Military history


Into the Valley of Death

Just as in classical Greek tragedy events move toward their predestined course, so the actors in this drama, however courageous and selfless were powerless to change the result.

— S. L. A. Marshall.

IN THE BITTER, foggy dawn of 29 November, while the 2nd Division was locked in battle across the endless hills and corridors along the Ch'ongch'on, a Turkish motor convoy drove north from Sunch'on, some thirty road miles below Kunu-ri, bound for the division rear. The trucks carried supplies intended for the Turkish Brigade, already smashed, and it proceeded north on the single road into the division area.

The convoy never arrived. Near the straggling little village of Yangwan-ni it met a storm of fire from both sides of the road. Trucks exploded and slued off the road. Others stopped, burning. Men fell from the cabs, riddled by machine-gun bullets fired at close range. Some died in the ditches beside the road; a few ran or crawled north into the 2nd Division lines.

Because of language barriers, perhaps because of shock, the Turkish survivors were not able to get their story fully across—and one fact of extreme importance was omitted from their story altogether: two miles south of the area where they had been ambushed, the supply trucks had rolled by the corpses and burned-out vehicles of an even earlier ambush.

The evidence, then, was that a vast area of the division's lifeline south was already interdicted, but the evidence did not get into the right hands. Such of it that did, in the fury and desperation of the moment, seemed to indicate only one more small pinprick among the proliferating wounds from which the division was already bleeding.

Two squads of the 2nd Division MP's were dispatched south on the road. They never returned.

However, a platoon of tanks, from IX Corps reserve, went down the road in complete peace. Near Sunch'on they joined elements of the British Brigade moving north—code name "Nottingham"—and radioed back that the road was clear.

The 2nd Division Reconnaissance Company next went over the same route at midafternoon. Nearing the wreckage of the Turkish convoy, it drew heavy automatic-weapons fire, and radioed back to Lieutenant Colonel Foster, Division G-2, that it was unable to move. A platoon of tanks from the 72nd Tank Battalion and one company of the 38th Infantry was sent south to clear the area. This force was brought to battle along the road, and got nowhere.

At dark, Division HQ ordered it to break off the fighting. From the evidence it now had, Division assumed approximately a thousand yards of the road were interdicted, around Yangwan-ni. The division staff was not unmindful of the threat, but felt it to be more in the nature of an annoyance than a disaster.

Meanwhile, General Keiser had become fully apprised of the major surgery the Chinese had inflicted upon his rifle units. For five days he had been falling back slowly along the Ch'ongch'on, never breaking contact, never with a chance to straighten the division out or to get it back into a firm holding position. The division had been poised to attack against crumbling resistance—not to withstand the café-au-lait-colored hordes that poured out of the hills against it.

Now, wanting to pull back a considerable distance, to reorganize and get a breathing spell, Keiser was forced to argue with IX Corps, who did not relish retreat at all. The point was not easily won.

It was not until after the Turks' trucks were already flaming along the division's main supply route that Corps reluctantly agreed to 2nd Division's withdrawal to Sunch'on. Corps left it up to Keiser to come out on whatever route he chose.

There were only two possibilities: the north-south road between Kunu-ri and Sunch'on, and the lateral road leading west from Kunu-ri to junction with the main coastal highway at Sinanju.

Keiser talked by radio with General Milburn, CG of I Corps, who was situated west near Sinanju. Milburn wanted to know how things were with Keiser, Bad, Keiser told him—the 2nd was even drawing fire on its CP.

"Well," Milburn radioed, "come out my way." To the west, all was clear.

But Keiser was not under Milburn's Corps, and he was concerned about becoming enmeshed with the 25th Division, which was retreating along the westward route.

He then drove to the IX Corps CP, which was a few miles west of Kunu-ri, toward Sinanju. Here the Corps G-3 gave him the boundaries of I and IX corps, but again did not specify how Keiser was to bring his division out of the trap being formed about Kunu-ri.

Debating how he was to move, Keiser flew back to his own CP in an L-5 liaison plane. From the plane's height he was able to see many miles across the low hills to the south. He saw hundreds and thousands of men moving southwest along the tiny trails and corridors, and he took these for Korean refugees.

And he thought that if refugees were still fleeing from the enemy in that area, the enemy must still be considerably to the east. Seemingly, he had time to move the division due south rather than into I Corps' zone to the west.

Only later was the evidence to show that these moving men, many wearing captured ROK uniforms, must have been Chinese hastening to block the division's withdrawal.

Keiser was aware of the roadblock on the Kunu-ri-Sunch'on road, but did not consider it yet of major importance. However, after dark 29 November, most of the supply and service trains, including a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital with thirty female nurses, were sent along the west road to Sinanju. These trains passed just after the 25th Division, and experienced no difficulty. With them went the trains of the 38th Regiment, and most of the wounded.

Other service elements, including those of 9th Infantry, went out by way of the lateral road to safety.

Now, on the evening of 29 November, the 23rd Regiment was still north of Kunu-ri, while Peploe's 38th was grudgingly fighting backward from the east. With Peploe were still more than a thousand men of the ROK 3rd Regiment, who were becoming increasingly difficult to control. And with him also were the 155mm howitzers of the 17th Field Artillery.

The 23rd was ordered to move south to the road junction, and to hold the gate open while the division prepared to move south. Peploe was ordered to bring his regiment in, and be prepared to lead the movement toward Sunch'on.

Pulling his units back toward the CP, Peploe told the 17th's C.O., "You'd better get out of here, because now there is nothing in front of you." The artillery commander refused; he had no orders for a move.

Colonel Sloane, of the 9th, was called into Division CP tent and informed that as soon as possible on the next morning, the 30th, his regiment must attack along the Sunch'on road and wipe out the blocking force around Yangwan-ni.

Sloane was far from cheerful at the news. He told Lieutenant Colonel Holden, the division operations officer, that his men were worn out and that his supposed regiment now consisted of only two battalions—each of which had the strength of a rifle company. There were two hundred men in the 2nd, and only slightly more in the 3rd. The 1st had disappeared amid the lonely hills.

Holden, backed up by Colonel Epley, the division chief of staff, told him he had plenty of strength to do the chore. "You will be fighting not more than two Chinese companies."

Sloane asked, "Who's in contact down there with them now?"

The division officers admitted that no one was, at the moment. Sloane grew less cheerful. He was given, finally, a platoon of tanks from the 72nd, in support.

Then, by feeble candlelight, Lieutenant Colonel Holden wrote out the fateful operations order for the retreat. The order was not typed, but scratched out on a scrap of paper in red crayon. It read, simply:

"When R/B [roadblock] is open, follow this priority for movement south: (1) 38th Inf (2) 2nd Recon Co, Div HQ, MP Co, 2nd Signal Co (3) Divarty [divisional Artillery] (4) 2nd Engr Bn (5) Rearguard—23rd RCT (23rd Inf, 15 FA Bn, 72d Tank B—Co C, Battery B of 82d AAA."

Events were rushing toward a conclusion. Soon they would be beyond the control of anyone, in Division HQ or elsewhere.

Formed up in chilly moonlight, before the cloying fog rolled in from the Yellow Sea, the remnants of 9th Infantry marched south toward Sunch'on on the main supply route. Under Sloane's orders, 2nd Battalion was to clear the ridges west of the main supply route, while 3rd Battalion moved on its east. Just beyond the division CP, flanking patrols left the road and clambered through the dark onto the surrounding ridges.

To the left of the route, Frank Muñoz's George Company moved across hilly, ridged ground. While the hills to the right of the road seemed to be bare, those in front of Muñoz were lightly timbered.

Moving down a dry riverbed, in the dark, George came under fire more than a mile north of where Muñoz had been told to expect the roadblock. Stung by orange streaks blazing from the ridges, George Company piled into the ditches or sought cover along the roadway.

Sloane, badly startled to find enemy here, called his battalion commanders in for hasty conference. As the sky turned light in the east, and the fog thickened, an attack line was formed, and once again the regiment went forward. Surprisingly, they met thin air; the enemy had withdrawn.

By 0800, after an air strike had been called on the ridges up ahead on either side of the road, Muñoz's men had advanced in skirmish line to the high ground whence the Chinese fire had ripped the road the day before. Even though the men were tired, all was proceeding according to plan. A platoon of the supporting tanks were ordered to advance down the road, to see if it were now clear.

The tanks rumbled south, following the twisting, turning route for some six miles down to an area called "the pass," a narrow defile a quarter of a mile in length where the road cut between fifty-foot-high rock embankments. South of this defile, they made contact with elements of Nottingham. They radioed back; the way seemed clear.

Colonel Sloane ordered his units to push on down either side of the road. It was now midmorning. He reported the good news to Division. But immediately, all members of the 9th came under fire from both machine guns and mortars. The heretofore silent hills crawled with Chinese.

Muñoz's company was able to make no progress. The others did no better. The ROK's who had been attached to the 38th marched down to aid them. Colonel Chung, the ROK commander, was asked to attack and clear the ridges on the west. Chung said he would be ready to begin at 1030. Chung, like Soane, had no real idea of what he was getting into.

The ROK's attacked. At first they made good progress—then, quite by accident, American tanks supporting from the road fired into them. And by this time Colonel Chung also must have understood he was attacking more than a simple roadblock; he had a bear by the tail. His men ran into swarms of Chinese on the hills.

The ROK attack failed; as some of the ROK's fell down the ridges they threw their arms away in disgust.

General Keiser had come up in time to see the failure of the ROK effort, but he still thought, as did Colonel Sloane, that he was facing only a shallow roadblock, extending south not more than a thousand yards. While Sloane's tired men were having trouble blasting across it, no real volume of fire had so far fallen on the road.

Meanwhile, to the north, Chinese pressure on the rearguard 23rd RCT was mounting steadily. Colonel Freeman could not hold the door indefinitely; Keiser feared the division would soon be overrun from the north and east, regardless of what lay to its south.

It was this pressure to the north that loomed most heavily in Keiser's mind. Also, while no radio contact had been established, he believed that the Nottingham force was only a short distance south of linkup.

Watching the abortive attempts of Sloane's infantrymen to fight their way across the ridges, Keiser suddenly made his decision. He said, "We've got to get out of here before dark."

It was noon, and the short winter day was fading.

Even if the ridges could not be cleared, Keiser believed his motorized columns could slam through over the road. To Colonel Peploe, standing beside him, he gave a verbal order to begin moving his regiment toward the pass. The division had already struck its camp around Kunu-ri, and the long lines of vehicles stood waiting for the word to move.

Most of the trains and noncombat vehicles of the 2nd Division had been sent out over the road to the west, toward Sinanju. The 25th Division, which had been on the 2nd Division's north, was retreating down this route. With the right—east—flank of the 2nd Division gaping because of the destruction of the ROK II Corps, it was imperative now for the division to fall back to the area of Sunch'on to the south, to make contact with the British brigade there, and to reconsolidate the U.N. line. With unknown numbers of Chinese flowing down the eastern flank, Keiser realized his division was momentarily in danger of being enveloped and cut off.

He thought, however, that the road south to Sunch'on was relatively clear, and fearing imminent increased pressure from the north, he chose to move over the shortest road to Sunch'on. Also, by moving along the other route to the west, there seemed danger of entangling the 2nd with the retreating 25th Division.

The one thing neither Keiser nor anyone else at 2nd Division HQ knew was that the CCF had already sideslipped a full division south and east and had already enveloped the Kunu-ri-Sunch'on road. The British brigade, brought to full battle twenty miles to the south, was in no position to move north to assist.

The division had to come out. It was in serious peril of being trapped. But in sending it down the Sunch'on road, not disposed for battle but organized only for a motor march, General Keiser, unknowingly, was sending it unprepared into the gauntlet.

Most of Peploe's organic vehicles had been sent out with the trains to the west; he had his men mounted on what were left, some artillery vehicles, and the supporting tanks. Peploe had no intimation that the roadblock was not clear at the time he mounted his regiment; therefore he loaded up for a motor march, not for combat.

Tanks were not kept together, but scattered up and down the long truck column, to give support to the thin-skinned vehicles. Since at least one battalion of the 38th—all of which averaged now about two hundred men—had to ride out on the tank decks, Peploe's command immediately lost all tactical integrity. Companies were split apart as they loaded on many separate vehicles; even squads and platoons split up as the men crowded aboard whatever truck or jeep still had room.

Once mounted thus, even senior officers had command and control over only a single vehicle, the one in which they rode. Peploe's regiment, approaching the interdicted area, was now prepared and disposed to do only one thing: ride out.

At the head of the column went the lead tank of Captain Hinton's 38th Regimental Tank Company. With this tank, commanded by Lieutenant Mace, were eighteen infantryman and three officers of the 2/38, including Lieutenants Knight, Rhotenberry, and a young man eager to get the show on the road, Lieutenant Charley Heath.

Now, as the tanks gunned their engines, Sloane came up to Captain Muñoz's thin skirmish line on the ridge and told him two companies of Turks were to attack through George, in a final attempt to clear the ridges. And now, with the plan of maneuver radically altered, the 9th Infantry, including George Company, would have to catch a ride on the convoys as they came through.

Thus 9th Infantry, also, dissolved as a fighting force.

The Turks, in flapping greatcoats, carrying American rifles with fixed bayonets, marched through Muñoz's line of riflemen. These two companies were the last of the Turkish expeditionary force. They assaulted the ridges east of the road while Muñoz watched.

As they attacked, over the radio came the word to Lieutenant Mace's lead tank at the head of the 38th's column: "Haul ass!"

Ponderously, like a great snake uncoiling, the miles-long column thrust its head between the hostile hills, picking up speed. Now the action was irretrievably begun. With the fighting elements of the division fractionalized, scattered over dozens of vehicles, and the vehicles on the road, there could be no change of plan. Officers, even General Keiser, could no longer influence more than a few men close to them, and they, like Keiser, would come out not leading a rearguard action but as individuals speeding for their lives.

The first tank roared ahead, while Mace on the .50-caliber machine gun and the riflemen aboard sprayed the surrounding hills with fire. Machine-gun bullets spattered the tank hull from time to time, but no one was hurt. This tank was to be the luckiest of all that came through.

Then, approximately three thousand yards from where they had started, the tank slued to a sudden halt. Directly ahead, blocking the road, were a damaged tank, a truck, and an M-39 carrier, all pointed north. As the tank stopped, machine-gun fire poured upon it from all sides.

The infantrymen ran for the ditches and began to fire back, as Mace pushed the truck and tank to the side of the road with his own tank. But the M-39 vehicle would not budge. Lieutenant Heath ran for it, to see if the brakes were set. As he boarded it, a bullet struck his rifle, knocking it from his hand, and beside the stalled carrier he saw and heard a desperately wounded man.

This soldier, holding out an empty canteen, pleading, gasped, "Me Turk—me Turk!" Heath had no water; no one in his party had any. All he could do was to shake his head and point to the north, from whence help was coming. The Turk had been shot in both the stomach and shoulder.

And then Heath saw something that struck like a dagger of ice in his own bowels—the blood surrounding the Turk's wounds was clotted and dark; he had been lying beside the road many, many hours.

Instantly, Charley Heath knew that instead of holding a shallow block along the main supply route, the enemy held these ridges at least three miles deep, and they had held them for a long time. Long enough to emplant machine guns, long enough to set up and register mortars. In a single sickening second, Heath knew the division was speeding into a trap.

But it was too late to stop, too late to do anything except to try to barrel through. Heath leaped onto the carrier and released the laterals; Mace's tank shoved the now loosened vehicle off the road. Only a few minutes had been lost, but these were enough to stop the entire convoy behind them.

And from this halt, it would never completely recover.

In motion once more, Mace's lead tank roared ahead, picking up speed again to fifteen miles per hour. Firing, fired on, the tank clanked south another three thousand yards, and entered the narrow defile of the pass. Coming at such speed, Mace surprised the Chinese assembled there; he even saw one group leap up from their noon meal as he went by. Grinding down from the pass, he saw more wrecked vehicles with Turkish markings, and he rammed across a makeshift roadblock the Chinese had set up. The heavy tank barreled across the obstacles; the jeeps immediately following had no such luck; they piled up against it.

Spurting onward, throwing up clouds of dust, Mace's tank cleared the pass and swooped around a bend. High in the turret, his hand on his .50-caliber machine gun, Mace stiffened as he saw a tank in the road.

But it was an American tank, one of those that had broken through earlier. Beyond it was the British brigade, brought to battle south of the pass and being knocked about. The British would not be able to close the gap this day.

Mace's tank, miraculously, had come through without loss among either crew or riders—the first and last vehicle to do so. Surprise, and their momentum, had served them well. And as they went through the British lines, these men knew the worst: that instead of holding only a small stretch of the road under light fire, a full Chinese division had locked itself over six miles of the route, covering it with small arms, mortars, and forty machine guns. Nor could Mace and party give warning; like those of the British, his radios wouldn't carry over the pass.

At any rate, such warning would have come too late. Behind the lead tank, with a roar of flame and singing steel, the huge trap closed.

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