How the Korean War Saved the US Navy

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Although the Air Force got the most attention after World War II, the Navy won it back by playing a critical role in the Korean War.

In the summer of 1949, the admirals revolted. After four years of budget cuts, restructuring, and interservice rivalries, the United States Navy was a shadow of the force that won World War II. Its equipment was a hodgepodge of old ships, like carriers designed in the age of piston engines, that were used alongside new jet-powered F9F Panthers. Even worse, after the atomic bombings and the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, the Navy seemed to have lost its direction and raison d'etre.

In those days, the newly created Air Force was the military's rising star. Its sleek silver planes and city-leveling atom bombs captured the public imagination. Not only were these bombers symbols of the modern post-War world, but their bombs seemed to hold the promise of quickly, decisively, and cheaply winning the next war. The Navy, bound by the seas, simply couldn’t compete.

When it came to battles in Congress, the Navy repeatedly lost out to the "angels" in blue. This came to a head in 1949, when in a messy and public show, the Navy refused to accept the domination of the Air Force. This revolt, launched in front of Congress, did little to staunch the bleeding of money, men, and interest. But unbeknownst to the Navy or the politicians, the dimensions of the conversation were about to radically change.

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The Korean War Begins

B-29 Dropping Bombs over North Korea. Source: Wikipedia
B-29 Dropping Bombs over North Korea. Source: Wikipedia

June 25, 1950 was a momentous day for the Navy, though no one at the time would have realized it. Covered by the rain and the storms of the Korean summer, tanks and truckloads of northern Communist infantry in the north crossed the 38th Parallel in an attempt to overthrow the south's Western-backed, government. Equipped with ex-Soviet equipment, including the T-34 tank, the Northern army was able to quickly overwhelm and overrun the South Korean forces along the border, along with the American troops who were rushed from Japan to stiffen their resistance. By August, sufficient ground forces had been deployed to hold a small defensive line around the city of Pusan, but the Communist army constantly pressed them.

To support the forces on the ground, both the Air Force and the Navy deployed forces to Korea. The Air Force focused its efforts on a strategic bombing campaign, utilizing a fleet of B-29s based out of Japan to level every road, bridge, factory, and key structure in North Korea. But, contrary to what the bomber advocates had long promised, this kind of strategic campaign did not halt the flow of men and material south.

However, the Navy deployed several carrier groups. From these ships, Navy and Marine pilots flying both modern jet fighters and World War II vintage piston planes provided the Army much needed close air support. Once the Army was pinned into the narrow Pusan Perimeter, the Navy's carriers became the only runways capable of launching heavily loaded fighter-bombers. Their contribution was critical in helping the Army hold the line. Meanwhile, destroyers and cruisers from both the American and British Navies engaged Korean ships to shore positions in an effort to limit the flow of troops along the key coastal highways. All the while screening critical convoys with men and supplies.

Navy Fighters flying over Korea. Source: Joint Aircraft Survivability Program
Navy Fighters flying over Korea. Source: Joint Aircraft Survivability Program

By September, the Army was ready for its counter attack. But the breakout from Pusan was just one component of several in the effort to destroy the Northern army. Landings at Incheon, near Seoul, helped to liberate the capital and cut off forces retreating northward. Here again, carrier aviation played a major role, not just in assisting the Marines as they moved inland towards Seoul, but in strafing and bombing convoys of retreating North Korean troops.

When the Army finally crossed over the 38th Parallel, the Navy had virtually destroyed the Korean Army. And when the Chinese army intervened in the winter of 1950 and threatened to push the UN forces off the Korean peninsula, the Navy, working with Air Force fighters, ultimately pushed back the Chinese forces. While the war stalled out along the 38th Parallel, the Navy played a key role in providing support to Army and Marine forces across the warzone for the next two years. Their involvement was instrumental in halting two enemy offensives and supporting two friendly counter-attacks.

Post War Influence

In Washington, the Korean War fundamentally changed the way politicians looked at the Cold War.

First, and most importantly, the war meant that budgets ballooned. Even after the Armistice in 1953, cuts were never as severe or as lopsided as they were in the 1940s. On a strategic level, the Korean War helped to reaffirm the importance of the Navy in an atomic world.

Air Force theorists throughout the 1940s had promised that their bombers, equipped with the fission bombs, would quickly destroy the infrastructure of an enemy country. They argued that future wars would be all out atomic affairs in which the only assets that mattered were the number of bombs and the bombers capable of carrying them.

But the Korean War wasn’t an all-out atomic war. While the Air Force succeeded in leveling virtually every city in the North, it did little to stop both the early Northern advance and the later Chinese attack. Rather, it was the Navy and its carrier-based fighters that responded first and paved the way for the UN counter attacks.

The Navy had what the Air Force didn’t: the flexibility to respond quickly to any crisis in the world and support ground troops there with conventional, as well as atomic, payloads. This lesson was not lost on the admirals who so recently had expressed their displeasure to Congress, nor was it lost on the politicians who suddenly saw the world in a completely new light.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.