Military history



There is no one but yourself to keep your back door open.

— Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, commanding Eighth Army, to Major General Hobart R. Gay, CG 1st Calvary Division, July 1950.

AT NOON 22 JULY, the units of the 24th Division holding at Yongdong east of Taejon turned over the front to the 1st Calvary Division. At the same time General Walker ordered Major General John H. Church to assume command in the absence of General Dean.

In seventeen days of combat, the 24th Division had been driven back one hundred miles. It had lost enough matériel to equip a full-strength infantry division. Its losses in personnel had amounted to more than 30 percent, of which an unusually high portion had been senior officers. More than twenty-four hundred men were missing in action.

But had it not been committed, the balance of the United States Forces could never have established themselves in Korea. Without the extra days General Dean gave Walker at Taejon, the final defense of Pusan probably would have failed.

There had been hundreds of acts of heroism in the 24th, as well as acts that reflected no credit on the service. But most of the heroic actions had been those of individuals, of single officer or men who fought bravely and well. Because without tight discipline their bravery could not be coordinated into a team effort, many of these men died in vain.

Every American fighting man, seeing the decimated, dirty, exhausted, and weaponless 24th Infantry Division pushed back beyond Taejon, could only say to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I."

For the 24th Division was certainly no weaker than the Army as a whole. The other divisions from Japan, the 25th, the 1st Cavalry, the 7th Infantry, displayed the identical weaknesses of the 24th as each was committed to action.

None of them were equipped, trained, or mentally prepared for combat. For the first time in recent history, American ground units had been committed during the initial days of a war; there had been no allies to hold the line while America prepared. For the first time, many Americans could understand what had happened to Britain at Dunkirk.

Almost subconsciously, Americans had come to believe there would always be someone else to hold the line at first.

Once aroused, a democracy can match a totalitarian state in every facet of strength-it can be stronger, for totalitarianism has built-ill bureaucratic weaknesses. A Hitler can command, and men march—but a Hitler can go mad—and there is no one to say him nay.

But the abiding weakness of free peoples is that their governments can not or will not make them prepare or sacrifice before they are aroused.

The majority of the young men of the other divisions thrown into Korea now in late July were no more interested in being soldiers than the men of the 24th had been. They had enlisted for every reason known to man except to fight. They had no real antagonism for the enemy system, nor any desire to oppose it. They had no understanding of their nation's position in the world, or of the course their government must take. And their government was slow to waken to what its supposed legions had become.

Lacking professionalism, the men and junior officers did not have even the dash and pride of standard and outfit that men like De Vigny had been able to restore to the defeated French Army. With this pride of unit and profession, and with iron discipline, they would have fought differently.

The government, slow to understand, did nothing to remedy the situation. It did not seriously explain the world situation to the troops, or the United States' stake in it. Unquestionably, the government had hoped in the early days and weeks that the Korean conflict could be quickly contained, a hope the pitiful condition of its ground forces rendered forlorn from the start.

Soldiers fight from discipline and training, citizens from motivation and ideals. Lacking both, it is amazing that the American troops did even as well as they did. For as Colonel Dick Stephens of the 21st Infantry said, "The men and officers had no interest in a fight which was not even dignified by being called a war. It was a bitter fight in which many lives were lost, and we could see no profit in it.…"

And once they were committed, the Pentagon seemed to be living in its own dream world of optimism. It should have been clear from the start that America was entering a very real, if limited, war, and in war the outcome is usually in doubt. Day after day, the official briefings gave neither the public and the troops at home a real picture of the actual situation.

Though a number of armchair strategists and second-year ROTC students with a map could figure it out, and did.

Among those sickened by the official releases, which sometimes approached the dream world of the Imperial Japanese Government while being hammered to pieces by American might in World War II, was the New York Times military writer, Major Hanson Baldwin, who wrote, "…the Pentagon … has too often disseminated a soothing syrup of cheer and sweetness and light since the fighting began."

Nor were all the newsmen, particularly those writing from Korea, clear as to the real facts. Rarely has any conflict been so badly reported. Again and again in late July, dispatches referred to "wave after wave of screaming North Koreans" crashing against American lines. Newspaper after newspaper printed the fact that "we are still outnumbered at least four to one." Some papers put the figure at ten to one. The New York Times carried one story in which a junior officer claimed, "We were doing good against odds of better than 15 to 1 until we ran out of ammunition." In this, the Army aided and abetted them, and did nothing to disillusion them. The Army commanders had their own problems without trying to help newsmen understand the war.

In actuality, the NKPA held a slight superiority in men on 20 July. By 22 July, U.N. and North Korean forces were on a par, and by the end of July United Nations forces actually outnumbered the Inmun Gun, an advantage they never again lost.

But men are not ciphers, nor do the battles always go to the big battalions.

The correspondents saw, and were often quick to report, the command failures—which were many. Stories did spread of ranking officers removed from command, or put on planes for Japan in states of nervousness and collapse. Since the occupation divisions had been at full peacetime stance, a certain number of officers with no aptitude for leading men in combat had been assigned to them, as is inevitable in any peacetime army.

But few correspondents saw that officers, giving crucial commands, could never be sure if their orders would be obeyed. A colonel who sends men to hold a vital hill, and who sees them again and again "take a vote on it with their feet" by marching to the rear, is soon apt to be a straitjacket case.

One highly decorated colonel, known to his men as "Cash Pays the Rent" Corley, wrote HQ: "I want double the to of officers with each unit—one to lead and the other to drive."

Or if they saw, their stories were not printed. A free press is equally free to print the truth or ignore it, as it chooses.

On 22 July, the 1st Cavalry Division (Infantry) went into action at Yongdong, east of Taejon. The 25th Infantry Division moved into line in the Sangju area, to the southeast.

Yongdong was lost. The 25th moved south.

The fighting was confused, hellish, and bloody. In the main, it repeated the actions earlier in the month. The new divisions repeated the same weaknesses of the 24th, and did no better.

The front continued to move south.

Many men and units, unprepared for combat, fought creditably and more than creditably when unexpectedly thrown into battle. But even these could not stem the tide. From Okinawa, two battalions of the 29th Infantry Regiment were diverted to Korea. Unready for combat, the 29th was promised six weeks of training in Japan in the middle of July. But the front kept moving south, and the promise could not be kept. On 25 July, the two battalions found themselves on the front line at Chinju. In their ranks were four hundred brand-new recruits. Their newly issued rifles were not zeroed; their mortars were yet untest-fired; their new machine guns still oozed cosmoline.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold W, Mott, commanding 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry, received orders to move forward to seize the town of Hadong.

In Chinju was a ROK major general—Chae Byong Duk. Chae talked to the Americans about the deteriorating situation, and although he had only a few soldiers of his own, begged permission to join the Americans. They agreed to let him come along, but with the understanding that the ROK general was to serve only as interpreter and guide to Colonel Mott. The former chief of staff of the Republic of Korea agreed.

At Hadong Pass the next day, Chae and the American command group saw a group of soldiers approaching their newly prepared defensive positions. Many of these men seemed to be in American uniforms, though some wore the Communist mustard-brown. When the motley group was only one hundred yards away, Chae stepped forward and called to them.

"What unit?"

The group rushed into the ditches. The Americans along the pass opened fire with machine guns. And enemy fire blazed into the pass from the men in the ditches and some who had walked onto high ground to the north.

Chae Byong Duk, struck in the head, fell dead in a great pool of arterial blood. Two of his aides, loyal to the last, picked up his body under fire and took it to a truck. Chae Byong Duk, whatever his failings and whatever his mistakes, died a soldier.

In the same burst of fire Colonel Mott and several of his staff officers were wounded. Immediately, the battalion was under heavy fire, and heavy attack from two sides.

It fought well until enveloped by the enemy. Ordered to withdraw, the battalion experienced the same weakness of many American units; weakened by casualties, particularly among officers, it came apart.

Leaving more than three hundred dead behind it, a hundred prisoners, and most of its officers, the remnants of the battalion reached Chinju. Many men had retained only their boots and shorts by the time they reached safety.

Shortly afterward, the battalion was reorganized, and its companies sent to fill the gaps in the 19th Infantry, 24th Division.

The front continued to move south and cast.

Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, with HQ at Taegu, was aware that Eighth Army was approaching crisis. He was unhappy with the performance of General Kean's 25th Division at Sangju, and he let Kean know about it.

He saw the 1st Cavalry Division falling back on the Taejon-Taegu axis with alacrity. He made known his disappointment to General Hobart Gay, the division commander.

Gay, who had been Patton's chief of staff in Europe, admitted he did not know how to conduct a retreat—thus far in this military experience he had never been involved in one.

In addition to the problems of understrength units and missing batteries and battalions, lack of communications, and poor equipment, shaky morale and weak discipline, Eighth Army faced another problem, one that grew as summer lengthened.

July and August of 1950 were abnormally dry for Korea; the monsoon ended early, in blazing heat and droughts. The temperature soared to unusual heights, reaching 120 degrees at times.

The hillsides of South Korea are steep; often slopes of 60 degrees are found on low ridges. Under the sullen sun, the ridges shimmered like furnaces, and there was almost no shade in the scrubby brush that covered them.

And there is very little drinking water, outside the brownish stuff in the fecal paddies.

The land viewed from afar is beautiful, rolling terraces and rice paddies, each a subtly different shade of green. But each paddy is a humid, stinking oven, and the bare hills are like broiler plates.

When they left their trucks and moved up onto the hills and ridges, American soldiers, as one officer put it, "dropped like flies." Their legs, unused to hard pulls, gave out. The heat and exertion gave them throbbing headaches. During these weeks exhaustion and heat knocked out more men than NKPA bullets.

Short of water, lacking water discipline, they drank from ditches and paddies, developed searing dysentery.

They sweated until their shirts and belts rotted, and their bellies turned shark-white. Salt tablets became such an item of priority that they had to be air-dropped on units, along with vital ammunition.

Korea is a land cut by multiple hills and valleys, lacking roads. It is no terrain for a mechanized army. The principal—and sometimes only—means of getting from one place to another through the hills is shank's mare.

But American troops, physically unhardened for foot marches, were road-bound. They defended on roads, attacked on roads, retreated on roads. If their vehicles couldn't go, they did not go either.

FEAF soon made the roads unpopular with the Inmun Gun. On the roads, tactical air strafed them, rocketed them, burned them. The Inmun Gun left the roads and went over the ridges, and it seemed to bother them not at all. They went stolidly up the slopes with the patient, sideways, Korean peasant tread, and they carried their machine guns, mortars, and mountains of ammunition with them.

They set their guns up on the high ground behind the Americans, interdicting their supply roads. Americans had trouble attacking up the hills to knock them off. And when their roads were blocked, Americans could hardly drag themselves over the hills to safety, let alone their heavy equipment. Second to the Soviets, the American Army became the principal supplier to the Inmun Gun of guns and ammunition.

The great problem was that in 1950, an infantryman in Korea was called on to do almost the same things Caesar's legions had done, and to suffer the same hardships. In twenty centuries, infantry warfare has changed but little in the burdens it puts on the men in the mud. But in 1950, while ground warfare had changed little, the American society and the American soldier had.

In American society the best weapon against a convertible may be another convertible, but in Korea it is apt to be a. good pair of legs.

Johnny Walker, a tenacious little bulldog of a Texan, seeing the poor performance of his men, began to feel a certain warmth in his own britches area. He requested MacArthur to come to Korea, and they conferred, with only General Almond present. MacArthur said there was going to be no Korean evacuation, no repetition of Dunkirk. Walker agreed.

Walker moved among his divisions afterward and began to lay down the law. On 26 July he had issued a warning order for a planned withdrawal to defensive position behind the Naktong River, but now he put out an order that was promptly tagged by the press as "stand or die."

Walker knew Eighth Army would have to fall back more—he did not intend the order to be one to stand or die. But he was doing everything he could to slow the southward rush. A determination to stand—somewhere—had to be instilled in all ranks.

Walker's presence up and down the line was felt to good effect, though his order of 29 July had little effect other than in the press.

The front moved south. On I August, Walker commanded an orderly withdrawal across the Naktong, the last natural defense barrier to the port of Pusan. Once across, the bridges were to be blown, and all hands were to dig in for a final stand.

Behind the Naktong, Eighth Army would be only fifty miles from the sea.

The American and ROK divisions streamed back across the Naktong for several days, sometimes breaking contact with the NKPA, against Walker's instructions. By the evening of 3 August, all were across except a battalion of the 8th Cavalry, acting as rear: guard. This battalion was on the west side of the river at Waegwan, preparing to come across so that the bridge could be dynamited.

But this rear guard had a problem.

Thousands upon thousands of Korean civilian refugees were pressing upon these men, clamoring to be let across the bridge. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, frightened of the Inmun Gun, were fleeing south ahead of, with, and behind the fighting forces, complicating their job enormously.

As the rear guard came across the bridge to the east side, throngs of Koreans followed them, filling the bridge with jostling bodies. General Hobart Gay, who had ordered the bridge to be sent up only at his express command, instructed them to go back to the far side, and clear the bridge.

This they did, as dusk approached. Then, with the refugees pushed back onto the west shore, the rear guard turned and pelted across to the friendly bank—but the second they turned, the Koreans dashed madly for the bridge and soon filled it, even before the cavalrymen were across.

Three times, at Gay's order, they repeated the maneuver, without success. Short of shooting them there was no way to keep the Koreans from using the bridge. Even telling them it would be blown did no good.

Now it was growing dark, and the Inmun Gun was closing. As the rear guard recrossed to the east side for the third time, with the mass of Koreans close behind them, Hobart Gay, his face pale, said, "Blow it." He had no other choice.

Several hundred Koreans went into the river with the bridge.

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