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The Korean War, 1950-1953

The Forces and the Plans

Disengagement in the West


Artillery at Kunu-ri

* After crossing two thirds of North Korea in the fall of 1950, Eighth Army's advance to the Yalu River ended abruptly. The commander of one field artillery battalion reconnoitered for forward positions one afternoon but early the next morning, after strong enemy attacks against nearby units during the night, he received orders to select positions for a displacement to the rear. This was the beginning of a long withdrawal.

The U.S. 17th Field Artillery Battalion, an 8-inch howitzer unit, was attached to the 2d Infantry Division on 24 November after being relieved, the day before, from control of the 1st Cavalry Division. After a reconnaissance on the night of 23 November, the battalion moved into positions in the vicinity of Kujang-dong the next morning.

Kujang-dong was a bleak-looking town-a few dozen earth-colored houses along the narrow road and the single-track railway. Battery A placed its guns at the edge of the village, taking over the better buildings for sleeping quarters and for its command post. [1]

At this time Battery A had a strength of 74 of the authorized 135 men, having come overseas under-strength in August. Soon after the battery arrived in Korea, fifty Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers were sent to Battery A and had stayed until October, when they had been released because everyone thought the war was over.

The first indication Battery A men had that the war wasn't over came on the morning of 24 November from an air observer who, while registering the No. 2 howitzer on the base point, spotted an estimated two hundred enemy soldiers. It had been a month or more since anyone had seen so many North Koreans, and no one realized that these soldiers were Chinese. The front line was not more than three thousand yards north of Kujang-dong when Battery A began firing. Expecting to continue the usual rapid northward advance, the battalion commander (Lt.Col. Elmer H. Harrelson) went forward on the morning of 25 November to select positions two miles farther north. At the same time the commander of the nearby 61st Field Artillery Battalion (a 105-mm unit) selected positions in the same area. Both units were to move that afternoon, but the road was already so jammed with traffic that Division Artillery decided not to move the 8-inch howitzers until the next morning. [2] Early that night Chinese troops waded the Chongchon River and attacked in force, hitting units of the 23d Infantry Regiment and overrunning the new positions of the 61st Field Artillery Battalion. At 2300 some of the men from the 61st straggled into the area of Battery A, having left their position with neither equipment nor howitzers. One man was barefoot. The commander of Battery A (Capt. Allen L. Myers) put everyone on an alert basis for the night, although the Chinese did not penetrate that far.

After daybreak, 26 November, the commanding general of the 2d Infantry Division Artillery ordered Colonel Harrelson to pull back several miles. While the 61st Battalion attacked to recover its howitzers and equipment, Harrelson selected positions to the rear. The narrow supply road was still so jammed with vehicles, however, that it was late that night before Battery A received the march order, and it was 2330 before the battery pulled onto the road and started south, moving under blackout conditions. The chief of section of the last howitzer in the column put his hand on the shoulder of the man driving the tractor to indicate that he wanted the driver to slow down through the town of Kujang-dong. The driver, thinking that the section chief wanted him to turn left, turned down a small side street. There was a delay of five or ten minutes while the crew turned the tractor and howitzer around, knocking down several buildings in the process. This section was now separated from the rest of the column and it was impossible to catch up because of the solid line of vehicles but Captain Myers had taken his chiefs of section with him when he selected the position and the men now knew where to go.

Captain Myers's new position was in a stream bed near the road to Kunuri. Three howitzer sections arrived first; then the maintenance, wire, kitchen, and radio sections; then the fourth gun section; and finally, the local security detail. The temperature was near zero and there was a strong wind as the crews put the guns into firing position. Battery A fired without registering, using average corrections furnished by the fire direction center. On 27 November, while the infantry regiments of the 2d Division and some of the artillery units were experiencing heavy enemy attacks, Battery A had a comparatively quiet day although it was too cold for the men to sleep. They sat huddled around gasoline stoves when they had no fire missions. All men whom Captain Myers could spare from the firing sections were needed either for outpost duty or for hauling ammunition from Kunu-ri, twenty-five to thirty miles away. The narrow road, following the curves of the Chongchon River, was better suited to the native ox-carts than to the heavy trucks that now jammed it, moving only a few miles an hour.

Enemy pressure increased throughout the division's area and at 2200 that night, Colonel Harrelson received orders to again displace to the rear. By 0745 the following morning, 28 November, when Battery A marchordered, front-line infantry units had fallen back until the artillerymen could hear the sound of smallarms fire. Captain Myers heard that an ROK division west of the 2d Infantry Division had collapsed, exposing the division's right flank. This time Myers moved his battery approximately five miles south, where he put the howitzers in position near the road but, at 1230, with the battery laid and ready to fire in the new position, he was ordered to close station and march-order, again moving south. By this time all units of the 2d Division were moving back. [3]

Battery A now went into position southwest of Kunu-ri in a large field along the division's supply road. The first part of the night was quiet and the men had a chance to sleep some, but the battery began getting fire missions and commenced shooting in a northerly direction two hours before daylight, 29 November.

Several incidents occurred during the day that indicated the situation was fast becoming critical. Early in the morning Colonel Harrelson received instructions to look for new positions along the route of withdrawal to Sunchon. [4] Earlier, however, a report reached 2d Division headquarters indicating that the enemy had established a roadblock several miles south on the road to Sunchon. Officers at the division's command post accepted this information calmly, but sent a patrol to investigate and, a little later that morning, ordered the Reconnaissance Company out to open the road. Meanwhile, the reconnaissance for new positions was held up until afternoon when, as officers at division headquarters expected, the Reconnaissance Company would have eliminated the enemy roadblock on the Kunu-ri-Sunchon road. [5] About mid-morning, Captain Myers received orders to haul the ammunition he needed from Kunu-ri because the ammunition dump there was going to be destroyed. And during the day the three 105-mm howitzer battalions and the 155-mm howitzer battalion of the 2d Division passed by the gun position of Battery A, all headed south.

Colonel Harrelson, Captain Myers, and the other battery commanders undertook that afternoon to reconnoiter for positions on the Sunchon road, expecting it to be open. It wasn't. Vehicles were jammed on and near the road for several miles south of Kunu-ri, and occupants of some vehicles returning from the south claimed the road was cut, that it was impossible to get through. [6] Captain Myers and his party returned to the battery position at dark while Colonel Harrelson went to Division Artillery's command post for a briefing on the general situation. There he learned the 2d Division was confident it would be able to open the road. He was told to fire his regular missions during the night. If the road were open by morning of 30 November, the 17th Field Artillery Battalion would withdraw over that road, taking its place at the head of the column of artillery battalions, since the 8-inch howitzers were considered to be the most valuable pieces and the hardest to replace. [7] If the roadblock were not cleared by morning-and if the division did not issue another order-the battalion was to pull out by another road west to Anju and then so at that time, he realized that the situation could change abruptly. [8]

The direction of fire, which was north on the morning of 29 November, gradually shifted east during the day. That evening, with the howitzers laid on an azimuth of 1600 mils, Battery A started firing charge 7 at a range of eighteen thousand yards. By morning on 30 November the cannoneers were using charge 1 at a range of thirteen hundred yards. Because of the critical situation Colonel Harrelson, calm but anxious to keep the battery informed, held three battery commanders' calls during the night. At the call held at 0400 on 30 November he outlined three possible plans of action: to return to Kunu-ri and put a large ammunition trailer across the road to block traffic long enough to get the battalion's vehicles into the solid column of traffic and move the battalion west through Anju; to go south on 2d Division order when the roadblock was opened; if these failed, he proposed that the battalion stay and fight until it was forced to destroy all equipment and fight its way south as a battalion. Harrelson preferred to take the road to Anju since his battalion had followed that road when it moved north and was familiar with it. However, soon after this meeting Colonel Harrelson was called to Division Artillery's command post and there learned that, by division order, his battalion would withdraw over the road to Sunchon. During the night of 29-30 November the military police told the division's provost marshal that the road to Anju was also cut by the Chinese. At the same time, IX Corps, of which the division was a part, directed the 2d Division to use the Sunchon road since the road from Anju south was already burdened with three divisions. [9]

Soldiers continued to straggle through and past Battery A's position during the early morning of 30 November. Some were ROK soldiers and some were from the 2d Division or from another nearby U.S. division. Soon after daylight a tank officer stopped at Battery A's position and told Captain Myers that all infantry units to the north had withdrawn. He said he had some tanks in the rear that could help the artillerymen if necessary. This was not an accurate report but, as a precaution, Myers assigned zones for direct fire to each of the gun sections. Even as the situation was, the cannoneers could see the shell bursts from their gun positions.

Colonel Harrelson met his battery commanders again at 0800 on 30 November and told them of the decision to use the road to Sunchon even though the road leading west to Anju appeared to be still open. The 2d Division, he said, had ordered the 9th Infantry Regiment to attack south and destroy the enemy roadblock. The 9th Infantry, however, had suffered such heavy casualties during its last three days of fighting that it had an attacking force of only four hundred or five hundred men when it started south toward the critical area early that morning. By 0900 it became apparent at division headquarters that this force was too weak to destroy the roadblock, and the 38th Infantry was ordered to help. [10]

At 0930 Colonel Harrelson called Captain Myers with instructions to march-order and move as a fighting column. Myers at first interpreted this to mean he should destroy all equipment, but before he did so he called his battalion commander again and learned that Colonel Harrelson wanted the tractors and howitzers to go first, then the wheeled vehicles with the rest of the equipment. He wanted the tops and windshields down, machine guns mounted, and the men equipped to fight as infantrymen if necessary. [11] By batteries, the order of march was: B, A, Headquarters, Service, C. Within Battery A the four gun sections left first; then the tractor pulling the large ammunition trailer, the Diamond-T four-ton ammunition truck, and the 3/4-ton executive truck. The rest of the wheeled vehicles followed.

Moving southward at an average rate of five miles an hour, Battery A passed three of the 2d Division's organic artillery battalions-all still in position and firing. It appeared to members of Battery A that the guns were laid to fire in several directions. About noon the column stopped when Battery A's vehicles were near a deserted quartermaster supply dump that had belonged to the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. Here the men loaded up on quartermaster supplies, especially overcoats, which many of them lacked. Near the supply dump a hundred or more soldiers, American and South Korean, were lying on the ground trying to sleep. A captain was in charge of them. There was a two-hour delay at the dump while the remaining fighting force of two infantry regiments attempted to reduce the enemy positions at the roadblock. At about 1400 the column started moving again, and the infantrymen by the supply dump climbed up on Battery A's vehicles. Vehicles were closed up bumper to bumper on the dry road which, having been graded by U.S. engineers, was wide enough for two-way traffic in most places. Low hills lay on both sides of the thousand-yard-wide valley.

The day was cold. The men were tired and tense. After proceeding haltingly for a mile and a half or two miles, the battery's vehicles passed between enemy machine guns firing from opposite sides of the road and the men scrambled for the ditches. Friendly airplanes strafed the hills along the road, occasionally quieting the guns. When they did, the column would get under way until another gun fired or until vehicles ahead came under enemy fire. After passing several enemy machine guns, all located between two hundred and three hundred yards from the road, the column stopped again and this time failed to move until almost dark. Military police patrolled the road in jeeps, doubling the column to locate the trouble.

During the halt a large number of South Korean soldiers came across the enemy-occupied hills on the left side of the road and joined the column. They were badly disorganized and some were without weapons.

Meanwhile, Colonel Harrelson, fearing that his battalion would be stranded in the center of the roadblock through the night, made plans to pull his vehicles off the road and form a perimeter, but at dusk the vehicles began moving again. About this time a halftrack mounting a twin 40-mm came past the column and took a position at the head of Battery A. It fired at all suspected enemy positions, often getting air-bursts by aiming at the trees. Many of the South Korean soldiers climbed on the vehicles as they started forward.

After dark drivers used only blackout lights, and it was difficult to distinguish the many vehicles abandoned by the road from other vehicles in the column. The communications chief (Sgt. Preston L. Bryson) was driving the executive truck and pulled up behind a jeep in which he could see two men. After waiting for several minutes, he realized both men were dead and then pulled around the jeep. There were twenty-five to thirty vehicles abandoned along the seven-mile stretch that was under enemy fire.

The main difficulty occurred at the southern end of the roadblock. A two-lane concrete bridge had been destroyed, forcing the withdrawing column to use a bypass and to ford the stream which, at the time, was several feet deep. The bypass approach from the north was in good condition, but the southern exit was up terraced rice paddies, the first terrace being very difficult to maneuver. After fording the stream the driver of the first tractor in Captain Myers's column found his path blocked by two 3-ton trucks and one 2 1/2-ton truck that were stuck and abandoned. None of the abandoned vehicles belonged to the 17th Field Artillery Battalion.

The battalion S-3 (Major Joseph J. Prusaitis) came back and instructed Captain Myers to uncouple the first tractor and pull the vehicles out of the bypass. The lead tractor belonged to the 2d Section (Sgt. Harrington D. Hawkins) which uncoupled it just as two tanks drove up the road from the south with their lights on. The beams of the headlights fell on the men working in the bypass. Immediately several enemy machine guns opened fire and tracer bullets flashed all around the artillerymen. Mortar rounds began falling nearby. Shouting, Captain Myers made the men get off the vehicles nearby. The battery executive (Lt. Donald D. Judd) was standing in the road when the lights shone on him. A Chinese rifleman thirty feet away was aiming at Judd when one of the cannoneers killed the enemy soldier. After this action flared up the tanks turned their lights on and began firing at the enemy. Thinking that the tanks had come to pull the abandoned vehicles away, Captain Myers instructed Sergeant Hawkins to couple up again and proceed.

Meanwhile, on the north side of the destroyed bridge, MSgt. Judge Shanks, driving the next howitzer, looked across and saw the tank on the south side of the bridge. Not realizing there was a gap in the bridge, he pulled up on the north approach where he was forced to halt. The following vehicle stopped a few feet behind him and the rest of the column was jammed up to the rear. This caused another difficult delay before the 8-inch howitzer and prime mover could be backed up and run through the bypass.

The bypass was the end of the roadblock. At 213O the last of the men of Battery A cleared the obstacle and saw the lights come on at the head of the column. There were stragglers and wounded men on the trailers, howitzers, fenders, and hoods of the vehicles, and three 3/4-ton trucks had been turned into ambulances. The artillerymen had passed the bodies of at least four hundred American or other friendly troops that were lying by the road. [12] Battery A had eight men wounded while running the roadblock, none killed. It lost four 2 1/2-ton trucks, three 3/4-ton trucks, the kitchen trailer, and the supply trucks of which one was abandoned because of mechanical failure. For the battalion the equipment losses amounted to twenty-six vehicles and a howitzer from Battery B, which overturned and killed eight ROK soldiers who were riding on it.

The artillery battalions and other units of the 2d Division that followed were not so fortunate. Soon after Colonel Harrelson's battalion cleared the bypass, an M-6 tractor pulling a 155-mm howitzer stalled in the middle of the ford, effectively blocking the route of withdrawal. All vehicles north of the ford were abandoned and the personnel walked out.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, this narrative is based upon an account written in Korea by Major Edward C. Williamson. Major Williamson interviewed members of the 17th FA Battalion and prepared a manuscript, "Action at Kunu-ri: The 17th Field Artillery Battalion."

[2] 2d Division: G-3 journal, entry 1328, 25 November 195O.

[3] Ibid.; see messages for 28 November 1950.

[4] 2d Division Artillery: S-3 journal, message 0730, 29 November 1950.

[5] Lt.Col. Maurice C. Holden, letter to Major Roy E. Appleman, 26 February 1952.

[6] Holden, Op. Cit., describes the traffic jam.

[7] Holden, Op. Cit.

[8] Lt.Col. Elmer H. Harrelson, in an interview by the author.

[9] Holden, Op. Cit.; also Harrelson, Op. Cit. The U.S. 24th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions, and the 1st ROK Division, were withdrawing over the Anju-Pyongyang road.

[10] Holden, Op. Cit.

[11] Harrelson, Op. Cit.

[12] Colonel Harrelson indicates that this figure is conservative (Harrelson, op. cit.)

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