Initial Communist Chinese Logistics
in the Korean War
LTC Patrick A. Reiter
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Korean War began with a surprise attack June 25, 1950, when 90,000 soldiers of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) attacked across the 38th parallel and invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) to the south. Many in the NKPA had served in the Chinese and Soviet armies in World War II. The United Nations Security Council denounced North Korea’s actions and called for NKPA withdrawal to the 38th Parallel dividing North and South Korea. Combat operations did not end until 37 months later, with the signing of an armistice on July 27, 1953.
In 1950, the Chinese Communist regime was terribly vulnerable. The civil war in mainland China had ended only the previous August with the fleeing of Chiang Kai-shek to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the Chinese Communist government had been engaged in the suppression of hundreds of thousands of anti-communist "bandits" and many secret societies dedicated to the overthrow of the communist state. The mainland Chinese leadership was wrestling desperately with the staggering economic problems caused by 12 years of civil war, 1937-1949.
Agricultural acreage was less than two-thirds of prewar tillage, and output fell by more than 40 percent. Only half of the prewar draft animals remained. Declines in hogs, sheep and fertilizer reached 80 to 90 percent. Farm tools were fewer by 40 to 60 percent. Industrial production had also declined. Compared with the "pre-liberation" peaks, physical output in 1949 Communist China was as follows: petroleum 38.1 percent of capacity, pig iron 13.6 percent, steel 17.2 percent, and metal-cutting machines 29.4 percent.
Communist leaders were still seeking to secure what they considered China’s own borders. On October 7, 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army moved into Tibet. (This was the same day the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution approving the advance of American and Allied forces under the United Nations Command into North Korea.) China completed its occupation of Tibet the following year.
Meanwhile, in the east, Beijing’s attentions were overwhelmingly focused upon eliminating Taiwan (then called Formosa) as the base of Nationalist Chinese opposition to the communist regime in mainland China. Throughout the summer of 1950 invasion barges (called "junks") were being built. Some 5,000 junks assembled, and airfields prepared to support the assault on Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan stronghold. The Third Field Army’s deputy commander, Su Yu, declared that the invasion would be "an extremely big problem, and will involve the biggest campaign in the history of modern Chinese warfare." Yet amid all this, Mao Zedong was seeking to demobilize vast masses of his unwieldy People’s Liberation Army. Mao sought to return soldiers to the factories, fields and workshops where they were so desperately needed. The simultaneous demobilization of soldiers in mainland China while preparing for invasion of Taiwan was a problem that leadership in Beijing had failed to resolve by the autumn of 1950.
At the conclusion of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Mao Zedong had visited Moscow in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union) controlled by the Soviet Communist Party. The widely publicized outcome was a friendship treaty between China and the Soviet Union, a continued Soviet presence in the Chinese region of Manchuria, and $300 million in economic aid to China spread over 5 years. This was one-tenth of the amount Mao had hoped to obtain from Soviet Communist leadership.
The People’s Liberation Army in China was still equipped with arms captured from the Japanese, supplied by the Americans to the Nationalist Chinese or with Czechoslovakian weapons bought on the open market. However, much of this equipment was worn out or stalled for lack of spare parts. The most limited small arms production could not be expected for two or three years. The manufacture of heavy weapons would have to wait until mainland China manufactured enough steel.
Manchuria had housed China’s largest industrial base. However, the Soviets had gutted the factories and shipped the machinery back home. Ammunition supplies were dangerously low because aging reserve stocks were deteriorating more rapidly than China’s few arsenals could replenish them. Communist China, including Manchuria, was producing artillery ammunition in 1950 at a rate close to 90,000 rounds a year. (By way of comparison, 21 United Nations battalions fired 309,958 rounds in support of X Corps during the Battle of Soyang, May 17-23, 1951.) Production of small arms ammunition was approximately 1.25 million cartridges per day. China did not produce enough steel for its own use.
Primitive Field Equipment
In terms of actual field equipment in China, the People’s Liberation Army in 1950 was primitive by any standards. It has been compared to any army of 1914, primarily an army of infantry soldiers without trucks and artillery. No air support and no antiaircraft defense existed. Communications from regiment downward was by telephone or by runners. Normally, each battalion headquarters had only one field telephone, and none below that. Bugles, whistles and runners were the communications methods below battalion level. The local population had provided logistical support during the Chinese civil war. When the Chinese Communist forces entered Korea, these Chinese soldiers were fighting outside of their home territory for the first time.
Key to Chinese Warfare
The collapse of the Nationalist Chinese armies came so suddenly during China’s civil war that the victorious People’s Liberation Army had picked up 2.25 million prisoners in the last two years of the war alone. The surrendered soldiers could neither be left to starve, nor could they be allowed to roam freely and cause trouble. These former "enemy" Chinese soldiers had to be temporarily absorbed into the People’s Liberation Army in some capacity. Between 50 and 70 percent of the members of the units sent to Korea in the initial intervention were made up of former Nationalist Chinese soldiers, including the noncommissioned officers and junior officers.
For logistical transport, rail, truck and pack animals were all very limited in the initial operations. The Chinese soldiers had to lean, as in the past, on the sturdy shoulders of the laboring masses. For example, China’s Revolutionary Committee of the Northeast had recruited more than half a million unskilled laborers called "coolies" to carry food and ammunition south across the Yalu River in North Korea.
On October 14, Chinese Communist forces began to cross the Yalu River in great secrecy. By October 24 when ready to strike, they would number nearly 200,000 in North Korea – more than three times the size of the largest force that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur had estimated Chinese Communists could possibly get across the river. On November 2, General MacArthur told the US Joint Chiefs of Staff that Beijing had so far sent in a total of about 16,500 men.
Upon crossing the Yalu River, the Chinese forces employed in the initial attacks were given 4 or 5 days worth of cooked rations and between 40 and 80 rounds of ammunition. In bivouac, no Chinese soldier showed himself, for any reason. Discipline was firm, and perfect. Any man who violated instructions in any way was shot. Chinese soldiers were inured to hardship. They were accustomed to living in the open in all extremes of weather and to subsisting on small amounts of food. They were trained and experienced in guerilla warfare and were adept at hiding, at improvising and at maneuvering on foot in the most inhospitable terrain. The Chinese cavalry forces were mounted on Mongolian ponies.
In 1950 in North Korea, the principal means of transportation were railroads and oxcarts. Few paved roads existed and most of these were in the southern part of the country. Nearly all other roads were dirt, scarcely of all-weather construction, and mostly single lanes. A good many were barely traversable by military vehicles. Most of the roads held up reasonably well in the freezing weather. For the Chinese forces, the North Korean road system was of minimal importance. The two Chinese transportation units (5th and 42d Truck Regiments) assigned to operations in Korea had a total of 800 trucks (the Americans were thought to have at least 2,400), but were lucky to keep more than 300 or 400 trucks operational. The breakdown rate was appalling.
The civilian population in North Korea and the meager resources of the land did not provide the Chinese armies with the support upon which they relied in China. There was little opportunity for living off the land. Even so, the Chinese did requisition grain from the limited resources of some of the Korean villages. Those grain requisitions, depriving many villages of their winter food supply, contributed to a huge refugee problem.
General Peng Dehuai’s army, after only five days of operations, was running out of supplies and could not maintain the pace. It was not the Americans who were defeating him: it was winter and the Chinese inability to fight this sort of war on a straight offensive basis. The logistics of an attacking army are much more difficult than those of a defending army. General Peng’s logistics, by his own statements, were so ridiculous as to be laughable.
The rubber-and-canvas tennis shoes worn by the Chinese soldiers provided no protection against the cold and resulted in extremely heavy rates of frozen feet. The basic uniform was heavily quilted cotton, usually of a mustard brown hue that blended with the bleak Korean landscape. Warm in dry weather, the quilted uniforms were impossible to dry when soaked. Few Chinese soldiers had gloves, so many suffered from frostbitten or frozen hands. They often had to sleep out in the open, in minus-30 degrees Centigrade, without blankets. It was so cold that they could not sleep lying down but had to rest in a sitting position. They could not light fires because of the United States planes. Ears, noses, fingers and toes often dropped off at a mere touch. Sleeping bags were obtained only if captured from the United States forces. In fact, two-thirds of the Chinese casualties were from the cold that winter, against one-third from combat. Chinese veterans later declared that 90 percent of the "volunteers" in Korea suffered from some degree of frostbite in the winter of 1950.
Steady, Unvaried Diet
Medical evacuation and treatment of the wounded were minimal, sometimes nonexistent. In the extremely cold weather, a wounded Chinese soldier was often a dead soldier. There is some evidence that Communist Party members were given preferential medical treatment. According to one account by a captured Communist Chinese forces officer who later refused repatriation, Communist Party members had a special insignia inside their jackets. Aid men were told to look first to see if a wounded man had such an insignia. If so, he was saved if at all possible. It did not matter about the other soldiers. If they were unable to walk, they were either left or shot.
Soldiers Left Where They Fell
No documentation could be found to confirm that mortuary affairs services were part of the initial Communist Chinese forces. Basically, soldiers were left where they fell. The resources to recover, process and transport bodies simply did not exist. Burial was not considered.
China’s Foreign Minister Chou En-Lai, reporting the international situation to a group of government officials soon after China’s intervention, announced: "We are prepared to withdraw, if necessary, from the coastal provinces to the hinterland, and build up the Northwest and Southwest provinces as bases for a long-drawn-out war." The Chinese, in fact, did remove machinery and other materiel from China’s coastal provinces, including the huge furnaces of an important steelworks.
The long-term logistical impact was immense. According to the Pentagon in Washington, DC, the Chinese losses were 401,401 killed, 21,211 missing and 486,995 wounded. The economic cost of the war in Korea to China proved crippling.
Perhaps most surprising, the strongest evidence of the Soviet Union’s lack of enthusiasm for the Korean War lies in the sluggishness with which Stalin in Moscow supplied materiel to Mao in Beijing. Only in Autumn 1951 did Soviet military supplies begin to move in quantity to China. Not only did the Soviet leaders demand money for weapons but they also collected interest. Also, China was excluded from the United Nations and therefore lost any chance of conclusively ending its own civil war by taking Taiwan. Economic reconstruction was impeded by the demands of the war, and the Communist Chinese regime accumulated a huge debt to the Soviet Union for economic and military assistance. The Communist Chinese later complained that no free aid was ever offered by the communist leadership in the Soviet Union.
In summary, the initial Communist Chinese logistics in the Korean War proved that support could be provided over relatively short distances with a very basic infrastructure. The ability to provide support dropped proportionally to the distance the assets were transported. Additionally, the willingness to forgo certain logistical support made transport available for other requirements. The decision to use the Soviet Union’s aid to develop the logistical system quickly changed the support framework of the Chinese Communist forces in Korea.
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