ROK Army and Marines
Talking Proud Archives --- Military
ROK Army and Marines prove to be rock-solid fighters and allies in Vietnam War
The United States did not fight alone in the Vietnam-Laos Wars. Six nations and many indigenous peoples from the region fought with her. One of those was the Republic of Korea (ROK). The Koreans started arriving shortly after the US Marines in 1965, they kept coming, and they stayed and fought until the end, in 1973. At their peak, they had close to 50,000 boots on the ground, the second largest foreign force to fight for the RVN. Over 300,000 served. About 5,000 died. This was the ROK's first military action abroad. It came only 17 years after the republic was formed, only 16 after its fledgling new constabulary was formed, and only 12 after the Korean War concluded. They fought hard. Their enemy, our enemy, paid a dear price for engaging them.
US Army Sergeant Walter Mangelsen, tall soldier in the rear center, Major Bolcar, crouched in front of him, with fellow Republic of Korean (ROK) soldiers in front of a 106 mm recoilless gun, Republic of Vietnam (RVN), summer 1966. Photo provided by Sgt. Mangelsen, presented by Vietnam Veterans of Korea.
July 12, 2006
Active American involvement in Vietnam and Laos began during the Truman administration in the 1950s.
Then, on March 8, 1965, after more than ten years of various levels and mixtures of counter-insurgency and conventional ground and air operations, US Marine Corps Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, the 3-9 Marines, waded ashore at Red Beach, about 10 miles from Danang, Republic of Vietnam (RVN).
Marines from BLT 3/9 came ashore on March 8, 1965 at Red Beach 2, northwest of Danang. USMC Photo A183676. Presented by ehistory at The Ohio State University.
Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines disembark from U.S. Air Force C-130 transports at the Danang Airbase on March 8, 1965. Presented by ehistory at The Ohio State University.
That same afternoon, the BLT 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 1-3 Marines, landed at Danang by C-130 transport from Okinawa. The lead aircraft received ground-based sniper fire but landed safely.
These Marines were the first official US ground combat forces put into Vietnam. In theory, all the troops who came before were advisors, and the air units were air units. No matter what the suits in Washington called them, they were US military and a bunch of them died fighting. The Marines, however, were not sent to advise anyone. They were sent to fight the communist enemies from North Vietnam Army (NVA)and their local militia side-kicks known as the Viet Cong, the VC.
Our guess is that few Americans, and perhaps few Koreans, realize that close behind the arrival of the US Marines in Vietnam were the arrivals of one Republic of Korea (ROK) Army Division and one ROK Marine Corps Brigade. They started landing in the RVN during September and October 1965. They also did not come to advise anyone. They came to fight against the NVA and VC.
By the end of 1966, just one year later, the ROK had deployed the second largest foreign force to Vietnam, behind the US.
The names of the Korean Killed In Action (KIA) in Vietnam are engraved on black marble stone, classified by units to which the deceased belonged during the Vietnam War, at the Korean War Memorial, Seoul, ROK. Presented by Vietnam Veterans of Korea.
At their peak, the Koreans had close to 50,000 boots on the ground, the second largest foreign force to fight for the RVN. All together, over 300,000 South Koreans served throughout the war. All ROK forces were volunteers. About 5,000 of them died in combat in Vietnam, and nearly 11,000 were injured or wounded.
The Koreans did not cut and run when the going got tough. The cease-fire went into effect on January 30, 1973. They stayed until the bitter end, February - March 1973. The contributions of the brave Korean soldiers, Marines and aviators to the war effort were awesome. Their willingness to work with American forces were notable and worth remembering. We Americans owe them a great deal of gratitude. Next time you see a South Korean citizen, thank them for their sacrifice in Vietnam on behalf of our grateful nation.
Brief history to put ROK achievements into context
We must recall that the ROK became a nation-state in 1948, just 17 years earlier than its first combat deployment abroad, to Vietnam.
The Korean peninsula had been occupied by the Japanese since about 1910. When the Japanese were defeated in WWII, the Soviet Army moved into the northern half of the peninsula almost immediately, while the US occupied the south. Much of the country, north and south, faced extreme poverty.
On September 9, 1945, the Japanese flag was lowered in Seoul, soldiers standing at ease, while the flag of the United States was being hoisted, soldiers at attention and presenting arms.In November 1945, the US Military Government in Korea was set up. Lt. General John R. Hodge was pulled from Okinawa and named the Commander, US Army Forces in Korea (USAFIK), and thereby became essentially southern Korea's chief executive.
At the time, there was considerable controversy in the US on how to handle southern Korea. The US was focused on Japan and wanted little to do with southern Korea at the time. Not only was Japan far more important to the US, many senior American officials were unsure with whom they were dealing in Korea, and were not well-versed in Korean affairs. The history of this period is fascinating and eye-opening.
In early 1946, USAFIK implemented the "Bamboo Plan." This plan set up the Korean Constabulary. This constabulary formed the basis of the ROK Army, ROKA. Men who served with the Japanese army were brought into the constabulary, and communists from the North infiltrated it. Its 1st Regiment was formed in Seoul right away.
In 1948, the North Korean Provisional Government run by the Soviets announced the activation of an army. In response, the US declared the formation of the ROK as a nation-state. That became official on August 15, 1948. Regiments 2-8 of the constabulary were organized in each province in 1949. As a result, the ROK National Armed Force organization was in its fledgling stages.
The political maneuvering and history during this period merit study. It is remarkable that any kind of ROK fighting force could be built under the conditions that endured during these times. In 1949, the last US occupation forces left Korea, leaving a 500-man advisory group behind. The US wanted out and got out.
The Soviets, entrenched in the north, had always wanted to own all the Korean peninsula, they equipped and supplied the North Korean Army, and gave it the green light to invade the ROK. That army did so on June 25, 1950.
The newly formed ROK Army (ROKA) had 95,000 men and eight divisions, but they were vastly outnumbered, outgunned, and surprised, and the Americans were gone.
Exhausted South Korean infantry stretch during a lull in the fighting, July 7, 1950. Photo: U.S. Army. Source: D.M. Giangreco, War in Korea: 1950-1953 (Presidio Press). Presented by the Truman Library.
Understandably, the ROKA was under-trained, under-equipped, oft poorly led, and riven with political partisanship, subversion, and factionalism.
24th Infantry Division troops of Task Force Smith at Taejon railroad station on July 2, 1950. Photo: U.S. Army. Source: D.M. Giangreco, War in Korea: 1950-1953 (Presidio Press). Presented by Veterans Hour.
The US military force at home had been disassembled following WWII. The US rushed a few unprepared battalions from Japan to the peninsula. At this point in time, the ROK was in deep trouble.
A South Korean soldier comforts a wounded buddy before he is evacuated, July 28, 1950. Photo: Department of Defense. Source:Truman Library.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the ROKA and its few American allies took a beating through the first months of the 1950 invasion. Seoul, for example, was captured almost immediately, on June 28, 1950.
Presented by PBS.
By the end of July, North Korean forces had pushed US and ROK forces to the southeast sector of the ROK where they dug in at what became known as the Pusan Perimeter. The truth is that General MacArthur understood the allied force in Korea was in trouble, and as a result set up the Pusan Perimeter concept: withdraw fighting all the way, reinforce and supply the Perimeter from home (Pusan was a very capable port facility), draw the North Korean logistics lines as far as they could go, make a stand and then push them back.
Presented by PBS.
We'll not go into the details of the war other than to say that when the US 8th Army decided to break out of the Pusan Perimeter on September 16, 1950, the ROK I and II Corps were already in position on the northern side of the Perimeter, cocked and ready to go.
Presented by PBS.
While it is true that parts of the North Korean invasion force were battle tested as the result of serving in the Chinese, Japanese and Soviet armies during WWII, they endured a melt-down once the allies broke out of the Pusan Perimeter. They were not the die-hard tough guys many have made them out to be.
The ROK I Corps with the Tiger Division crossed the 38th parallel to the east in late September and early October, capturing Wonson port. The ROK II Corps crossed just thereafter through central North Korea. The US 8th Army followed. A ROKA regiment was the first to reach the Yalu River on the border with China. Much of the allied force approached the Chinese border and MacArthur was itching to cross in. The suits in Washington did not want a fight with the Chinese, and refused the advance. In response, the Chinese crossed and attacked, sending the allied force into a most difficult fighting withdrawal. Interestingly, the Soviets started the fight, the Chinese vowed to finish it, and the Soviets would have received little in return.
By late 1951 - early 1952, a host of actions that had been in train to build up the ROKA took hold, and the ROKs fought with great aggressiveness and valor through the end. Dr. Bryan Robert Gibby, writing "Fighting in a Korean War: The American advisory missions from 1946-1953," said this:
"By the end of the war, Koreans were bearing a military burden that was inconceivable just two years earlier. It is improbable that an armistice agreement could have been signed without a demonstration of their increased fighting ability."
As we all know, the Chinese pushed back the allies south of the 38th parallel, and the net result was stalemate. The Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. ROKA had lost 257,000 soldiers in this war. That said, South Korea became a successful and vibrant nation and North Korea became what it was before the war started, an impoverished, nearly failed-state.
The point of this history, from the perspective of this report, is that just 12 years after the Armistice, the ROK found itself sending two premier combat infantry divisions, one hardened Marine brigade, and assorted support personnel to fight in Vietnam in an alliance with the US and others. For those who understand military evolution, that the ROK could undertake this kind of contribution is a major historical milestone.
Republic of Korea National Cemetery, named Dongzak Dong, equivalent to our National Cemetery at Arlington. Presented byredpeach.net
Much of ROK military history in Vietnam is reflected on the web site of the Vietnam Veterans of Korea. We have worked hard not duplicate what they have done. We have corresponded frequently with Mr. Jae S. Chung, the webmaster for the English site. He has been very helpful. Thanks Jae.
US Army Lt. General Stanley R. Larsen and Brigadier General James L. Collins, Jr. have assembled a terrific study of allied participation in Vietnam for the Department of the Army. It was published in 1985. It has a very informative section on the ROK’s contribution. We commend both of these sources to your attention.
The national flags of the Republic of Korea, Republic of Vietnam, and United States flying at Da Nang Air Base, RVN, 1968. Presented bypopasmoke.com
ROK President Syngman Rhee offered to send a ROKA element to Vietnam as early as 1954. Rhee said he was concerned about the spread of communism and the impact events in Vietnam might have on North Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea - DPRK). The timing of his offer was not good. He made this offer less than a year after the Armistice Agreement was signed effectively ending the Korean War. The US was, in 1954, not ready to go at it again with ground forces in Vietnam. The US also did not want to deplete ROK forces protecting the country following the war. The year of his offer was also the same year the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. US involvement in Vietnam was in its very early and indecisive stages. As a result, the US State Department turned down the offer.
What a difference a decade makes. In May 1964, Major General Norman B. Edwards, Chief, US Joint Military Advisory Group, Korea, began preliminary planning to send a Korean Mobile Army Surgical Hospital to Vietnam. The Korean Ministry of Defense (MOD) and the United Nations Command (UNC) agreed. A survey team of six Korean and five US officers left the ROK in August 1964 for Vietnam. In September an agreement was reached for the Koreans to send and operate a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit in the RVN. The deployment of the ROK Army (ROKA) 1st MASH began in September 1964, first activated at Vung Tau.
We have several photos of the MASH unit people provided by Vietnam Veterans of Korea.
100th Logistics Command "Southern Cross"
Peace Dove Division, Engineers, transporters, logistics security, service, and 1st ROK MASH
1st ROK MASH
Naval Transport Group "Sea Gull Unit"
Aerial Support Group
The ROK Military Assistance Group, Vietnam (ROK-MAG-V), and what came to be known as the “Peace Dove Unit” were set up between February and June 1965. It would consist of 2,416 men and women from a Korean construction support group ("Pigeon Unit"), a Korean Marine Corps engineer company, Korean Navy Tank Landing Ships (LSTs) and Landing Ships Mechanized (LSMs), and a Korean Army security company. This would grow in short order to an Army engineer battalion; an Army transport company; a Marine engineer company; one LST with crew; a security battalion; a service unit; a liaison group, and a mobile hospital (already in Vietnam). An aerial support group was set up later.
ROK-MAG(V) was headquartered at Bien Hoa, near Saigon. The "Peace Doves" built many school buildings, freeways, roads, and bridges for the Vietnamese in the RVN.
The ROK then sent three combat divisions to the RVN over a 12 month period starting in September 1965. The Koreans were willing to send a ROK Air Force (ROKAF) F-86 fighter squadron but that did not happen. There has been much written about why the ROK agreed to send such a large combat force to Vietnam. Much of this has centered on the needs the ROK had for American financial help at home and the positive impact that such a deployment would have on the ROK economy. That's all politics and we'll shy away from those kinds of discussions here.
We will comment, however, that the US commander in Vietnam wanted ROK help for military reasons.
In a June 13, 1965 telegram from General Westmoreland, Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) to Admiral Sharp, the Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), Westmoreland, among other things, said this:
"MACV has asked for added forces (previously). These consist of two battalions to round out the 3d Marine Division, a ROK division, an airmobile division, the retention of the 173d Airborne Brigade, tactical fighters and a corps headquarters plus combat and logistic support forces. We have also flagged the possibility of additional forces ... II corps has a hopelessly large area to cover with the meager forces available ... The 23d Division is scattered so widely that it cannot react in strength to VC attacks against isolated province capitals and district towns. We are greatly concerned that such towns as Ham Tan in Binh Tuy and Gia Nghia in Quang Duc and even Phan Thiet in Binh Thuan may be attacked. (Army of the Republic of Vietnam - ARVN) Corps commanders without adequate reserves have shown conclusive evidence that they will move timidly and too late in a piecemeal manner upon the event of a VC heavy attack. This is resulting in the loss of ARVN battalions faster than they can be organized, trained and equipped. II Corps requires heavy reinforcements. We have asked for an infantry brigade, an airmobile division and a ROK division."
He then went on to say that his plan was to use the ROKs to secure Qui Nhon and Cam Ranh Bay. (We'll show you a map in a moment) That would enable him to send a brigade of the 1st US Infantry Division, "Big Red One," to the general area of Highway 19 to secure it, which in turn would enable him to get US forces in and out of the Central Highlands of Pleiku and Kontum provinces, and to supply them. He commented:
"The fact is that Highway 19 must be kept open."
Capital "Tiger" Division
9th "White Horse" Division
2nd Marine "Blue Dragon" Brigade
The ROKs exceeded Westmoreland's expectations. They sent the Capital "Tiger Division" to Qui Nhon, and the 2nd Marine "Blue Dragon" Brigade to Cam Ranh Bay and then to Tuy Hoa to get things started in 1965. Then, starting in April 1966, they sent in the 9th ROK "White Horse" Division. Once done, the Marine Brigade could move into the northernmost I Corps to join with the US III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF). In turn, the Koreans created a Korean Army Corps that extended from Binh Dinh Province south to Ninh Thuan Province along the RVN's coastline.
The Capital "Tiger" Division was responsible for Binh Dinh Province, while the 9th "White Horse" Division was responsible for Phu Yen, Khanh Hoa and Ninh Thuan provinces, all in II Corps. The Blue Dragon Marine Brigade was positioned at Cam Ran Bay, in southeastern Khan Hoa Province, then moved to Tuy Hoa, then moved to I Corps. Presented by Shukhevych in Open Diary.
We don't want to get too bogged down in organizational stuff, but a few organizational comments should be made.
When he arrived in Saigon on August 21, 1965, Major General Chae Myung Shin was already wearing at least two hats. First, he was the commander of all Korean forces in Vietnam, known as ROK Forces Vietnam, or ROKFV, kind of an administrative and political job. Second, he commanded the Capital "Tiger" Division, a purely combat job. His role would expand quickly.
By the end of 1965, the Capital Army Infantry Division and 2nd Marine Brigade were largely in place. The 9th ROK White Horse Infantry Division would arrive during the fall of 1966. Once that became fact, at the recommendation of General Westmoreland, the Koreans established a Korean Army Corps Headquarters in Nha Trang, RVN to command and control the two ROK Army Divisions. The Marine Brigade would work with III MAF, which commanded I Corps.
As a result, General Chae commanded ROKFV, the Korean Corps, and the Tiger Division. After setting up and taking over the Korean Corps, he was promoted to lieutenant general.
Commanding General of ROKF-V, Lt. General Chae Myung Shin. General Chae is carrying two different unit patches, one on his right arm is ROKF-V HQ and the other on left is Maengho (Tiger Division). Presented by Vietnam Veterans of Korea.
At some point soon thereafter, Major General Yoo Byung-hyun (shown in this photo to the right) took over the Tiger Division, leaving General Chae in command of ROKFV and the Korean Corps. Wearing his ROKFV hat, General Chae had command responsibilities over the 2nd Marine Brigade as well, but operationally, that brigade responded to operational requests from the III MAF and I Corps commander, at the time Lt. General Walt, USMC.
We'll pause for just a moment. General Yoo Byung-hyun's name gets spelled several different ways. He used "Byong H. Lew," we believe, mostly with Americans. He would ultimately rise to the rank of four-star general and become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the ROK military. Following his retirement, he served as the ROK ambassador to the US from 1980-1985.
This is a photo circa June 1967 of Lt. James Michener, USA who served as General Lew's pilot, taking him in and out of the places where his Tiger Division forces were located.
Command and control, especially among allies, is always complicated. There were many discussions during the course of the early years on this subject. There are two important things to remember about the arrangements as they ended up.
- First, the Koreans maintained their official independence from the US command and control system. This was important to them. General Westmoreland felt he could work that way.
- Second, while they always had maneuvering room because of their independence, as a general rule the Koreans agreed to de facto operational control by US commanders; they usually accepted requests as orders.
Once set up, the Korean Corps co-located with the HQ ROKFV in the same building at Nha Trang, RVN. This ROK HQ was close to the Headquarters US I Field Force, a US Army Corps-level command, responsible for II Corps, also at Nha Trang. This enabled the US and ROK leadership to coordinate easily. The Koreans also maintained a headquarters in Saigon to assure they got their oar in with the Americans, South Vietnamese and other allies on the "political" and "strategy" fronts.
Field Command Headquarters of the Republic of Korea Force, Vietnam, at Nha Trang, RVN. Presented by US Army.
In effect, the RVN’s coast of II Corps became Korean country. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex war, ROKA responsibility for such a large section of coastline in II Corps freed the US and others to concentrate on the central highlands, just to the west, most significantly Pleiku and Kontum provinces. By late 1964, NVA and VC had worn down the ARVN, which is why General Westmoreland said he needed reinforcements for II Corps. A significant part of the NVA strategy was to split the central highlands in half, and then defeat the allies in each half. They did not succeed.
There has been much written about what ferocious fighters the Koreans were in this war. That they were, ferocious and steadfast, as you will see. They did not come to Vietnam to play marbles, and the enemy was scared to death of engaging them. There have also been allegations of their committing crimes against humanity. We'll not comment on that. We will simply tell you what the ROK code of conduct was during this war. It was as follows:
"To the enemy, be courageous and fearful. To the Vietnamese people, behave with kindness and warmness. To our allies, show them we are well disciplined and reliable."
We will also say that the general officers in the Korean military echoed this code publicly and frequently.
A ROK Nurse, rank 1st Lt., and a technician provide medical treatment to a captured Viet Cong at the 102nd ROK Evacuation Hospital, Nha Trang. Presented by the Vietnam Veterans of Korea.
The official US military history on ROK participation in the Vietnam War says this:
“In summary, it appears that Korean operations in Vietnam were highly professional, well planned, and thoroughly executed; limited in size and scope, especially in view of assets made available; generally unilateral and within the Korean tactical area of responsibility; subject to domestic political considerations; and highly successful in terms of kill ratio.”
We believe this to be an understatement. Some US military commanders complained that the ROKs were too limited in the size and scope of their operations, and some believed they stood down too long between operations, and that they spent too much time planning their operations.
ROK Color Guard displays flags at ceremonies commemorating the third anniversary of Korean forces in Vietnam. Presented by US Army.
That said, nearly all will agree that the story of the ROK military in Vietnam resides in its very high kill ratio of enemy killed to Koreans lost and the stark fear these courageous war fighters brought to the hearts of the enemy. Captured enemy documents reflect that the enemy worked hard to avoid the Koreans, and were told to stay away from them unless they were sure of victory. You will see victory against the ROKs in Vietnam could never be assured, even when the ROKs were vastly outnumbered and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Somehow, in most instances, the ROKs would emerge the victors and the battlefield would be strewn with dead enemy.
The story of the ROK military in Vietnam is also one of intense combined operations with Americans, most especially helicopter units that carried them in and out of combat assaults. The ROKs earned great respect from the Americans with whom they fought.
Finally, the story is one where ROK military actions enabled US ground forces to be used elsewhere; they opened avenues of attack for the Americans to attack into other areas; and, when combined with American and allied forces, the ROKs added a highly lethal and trustworthy dimension.
There were differences between some US commanders and the ROK senior leadership on the best way to employ the ROK force. The ROKs very much favored small unit operations, aggressive offensive raids on isolated targets, offensive ambushes, especially at night, and, because of their martial arts expertise, they felt they had a distinct advantage in close hand-to-hand combat, which was most certainly true. Some US commanders tended to favor larger scale operations conducted more frequently, and Americans were not trained as well in close quarters combat.
Whatever the case, the Koreans found their niche and killed a great many enemy as a result.
Their overall approach was designed around the individual company. They trained their combat companies to be independent. They designed their tactical company bases to support this approach. We want to show you a few photos of this design, presented by the Vietnam Veterans of Korea.
This photo shows the design of a Tiger Division company base. You can see the outer circle which was made of wire entanglements and heavily fortified barriers. By heavily fortified, the Koreans meant the barriers had napalm, illumination mines, barbed wire and claymore mines.
Extensive and very solidly built trenches surrounded the base inside the outer circle, with many of the trenches ending up at the outer circle.
This is a graphic sketching the design. The tactical operations center was in the middle, along with a landing zone (LZ) for helicopter resupply and medevac. You can see the trench system was designed to enable crisscrossing fields of view and fire.
This is another nice photo of a ROK firebase. We're not sure which outfit used it, but believe fliers saw it frequently on their way to runway 33 at Phu Cat. If that is correct, then it was a Capital "Tiger" Division base. Photo presented by 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (TEWS), 1970-71, "aerial Photos."
One more very important point must be made. The ROK, and for that matter, the American commitments to Vietnam were made understanding they created heightened risks to the security of South Korea. The communist government in Pyongyang, North Korea took note of that. The Korean DMZ area, and the offshore islands, had been hot zones since the end of the Korean War. Infiltration by communist agents had also been problematic These were the realities of living adjacent to a hostile North Korea. But during the Vietnam War years, the North Koreans stepped up their harassments to very dangerous levels.
USS Pueblo docked in Pyongyang, capital of communist North Korea. The North Koreans give tours of this hijacked ship. They call it the "armed spy ship of the US imperialist aggression forces." Presented by Neil Mishalov.
On January 23, 1968, North Korean naval vessels and MiG fighter aircraft attacked and captured the USS Pueblo electronic intelligence ship in international waters off the coast of North Korea, and towed it to Wonson harbor. The enemy killed one American, captured 82 remaining crew, held them prisoners for 11 months, and kept the ship. The 7th Fleet wanted to sail into Wonson harbor, take back the Pueblo, and inflict whatever damage to the harbor that was necessary. There were other more aggressive plans, including some involving nuclear attack. All of them were rejected by the suits in Washington. The enemy in North Korea holds the ship to this day and the US has never retaliated.