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Korea -- 50 years ago this week, May 17-23 'Van Fleet Load' helps stall Chinese attack
The events of fifty years ago this week marked a real
turing point in the Korean War. The CCF launched a
major offensive and was stopped cold. The war of
maneuver that marked the first year in Korea was
coming to a close.
In today's Army a lot of emphasis is placed on
subordinates understanding the commander's intent.
Prior to the offensive, Eighth Army Commander
Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet held a
conference at the IX Corps CP and his remarks clearly
reflected his intent. He ended the meeting by giving
this guidance to his subordinate commanders: "I want
to stress again that my idea of obstacles and
firepower is vast. We must expend steel and fire, not
men. I want to stop the Chinaman here and hurt him.
I welcome his attack and want to be strong enough in
position and fire power to defeat him. I want so many
artillery holes that a man can step from one to
another. This is not an overstatement; I mean it."
Although Van Fleet incorrectly assumed that the
enemy's main effort would be directed toward Seoul,
his subordinate commanders knew what he wanted done
and their soldiers and Marines did it.
Korea -- 50 years ago this week, May 17-23
'Van Fleet Load' helps stall Chinese attack
by Jim Caldwell
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 15, 2001) --
Effective bombing and artillery barrages helped halt
the latest communist offensive, 50 years ago this week
May 17, 1951 -- Waves of Chinese and North Korean
soldiers continue to pour down the east coast of South
Korea. Artillery and radar controlled bombing score
terrible losses among the enemy. At one point on May
17, Dutch soldiers reported that artillery was falling
heavily on an advancing Chinese formation, but the
soldiers kept coming, walking erect, not in the
instinctive crouching position soldiers take in those
conditions, stepping over bodies.
That night, B-29s hit 20 enemy troop concentrations,
some within 400 yards of front lines. Prisoners
attested to the effectiveness of the bombing, and
patrols the next day verified it.
May 18 -- Co. K, 38th Infantry Regiment, set up on a
hilltop, did little actual fighting against the
Chinese. The soldiers crawled into their bunkers, let
the Chinese swarm onto the hilltop and then called
artillery strikes on their positions. When they
emerged from their bunkers the next morning, they
found about 800 dead Chinese.
Delivering ammunition to the front to meet the "Van
Fleet Load" days of fire required Herculean supply and
transportation efforts. However, the guns supporting
and defending U.N. troops never ran short.
Gen. Matthew Ridgway, Far East commander, suggested to
Lt. Gen. James Van Fleet, Eighth Army commander, he
could relieve the pressure in the east by attacking
enemy forces in the I and IX Corps' western and
central sectors. Next day, Ridgway thinks a drive
along the entire front, including an attempt to cut
the supply lines to the enemy in the east, and
surround them, would eliminate the threat.
May 20-23 -- Intensity of enemy attacks in the east
drops off May 20, but picks up again the next day.
Still, Van Fleet reports to Ridgway that "the enemy's
initial punch in the eastern and central eastern
section is shot."
On May 22, soldiers of the Republic of Korea 3rd and
9th Divisions, who had been ordered to hold defensive
positions on Route 20 in the east, flee in panic when
they come under Chinese attack. This time division
commanders and their staffs flee along with the
The ROK failure to hold its sector causes Van Fleet to
deactivate the ROK III Corps and assign what remained
of its fighting forces to X Corps, widening X Corps
responsibilities to the coast.
The Eighth Army offense in the central and western
sectors begins May 20 with the ROK 1st Division
pushing for Munsan-ni. The 1st Cavalry Division begins
a drive through Uijongbu.
The Chinese and North Koreans have already decided to
withdraw. Their depleted forces in the east can no
longer mount effective attacks against the allies.
Reportedly, the Chinese commander does not want to
commit his reserves and have most of them slaughtered
as his assault forces had been.
On May 22, X Corps goes on the offensive. The enemy
has gotten such a head start that U.N. forces cannot
catch up to them, except for rear guard forces. The
1st Marine Division, pursuing enemy forces over steep
mountains, suffers more casualties to the terrain than
it does to the enemy. The Marines do find 11 wounded
2nd Infantry Division soldiers left behind by the
The same is true all along the front. By May 23 the
enemy is rushing to the 38th Parallel.
May 21 -- U.S. sources say the communists suffered 36
times the casualties of the allies - 58,000 to 1,618 -
in five days fighting.
A report out of Hong Kong said most of the Chinese
troops slaughtered in eastern Korea were former
Nationalist soldiers who defected to the communists in
the Chinese civil war.
Both houses of Congress pass a supplemental funding
bill with a provision that the U.S. government must
not give aid to any country sending strategic
materials to communist countries. The ban may be
waived if the president or the National Security
Council can show where such assistance benefits the
May 21-23 -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
General of the Army Omar Bradley resumes his testimony
at the Senate MacArthur hearings. Bradley's appearance
will end May 24.
Among his remarks, Bradley says the JCS opinion is
that it's better to inflict great losses on China in
Korea rather than invade the country. He says, "Russia
is the nation which must be defeated" in a possible
World War III, and the United States must prepare for
that possibility. Bradley says the hearings "are very
harmful to our security" because Russia knows "all of
our intentions, all of our thoughts and all of our
He said the JCS warned MacArthur Nov. 12-30, 1950,
that he should bring X Corps from northeast Korea and
consolidate the Eighth Army. The advice was ignored
and the corps had to fight its way out of North Korea
from places like the Chosin Reservoir.
MacArthur should have resigned if he wanted to express
opinions that differed with President Truman and other
government spokesmen, Bradley said. Although the JCS
never officially charged MacArthur with
insubordination, Bradley said his statements were
equivalent to insubordination.
May 22 -- Maj. Gen. Clark Ruffner, 2nd ID commander,
told reporters his division had "taken on four Chinese
corps and whipped them."
May 23 -- A Swedish private citizen was told by a
"Russian source" two weeks ago that the Soviets could
see the war ending with the same division of Korea
that existed before hostilities began, Sven Grafstrom,
Sweden's U.N. delegate reports to the United Nations.
However, Russia will not verify the account and the
United States will not discuss Korea with the Soviets
until Moscow asks for talks.
(Note to editors: The primary sources for this series
are "United States Army in the Korean War - Ebb and
Flow, November 1950-July 1951," Center for Military
History, 1988, and "Facts on File, Weekly World News
Digest, 1951" published by Facts on File, Inc. Jim
Caldwell is a journalist assigned to the Training and
Doctrine Command, Fort Monroe, Va.)
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