BATTLE OF THE APPLE ORCHARD
David Butler was educated at the Wesley College, Perth, Western
Australia and the Royal Military College Duntroon. A career officer in the Australian
Army, after his Korean War Service, he progressively held senior appointments including
Commander 6 RAR/NZ (ANZAC) in South Vietnam 1969-1970. Commander 1 Task Force 1977-1978.
Australian Army Attaché, USA & Canada and Defence Attaché, United Nations 1979-1981.
GOC Training Command 1982-1983 attaining the rank of Major General. He is married with 1
son and 2 daughters. His military service was recognised with the Silver Star (USA Korea -
1950), the Distinguished Service Order (DSO-Vietnam-1970) and was admitted to the Order of
Australia (AO) (Military Division) in 1984. He is now in active retirement and lives at
Portsea in Victoria.
The first Australian battle in Korea, and the first for the infant
Royal Australian Regiment, was the now long forgotten "Battle of the Apple
Orchard". Much to the relief of the young participants who had seized the occasion it
was a great success. No doubt there must have been comfort also for those in Government
and in the Army who had the responsibility to commit and hastily mount the battalion.
As in so many battles the Royal Australian Regiment would fight in the
future, Australians had no involvement in the direction of the campaign, made no
contribution to the military strategy employed or its application and had little influence
with tactical command at the highest level. The fate of that lonely battalion, once
committed, was for the large part in the hands of Allied leaders and their staffs. The
burden imposed on the recently appointed Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel C.H.
Green, DSO., must have been heavy, to command a battalion in action and to look after
Australia's interests at the same time..
In that baptism of fire, the Australian attack was but one action of a
large encirclement operation which involved the troops of four nations. While the
operation fell short of the strategic objectives sought, the tactical results were
outstanding and the Australian attack, in effect the coup de grace, was a brilliant
Once the Eighth Army had crossed the 38th Parallel and was driving on
Pyongyang General MacArthur was determined to cut off the fleeing North Korean armies
before they reached the Yalu River and sanctuary. Even while Pyongyang was being invested
he inserted 187 Airborne Regimental Combat Team (187 RCT) by parachute at the two critical
junction points 35 miles north of the city. Headquarters 187 RCT and the 1st and 3rd
Battalions (1/187 RCT & 3/187 RCT) landed at Sukchon. Both towns dominated the road
and rail approaches to the Chongchon River which was 30 miles further north.
The Airborne Attack
Headquarters 187 RCT, 1/187 RCT and 3/187 RCT landed about 1400 hours
20 October 1950 at Drop Zone WILLIAM, south east of Sukchon. 1/187 RCT quickly secured
Sukchon and established a road block north of the town. 3/187 RCT established a defensive
position astride the road and the railway about two miles south of the town. At 1420
hours, 2/187 RCT landed near Sunchon, 17 miles to the east and linked up successfully with
6 ROK Division. The 187 RCT had come to fight ; the first air drop brought 6 X 105 mm
howitzers and 1125 rounds of ammunition which was reinforced next day by a further 12 X
105 mm howitzers and 4 X 90 mm anti-aircraft guns. Nearly 600 tons of ammunition and other
supplies were delivered during the operation.
At this time the bulk of the North Koreans had crossed or were in the
act of crossing the Chongchon and so evaded the noose.
However, the 239 North Korean Regiment (239 NK), the last formation out
of Pyongyang, had taken up a rear guard position on the best defensive ground between
Pyongyang and the Chongchon River. The 2500 strong Regiment was astride the road and the
railway just north of Yongyu and Op'a-ri. They deployed a battalion in each locality which
were three miles apart.
At 0900 hours, 21 October, 1950, 3/187 RCT started two combat teams
south, 1 Company towards Op'a-ri along the railway and K Company along the road towards
Yongyu. At 1300 hours 1 Company reached Op'a-ri where it was heavily attacked by an
estimated enemy battalion supported by 120 mm mortars and 40 mm guns. In a battle lasting
two and a half hours, two Platoons of 1 Company were overrun and the company withdrew west
with 90 men missing. The enemy did not follow up and withdrew to defensive positions on
the high ground near Op'a-ri. K Company also encountered an estimated enemy battalion just
north of Yongyu which, after a sharp contact, withdrew south and east of the town. K
Company continued on to Hill 163 just north of the town and into the town itself.
With the United Nations (UN) forces driving into Pyongyang, the two
attacks on 239 NK from the north put them in a dangerously exposed position. The North
Korean reaction was fierce. At midnight they launched the first of three attacks which
forced K Company to withdraw from Hill 163 and the town. At 0400 hours and again at 0545
hours, 22 October, 1950, they launched further strong attacks on the Battalion Command
Post 3/187 Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and L Company, both located one mile north of Hill
163. Despite suffering heavy losses in those attacks, at 0600 hours 239 NK launched 300
men against L Company and 450 men against Headquarters Company. By daylight 22 October
1950, 3/187 RCT was only just holding and the seriously depleted 239 NK must have been
close to exhaustion.
27 British Commonwealth Brigade
At noon, 21 October, 1950, 24 United States Division, with 27 British
Commonwealth Brigade leading, crossed the Taedong River at Pyongyang and headed north. The
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were in the van and by nightfall the Brigade halted on
the outskirts of Yongyu, 21 miles north of Pyongyang. A patrol from the Argyll's entered
the town and made contact with elements of 3/187 Regimental Combat Team.
239 North Koreans' midnight attack on Yongyu came from the general
direction of the road running south-west of the town. The Argyll's met the fringe of the
attack and beat it off. The attack on 3/187 RCT was stronger and the enemy succeeded in
entering the town before breaking off and moving away at 0300 hours.
Next day the Australians were to take the lead in the advance, C
Company was to be the leading company. The orders given in the early evening stressed the
urgency to link up with the US Airborne. The company was not to be distracted at Yongyu,
they were to press as quickly as possible as the Argylls continued to clear the town. The
noises of the Airborne battles to the north were now very close and could be heard clearly
throughout the night. There was no doubting the morrow would bring battle.
C Company RAR was the only company to remain largely intact as the
battalion hastily absorbed reinforcements from the rest of the regiment and K Force and
came to strength. The newest 3 RAR company had been formed in late 1949, early 1950 from
the young men who joined the Regular Army after World War 11. By the standards of the
other companies C Company was very young and unblooded. Much of the banter within the
Battalion was directed at them. The K Force arrivals ; older, confident and all with 2nd
AIF experience , tended to make fun of the young regulars and their inexperience. Good
humoured as it was, when it continued once the battalion commenced operations the young
regulars became all the more determined to show their mettle. For C Company was a well
trained sub unit and, unlike the other sub units still shaking down, was a cohesive team.
The Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO's) and senior soldiers were
experienced, competent leaders who had raised and trained the Company. As an unexpected
luxury, a handful of K Force reinforcements joined the C Company during the advance and
took it over strength; a state never to be attained again by any unit in the campaign.
Whereas the Platoon commanders were young and inexperienced, all from
the 1948 graduating class from Royal Military College - Duntroon, the Company Commander,
who arrived only weeks before the battalion sailed, was a vastly experienced battle
Captain Archer P. Denness had commanded a company at El Alamein,
through the Islands and subsequently in the early days of the occupation of Japan. High
principled, he neither smoked, drank or swore. "Arch" Denness was accustomed to
command ; woe betide anyone of his officers or NCO's who were in any way derelict in the
exercise of their duties or any soldier who was profane within earshot. In the short time
that he had been in command he had quickly established his stamp on the company ; nobody
was in any doubt that only the highest standards were expected by "Armour Piercing
Archie" as the soldiers soon christened him. Above all, his insistence on timeliness
had got through to every soldier and stood C Company in good stead through the long day of
its baptism of fire.
At 0700 hours, 22 October, 1950, C Company drove off, 7 Platoon leading
on tanks of D Company, US 89th Tank Battalion followed by the rest of the company in US
troop carrying vehicles. Not quite knowing what to expect the company drove carefully
through the Argyll's and the scattered firing into the eerily deserted town. Yongyu was
quite large ; leaving it and getting into open country again was like entering sunshine
from darkness. Nobody spoke much in the ten minutes or so the trip took and all were
relieved to be back in the country.
The Apple Orchard
At 0900 hours (9 am) and a mile north of Yongyu, C Company came under
fire from the apple orchard on the slopes of Hill 163 in YD 2354 (map grid location). Very
quickly it became apparent that C Company had driven into the North Koreans who were in
the process of forming up to attack the Americans. Enemy on the fringe of the battlefield
flushed from camouflaged positions started to bob up every where. The Commanding Officer
(CO) Lieutenant Colonel Green, traveling well forward as was his want, was more quickly to
the scene and much more involved than he would have appreciated. His quick informal orders
group proceeded with Regimental Policemen engaging interlopers within yards of the
assembled group. He did not have a lot of information. There was no contact with the
American Airborne who were believed to be located nearby. Without precise locations he was
unable to use any indirect weapons in the battle and this concerned him throughout the
engagement. In this confusing scene his ability showed. The urgent need for link up
dictated his decision. He chose to try and bounce C Company, largely on their own.
Orders concluded, the CO looked at the scene of battle all around him
and rather wryly suggested to "Arch" Denness, he had better get on with it
The scene was made for Arch Denness and C Company were more than able
to match his mood. Quietly determined to be successful in their first battle, constrained
by the underlying excitement, there was some nervous conversation as weapons, ammunition
and equipment were checked and formations settled. At 0930 hours (9.30 am), 22 October,
1950, 8 Platoon (Lieutenant C.M. "Mousey" Townsend) and 7 Platoon (Lieutenant
R.F. "Rob" Morison), attacked the high ground east of the road. 9 Platoon
(Lieutenant D.M. "Dave" Butler) was in reserve and held the road and the flank
to the north.
The attacking platoons went in hard, uphill through the apple trees,
and their dash was just too much for those in their path. Many of the enemy jumped out of
their pits to engage the gallant young Australians and exposed themselves to the
relentless surge of the attackers. Although considerably outnumbered, 7 and 8 Platoons
pressed their attacks fiercely, impressing all those in a position to observe. The young
soldiers were, if anything, over eager to get into their first fight, but the apple trees
were in full leaf and visibility was a real problem. Control was difficult and the last
thing wanted in the first engagement was a man shot by one of his mates. The NCO's and the
senior soldiers were absolutely splendid and quickly got the neophytes through the
momentary confusions which everyone experiences in their first battle. With so many enemy
present there was a considerable threat of some remaining hidden and firing at the backs
of the Australians as they passed. The platoons pushed on and in a stride were through to
the vital ground. Even a bunker which threatened 8 Platoon provided only a momentary delay
as the young men grenaded it as if on a training exercise and pressed forward.
C Company's sudden arrival, even though it must have been expected to
some extent, and the speed with which the North Korean outposts were brushed aside, had
completely surprised the enemy. They were caught with all their attention directed north
to a final frenzied effort to break out past the American forces. The CO's decision
to pass 3 RAR through Yongyu so quickly and bounce the enemy aside was bold and brilliant.
Thereafter the enemy were incapable of presenting organised resistance to the vigorous
thrust from the south. Nonetheless there were many determined individuals who opposed the
Australians every step of the way. So much so by 1000 hours the CO was forced to commit D
Company to clear the area to the west of the road.
Within C Company, as soon as success had been assured, the energetic
Denness ordered us (9 Platoon) to push forward along the road. 7 and 8 Platoons continued
with their consolidation. From the high ground they were able to engage the enemy to the
north and east throughout the morning.
Shortly after, about 1000 hours, we came onto a cart and a badly
wounded horse which effectively blocked the road. Under heavy fire, the road block was
cleared and the platoon was able to move using the waist deep storm water drains on either
side of the road for fire protection. The road led out of the heavily treed area and into
an extensive open area, mostly paddy field, which proved to be the disputed area between
the North Koreans and the Americans. It was in this area it seemed the North Koreans were
forming up for the final attack against the Americans.
From then on 9 Platoon had to move forward under almost continuous fire
and would have suffered heavy casualties but for the protection of the storm drains.
Initially the platoon only attracted the attention of the enemy close to the road. Most of
the enemy appeared to be focused north but their attention gradually shifted to the
Further down the road the enemy started to engage from greater ranges,
our platoon pressed on although unable to effectively suppress the enemy long range fire.
Fortunately the road was built up and the we were able to dominate significant areas which
enabled us to keep moving. At this point 7 Platoon were ordered back to the road down the
ridge to the west to clean out pockets of enemy who were engaging us (9 Platoon) at long
range and the tanks were sent forward to 9 Platoon. Denness's reaction was timely as 9
Platoon was deep into the enemy area.
It was a scene of continuous confusion. Many of the enemy clearly had
enough. Any lull in the firing would bring more and more of them forward to surrender
despite a hard core fighting on.The appearance of the tanks tilted the balance. They
brought fire down on positions some distance from the road and slowly the enemy became
aware of the futility of continuing. 9 Platoon was able to move and link up with the
American Headquarters shortly after noon.
It was a delighted Arch Denness who reported to the Commander of the
American troops C Company 3 RAR had arrived. He had every reason to be exhilarated. His
company had met with every challenge and it was already clear that they had been involved
in a significant victory. Later 3 RAR reported approximately 150 enemy had been killed,
239 wounded and 200 captured as a result of its action at a cost of seven wounded. The
operations in Sukchon/Sunchon had achieved much more. The Americans (187 RCT) claimed, at
a cost of 46 jump casualties and 65 battle casualties, it had captured 3818 North Korean
prisoners, killed 805 enemy and wounded 681.
It would be difficult to describe a more chaotic battlefield. Despite
the many casualties the Americans and C Company 3 RAR had inflicted, who lay where they
fell, there were still several hundreds of the enemy in and around the battlefield. North
Korea paid a very heavy price in the battles north of Yongyu. There were, for example 69
enemy bodies counted in the storm water drains alone which 9 Platoon had moved. They had
fallen in the overnight battles. The enemy dead lay much heavier in the open ground in
front of the American Airborne positions.
There followed a period where enemy prisoners were rounded up on that
tragic battlefield and there was momentary contact between the Americans and C Company.
Strangely, the two units kept well apart. The Americans, 3 Battalion 187 Regimental Combat
Team had obviously suffered heavily and were overjoyed to be relieved but were suspicious
of the Australians. Some of them took the Australians, because of their strange garb and
heavy overcoats to be Russian which led to momentary difficulty. The C Company soldiers
quietly sat down in small groups and ate their lunch, unmoved by all else that was going
on around them.
With link up complete, re-deployment for the continuation of the
advance commenced. Within the Commonwealth Brigade, 1 Battalion Miiddlesex Regiment passed
through and assumed the lead in the drive towards the Yalu River. The Americans
reassembled and drove north to Sukchon to rejoin their regiment which returned to
Pyongyang by the other route. On cue with the departure of the Americans, the press
arrived and it was their sudden appearance to report the first battle of the Royal
Australian Regiment which underscored the nature of the stunning success. All enjoyed the
fuss the press made of us and the excitement of having our photographs taken.
Clearing West of the Road.
It was all brought to a sharp conclusion as the battalion re-deployed
and 9 Platoon was directed to clear west of the road past where the contact had begun in
the morning. This patrol took the Platoon right through the paddy fields which, though
well clear, were still in full view of the road now being freely used. Many of the enemy
had fled to the west and were hidden, principally in rice stooks, and 9 Platoon had to
flush them out. Some wanted to fight it out and were dealt with, but the bag of prisoners
increased. The scene of Australian soldiers in extended line pushing on through the open
areas captured the imagination of observers on the road. The Brigade Commander was later
" I saw a marvelous sight. An Australian Platoon lined up in a
paddy field and walked through it as though they were driving snipe. The soldiers, when
they saw a pile of straw, kicked it and out would bolt a North Korean. Up with a rifle,
down with a North Korean, and the Australians thoroughly enjoyed it."
9 Platoon got back to the new company position just on dusk. It had
been a long day.
Nonetheless it had been a superb baptism of fire for the young regulars
of C Company and for the Battalion which, in truth, was still feeling its feet. Just as
C.E.W. Bean made particular comment on the profound effect of ex-Imperials among the ranks
of those who landed at Gallipoli, so it was the leavening of battlefield experience from
the 2nd AIF which tempered 3 RAR's first action. Lieutenant Colonel Green and Captain
Denness proved to be very experienced and uncompromising battle leaders. Green's
determination to drive hard once the Battalion took the lead in the advance and, in
particular, his insistence on a rapid move through Yongyu provided the inestimable
advantage of surprise which was never lost once the battle was joined. In the way of great
leaders his determination passed to every member of the Battalion, particularly to the
babes of C Company. Green's prompt commitment of C Company in the midst of the initially
confusing scene was masterly.
Arch Denness marched without hesitation to the sound of the guns.
Whilst not faced with the tactical problems of the CO, he was able to get on with things
promptly as Company Commanders should. His determination to close with the enemy overcame
any residual confusions which may have arisen in that first contact of his unblooded sub
unit. In the face of superior enemy numbers his aggressive handling of C Company was
faultless. We were all proud to be part of the team.
The enemy were unable to withstand the sudden fierce assault to secure
the first feature (163) which just brushed aside the enemy outposts, followed so promptly
by the determined thrust up the road. The injection of the tanks and the supporting drive
of 7 Platoon from the high country were timely. The Company achieved exactly what the CO,
must have wanted.
Clearly the 3 RAR effort was much too good for the North Koreans who
must have been nearly at the end of their tether after the prolonged series of attacks
against the Americans in the encounter battles the day before. The exhausted, depleted
Koreans just did not have the manoeuvre skills to match the determination and flexibility
of the disciplined Australians next day. For so many of them to leave their fighting pits
in an attempt to engage the Australians charging up the hill suggests little battle
experience and poor junior leadership for which they paid heavily. Subsequently their
inability to react in a coordinated way against the thrust along the road suggests
leadership at all levels had collapsed as they fought themselves to a standstill.
Certainly it was too much for the individuals of the Korean units; their individual
training and discipline did not hold up. Their standards of weapon handling and
marksmanship, fortunately for us were poor throughout the engagement.
Within C Company, the experienced NCO's and senior soldiers set
standards of battlefield leadership and bravery which quickly settled the young regulars.
They learned by splendid example how to move on the battle field. It was no accident that
many of the young men of C Company were to later play a significant role in the
development of the growing Regiment and in its many subsequent battles maintained
throughout the war and those to come.
Subsequently, in November 1950, it was announced the late Lieutenant
Colonel C.H. Green, DSO had been awarded the US Silver Star and Private Cousins from 9
Platoon the Bronze Star. In early 1951, the award of the Military Cross (MC) to Captain
Denness and the Military Medal (MM) to Private McMurray of 7 Platoon were announced.
(Editors note: The author Lieutenant Butler was also awarded the Silver
Star for courage in this significant military action.)
I am indebted principally to Colin Townsend, and "Rob"
Morison for their assistance with this story. My research really began in 1971 when I
undertook to write an article on the battle for Major :"Don" Parsons (Section
Commander of 9 Platoon, 1950). Much of the information gathered at that time left me with
some confusion about the events which have taken a lot of part time unstructured effort to
resolve. Don Parsons had to wait twenty years for this article.
Over the years, I corresponded with Major General B.A. Coad, Roy E.
Appleman, author of the United States official history, "South to the Naktong, North
to the Yalu" (1961), and Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall author of "The River
and the Gauntlet" (1953), who spent considerable time with the American 187 Airborne
Regimental Combat Team. Warrant Officer Bandy (Rtd), the 8 Platoon Sergeant in 1950,
provided me with a well documented account in 1972. Reference to "Rob"
O'Neill's History of the Korean War was invaluable.
Over the years I have spoken with many members of the Battalion and
accumulated a wealth of memories which have shaped this article.