1950: The Korean War





Marguerite Higgins ’42

Marguerite Higgins, who had stunned her male classmates by winning the coveted position of campus correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for her hard-hitting front-line coverage of the Korean War. She was named Associated Press’ Woman of the Year in 1951.

War In Korea, Chapter 1: Journey Into War

By Marguerite Higgins

The Red invasion of South Korea on Sunday, June 25, 1950, exploded in Tokyo like a delayed-action bomb. The first reports of the dawn attack were nonchalantly received by the duty officer at the Dai Ichi building. He didn’t even bother to wake General MacArthur and tell him. But within a few hours the swift advance warned us of the power of the attackers. South Korea, the last non-Communist outpost in North Asia, was crumbling. America had to decide at once whether to lend fighting support to its South Korean protégé or cede it outright to the Reds.

This decision was still hanging fire two days later when my plane roared toward the heart of the Korean war zone under a flashing jet-fighter cover. The plane was headed for the besieged South Korean capital of Seoul to bring out the last of the embattled American civilians. Four newspaper correspondents were the only passengers: Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News, Frank Gibney of Time, Burton Crane of the New York Times, and myself.

We were to become the only eyewitnesses to America’s entry into the battle for Korea. America began this battle unprepared. And today many hastily dug graves bear witness to the shocking price of underestimating the enemy.

But despite the many tragedies of Korea, we know now that it is fortunate for our world that it resisted Red aggression at that time and in that place. Korea has served as a kind of international alarm clock to wake up the world.

There is a dangerous gap between the mobilized might of the free world and the armaments of the Red world—the Red world which, since 1945, has been talking peace and rushing preparations for war. Korea ripped away our complacency, our smug feeling that all we had to do for our safety was to build bigger atomic bombs. Korea has shown how weak America was. It has shown how desperately we needed to arm and to produce tough, hard-fighting foot soldiers. It was better to find this out in Korea and in June of 1950 than on our own shores and possibly too late.

Nothing can make up for the licking we took in the Korean prelude to the Third World War. But those men in their icy graves will have died for something vital if their warning galvanizes us to the point of becoming so strong that we will win, at the least possible cost, the struggle we cannot escape because the enemy will not cease attacking.

It is just barely possible that if we confront the enemy with obviously superior armed strength at every important testing point in the world, he will back down without a fight. But I doubt it. There may be strategic halts in the Communist-armed expansion, halts of several years. They will be merely periods of regroupment. The Third World War is on. It began in Korea, and I’m glad the first battles I covered were so far away from San Francisco and New York.

But as we four correspondents flew toward Seoul it was only the beginning of the story. The dangers of that first plane ride to Seoul did not greatly concern us, because we were all so relieved to be on the job at least. In the first forty-eight hours after the Korean story broke, it looked as if fate, public relations, officers, and Red Yaks were all conspiring to keep us from flying to Korea to cover the biggest story in the world. At one time during those hectic hours we were actually halfway to Kimpo airfield near Seoul, aboard a big four-motored C-54. But news of a Yak strafing of the field turned the plane back. In desperation we flew to southern Japan, determined to get to Korea by fishing boat if necessary. Fortunately we didn’t have to resort to that—through a lucky fluke we had been able to hitch this ride in the evacuation plane.

At the last moment Gibney had tried to dissuade me from going along, insisting that Korea was no place for a woman. But, for me, getting to Korea was more than just a story. It was a personal crusade. I felt that my position as a correspondent was at stake. Here I represented one of the world’s most noted newspapers as its correspondent in that area. I could not let the fact that I was a woman jeopardize my newspaper’s coverage of the war. Failure to reach the front would undermine all my arguments that I was entitled to the same assignment breaks as any man. It would prove that a woman as a correspondent was a handicap to the New York Herald Tribune.

The pilot of our plane, a young veteran of World War II, told us that his instructions, on arriving in Kimpo, were to swoop low over the field and try to sight Americans. “If we don’t see any,” he said, “it means we get the hell out but fast—the field is in enemy hands. A green flare means we land.”

About an hour later we were circling over the rubble-strewn field with its white, shell-pocked administration building. At the end of the strip we spotted two planes in flames. Apparently they had been strafed only a matter of minutes before we appeared. Then, almost simultaneously, all of us saw a group of some thirty Americans. They signaled us with all the intensity of the shipwrecked who fear the rescue ship will pass them by.

After we landed we got the big news from Lieutenant Colonel Peter Scott, who was busily burning documents on the field. Seoul was still in friendly hands—the correspondents who had fled the city that morning had been premature. In fact, the sixty officers of the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) had moved back into the city that afternoon on direct orders from General MacArthur. MacArthur had been given responsibility for American personnel in Korea at the eleventh hour, after the outbreak of actual hostilities.

We had a world scoop. Keyes, speaking for all four of us, told the pilot that we were going to stay and go into the city with the colonel. The pilot shook his head as if he thought we were sadly crazy, but we had no more interest in that particular plane.

There was plenty of transportation handy. The panicky Americans had abandoned scores of nice new Buicks, Dodges, and Jeeps. Some had been carefully locked, out of habit, but most of the owners had realized the futility of the gesture and left their keys behind. Just about dusk we set out through the rain, in convoy. Machine guns sputtered in the distance.

“They are at least seven miles away,” Colonel Scott said, “but there’s no point in hanging around. The road into town can easily be cut by guerillas.”

The road to Seoul was crowded with refugees. There were hundreds of Korean women with babies bound papoose-style to their backs and huge bundles on their heads. There were scores of trucks, elaborately camouflaged with branches. South Korean soldiers in jeeps and on horses were streaming in both directions.

It was a moving and rather terrifying experience, there on that rainy road to Seoul, to have the crowds cheer ad wave as our little caravan of Americans went by. Their obvious confidence in anything American had a pathetic quality. I thought then, as I was to think often in later days, “I hope we don’t let them down.”

In Seoul we drew up before the bleak, sprawling, gray-stone building which housed the Korean Military Advisory Group headquarters. There we found Colonel Sterling Wright, the acting head of the advisory group. He met us with the news that the situation was “fluid but hopeful.” Maps and files were even then being moved back into the rickety building. Because of the confused South Korean reports, Wright’s staff of military advisers had, that very afternoon, started out of the city. Since he had no idea that help was coming from anywhere, it had seemed to Colonel Wright that the jig was up and the battle for Korea all over except for the mopping up.

But halfway down the road to Suwon reports reached him that the picture painted by the Koreans was far too black. Then a message from General MacArthur arrived and turned the group right around. I saw the message there in the basket on Wright’s desk. It announced the arrival of an American survey team, charged with finding out what was needed to save Korea. In typical MacArthur style it exhorted: “Be of good cheer. Momentous events are pending.” It was the first hint that American arms might be thrown into the Korean fight.

Actually, almost at this very moment, President Truman was announcing the big decision to commit American air and naval power in the attempt to prevent Communist seizure of all Korea.

I remember vividly the midnight briefing during that first siege of Seoul. “The South Koreans have a pathological fear of tanks,” Wright told us. “That is part of the reason for all this retreating. They could handle them if the would only use the weapons we have given them properly.” I often thought later, when Colonel Wright saw what those same tanks did to American troops, how much he must have regretted his words. But he was certainly not alone in his belief. It was just another example of how much we underestimated both the enemy and his equipment.

According to Wright, the Communists, had had the advantage of complete surprise in their attack. The head of KMAG, Brigadier General William Roberts, was en route to the United States for a new assignment. Colonel Wright himself was not even in Korea, but vacationing in Japan. Of course it was well known that the North Korean Communists had ordered civilians to evacuate a two-mile stretch bordering the 38th parallel. They had also been showering leaflets daily, threatening invasion, and had even lobbed some mortars into the mountain border city of Kaesong. But nobody took it seriously. Their excuse was that the enemy had been making threats for six months and nothing had happened.

Unfortunately, free countries have a chronic disposition to ignore the threats made by dictatorships. Hitler told us what he was going to do. The North Koreans told us what they were going to do, and so did the Chinese. But because we didn’t like what they told us, we didn’t believe them.

In the first few hours of the attack the South Korean Army fought well, retreating to prepared positions. It soon became clear that the main Communist thrust was in the Uijongbu corridor just north of Seoul. The menacing Soviet tanks headed the onslaught. At first the South Koreans bravely tackled the tanks with highly inadequate 2.36 bazookas. They saw their volleys bounce off the monsters, and many squads armed with grenades and Molotov cocktails went to suicidal deaths in frenzied efforts to stop the advance. The decisive crack-up came when one of the South Korean divisions failed to follow through on schedule with a counterattack in the Seoul corridor.

But this night the South Korean retreat had been temporarily halted just north of Seoul, where the troops had rallied. As we left headquarters General Chee, then South Korean Chief of Staff, bustled past us toward his offices. He was resplendent in his brightly polished American helmet and American uniform, and told us, “We fightin’ hard now. Things gettin’ better.”

I had been assigned to Colonel Wright’s headquarters billets; the other three newsmen were housed with one of his deputies. And, in spite of General Chee’s good cheer, I followed some inner warning and lay down fully clothed. It seemed as if I had hardly closed my eyes when Colonel Wright’s aide burst in. “Get up!” he shouted. “They’ve broken through—we have to run for it.”

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