The invasion of South Korea in 1950 nearly resulted in a Communist victory. UN forces were driven into a perimeter around the southeastern port of Pusan when General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, commanding U.S. and UN forces in Korea, decided to launch an amphibious landing against the North Korean flank at Inchon. A successful assault at Inchon and an advance to the nearby South Korean capital of Seoul would sever the main communist supply lines. An attack launched from Pusan would then batter the now cut-off North Korean forces. It was a bold plan.
The Navy knew little of the dangerous waters around Inchon despite the fact that the U.S. had occupied Korea south of the 38th parallel for four years. With a tidal range of over 30 feet, accurate intelligence of Inchon and its water approaches was vital to the success of the landing.
No one did more to provide that information than the daring and resourceful Lieutenant Eugene F. Clark, USN, a geographic specialist on MacArthur’s intelligence staff. Clark had enlisted in the Navy in 1934, became a chief yeoman and earned a commission in World War II. He commanded an LST and a transport, and participated in several clandestine operations with the Nationalist Chinese against the communists after the war. Invasion planners needed detailed information about the harbor, the approaches and enemy defenses so they dispatched a reconnaissance team under Lieutenant Clark to get the answers. His small team included two South Korean officers who had fought in World War II and possessed sufficient arms to equip a small irregular force.
Clark’s team landed on Yonghung Do, an island only 14 miles from Inchon, on 1 September 1950. They quickly organized a force of local men and boys to watch the nearby enemy held island of Taebu Do. On the advice of his Korean officers, Clark had brought in rice and dried fish for the islanders, which brought much good will. Clark also equipped Yonghung Do’s one motorized sampan with a .50-caliber machine gun and armed his men with carbines and submachine guns. To acquire intelligence about the enemy, the team seized local fishing sampans-interrogating crewmen who generally professed loyalty to South Korea-and explored Inchon harbor. Clark’s young Korean operatives also infiltrated Inchon, Kimpo air base and even Seoul and returned with valuable information. Clark told the planners that the Japanese-prepared tide tables were accurate, that the mud flats fronting Inchon would support no weight and that the harbor’s sea walls were higher than estimated. Clark also reported that Wolmi Do, an island in Inchon harbor, was fortified with Soviet-made artillery.
The North Koreans, aware of Clark’s presence on Yonghung Do, sent only small parties to the island to investigate his hideaway. On 7 September, however, they sent one motorized and three sailing sampans loaded with troops. South Korean lookouts spotted the approaching boats, enabling Clark and his men to get their “flagship” underway. As Clark closed the enemy, a 37- mm anti-tank gun mounted in the bow of the Communist motorized craft opened up. A shell splashed well in front of Clark’s sampan. Undeterred by their poor shooting, Clark directed his flagship to within 100 yards of the enemy squadron. His .50 caliber machine gun raked two of the North Korean vessels, sinking one and demolishing another. Witnessing this slaughter, the two remaining boats fled the scene. After Clark reported that battle to headquarters, the destroyer Hanson (DD 832) arrived to take off the team. Clark, who had not asked to be extracted, instead requested Hanson’s skipper to pound Taebu Do. Hanson blasted the island with 212 5-inch rounds, covered by Marine Corsairs that bombed and strafed the North Korean positions.
The team stayed on the island and continued their mission. Clark scouted Palmi Do, an island centrally located in the approaches to Inchon, and reported that Canadian raiders had only damaged the lighthouse beacon. Clark was ordered to relight the lamp at midnight on the 15th. On 14 September, Clark’s team moved to Palmi Do and repaired the light. Meanwhile, the North Koreans sent a second contingent to wipe out the force on Yonghung Do that overwhelmed the defenders and executed over 50 men, women and children. Clark avenged their sacrifice when he activated the beacon atop the lighthouse at the appointed time on 15 September. With this light to guide them, the ships of the landing force safely threaded their way through the treacherous approach to Inchon. The Inchon landing was an incredible success and UN forces soon drove the remnants of the North Korean army across the 38th parallel.
In recognition of his heroic work, the Navy awarded Lieutenant Clark the Silver Star and the Army presented him with the Legion of Merit. Clark participated in several other special operations off Korea, earning a Navy Cross and an oak leaf cluster for the Silver Star. Commander Clark retired from the Navy in 1966 and died in 1998.