Monday, May 16, 2011

Korean War Battlefields

T here.  No hiking trips as of late; too darn expensive to drive out to the mountains these days with the price of gas being what it is.  I have over the past couple years, however, including in the past month, visited the Republic of Korea for business.  I am always stuck in the Seoul area, but when I can, I try to find the time to take in a few battlefields from what some historians have come to call the "Forgotten War" of 1950-1953, the United Nations fight against the North Koreans, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and later the People's Republic of China.  The war is "forgotten" in the sense that few Americans remember much about the conflict, it being mis-characterized as a "police action" and sandwiched between the World War Two victories over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and the quagmire of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.  It was also a draw, something Americans loath, in that the battle lines at the signing of the cease-fire in July of 1953 were almost right back where they were at the start of the North Korean invasion in June of 1950, despite civilian and military casualties (killed, wounded, missing) of somewhere around four million, including US military losses of some 33,600 killed in action, 20,600 dead from other causes, and 103,200 wounded.

Yet, the war is not really forgotten as the vestiges of it linger with us today, and I don't just mean by the number of veterans still with us ('tho that number is decreasing all the time) and the more than 8,000 US servicemen still unaccounted for.   The Korean conflict was, for example, our first "hot" conflict of the Cold War and provided the stimulus for National Security Council Report 68 (NSC 68), which would shape our national security strategy towards the Soviet Union and lead to our rearmament after WW2, a permanent large standing military, and a corresponding increase in peacetime defense spending.  Our participation led to the long-term deployment of US troops on the Asian continent; a presence that continues today with some 28,000 US personnel on the Korean Peninsula.  The war also saw the start of desegregation in the US Army, gave rise to the economic power that Japan became by the 1970s and 80s, and ensured the survival of the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, which is today an economic powerhouse and key US ally.  Unfortunately, the unfinished nature of the war--it ended with a cease-fire, rather than a peace treaty--and the continued division of the Peninsula left there the chance of renewed conflict and the dictatorship and "rogue" country of North Korea, which continues to present a security challenge to the region.

It is also not forgotten in that there are dozens of books on the Korean War.  So, rather than me trying to give you a Cliff Note version of the war, for context on the battlefields I'm going to tell you about, here are a few I will recommend to check out.  For starters, read James Stokesbury's account, A Short History of the Korean War.  If Stokesbury's abbreviated history leaves you with a taste for more, try T. R. Fehrenbach's This Kind of War.  Fehrenbach's book, published in 1963, does quite a bit of editorializing about our society's preparedness for war and reflects the language, culture, and the Cold War thinking of the time, including the idea that the Soviet Union and Communism was behind everything sinister going on in Asia.  Nevertheless, it is still considered a classic straightforward account of the war. His depictions of the campaigns and battles are outstanding, and he makes liberal use of riveting personal accounts.  Plus, his thoughts on US military preparedness when it unexpectedly went to war in 1950 continue to influence our military today.  Indeed, it was on my required reading list as a young Army lieutenant.  More recently, I have enjoyed David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter:  America and the Korean War (2007)Halberstam's book is an instant classic, eloquently mixing the strategic and political background of the American and Chinese entry into the war with the military story.  While he tends to focus on the "big picture" and key Chinese and American military and political decision-makers, he delivers an excellent military account without getting too technical.  He also heightens the military narrative by honing in on the accounts of individual soldiers and their experiences during the key battles.  His narratives of those battles, such as the Naktong and Chongchon Rivers, the Chongjin (Chosin) Reservoir, "the gauntlet" at Kunuri, and the crossroads at Chipyong-ni are top notch.  For a largely military history of the war, dive into Clay Blair's The Forgotten War:  America in Korea (1987)At nearly 1,000 pages of text, it is not for the faint of heart, but if you want a superbly researched account of the US Army's performance in the war, you probably cannot do better. Blair gets down into the weeds of the battles, campaigns, decision-making, and the role and character of individual leaders, particularly those at the regimental and divisional levels.  If I had to make one complaint about the Halberstam and Blair books, however, I would say that they neglect the monotonous hill fighting along what would become the DMZ in the last year of the war, instead choosing to focus on the earlier part of the war (June 1950-fall of 1951), when there was more maneuver and the battles more decisive, and the cease-fire talks after 1951.  Last, I will offer up Their War for Korea by Allan Millett (2002), an account of the war from the personal reminiscences of American, Korean, Chinese, and European soldiers, as well as civilians.  The accounts are poignant and memorable, and at times, eye-opening in that they portray how others view Americans at war.  Millett over the past several years has written some other very well-done accounts of the war and the lead-up to the war, which have been recognized for their scholarship, research, and greater focus on the Korean perspective of the conflict.

If you're still reading, let's move on to the battlefields.  We'll go in chronological order.  I'll try to provide a little background to each of the battle sites without boring you with too many of the details.  Let me also say right up front though that I am not a true expert of the Korean War nor are these detailed studies of the battles.  I simply did not have the time to do a true battlefield "staff ride," nor permission to wander on private land.  While the Koreans do a commendable job of marking important battle sites, including those that did not even involve Korean troops, they also do not set aside large publicly accessible battlefield parks as we Americans like to do.  In addition, some battlefields are in restricted areas near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

First up is Osan (#1 on the map) and the site of the US Army's first and disastrous encounter with North Korean People's Army (NKPA) troops on 5 July 1950.  The NKPA after invading South Korea on 25 June had smashed the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), captured Seoul (about 30 miles north of Osan), and were advancing southward, threatening to take the Peninsula unless something stopped them.  Under the auspices of the UN, the US hurriedly committed troops from the occupation forces in Japan to do just that.  The first of these were a detachment from the 24th Infantry Division, called Task Force Smith.  Many Americans thought a few US units on the battlefield would quickly turn the tide, because the Asian hordes could never stand up to the US military that only five years before had crushed the Germans and the Japanese.  Unfortunately, we were in for a rude awakening.  The troops of TF Smith were poorly trained, ill-equipped, not very well led, and psychologically unprepared to face the NKPA forces that hit them on 5 July, and they were quickly overrun and scattered in what was to become the first of several embarrassing US defeats at the hands of the North before the lines would solidify around what came to be known as the Pusan Perimeter.  The site of TF Smith's defeat is honored by the South Koreans, however, because it signaled the beginning of a massive US and United Nations effort to help defend their country.  It is also remembered by the US Army as a study of unpreparedness and the basis for the Army's mantra that there be "no more Task Force Smiths."

The monument sits in the middle of the ridge occupied by TF Smith just south of the city of Osan and a little to the east of the old Seoul-Osan highway.



Monument to the 24th Infantry Division.

A Korean cemetery now occupies the western side of what were TF Smith's lines. 

Twin Tunnels (#2 on the map), so-named because it was the site of where a railroad ran through two tunnels.  There were two fights here.  The first was a small, but dramatic action in late January 1951.   UN forces had been kicked out of North Korea by the entry of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and fallen back south of Seoul.  Eventually, the UN forces recovered and regrouped while the PLA offensive stalled, largely due to outrunning its supply lines.  UN forces then began a counteroffensive back towards Seoul.  On the right flank of the UN advance, in the mountainous and rugged area around the Twin Tunnels, the Chinese forces had to be found, so a small patrol comprised of 58 men was ordered to move north towards Chipyong-ni ("ni" is town) to find the Chinese.  On the road to Chipyong-ni near the Twin Tunnels, they were ambushed by a large PLA force, perhaps up to a regiment (about 2,000 men).  A desperate race to the top of one of the nearby hills ensued, which the Americans won, but not without heavy losses.  Here, in the snow and in bitter cold, they held out for more than 24 hours until, nearly out of ammunition, they were rescued by a relief force.  Only 12 men came off the hill unscathed.  Unfortunately, I did not have time to search out the exact location of the hill these 58 men struggled to ascend and defend, but sources say it was on one of the hills south of the tunnels and to the east of the road pictured below. 

The second battle was a much larger affair.   Now that the US knew the Chinese were around, the area commander (General Ned Almond, 10th Corps) ordered the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division, under Colonel Paul Freeman, back in and to take the town of Chipyong, an important road junction.  Freeman took two battalions, his own 3rd Battalion (each regiment had 3 infantry battalions) and an attached French battalion, plus other assorted troops, including tanks and artillery.  In all, Freeman had about 1500 troops.  Freeman was nervous about being sent far in advance of other UN forces:  "They are going to murder my regiment" he told one of his bosses.  So, he moved forward cautiously, holding up on the hills around the Twin Tunnels in a circular defense on the night of 31 January 1951.  It was a good thing he did, for what was later determined to be probably a PLA division (around 10,000 men) struck him a few hours before dawn on 1 February and came close to overrunning his force.  Heavy fighting raged all day and only when US fighter-bombers were able to break through the clouds and deliver devastating bombing and strafing runs were the Chinese forces driven off and routed.   Freemen's men counted 1300 Chinese dead on the battlefield and estimated another 2,000 wounded.  UN losses were 225.  It was a signal victory for the UN and the first time they had repulsed and all but annihilated a PLA division in the war. 

Monument to the UN forces that participated in the Twin Tunnels battle from 31 January-1 February 1951.  Part of the French battalion held the low hills in the background.

The eastern tunnel of the "twins." The 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment held the high ground above the tunnel.  Somewhere on those hills, a little further south, the small patrol of 58 men fought off a large PLA force in late January of 1951.
Looking south.  Freeman's forces approached from this direction and the French battalion held this sector. 

Chipyong (also #2 on the map)Twin Tunnels was the first significant victory over the PLA, but Chipyong would demonstrate the war was turning around and that the Americans were learning how to fight and defeat the Chinese.  After Twin Tunnels, Freeman's 23rd Regiment and its attached French battalion was ordered to seize the town of Chipyong, anchor the 10th Corps's flank, and prepare for a Chinese attack.  His mission would be to form a circular defense, hold on no matter what happened on his flanks, and kill as many Chinese as he could with superior firepower, particularly artillery and air support, since the PLA was weak in artillery and had no air power over the battlefield.  This time, Freeman took his entire regiment, including the French battalion, plus reinforcements of rangers, armor, and artillery, and established a perimeter in the low hills surrounding the village.  In all, he had around 5,000 men.

The Chinese would oblige him.  They had just launched a major offensive towards the east only to be blunted by US and South Korean forces in heavy fighting around the city of Wonju.  The Chinese were not done, however, and they prepared a second blow further to the west.  This time they would hit the 23rd at Chipyong.  Estimates vary on the size of the PLA force that surrounded and attacked Freeman from 13-15 February 1951, ranging from a low of 18,000 to a high of 40,000.  Whatever the numbers, the odds were long.  The Chinese repeatedly attacked the entire perimeter, and Freeman himself was wounded and replaced towards the end of the battle. The fighting was heavy and at times desperate, particularly at night and along the sectors of the perimeter held by the French battalion and the 23rd's 2nd battalion (2/23).  The French held, but PLA attacks on 2/23 eventually broke through the positions of G ("George") Company.   The breakthrough was stopped by counter-attacks, artillery, and air strikes on Chinese forces caught out in the open in daylight hours.  US artillery and close-air support was particularly hard on the PLA during the battle and probably inflicted the majority of the casualties.  On the 15th, a relief column comprised of tanks and infantry from the 5th Cavalry Regiment reached the perimeter and the Chinese abandoned the field after having suffered by American estimates some 5,000 casualties.  Regardless of the accuracy of those estimates, their retreat signaled the end of a major Chinese offensive and another significant UN victory. 

A nice thing about Korean War monuments in South Korea is that the government has made a good effort to mark important sites, even making sure there are English language signs.

The main monument for the Chipyong battlefield site.  This area was held by A Company, 1/23 Infantry.

Looking across Colonel Freeman's perimeter towards the positions held by 2/23 Infantry.
Pockmarks from bullet strikes on a tombstone near the A Company positions.

Sign marking the way to the monument to the French battalion.  Oddly enough, the background photo is a still shot advertisement from the movie "Saving Private Ryan."

These were the French battalion's positions, facing towards where the Chinese forces attacked from the high hills in the distance.  The French held the only flat terrain on the Chipyong battlefield, and therefore may have had the toughest fight.  They were "magnificent, cool, and brave," according to Clay Blair, routing at least one PLA attack with a bayonet charge.


The French unit was unique.  It was an all-volunteer force and included men from the French Foreign Legion and the French colonies.  Most were veterans of WW2 and the French colonial war in Indochina.  They were also led by one of the more unique UN officers of the war, the flamboyant General Ralph Monclar (a nom de guerre as his real name was Magrin-Venery), a distinguished and highly decorated veteran of both World Wars who had been wounded an astounding 13 times.  In order to fight in Korea, he took a demotion from 3-star general to lieutenant colonel. 
It was here the Chinese broke through, seizing this ridge held by 2/23's G ("George") Company.  Counterattacks would seal the breach, but only after a desperate struggle and heavy casualties.  There remain a number of indentations from old fighting positions all over the ridge.

From the ridge occupied by G Company looking towards the Chinese positions.  The heaviest attacks came from the left of the photograph.  The road and gap in the middle distance are where the 5th Cavalry Regiment's relief column approached on 15 February.

More G Company positions on what would become known as "McGee Hill," named after 2nd Lieutenant Paul McGee, country boy from North Carolina and a G Company  platoon leader.  McGee and his platoon fought a desperate battle against many Chinese attacks until finally pushed off the hill on the last night of the battle.  Only McGee and four of his 46 men ended the battle unscathed.  McGee would win a Silver Star.  Halberstam's book provides a detailed account of McGee's ordeal.

More of G Company's former fighting positions.
Looking across the front of G Company's position.  From Halberstam's description of McGee's fight, the Chinese used the low ridge in the center of the photo to work up close to the company's positions and bring pressure on McGee's platoon.

 Gloucester Hill (#3 on the map).   In addition to the French, a considerable number of other countries provided troops to the UN force.  The British sent the most of any outside the US (some 63,000 at the height of the conflict), and they played a significant role in the conflict.  They would participate in the fighting from August 1950 to the signing of the armistice and suffer close to 5,000 casualties.  Their fight at Gloucester (or Gloster) Hill would be the British Army's most famous action of the war.  In April of 1951, the PLA launched what came to be called the Fifth Chinese Offensive and a large part of the attack was against the Imjin River line, defended by South Korean and US forces and the British 29th Brigade (about 6,000 men).  To make a long and complicated story short, the Chinese attack penetrated between the positions of the South Korean 1st Division and the British, as well as between the individual units of the 29th Brigade, allowing the Chinese to leverage the British units off the line in heavy fighting.  Eventually, the 29th was forced to retreat, but its 1st Battalion of the Gloucester Regiment, covering the brigade rear, was surrounded on a hill a few miles just south of the river.  The Gloucesters put up a stout defense, which later won them a US Presidential Unit Citation (the highest award the US military can give to a unit), holding out for three days while UN forces tried to reach them.  Eventually, running low on ammunition, supplies, and men, and in danger of being overrun, the battalion attempted to break out on its own and was destroyed.  Of the original 800-odd men of the battalion, only 43 escaped.  Their efforts were not in vain, however.  The 29th, at the cost of 1,000 men, had hurt the attacking Chinese army so badly--inflicting some 11,000 casualties--that it had to be withdrawn and replaced.

Gloucester Hill.


View from the heights held by the British 29th Brigade.  In the hazy distance is the Imjin River.  Today, this hill is home to Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) defensive positions.



White Horse (#4 on the map).  Of all the UN forces, the South Koreans of course contributed the most.  The Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) had an up and down history during the war, suffering many defeats and beat-downs, seeing units often routed by North Korean or Chinese forces only to be rebuilt later and sent back into the line.  It was for much of the war badly led, ill-trained, and poorly equipped.  Yet the South Korean forces fought bravely, took heavy losses, and went back into the line time and time again.  They bore the brunt of the war on the UN side, suffering around 600,000 casualties, including almost 140,000 killed in action; thousands are still unaccounted for.  It was a force forged in fire.

The Battle of White Horse has been called the battle that showed the ROKA had come of age.  After entering the war, the Chinese had often targeted the ROKA because it was much weaker than US forces.  It had few tanks, little artillery, and practically no air force, having to rely on the US military for all of these.  When the PLA attacked the South Koreans, ROKA units were usually defeated, and often defeat turned into rout with units fleeing in panic and disorder (they "bugged out" in the terminology of the day).  In October of 1952, however, seven regiments of the PLA tried to take what came to be called "White Horse Hill" (because of its shape and appearance after all the vegetation was destroyed in the battle) from the ROKA's 9th Division along what is today the southern boundary of the DMZ.  It was part of dozens of battles fought to seize hills along the line of resistance over the last year of the war.  The hill changed hands 24 times during the battle, and it cost the South Koreans some 3,500 casualties, but the 9th held the hill at the end and the Chinese had taken some 10,000 casualties with little to show for it.  The battle, outside of US artillery and air support, was fought completely by the South Koreans and showed they could stand up to the Chinese.  Afterward, the 9th Division would be nicknamed "the White Horse Division." The 9th Division would later go on to serve alongside US forces in Vietnam from 1966-1973.  It would also participate in the military coup of General Chun Doo Hwan in December of 1979.

This and the following photos are from a hill just south of the DMZ that is used to honor the 9th Division's battle on White Horse Hill.  The actual White Horse Hill is a ROKA installation and sits in a restricted area along the southern boundary of the DMZ.



Weapons recovered from the battleground, a machine gun and a shoulder-fired rocket launcher.

More artifacts in the small museum to the 9th Division and its fight on the White Horse.

The hills in the distance behind the shrine are in North Korea.

White Horse Hill, home to a ROKA installation along the southern edge of the DMZ.

And just north of White Horse is the DMZ and in the far distance, North Korea.

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