Into the Breach at Pusan: The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in the Korean War. By Kenneth W. Estes. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xx, 194. $29.95.)


The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when military forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea suddenly attacked the Republic of Korea across the 38th parallel. Soon thereafter, President Harry S. Truman made the fateful decision to dispatch US troops to the peninsula to shore up the defense of America's client state, South Korea. Yet despite the arrival of US troops, drawn primarily from occupation forces in Japan, conditions in the southern half of the peninsula continued to deteriorate. By midsummer, the North Koreans had succeeded in overrunning all but the southeastern corner to the peninsula, where US Army and South Korean troops had dug in along what became known as the Pusan Perimeter. To stave off a complete defeat, the Truman administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to rush reinforcements to Pusan. Crucial to this effort was the mobilization of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, officially formed on July 7, 1950, under the command of Brigadier General Edward A. Craig. This temporary unit was comprised primarily of the 5th Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division and Marine Aircraft Group 33. By the time the bulk of the brigade arrived in Pusan in early August, it numbered more than six thousand men.

Kenneth W. Estes's brief account of the brigade's history—there are just 113 pages of text—is broken into four chapters. The first chapter offers a sketch of the US Marine Corps in the aftermath of World War II and the events that gave rise to the 1st Provisional Brigade. Chapter 2 focuses on the brigade's first major combat action in Korea, which occurred from August 7 to August 12 along the southwestern edge of the Pusan Perimeter not far from the city of Masan. Chapter 3 traces the brigade's efforts to beat back North Korean advances farther north, near the Naktong River, on August 17–19, and again on September 3–5. Chapter 4 deals with the brigade's legacy, especially as it pertains to the history and structure of the Marine Corps itself.

The primary purpose of Estes's book is not to provide general readers with an action-packed, “Band of Brothers” type of narrative that focuses on heroic deeds. Nor is the book meant to add to our knowledge of Korean history in any meaningful way. Instead, Estes attempts to challenge specific myths that have grown up around this famous Marine Corps action. Contrary to popular belief, he argues—convincingly so, in this reviewer's opinion—the brigade was not composed primarily of World War II combat veterans, a notion often cited by earlier historical accounts as a basic reason for Marine success in Korea. He also argues that the 5th Marines were not the sole “fire brigade” that “saved the UN Command and the Eighth Army from destruction” (4). He notes that other military units also served as so-called fire brigades on the front lines, including elements of the much-maligned 8th Army. Finally, Estes argues that the much-praised coordination between ground and air units of the Marines has been significantly exaggerated.

Students of military history should appreciate this book. The author demonstrates a solid command of important archival records as he presents his argument in a clear, objective fashion. On the other hand, it would have been helpful to non-military specialists if Estes had explained military terminology and structure in a more straightforward manner at the beginning of the book. Moreover, expanding the focus of the book just a bit more to include some information on Korea itself—and the impact that units such as the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade had upon Korean communities—would broaden the appeal of this valuable study.