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The Foundation of Freedom is the Courage of Ordinary People

History  Bert '53  On Line

It is the part of a good general to talk of success not of failure.



Years of Stalemate

Chapter 13

Hill 800 (Bunker Hill)

* On the night of 16 May 1951 Chinese and North Korean Communists launched another major attack against United Nations forces. To the enemy, it was "Second Step, Fifth Phase Offensive." To soldiers of the United Nations it became known as "Second Spring Offensive," or, especially to members of U.S. X Corps, "The Battle of the Soyang River."

The First Step of the enemy's Fifth Phase Offensive had been at the west end of Eighth Army's line on 22 April. Its mission was the capture of Seoul and the encirclement of UN troops in that area. Although this offensive failed to gain its announced objective, it did force a major withdrawal at the west end of the UN line and, because of the necessity of shifting troops for the defense of Seoul, a readjustment of front lines everywhere. Near the center of the peninsula, X Corps gave up a little ground, dropping back to dominating ground just beyond, and protecting, the southwest-northeast main supply road between Hongchon and Inje. [1]

The First Step lasted eight days. By the night of 30 April, with the force of the attack exhausted, enemy troops turned north, and activity across the Korean front dropped sharply. At once the Chinese turned to preparations for the Second Step. Eighth Army, nevertheless, continued in a defensive role. In the center, X Corps proceeded to organize, occupy, and defend its new position along what it called "Noname Line." [2]

From the beginning of May Americans had reason to expect another attack, but it was several days before movement of enemy troops and supplies, reported by aerial observers, indicated the attack would be aimed at X Corps' center. Intelligence officers accumulated other substantiating evidence including information from a captured Chinese officer who stated the next offensive would strike the U.S. 2d Infantry Division and the ROK divisions to the east. [3]

The 2d Infantry Division (Maj.Gen. Clark L. Ruffner) occupied the center position on X Corps' Noname Line, generally situated along the crest of a great, rugged hill mass separating two rivers the Hongchon and the Soyang. The air-line distance across General Ruffner's sector was about sixteen miles. However, following barbed wire stretched from one bunker to another along the front, up and down the steep hills, and around the bends in the ridges, the distance was twice as great. Within his division, General Ruffner assigned the right half of his sector to a tank-infantry task force; the left (southwest) end, to the 38th Infantry Regiment. In turn, the commander of the 38th Infantry (Col. John C. Coughlin) stationed his 1st and 3d Battalions on Noname Line, the 3d Battalion being on the left. [4] Each of these battalions anchored its defense to a prominent hill mass: the 1st Battalion to Hill 1051 on the right of the regimental sector and, later, the 3d Battalion (on the left), to Hill 800. The initial defense sector given the 3d Battalion was about five and a half miles wide, later reduced to approximately four miles when the 9th Infantry was committed to a defense sector to the left of the 38th Infantry.

Hill 800 was typical of the terrain selected as a battle site by units of X Corps. It was ten miles or more from the main supply road and was accessible only by a single-lane dirt road that followed the curves of a small tributary of the Hongchon River. At the base of the sprawling hill mass, where the stream narrowed to a foot or two even during the spring rains, the road ended abruptly. The pointed peak of the hill was 1,600 feet above the end of the road and, for the average infantryman, more than an hour's climb away. All the tools, supplies, and equipment of war had to be carried over footpaths to the top of Hill 800.

The commander of the 3d Battalion, 38th Infantry (Lt.Col. Wallace M. Hanes) committed all three of his rifle companies to front-line defense, with Company K on the bald top of Hill 800 in the center of the battalion sector. Both horizontally and vertically, Hill 800 was the apex of the battalion's line. Having a defensive mission, Colonel Hanes gave first priority to clearing fields of fire and constructing bunkers, ordering all companies to build covered positions, one for every two or three men. Most of the men, thinking in terms of concealment and protection from heavy spring rains, dug their holes in the usual fashion, covering them with branches and ponchos, and then quit.

Colonel Hanes returned next day to inspect the positions. "That's concealment?" he complained to his company officers. "Dammit, I want bunkers with cover to protect you from artillery fire!"

Each day he returned and climbed the ridgelines to supervise the job of building fortifications. He made the men cut down more trees, dig more trenches, and pile more dirt on the bunkers. One company commander, when Colonel Hanes insisted on more earth over the bunkers in his area, asked for sand bags, saying he would need about five thousand.

"Five thousand!" stormed Hanes. "My God, man! You don't want five thousand sand bags. You want twenty thousand!" Even that number was later found to be inadequate. [5]

Chart (169.tif)

After a number of shifts in the battalion's sector and after laboring for a week to get the infantrymen to strengthen their positions with heavy logs and bags of earth, Colonel Hanes explained to his company commanders that if the enemy attacked in the numbers he expected, it might be necessary to fire friendly artillery on their (the Americans') own positions, using proximity fuze for air-burst effect.

"If it is necessary," he said, "I don't want you to worry about calling in the fire. I'll do that. All you have to do is fix up your bunkers so that you will have a clear field of fire to your front and to your neighbors' bunkers and won't get hit by your own shell fragments when I call down the fire."

After that, men of the 3d Battalion worked diligently. When the bunkers were completed to Hanes's satisfaction, he planned to string barbed wire and sow mines across the battalion's front. Because of the distance and the difficult terrain over which all supplies had to be carried, the infantrymen at first thought he was only joking when he talked of putting in wire. They believed him only when the Korean civilians began carrying rolls of barbed wire onto the hill and the men from the battalion's Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon arrived to supervise the work.

Seven hundred of these civilians carried supplies to the 3d Battalion. During the period of preparation, they moved 237,000 sand bags to the top of the hill; 385 rolls of barbed wire; almost 2,000 long steel pickets for installing wire aprons, and nearly 4,000 short ones; and 39 55-gallon fougasse drums. (A fougasse is a sort of dug-in, improved flame-thrower made with a drum of napalm-thickened gasoline, an explosive charge of a couple of pounds of TNT or white phosphorus mortar shells, and a detonator. When detonated, the fougasse bursts into a mass of flame about 10 yards wide and 25 to 40 yards long.) This equipment was in addition to the normal supplies rations, cans of water, and ammunition. It required eight Korean men to carry one fougasse drum up the hill; one man could carry a roll of barbed wire or a box of rations. A round trip took three or four hours. At the base of the hill were several buildings where members of the carrying parties were fed.

In addition to the laborers, the battalion used a herd of thirty-two oxen to transport a section of the heavy 4.2-inch mortars and to stockpile mortar ammunition. Because of dominant terrain features to the front of the battalion's positions, a special mountain trail was cut in the reverse slope of a mountain finger of the north-south ridgeline of which Hill 800 was a part, so as to permit the uninterrupted supply of Companies K and L and the heavy 4.2-inch mortars.

The most probable routes of enemy attack were blocked by two or more double-apron wire barriers; most of the battalion's front had at least one. As the wire situation improved, Colonel Hanes stressed other improvements antipersonnel mine fields, trip flares, fougasse drums, buried telephone wires, and communication trenches.

On 10 May the commander of Eighth Army (Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet) and the commander of X Corps (Lt. Gen. E. M. Almond) landed by helicopter on Hill 800 and declared the 3d Battalion's preparations to be the most formidable in X Corps' sector.

By 12 May, when the bunkers were completed and most of the front wired in, there were many indications that the enemy also had nearly completed preparations for his own attack.

While Colonel Hanes's battalion constructed its defenses, other units of the 2d Division sent out patrols daily to locate and engage the enemy. At the beginning of the month, patrols had made few contacts with the enemy, and none of the Chinese encountered displayed an inclination to stay and fight. Accordingly, General Ruffner ordered units to establish patrol bases several thousand yards to the front. From these bases they pushed patrols as far north as the Soyang River a line distance of six or more miles away and parallel to the main line of resistance. Eighth Army directed that patrols be large enough to face a major attack and still fight their way back to the patrol base. [6] Within the sector of the 38th Infantry, the 2d Battalion established a patrol base in front of Hanes's 3d Battalion.

After 8 May stronger enemy patrols appeared, showing a sudden reluctance to withdraw. It became apparent that the enemy had set up a counterreconnaissance screen and was becoming as assiduous in his attempts to locate 2d Division defensive strongpoints as were the friendly patrols in their search for enemy strength. By 10 May the enemy's build-up was in full swing. [7] Enemy vehicular traffic was heavier, patrols more numerous and more aggressive, new bridges appeared on the enemy's side, and there was a sudden flow of civilian refugees from the enemy's area. [8]

By 14 May men of Colonel Hanes's battalion had the strongest positions they had ever occupied, although they had taken a few enemy positions they considered as good. The confidence the men had in their ability to withstand an enemy attack confidence that had increased with each log and sand bag, antipersonnel mine and roll of wire that had gone into their structure for defense was equally strong.

General Ruffner lent his helicopter to Colonel Hanes so he could inspect the positions from the air.

"There's only one thing that worries me now, General," said Hanes when he returned. "I'm afraid those bastards won't hit us. If they've seen what I've seen today, and if they are smart, they won't even give us a nibble."

General Ruffner agreed.

If the enemy was going to attack the 3d Battalion, however, it appeared that one of his most suitable routes of approach would lead him squarely into Company K on the top of Hill 800 (by now the men who held Hill 800 had styled it Bunker Hill) . Twelve hundred yards in front of Company K, and three hundred feet higher, was Hill 916. Instead of the usual steep ravine, a smooth saddle connected the two hills.

Hill 916 was a squat mass covered with patches of grass and scattered clumps of trees. There were enough trees on the south slopes to conceal the movement and assembly of enemy troops, especially at dusk. They would then be within easy range having only to cross the connecting saddle before making the final assault on Company K's dome-shaped hill, or move down the ridge to attack Company L, which was holding the right flank of the battalion and was astride a ridge similarly connected to Hill 916.

Company K put two barbed-wire aprons across its end of the saddle. One stretched along three sides at the base of Hill 800. The other was approximately two hundred yards beyond. Members of Company K fastened trip flares and explosive charges to the wire, and planted antipersonnel mines between the aprons. This, they figured, would slow the attack when it came.

Twenty-three bunkers were located on the small but prominent top of Hill 800. Other positions of Company K were stretched along the ridgelines that slanted down to the southwest and southeast. The only apparent weakness in the defense position of Company K was its extensive front and the uncompleted prearranged close-support artillery concentrations conditions that applied equally to the remainder of the 3d Battalion. Because of the 2d Battalion's patrol base located in front of Hanes's battalion, and because of the extensive patrolling conducted during the build-up period, firing of desired prearranged artillery concentrations was exceedingly difficult. Later, because of the numerous patrols and long-range observation posts dispatched and maintained by the 3d Battalion, artillery forward observers were unable to register all close-support fires.

The first fifteen days of May had passed without an enemy offensive. On the 16th there was a low, heavy overcast that prevented the use of observation or fighter aircraft. The Second Step of the Fifth Phase Offensive commenced that afternoon when probing patrols opened fire on United Nations positions. Stronger attacks struck both the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 38th Infantry that night. Before daylight on 17 May, the 2d Battalion was ordered to withdraw from its patrol base to positions in rear of the regimental main line of resistance. To the northeast, Chinese penetrated the lines of the 1st Battalion and seized the top of Hill 1051. [9]

Colonel Hanes's 3d Battalion, however, spent an uneventful night. The next day (17 May) men of that battalion strung more wire and prepared additional fougasses that they emplaced along probable enemy avenues of approach. They were to be set off by plunger-type detonator during the attack that everyone expected would come that night. A final adjustment was made on the left of the battalion's sector when its area was reduced by moving a unit of the 9th Infantry into line. After the long period of waiting and planning for the big attack, the suspense was over. Most of the men, confident of their positions, welcomed the attack. Morale was high. The day was hot and sultry.

Late in the afternoon, Company K's support platoon patrolled to Hill 916. It met heavy opposition where there had been no enemy before. From Hill 800 the commander of Company K (Capt. George R. Brownell) watched the progress of the patrol. He could see some Chinese troops following it back and others moving on the forward slope of Hill 916. He placed artillery and mortar fire on the enemy. The Chinese began registering their mortar and artillery fire. Enemy troops crowded against the front line across the battalion's entire sector. The battalion had numerous artillery missions fired and a number of effective air strikes were made. All patrols of the battalion were actively engaged.

With the attack imminent, Company K squared away. Captain Brownell, having previously located his command post too far to the rear, took his position at the very point of the defense in a bunker that was the battalion's observation post. His runner, an observer for the 81-mm mortars, and two intelligence observers from the battalion's Headquarters Company, shared the bunker with him. Through error, his artillery forward observer was not with him. In other bunkers men rechecked their rifles and grenades each man had twenty grenades and waited quietly as the dusk deepened into darkness. A light fog formed and the air became damp and noticeably cold after the sultry day.

Everyone expected the attack to commence with a rapid succession of explosions from trip flares and mines. The mines would kill a lot of the enemy, they thought, and slacken the attack. But it didn't work out that way.

At about 2130 there was the sound of whistles and of a bugle or two. Nothing else happened for half an hour until the enemy troops reached the first wire barrier a hundred yards away. A flare or two appeared. Several minutes later a few of the antipersonnel mines exploded. At the same time, the Chinese opened fire. Captain Brownell's men could see none of the enemy yet, but from the steady sound of the enemy's fire, Brownell could measure the Chinese advance. Another half hour passed. The enemy's fire increased gradually. Finally the Americans could hear the Chinese soldiers talking, although they could see none of them. They wondered why more of the antipersonnel mines had not exploded.

Company K held its fire until the enemy reached the second wire barrier. Instead of moving frontally, the leading Chinese had slipped around to the west, cut the barbed wire in front of the 1st Platoon, and crawled up the steep part of the hill. At the point of first contact, the Americans opened fire with rifles and machine guns, and tossed grenades down the hill. Quickly Company K came to life, the action spreading in both directions like a grass fire.

Captain Brownell tried to get artillery fire. The artillery forward observer, however, was at a different observation post and, within a few minutes after the firing began, the telephone line went out between Captain Brownell's command post and the artillery observer's bunker. Unable to reach the observer, Brownell relayed his request to battalion headquarters, experiencing difficulties with communications in the process. In rapid succession, the lines to the 1st Platoon and to the battalion failed, apparently having been cut either by the Chinese or by their mortar and artillery fire. Company K had failed to bury all of its telephone lines.

Attached to and integrated with the defense of Company K were men from Company M manning machine guns and recoilless rifles. The lieutenant in charge was a replacement who had been recalled to active duty recently without a refresher course. He and some of his men occupied several bunkers near the point of first enemy contact. By the time the exchange of fire had increased to thunderous volume, the platoon leader left his bunker and ran a short distance to an adjoining one.

"It's getting pretty hot here," he said as he entered. After a few moments, he added, "It's getting too hot around here for me! Let's get out!"

He left and, in the darkness and through heavy enemy fire, headed toward the rear. Between 15 and 20 men followed him those from the bunker he had just left and other men from several nearby positions.

This original break occurred near the limiting point between the two platoons on line the 1st and the 3d. Cpl. James H. Kantner (runner from the 1st Platoon) ran to the point of the hill to tell Captain Brownell that the line's broken." Captain Brownell gave up his attempt to adjust artillery fire and tried to get in touch with the 1st Platoon in order to determine the extent of the break. The line to the 1st Platoon was out. He sent Corporal Kantner back with instructions to tell everyone to hold where he was until Brownell had a chance to find out what happened. The runner left.

Within a minute or two, an enemy shell landed squarely on top of the command-post bunker. The explosion damaged the radio by which Captain Brownell had communicated with battalion headquarters. Thus, within fifteen minutes or less, Captain Brownell had lost communication with his platoons, his artillery forward observer, and battalion headquarters.

Leaving the battalion personnel in the bunker, Captain Brownell started toward the bunkers the men of Company M had occupied on the top of the hill. Chinese soldiers were wandering freely over the 200-yard-long point of Hill 800 the key terrain in Company K's defense. Without communication, Brownell's positions on this important part of Hill 800 crumbled quickly. Hearing the firing from the adjoining position suddenly end, the men from one bunker after another learned that the line was falling back. Chinese and Americans walked around together in the darkness.

PFC George C. Hipp, PFC Clarence E. Ricki and PFC Rodney R. Rowe occupied the northernmost bunker, guarding the approach to the hill. Not realizing the adjoining positions were abandoned, these men remained until it was too late to leave. Meanwhile, the battalion intelligence men, left in the bunker that Captain Brownell had recently occupied, moved to the bunker recently vacated by the lieutenant from Company M, and got in telephone communication with Colonel Hanes. Hanes immediately instructed his artillery liaison officer to place artillery fire in front of Company K. The first half hour of the enemy attack had created complete confusion at the very top of Hill 800.

Two men manning a 75-mm recoilless-rifle position on the left side of the high point of the hill and just left of the steep ridge along which the Chinese had crawled up to Company K's position were miraculously able to make contact with the battalion's forward relay switchboard by sound-powered telephone. From their bunker they calmly reported the situation as they saw it to Colonel Hanes who, in turn, informed them of the situation known to the battalion. Hanes asked them if they could adjust artillery where they knew or suspected the enemy to be, bearing in mind that because of the confused situation and conflicting reports great care must be used so that no rounds fell on the battle positions. For a considerable time these men effectively adjusted fire as close to their bunker as was possible. Communications to this position remained effective during the entire night. With no previous experience in the adjustment of artillery, the two men helped seal off the battle position from further enemy reinforcements.

Unable to find the men of Company M at their bunkers, Captain Brownell hurried on back to the command post of the 3d Platoon. This platoon had telephone communication with battalion headquarters. He called Colonel Hanes to report the loss of the point of his hill, to request permission to use his support platoon in a counterattack (Colonel Hanes had placed restrictions on the use of this platoon), and to ask for artillery fire.

A few of the men who had abandoned their positions walked on down the trail that led south to Colonel Hanes's battalion headquarters. Most of them went back only a short distance where the leader of the 3d Platoon (Lt. Blair W. Price) stopped them and began forming a new line between the open flanks of Company K's line. Although this was soon done, Captain Brownell's defense was vulnerable since he had lost the highest and most important area of his sector, and about a third of his line was hastily formed and lacked protection of even a foxhole. Fortunately, enemy activity temporarily dropped off.

Having obtained permission to use the 2d Platoon and having moved it into position for the attack, Captain Brownell tried to precede his counter-attack by placing artillery fire on his former position. A long delay followed, partly because of faulty communications, partly because Brownell was out of touch with his forward observer and was unable to adjust the desired fire properly, but primarily because Captain Brownell's situation report was in conflict with the information Hanes was receiving from the battalion's intelligence men and from the 75-mm recoilless-rifle team who were adjusting artillery fire for him. Until a more accurate picture could be received, Colonel Hanes considered it advisable to seal the penetration with available artillery fire while the remainder of the 38th Field Artillery Battalion, which was in direct support of the 3d Battalion, supported Company L, which was under tremendous pressure at the time.

Meanwhile, Lieutenants Price and Herbert E. Clark (leader of the 2d Platoon) and SFC Thomas K. Whitten lined up approximately thirty-five men who were to make the counterattack. They also arranged for 2 machine-gun crews, 2 BAR men, and 6 riflemen to fire onto the point of the hill when Clark's platoon moved forward.

At the same time, a few of the men including the lieutenant from Company M who started the movement to abandon the position had reached the bottom of the hill. Colonel Hanes met them.

"Get back on the hill," he told them. "We don't give up a position until we're beaten. And dammit, we're not beaten and won't be if every man does his share!"

They turned around and started the long climb up the hill. The lieutenant from Company M returned to his unit in due time although he was wounded in the side, arms, and leg before again reaching the protection of his bunker.

After waiting more than an hour for artillery fire, which could not be properly adjusted because of his faulty communications, Captain Brownell and his platoon leaders decided to launch the attack without support.

"To hell with it!" said Lieutenant Price. "We can take the damned hill ourselves."

Although he expected considerable trouble, Captain Brownell was afraid that if he delayed the attack any longer the Chinese would discover the weakly held gap in his line, break through in force, and threaten or possibly destroy the battalion's entire defensive position.

With Captain Brownell, two platoon leaders, and Sergeant Whitten guiding, the 35-man skirmish line started forward, the men firing steadily and walking erect under the supporting rifle and machine-gun fire. The enemy fired back with two machine guns one of their own and one Company K had abandoned on the top of the hill. Both sides used American white phosphorus grenades of which there was an abundant supply on the hill. As Company K's attack progressed, the men threw one or two grenades into each bunker they passed; otherwise they and the Chinese used them for illumination. At the moment of a grenade burst the hill and the line of infantrymen stood out prominently in the eerie white light. In the alternate periods of darkness, the men could see nothing. The first white phosphorus grenade thrown by the enemy landed at one end of the skirmish line. The entire line stopped momentarily. One man fell dead with a bullet through his neck. A burning streamer from another grenade hit Cpl. Virgil J. Penwell's rifle, setting the stock on fire and burning Penwell's sleeve.

Captain Brownell's counterattack progressed steadily, moving a yard or two with each grenade-burst. As the line reached the highest part of the hill, a grenade-burst revealed See Chinese 15 or 20 feet ahead, kneeling side by side in firing position.

Sgt. Virgil E. Butler, who had thrown the grenade, yelled, "Get them where you can see them!"

Half a dozen men fired at once. At the same time, a Chinese whistle sounded and when the next grenade exploded two of the Chinese had disappeared. The third, still kneeling, was dead. A rifle left by one of his comrades leaned against his body. Enemy opposition diminished suddenly and then, except for a few rifle shots, ended.

By 0130, 18 May, Captain Brownell's counterattacking force had spread out to occupy the rest of Hill 800. Eight men had been wounded during the attack; only one had been killed. It had been easier than any of the men expected. Captain Brownell immediately reorganized the highest portion of his company's sector. The men set up machine guns again, reallocated the supply of ammunition and grenades, and reoccupied all of the bunkers except the one farthest north. This bunker was still occupied by Hipp, Ricki and Rowe, who had remained in it throughout the enemy occupancy of the hill. They had heard enemy soldiers talking and moving nearby, but did nothing to cause a disturbance. Nor did anyone bother them. They heard the American counterattack approaching, saw the Chinese soldiers falling back, and then one of them commenced to fire a BAR to let the other men of Company K know they were still there. Men in the nearby bunkers, however, assuming that these three men were dead and taking no unnecessary chances, fired upon the bunker the rest of the night. It was not until daylight that Hipp, Ricki and Rowe were able to identify themselves.

Communications were restored, and artillery and 4.2-inch mortar fire was concentrated on the saddle leading to Hill 916. Nothing else happened on Hill 800 for the rest of the night. The men pulled blankets around themselves and sat shivering in the cold, damp bunkers while the night dragged out. About two hundred enemy had infiltrated Company K's positions through and around the battalion's right flank, and had sniped at supply and communications personnel.

While Hill 800 was secure for the rest of the night, increasing pressure was placed on the extreme left flank of Company K's front and on Company I, to its left. Preceded by heavy artillery and mortar fire, at 0415 the Chinese overran Company I's right flank and the left flank of Company K.

The reserve platoon of Company I, which had been given the mission of clearing enemy snipers from the ridge recently occupied by the reserve platoon of Company K, was immediately withdrawn in order to seal the gap between the two companies and restore the line. The reserve platoon of Company K was ordered to continue its screening mission from Hill 800 south along the ridge to Hill 754.

When morning came on 18 May, the men on Hill 800 scouted the area. They found 2 live Chinese, 28 bodies on top of the hill and in bunkers, and 40 or so more along the barbed wire in front of the position. Besides bodies, the enemy had left a previously captured American machine gun, fourteen burp guns, rifles, packs, and food. There were also many unexploded American grenades scattered over the hill. The Chinese had failed to pull the pins and had thrown them after only bending the handles.

Company K went to work rebuilding its defenses, replacing barbed wire the enemy had cut the night before, repairing telephone wires andequally important burying the wire under eight inches of earth as the men had originally been told to do. The forward observer from the 38th Field Artillery Battalion registered in artillery in a solid semicircle around the area in front of Company K.

Colonel Hanes set out to make a personal reconnaissance and inspect his defenses. He found the line intact with the exception of the one penetration between Companies K and I, and this break was larger than previously reported. He estimated that several hundred Chinese had crowded into bunkers formerly occupied by members of the two companies. With such a large break in his line, Hanes realized he would have to restore these positions before dark or his battalion would be unable to prevent a major breakthrough the next night.

Assembling the support platoons from both companies, Hanes organized a counterattacking force and quickly briefed the men on the situation. Although they were exhausted from their arduous activity during the previous night, Hanes exhorted them to make every effort to restore the line before darkness fell again. He prepared for the attack by firing more than a thousand 4.2-inch mortar shells.

As the counterattack got under way Colonel Hanes intensified the mortar fire. Under this fire the heaviest ever observed by members of the attacking platoons the Chinese abandoned the bunkers and broke in full retreat. Before launching his attack Colonel Hanes had instructed the mortar observers to register concentrations along the only route by which the enemy could escape. When the enemy "bugout" started, the observers yelled for more fire, shifting the concentrations to keep up with the retreating Chinese. There were two halftracks near the bottom of the hill in Company I's sector, and crews manning the quad caliber .50 machine guns on these halftracks poured enfilade fire into the Chinese as they scrambled through the double-apron wire fences through which they had crawled during the night. The mortar men fired so rapidly that they burned their tubes and bent the base plates. The attacking infantrymen, moving closely behind the well-coordinated mortar and machine-gun fire, shouted jubilantly. It was a most successful attack. Enemy losses were high and Colonel Hanes's force restored the 3d Battalion's positions without suffering any casualties.

By the end of the day, Company K had rebuilt its defenses and corrected the weaknesses of the previous night. Artillery observers had fired on suspected enemy movement and assembly areas throughout the day

Chart (179.tif)

and the regimental commander had given Hanes's battalion priority on air support. Planes made several strikes against Hill 916. Nevertheless, toward evening Chinese began moving on the southern slope of Hill 916, indicating that another attack was in the making.

East of the 3d Battalion, the enemy had dislodged two ROK divisions and parts of the U.S. 2d Infantry Division from the Noname Line. The entire right flank of X Corps was in process of falling back and turning its line to prevent an enemy envelopment. The new line, anchored on Company L, extended in a southeast direction to the town of Hangye on the Hongchon River. [10]

When darkness came on 18 May, Captain Brownell and his men crawled into their bunkers to wait. An hour or two passed. Beyond the barbed wire there were the sounds of whistles and horns, and the usual commotion as the enemy formed to attack. After waiting and listening for several minutes, Brownell requested artillery fire. It came promptly, interrupting the enemy attack, or at least delaying it for twenty or thirty minutes. When it was re-formed, the forward observer signaled for another concentration.

Several attacks were held off in this fashion before any enemy succeeded in reaching Company K's line. When they did, the company commander warned his platoon leaders of what he was going to do, and then asked for the artillery to drop proximity-fuzed shells squarely on top of his company. The first shell burst overhead within a minute. Two thousand 105-mm shells fell during the next eight minutes. [11] It was the heaviest concentration of artillery fire any of his men had experienced. They sat in the rear of their bunkers, staying well clear of the openings.

"You think we'll ever get out of this alive?" one of the men asked his bunker companion. At the time few men thought they would.

The artillery fire ended and a sudden quiet settled over the area. It remained quiet for twenty minutes or longer before more shells this time from the enemy fell in preparation for the next enemy attack. Again Company K waited until the Chinese were upon its position, then asked for another concentration. In the midst of the firing, Captain Brownell reported to Colonel Hanes.

"The position is completely covered with fire," he told his battalion commander. "Nothing could live above ground in this."

Men of Company K did little fighting themselves that night. They just sat in their earth-covered bunkers and waited for the enemy. When they heard enemy activity the men would notify Captain Brownell of the location, and the forward observer would shift the artillery's airbursts to that area. The 38th Field Artillery Battalion alone fired more than ten thousand rounds in support of the 3d Battalion during the night. It was a record for that artillery battalion. [12] Most of the shells fell between 2200 and 0400 the following morning (19 May) when the Chinese abruptly broke off their attack.

When daylight came the enemy had disappeared, this time taking all supplies and equipment from his side of the barbed wire. Emerging from their bunkers, men of Company K were in full possession of the hill. The left-wing company of the battalion (Company I) was also in its original position, but Colonel Hanes had withdrawn Company L a short distance during the night in order to refuse his right flank.

Across the Korean peninsula Hanes's battalion was the northernmost unit on the United Nations' line. Before the enemy attack, the United Nations' front lines had extended northeast from a point just north of Seoul. The east end of this line, turning on Company K's Hill 800, had fallen back during the three-day battle to a defense line that slanted southeast and became known as Modified Noname Line. Situation maps at X Corps and 2d Division headquarters, on the morning of 19 May, showed the 3d Battalion, 38th Infantry, holding the northern point of a deep bulge in the front lines.

The commanding generals of X Corps (General Almond) and the 2d Division (General Ruffner) met in mid-morning and decided it would be necessary to abandon this bulge and withdraw the 38th Infantry in order to straighten and consolidate the corps' line. [13]

When advised of this decision, Colonel Hanes protested. His defensive position, he argued, was still solid and could withstand any attack the enemy could throw against him. He preferred to stay where he was. General Ruffner ordered him to take up new positions to the south. [14]

Colonel Hanes passed the order down to his commanders who, like himself, hated to give up a position upon which they had worked hard. Hanes told his commanders to explain to all members of their companies that they were giving up their positions not because they had been beaten by the enemy, but because they had been ordered to withdraw. He ordered them to gather up all equipment and supplies in their company sectors, and march down by companies.

The regimental commander (Col. John C. Coughlin) was at the bottom of the hill when the 3d Battalion came down that afternoon. He watched the infantrymen march past. Their horseshoe packs were rolled tight, their heads were high, their shoulders were thrown back. They had proved they could beat an all-out enemy attack, and they looked proud and cocky and confident.


1. X Corps: Bulletin 8, Enemy Tactics, 16 May to 1 June 1951. 2. X Corps: Operations Order No. 20, 1 May 1951.

3. X Corps: Bulletin 8, cited above.

4. 2d Infantry Division: command report, May 1951.

5. Unless otherwise noted, the narrative of this combat action is based upon after-action interviews by the author with key participants. Soon after the action the author interviewed the commander of Company K (Capt. George R. Brownell) and five members of his company (SFC Francis R. Fahey, PFC Earl Hall, PFC Samuel E. Overlease, Cpl. Roy E. Bottlow, and PFC John N. Giellis). The author also discussed the action several times with the battalion commander (Lt.Col. Wallace M. Hanes) in Korea at the scene of the action and later after both had returned to the United States.

6. 2d Infantry Division, op. cit.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., narrative section; X Corps: Battle of the Soyang River, May 1951.

9. X Corps, after action reports: RCT operations of the 9th, 23d and 38th Infantry Regiments during the Battle of the Soyang River, 16 May to 2 June (Annex C).

10. 2d Infantry Division, op. cit., narrative section.

11. 2d Infantry Division: G-3 journal, 19 May 1951, message 10.

12. Headquarters 2d Division Artillery: operations report 265, records that the 38th FA Battalion fired 11,891 rounds of 105-mm between 1800 18 May and 1800 19 May.

13. X Corps: command report, May 1951 (Annex A-1); see record for 19 May.

14. Maj.Gen. Clark L. Ruffner, in an interview by the author, 13 July 1951.

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