Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2013-060
5 August 2013
Review by David Glenn Williams, US Army Logistics University
Into the Breach at Pusan: The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in the Korean War
By Kenneth W. Estes
Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xx, 194. ISBN 978–0–8061–4254–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, Korean War Print Version

Historians and students of the Korean War know the story of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, the so-called "Fire Brigade." Staffed by World War II veterans and experienced in air-ground combat, it arrived in Pusan in late August 1950 to save the fledgling US Eighth Army from imminent destruction at the hands of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA). Thus the Marine Corps describes this mission in the Pusan perimeter defense in its official history, an account many books on the Korean War have accepted uncritically (171nn2–6). Into the Breach at Pusan, by historian and Marine Corps veteran Kenneth W. Estes, provides a needed corrective by debunking the mythology of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade (often hereafter, "the Brigade"). Estes argues that the authors of the official history intentionally skewed and overlooked important facts to prove the need for the Marine Corps itself in a time of particularly sharp interservice rivalry; he believes a critical analysis of the Brigade's actions at Pusan is essential to understanding the first two months of the Korean War.

The book reconstructs the story of the Brigade by carefully comparing the Marine Corps's official history with oral histories and, most importantly, Eighth Army unit reports. In the first of four chapters, "The Marine Corps and the Korean Crisis of 1950," Estes challenges three misleading elements of the official history: its claims about the proportion of World War II veterans in the Brigade and its proficiency in air-ground coordination, as well as its conclusion that the Brigade's battlefield contributions in the defense of Pusan saved the Eighth Army (4). Chapters 2, "First Fortnight in Korea," and 3, "Naktong Battles," concern the tactical details of the Brigade's combat in the context of Eighth Army operations. Chapter 4, "Reorganization and Recording: The Brigade's Legacy," discusses errors in the official history. The brevity of the volume reflects both its narrow scope and the author's concise style of writing.[1]

The official history states that "a glance" at the Brigade's members in Korea shows that the majority were World War II veterans. Estes responds: "In fact, a 'glance' at the personnel records shows that sergeants and below generally had enlisted no earlier than 1945, almost too late to have participated in any ground action, because the Battle of Okinawa (involving only two of the six marine corps divisions taking part in the Pacific War) ended in June of that year. This was also the case for many staff sergeants. As well, a significant number of officers (apart from most of the pilots) lacked combat experience" (22).

Estes finds that the pilots of Marine Aircraft Group 33 (MAG33), the aviation section of the Brigade, were much more experienced. The Marine Corps enjoyed a surplus of pilots despite the post-World War II drawdown, which kept its active and reserve ranks full. More importantly, experienced officers led the aviation wing as the Brigade prepared for war. Estes argues that the official history deliberately blurred the distinction between ground and aviation officers to make the Corps appear more prepared than the Army and thus lend credence to the idea that the Brigade saved the Eighth Army from destruction. Estes's tone is argumentative, but not combative; he has little patience with the triumphalism of service-history accounts.

A second persistent myth concerns the Brigade's supposed proficiency in air-ground coordination. The official history implies that the Brigade controlled its aviation assets throughout the Pusan perimeter defense, and further, that it used them exclusively to support its own ground maneuvers. It also states that the Brigade employed close air support (CAS) effectively, validating Marine Corps doctrine that ground and aviation units should work under the same commander. Estes dispels this myth with primary source documents showing that the 1952 staff study the official history relied on purposely changed sortie numbers to yield a false conclusion.

In fact, MAG33 supported all Eighth Army units, not just the Marine Brigade. Estes compares a chart from the staff study depicting August and September 1950 CAS sorties in support of all United Nations operations to unit records and finds that the numbers do not back up the official history's claim that the Marines' organic air-ground team was superior to the Army-Air Force equivalent. The chart displays a striking pro-Marine bias, despite the fact that the Brigade spent only twelve days in ground combat during this period. It also includes night sorties, even though air control methods for nighttime air-ground coordination were lacking, as well as data from a period after the Brigade had been officially disbanded. Estes accuses the staff study authors of cooking the books to buttress the myth of Marine Corps superiority; the official history merely repeated the study's conclusions as part of its overall brief for the Corps's indispensability to national defense (144).

The most prevalent myth is that the Brigade singlehandedly saved the Eighth Army, thanks to its experienced ground leaders and superior organic CAS. The popular view of the first few months of the Korean War is that the Eighth Army was in disastrous retreat, its units outmanned, outgunned, and lacking discipline. Republic of Korea forces quickly crumbled as the NKPA rapidly advanced southward. The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade arrived just in time to prevent the NKPA from completing its victory by seizing Pusan. Despite incompetent senior Army leaders and their poorly led tactical units, the Marines beat the odds and saved the day. Estes convincingly shows that this version of events is inaccurate on several counts.

That the Eighth Army rapidly retreated and formed a porous perimeter outside Pusan in the first weeks of the war is beyond dispute; but the popular conception of this phase of the war lacks an awareness of context. The first units to arrive in Korea were from Eighth Army's 24th Infantry Division, previously on constabulary duty in Japan. Prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, the Eighth Army commander, Gen. Walton Walker, had implemented an ambitious training plan, but issues of personnel and equipment as well as training space led to uneven results. When President Harry S. Truman committed ground forces to Korea in support of UN Security Council Resolution 82, Far East Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur sent the nearby Eighth Army to fight a delaying action until he could build sufficient combat power to execute an amphibious envelopment. Arriving piecemeal at the battlefield, the inexperienced Army units were pitted against superior enemy forces in difficult terrain and weather. The Pusan perimeter that formed as a result of this action entailed a steady build-up of troops on the UN side and supply lines on the NKPA side.

The core components of the mythology of the Brigade's rescue of the Eighth Army include, first, that its original orders directed it to Japan to prepare for amphibious deployment. Conditions, however, changed as it was en route and the Brigade found itself in Pusan preparing to support the Eighth Army. Second, several misunderstandings shaped the Brigade's perception of its first action. Having joined Army regiments in a counterattack force tasked with seizing the town of Chinju, the Brigade, after some confusion in passing through Army lines, encountered NKPA units that Army regiments had bypassed. Further, the Brigade, unaware that the Army had planned on a very limited operation, felt its efforts had been wasted when the mission was seemingly aborted short of its objective. Third, the Brigade believed it had needed to fight twice in Naktong to recover ground lost by the Army.

Such beliefs about the Brigade's role in the war are the consequence of "incredibly myopic viewpoints" (137), Estes writes. Specifically, the official history ignores the confusion of Marine battalions attested in unit records and oral histories; the role played by Army "fire brigades" like the 27th Infantry Regiment; and the realities of the strategic situation. Estes shows, however, that the Brigade's actions are no less heroic when honestly assessed in their true context. This is the greatest strength of his book. The Eighth Army used the Marine Brigade just as it had other units held in operational reserve—to its own advantage in response to rapidly changing conditions. The rugged terrain, extreme temperatures, and poor training that afflicted both the Marines and the Army required officers and men to adapt accordingly. An unwavering expectation of victory despite unforeseen challenges was the Marines' greatest strength—one undiminished by any fair evaluation of the 1st Brigade's performance in Korea.

The period 1945–50 witnessed the rapid demobilization of the armed forces and a subsequent reorganization of the Department of Defense. Many senior Marine Corps leaders, fearing that Washington wanted to dismantle the Corps, wished to prove its ongoing value and vitality. Seizing the opportunity that the Korean War presented, they began myth building already in 1950. Then Lt. Gen. Lemuel C. Shepard instructed his staff to document the contributions of the Corps in the Korean War; this yielded what Estes calls "a dramatic narrative" (136). The staff study portrayed the Army as unprepared and incompetent, in sharp contrast to the Marine Brigade, which was a combat-hardened, ever-ready, air-ground integrated team. This "spin" of the facts succeeded so well, Estes writes, owing to a willingly uncritical acceptance by those who wrote the Marine Corps official history.

Into the Breach at Pusan will reward both professional historians and students of the Korean War. It usefully deconstructs tenacious myths about the Marine Brigade at Pusan while yet engendering greater respect for the men who fought there. Its author has accomplished all this in a stylistically pleasing[2] and well researched book easily read in one sitting.

[1] There are twenty-nine pages of (largely unneeded) photographs, most available elsewhere. Estes includes eighteen pages of useful appendices; the best is a list of commanders and staff officers of the various units within the Brigade. The endnotes and select bibliography will be helpful to researchers.

[2] There are occasional slips in proofreading; the most glaring is "1st Provincial Marine Brigade" in the title of Appendix A (151).

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