Tank Action at Chongju
* Following the capture of Pyongyang, the enemy's capital city, in October
1950, the left-flank unit of Eighth Army hurried north to fulfill the long-range
mission of reaching the Yalu River and the end of the war. This force was built
around the British 27 Commonwealth Brigade which, at the time, consisted of a
battalion from the Royal Australian Regiment, a battalion from the Argyle and
Sutherland Regiment, and a battalion from the Middlesex Regiment. Since these
infantry battalions were without supporting arms or services of their own,
Eighth Army attached to the brigade U.S. artillery units, engineers, and the
89th Medium Tank Battalion. This combined force, commanded by Brig. B. A. Coad
of the British Army, was under the operational control of the 1st Cavalry
Division, but worked as a separate task force at a considerable distance from,
and without physical contact with, that division or other friendly units.
Starting early on the morning of 22 October l950, the task force resumed its
advance from Pyongyang north. Usually the infantrymen rode on the tanks or in
trucks near the end of the column that stretched for two and a half to three
miles. A platoon of tanks led. Nothing unusual happened until near noon of the
second day, when the task force engaged a large but disorganized enemy unit at
the town of Sukchon. There was no trouble the third day as the column crossed
the Chongchon River at Sinanju and Anju, but at Pakchon, to the north, the
bridge across the Taenyong River was destroyed, and there was a two-day delay
before the column headed west toward Chongju. North Koreans offered some
resistance to the river crossing at Pakchon and, more significant, there was a
sudden stiffening of enemy activity. As a result, the brigade commander
concluded that the days of "rolling" were over. When the advance began again at
0800 on 28 October it was with greater caution. Lead companies investigated all
likely enemy positions instead of leaving them to the follow-up units, and the
column therefore moved only fifteen miles during the day.
Again on the morning of 29 October the task force resumed its march westward.
The day's objective was Chongju. The Royal Australian battalion and Company D,
89th Medium Tank Battalion, led the column. The infantrymen dismounted
frequently to screen suspected high ground to the flanks, and the tank
battalion's liaison plane patrolled the area well ahead of the column. The
liaison pilot (Lt. James T. Dickson) stopped the column several times during the
morning while fighter planes made strikes against enemy tanks. About noon, as
the head of the column neared the top of a high hill, Lieutenant Dickson sent a
radio message to the tankers warning them of enemy tanks dug in and camouflaged
on each side of a narrow pass where the road cut through a low hill. This
position was at the top of the ridge ahead, beyond a narrow strip of paddy
fields and about two and a half miles away over a winding and narrow road.
Proceeding slowly, the leading platoon of tanks went down to the bottom of the
hill to the east edge of the valley. There Lieutenant Dickson dropped a message
advising them to hold up temporarily because of the enemy tanks.
After a delay of a few minutes, the tank battalion commander (Lt. Col.
Welborn G. Dolvin) and the Australian infantry battalion commander arrived at
the head of the column. While they were planning the next move, Lieutenant
Dickson spotted what he believed to be a camouflaged tank position on the
reverse slope of a low hill just beyond the next ridge ahead. The fighter planes
were busy with another target, so he radioed the tankers to ask them to place
indirect fire in the area. The platoon of tanks that was second in line, led by
Lt. Francis G. Nordstrom, opened fire from its position on top of the hill.
Nordstrom did not expect to hit anything but, after firing about ten rounds,
with Lieutenant Dickson adjusting the fire, smoke started to rise from the
camouflaged position. It was heavy, black smoke such as that made by burning
gasoline. Lieutenant Dickson called off the firing.
Meanwhile, the battalion commanders had worked out their plan of attack.
Since Lieutenant Nordstrom liked the point position where he could open the
action and control it, they decided to let his platoon lead the attack. No
infantrymen would accompany his tanks. The other two tank platoons, mounting
infantrymen, would follow in column. This force consisted of thirteen tanks and
about two companies of infantry.
Nordstrom's platoon was to head at full speed for the point where the road
went through the narrow pass-a distance of about two miles. This seemed to be
the most important ground since there was no apparent way to bypass it. The next
platoon of tanks, under Lt. Gerald L. Van Der Leest, would follow at a 500-yard
interval until it came within approximately a thousand yards of the pass, where
the infantrymen would dismount and move to seize the high ground paralleling the
road on the right side. The third platoon of tanks, under Lt. Alonzo Cook, with
a similar force was to seize the high ground left of the road. After discharging
the infantrymen, the tank platoon leaders were to maneuver to the left and right
of the road and support the advance of their respective infantry units.
The attack started with Lieutenant Nordstrom's tank in the lead. Within a
hundred yards of the road cut Nordstrom noticed enemy soldiers hurriedly
climbing the hill on the left of the road. He ordered his machine-gunner to open
fire on them. At about the same time he spotted an enemy machine-gun crew moving
its gun toward the pass, and took these men under fire with the 76-mm gun. The
first shell struck the ground next to the enemy crew, and the burst blew away
some foliage that was camouflaging an enemy tank dug in on the approach side of
the pass on the right side of the road. As soon as the camouflage was disturbed
the enemy tank fired one round. The tracer passed between Nordstrom's head and the open
hatch cover. In these circumstances he did not take time to give fire orders; he
just called for armor-piercing shells and the gunner fired, hitting the front of
the enemy tank from a distance of less than a hundred yards. The gunner
continued firing armor-piercing shells and the third round caused a great
explosion. Ammunition and gasoline began to burn simultaneously. Black smoke
drifted east and north across the high ground on the right side of the pass,
effectively screening that area. Lieutenant Nordstrom ordered the commander of
the last tank in his platoon column (Sgt. William J. Morrison, Jr.) to fire into
the smoke with both machine guns and cannon. At the same time other tank crews
observed other North Koreans left of the pass and directed their guns against
Lieutenant Nordstrom did not move on into the pass itself because by this
time it seemed to him that the enemy would have at least one antitank gun zeroed
in to fire there and could thus block the pass. He remained where he was-about
seventy yards from the pass with the other tanks lined up behind his. Fire on
the enemy to the left of the road tore camouflage from a second enemy tank dug
in on the left of the pass in a position similar to that of the tank already
destroyed. Nordstrom's gunner, firing without orders, destroyed this tank with
the second round. There was another violent explosion, which blew part of the
enemy tank's turret fifty feet into the air.
While this fire fight was going on at the head of the column, the Australian
infantrymen were attacking along the ridges on each side of the road. There was
considerable firing in both areas. Lieutenant Cook's tanks, on the left side of
the road, had been able to follow the infantrymen onto the hill and provide
In the midst of the fighting at the head of the column, the guns in the two
leading tanks jammed because of faulty rounds. At that time a shell came in
toward Nordstrom's tank from the left front. Nordstrom instructed his platoon
sergeant (MSgt. Jasper W. Lee) to fire in the general direction of the enemy gun
until he and the tank behind him could clear their guns. This was done within a
few minutes, and Nordstrom, having the best field of fire, started placing
armor-piercing rounds at five-yard intervals along the top of the ridge to his
left, firing on the only logical positions in that area, since he could see no
enemy vehicles. Following the sixth round there was another flash and explosion
that set fire to nearby bushes and trees.
The next enemy fire came a few minutes later-another round from a
selfpropelled gun. It appeared to have come from the right-front. It cut across
Lieutenant Nordstrom's tank between the caliber .50 machine gun and the radio
antenna about a foot above the turret, and then hit one of the tanks in
Lieutenant Cook's platoon, seriously injuring four men. Because of the smoke it
was impossible to pinpoint the enemy, so Nordstrom commenced firing
armor-piercing shells into the smoke, aiming along the top of the ridge on the
right side of the road. He hoped that the enemy gunners would believe that their
position had been detected, and move so that he could discover the movement.
Another green tracer passed his tank, this time a little farther to the right.
Nordstrom increased his own rate of fire and ordered three other tank crews to
fire into the same area. There was no further response from the enemy gun and,
to conserve ammunition which was then running low, Nordstrom soon stopped
firing. It was suddenly quiet again except along the ridgelines paralleling the
road where Australian infantrymen and the other two tank platoons were pressing
their attack. No action was apparent to the direct front.
At the rear of the column, Lieutenant Cook had gone to his damaged tank,
climbed in and, sighting with a pencil along the bottom of the penetration,
determined the approximate position of the enemy gun. He radioed this
information to Nordstrom, who resumed firing with three tanks along the top of
the ridge on the right side of the road. Again he failed to hit anything. For
lack of a better target he then decided to put a few rounds through the smoke
near the first enemy tank destroyed. He thought the two rounds might possibly
have come from this tank even though the fire and explosions made this very
improbable. The third round caused another explosion and gasoline fire. With
this explosion most enemy action ended and only the sound of occasional
small-arms fire remained.
Shortly thereafter both Australian units reported their objectives secured.
Since it was now late in the afternoon, the British commander ordered the force
to form a defensive position for the night. It was a U-shaped perimeter with a
platoon of tanks and an infantry company along the ridgeline on each side of the
road, and Lieutenant Nordstrom's tanks between them guarding the road.
When the smoke cleared from the road cut there was one self-propelled gun
that had not been there when the action commenced. It appeared that it had been
left to guard the west end of the road cut and its crew, becoming impatient when
no tanks came through the pass, had moved it up beside the burning tank on the
right side of the road, using the smoke from this and the other burning tanks as
At 2100 that night enemy infantrymen launched an attack that appeared to be
aimed at the destruction of the tanks. Lieutenant Nordstrom's 1st Platoon tanks,
which were positioned near the road about a hundred yards east of the pass, were
under attack for an hour with so many North Koreans scattered through the area
that the tankers turned on the headlights in order to locate the enemy. The
Americans used grenades and pistols as well as the tanks' machine guns.
Gradually the action stopped, and it was quiet for the rest of the night. When
morning came there were 25 to 30 bodies around the 1st Platoon's tanks, some
within a few feet of the vehicles. At 1000 the column got under way again and
reached Chongju that afternoon. This was the objective, and here the task force
This narrative illustrates the employment of a tank battalion as part of a
task force equal in size to a reinforced regimental combat team. The task force
successfully completed its exploitation mission by taking its objective,
The action on 29 October brings out several techniques. The pilot of the
liaison plane did more than see and tell. He also thought and acted. The task
force's tanks gained a great advantage through reconnaissance by combining fire
with aggressive action. In almost every instance the tanks located the enemy by
observing the results of their friendly fire, rather than by waiting for the
enemy to give away his location by drawing his fire.
The aggressive double envelopment against the enemy positioned around the
defile near Chongju brought to bear a large part of the task force strength.
Almost simultaneously the enemy was hit from three different directions. This
action stands out against the background of other regimental attacks in Korea
wherein only a few individuals have led the assault. Deployment for an attack
takes time and coordination, and frequently it is too hurried to be well
accomplished. Horatius held the bridge because his attackers could not deploy to
hit him from all sides.
The use of the tanks to place indirect fire on an area target is very
questionable-if artillery support is available. The target as described seems a
more logical one for artillery. A good guide to follow in this or similar
situations is this: Other things being equal, use supporting fire from the
weapon most easily resupplied with ammunition.
No reason is given to account for the halt of the task force on the night of
29 October. Men tire and machines exhaust fuel, but a pursuit must be pressed
night and day. The enemy must be denied all chances to rally, reconstitute his
lines, or recover his balance.
 This account is based upon an interview with Lt. Francis G. Nordstrom,
and 25th Infantry Division war diaries unit reports: 89th Medium Tank Battalion,