When the Eighth Army crossed the 38th parallel and drove toward the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang, General MacArthur had the 187th Airborne RCT in GHQ reserve. Hoping to cut off North Korean officials and troops fleeing to the north and to rescue American prisoners of war who would probably be evacuated when the fall of the capital seemed imminent, MacArthur planned to drop the airborne north of Pyongyang. He set the date for 20 October 1950. The airborne regiment would jump into two drop zones 30 miles north of Pyongyang, the principal landing to take place at Sukchon, the other at Sunchon. These towns, about 15 miles apart, controlled the two main roads leading north out of Pyongyang.
The ROK 1st Division and the US 1st Cavalry Division, both under the I Corps, drove into Pyongyang on 19 October. On the following day, as Pyongyang was being cleared and secured and the I Corps was ordering the attack to the north continued, the 187th Airborne RCT executed the drops about 30 miles to the north. Against little opposition, about 2,800 men dropped at Sukchon, the 1st Battalion (1,450 men) landing first. These troops cleared the town and seized hills east and north of the town. Then the 3d Battalion dropped in the same zone, turned to the south, took up blocking positions on hills two miles from the town, and established roadblocks across the highway and railroad.
The 2d Battalion (about 1,200 men) dropped at Sunchon, quickly took the town, and set up roadblocks. Shortly thereafter, the battalion made physical contact with units of the ROK 6th Division, which had reached Sunchon from the southeast as the division pushed toward the Chongchon River.
On the following day, 21 October, the airborne troops at Sunchon and Sukchon made physical contact by means of patrols. The 1st Battalion at Sukchon gained territory it needed directly north of town to complete the blocking mission. The 3d Battalion, starting south from Sukchon to make contact with friendly troops moving north from Pyongyang, encountered heavy resistance about 6 miles from Sukchon and engaged in a fierce battle against superior numbers. In Pyongyang that day, the US 24th Division, with the attached 27th British Commonwealth Brigade in the lead, headed north toward Sukchon.
On the following day, 22 October, British troops made contact with the North Korean force battling the paratroopers south of Sukchon. Americans and British together practically destroyed what turned out to be an enemy regiment. That afternoon, British troops relieved the 187th Airborne RCT at Sukchon, and on 23 October the entire regiment moved to Pyongyang.
Although the airborne operation failed to cut off any sizable part of the North Korean forces, the main body having already withdrawn beyond Sukchon and Sunchon, and though no important enemy military or governmental officials were found and no American and South Korean prisoners were rescued, the 187th Airborne RCT captured 3,818 enemy troops and had killed an estimated 1,000.
As the Eighth Army in Korea advanced toward the 38th parallel in Operation RIPPER in early March, 1951, General Ridgway looked ahead to the enemy supply and communications center of Chunchon, which he expected the enemy to defend stubbornly. In order to loosen the defense, he alerted the 187th Airborne RCT for a drop there on 22 March. But when UN armored patrols entered Chunchon on the 19th, it became apparent that UN progress and enemy withdrawal had been too rapid for a profitable airborne operation. The project was cancelled.
With Seoul in UN hands, Ridgway enlarged RIPPER to include an advance westward to the Imjin River. The I Corps began that attack on 22 March. In order to block enemy withdrawal from Seoul toward Kaesong, to trap large numbers of enemy troops, and to facilitate the I Corps advance to the Imjin, about 3,000 men of the 187th Airborne RCT and of the 2d and 4th Ranger Companies parachuted on 23 March—after a one-day postponement—onto drop zones at Munsan-ni, about 20 miles northwest of Seoul. There was little opposition.
On the same day, 23 March, an armored column, Task Force Growden, started forward to make contact with the airborne troops. Against very light resistance, the task force covered the 15 intervening miles and reached Munsan-ni on the 24th.
The airborne operation had failed to block the enemy withdrawal or to trap enemy units, but it facilitated the advance to the Imjin River.
With the 187th Airborne RCT at Munsan-ni now on the west flank of an enemy-held area, the I Corps ordered the paratroopers and Rangers to attack due east. By capturing dominating ground about 15 miles east of the drop zone behind the enemy front, the Americans would facilitate advance of the U.S. 3d Division, which was to crush the enemy against the paratroopers.
Bad weather and impassable roads forced the armored task force to return to Seoul and slowed the eastward movement of the airborne troops. By the time the 187th Airborne RCT reached its objective, the enemy was gone.
NB: Supply by air, as opposed to airborne operations, came of age during the war in Korea. Detailed information is available in William H. Peifer, Supply by Sky—The Quartermaster Airborne Development, 1950-53 (QMC Historical Studies, Series II, No. 2, Historical Branch, Office of the Quartermaster General, Washington, 1957).
187TH AIRBORNE RCT GROUND OPERATIONS
Besides two jump operations, at Sunchon and Sukchon in October 1950 and at Munsan-ni in March 1951, the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team conducted both defensive and offensive ground operations for relatively brief periods of time before it returned to Japan in June 1951. In all but one instance, additional combat forces were attached to the combat team for the mission assigned. An almost constant attachment was a company of medium tanks. (In one case, the unit was designated as a "heavy" battalion but actually employed medium tanks). For both lateral movements and motorized advances, additional transportation was attached. In this connection, the combat team registered a complaint at the end of February 1951 that its own transportation plus that attached was not completely adequate for the moves required.
The following summarizes the more significant ground operations of the combat team:
January 1951: Established blocking positions and patrolled against guerrilla forces while covering Eighth Army withdrawals below Seoul. Attached was a company from the 72d Heavy Tank Battalion. The 514th Transportation Truck Company "assisted" the team's movements. Between 4 and 6 January, the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, was attached to take part in the covering operation.
February 1951: On 3 February, the combat team made an attack north of Wonju in central Korea. No additional forces were attached. Until 21 February, the combat team defended a sector north of Wonju. Between 3 and 12 February, the 2d Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, was attached.
On 13 February the 1st and 3d Battalions, 17th Infantry Regiment, and the 18th ROK Regiment were attached. On 18 February, Company C, 72d Heavy Tank Battalion, and the 96th FA Battalion were attached. Through the remainder of February, the combat team was in I Corps reserve.
March 1951: After making the jump at Munsan-ni on 23 March, the combat team conducted follow-up ground operations until 29 March. During this time, Company A, 74th Tank Battalion, was attached.
April 1951: In bivouac, Army reserve, and IX Corps reserve.
May 1951: The combat team was not in action until 24 May. On that date, the combat team, as a task force, attacked north in a central zone above Inje. Attached was the 72d Heavy Tank Battalion (less Company A), a company of the 64th Tank Battalion, a company of the 2d Engineer Combat Battalion, the 300th AFA Battalion, a Detachment of the 4th Signal Battalion, a Naval Gunfire Team, a company of the 64th Truck Company [sic], and the 514th Transportation Truck Company.
June 1951: The combat team moved to Japan.
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