THE UNBEATEN PATH
In the fading light of a summer evening, hundreds of amorous couples stroll aimlessly along the broad seafront promenade, watching the sunset over the West (Yellow) Sea. Like thousands of other Seoulites, they have come to Wolmido ("Little Moontip Island") in the nearby port city of Inchon to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital city, and to enjoy the fresh air, fresh seafood and "vintage" amusements that characterize the Coney Island of South Korea.
Engrossed in their own conversations, the couples don't notice the bronze plaque identifying this spot as "Green Beach," where the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marine Division clambered ashore at 6:33 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1950, in what has become known as the Second D-Day.
The Inchon landing was Gen. Douglas MacArthur's last triumph --and the first phase of Operation Chromite, his bold plan to relieve the siege of Pusan by severing North Korean supply lines. Eschewing the advice of his own strategists, MacArthur selected Inchon, more than 125 miles behind enemy lines, for the amphibious assault that he characterized--in typical MacArthur bravado--as a "5,000-to-1 gamble."
A more realistic assessment of the odds would have been 14-to-1, because Inchon is plagued by 32-foot tidal variations. The waters of Flying Fish Channel were accessible to oceangoing naval vessels for only three-hour intervals every 14 days; the rest of the time, impenetrable mud flats extended three miles out from the rocky headlands.
But as MacArthur had predicted, the landing came as a complete surprise: Only 400 green North Korean recruits were stationed at Wolmido, and they offered little resistance. After securing the peninsula, however, the Marines couldn't do anything but wait--until the evening high tide washed in tanks and troop carriers, and the Blue and Red Beach invasion forces.
All told, 13,000 men from the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands--and one woman, Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune--would land at Inchon. A mere 21 would be killed. Within two weeks, Seoul would be liberated--only to be retaken three months later with the help of 1 million Chinese infantry that MacArthur had sworn would never enter the war.
Thanks to a 1960s-era sea lock that allows permanent oceangoing access, Inchon is now Korea's fourth-largest city and second-largest port--an industrial powerhouse of some 2.2 million people that epitomizes Korea's postwar economic resurgence. Enormous orange loading cranes dominate the modern harbor, behind which looms hilltop Chayo "Freedom" Park and a 1957 statue of MacArthur, his right hand grasping a pair of binoculars as he gazes confidently out to sea.
For exhibits and artifacts from the dramatic landing, head to the Inchon Landing Memorial Hall, an expansive open-air museum sculpted into the piney hills behind what was then "Blue Beach" but is now the Songdo Beach Amusement Park and Resort.
The contemporary beneficiaries of the Inchon Landing, however, congregate on Wolmido. Promoted for its "Cultural Street," the nightly open-air performances throughout the summer, Wolmido's real allure lies in its Coney Island state of mind. Neon-lit video arcades and tacky gift shops line the streets behind the promenade and around the pint-size amusement park that features the low-velocity, high-contact thrills preferred by spooning couples.
For more material refreshments, a string of fresh seafood restaurants serves up any number of tidal treats, but they're renowned for their spicy clam soup and deep-fried prawns. For the younger set, there are corn dogs and other Western delicacies served out of mobile steamer carts.
Amid all the seasonal merrymaking, it is easy to overlook what happened here 50 years ago. And it's all so different from those other invasion beaches in Normandy, with their manicured rows of crosses on the bluffs overlooking the English Channel. But then the Second D-Day was a lot easier than the first. And with Seoul's new international airport under construction on the nearby island of Yongjongdo, the future holds a lot more landings for the mud-choked port that MacArthur refused to overlook.
Inchon is a cheap ($1), one-hour subway ride from central Seoul on Line 1. It's even closer to Kimpo International Airport, where buses offer daily service for less than $2. There are plenty of inexpensive hotels, but not enough sights to warrant decamping from your Seoul base. Info: Korea National Tourism Organization, 800-868-7567, www.visitkorea.or.kr.