Military history


May Massacre

It is a necessary to provide soldiers with defensive arms of every type as to instruct them in the use of offensive ones. For it is certain men fight with greater courage and confidence when they find themselves properly armed for defense.


AFTER THE MASSIVE failure of the CCF First Step, Fifth Phase Offensive, the front, which now almost evenly divided the Korean peninsula, enjoyed two weeks of uneasy quiet.

May Day came, but the CCF had turned to limited retreat on 30 April, and the expected blow did not fall. Always, during the Korean War, U.N. observers tensed at the approach of May, fearing action on the traditional pagan holiday, sacred both to ancient Anglo-Saxons and modern Communists. But the Communists showed no more disposition, if conditions were not right, for action on I May than the Americans did to start their own ruckusses on July Fourth.

But U.N. intelligence, warned by aerial observation of troop and supply movement, felt that a new CCF offensive was brewing and that this time it would fall against General Ned Almond's X Corps, in the center.

Air power, in the mountains of North Korea, could not stop the continuing reinforcement of the CCF front any more than it had been able completely to choke off the German armies in Italy during World War II.

The CCF, relying on night movement and muscle power, were always able to move sufficient supply forward. Air interdiction could cripple the forward flow from time to time; it could not kill it.

The CCF, as others before then, had learned to live with a hostile sky. They clung to hills and mountains, and they dug deep. They moved by night, when it was difficult even for the night-flying fighter-bombers to seek them out in the bristling terrain.

It was only—as in Italy, at Anzio and other places—when ground action put inexorable pressure on enemy ground forces, forcing them to move or to displace, that conventional tactical air could come into its own. Massed to attack, the CCF became vulnerable. When they broke through U.N. lines, and their artillery and supply were forced to move out into the open, to displace, U.N. air could pounce upon them and chew them mercilessly. When they were forced by U.N. ground pressure to retreat, to stream down the roads and corridors of escape, air again could inflict deadly wounds.

Conventional air action, in Korea, could be decisive only when coupled with decisive ground action. It is impossible to interdict the battlefront, in mountains, of an army that eats only a handful of rice and soya beans and carries its ammunition forward piggyback.

But when the Chinese came down out of their brooding hills, either to attack or retreat, U.N. air, armor, and artillery, all vastly superior in the spring of 1951, more than offset their advantage in manpower.

For the first two weeks of May, feeling the enemy would strike again, Lieu-tenant General Van Fleet kept Eighth Army on the defensive, dug in behind its "No Name Line." As it turned out, this was an eminently sensible maneuver. In the center, behind prepared positions, crouched the CCF's old friend, the United States 2nd Division.

The division's line ran along the crest of a huge hill mass in East Central Korea, separating the Hongch'on and Soyang rivers. The main line of resistance ran in most places a mile or more beyond the ends of the nearest supply roads, and all matériel of war had to be hand-carried up the thousand-foot slopes.

The 38th Infantry held the left of the division line, and on the regimental left, firmly fixed on a hill mass known as Hill 800, the 3rd Battalion, 38th,dug in.

Lieutenant Colonel Wallace Hanes, the C.O. of the 3/38, gave explicit orders to cut fields of fire, to dig bunkers, and to build covered positions for every man of the rifle companies.

Colonel Hanes discovered what many had discovered before and since—that while the American soldier is among the best in the world at getting his tents up and his socks dry, he has no love for digging in the earth. Inspecting, Hanes found that most men had merely dug a foxhole, put a poncho over it to keep out the cold spring rain, and a few leaves over the poncho as concealment. American troops always despise physical labor.

Hanes roared at his company commanders: "Damn it, I want solid bunkers with cover to protect you from artillery fire!"

Under Hanes' lashing, the 3/38 cut down trees, to build solid bunker walls. On top of these they put earth, and rock as a bursting pan. They dug deep trenches from firing position to position, and they dug great holes in the mountainsides in which to hide their bunkers.

Still, some positions stuck out, and Hanes insisted on their being covered over with sandbags, by the thousands. He wanted positions that would stand under enemy artillery—or friendly, if the 3/38 were overrun.

With the deep positions ready after a week of Hanes' prodding, wire was strung across the front, and mines emplaced along the forward hill slopes. All of the matériel was carried up the steep slopes on the backs of Korean laborers and laboriously emplaced by the grudging U.S. troops.

When Hanes had first explained to them what he wanted, many had thought him joking.

When Colonel Hanes was satisfied, they had used up 237,000 sandbags,385 rolls of barbed wire, more than 6,000 steel wire pickets, and 39fougasse drums. A fougasse was an improvised land mine, consisting of a55-gallon POL drum filled with napalm, a small explosive charge, usually white phosphorous shells, and a detonator. When exploded, the crude mine threw a mass of 3,000-degree Fahrenheit flame over an area ten by thirty yards long, with extremely salutary effects on any CCF who might be nearby.

In addition to fortifications, the 3/38 had to carry its water, food, and ammunition up the hill. It took three to four hours for a round trip.

The only way Colonel Hanes found to get his heavy 4.2-inch mortars up was by the use of Korean oxen.

With his front completely wired in, Hanes now insisted on trip flares and AP mines being strewn over the forward slopes, and his wire communications being placed underground.

The 3/38, which already figured it knew how to fight, now learned how to work. On 12 May Hanes was halfway satisfied.

And the 2nd Division knew that something was in the wind. Enemy patrols were thick out along the Soyang River; refugees and line crossers were pouring in; air reported vehicular traffic and new bridges deep in the enemy mountains.

Waiting in their deep positions, Hanes' men were now proud of their handiwork, and confident. It had dawned on them, that while they had never had positions half so good, they had seen some the Chinese had made that were as good, or better. Once the work was over, they were at last glad they had done it.

Hanes, talking to Major General Ruffner, the division commander, said, "I'm worried about only one thing now, General—I'm afraid the bastards won't hit us!"

Wallace Hanes need not have worried. On 16 May, after nightfall, the bastards launched their Second Step, Fifth Phase Offensive, which the United Nations Command designated the "The Second CCF Spring Offensive," X Corps called "The Battle of the Soyang," and the soldiers of the 2nd Division remembered ever afterward as the May Massacre.

On 16 May 1951, the III and IX Army groups, comprising the 12th, 15th,60th, 20th, and 27th armies, CCF, moved 137,000 Chinese and 38,000 North Koreans southward like a muddy, coffee-colored sea. The sky was heavy and overcast, and American air blind and impotent.

The Chinese "volunteers" had been told of great victories in the offing. They knew they faced the ROK's, of whom they were contemptuous, and the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, whose blood they had tasted before.

The long, undulant, columns chanted and grunted and sang, after the manner of all Chinese at work or on the march, until the hills were hideous with their noise.

At night, on the flare and bugle call, they went into the ROK's holding No Name Line to the east of the 2nd Division. The ROK's, outnumbered, outgunned, and badly led, came apart.

Like a door swung sharply inward, the line east of the 3/38 fell to the south-west, toward Wonju. The ROK's did not run, at first. They fought; they were overwhelmed. They fell back.

By 17 May once again, as at Kunu-ri, the 2nd Division was gaping and exposed on its right flank.

By daylight, the Chinese had struck into the 1st and 2nd battalions of the38th, and had run full into Task Force Zebra, a 2nd Division force whose steel tip was the 72nd Tank Battalion.

They struck fire such as they had never faced before.

Infantrymen held to their hilltops; tanks moved along the valley corridors with machine gun and cannon. Tank gunners and artillerymen fired until they were exhausted from loading shells, and tubes were close to burning out.

On the right flank of the division, finally, the advance was stopped.

The CCF, hurt, milled and coiled about, seeking an easier way. Striking farther to the west, on the left flank of the 2nd Division, the Chinese threw a division against the 38th Infantry's solid hills.

By the prodigal spending of men against wire and flame, C Company of the38th was overrun. East of Colonel Hanes' positions, 1/38 pulled back to the left, and 2/38 also moved back.

The French Battalion was sent forward to plug the gap between Task Force Zebra and the 38th Infantry caused by the loss of C Company. The French could not restore the line, but they held the Chinese at bay until the 72ndTank moved back, and the 23rd Infantry assumed their mission.

Now the Chinese went for the apex of the U.N. defensive line, the hills held by 3/38, which were rapidly assuming the character of a salient, with enemy on either side of them.

The CCF route of approach led them directly into Hill 800, the anchor about which the 3rd Battalion was centered. Dug in atop 800, which they already called Bunker Hill, was Company K, Captain Brownell.

The men of Bunker Hill were deep inside more than two dozen bunkers, the positions Colonel Hanes had forced them to build so painfully a week before.

Shortly after dark, 17 May, waiting in a cold mountain fog, King Company heard the sound of bugles. Soon, then, the men on Bunker Hill heard the Chinese at their first wire barrier; several mines exploded, and the Chinese opened fire on the hill.

Gradually the firing increased as the Chinese neared; some of King's men could even hear querulous Chinese words shouted back and forth. The attackers slipped around the side of the hill, cut the wire, and climbed up the steepest part, where few mines had been laid.

Now King opened fire, with a crackling roar.

Brownell, however, owing to poor communication, was unable to call down artillery fire. A shell landed directly on his command bunker, damaging his radio; and a number of men from Mike, the supporting Weapons Company, under a new, green lieutenant, had left their positions and were falling back across the hill.

Other men joined them. In a thunderous small-arms fire fight, Chinese and Americans were wandering about all over Bunker Hill in the dark.

Captain Brownell, in a superb defensive position, was suddenly in command of complete confusion, for men heard that the line was falling back, and began to pull out.

Colonel Hanes met some of these at the bottom of the hill. "Get back upon the hill—we don't give up a position until we're beaten, and we're not beaten if every man does his share!"

The men went back. The green lieutenant who had started the pull-out got back into his position with several wounds.

Meanwhile, Captain Brownell had organized his reserve platoon for a counter attack to hurl the Chinese off the hill—many of them were already in some of the abandoned bunkers. They waited for artillery to fall in support—but commo was still spotty, and the artillery did not arrive.

"Hell with it," one of Brownell's officers snapped. "We can take the damned hill ourselves!"

Forming a long skirmish line, they advanced through the dark, firing rifles and carbines. They had many white phosphorous grenades, and they hurled these into bunkers and trenches as they passed. As each grenade exploded on the hill, advancing infantry stood out sharply in the ghastly light; then the men went blind again.

After sharp, close-in fighting, Brownell threw the scattered, disorganized Chinese off his hill. Sometime after midnight, the position was restored.

But numerous Chinese had flowed around King Company, and were heavily engaged with I in its rear. With daylight some two hundred of them burrowed into bunkers between K and I, and Colonel Hanes realized this force had to be reduced before nightfall 18 May, or his entire line might break.

Hanes personally led the counterattack under extremely heavy mortar fire from his supporting 4.2's. The Chinese broke and ran. Many were killed fleeing, while Hanes lost no one.

During the day, King Company strengthened its defense once more, while on its right the entire X Corps line was swinging southwest, to prevent a possible CCF envelopment.

Bunker Hill was becoming more exposed by the moment. With dark, Brownell and his men crawled deep into their strong holes. And with dark, they heard the sound of horns again.

Not like the British at Boston, marching arrogant and erect, but padding cat footed, hunched over, their buttocks near the earth, the horde of Chinese ran forward to Bunker Hill.

Brownell called for artillery. This time he had communication.

But the enemy walked in over his own dead, and reached King's bunkers. Brownell told his platoon leaders what he planned to do, then asked for variable-time shells directly on the hill.

The shells whooped in, bursting a few feet above ground, spraying the area with sizzling shards. It was recorded in the Division Operations Journal that 2,000 rounds of 105mm shell burst over Bunker Hill within eight minutes.

Gradually, it grew quiet. Then Chinese artillery began to probe the hill; the CCF was not yet ready to accede.

The Chinese, climbing over their dead, came again.

When they were firmly on his hill, Brownell called for every inch of 800 to be seared with fire. The 38th Field Artillery, that night, fired ten thousand rounds alone, and other artillery units supported, too.

Nothing above ground could live. Brownell and his men, who had built well, were untouched. At dawn, the CCF broke and streamed north, leaving only their dead behind.

King company was king on Bunker Hill.

It was not easy for Hanes and Brownell to give up, on 19 May, when orders from General Almond forced the 3/38 to move south out of what had become a dangerously exposed position, as part of a general consolidation of the corps lines.

By 21 May, Ned Almond realized that the massive CCF thrust against Ruffner's division had been contained. By swinging wide the door but holding the hinges, the X Corps had led the CCF into a bottomless pit; it rushed into the valleys, ran short of ammunition and supply, and died in windrows under the pounding of U.N. air, artillery, and armor.

It had no chance of cracking the whole line, or of exploiting. It had struck against a division very different from its old acquaintance of the Ch'ongch'on. Understanding that the CCF had been stopped and was faltering, Almond ordered X Corps to counterattack. He talked Van Fleet out of an additional division and the 187th Airborne RCT, and on 23 May, attached to the 2ndDivision, he sent the paratroopers north.

The first attack proved that the U.N. now held the initiative. Almond ordered the 187th, with the 72nd Tank Battalion, to form Task Force Gerhardt—named for the C.O. of the paratroopers—to advance to the Soyang, seizing the bridges there and killing as many Chinese as possible on the way.

While the Chinese still defended from roadblocks, and their men still wandered armed through the hills, the main body of the Chinese armies was in full retreat. As Task Force Gerhardt pursued them, the Chinese displacement became a rout.

U.S. tasks roared past abandoned supply, pack animals, ammunition. They went by burning villages and dead Chinese lying beside the roads, killed by tank fire or air strafing.

The CCF, which had come across the Soyang singing, fled back in disorder. On 28 May, Inje fell.

By launching a powerful counterattack almost before the end of what was to be the most spectacular defensive stand of the war, X Corps had suddenly, sharply, changed the course of war. The Chinese had now completely lost the initiative; worse, they had been hurt almost beyond recovery.

Against the 2nd Division had been committed at one time or another ten CCF divisions, and during the month of May an estimated 65,000 Chinese and North Koreans had died under its guns.

In one valley, alone, where the artillery had done its work, 5,000 corpses were counted.

At the end of the May Massacre, the Eighth Army again moved north.

When it stopped, it would not be stopped with guns, but with words.

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