Korean War--June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953

Tearing Up the U.S. Paper Tiger in Korea

Part 2: The Chinese People's Volunteers and the Strategy of People's War

Revolutionary Worker #1060, June 25, 2000

Over the years, the bourgeois press has tried to downplay the brilliance of people’s war as carried on by the Chinese People’s Volunteers in Korea. Various imperialist mouthpieces have made racist portrayals of the so-called hordes of Chinese stupidly making wave upon human wave of useless frontal attacks against a firmly entrenched enemy, accumulating losses that were unnecessary. But the real story — which has been noted by honest journalists — is that the Chinese People’s Volunteers developed a unique and effective style of fighting that took advantage of the various strengths and weaknesses of their own army and that of the enemy.

As a Chinese commander explained, "The enemy’s frontal defense is so tight and its firepower is so well-organized that a frontal attack against such a defense line won’t be effective. On the other hand, what the American troops fear most is being cut off from their communications and retreat lines. Given these strengths and weaknesses we shall try to carry to its full effect such tactics as determined and audacious penetration, close-combat battles, and night operations."1

One historian described the U.S. reaction to the CPV attack against a U.S. battalion at Unsan: "The Americans were shaken by the ferocity of the attack. The cavalrymen had never experienced anything quite like it. The enemy moved catlike in the darkness. Infiltrators made good use of cover, probing unerringly for weaknesses in the defense and exploiting each advantage with uncanny speed. It was as if the offensive had been painstakingly researched. The attackers pressed on regardless of losses, although there were few head-on assaults. All this to the blowing of bugles, whistles, and the occasional beating of gongs."2

The official U.S. Marine Corps history of the war cites the derisive comment of one marine: "How many hordes are there in a Chinese platoon?"

The Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett wrote: "The Americans explained every defeat as due to ‘overwhelming hordes,’ irresistible as the sea, but on innumerable occasions they suffered heavy defeats by tiny groups of men whose morale was high and who had boundless faith in their cause. It was painful for the Americans to have to admit defeat at all, doubly painful to admit they were defeated on equal terms and ten times as painful to admit they were defeated by inferior numbers of ‘Gooks’ and ‘Chinks,’ as they referred to Koreans and Chinese in their racial arrogance."3


A number of historians have commented that in the realm of supply, supposed strength was turned into weakness for the U.S. Army. They point out that the great advantage of the U.S. military forces was its awesome firepower. But great firepower means that great amounts of ammunition had to be transported to the battlefield. Also, the reliance upon heavy weapons like tanks, artillery, and tracked and wheeled vehicles, meant that the U.S. troops were tied to the roads of their Main Supply Routes. The long lines of vehicles were continually attacked from the surrounding hills of the mountainous Korean terrain. When the Main Supply Routes were cut anywhere along the line, the U.S. forces couldn’t be provided for. If the U.S. reopened the Main Supply Route at one place, the People’s Volunteers had only to cut it somewhere else to put the U.S. troops into jeopardy.

With all their tanks and trucks carrying the great assortment of wares befitting an imperialist army, the U.S. soldiers were road-bound. When the U.S. soldiers went into battle, they hated to leave the safety of their trucks and slog across the hills. Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Volunteers continuously baffled the U.S. soldiers with their ability to advance speedily across apparently impassable ground.

The Chinese People’s Volunteers had to rely largely on their own human or animal transport to move supplies to their front line troops. They got by with fewer supplies than the U.S. soldiers, but what they did get was not solely dependent upon the roads. Rather, the Chinese could move on foot through the mountains on steep trails and through roadless valleys and emerge behind U.S. forces to set up roadblocks and cut off or surround the enemy troops.

Chroniclers of the Korean War have observed that even on foot, the CPV could achieve extremely high march rates— 18 miles a day for 18 days straight for one unit. When the Chinese army had to transport supplies by road, they mainly moved at night and without headlights. Lookouts were posted on the highest hills to spot for enemy planes and warn the truck drivers to take cover.


As one observer noted, when the U.S. soldier went into battle he went as part of a pampered army. "Not for them a pound or two of parched grain-meal in a cloth roll on which a Korean or a Chinese fighting man could survive with no more than water. America combat rations then ran to meats, poultry, hamburgers, vegetables, fruits, biscuits, coffee, sugar, milk, vitamins, confectionery, packaged to attract the eye of a supermarket customer. Wherever the troops passed there was a litter of empty or wasted packages."4

Further, the U.S. forces had just been having a holiday as occupying troops in Japan. They spent more time forcing themselves on Japanese women than practicing military skills. Now, they were suddenly lifted from their cushy life and dropped head-up against the Chinese People’s Volunteers.

In contrast, the long years of the Chinese Civil War had battle-hardened the People’s Volunteers. They had learned to live hard, constantly in need of adequate transportation, ammunition, food, and other supplies. Most of the time the Chinese soldiers walked into battle with little sleep and having only eaten some rice for a meal. They had to be very careful not to waste ammunition, sometimes counting their bullets before an all-out assault. The People’s Army had none of the comforts of a modern army. Learning how to fight under such conditions turned great weakness into great strength for the Chinese army fighting in Korea. They lived hard and fought hard.

Through the first few battles of the Chinese First Offensive, the enemy’s weaknesses began to show. In a pamphlet entitled Primary Conclusions of Battle Experience of Unsan, the Chinese summed up their appraisal of the fighting ability of U.S. troops: "When cut off from the rear, American soldiers abandon all their weapons, leaving them all over the place, and play opossum.... Their infantrymen are weak, afraid to die, and haven’t much courage to attack or defend. They depend on their planes, tanks and artillery. At the same time, they are afraid of our firepower. They will cringe when, if on the advance, they hear firing. They are afraid to advance farther.... They specialize in day fighting. They are not familiar with night fighting or hand-to-hand combat.... If defeated, they have no orderly formation. Without the use of their mortars, they become completely lost.... At Unsan they were surrounded for several days, yet they did nothing. They are afraid when their rear is cut off. When transportation comes to a standstill, the infantry loses the will to fight."5


The CPV had fought well during the First Offensive and mainly they were successful in battle. In addition, they seized tons of military equipment that the U.S. soldiers left while in full retreat. As the Chinese Volunteers remarked: they liked fighting the U.S. Army more than the ROK troops because when the U.S. soldiers fled, they left behind all kinds of useful equipment.

But many had escaped from the net during the first battles, so the Chinese command set to work planning a new offensive against the U.S. forces. The CPV commanders wanted the imperialists to be surprised by a sudden, massive offensive that would prove to be totally devastating. For this to happen, the U.S./UN forces would have to advance further into a trap.

The First CPV Offensive had made the U.S. more conservative in their advance. They continually stopped and probed for signs of strong resistance. The Chinese command had to devise a plan to lure the U.S./UN forces in more deeply, and more quickly. For as time went on, there would be more opportunity for the U.S. to discover exactly how many Chinese troops were actually in Korea. But the element of surprise was still very much in their favor. Although there was now certain evidence of the People’s Volunteers in Korea, the U.S. refused to believe that there was much of a Chinese force at all.

The CPV tricked the U.S. by releasing prisoners and withdrawing from the battlefield, giving the illusion that the Chinese were far fewer in numbers and that the U.S. Eighth Army was mainly fighting against the North Koreans who were demoralized by the reverses in the war. The many bourgeois accounts of the war confirm that the U.S. commanders were thoroughly confused. First, a ruthless attack, followed by stillness on the battlefield. It was most puzzling...as if their adversary had disappeared into thin air!

But the U.S. imperialists, forever arrogant and deluded into thinking that all was clear, continued their push to the Yalu and played right into the hands of the Chinese command. On Nov. 25, with great fanfare, the U.S. launched its "Home by Christmas Offensive." The U.S. forces moved northward against light resistance, driving toward the China-Korea border. They hoped to catch the "retreating" Chinese and Korean troops between two prongs of a great pincers between the Eighth Army and the X Corps against the Yalu River. Prior to moving out, the U.S. airforce unleashed a massive bombing campaign to destroy the bridges across the Yalu from China. The U.S. hoped that by destroying the bridges, it would cripple any attempts at reinforcement from the People’s Republic of China. But despite the tremendous tonnage of bombs dropped, only four of the twelve bridges were destroyed.

Meanwhile, Chinese People’s Volunteers had concentrated their forces to hit the imperialists hard. Six field armies numbering about 180,000 were thrown against the U.S. Eighth Army. Three of those armies blocked the advance of three U.S. divisions driving toward the Yalu. The plan was to allow these divisions to advance but hit them before they could consolidate their new positions. The Chinese masterfully chose the terrain on which to fight. About 15 miles north of the Chongchon River, from which the U.S. launched their offensive, the ground rises sharply into rough mountainous terrain with narrow valleys extending northward to the Yalu. It was in the hills overlooking these valleys that the CPV secretly amassed...just waiting for their enemy to approach. The U.S. forces were not at all prepared for the CPV onslaught, which sent them into headlong retreat back across the Chongchon River. If the spiriting of the Chinese People’s Volunteers into Korea was one of the greatest examples of deception in military history, then this second offensive ranked right alongside their previous feat.

The other three CPV armies attacked the main U.S. positions on the Chongchon somewhat inland from where the first three U.S. divisions were attacked. The success of this phase of the offensive depended on a strong frontal attack against the U.S. positions. This frontal assault was designed to hold the attention of U.S. units on the threat in front of them. But the major blow actually fell on the ROK II Corps which was supposed to protect the right flank of the whole Eighth Army. Again, the ROK units were the weakest link in the U.S. chain and the CPV broke it. When the ROK elements crumbled, this left the door open for the Volunteers to hit the exposed eastern flank of the U.S. Eighth Army and allowed the CPV to roll up the enemy from east to west. Consequently, the U.S. 2nd Division caught the full force of this attack on the front, rear, and flanks just outside of the town of Kunu-ri. All U.S. units were ordered to retreat. The Chinese units were now concentrating and moving in broad daylight in pursuit of the retreating U.S. troops.

But more was to come. The Chinese command planned a major ambush for the fleeing U.S. 2nd Division. While other U.S. troops had escaped along a road running west of Kunu-ri, the Chinese command hoped that the 2nd Division would try to escape south down the Kunu-ri/Sunchon Road. In the great confusion of retreat, the U.S. 2nd Division commanders sought exactly this alternative as they thought it to be the shortest and safest route to the rear. Also, there were rumors that the Chinese had set up roadblocks to the west of Kunu-ri. While the U.S. commanders knew that CPV units had been working their way behind the Division, they thought that the Chinese troops were not in any significant numbers. In reality, though, the CPV had already dug in on the high ridges overlooking the road. Further, the Chinese baited the hook for the U.S./UN force by letting a platoon of Sherman M-4 tanks make an unchallenged run down the threatened road. They were after bigger fish!

The only problem for the Chinese forces was how to stop the fleeing U.S. convoy on the road. Once the retreat order was given, the U.S./UN units lost any cohesion as a fighting force and disintegrated into groups of individuals just trying to save their own asses. As a tremendous barrage of firepower rained down onto the seven-mile-long column and fierce fighting erupted amidst napalm attacks by U.S. planes, a small volunteer unit armed with satchel charges crawled up to the front-most tanks and wrecked them, blocking the way. The Kunu-ri/Sunchon road became a gauntlet of death for the U.S. 2nd Division. Finally, the U.S. engineers were able to remove the debris obstructing the road and the remaining units ran for the rear. One bourgeois historian commented on the U.S. losses, "The retreat to Sunchon cost the Americans more than 3,000 casualties, half their guns, and much of their transportation. This was no worse than Washington’s losses at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. But the U.S. 2nd Division suffered most of them in a single afternoon."6


While the Chinese People’s Volunteers attacked the U.S. Eighth Army in the west, they also launched an offensive in the east against the Marine X Corps in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir. A series of bloody battles were fought among the surrounding hills in sub-freezing weather against the Marines attempting to take the advantage of the high ground away from the CPV who had cut the imperialist’s main supply route. The U.S. Marines were forced to fight their way out through a gauntlet of narrow passes suffering heavy losses. They finally succeeded in making it to the port at Hungnam where they loaded onto ships and escaped. The evacuation of the Marines occurred on Dec. 24, the day before Christmas, thus ending the U.S. "Home By Christmas Offensive."

In the eastern theater of operations in Korea, the U.S. X Corps took to the seas in retreat. In the west the U.S. Eighth Army finally stopped their headlong retreat and drew up defensive lines across the midsection of the Korean peninsula. The war dragged on until negotiations ended the fighting in 1953. Although the Chinese People’s Volunteers were not able to totally annihilate the U.S. forces, the defeat of the U.S. had great international significance. The Chinese forces, together with their Korean allies, had won a victory—at least in the sense of fighting the mighty U.S. forces to a standstill and winning an outcome much more in line with the strategic objectives of the revolutionary forces than those of the imperialists.

At the same time, this was an important learning experience for the Chinese revolutionary army. Throughout the war, and in its aftermath, they carefully studied the strengths and weaknesses of each side, as revealed in the conflict. While it is beyond the scope of this article to sum up all of this, a few further points can be noted. For example, some have commented that while the U.S. "heavy tail" of logistics and supply was a vulnerability, as summed up above, the relatively undeveloped logistics and communication on the Chinese side made for difficulties in sustaining and pursuing an offensive over long distances (different from their strengths in local offensives), in particular up against the firepower and air strength of U.S. imperialism. All this was and is important experience to learn from. As Sun Tzu (an ancient theorist on war, often quoted by Mao) put it, "Know yourself and know your enemy and you can win a thousand battles."

To this day, the memory of the Korean War is a nightmare for the U.S. imperialists. Following their defeat in Korea, the U.S. imperialists were again defeated in Vietnam. In Korea, as Mao said, the Chinese fought the U.S. imperialist forces directly and took their measure—gaining a deeper and concrete sense of their strengths and their weaknesses, and learning ways to combat them. While many particular features of the U.S. armed forces have changed since the time of Korea, some basic, underlying strategic weaknesses were revealed there. In the context of the revolutionary wars of today — and tomorrow — the experience and lessons of "taking the measure" of U.S. imperialism in Korea remains important to the people of the world.ld.

"All reactionaries are paper tigers — in appearance, they are frightening, but in reality their strength is not so great."

Mao Tse-tung


1. Shu Guang Zhang, Mao’s Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-1953, University Press of Kansas, 1995, p. 62.

2. Spurr, Russell, Enter the Dragon: China’s Undeclared War Against the U.S. In Korea, New Market Press, NY, 1988, p. 137.

3. Burchett, Wilfred, This Monstrous War, International Publishers, 1953, p. 151.

4. Winnington, Alan, Breakfast With Mao: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent, London and Wishart, 1986, p. 121.

5. Alexander, Bevin, The First War We Lost, Hippocrene Books, 1986, pp. 305-306.

6. Spurr, p. 219.

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