Military history

Part II



Task Force Smith

No commander likes to commit troops piecemeal, and I'm no exception.

— Major General William Frishe Dean, CG, 24th Infantry Division.

AT A LITTLE PAST eight on the morning of 1 July 1950, Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith, commanding 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, reported to his division commander, General Dean, at Itazuke Air Base. Standing behind Brad Smith in the slanting monsoon rain were just over four hundred officers and men, the first troops designated to go into Korea by air. They stood in fatigue uniforms and steel helmets, holding rifles and a conglomeration of old and worn supporting weapons. Each man carried 120 rounds of ammunition and two days' C rations.

Most of them were not yet twenty, and hardly one in six had heard a shot fired in anger.

Major General Dean, tall and close-cropped, his face serious under his sandy short hair, shook hands with Smith.

"When you get to Pusan, head for Taejon. We want to stop the North Koreans as far from Pusan as we can. Block the main road as far north as possible. Make contact with General Church. If you can't find him, go to Taejon and beyond if you can. Sorry I can't give you more information—that's all I've got. Good luck, and God bless you and your men!"

Smith, a good-looking young man of thirty-four, West Point class of 1939, saluted and ordered his men into the waiting C-54 transports.

They were Task Force Smith, which MacArthur termed an arrogant display of strength, sent ahead into Korea to give the Communists pause. General Dean had been ordered to move his entire 24th Division to the peninsula, but it was scattered the length and breadth of Japan, near six separate ports, and there were no ships immediately available. It would have to go in bits and pieces, of which Task Force Smith was the first.

Five days later, Task Force Smith was dug in along the main highway between Suwon and Osan, which lay a few miles south. Two understrength infantry companies, with headquarters and communication personnel, it had, in addition to its rifles, two 75mm recoilless rifles, two 4.2-inch mortars, six 2.36-inch rocket launchers, and four 60mm mortars. A battery of six light howitzers from the 52nd Field had joined them, and these went into place two thousand yards behind the infantry.

They dug in on low rolling hills, on a ridge that ran at right angles to the road, commanding it. The weather was rainy, and cold, but from the highest point of the ridge, some three hundred feet above the highway, Smith could see almost into Suwon.

Brigadier General Church, of ADCOM, had told him: "We have a little action up here. All we need is some men up there who won't run when they see tanks. We're going to move you up to support the ROK's and give them moral support."

Now, waiting confidently at dawn on 5 July, Task Force Smith covered approximately one mile of front. As soon as the light was good, the riflemen test fired each of their weapons, and the artillery registered on the surrounding hills. Then everyone went to breakfast, which consisted of cold C rations.

One of the artillerymen was worried. He knew the battery had only six rounds of antitank ammunition—one-third of all that could be found in Japan—and he asked, "What will happen to the guns if the North Korean tanks get through the infantry up there?"

One of the infantry officers told him smiling, "Don't worry; they'll never get that far."

It was generally agreed that the North Koreans, when they found out who they were fighting, would turn around and go back. The young soldiers of Task Force Smith were quite confident; at this point none of them felt fear. At Pusan, when they had boarded the train, the Koreans had unfurled gay banners and bands had played in the station yard.

They had been told that this was a police action, and that they'd soon be home in Japan. It was a happy thought—life in Japan was very good. Almost every man had his own shoeshine boy and his own musame; in a country where an American lieutenant made as much as a cabinet minister, even a PFC could make out. And the training wasn't bad. There were no real training areas in crowded Nippon, so there wasn't much even General Walker of Eighth Army could do about that, though he made noises.

The young men of Task Force Smith carried Regular Army serial numbers, but they were the new breed of American regular, who, not liking the service, had insisted, with public support, that the Army be made as much like civilian life and home as possible. Discipline had galled them, and their congressmen had seen to it that it did not become too onerous. They had grown fat.

They were probably as contented a group of American soldiery as had ever existed. They were like American youth everywhere. They believed the things their society had taught them to believe. They were cool, and confident, and figured that the world was no sweat.

It was not their fault that no one had told them that the real function of an army is to fight and that a soldier's destiny—which few escape—is to suffer, and if need be, to die.

At about 0700, through the sweeping rain, Colonel Smith saw movement on the road in the direction of Suwon. By 0730, he could clearly see a tank column, eight in all, grinding toward his ridge.

At 0800, or thereabouts, the forward observer with the infantry along the road picked up his field phone and called, "Fire Mission!"

The rounds went into the stubby 105's; breechblocks clicked home. Gunners set their sights, leveled the bubble, and section chiefs' arms went up. At 0816, Number 2 howitzer spat flame into the murky sky, one round, two. All guns joined in the barking chorus.

The tanks were now about two thousand yards in front of the infantry holes, and still coming. Bursting HE shells walked into the tank column, spattering the advancing armor with flame and steel and mud.

"Jesus Christ, they're still coming!" an infantryman shouted.

Colonel Smith knew that the 75mm recoilless rifles he had placed covering the highway had very little ammunition; he now ordered them to hold their fire until the tanks got within 700 yards.

The NKPA tanks, dark and wicked and low-slung on the road, advanced arrogantly, seeming unconcerned by the exploding HE shells about them.

Antitank mines placed in the road would have stopped them. But there was not a single antitank mine in Korea. Air support might have stopped them, but because of the rain the planes could not fly.

Now the troops dug in along the ridge could count more than thirty tanks strung out on the road.

At 700 yards, both recoilless rifles slammed at the tanks. Round after round burst against the T-34 turrets, with no apparent effect. But with this opposition, the tanks stopped and turned their 85mm cannon on the ridge. They fired, and their 7.62mm coaxial machine guns clawed the hillsides. Suddenly, American soldiers pulled their heads down.

Lieutenant Ollie Connor, watching, grabbed a bazooka and ran down to the ditch alongside the road. Steadying the 2.36-inch rocket launcher on the nearest tank, only fifteen yards away, Connor let fly. The small shaped charge burned out against the thick Russian armor without penetrating. Angrily, Connor fired again, this time at the rear of the tank where the armor protection was supposed to be thinnest.

He fired twenty-two rockets, none of which did any damage. Some of the rounds were so old they did not explode properly. The tankers, thinking they were up against only a small roadblock, made no real attempt to engage Task Force Smith, but continued down the road.

The enlisted men of Task Force Smith stuck their heads out of their holes and watched them disappear around the bend, heading for the artillery positions.

There was nothing mysterious about the Russian T-34, as some newspapers later claimed. Of obsolescent design, it had been used against the German panzers in front of Moscow in the early forties; perhaps it was the best all-around tank developed in World War II, with very high mobility, a good low silhouette, and very heavy armor plating. It could be stopped—but not with the ancient equipment in the hands of the ROK's—or Task Force Smith.

The American Army had developed improved 3.5-inch rocket launchers, which would penetrate the T-34. But happy with having designed them, it hadn't thought to place them in the hands of the troops, or of its allies. There just hadn't been enough money for long-range bombers, nuclear bombs, aircraft carriers, and bazookas too. Now, painfully, at the cost of blood, the United States found that while long-range bombers and aircraft carriers are absolutely vital to its security, it had not understood in 1945 the shape of future warfare.

To remain a great power, the United States had to provide the best in nuclear delivery systems. But to properly exercise that power with any effect in the world—short of blowing it up—the United States had also to provide the bread-and-butter weapons that would permit her ground troops to live in battle.

If it did not want to do so, it had no moral right to send its troops into battle.

The two lead tanks rumbling down on the howitzer positions were struck head on by HEAT rounds, damaging them. They pulled off the road, so the others could get around them. One of the damaged tanks burst into flames. Two of its crew leaped from the turret with their hands up; the third came out holding a burp gun.

This soldier, seeing an American machine-gun crew dug in beside the road, fired at it, killing an assistant gunner. The Americans immediately shot down all three tankers. But the first American had been killed in Korea.

Very soon the dead American would have company.

The other tanks still did not stop, but continued on down the road. The howitzer gunners relaid their pieces directly on the tanks, and fired. At ranges from 300 to 1.50 yards, the 105's just bounced off.

But the tankers had buttoned up, and could not locate the artillery's firing position. Answering the fire only haphazardly, they continued down the road, past the artillery site and beyond. One more tank was hit in the track and immobilized. But the antitank ammunition was now gone, and a badly shaken group of American gunners watched the Communist armor rumble on.

After the main body of the tanks had disappeared, Colonel Perry, commanding the 52nd Field, who had come up to fight with his single engaged battery, organized a squad of men to destroy the halted tank. He called for its crew to surrender, and was shot through the right leg for his efforts.

The howitzers slammed at the tank until its crew deserted it. The two men who got out were killed in a brief fire fight with some of Perry's men.

Now it was found that the tanks had cut all the wires leading up to the infantry positions farther north. The radios were wet and old and wouldn't work, and the gunners had no idea of what was happening up ahead. They knew only that a hell of a lot of tanks had come through, and that wasn't supposed to happen to them.

Ten minutes later, another long string of tanks poured down the road toward the guns emplaced alongside it. They came singly, in twos, and threes, apparently without any organization, and, like the first, not accompanied by enemy infantry.

To any troops with solid training, armed with the weapons standard to any advanced nation at the middle of the century, they would have been duck soup. But Task Force Smith had neither arms nor training.

As the new wave of tanks burst into view, the artillery battery started to come apart. Officers ordered fire on the tanks, but the crew members began to take off. Some men scuttled off; others simply walked away from the guns. The officers and senior sergeants suddenly found themselves alone.

Cursing, commissioned officers of the battery grabbed ammunition and stuffed it into the tubes. The noncoms laid the guns and pulled the lanyards.

Again, the tanks did not pause to slug it out with the battery but passed through the gap to the south.

Colonel Perry, hobbling on one leg, leaning against a tree, together with First Lieutenant Dwain Scott, talked the men into coming back on the guns. Many of the second echelon of tanks did not fire on the battery at all, and the guns were able to knock out one more by disabling its track.

But one howitzer had been struck by an 85mm shell, and destroyed, and a great many of the battery vehicles, which had been parked off the road, were smashed and burning. Other than Colonel Perry, only one other artilleryman had been hit.

Farther north, Colonel Smith's infantry had lost some twenty dead or wounded to tank fire.

After the last tank had passed, the roadside grew quiet again. The gunners sat down around their guns, resting, while the riflemen began to dig their holes deeper. The steady rain continued to come down.

Then, after an hour had passed, Smith through his glasses saw a long column of trucks and walking infantry moving south from Suwon. At first sight he estimated the column to be at least six miles in length. Leading this new column were three more tanks, followed by trucks and miles of marching men.

This column was the 16th and 18th regiments of the NKPA 4th Division, the conquerors of Seoul.

For about an hour, the column closed upon Task Force Smith's position. The men were no longer cocky or happy. They were scared.

Smith held his fire until the leading tanks and trucks were only a thousand yards away. Then he said, "Throw the book at them!"

The North Korean column was congested on the narrow road; it was not prepared to fight. Apparently it was not even in communication with the tank columns of the 105th Armored Brigade that had preceded it down the road; and it did not anticipate trouble.

While tough and battle-hardened, with a core of veterans, and psychologically prepared for battle, the NKPA was by no means a scientific military instrument by twentieth century standards. With no body of technical skills to fall back upon, the handling of communications and mechanized equipment, or even of artillery larger than mortars, by its peasant soldiery was inept. When its core of veterans had been exhausted in battle, the newer forced-inductees would be less reliable, and the NKPA would falter.

But in the early months of the war, the NKPA was a better army, more ready for war, than those it faced.

Colonel Smith gave the order to fire. Behind the ridge, mortars coughed, throwing their shells in a high arc over the ridges, sending them crashing down on the truck column. Trucks exploded and burst into flame. Shouting Koreans ran for the ditches. Machine guns ripped at them as they ran.

Some died on the road. Others reached the ditches, and were blown apart by the 4.2 shells that fell among them. The column of North Koreans stopped and began to pile up in confusion.

But now again Colonel Smith had nothing with which to stop the three tanks. The armored vehicles moved up close to his ridges, only 200 yards from the holes, and began to shower them with machine-gun slugs and to belt them with cannon fire. Americans began to die along the ridge.

Now, behind the smoke of the burning trucks, Smith could see a thousand North Koreans in mustard-colored uniforms start to deploy out into the rice paddies beside the road. A wave of them started for his ridge; it was broken up by rifle and machine-gun fire.

Surprisingly, although they brought some machine guns around, the enemy made no real effort to flank the ridge.

Enemy artillery began to burst along his position now—but Smith had no communication with his own supporting battery. Either artillery or air could have wreaked havoc on the North Koreans congested on the road in front of him, but he had neither. Smith believed the artillery had been destroyed by the tank column, though actually only one howitzer had been knocked out.

While the infantry fought along the ridge, the artillery sat it out. Twice Perry ordered wire parties to try to get the lines back in, but twice the men came back, complaining that they had been fired on.

Wet and old, none of the radios would work.

Smith, a courageous and competent officer, held his ridge as long as he dared. He held fast until the early afternoon, blocking the enemy, but he was running low on ammunition, and he realized that he was going to have to extricate his force, and soon, if he was going to save any of it from destruction.

Not only did he have a great number of enemy in front of him, but now men with automatic weapons were flowing across his flanks.

A withdrawal under fire is one of the most difficult of all military maneuvers. With seasoned troops it is dangerous, but with green men, undisciplined, badly shocked by the new and terrifying experience of battle, it can be fatal.

Smith ordered his two companies to leapfrog backward down a finger ridge on his right, toward Osan. While one platoon was to withdraw, others would cover it by fire.

C Company started back first, followed by the medics and battalion HQ.

But one platoon of B Company never received the withdrawal order. Fighting, Lieutenant Bernard, its commander, suddenly realized he was all alone on the position. He gave orders for his men to pull out after the others had already gone.

The withdrawal immediately became ragged and chaotic. Nobody wanted to be last in a game where all advantage obviously lay with being first. The men got out of their holes, leaving their crew-served weapons. They left their machine guns, recoilless rifles, and mortars for the enemy.

Getting up from its holes to withdraw, Task Force Smith now came under heavy machine-gun fire from the flanks, and here it took its heavy losses. At close range, automatic weapons chewed the retreating Americans, breaking them up into small, disorganized units.

They left their dead where they lay, and abandoned the thirty or so wounded who were too hurt to walk. One medical sergeant, whose name has been lost, refused to leave the wounded. He was not heard from again.

With his last company leaving the hill, Colonel Smith struck off toward Perry's position, to tell the artillery that the infantry was pulling out. Finding Perry, Smith was amazed to find five guns operable and only one man other than Perry wounded. But it was too late now for the artillery to take a hand.

The artillerymen were quite ready to go. Quickly, they lifted sights and breech locks from their howitzers, and took them to their vehicles. Smith, the hobbling Perry, and many of the gunners then walked back to Osan, three miles away, where the artillery had left many of their trucks, which they found undamaged.

But Osan was occupied by enemy tanks. The little convoy struck out on a dirt road to the east, trying to reach Ansong. Soon they overran straggling groups of infantry struggling over the hills and sloshing through the rice paddies. Covered with slime, running, these men had tossed aside their steel helmets. Some had dropped their shoes, and many had lost shirts. None of them had weapons other than a few rifles, and two or three clips of ammunition per man.

They shouted at the trucks as they passed. The artillerymen stopped and picked up about one hundred men of this group. Then they continued eastward, away from the enemy.

The NKPA, apparently satisfied with taking the ridge, did not pursue. Besides, the Americans had left many good things behind to occupy the victors.

Early the next morning, 6 July, Colonel Smith could account for only 185 men. Later, the C Company commander came in with 65 more. The artillery was missing 5 officers and 26 men.

Survivors straggled into several Korean towns for a number of days. Some men walked all the way to the east coast; some reached the Yellow Sea on the west. One man finally came into Pusan by sampan.

Task Force Smith, designed to be an arrogant display of strength to bluff the enemy into halting his advance, had delayed the Inmun Gun exactly seven hours.

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