Marines South of Hagaru-ri, Korea, December 6, 1950 while “Marine and naval air are working over enemy positions with napalm.” (Photo: USMC Archives)
Some 70 years ago this month, the first U.S. combat troops were rushed to the aid of embattled South Korea, beginning what is often referred to as the “Forgotten War.”
The Soviet- and Communist Chinese-allied North Korean forces invaded their neighbor to the south on what that dictatorship deemed the “Fatherland Liberation War” on June 25, 1950, crossing the 38th Parallel. By July 2, the initial U.S. troops, that of the ill-fated Task Force Smith, had landed in South Korea, flown in from nearby Japan. Within days they were involved in the Battle of Osan and for the next three years fought a see-saw campaign with, first the North Korean Army, and then upwards of 3 million Chinese “volunteers” who were supported by Soviet aid.
In all, more than 1.7 million U.S. troops would fight to keep South Korea free, with over 50,000 paying the highest price.
“Cover Fire” by Hugh Cabot, depicting small unit combat in the Korean countryside (Photo: U.S. Navy)
As the Korean War began a half-decade after the end of World War II, it is easy to just shrug and say that the U.S. Army and Marine troops who fought in the conflict were armed with the same gear they carried on D-Day and at Iwo Jima. Well, yes and no.
The M1 Garand, standard rifle of the U.S Army from 1937 and the Marines from 1942, continued to see front-line service in Korea. A gas-operated semi-auto chambered in .30-06, the Garand was fed by an 8-round en-bloc clip that was inserted into the action wholly, with the clip itself ejecting when the magazine was empty with a famous “ping.” Standard GI from Normandy to Okinawa, the Garand was heavy, at about 9.5-pounds, but reliable.
These Marines in Korea are carrying M1 Garands. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Archives)
While Uncle Sam had millions of Garands on-hand after peace broke out in 1945, dwindling numbers resulted in new contracts issued during the Korean War to International Harvester and Harrington & Richardson to produce a further 1.5 million M1s.
Notably, both the Army and Marines shifted from M1903A4 bolt action sniper rifles, a staple of WWII, to accurized Garand precision rifles complete with side-mounted optics (to allow the clip to be top-loaded), cheek pads, and distinctive flash hiders. These guns, the M1C and M1D depending on scope mount and muzzle device, were largely unique to the Korean War as they were developed too late in WWII to see much service and saw only limited use in Vietnam.
Tipping the scales at 11.8-pounds with their optics, flash-hider, sling and cheek pad, M1Cs and M1Ds mounted either M82 or M84 (Lyman Alaskan) scopes. (Photo: Springfield Armory National Historic Site)
The M1D is easily identified by its muzzle device. The flash-hider was often ditched in the field. (Photo: Springfield Armory National Historic Site)
With that being said about the M1C and M1D, the Marines still brought a few M1903A4s, topped with 8× Unertl scopes, with them to Korea, where they were put to good use. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Archives)
Often seen in a supporting role in the conflict was the WWII “war baby” M1 Carbine. A smaller weapon than the M1 Garand, the little Carbine was chambered in a mid-sized .30-caliber round and used 15- and 30-round detachable magazines. A select-fire version, the M2, was also available although less frequently encountered.
The M1 Carbine, seen here at use in the liberation of Seoul in September 1950, was popular due to its size and faster reload, although its round was not as effective, especially at distance, as the .30-06 of the larger M1 Garand. (Photo: Libary of Congress)
One of the most interesting small arms fielded by the U.S. and their allies in the Korea War was the M3 Carbine, a select-fire M1 that was fitted with an infrared sniper scope, useful in night engagements.
The M3 was bulky but was good for 50-to-70-yards at night.
When it came to submachine guns, the Korean War was in many ways the golden era of sub-gun conflict with U.S. forces, particularly tank crews, carrying the M3 Grease Gun while allied forces used a range of guns including Patchetts, Owens, and M1/M1928 Thompsons. On the other side, they faced off against Soviet-supplied PPsh-41 and PPS “burp guns” as well as Chinese-supplied select-fire Broomhandle Mausers and the occasional Tommy gun delivered to the old Chinese government via Lend-Lease in WWII.
Sub guns of all sorts were common in Korea in 1950-53 including British Patchetts– the forerunner of the Sterling– American M3 Grease Guns, Australian Owens and, of course, Tommy guns of all flavors. (Photos: Australian War Memorial, National Archives, Imperial War, Library & Archives Canada)
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