My Paradise: Ganghwado: Rough start to an alliance

by Marvin Haynes
Stripes Korea

The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States is something we often take for granted today.  After all, 60 years ago we fought together to repel a communist invasion of the south.  Fifty-two years ago we struggled side-by-side for eight long years in Vietnam.  And most recently, our forces cooperated in both Northern Iraq and the mountain wilds of Afghanistan.  But the initial meeting of Korean and American troops was anything but friendly, and it happened not far from Seoul.

West about an hour’s drive from the capital city lies the scenic and historically significant island of Ganghwa.  Separated from the rest of the peninsula by a narrow strait formed by the combined Han and Imjin Rivers, the island performed a critical function for successive Korean Kingdoms since well before 1300 A.D.  Ganghwa Island (Ganghwado in Korean), was the designated place of refuge for the royal family and key government functionaries during times of national crisis. 

Originally occupied and fortified to combat piracy during the Unified Silla era (9th century A.D.), Ganghwado offered protection to the ruling Goryeo Dynasty court during the Mongol invasion of 1232.  It was also the intended destination of Joseon royalty during the Manchu invasion of 1636 when the family was unfortunately intercepted by the rapidly advancing invaders.

The island has hosted many government facilities over the centuries including a multitude of coastal fortifications of various size and complexity.  As well, Ganghwado maintained a royal residence, numerous temples and shrines, and a large repository of important historical and cultural texts.  To make the already formidable island even more unassailable, the Kingdom of Joseon constructed Munsusanseong, an extensive mountain fortress just across the narrow strait, in 1694.

Due to the island’s strategic location at the mouth of the Han River—leading directly, as it does, to the Capital at Seoul—it should come as no surprise that in the declining years of the Joseon Dynasty, Ganghwa Island is where foreign forces came knocking on the Hermit Kingdom’s door.  In fact, during those years of turbulent encounters with other nations, Ganghwado was the site of incursions by the French (1866), Imperial Japanese (1875), and yes, the United States (1871).  While the French attack left a more lasting mark on the island and its environs—taking and destroying the lower level of Munsusanseong as well as seizing and burning the ancient library—it is the U.S. expedition we’ll focus upon.

The roots of the dispute can be found in a Joseon Court extremely resistant to the overtures of the trading nations of the world.  This Korean isolationism led to the massacre of the crew of the USS General Sherman, a trade ship stranded in shallow waters near Pyeongyang in 1866.  That the vessel had been denied permission to enter Korean waters and trade in the first place was of little concern to a U.S. government desperately seeking trade concessions and looking for an excuse to teach the recalcitrant Joseon Court a lesson.  Thus the stage was set for the first meeting of U.S. and Korean armed forces, along the coast of the historical island of Ganghwa.

The campaign, executed by the sailors and Marines of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, was short-lived, but tactically successful.  A trading of shots between the old but numerous cannon of the Korean coastal forts and U.S. Navy vessels contributed to the decision to put men ashore in order to secure the squadron’s safe passage.  These U.S. forces, consisting of over 1,400 personnel and six, 12-pounder howitzers, assaulted three Korean fortifications in succession, leading to an anticlimactic battle with, and ultimate victory over, the matchlock-armed defenders of Gwangseongbo Fortress. 

No fewer than nine Medals of Honor were awarded to U.S. personnel, and the campaign became a part of Marine Corps lore.  More important to most of us living in the Republic of Korea today, however, is that each of those three fortresses has been restored and can be visited in a short day-trip from Seoul.

U.S. troops first landed at Chojijin, a small, circular fort situated on a bluff overlooking the strait, after naval gunfire had silenced the Korean guns.  They found the battered, undermanned garrison had fled north.  The mud flats, into which the shore party’s artillery sank up to their axles as soon as they were disembarked from the landing boats, are still clearly visible below the position. 

Today, Chojijin sees a steady stream of visitors and is rarely so empty as the first Americans on Ganghwado found it.  The stonework of the diminutive structure has been painstakingly restored with beautiful results.  Signs are posted here, and throughout Ganghwa Island, in Hangul and rough but understandable English, explaining the historical significance of the site.  This tiny, if well-sited, fortress played a role in all three foreign interventions.

Next up the coast to be encountered by both the seaborne and ground forces was Deokjinjin.  This fortified complex included several positions tied together into a single defensive zone, and centered upon a large battery (called Namjang Battery) of cannon in thick revetments at sea level.  This main position was supported by flanking forts protecting the land approaches. 

Namjang Battery is particularly well-preserved and remains impressive today.  The U.S. landing party at the time met only a small stay-behind force here fighting guerrilla-style, but the decision to put men ashore on the island was vindicated after securing and taking inventory of the formidable array of weaponry there.  Amongst these were several modern artillery pieces abandoned by the French during their own expedition five years previous.

The final assault, and only real battle of the campaign, took place a bit further up the coast, where the island lies closest to the mainland Korean peninsula.  The tidal race here is powerful, and arriving at the right time provides the visitor to Gwangseongbo Fortress a rare and impressive site.  This expansive fortification bore witness to the final Marine assault upon the 300-strong garrison armed with spears and matchlock muskets.  234 of the defenders died during the short, one-sided battle, including the Korean commander, General Eo Jae Yeon.

This fortified position sprawls from the heights above the strait down to sea level, with an observation post (called Yeongdudongdae) and protective walls situated atop a small peninsula jutting out into the waterway.  From this exposed position, one can best view the tidal race as it roars below, creating deep eddies and whirlpools in the silt-laden waters.  Gwangseongbo Fortress is one of very few preserved battlefields in Korea, and visitors will truly appreciate the gorgeous restoration work accomplished in the late 70’s.

Ultimately, the punitive campaign failed to achieve the U.S. Government’s goal of opening up Joseon Korea.  Walking the grounds at Gwangseongbo and envisioning what took place here 140 years ago, it is difficult to imagine that the two forces which confronted one another with such deadly intent would one day become allies, spilling blood together on one battlefield after another. 

Ganghwa Island then offers a view of Korean and U.S. history all but forgotten in the ultra-modern urban sprawl, routine military exercises, and soaring political rhetoric that surrounds us daily.  A visit to these or any of the other historically significant sites scattered across the island opens our eyes to the rich history of our host nation.  The understanding of our host’s culture that naturally follows makes us better guests . . . and allies.

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