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Re: M Company photo
Read the third battalion's rifle companies stories to appreciate more of what happened to "M" Company, which was assigned in part to all of them during that worst fight of 10-11 July, 1950.
The paper pasted to this is my own narrow recollection of what happened to us in "Love" Company. Contact Hugh Brown or me for our company's Love, Labor and Laughter. It will give you a perspective of this fight.
Best regards, and believe that your brother, his outfit, and the rest of us "kept the faith."
and as we say to one another, Much Love,
TASK FORCE SMITH AND THE 21st INFANTRY REGIMENT'S FIRST BATTLES IN KOREA
Of the 406 men in Task Force Smith, only 221 survived the war
Before the North Korean infantry attack began, I heard our bazookas firing, but saw their tanks coming through anyway. Assuming our young gunners were missing their targets, I went with my bazooka gunner into a ditch leading to the road that NK tanks were using to split our company positions. Another platoon leader, 2/Lt. Jansen Cox was there already with his bazooka team, and we fought from the relatively safe haven of the ditch. (The T-34's co-axial machine guns were the only danger we faced from the culvert, so we were safe as soon as a tank's big tube passed us by.) The eight hits I made myself on the sides of the passing T-34s had no discernible effect, but corrected my impression that our gunners were firing wide and taught me a valuable lesson for "Love" Company's fight the following week.
My intent is to tap my experiences to help soldiers and Marines better understand and prepare for the world they will confront. Fighters must lead their fellows through danger-for some, through the last minutes of their lives. "Leader" is a formal designation, but its affirmation is always in the hands of those who are led. In battle, fighter-leaders are themselves vulnerable, and often short-lived.
What We Were
In 1950, when North Korea's invasion of South Korea provoked our "Police Action," all units of our occupation forces in Japan were under-strength, our arms obsolete and in disrepair. Many weapons had been condemned as "unfit for combat" by our division ordnance inspectors. One example: a sergeant and I had taught a class on flame-throwers the month before we debarked for Korea, but we had to cannibalize all eight weapons in the Regiment to get two that worked. All had been used hard by the 3rd Parachute Infantry Regiment on Corregidor five years earlier.
The NK attack on the South surprised us. But we assumed the NK troops would turn around and run back home as soon as American troops appeared on the field. We would just throw together a task force, drop them into the action, and they would be home by Christmas. Then we realized we didn't have a single battle-ready regiment in all of Japan. We stripped essential men and equipment from other already skeletonized units to form Task Force Smith. Colonel Brad Smith was being sent to quell a force that was better armed and probably better trained for their campaign than his occupation troops. Our first fight in Korea was with 406 men who had to move up, locate, and prepare a defensive position in less than five days. We were roundly defeated. Compare this preparation and result with over 400,000 troops and five months preparation in the Persian Gulf conflict.
Only five years after WWII, the victorious American Army had become shamefully unready for combat. Our national tradition held that we didn't need a standing army once the enemy at hand was beaten. Hiroshima and Nagasaki persuaded us that ground forces were no longer relevant. We wanted to enjoy the peace we had earned, so we slashed our defense budget and the size of our forces. Our intelligence services soon filled with incompetents, and we blindly chose to assign our least qualified personnel to units that would be first in combat. As a final grave error, we constantly shuffled the occupation troops in Japan. A capable fighting unit is far more than a set of well-trained and competent individuals. Combat units survive when personnel know and trust each other. Unit cohesion - the most beautiful word in the lexicon of soldiers-was non-existent.
What We Did
As one of only two lieutenants in the regiment trained as parachutists, I was sent to the airfield at Kokura, Japan to load out Task Force Smith. I was not formally assigned to the unit; Colonel Smith simply said, "Stay on the plane. I've got work for you." This was my fourth platoon in eight months, assuring me about the same close personal contacts as a hired gun. In our first battle at Osan, my platoon in TFS was positioned to delay the attacking NK forces. Working all night, we had barely dug in when 33 Soviet built T-34 tanks hit us. Our only "anti-tank" weapons, the 2.36inch bazookas, were utterly useless. The official history says we failed to get orders to withdraw and didn't know the rest of the outfit had left. True, and this error left my platoon serving as rear guard rather than close-in combat outpost line (COPL) originally required by our location. Because we stayed too long in a losing fight our platoon was destroyed.
We could not bring one wounded sergeant with us. We left him to a Korean farmer with a wheelbarrow, my rose gold Longines wristwatch, and a note asking the first American unit he met to give the farmer $100 cash for delivering the sergeant. They arrived in Pusan on the 8th, making it to the coast and down on a fishing boat! The remnants of my platoon and other stragglers we gathered reached our retreating forces after three days of prudent walking through NK units.
We had gone sharply east from Osan, in hilly country, then west to regain the main road. I met the 34th Infantry Regimental Commander later at Chonan. We had broken into a schoolhouse near Ansong and torn a large map from a geography book that showed two roads branching south to Chonan. On my schoolbook map I located all NK tank units we had seen (we could not have evaded infantry) and explained their locations to the Colonel. I described the fight at Osan with particular emphasis on the invulnerable tanks. I was adamant about the impossibility of our little 2.36-inch bazookas killing tanks, even from the flank where I had been shooting. He asked if I had pulled the rocket's safety clips before loading and firing, and speculated that the fuses were possibly too old or had been badly stored, or damaged in Japan. The fragments I had in my face and hands helped convince him that most were exploding just fine.
I did believe some of our bazooka rounds had not exploded, and attributed this to the warhead not having time to arm at short range. I showed him how we were relatively safe firing from our culvert after the tank's big tubes with coaxial-mounted MGs had passed. In General Gavin's book, On To Berlin, he details burying parachutists in Sicily with chunks of bazookas ground up in their bodies. Officers who knew the bazooka didn't work and failed to alert our soldiers to its inability to kill tanks neglected a vital duty-especially while they kept the larger, much more effective 3.5-inch rocket launcher back in the States. (I am far angrier over this even today than this moderate statement reveals.)
The Colonel had someone with him who knew the tanks were T-34s, the Russians most deadly armor at the end of WWII. Artillery would have made a difference when the NK infantry dismounted and moved in those long lines around us, but their tanks had torn out our phone wire and rain took out our obsolete radios, stopping all communications. My platoon's light machine gun and BARs were not effective once the North Koreans got off their trucks. The .50 cal might have reached them (firing from a knob several hundred yards behind me) but the Koreans were never in range of my platoon's light weapons until dispersing just before their assault. This is almost the same story as later at Chochiwon, particularly where long NK columns walked around us. We fired; they kept on their course.
Believing I was merely "on loan" to B Company, I went back to "Love" after Doc Duerk finished patching me up. Captain Cox had given away my platoon, but said one would be available shortly. Very true. Platoon leaders are vulnerable.
A and D Companies of the 21st Infantry Regiment's First Battalion, not committed at Osan and still usable, were in a blocking position at Chonui. They were attacked early on 10 July by a force they could not contain. Their forced withdrawal left a number of their men behind in uncoordinated fragments. The Regiment's Third Battalion counterattacked, recovering the position about noon on 10 July. The NK offered considerable resistance, but could not mount a coherent defense of the positions.
The largest group of men we rescued from A Company was about ten. We found four men on the 81mm mortar position with hands tied behind them with telephone wire, each shot in the head.
Despite dislocations caused by large numbers of wounded, killed, and evacuated during the counterattack, our night withdrawal to our original positions north of Chochiwon was tightly controlled. K Company's positions had been partially occupied by NK soldiers who flanked us while we were focused on Chonui. They fought much of the night, forcing K Company into somewhat different placements from their earlier prepared defenses.
At first light, The NK came through our just-evacuated positions at Chonui to attack our new location through heavy fog. One of their echelons moved close against our front and kept us under sporadic fire. As the fog cleared we could see trotting formations scurrying eastward, parallel to our positions. This had happened before at Osan on the 5th. Here also, my light machine guns and those of the third platoon could not stop their flanking movements, and the company mortars were shooting for first platoon. Our artillery, unknown to us, had already been taken out by what proved to be a problematic ally: the USAF. They had also taken out our field artillery company earlier with MG fire.
"Love" Company was given an idiotic "hold at all costs" order to stay put. It was retracted at 1100 hours, and we were authorized to pull back at 1130. Captain Cox gave me the artillery FO and instructions to stay in position until then. The official history would later say: "This attack on the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry was one of the most perfectly coordinated assaults ever launched by North Koreans against American troops." Our defense would be described as "...the most impressive performance yet of American troops in Korea." Small comfort to the men who paid its costs.
We didn't know the NK forces had already flanked our positions and had machine guns on the ridge behind us before launching their "pinning" attack. Our ammunition had been severely depleted by the previous day's fight, and NK roadblocks to the company's rear kept us from being resupplied. Most survivors of this fight went due south in small groups into the NK force behind us. Twenty-seven of these men found they had no option but to surrender. A dozen of these did not survive their stay in "Tiger's Camp." ("Johnny's list," kept in a toothpaste tube by one of the 15, tells when, how, and where these POWs died. See the Readers Digest of January, 1998.)
The official history describes our retreat: "One officer of L Company (me) who came out with some men said that after he and others had removed an enemy machine gun blocking their escape route, many uninjured men by the side of the road simply refused to try to go on. One noncom said, 'Lieutenant, you will have to go on, I'm too beat up. They'll just have to take me.'" He was not from L Company, so I never learned if he survived prison camp, but his odds were grim. Two months later I helped identify the bodies of those who had been KIA or wounded early in the fight. All the wounded had been killed, as had many who surrendered. Graves Registration led me, sobbing badly, through our abandoned positions and the battalion aid station to name the ones I could.
Almost all the captured Love Company men were taken after we stayed much too long above Chochiwon because of the "hold at all costs" order that kept us in place. We delayed the North Koreans for two days, but with tragic losses. The lucky handful with me covering the final withdrawal went west across the road where the BN CP had been, crossed the railroad track and river, and survived to fight again.
The lessons: first be lucky; then keep a clip of ammunition for the pullout you may have to make; and never willingly take the desperate gamble of life as a POW.
What We Learned
Official data regarding rifle companies shows almost 90 % of WWII casualties (killed, captured, and wounded) were in the Army. Of these, about 90 % were in the infantry's rifle platoons. I suspect 90 % of the other casualties were Marine infantrymen. Essentially, the numbers say that being in an infantry rifle platoon in combat means you are going to be wounded or killed; not if, but when and how bad you will be hit.
The most effective leader of fighters I've known was a sergeant who deserted 24th Infantry Division headquarters to come forward to our rifle company. Watching everything he did, learning why, and imitating him is likely why I'm alive today. He was even younger than I, but his previous experience with Merrill's Marauders was of far more value than my non-fighting role in the 7th Marines. You may never encounter such an exemplar of military virtue when you need him most, but borrow the right things from each of the best you do come across.
The sergeant poked a loaded carbine's muzzle through the pistol port they had opened to shoot us off the back of their tank, and ricochets inside took out the crew. He burned the tank an hour later. I asked him why he was burning it, as the crew was already dead. His answer: "I want them others to know where this one is, what happened to it, and for them to be discouraged about the idea of coming where we are."
The only flaw in his theory was the noxious, brown trail of smoke that helped US Air Force pilots see it. They strafed the dead tank in the middle of our position for the next two hours! We were dug in so well by then that none of us were hit. Double Lesson: dig yourself in if anyone's aircraft are in the area, as they do not discriminate well. And don't count on your own planes to solve your problem with dug-in enemy infantry. This only happens in Hollywood. Much of the advantage we think our airplanes should provide disappears fast; the enemy also learns to dig in.
The backbone of any Army is its rifle squads and platoons. Their leadership is absolutely critical. The words: "your team has to function after you get hit," means you must prepare all of them to lead when you are gone. Men fight for comrades, those with them in the battle, seldom thinking of larger and more glorious goals. The "fighting" I speak of is an intimate horror to which only walking infantry are exposed and must endure. My word picture of fighting: "Crawl on your belly like a serpent close enough to throw grenades at the hostile wretch with the noisy machine gun." This narrow view requires one to throw the grenade and another to stand up and shoot the gunner as he swings the tube around to kill the grenade pitcher. Machine gunners come with support crews who stay alive by knowing and countering your form of attack. Being outfought comes at high cost, with no appeals.
Such roles are ultimate, unnatural acts that neither you nor the grenade guy may survive. But there are no other solutions. Do not expect Rambo to come by and do it for you. You and your team are the only sure resource you have for staying alive. Fighting means moving with the rest of your rifle squad into a lonesome void that you all feel seethes with menace. The sound of a machine gun, including the screams of the men it hits, makes your possession of confidence transient at best. The role and responsibility of the leader is to earn, acquire, and share critical confidence with all of his men. Earn is again the key word.
Everyone in a body of fighting men, everyone is responsible for all the others. Survival is mutually dependent. Your role is taking care of yourself and each of your men as you sort out how to accomplish your mission. Trust is crucial. It must be mutual, and it must be earned.
Being terrorized by circumstances of battle is natural and wholly concentrates the mind. It must not numb it. Knowing this is your best protection against it. Note that my focus has been on tanks. It is not coincidental. The most terrifying sound you will ever hear is the crunching sound of tank tracks getting closer. They are looking for your body to grind under their treads. This is the most effective psychological warfare they can practice on those infantrymen who survive. And a tanker's immediate target may already be dead. A man is a large sack of blood whether he is alive or not, and the tanker's intention is to lower the morale of those of you who observe the carnage. Yes, it works.
Knowing you are about to be killed can paralyze you, making it easier for the enemy to do. It also makes it easy for you to throw down your empty rifle and plead for your life. But that makes it even easier for your enemy to kill you. Such psychic shocks can be overcome with forethought, another word for training.