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The Foundation of Freedom is the Courage of Ordinary People

History  Bert '53  On Line

We was rotten 'fore we started-we was never disciplined;
We made it out a favour if an order was obeyed.
Yes, every little drummer 'ad 'is rights an' wrongs to mind,
So we had to pay for teachin'-an' we paid!


South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu

Chapter One

Withdrawal Action

Korean summers are wet. It was raining and unseasonably cold during the dark early morning hours of 5 July 1950 when the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry, reached Pyongtaek. Approximately forty miles south of Seoul, the village was near the west coast of Korea on the main road and railroad between the capital city and Taejon, Taegu, and Pusan to the south. Pyongtaek was a shabby huddle of colorless huts lining narrow, dirt streets.

The infantrymen stood quietly in the steady rain, waiting for daylight. They grumbled about the weather but, in the sudden shift from garrison duties in Japan, few appeared to be concerned about the possibility of combat in Korea. None expected to stay there long. High-ranking officers and riflemen alike shared the belief that a few American soldiers would restore order within a few weeks. [1] (Notes are at the end of chapters.)

"As soon as those North Koreans see an American uniform over here," soldiers boasted to one another, "they'll run like hell." American soldiers later lost this cocky attitude when the North Koreans overran their first defensive positions. Early overconfidence changed suddenly to surprise, then to dismay, and finally to the grim realization that, of the two armies, the North Korean force was superior in size, equipment, training, and fighting ability.

As part of the 24th Infantry Division, the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry, was one of several unprepared American battalions rushed from Japan to help halt the North Korean invasion of the southern end of the Korean peninsula. The change from garrison to combat duties had come abruptly on the morning of 1 July 1950 when the division commander (Maj. Gen. William F. Dean) called the commander of the 34th Infantry and alerted the entire regiment for immediate movement to Korea. At the time the regiment consisted of only two under-strength battalions. Twenty-four hours later they sailed from Sasebo, Kyushu, arriving in Pusan that evening. After spending two days checking equipment, organizing supplies, and arranging for transportation north, the regiment, crowded onto five South Korean-operated trains, had started north on the afternoon of 4 July. [2]

The 34th Infantry had not been the first unit of the United States Army to reach Korea. Part of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry (24th Division), had been airlifted from Japan on the morning of 1 July. After landing at Pusan it had boarded trains immediately, and rushed northward. The battalion commander (Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith) had the mission of setting up roadblocks to halt the North Korean southward thrust. Part of this force had gone to Pyongtaek and part to Ansong, a village ten miles east of Pyongtaek. [3] Without making contact with North Koreans, the two task forces from Colonel Smith's battalion had reached their assigned areas during the morning of 3 July. A field artillery battery arrived at Pyongtaek the next day, and that evening, 4 July, Smith's entire force had moved twelve miles north of Pyongtaek where it set up another blocking position just north of Osan. [4]

About the same time that Smith's battalion had started for Osan, the two battalions of the 34th Infantry, heading north, had passed through Taejon. One battalion was to reestablish the blocking position at Ansong; the 1st Battalion was going to Pyongtaek with a similar mission. A new commander-an experienced combat officer-had joined the 1st Battalion as the trains moved through Taejon. He told his company commanders that North Korean soldiers were reported to be farther north but that they were poorly trained, that only half of them had weapons, and that there would be no difficulty in stopping them. Junior officers had assured their men that after a brief police action all would be back in Sasebo. Officers of the 34th Infantry knew that the 21st was ahead of the 34th in a screening position. Overconfidence was the prevailing note.

This was the background and the setting for the rainy morning when the 1st Battalion-and especially Company A, with which this account is mainly concerned-waited in the muddy streets of Pyongtaek. When daylight came, the companies marched north to the hills upon which they were to set up their blocking positions.

A small river flowed along the north side of Pyongtaek. Two miles north of the bridge that carried the main highway across the river there were two grass-covered hills separated by a strip of rice paddies three quarters of a mile wide. The railroad and narrow dirt road, both on eight- to ten-foot-high embankments, ran through the neatly patterned fields. The battalion commander stationed Company B on the east side of the road, Company A on the west, leaving Company C in reserve positions in the rear. Once on the hill, the men dropped their packs and began digging into the coarse red earth to prepare defensive positions for an enemy attack few of them expected. In Company A's sector the positions consisted of two-man foxholes dug across the north side of the hill, across the rice paddies to the railroad embankment, and beyond that to the road. Company A (Capt. Leroy Osburn) consisted of about l40 men and officers at the time. [5] With two men in each position, the holes were so far apart that the men had to shout to one another. Each man was equipped with either an M-1 rifle or a carbine for which he carried between eighty and one hundred rounds of ammunition. The Weapons Platoon had three 60-mm mortars. There were also three light machine guns-one in each of the rifle platoons-and four boxes of ammunition for each machine gun. Each platoon had one BAR and two hundred rounds of ammunition for it. There were no grenades nor was there any ammunition for the recoilless rifles. [6]

To the north of Osan, meanwhile, Colonel Smith's 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, and an attached battery of artillery completed the occupation of the high ground north of the village by daylight on 5 July. Smith had orders to hold in place to gain time, even though his forces might become surrounded. [7] That same morning, at 0745, enemy tanks approached from the north. The Americans opened fire with artillery and then with bazookas, but the tanks rammed through the infantry positions and on south past the artillery, after losing only 4 of 33 tanks. Enemy infantrymen followed later, engaged Colonel Smith's force and, after a four-hour battle, almost surrounded it. About 1400, Colonel Smith ordered his men to leave the position and withdraw toward Ansong. Smith's force carried out as many wounded as possible, but abandoned its equipment and dead. The survivors, traveling on foot in small groups or on the few artillery trucks, headed southwest toward Ansong. This was the result of the first engagement between North Korean and American soldiers.

Brig. Gen. George B. Barth (commander of 24h Division Artillery and General Dean's representative in the forward area) was at Osan with the battery of artillery when the first "Fire mission!" was relayed to the battery position. When it became apparent that neither the infantry nor the artillery could stop the tanks, General Barth had gone back to Pyongtaek to alert the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry, which was still digging in.

The 1st Battalion's command post was in one of the dirty buildings on the road north of Pyongtaek. It was apparent to General Barth, by the time he arrived there, that enemy tanks would break through the Osan position. He therefore warned the 1st Battalion commandeer and instructed him t dispatch a patrol northward to make contact with the enemy column. Barth's instructions to the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry, differed from those he had given to Colonel Smith at Osan. Since General Barth now believed the Pyongtaek force could hold out only a short time if encircled, as apparently was happening to the battalion at Osan, he ordered the battalion at Pyongtaek to hold only until the enemy threatened to envelop the position, and then to delay in successive rearward positions to gain time. [9]

A rifle platoon from the 34th Infantry went north to make contact with the enemy tanks. About halfway between Pyongtaek and Osan the platoon met several enemy tanks and fired upon them without effect. The tanks made no effort to advance. The opposing forces settled down to observing each other. [10]

While these events were taking place only a few miles away, men of Company A at Pyongtaek finished digging their defensive positions or sat quietly in the cold rain. In spite of the fact that a column of enemy tanks had overrun the Osan position and was then not more than six miles from Pyongtaek, the infantrymen did not know about it. They continued to exchange rumors and speculations. One of the platoon leaders called his men together later that afternoon to put an end to the growing anxiety over the possibility of combat. "You've been told repeatedly," he explained, "that this is a police action, and that is exactly what it is going to be." He assured them that the rumors of a large enemy force in the area were false, and that they would be back in Sasebo within a few weeks. He directed them to put out only the normal guard for the night. Later that evening, however, Captain Osburn told some of the men that four Americans who had driven north of Osan toward Suwon had failed to return, and that he had heard an estimate that 12,000 North Koreans were in the area to the north. He considered an attack possible but not probable.

It rained steadily all night. Beyond the fact that tanks had penetrated the Osan position, no more information about the fight there came through until nearly midnight, when five survivors from Osan arrived at the 1st Battalion command post with a detailed account of that action. The 1st Battalion commander passed word of the Osan defeat along to his company commanders, warning them to be on the lookout for stragglers from the 21st Infantry. Apparently no one passed the information on down to the platoons. The battalion commander then sent a patrol from Company C to blow up a small bridge about 600 yards north of his two forward companies. It was about 0300 when this was done. Startled by the explosions, infantrymen of Company A showed some concern until they learned the cause. Then they settled back to wait for daylight, or to sleep if possible. At 0430 they began to stir again. SFC Roy E. Collins, a platoon sergeant, walked along the row of foxholes in the center of the company position. One of a group of combat-experienced men recently transferred from another division, he had joined Company A only the day before. He advised his men to get up and break out their C rations and eat while they had a chance. The evening before, Collins had stationed a two-man listening post in the rice paddies about 75 yards north of the company. He called down and told them to come back to the company perimeter. It was only a few minutes after daylight.

The battalion commander walked down the road between Companies A and B, stopping to talk with a group of 17 men manning a roadblock on Company A's side of the road. Lt. Herman L. Driskell was in charge of the group, which consisted of an eight-man machine-gun squad from his 1st Platoon, and three 2.36-inch bazooka teams from the Weapons Platoon. [11]

After telling Driskell to get his men down in their holes because he planned to register the 4.2-inch mortars, the battalion commander walked west across the soggy rice paddies toward Company A's command post on top of the hill. Lieutenant Driskell's men did not, however, get into their holes-the holes were full of water. A Weapons Platoon sergeant, SFC Zack C. Williams, and PFC James 0. Hite, were sitting near one hole. "I sure would hate to have to get in that hole," Hite said. In a few minutes they heard mortar shells overhead, but the shell bursts were lost in the morning fog and rain. In the cold rain, hunched under their ponchos, the men sat beside their holes eating their breakfast ration.

Up on the hill, Sergeant Collins was eating a can of beans. He had eaten about half of it when he heard the sound of engines running. Through the fog he saw the faint outline of several tanks that had stopped just beyond the bridge that the detail from Company C destroyed two hours earlier. North Korean soldiers from the lead tank got out and walked up to inspect the bridge site. At the same time, through binoculars, Collins could see two columns of infantrymen moving beyond the tanks, around both ends of the bridge, and out across the rice paddies. He yelled back to his platoon leader (Lt. Robert R. Ridley), "Sir, we got company." Lieutenant Ridley, having been warned that part of the 21st Infantry might be withdrawing down this road, said it was probably part of that unit. "Well," said Collins, "these people have tanks and I know the 21st hasn't any." The battalion commander arrived at Captain Osburn's command post just in time to see the column of enemy infantrymen appear. Deciding it was made up of men from the 21st Infantry, the two commanders watched it for several minutes before realizing it was too large to be friendly troops. They could see a battalion-size group already, and others were still coming in a column of fours. [12] At once, the battalion commander called for mortar fire. When the first round landed, the enemy spread out across the rice paddies on both sides of the road but continued to advance. By this time Collins could count thirteen tanks from the blown bridge north to the point where the column disappeared in the early morning fog.

Within a few minutes the men from the enemy's lead tank returned to their vehicle, got in, closed the turret, and then swung the tube until it pointed directly toward Company A.

"Get down!" Sergeant Collins yelled to his men. "Here it comes!"

The first shell exploded just above the row of foxholes, spattering dirt over the center platoon. The men slid into their holes. Collins and two other combat veterans of World War II began shouting to their men to commence firing. Response was slow although the Americans could see the North Korean infantrymen advancing steadily, spreading out across the flat ground in front of the hill. In the same hole with Sergeant Collins were two riflemen. He poked them. "Come on," he said. "You've got an M1. Get firing."

After watching the enemy attack for a few minutes, the battalion commander told Captain Osburn to withdraw Company A, and then left the hill, walking back toward his command post, which he planned to move south.

Out in front of the company hill, the two men at the listening post, after gathering up their wet equipment, had been just ready to leave when the first enemy shell landed. They jumped back into their hole. After a short time one of them jumped out and ran back under fire. The other, who stayed there, was not seen again.

The entire 1st Platoon was also in the flat rice paddies. Lieutenant Driskell's seventeen men from the 1st and the Weapons Platoons who were between the railroad and road could hear some of the activity but they could not see the enemy because of the high embankments on both sides. Private Hite was still sitting by his water-filled hole when the first enemy shell exploded up on the hill. He thought a 4.2-inch mortar shell had fallen short. Within a minute or two another round landed near Osburn's command post on top of the hill. Private Hite watched as the smoke drifted away.

"Must be another short round," he remarked to Sergeant Williams.

"It's not short," said Williams, a combat-experienced soldier. "It's an enemy shell."

Hite slid into his foxhole, making a dull splash like a frog diving into a pond. Williams followed. The two men sat there, up to their necks in cold, stagnant water.

It was fully fifteen minutes before the two Company A platoons up on the hill had built up an appreciable volume of fire, and then less than half of the men were firing their weapons. The squad and platoon leaders did most of the firing. Many of the riflemen appeared stunned and unwilling to believe that enemy soldiers were firing at them.

About fifty rounds fell in the battalion area within the fifteen minutes following the first shell-burst in Company A's sector. Meanwhile, enemy troops were appearing in numbers that looked overwhelmingly large to the American soldiers. "It looked like the entire city of New York moving against two little under-strength companies," said one of the men. Another large group of North Korean soldiers gathered around the tanks now lined up bumper to bumper on the road. It was the best target Sergeant Collins had ever seen. He fretted because he had no ammunition for the recoilless rifle. Neither could he get mortar fire because the second enemy tank's shell had exploded near the 4.2-inch mortar observer who, although not wounded, had suffered severely from shock. In the confusion no one else attempted to direct the mortars. Within thirty minutes after the action began, the leading North Korean foot soldiers had moved so close that Company A men could see them load and reload their rifles.

About the same time, Company B, under the same attack, began moving off of its hill on the opposite side of the road. Within another minute or two Captain Osburn called down to tell his men to prepare to withdraw, "but we'll have to cover Baker Company first."

Company A, however, had no effective fire power and spent no time covering the movement of the other company. Most of the Weapons Platoon, located on the south side of the hill, left immediately, walking down to a cluster of about fifteen straw-topped houses at the south edge of the hill. The two rifle platoons on the hill began to move out soon after Captain Osburn gave the alert order. The movement was orderly at the beginning although few of the men carried their field packs with them and others walked away leaving ammunition and even their weapons. However, just as the last two squads of this group reached a small ridge on the east side of the main hill, an enemy machine gun suddenly fired into the group. The men took off in panic. Captain Osburn and several of his platoon leaders were near the cluster of houses behind the hill reforming the company for the march back to Pyongtaek. But when the panicked men raced past, fear spread quickly and others also began running. The officers called to them but few of the men stopped. Gathering as many members of his company as he could, Osburn sent them back toward the village with one of his officers.

By this time the Weapons Platoon and most of the 2d and 3d Platoons had succeeded in vacating their positions. As they left, members of these units had called down telling the 1st Platoon to withdraw from its position blocking the road. Strung across the flat paddies, the 1st Platoon was more exposed to enemy fire. Four of its men started running back and one, hit by rifle fire, fell. After seeing that, most of the others were apparently too frightened to leave their holes.

As it happened, Lieutenant Driskell's seventeen men who were between the railroad and road embankments were unable to see the rest of their company. Since they had not heard the shouted order they were unaware that an order to withdraw had been given. They had, however, watched the fire fight between the North Koreans and Company B, and had seen Company B leave. Lieutenant Driskell and Sergeant Williams decided they would hold their ground until they received orders. Twenty or thirty minutes passed. As soon as the bulk of the two companies had withdrawn, the enemy fire stopped, and all became quiet again. Driskell and his seventeen men were still in place when the North Koreans climbed the hill to take over the positions vacated by Company B. This roused their anxiety.

"What do you think we should do now?" Driskell asked.

"Well, sir," said Sergeant Williams, "I don't know what you're going to do, but I'd like to get the hell out of here."

Driskell then sent a runner to see if the rest of the company was still in position. When the runner returned to say he could see no one on the hill, the men started back using the railroad embankment for protection. Nine members of this group were from Lieutenant Driskell's 1st Platoon; the other eight were with Sergeant Williams from the Weapons Platoon. A few of Lieutenant Driskell's men had already left but about twenty, afraid to move across the flat paddies, had stayed behind. At the time, however, Driskell did not know what had happened to the rest of his platoon so, after he had walked back to the vicinity of the group of houses behind the hill, he stopped at one of the rice-paddy trails to decide which way to go to locate his missing men. Just then someone walked past and told him that some of his men, including several who were wounded, were near the base of the hill. With one other man, Driskell went off to look for them.

By the time the panicked riflemen of Company A had run the mile or two back to Pyongtaek they had overcome much of their initial fear. They gathered along the muddy main street of the village and stood there in the rain, waiting. When Captain Osburn arrived he immediately began assembling and reorganizing his company for the march south. Meanwhile, two Company C men were waiting to dynamite the bridge at the north edge of the village. One of the officers found a jeep and trailer that had been abandoned on a side street. He and several of his men succeeded in starting it and, although it did not run well and had apparently been abandoned for that reason, they decided it would do for hauling the company's heavy equipment that was left. By 0930 they piled all extra equipment, plus the machine guns, mortars, bazookas, BARs, and extra ammunition in the trailer. About the same time, several men noticed what appeared to be two wounded men trying to make their way along the road into Pyongtaek. It was still raining so hard that it was difficult to distinguish details. Pvt. Thomas A. Cammarano and another man volunteered to take the jeep and go after them. They pulled a BAR from the weapons in the trailer, inserted a magazine of ammunition, and drove the jeep north across the bridge, not realizing that the road was so narrow it would have been difficult to turn the vehicle around even if the trailer had not been attached.

During the period when the company was assembling and waiting in Pyongtaek, Sergeant Collins, the platoon sergeant who had joined the company the day before, decided to find out why his platoon had failed to fire effectively against the enemy. Of 31 members of his platoon, l2 complained that their rifles would not fire. Collins checked them and found the rifles were either broken, dirty, or had been assembled incorrectly. He sorted out the defective weapons and dropped them in a nearby well.

Two other incidents now occurred that had an unfavorable effect on morale. The second shell fired by the North Koreans that morning had landed near Captain Osburn's command post where the observer for his 4.2-inch mortars was standing. The observer reached Pyongtaek while the men were waiting for Cammarano and his companion to return with the jeep. Suffering severely from shock, the mortar observer could not talk coherently and walked as if he were drunk. His eyes showed white, and he stared wildly, moaning, "Rain, rain, rain," over and over again. About the same time, a member of the 1st Platoon joined the group and claimed that he had been with Lieutenant Driskell after he walked toward the cluster of houses searching for wounded men of his platoon. Lieutenant Driskell with four men had been suddenly surrounded by a group of North Korean soldiers. They tried to surrender, according to this man, but one of the North Korean soldiers walked up to the lieutenant, shot him, and then killed the other three men. The narrator had escaped.

Of the approximately 140 men who had been in position at daybreak that morning, only a few more than 100 were now assembled in Pyongtaek. In addition to the 4 men just reported killed, there were about 30 others who were missing. The first sergeant with 8 men had followed a separate route after leaving the hill that morning and did not rejoin the company until several days later. One man failed to return after having walked down to a stream just after daylight to refill several canteens. There were also the others who had been either afraid or unable to leave their foxholes to move back with the rest of the company. This group included the man from the listening post and about twenty members of the 1st Platoon who had stayed in their holes in the rice paddies. [13]

Ten or fifteen minutes went by after Cammarano and his companion drove off in the jeep. Through the heavy rain and fog neither the jeep nor the wounded men were visible now. Suddenly there was the sound of rifle fire in the village and Captain Osburn, assuming that the two men (together with the vehicle and all company crew-served weapons) were also lost, gave the word to move out. Forming the remainder of his company into two single-file columns, one on each side of the street, he started south. The men had scarcely reached the south edge of the village when they heard the explosion as the Company C men destroyed the bridge. One fourth of the company and most of its equipment and supplies were missing as the men set off on their forced march.

A few scattered artillery shells followed the columns. None came close, but they kept the men moving fast. "This was one time," said one of the sergeants later, "when we didn't have to kick the men to get them to move. They kept going at a steady slow run." Captain Osburn did not try to follow the high ground but, when he could, he kept off the road and walked across rice paddies. There were several wounded men but the 4.2inch mortar observer was the only one in the group unable to walk by himself. The others took turns supporting and helping him. His eyes still showed white and he kept moaning "rain" and the men near him wished he would shut up.

Occasionally the men made wise cracks about the police action: "I wonder when they're going to give me my police badge," or "Damned if these cops here don't use some big guns." But mostly they were quiet and just kept moving.

The rain continued hard until about noon. Then it began to get hot-a moist, sultry heat. The clouds hung low on the mountains. Nevertheless, Captain Osburn kept up a steady pace. Before leaving Pyongtaek he had warned that the column would not stop and any men who fell out would be left behind The men were thirst but few of them had canteens. They drank from the ditches along the roads, of from the rice paddies.

By noon the column had outrun the enemy fire, and Osburn halted it for a ten-minute rest. Thereafter he set a slower pace, usually following the road, and took a ten-minute break each hour. The column had no communication with any other part of the 24th Division, since the company radios had been abandoned that morning. Nor did anyone know of a plan except to go south. There was no longer any serious talk of a police action-by this time the soldiers expected to go straight to Pusan and back to Japan. The Company A men frequently saw pieces of equipment along the road, and from this they assumed the rest of the battalion was on the same road ahead of them. Later they began to overtake stragglers from other companies. By the middle of the day the men were hungry.

By mid-afternoon wet shoes caused serious foot trouble. Some of the men took off their shoes and carried them for a while, or threw them away. It was easier walking barefoot in the mud. Other equipment was strewn along the road-discarded ponchos, steel helmets, ammunition belts, and even rifles that men of the battalion had dropped. As the afternoon wore on the two columns of Company A men lengthened, the distance between the men increasing. They kept trading places in the line and took turns helping the mortar observer. At breaks, Captain Osburn reminded them to stay on or near the road and, if they were scattered by a sudden attack, to keep moving individually.

Late that afternoon, during a ten-minute rest period, an American plane flew low over the men who were lying along the road near a few strawroofed houses. The pilot suddenly dipped into the column and opened fire with his caliber .50 machine guns. Only one man was hit-a South Korean soldier. The bullet struck him in the cheeks, tearing away his lower jaw and part of his face. This incident further demoralized the men. When a South Korean truck came by, they put the wounded Korean on it.

Early that evening Captain Osburn, at the head of his company, reached the town of Chonan and there found other elements of the 1st Battalion which had arrived earlier. It was a shabby-looking outfit. Many men were asleep on the floor of an old sawmill and others were scattered throughout the town in buildings or along the streets, sitting or sleeping. Captain Osburn immediately set out to locate officers of the other units to learn what he could of the situation. The remainder of Company A was strung out for a mile and a half or two miles to the north. As the men reached the town they lay down to rest. There was no organization-they were just a group of tired, disheartened men. The last men in the column did not straggle in until two hours later. By then Captain Osburn had borrowed three trucks from the South Korean Army with which he moved his company to defensive positions a few miles south of Chonan. General Barth had selected these positions after leaving the 1st Battalion's command post at Pyongtaek early that morning. He had gone to Chonan to brief the regimental commander of the 34th Infantry and then south to select terrain from which the 24th Division could stage a series of delaying actions. He returned to Chonan late in the afternoon to learn that the 1st Battalion had withdrawn the entire distance to Chonan, instead of defending the first available position south of Pyongtaek from which it could physically block the enemy tank column. Believing that the North Koreans were in pursuit, he directed the 1st Battalion to occupy the next defensive position, which happened to be about two miles south of Chonan. [14]

It was dark by the time Company A began to dig in at this position. The company, of course, had no entrenching tools but a few of the men scraped out shallow holes. Most of them just lay down and went to sleep. The next morning (7 July) Captain Osburn got the men up and ordered them to go on digging foxholes. Groups of men went off to nearby villages looking for spades or shovels. They also got a small supply of food from the Koreans, many of whom were abandoning their homes and fleeing south. When they had finished digging their positions, Osburn's men sat barefoot in the rain, nursing their feet. Hopefully, they discussed a new rumor: they were going to a railway station south of their present location, then by train to Pusan, and from there to Japan. There was some argument about the location of the railway station, but most of the men were agreed that they were returning to Japan. The rumor pleased everyone. Nothing of importance happened to Company A during the day, although the other battalion of the 34th Infantry, after having moved from Ansong to Chonan on the previous evening, was engaged in heavy fighting just north of Chonan.

Full rations were available on the morning of 8 July, thus relieving one kind of discomfort. The fighting for Chonan continued and, by midmorning, the remaining American forces began to withdraw and abandon the town. [15] In Company A's area, the day was quiet until early afternoon, when enemy artillery rounds suddenly exploded in the battalion's area. Within a few minutes after the first shell landed, Captain Osburn gave the order to pull out. The entire battalion moved, part of it on three trucks still in its possession, but Company A marched, Captain Osburn in the lead and again setting a fast pace. This time he kept his company together. About the middle of the night the company stopped and took up positions on a hill adjoining the road, staying there until the first signs of daylight when Osburn roused his men and resumed the march. After several hours the three trucks returned and began shuttling the remainder of the battalion to new positions just north of the Kum River and the town of Konju. There the entire battalion formed a perimeter in defensive positions-the best they had constructed since coming to Korea.

By the time the trenches and holes were dug in, it was mid-afternoon of 9 July. Company A got an issue of rations and, for the first time, one of ammunition. The Weapons Platoon received one 60-mm mortar. This preparation for combat weakened the rumor about returning to Japan. Instead, Captain Osburn and his officers told the men or another infantry division then en route from Japan. The sky was clear, the sun hot and, for the first time in several days, the men had dry clothing. The battalion remained in the area without incident until 12 July. That morning it registered the 81-mm and the 4.2-inch mortars and issued more ammunition to the men. It had the first friendly mortar fire and the first abundant supply of ammunition since early morning of 6 July. That afternoon, at 1700, an enemy shell landed in the area. Others followed and within a few minutes North Korean soldiers appeared in large numbers. Instead of hitting frontally, the leading enemy soldiers circled wide and attacked the 1st Platoon, which was outposting a high point of the hill, on the right flank. After suffering heavy losses on the morning of 6 July, only ten men remained in that platoon. Five of these were killed at the very outset of the fighting on the 12th when the North Koreans overran their positions and shot them in their holes. The five remaining men from the 1st Platoon escaped and joined one of the others.

The sudden collapse of the outpost placed the enemy directly to the right and above the 2d Platoon. SFC Elvin E. Knight, platoon guide, turning to determine the source and cause of the firing, noticed a flag up where the 1st Platoon had been.

"What the hell's that flag doing up here?" he asked. Suddenly he yelled, "That's a North Korean flag!"

About twenty enemy soldiers appeared on the high knob. They began firing down upon the 2d Platoon and several of them started sliding down the steep hill toward the men, shouting and firing as they came. The flank attack completely surprised the men of the 2d Platoon, whose positions, selected for firing toward the front, were unsuitable for firing at the high ground on the right. Almost immediately someone began shouting, "Let's get the hell out of here!" and the men started back individually or in small groups. They did, however, take their weapons and several of the wounded. The rest of the company-those in the 3d and Weapons Platoons-held their ground and rapidly increased their rate of fire as soon as they saw what had happened to the other two platoons. Most of the 2d Platoon moved back several hundred yards, where the other two platoons were located, and resumed fighting. Until dark there was a heavy volume of fire and after that occasional exchanges with small arms until about 0230 on 13 July when, under orders, Company A abandoned its hill and moved very quietly back, following a river south for a short distance until it was beyond range of North Koreans' rifles.

After daylight Osburn and his men crossed the long bridge over the Kum River. For another day Company A and the rest of the battalion stayed there while North Koreans assembled on the north bank of the river. Then, on 14 July, one group of North Koreans crossed the Kum River and successfully attacked a battery of artillery in that vicinity. The entire battalion moved out by truck on the 15th and fell back to the city of Taejon, closing there late in the afternoon. Other units of the 24th Division, already assembled, were preparing to defend the town. The 1st Battalion took up defensive positions on the northeast side of Taejon, on high ground between the main part of the town and the airstrip used by the division liaison planes. [16] American forces destroyed the bridge over the Kum River before withdrawing to Taejon, but the North Koreans succeeded in crossing and followed in close pursuit.

After the next heavy enemy attack Company A, and the remainder of the entire 24th Division, fell back again, this time to the Pusan perimeter. The attack began soon after daybreak on the morning of 20 July. In Company A's area, Sergeant Williams and three other members of the Weapons Platoon were among the first to discover it. They were manning bazookas with the mission of blocking the main road leading from the north into Taejon. As daylight increased on the morning of 20 July Williams noticed movement on hills about three hundred yards to the right. He watched as three skirmish lines of North Koreans came over the hilltop. Other enemy soldiers appeared on hills to the left of the road. After watching for several minutes, he raced back about five hundred yards to a Korean house in which the battalion's command post was located. The other three men followed.

There was a high, mud wall around the command post. Williams ran through the gate and into the house, where he hurriedly described the enemy force, claiming that North Koreans were "just boiling over the hill!"

"Well, Sergeant," answered the battalion commander, "you're a little excited, aren't you? "

"Yes, sir, I am," said Williams. "And if you'd seen what I just saw, you'd be excited too."

Just as the two men went through the gate to look, several flares appeared to the north. Suddenly the enemy began firing tank guns, artillery, mortars, and machine guns in a pattern that covered the entire city, including the immediate area of the 1st Battalion's headquarters.

"I guess we'd better get out of here," said the commander, and turned back into the building.

It was only a few minutes after dawn. Soon the entire battalion was moving south again. Captain Osburn kept Company A together as a unit-at the beginning at least-but many men from the battalion were on their own, units were mixed together, and organization was lost in the confusion. Some men threw away their shoes again and walked barefoot. Most of them had trouble finding food, and for all of them it was a disheartening repetition of their first contact with the North Korean Army. They did not go back to Japan. They had seen only the beginning of fighting on the Korean peninsula. But when they again came to a halt beyond the Naktong River, and turned to make another defensive stand against the North Koreans, they had ended the first phase of the Korean conflict. Other United Nations troops had arrived in Korea. The period of withdrawal was over. Members of Company A and the rest of the 34th Infantry had lost their overconfidence and had gained battle experience. They soon settled down to a grim defense of the Pusan perimeter.


Before 25 June 1950 Korea was of little import to the American soldiers in Japan and to the citizens of our nation. Defense of the United Nations' principles was given lip service but few among us thought of action. Korea was not in the public mind.

The North Korean Army marched. Our leaders met. And Company A with its peacetime thoughts, unprepared both psychologically and militarily, found itself faced with the stark reality of war. With this deal, victory could not be in the cards for Company A nor for any other company so prepared and so committed. We should take advantage of their mistakes -all too evident. We invite attention to them with great humility, for who among us must not say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I"?

What were some of the specific causes that contributed to the debacle experienced by Company A? Faulty orientation, poor intelligence, and a lack of communications are evident. The exact level at which orientation and intelligence ceased to be adequate cannot be determined by this narrative. However, Company A was not prepared to fight intelligently when it was called upon to do so. The individual actions and reactionsthe failure to differentiate between enemy tank fire coming from the front and supposed short rounds from supporting mortars-indicate a lack of imaginative and realistic combat training. The inability of the troops to remedy minor weapons malfunctions is further indication of inadequate training.

Examples of faulty leadership are frequent in the narrative. Where was the combat outpost, or adequate local security, of the 1st Battalion? Evidently, there was none.

Why was a platoon permitted to occupy a nearby position from which it could not support the fires of an adjacent platoon?

Why was a patrol permitted to rest within three hundred yards of the enemy without establishing security positions?

It was to take many months of combat and the physical hardening of several campaigns before the military potential of both officers and men was realized and they achieved the high military proficiency of which they were capable.


[1] 1st Infantry: war diary, 29 June 1950. See also Marguerite Higgins, War in Korea, 33, 47-48, 59; and Lt. Col. Roy E. Appleman's combat history of the Korean War, a manuscript in preparation for the Office of the Chief of Military History's Korean series. The details of this action, unless otherwise cited, are based upon a series of interviews with MSgt. Roy E. Collins and with MSgt. Zack C. Williams, both of whom were platoon sergeants at the time of the action. These men presented the action at the platoon level. For a general account of activities in Korea during this time, especially in reference to the 34th Infantry, see the article by Brig. Gen. George B. Barth, "The First Days in Korea," Combat Forces Journal (March 195l).

[2] 24th Division, unit war diaries: 34th Infantry Regiment, 28 June to 4 July l950; 24th Division: G3 journal, Vol. 3A, 4 July l950.

[3] 24th Division, unit war diaries: 21st Infantry Regiment, 29 June to 4 July l950; 24th Division: G3 journal, message ROB 052, 031710 July. The dates and times given here do not always agree with the official records, which are often incorrect, having been prepared from memory at some later date. See Appleman, op. cit., chapter 3.

[4] 24th Division, unit war diaries: 21st Infantry Regiment, 4 July l950, and 52d FA Battalion, 4 July l950. Also Appleman, loc. cit.

[5] The company's morning report lists 138 men and 5 officers for 5 July. These reports, however, appear to have been made up at some later date, and they do not accurately record all the changes and events as they occurred.

[6] Letters, Major Leroy Osburn to OCMH, 21 January and 5 March 1952. Osburn states the mission of his company at that time. It appears from General Barth's article (cited in note 1) that General Barth changed the mission from one of defense to one of delaying action before contact was made with the enemy force.

[7] Barth, op. cit.

[8] For a more complete account of this action, see Appleman, loc. cit. See also 24th Division: G3 journal, report of interrogation of CO, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, 7 July l950; and 24th Division, unit war diaries: 21st Infantry Regiment, 5 July l950. The number of tanks varies in these reports, but the best evidence indicates there were 33 in the first column, of which only 4 were knocked out.

[9] Barth, op. cit.

[10] SFC Alfred Beauchamp, Company A, 34th Infantry, in an interview by the author, 7 August 1951.

[11] Letter, Osburn to OCMH, 5 March 1952.

[12] Ibid., 21 January 1952.

[13] Company A's morning reports for this period list twenty-seven men missing in action. The report was made up on 8 July, apparently after the first sergeant and the several men with him rejoined the company. These reports do not include at least one man (Pvt. Joseph P. Krahel) who was missing in action after the engagement on the morning of 6 July l950.

[14] Barth, op. cit.

[15] For a more complete account of the fighting in Chonan by the 3d Battalion, 34th Infantry, see Appleman, loc. cit.

[16] 24th Division: G3 journal, 15 to 18 July l950.

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