Holding the Line

Holding the Line

The Naval Air Campaign in Korea

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2019, 320 pages

Book Review published on: May 10, 2019

The U.S. Navy was the strongest naval force in history when Japan surrendered on 2 September 1945. One hundred and fifty-one aircraft carriers had been constructed since 1940, including 121 escort carriers, nine light carriers, and twenty-four Essex-class carriers. The air wings aboard these ships had fielded up to 1,500 aircraft for operations since the invasion of the Marianas little more than a year previously. This vast fleet would be a shadow of itself by 1948, with only eight of the last nine Essex-class carriers remaining in commission along with three larger Midway-class carriers.

In Holding the Line: The Naval Air Campaign in Korea, Thomas McKelvey Cleaver tells the gripping story of U.S. Navy carrier Task Force 77, whose commitment to the Korean War was vital to the success and survival of United Nations forces battling the Chinese and North Koreans. Cleaver is also the author of other notable history books including Pacific Thunder: The US Navy’s Central Pacific Campaign, August 1943–October 1944; The Frozen Chosen: The 1st Marine Division and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir; and Tidal Wave: From Leyte Gulf to Tokyo Bay.

Cleaver describes the turbulent period following World War II when the Truman administration decreased the size and role of the U.S. Navy through budget cuts in the belief that both Navy and Army could be significantly downsized as a result of possessing the atomic bomb and an air force that could deliver such a weapon anywhere in the world with the new B-36 bomber. President Harry S. Truman’s animus towards the U.S. Marine Corps, which he coined as the “Navy’s policemen,” was evident in his support for its dismantlement.

However, the Navy and Marine Corps were facing a greater threat—unification of the U.S military branches. Cleaver’s work describes a service unification proposal that included all aviation components being placed in the newly independent Air Force while the Marine Corps would be absorbed by the Army. Cleaver relates how congressional leaders were attracted to the proposal because it would result in savings by eliminating duplication of capabilities. Congressional hearings on unification and strategy quickly resulted in branches openly attacking each other until North Korea’s invasion of South Korea tabled the unification debate.

Task Force 77 carrier stations in both the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea provided Allied forces a more robust air capability with longer staying time than Air Force and other allied aviation. Fifth Air Force assets often flew from bases in Japan that limited loiter time and subjected them to poor weather conditions. Air Force close air support was almost nonexistent due to availability of ground-air battlefield communications and competent forward air controllers. The lack of ground-air communications also hindered the Navy, but training Navy pilots with the Marines mitigated the issue.

Cleaver compels the reader to consider the never-ending debates regarding service unification and redundancy of capabilities. The Air Force invested its strategic role in providing a long-range strike capability while neglecting its tactical airpower support. Would a unified Air Force been able to provide the tactical airpower support that was critical in preventing the destruction of United Nations and Republic of Korea forces inside the Pusan Perimeter or when Chinese intervention almost resulted in the utter destruction of U.S. Eighth Army and X Corps? As Cleaver points out, close air support was essentially nonexistent in the Air Force at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. It was only the relationship and training between Navy and Marine aviators with Marine Corps ground forces that prevented annihilation of United Nations and Republic of Korea military forces. It was also the operational reach provided by Task Force 77 that ensured timely response and increase loiter time in support of ground forces—something not always available for Air Force assets flying from Japan. Task Force 77’s aviation capabilities demonstrated how redundancy provided timely options for decision makers.

Cleaver holds no punches in his criticism of Gen. Douglas MacArthur or his staff. He asserts MacArthur and his intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, simply ignored reports from ground force commanders of engaging communist Chinese forces and capturing Chinese soldiers. Cleaver’s research indicates that Task Force 77 Navy pilots were reporting mass crossings of Chinese forces at the Yalu River in late October. Marine pilot 1st Lt. W.P. Garton reported over 150 Chinese military trucks crossing into Korea and another 200 trucks the following week. Willoughby continued to maintain that any intervention by Chinese forces would be minimal and chided lower commanders for forwarding such reports to him. MacArthur and his staff were completely caught off guard on 27 November 1950 when Chinese forces almost encircled the U.S. Eighth Army and X Corps. Cleaver argues U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation prevented complete encirclement and destruction of U.S. Eighth Army and U.S. Army X Corps through round-the-clock close air support and by targeting Korean People’s Army convoys and sustainment operations.

Cleaver argues that MacArthur missed an opportunity to declare victory and end the conflict early when United Nations and Republic of Korea forces passed the 38th Parallel. He notes that stopping at the 38th Parallel would have accomplished the United Nations’ end state of restoring South Korea’s international border, precluding China’s intervention and shortening the war.

Holding the Line is one of the finest works written in some time on American naval aviation and the Korean War. It goes beyond just telling the heroic story of Task Force 77 in describing the events that followed World War II, transformation of naval aviation from propeller-driven to jet aircraft, political maneuvering behind the scenes, and the Korean conflict. Cleaver’s writing style, numerous graphics and images, first-hand accounts, and lessons learned provide quality, insightful, and fun reading. It serves as a reminder to policy makers on the dangers of reliance on super weapons or eliminating redundancy. Holding the Line is a must read for policy makers, historians, and students of naval aviation and the Korean conflict.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Assistant Professor, Command and General Staff College, Leavenworth, Kansas