy. The lesson here is that even when confronted with steadfast opposition, an extremely difficult undertaking can be given approval provided there are people with sufficient leadership skills to see such operations through to the end. MacArthur’s behavior after CHROMITE, however, is a different story and beyond the scope of this article.

The Inchon landings occurred at a time when amphibious warfare was deemed obsolete. In testimony to Congress during autumn 1949, approximately 1 year before Inchon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General of the Army Ornar Bradley (whose previous commands included being the Commanding General, 1st U.S. Army, during the D-Day invasion) stated, “I predict that large-scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”10 Furthermore, the United States Marine Corps, like the rest of the U.S. military, had suffered enormous cutbacks following the demobilization at the end of World War II and was now operating at less than 16 percent of its World War II size.11 Inchon proved, without a shadow of a doubt, the importance of amphibious warfare and the need to maintain amphibious capabilities so as to be able to take advantage of all that amphibious warfare offers, especially to a maritime power like the United States. According to Jim Dorschner:

Operation CHROMITE did not introduce any fundamentally new aspects to the art of war. Rather, the operation served to reinforce traditional lessons, such as the importance of maintaining trained and ready forces to deter aggression or confront a contingency, the priceless value of sure footed staff work, and tangible benefits of innovation, flexibility and individual resourcefulness.12

Of serious interest to students of the Inchon landing was the fact that Inchon was picked at all. According to Col Robert D. Heinl, Jr.:

The reasons MacArthur kept Inchon in mind are evident. Inchon is the seaport of Seoul, Korea’s ancient capital and first city. The excellent railroads left by the Japanese fan north and south from Seoul, as do the less excellent highways. The national telephone and telegraphs net radiate from Seoul. Kimpo, Korea’s largest and best airport, lies in between Inchon and Seoul. Inchon, in effect, is to Seoul what Piraeus was to Athens. 13

While the strategic advantages of attacking South Korea’s “Piraeus” were numerous, the tactical problems presented were many. According to Heinl:

The amphibious bible of those days was USF-6 [U.S. Sixth Fleet], predecessor of USF-22A. USF-6 set out seven criteria for a landing area:

  • Ability of naval forces to support the assault and follow up operations
  • Shelter from unfavourable sea weather
  • Compatibility of beaches and their approaches to size, draft, manoeuverability, and beaching
  • Offshore hydrography
  • Extent of minable waters
  • Conditions which may affect enemy ability to defeat mine-clearance efforts
  • Facilities for unloading, and how these may be improved.14

On all these criteria, Inchon rated poorly. According to Heinl:

Inchon produced 32 foot tides twice a day . . . the tidal currents rarely dropped below three knots and, in the main channel, could reach up to 7-8 knots, which was almost the speed of a LCVP (Landing Craft, vehicle and personnel).15

Furthermore Inchon’s approach provided no room for maneuver and was easily minable.16 Inchon also had no beaches, only small stretches of “moles, breakwaters and seawalls.”17 In addition the heights and islands surrounding it were well suited for batteries that could easily pick off minesweepers as they cleared a path for the larger vessels.18 Given this, it is little surprise that GEN Edward Almond, Commanding General, U.S. X Corps, said Inchon was “the worst possible place where we could bring in an amphibious assault.”19

The fact that “the worst possible place” was chosen is interesting, because in a sense, it was the best possible place to launch such a high-risk venture. “There is an ancient Chinese apothegm that ‘the wise general is one who is able to turn disadvantage to his own advantage,'” and MacArthur used this apothegm to its fullest possible extent.20 Inchon was poorly defended precisely because the North Koreans did not expect a major landing there. Because of this, MacArthur sent his forces where they were least expected and thus was able to enter Inchon almost unopposed. Operation CHROMITE demonstrated that, while there may be certain planning guidelines that the amphibious commander ignores at his peril, there are no fixed rules. An experienced commander who is supported by an efficient staff may be able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. However, this will only be possible if the appropriate knowledge, skills, and equipment are also present.21

“Inchon remains a monument to ‘can do,’ to improvisation and risk-taking on a magnificent scale.”22 This statement has a great deal of truth to it. One of the most amazing aspects about Operation CHROMITE was the speed in which the operation developed from an idea to reality. In about 6 weeks MacArthur was able to create a force of almost 70,000 Marines, regular and Reserve; Army; and Republic of Korea (ROK) units, as well as a 261 strong fleet of American and United Nations vessels.23 In addition, he gathered vital intelligence about Inchon and the forces there and, more importantly, got permission from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President. It was fortunate for MacArthur that, although the CHROMITE force was hastily assembled, it contained such a strong reservoir of experience that the operation was feasible without extended rehearsal.24 This emphasizes the need for any country wanting to engage in amphibious warfare to have and, more importantly, to maintain a professional amphibious force, because risky operations, especially amphibious ones like CHROMITE, cannot be undertaken by a force of amateurs.

One of the most important lessons Inchon has brought to the world of military science is the devastating effect maneuver warfare can have on an opponent. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, defines maneuver warfare as follows:

[Maneuver] warfare is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.25

The effect the landing had up the NKPA was almost immediate and created exactly the “rapidly deteriorating situation” maneuver warfare theorists hope for. With each of the 10 divisions sent across the 38th Parallel reduced to a few thousand exhausted fighters, each and all of them desperately trying to break the U.S. and ROK forces at Pusan, North Korea simply could not “cope” with an attack on its vulnerable flank – exactly as MacArthur expected.26 The Inchon landings are an example of maneuver warfare par excellence and “have certainly acquired mythological status as a classic example of the indirect approach and of manoeuvre warfare.”27 If, as MacArthur later described, North Korea “struck like a cobra,” then MacArthur, using the principles of maneuver warfare he displayed so often during the Pacific campaign in World War II, was like a farmer standing in front of it with a rake, just waiting for the right moment to strike back, and hard.28

On 27 September 1950, 12 days after the landing at Inchon, United Nations and ROK forces liberated Seoul. Caught between the hammer of Inchon and the anvil of Pusan, the NKPA offensive collapsed.

Trapped, the North Korean forces west of Osan were smashed. Those to the east collapsed as they retreated north. Many soldiers took refuge in the Taebaeks and became guerrillas. By the time they were back across the 38th Parallel, the North Koreans had lost over 150,000 men. … The UNC captured 125,000 prisoners. UNC losses in the offensive, including Inchon, were 18,000.29

The devastating effect the Inchon landing had on the NKPA clearly demonstrates the strategic value of amphibious operations in wartime. As for the United States, as so eloquently described by Max Hastings, “In a world in which nursery justice decided military affairs, Operation CHROMITE would have won the war.”30

While at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels Operation CHROMITE was a masterpiece of success, its effects at the grand strategic, or international, level produced extremely serious and negative consequences. Put quite simply: . . . while MacArthur’s manoeuvre warfare was outstandingly effective in annihilating the North Koreans, it did not create a stable basis for peace. Rather the decisiveness of the victory greatly threatened the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.31

With the NKPA a bleeding shell of its former self and crawling back over the 38th Parallel, MacArthur sent his forces after them with the aim of uniting Korea under the Western-backed government of Syngman Rhee. Unfortunately, the success of Inchon served to blind the UNC to the political consequences of sending soldiers to the Chinese border. For Mao Zedong’s newly established People’s Republic of China, the arrival of UNC forces at the YaIu River, combined with several bombastic comments by MacArthur and the linkage of the conflict to the Taiwan/Formosa issue, posed a severe threat to it.32 On 24 November 1950, Mao Zedong made good on his repeatedly ignored threats to attack, and soon UNC forces were reeling back across the 38th Parallel as the war entered its bloody third stage. What is interesting here is the way in which no operation, no matter how brilliantly conceived and executed, can be undertaken without a full understanding of the geopolitical context that may surround it, especially in a limited war.

One of the lasting lessons Inchon taught was the importance of joint operations in amphibious warfare. Despite the cutbacks suffered by the United States Navy (USN) and Marine Corps following World War II:

… the National Defence Act of 1947 permitted the USN to retain its carrier-borne aircraft and the USMC its organic aviation, armour, artillery and specialist shipping and both the USN and USMC could thus continue training, despite the reduced numbers.33

Additionally, “by having their own integral supporting arms and logistics services, the USMC [was] able to work easily with the USN on well practised drills.”34 This integration paid dividends at Inchon.

While the Inchon landings achieved the intended objectives, and did so with a minimum of causalities, there are three criticisms that can be made about the operation. The first of these, and by far the most serious, was the appalling lack of security displayed by the Americans in the lead up to the landing. As Hastings scathingly writes, “The intention of landing at Inchon was one of the worst-kept secrets of war, the subject of open discussion among thousands of men in Japan and Korea.”35 How this “secret” did not make into the hands of the North Koreans is a mystery, and the poor security shown was completely inexcusable. The Americans should have known better.

Second, there was a frightful lack of intelligence about the conditions of Inchon prior to Operation CHROMITE. Beyond the initial, and understandable, limited intelligence known about the NKPA order of battle at Inchon:

. . . the Japanese maps and hydrographic charts [vital to understanding Inchon’s enormous tides and treacherous coast] were inaccurate, outdated or conflicting …. In addition, aerial photography meant to augment the maps was difficult to interpret due to the different altitudes at which they were taken and could not accurately determine the height of the seawalls.36

MacArthur had had 5 years while he was Supreme Allied Commander, Japan, and Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces, Far East Command, to gather information regarding the conditions and tides, and he was forced to do it all in 6 weeks. While the desperately needed intelligence was commendably gathered in time, such readily accessible intelligence about Inchon should have been developed well before September 1950.

The final criticism about CHROMITE is that the U.S. forces were far too slow in advancing on Seoul following the landing despite limited opposition, complete mastery of the air and sea and, in the case of the 1st MarDiv, being equipped with “tank, amphibious tractor, motor transport battalions and a fully motorised artillery regiment.” It took 12 days for the Marines and Army to reach the outskirts of Seoul, a distance of only 20 miles and across a well-developed road and rail system.37 The problem lay in the mindset of the 1st MarDiv. Filled with veterans, at all levels, whose knowledge of amphibious warfare was based on the slow, methodical battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, it had trouble breaking out of “its Pacific island fortress assault mentality.”38 The slow pace of the advance gave the NKPA in Seoul time to prepare, something that maneuver warfare seeks to prevent.


Operation CHROMITE was a masterful display of military prowess. With a swift blow to the flank, the forces under MacArthur were able to devastate the NKPA and change the course of the Korean War. Inchon demonstrated the important role amphibious warfare still had following the end of World War II. It also showed the importance of having a dedicated amphibious force, as there is no chance such a risky operation could have been undertaken as successfully by anybody other than a professional force. In addition Inchon showed the importance of joint operations and the effect maneuver warfare can have.

MacArthur’s leadership up to and during the landing was nothing short of spectacular. Operation CHROMITE only happened because of his vision and drive. The willingness of MacArthur to even attempt a landing at Inchon, especially given the fact that Inchon was precisely the wrong sort of place to launch an amphibious assault, demonstrates how important leadership is when undertaking such risky operations. While he misunderstood (or ignored) the context surrounding CHROMITE, he deserves full credit for seeing Operation CHROMITE through from conception to its brilliant execution.

The lack of security surrounding the landing was disgraceful, and the failure to gather intelligence in the prewar period was unacceptable. The Marine forces were too slow in their advance on Seoul, but it must be recognised that they were fighting in the memory of the Pacific campaign of World War II. To the veterans of the Pacific, slow and methodical was the only option available to them and that was how they fought at Inchon. Despite this, Inchon was, and forever will be, one of the most important examples of amphibious warfare in history as few other operations have achieved so much, so quickly, and for so little cost.


1. Hastings, Max, The Korean War, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987, p. 99.

2. Langley, Michael, Inchon: MacArthur’s Last Triumph, Batsford, London, 1979, p. 53.

3. Different sources have different spellings of Inchon, though the previously mentioned one seems to be the most common and will be thus used in this article.

4. Korean Institute of Military History, The Korean War, Vol. 1, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2000, p. 597.

5. Total casualties for the X Corps were 521 dead, 63 missing, 2,438 wounded. Gordon L. Rottman, Inch’on 1950: The Last Great Amphibious Assault^ Osprey, Great Britain, 2006, p. 89. Pusan is now called Busan, but the previous name will be used in this article.

6. Rottman, p. 42-43, according to Rottman, the notion of landing at Inchon was not conceived by MacArthur but rather by Donald McB Curtís, a Pentagon staff member who had prepared a contingency plan, SL- 17, days before the North Korean invasion. Nevertheless, it was MacArthur whose leadership and determination saw the plan go into action.

7 Boose, Jr., COL Donald W., USA(Ret), Over the Beach: US Army Amphibious Operations in the Korean War, Combat Studies Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2008, pp. 159-161.

8. Ibid., p. 161.

9. At the 23 August 1950 meeting, MacArthur said of the risk, “I realize that Inchon is a 5000-1 gamble, but I am used to such gambles,” Col Robert D. Heinl, “The Inchon Landing: A case study in amphibious planning,” Naval War College Review, Spring 1998, pp. 117-134.

10. Ibid., p. 118.

11. Hickey, COL Michael, USA(Ret), “The Inchon Landings, Korea – Operation CHROMITE, 15 September 1950,” in Tristan Lovering, Amphibious Assault: Manoeuvre from the Sea, Seafarer Books, Suffolk, England, 2007, pp. 411-420.

12. Dorschner, Jim, “Douglas MacArthur’s Last Triumph,” Military History, September 2005, Joint Chiefs of Staff-Group, accessed at, 6 October 2010.

13. Heinl, “Inchon, 1950,” in LtCoI Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC(Ret), Assault from the Sea: Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare, ed., Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1983, pp. 337-353.

14. Ibid., p. 340.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., p. 341.

20. Ibid., pp. 340-341.

21. Speller, Ian, and Christopher Tuck, Strategy and Tactics: Amphibious Warfare, Spellmount Publishers, Staplehurst, United Kingdom, 2001, p. 37.

22. Hastings, p. 99.

23. Rottman, pp. 31, 39, according to Rottman:

32 LSTs (landing ship, tank) were crewed by Japanese and were on loan to the Shipping Control Administration, Japan to replace the huge numbers of inter-coastal ships lost during the war which were vital to ensure the country’s recovery and development. The use of these Japanese-manned ships was of questionable legality.

24. Hickey, p. 420.

25. United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, United States Government, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 73, accessed at, 6 October 2010.

26. Rottman, p. 12.

27. Hickey, p. 419.

28. Heinl, “The Inchon Landing,” p. 119.

29. Ibid., p. 27-28.

30. Hastings, p. 99.

31. Malkasian, Carter, Essential Histories, The Korean War, 1950-1953, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, Great Britain, p. 28.

32. Hastings, p. 128-146.

33. Hickey, p. 414.

34. Ibid., p. 419.

35. Hastings, p. 103.

36. Ibid., p. 51.

37. Stolfi, Rüssel H., “A Critique of Pure Success: Inchon Revisited, Revised and Contrasted,” The Journal of Military History, Lexington, VA, April 2004, pp. 505-525.

38. Ibid., p. 515.