The USS SAINT PAUL experienced many fine and excellent experiences over the course of her elegant career. But perhaps no more fitting roles than the ones she performed during December, 1950 in the harbor of Hungnam, North Korea.
MacArthur had made a brilliant landing at Inchon and UN forces were steadily advancing northward. The war might be concluded by Thanksgiving, Christmas for certain. The USS SAINT PAUL was now an integral part of Task Force 77 and was providing day and night firing support along the coast. Targets of opportunity were readily available with little or no restrictions. Roads, railroads, bridges and tunnels were prime shooting.
UN forces had advanced to within 100 miles or so from the Yalu River which separates Korea from China and Russia. But UN troops were spread very thinly across all of North Korea in this advancement. The ship participated in clearing and preparing Wonsan for occupation by the Marines. But Chou-En-Lai and the Chinese had other ideas. In late October the Marines encountered fierce combat with Korean and Chinese troops south of Wonsan. In early November, Chinese forces attacked Marines near the Chosin Reservoir in a midnight, bugle-blowing, drum-beating screaming fierce attack.
Add to all of this, the Korean weather had turned brutal. Ice, snow, winds and temperatures 25-30 degrees below zero covered land and sea. Shipmates struggled to keep decks free of ice and snow. Sailors were cold, but one can only imagine the toll on Army and Marine combat forces fighting in the hills. And the Chinese were even lesser outfitted.
In spite of the weather, the continued Chinese attacks were brutal and intense. It has since been estimated that over 250,000 Chinese troops attacked across the Yalu River. Maintaining support and replenishing supplies to our forces became nearly impossible. Retreat was the only possibility, and even that was precarious due to the weather and Chinese control of exit roads from the reservoir. The orders were given to “advance in a different direction” for evacuation at the Hungnam Harbor.
The USS SAINT PAUL had blasted the port of Wonsan and had now moved into Hungnam Harbor along with numerous other warships and transport ships to assist in evacuation of troops and refuges. There was even a hospital ship, the USS CONSTELLATION, present.
From December 10th to the 24th, the USS SAINT PAUL fired eight-inch and five-inch rounds continuously over the heads of retreating troops into the advancing Chinese. At times it was necessary to have an ammo barge tied alongside the ship to replenish our ammunition. We would fire from one side while taking on ammo from the other side. On December 22, the ammunition ship, USS RYDER, came alongside to replenish us, but she had no eight-inch rounds. CA-73 had shot off over 3,000 eight-inchers that week alone and our supply was dangerously low. We did resupply five-inch rounds.
Naval gunfire and rocket fire continued as barges and “M-boats” continuously passed by carrying both dead and evacuated personnel. There were 105,000 US and ROK troops and 91,000 refugees evacuated along with 17,500 vehicles and 350,000 tons of cargo.
As December wound down, the Saint Paul was firing five-inch rounds nearly point blank as the ship had moved to within a couple thousand yards off shore. With evacuation complete, there were still huge amounts of aerial bombs and frozen dynamite remaining on the docks. A team of demolition crew blew these up in a massive explosion as the final event of evacuation.
This was not a retreat of beaten and broken troops. It was indeed an advance in a different direction with many of these same troops involved in an advance on Seoul on January 15, 1951.
As the flagship in charge of gunfire support, the USS SAINT PAUL was the last ship to leave the harbor on December 24, 1950.
Contribution to this article include materials written by Tom Bolen and William Lynch, both Association Members.