Monday, December 06, 2010

Decisive Battles: Unsan 1950

Unsan Dates: 25 OCT - 6 NOV 1950

Forces Engaged: United Nations Command (UNC) - the primary troop units from the UNC Eighth Army engaged at Unsan were:
U.S. 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, I Corps - notionally about 2,000, but by late October 1950 probably approximately 1,500 infantrymen in three battalions.
Attached to the 8th CAV was a battery of the 99th U.S. Field Artillery and B Company, 70th Armored Battalion.
U.S. 1st Battalion, 5th US Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division - approx. 500 infantrymen

(Note: While the division and it's regiments are notionally "cavalry", in 1950 the 1st Cavalry was a conventional "straight leg" infantry unit, although the regiments styled themselves "cavalry" and carried the lineage of the U.S. Army horse soldiers. Notwithstanding the nomenclature, the "cavalrymen" of Unsan were indistinguishable from a standard issue U.S. GI infantryman of the time.)

Republic of Korea (ROK) 15th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, ROK I Corps - notionally about 1,500 to 2,000 infantrymen, but, again, probably understrength (and the ROK of this period was notoriously stronger on paper than in the field, as venal commander/cronies of Syngman Rhee raked off pay allotted to ghost troops never actually present in the field).(Note: The identification of this unit appears to have become confused, especially on-line. It was not assigned to the ROK 5th Infantry Division as the Wiki entry for the ROK order of battle indicates, but the 1st ID as noted here and elsewhere.)

Total: Approximately 2,000 U.S. infantry, 1,500 ROK infantry in seven battalions, 100 U.S. artillerymen with 12 x 105mm howitzers, and 60-80 tankers with 14 M4 Sherman tanks. The overall commander of the forces engaged at Unsan would have been the I Corps commander, LTG Frank Milburn, however, there does not appear to have been particularly outstanding command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) on the UN side at Unsan, which will be discussed below.

Chinese People's Volunteer Army - elements of the 115th and 116th Divisions (and probably small units of the 117th Division) of the 39th Army, 13th Group Army.The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in autumn 1950 was a light infantry force poorly armed and equipped compared to the U.S. and even the ROK armies; the order of battle for a PLA division such as the 115th would have included three infantry regiments nominally 2,200 strong, a division artillery battalion of 500 and 12 x 76mm and assorted signal, engineer, and transport troops actually totalling less than 8,000 all arms for a notional army strength of approximately 24,000-25,000.

Actual estimates of CPVA divisional strengths run around 13,000, suggesting that the divisions and their regiments were badly understrength. Battlefield accounts suggest that the divisions lacked the artillery battery, although the infantry divisions appear to have retained the four 70mm cannon organic to a PLA division at the time, or at least a similar number of heavy mortars.So a rough estimate of about 20,000-25,000 for the two divisions is probably reasonable. Overall command of the CPVA fell to Marshal Peng Dehuai; I could not find any sources identifying the commanders of the 13th Group Army, 39th Army, or either of the divisions involved.

The Sources: the Korean War, as with all Western wars since the advent of nearly universal literacy, has been extensively documented from the UN side. All the UN combatants have published "official" histories which must be read with some care, since the effect of bias is nearly unavoidable; the U.S. official history is perhaps as judicious as any. The Center for Military History discusses Unsan in "The Korean War: The UN Offensive, 16 September - 2 November 1950" (available online here).

As you might imagine the accounts written and published in the West are numerous and varied in both scope and quality. Of the accounts I could find the most consistently recommended was David Rees' "Korea: The Limited War". Published in 1964 and therefore missing the information available since the opening of the Soviet archives, Rees' work still appears to be extremely comprehensive, incisive, and thorough.

Among the other decent Western works on the Korean War are Max Hasting's "The Korean War", "This Kind of War" by T.R. Fehrenbach, "The Korean War: An International History" by William Stueck, and "Conflict: The History of The Korean War 1950-1953"
by Bob Leckie. I recently finished "The Coldest Winter" by Dave Halberstam and found it both readable and well-researched, although you have to be careful working around Halberstam's violent dislike of GEN MacArthur; it colors the entire work and (I feel) distorts Halberstam's judgment on the decisions made by both the UNC and the Truman Administration in the late summer and autumn of 1950.

The Korean Center for Military History (KIMH) has produced a monumental history simply titled "The Korean War". Based on one available review, this history seems to show considerably more bias towards the ROK than is found elsewhere, possibly understandable given the way many U.S. histories pummel the 1950 ROK for poor performance in defense of its own country!

The DPRK - North Korea - is and has always been a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The "official" North Korean history of the entire war period is a tissue of propaganda and bullshit glorifying the then-leader of the North, Kim Il Sung.

For years the Chinese and Soviet side of the hill was similarly opaque, rich with the usual "Soviet Life" sort of house-organ propaganda tales. Western access to Soviet files since the fall of the USSR has shed some light into the internal politics of the early war years, especially Alexander Mansourov's Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War, 16 September – 15 October 1950 in "New Evidence from the Russian Archives, Cold War International History Project Bulletin" v. 6–7, and Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue. 1993, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Many operational details of PLA and KPA actions during the war including around Unsan, remain unclear to Western readers.

Among the valuable general military history resources are the Osprey publications "The Korean War 1950-1953" which emphasizes the overall course of the war, from the grand tactical to the geopolitical levels, and the confusingly-nearly-identically titled "The Korean War 1950-53" which details orders of battle and uniforms.

The Campaign: The "UN Offensive" was the third phase in the Korean War that began in June 1950. The geopolitical setting of the War is far beyond the scope of this essay, but let me summarize briefly the events between 1945 and 1950 that set the stage for the first hot war between East and West.Korea had been a Japanese possession since the Teens, having been conquered by the Meiji Emperor between 1905 and 1910. The Japanese occupation was typically brutal; the "comfort women" shown above could have told you about the worst you could imagine. Slave labor, prostitution, was all there.

Although the WW2 Allies had promised independence for Korea at Cairo in 1942, by 1945 the Soviets demanded a portion of Korea as a buffer and the U.S. agreed. The two powers divided the peninsula near the 38th Parallel and ruled their portions directly for about three years.

Koreans were understandably furious, and the years between 1945-1948 were disturbed by a series of uprisings, strikes, repressions, and various uses of force from arrests and beatings to mass killing; the U.S. administration of the South was better than the Soviets in degree rather than kind.

Finally the U.S. had enough; a ROK plebiscite in 1948 elected a U.S.-domiciled presumptive autocrat named Syngman Rhee. The North was organized into a Soviet-style one-party state under a party apparatchik named Kim Il Sung. The two dictators used the next two years to organize their fiefdoms with contrasting results.

The South became a xanadu of crony capitalism run by and for the benefit of the Rhees and their cronies. The ROK Army was particularly feeble, consisting of no more than ten light armed infantry divisions whose officers were usually from well-connected families using their time in the military to advance their careers, usually by skimming money off their units. The ranks were filled by conscription, which was avoided if possible. In June 1950 the ROK consisted of about 100,000 troops without armor, heavy artillery, or air support. The ROK higher knew the weakness of their force, and made repeated requests for heavy weapons that were refused by their U.S. patron.

The North had been organized into a Stalinist state under the vicious auspices of Kim, whose army was relatively well armed by the Soviet Union in the year prior to the war. The Korean People's Army that crossed the 38th Parallel in June consisted of something like 230,000 troops, 250-300 T-34/85 tanks, a decent small air force as well as the usual Soviet array of towed artillery and engineer assets.

Soviet and Chinese archives make it clear that Kim wanted a showdown with the South, and pressed Mao's China, which had just settled its own civil war, to support his move south. The Chinese did not attempt to restrain Kim but made it clear that his attack risked drawing the U.S. forces stationed in occupied Japan into the fight and refused to promise assistance if that happened. The Soviets made no move other than vague assurances of soviet brotherhood. On 25 JUN 1950 the KPA, the Inmin Gun attacked across the 38th Parallel.

Phase I (6/50 to 9/50) - Springtime for Suryong

Between June and September 1950 the KPA swept all before it. Although U.S. President Truman ordered U.S. forces to deploy to Korea on 27 JUN the understrength, badly trained, badly led troops from Japan had little effect. Seoul fell on 28 JUN, Taejon on 15 JUL. By early August the U.S. 8th Army was confined to a 140-mile long redoubt in the far southeast tip of the Korean peninsula around the port of Pusan. The 24th U.S. Infantry Division was mauled delaying the KPA to give the defenders time to entrench around Pusan, while the ROK Army all but disintegrated. By early August the three U.S. divisions of the 8th Army and five ROK divisions - all that remained of the ROK Army - were all that held the KPA back from ruling Korea from the Yalu River to the sea.For six weeks the defenders of the "Pusan Perimeter" kept the KPA on the outside of their lines. The North's troopers suffered badly from their country's poor logistical capability; the KPA just didn't have the technical ability to move supplies from the depots north of the 38th Parallel to Pusan. By early September the KPA was on the verge of starvation and had suffered so many killed and wounded that the North sent corvees out to kidnap local civilian men and forced them to fight. By mid September the KPA was effectively unable to continue their attacks.

Phase II: 9/50 to 11/50 - The Hinge of Fate

On 15 SEP 1950 GEN Douglas MacArthur ordered the first waves of the two U.S. divisions ashore at Inchon on the west coast of the Korean peninsula, 100 miles north of the battle being fought around Pusan. This attack, perhaps the most audacious of MacArthur's career, was spectacularly successful - over the KPA and over the fears of the service chiefs and the Defense Department. The KPA unraveled in its headlong scramble back across the Han; perhaps as few as 25,000 of the almost quarter-million attackers made it back to their start line. The 8th Army and the Xth Corps proceeded to clear the southern peninsula of the invaders and by 27 SEP the UNC forces had reached the original intra-Korean border. On 7 OCT the UNC authorized their forces to cross the parallel (the ROK Army had pushed into the North a week earlier) and the pursuit to the Chinese border began.By this time the KPA was almost incapable of resistance, and U.S. airpower had rid the sky of the North's aircraft. Pyongyang fell to 8th Army on 19 OCT, while Xth Corps landed at Wonsan on the east coast, pushing into the northeastern corner of the Korean peninsula.By mid- to late-October the UN troops were deep in northwestern Korea. This portion of the peninsula is a very mountainous land with little level maneuver area. High ridges are separated by steep valleys, the whole exposed to the brutal cold winds off the eastern Siberian plateau. It is a harsh land, and had been one of the most deserted and inhospitable portions of Korea well before the war entered in to it.

What's more, although the UNC didn't know it yet, the Chinese had entered the war.

In late August the Chinese delegation to the UN warned that "Korea is China's neighbor… The Chinese people cannot but be concerned about a solution of the Korean question", indicating that Chinese troops could be expected to enter Korea if the UN forces approached the Yalu or looked too much like overrunning all the North.

Mao's Politburo authorized Chinese "volunteers" to enter in Korea on 2 OCT 1950, the day after the ROK Army crossed the 38th Parallel.On 15 OCT 1950, President Truman and General MacArthur met at Wake Island. Truman wanted to get a sense of his Far East commander; MacArthur wanted to get official approval for his move to the Yalu River. MacArthur answered Truman's concerns about Chinese intervention by assuring the President that although he doubted that the Chinese had the sack, that "if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter"

Four days later, the PLA 13th Group Army crossed the Yalu at night and, hiding by day to prevent U.S. aerial observation, moved south towards the leading elements of the 8th Army.

A number of factors, some military, some topographic, combined to put the lead elements of the UNC in a tactically poor position.

We've talked about the ugly terrain of northwest Korea; a worse piece of ground for mechanized attack can barely be imagined. The UN troops, dependent on roads for most movement and all supply, were pushing out on an increasingly tenuous logistical limb. The temptation to bypass the nasty mountainsides and "secure" just the traversible lowlands was difficult to resist.The other topographic element was the way the Korean peninsula broadens near the Asian mainland.

No more than about 140 miles wide at the latitude of Pyongyang the peninsula widens to between three and four times that dimension near the Chinese border along the Yalu and Tumaen Rivers. The UNC force - 8th Army and the independent X Corps - in November 1950 consisted of seven U.S. divisions (1st Cav, 2nd, 24th, and 25th Infantry in 8th Army, 3rd and 7th Infantry, 1st Marine in Xth Corps), a British Commonwealth brigade, and six ROK Divisions (Capital, 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, and 8th Infantry). These thirteen divisions now spread out through the rough terrain of northwest Korea, increasingly distant from one another and, worse, beyond the range of mutual support.

Even within units the distances became ominous. Regiments dug into positions with large, uncovered gaps between their battalions; battalions were spread thin, or ended up in similar clumps of unconnected company strongpoints.

Militarily, perhaps the single least tractible problem was MacArthur.

The UNC commander was convinced that the campaign was over beyond mopping-up and a parade to the Yalu. As we've mentioned, he was convinced that the Chinese would not enter the war; his G-2, one MG Willoughby, has been thoroughly vilified by historians who dislike MacArthur (Halberstam is particularly vituperative) for allegedly ignoring lower unit intelligence reports of Chinese prisoners and active indications of Chinese units south of the Yalu.

The case against Willoughby seems less than definitive. He was known as an officer who was loyal more to MacArthur than to the U.S. Army or the U.S. itself; a great admirer of Franco, MacArthur called him "my pet fascist" and the degree of personal loathsomeness that emanated from the man makes him an attractive villain. And he does seem to have made a critical error in intelligence tradecraft - presuming the enemy's most likely course of action based on what his own assessment of the situation would have been. He considered the Chinese position after Inchon very weak, stating that the time for Chinese intervention had been with the UNC penned on Pusan. With the UN forces driving north he discarded the notion that the Chinese would contravene conventional military wisdom and reinforce defeat.

With the spectre of the yellow Red hordes dispelled MacArthur felt free to direct - or perhaps "allow" is a better word; the direction from MacArthur's HQ, the "Dai Ichi" in Tokyo, was relatively sparse in the autumn of 1950 - his forces to spread out across northwest Korea.Making coordination even more difficult was MacArthur's attitude towards the two officers directly subordinate to him.

LTG Walton Walker, commander of 8th Army, was not in the MacArthur "ring", the "Bataan Gang" of Mac's old cronies from the Pacific War. Worse, he was a European Theatre commander under Patton, perhaps MacArthur's only rival for military flamboyance. The beating that 8th Army took in the summer and early autumn of 1950 had angered MacArthur, and had pushed Walton even further out of favor at the Dai Ichi.

MG Edward Almond, commander of Xth Corps, was the polar opposite of Walker. A recent MacArthur crony, his experience in Europe had been commanding the 92nd Division, a "colored division", in Italy. The division performed poorly and a postwar board of inquiry determined that piss-poor training and leadership, almost certainly emanating from the commander, were at fault. Almond himself was an extremely aggressive officer, and it is this aggression combined with the racisim he displayed in Italy (he commonly referred to the Chinese soldiers as "laundrymen") that is believed to have spurred him to disperse his corps so widely on the right front of the UNC advance.

Walker and Almond seem to have had a difficult partnership, and MacArthur seems to have been unwilling (or uninformed) of their lack of cooperation. But the result was that by late November the three UNC corps had developed serious breaks in contact both within their subordinate units and between the corps themselves.

The town of Unsan lies in the valleys of the Nammyon and Samtan Rivers and controls the main roads north to the Yalu in northwest Korea from Ipsok to the south, the main supply route (MSR) for the ROK II Corps that formed the 8th Army right front element. South of the town a ridge dubbed "Bugle Hill" controls the road to Yongsan-dong.The ROK 1st ID advanced north on 24 OCT 1950 with the ROK 6th ID on its right and the U.S. 24th ID on its left. By 25 OCT the ROK 1st ID had captured Unsan - but a 15 mile gap had opened between the 1st, on the ROK left, and the 24th, on the U.S. right.

Down on this fragmented and vulnerable line of outposts came the 39th Army, looking to test the capabilities of the Americans and their "Korean puppets".Paik Sun-yip, the commander of the ROK 1st Division, has left us a dramatic story of the last week of November in the cold mountains around Unsan;
"The roads were deserted. There wasn’t even one car in sight. The customary refugee columns that had littered the roads since the outbreak of the Korean War were nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t get rid of the uneasiness I felt creeping up my spine...all of a sudden, all traces of humanity had vanished on the roads from Yongbyon to Unsan."

MG Sun-yip continues: “Why is it so quiet?” I felt a very peculiar anxiety. When my unit crossed the Guryong River and headed north, I met two old villagers. “Why is it that we can’t see a single soul?” I asked. I got an answer I didn’t expect:

“Many Chinese have come.”The Engagement: The engagment at Unsan properly begins five days earlier, when the first elements of the CPVA 13th Group Army attacked the ROK II Corps north and east of Unsan. The ROK 6th ID was cut to pieces and destroyed near the Yalu by the PLA 38th and 40th Armies, and attacks by the PLA 39th Army stopped the ROK 1st Division around Unsan. Chinese blocking forces cut Unsan off from the south at "Bugle Hill" between 25 and 27 OCT.MG Sun-yip warned Walker's HQ that the situation around Unsan was perilous, but the 8th Army commander, assured that nothing more than remnant NKPA elements were holding up the parade, sent elements of the 1st Cavalry forward to restart the offensive. By the time the 8th U.S. Cavalry arrived at Unsan on 29 OCT two of the three ROK 1st ID infantry regiments had had enough; the 11th and 12th Infantry retired south to regroup, leaving only the ROK 15th Infantry regiment in place in the hills northeast of Unsan.

Halberstam tells the story of the former regimental commander of the 8th Cavalry making a visit to the Unsan positions on 30 NOV. He reports that the officer didn't like what he saw; a regiment dispersed over more than two square miles, with battalions out of contact and unsupported by interlocking fires, with companies occupying poorly sited positions in low ground. Halberstam states that the former commander attempted to bring this up to COL Palmer, the regimental commander, but that the latter appeared to be overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of active enemies everywhere.The official U.S. Army history continues:
"In the Unsan and Onjong area at the end of October, great smoke clouds hung in the skies. What did these smoke clouds portend? Everyone in the area noticed them. Capt. Jack Bolt, commanding officer of C Battery, 99th Field Artillery Battalion, counted ten different forest fires burning in the mountains when his unit moved up on the 30th to support the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, south of Unsan. The next day Colonel Johnson witnessed much the same thing during his visit to the 8th Cavalry regimental command post. And General Allen, the 1st Cavalry Division assistant commander, likewise saw them on 1 November when he drove to Unsan. These great smoke clouds north and northeast of Unsan came from forest fires set by the enemy. They obscured U.N. aerial observation and masked enemy troop movements."
By 1 NOV the indications of large-scale Communist troop movements - some kind of Communist troops, anyway - was unmistakable. 2,000 Chinese soldiers were reported southwest that morning, and another 3,000 that afternoon. Tacair and artillery dispersed an enemy column eight miles southeast of Unsan at noon.
"At his command post at Yongsan-dong in the afternoon, General Gay and Brig. Gen. Charles D. Palmer, the division artillery commander, were listening to the chatter on the artillery radio set. Suddenly the voice of an observer in an L-5 plane directing fire of the 82d Field Artillery Battalion (155-mm. howitzers) came in: "This is the strangest sight I have ever seen. There are two large columns of enemy infantry moving southeast over the trails in the vicinity of Myongdang-dong and Yonghung-dong. Our shells are landing right in their columns and they keep coming." The two places mentioned were about seven and five air miles respectively southwest and west of Unsan. General Palmer broke in on the radio to order the 99th Field Artillery Battalion to join in the fire on these enemy columns."
At this point MG Gay, the commander of the 1st Cavalry, began to worry. He requested I Corps' permission to withdraw the 8th and it's supporting 5th Cavalry. Permission was refused.

By noon on 1 NOV a platoon from the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry patrolling northeast along the Yongsan-dong road encountered an enemy troop unit dug in on "Bugle Hill". The engagement grew, first to a two-company deliberate attack and then to a battalion attack supported by tacair and artillery. Not only did the attacks fail but the troops on the hill attacked just after dark and pushed B/1/5 back, destroying its mortar platoon in the process.

Alarmed, the I Corps command and staff met that evening. MG Milburn, I Corps commander, ordered the corps to assume the defensive for the first time since the breakout from Pusan. At 2300 1 NOV 1050 COL Palmer received the orders to withdraw. It was now too late.

Earlier that morning of 1 NOV the Chinese 117th Division attacked the ROK 15th Infantry Regiment. Before midnight that unit was effectively destroyed, most of the ROK troopers killed or captured, the few survivors fleeing down the Samt'an River valley towards Ipsok.As you can see from the map, the 1/8th Cav sector controlled from the west bank of the Samt'an west across Unsan itself. But the position did not extend far enough to reach the main ridge leading into Unsan, and contact with 2/8 Cav to the west was maintained only by patrols. The high ground itself between the units was manned only with a few listening posts/observation posts (LP/OP).

The evening was relatively quiet for the American cavalrymen until about 1930. At that time the Chinese hit 1/8 Cav, driving the right flank 400 meters back from the river until reinforced by an engineer platoon and the battalion mortars. About 2100 elements from the CPVA 116th Division began infiltrating down the ridge line between 1/8 and 2/8. AAbout an hour later the 1/8 commander was informed of the destruction of the ROK 15th Infantry. He ordered the battalion trains into march order to begin retreating south.

Moonrise was around midnight; the bright moonlight provided about 20-30% illumination that enabled the horrified cavalrymen of the 2/8 to see the Chinese 116th Division that enveloped them, bugles and whistles shrieking. A Company, 1/8 Cav was fighting with bayonets, rifle butts, and e-tools as it was driven in from the left flank of the 1st Battalion perimeter.

By 2300 both 1/8 and 2/8 Cav had been forced back, their positions penetrated, and most of their basic load of ammunition expended; living troops were scrounging rounds from the ammo pouches of the dead and wounded.At about midnight the 1/8 and 2/8 were ordered to retreat. The "retreat", with Chinese blocking and raiding parties abroad across the Unsan bottomland, was in fact a bloody rout, with little or any order or military organization. Here's a typical scene from the early hours of 2 NOV:
"Fifteen minutes later Millikin ordered the last two tanks and the mortar vehicles with the wounded to try to get through Unsan. A burning truck at the first turn going west into the town halted the column. In trying to get around the truck the first tank slid into a shell crater and got stuck. Chinese soldiers killed the tank commander as he struggled to free the tank. Other Chinese placed a satchel charge on the tracks of the second tank and disabled it. Of the ten tank crewmen, two were killed and five wounded. Apparently none of the wounded on the mortar carriers escaped. A little later, about 0100, a miscellaneous assortment of men, including elements of C Company, South Koreans attached to the 1st Battalion, ROK stragglers from the 15th Regiment, and Chinese soldiers, arrived at the road junction northeast of town at about the same time. Millikin still waited there. In the confusion that now spread out of control the men tried to escape in groups. Millikin and a small group went westward north of Unsan and then circled to the southwest. At 0200, they encountered parts of H Company from the 2d Battalion also trying to reach the road fork south of Unsan."
This group attempted to move down the road to Ipsok. The road was open well after midnight; much of the regimental trains, headquarters, battalion trains, and mixed groups of fugitives from 1/8 and 2/8 passed through until about 0230. At this time a Chinese blocking force arrived from the east and destroyed several vehicles, blocked the road, and killed or drove off the cavalrymen trying to escape. The road south was closed.

3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, holding the southern end of the Unsan position, had been relatively untroubled through the night of 1 NOV and into the early morning of the next day. The unit was north of the Nammyon River three miles southwest of Unsan.
The battalion commander, MAJ Ormond had set up the battalion CP in a field north of the river with his HHC and M Company CP. The rest of M/3/8 held the bridge immediately south of the battalion CP with a platoon of the 70th Armor. The battalion's other three rifle companies, I, K, and L, were dug in facing south and west. The battalion had just received orders to take up a delaying position and cover the withdrawal of 1/8 and 2/8. The battalion commander traveled to the regimental CP, and from there to the road to Ipsok, where he learned that the road was blocked. He returned to his command and march-ordered the vehicles on the southwest road when, at about 0300, a platoon- or company-sized column approached the bridge from the south.

The bridge security passed them, assuming they were ROKs.

This unit of Chinese troops, presumable from the 115th Division, marched to the battalion CP and attacked, grenading, shooting and bayoneting cavalrymen and destroying vehicles. At the same time, more of the 115th engaged L Company along the stream bank to the southwest, and still others crossed the stream directly south of the command post and attacked the tanks there.One tank was destroyed, but the remaining three helped fight off the initial attacks. MAJ Ormond was wounded, and he battalion's organization badly disrupted. Although the night attacks were repulsed, by daylight about 6 officers and 200 troopers remained able to fight, along with some 170 wounded. Airstrikes helped the battalion survive the day, while the 5th Cav tried to assault through the Chinese block on Bugle Hill, losing over 300 troopers to death or wounds.

Near dark on 2 NOV the I Corps and 1st Cav commanders conferred and decided that the Bugle Ridge blocking position could not be forced. They withdrew 5th Cav, abandoning the remnants of the 3/8 Cav and whatever other survivors of the regiment remained hidden in the hills and fields around Unsan.

Amazingly, the 3/8 held out as a fighting force another four days, holding off 39th Army attacks up to battalion size, moving south as a group of about 200 before being destroyed. At approximately 1600 on the afternoon of 6 NOV 3/8 Cav was finished as an organized force. The remaining hundred or so cavalrymen broke up into small parties in the hills near Ipsok. Most of these men were either killed or captured that day, apparently in the vicinity of Yongbyon.

Between 1 NOV and 6 NOV the 8th Cavalry lost about 600 men killed or captured. About one-fourth of the men of B Company, 70th Tank Battalion, were lost, as well as all of the artillery battery's 12 105-mm howitzers and 9 of B/70 Armor's 12 tanks.On 3 NOV 1950 the 8th Cavalry Regiment reported it had 45 percent of its authorized strength. In the next twelve days, nearly all the 22 officers and 616 enlisted men assigned as replacements to the 1st Cav went to the 8th Cavalry Regiment.

The Outcome: Complete tactical CPVA victory.

The Impact: Here's the odd thing about Unsan; it meant nothing. To the UNC, the road ended at Unsan, the trail led nowhere. It was a black hole into which more than 600 men's lives disappeared. The lessons that should have been learned at Unsan were not; it did the other soldiers in the UNC not a bit of damn good at all.Now we realize what Unsan really was; it was the "First Phase" of Marshal Peng's Winter Offensive designed to trap and destroy the UNC. It was his test of his tactics; movement by stealth and in the high mountains, encirclement and destruction, infiltration and close combat - what another Asian force to fight Americans called "hugging the belt".It was the first shot in the new war that would last until the summer of 1953. But at the time, the Dai Ichi, MacArthur, and the commanders above the corps level seem to have stood there blinking. The drive to the Yalu didn't stop. The UNC units were not consolidated, or their tactical coordination improved.

And, because of Unsan, this shouldn't have happened. The Dai Ichi now had proof, had it needed it earlier, that there was a new and dangerous opponent in the mountains around the Yalu that had the tactical ingenuity to offset the UN combat power in air and heavy weapons. An enemy capable of destroying the better part of two infantry brigades reinforced with artillery and armor with light infantry supported by a scattering of rockets and mortars.

But the Dai Ichi - MacArthur - was convinced that the Chinese would not intervene. Just as it would be fifty-three years later, the intelligence was fixed around the military plan; fulfilling the desires of the U.S. leadership trumped military good sense.

So the UN parade to the north continued and the Chinese 13th Army Group and the rest of the CPVA just disappeared into the hills north of Unsan. By the 3rd of November the UNC reconnaissance aircraft were once again looking for them in vain. For nearly three weeks the Chinese "volunteers" watched and waited from the mountains as the Americans and their Korean allies continued sauntering carelessly north to the Yalu.

Until 25 NOV, when they attacked all along the UNC lines in the "Second Offensive", from late November to late December. Most of the original land territory of North Korea was retaken; the front lines moved south about to the original 38th parallel, where they would remain for the next two and a half bloody years. Much of the U.S. 2nd and 7th ID were destroyed. The ROK Army also lost several divisions, and the resulting withdrawal of the US Eighth Army was the longest retreat of an American unit in history.Thousands of young Korean and American men died, many in the most agonizing ways possible. Tens of thousands more were crippled or maimed, or were captured to endure horrific captivity in Chinese hands. Tens of thousands or even millions of Koreans were forced to live in unspeakable suffering, in appalling cold, hunger, and poverty. Many people in the northern half of the Korean peninsula still lives under similar conditions today, and the failure of the UNC to read the lesson of Unsan, and prepare for the Second Offensive is largely the cause.

Counterfactuals are always difficult, but it is not that difficult to imagine an organized withdrawal to winter lines north of Pyongyang, where a tenacious defense would have stopped the Chinese offensive in the mountains, left Kim with only the poorest, most ruggedly forbidding portion of his Hermit Kingdom to rule, and most of the Korean people to join in the relative prosperity and liberty of the southern portion of the peninsula today.

Touchline Tattles: We all know the story of what happened after the winter of 1950. MacArthur was relieved, and after his appearance before Congress in 1951 exposed the mistakes the Dai Ichi had made in dealing with the Chinese - in contrast to the effective defense of Chipyong-ni (our "Decisive Battle" for next February) and Wonju, which spelled the end of the "bug-outs" and the mystique of the ferocious Chinese hordes - was finished as a force in American military policies.

GEN Ridgeway took over the UNC and fought the Chinese to a standstill, ensuring that at least the southern half of the Korean peninsula would remain out of murderous reach of the Kims.The people of South Korea eventually tossed out the corrupt dictators of the Rhee tradition and today enjoy a relatively modern existence under a relatively liberal government.The North remains the last Stalinist state, shrouded in mystery and poverty, armed and dangerous even now.In the cold valleys of northern Korea the little town of Unsan is probably a rather drab and unwelcoming place. What is left of the bodies of the cavalrymen who died there sixty years ago lie still under the fields and hills. Offers from both sides to explore and return these bitter scraps to the empty graves in their hometowns have come to nothing.In many ways, the war that the men of the 39th Army and the 8th Cavalry Regiment fought in has never ended. The border between the Koreas is no more than a cease-fire line, and as the North Koreans reminded us so forcefully lately, they don't consider the issue anywhere near resolved.

The 1st Cavalry Division spent another decade living down the defeat around Unsan. Other Army and Marine units took to describing the "blanket patch" cav shoulder insignia as "The horse they never rode, the river they never crossed, and the yellow speaks for itself". Another version goes: "The shield they never carried, the horse they never rode, the bridge they never crossed, the line they never held, and the yellow is the reason why."

The 8th U.S. Cavalry is currently divided into three mechanized infantry battalions assigned to three different brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division, Ft. Hood, Texas.


Ael said...

MacArthur was a clever general, but he handled bad surprises poorly. He didn't react to Unsan and was slow to react when the Philippines were invaded.

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, but generals get paid to forsee the other side of the hill.

Leon said...

Another excellent post. Maybe I'm biased on MacArthur based on his performance in the Phillipines (41-42) but I'm amazed he still gets the praise in place of other, better generals.

basilbeast said...

Soap Operas may be the key.



FDChief said...

Ael: Mac's genius was his ability to plan, rather than react. He was a Napoleon - remember Wellington's comment about how Nap's plans were a beautiful harness all fine leather and complex buckles, while he made a halter out of rope and when one broke, he just knotted it and carried on?


The thing is that Halberstam is typical of the "Mac-haters", and I think that he's gotten worse treatment for the winter 1950 fiasco than he deserves. I want to do a followup post talking about this, but a LOT of U.S. leaders wanted him to be right. The parallels with Iraq 2003 are scarily close. In both cases there was a backstory, in both cases the intel was fixed around the policy, in both cases the naysayers were ignored or derided by the people who just WANTED the story they liked to be true.

Mac as theatre commander gets the ultimate blame, yes. But he, like Bush, had a hell of a lot of enablers...

FDChief said...

Leon: He was a good general. But he wasn't as good as HE thought he was, and personally he was an immense jackass. So it's easy to hate him.

But the man could general; let's keep that in mind. He wasn't some sort of dope. Egotistical, yes. Jackass, yes. But the guy could really do the thing...

mike said...

Another good post Chief. I was unaware that Unsan was the first major meeting between US troops and the ChiComs.

Interesting where you mention the dozen or so forest fires set so that the smoke would neutralize aerial observation of movement - what an environmental disaster similar to GulfWar#1.

Another item that caught my attention was where you note that some Chicom columns kept moving right through accurately aimed artillery fire instead of dispersing. A few years ago at a reunion I met with a Korean vet, intel branch, who claimed that many, not all, but many of the ChiCom rank and file were former Chinese Nationalists soldiers. He said that after the "Peanut" bugged out to Taiwan they were told in re-education camps to prove their loyalty and change uniforms eventually "volunteering" to fight in Korea. He claimed that many of them were driven like cattle into battle by their unit political officers. Not sure how good his bonafides were, but i recall as a boy seeing headlines that there were thousands of Chinese prisoners who refused repatriation after the armistice. I just checked Wikipedia and they claim out of 21,000+ ChiCom POWs, over 14,000 or two thirds elected to go to Taiwan with only about 7,100 returning to mainland China.

Put me down as a Mac hater. I will have to read "The Coldest Winter" just to hear more dirt about Dugout Doug. I was going to stay away from it because my last Halberstam (best & Brightest" read was a tough chew.

George Marshall disliked him and considered him a perfumed prince. That should be good enough for the rest of us. Eisenhower disliked him also. I believe Mac's reputation as a good planner is BS. He was smart enough I grant you to surround himself with good planners at times. He was smart enough to pick Ike for his staff and later during WW2 he was smart enough to get Walter Krueger and George Kenney working for him. Probably my bias against Mac is personal and due more than anything else to his shameful conduct in 1932 on Pennsylvania Avenue and Anacosta Flats. My great uncle Dinty was there and told that story to my cousins and I.

But having said that about Mac, he was not the only one at fault. Truman should have kept Mac on a tight leash after their meeting at Wake Island. And where the hell was Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Omar Bradley when all this was going on. And where was CIA director Bedell Smith's sage advice?

He was a genuine hero in WW#1 with the Rainbow Division. But as Division Chief of Staff why the hell was he going thru the wire on raids against German trenches. Sounds to me like he was a great platoon commander or company commander who just could not let go.

He also might have made a good Secretary of State as witnessed by his peacetime tour in the Philippines, in the occupation of Japan, and his close and personal relationships with the Aussies and Dutch and others in the Southwest Pacific. But a good general??? No way!


mike said...

oops sorry for the triplicate - how do I erase the dupes?

FDChief said...

mike: not to worry about the extra posts - I can clean 'em up at my end, that's why I make the big money...

"what an environmental disaster similar to GulfWar#1." Probably not on that big a scale, but, still, just a reminder of how much wastage accompanies any and all war...

"many of the ChiCom rank and file were former Chinese Nationalists soldiers." True, and the PLA in 1950 was full of galvanized KMT guys, but it's worth remembering that the PLA had spent a long time fighting people who had artillery when they didn't, and they had learned the hard way that if you had to get from point A to point B under fire the way to do it was to keep going and the devil take the hindmost. Not that there probably wasn't a fair amount of 9mm encouragement, too...

Coldest Winter will definately give you your fill of Mac dirt; Halberstam REALLY hated the guy.

As for Mac, I won't disagree that he screwed the pooch in the PI and again up along the Yalu. On the other hand, Inchon was pure brilliance, and his Pacific campaigns were distinguished by "smart" fighting; he never indulged in the Pelilieu and the Iwo style butchery that the Navy seemed to be indifferent to.

As far as likeability - no, the man was as big an asshole as you could imagine. He had no use for anyone who didn't have their nose thrust firmly up his fourth point of contact, which meant that people like Marshall and Ike were bound to hate him. notice that Marshall as SecDef had the chance to relieve the man, or, at the very least, put the blocks to him and didn't. Neither did the Joint Chiefs. As you point out, Truman had the chance, too, and passed it up.

The Halberstam book does a good job of explaining why the CIA wasn't positioned to make a better call on the CPVA - Mac hated the OSS and CIA and kept their station in the Far East to a ridiculously understaffed minimum.

And I should add that I have a hard time admitting his virtues because his faults - in particular his loathsome elitism and IMO incipient fascism - are so irritating to me. So I may be giving him too much of the benefit of the doubt.

But there IS no doubt about this - Unsan was NOT his finest hour.

mike said...

"On the other hand, Inchon was pure brilliance,..."
Mac was lucky at Inchon and maybe not so brilliant. Everybody at the time was thinking an amphibious hook. The reason the Navy was against Inchon was the horrendous tides there which were similar to the Bay of Fundy, and the seawall which could have turned the landing into a nightmare.
"...and his Pacific campaigns were distinguished by "smart" fighting; he never indulged in the Pelilieu and the Iwo style butchery that the Navy seemed to be indifferent to."
I and many others attribute that that so-called smart fight of MacArthur to General Krueger. And without the US submarine service and the Navy/Marine Corps thrust into the Central Pacific then Mac would have had a lot more butchery in New Guinea and the Philippines.

FDChief said...

mike: You're just not gonna cut the guy any slack, are you?

I'll give you that Inchon isn't rocket science in retrospect, but the precedents in everybody's mind at the time were disasters like Dieppe and Anzio. Mac took a real chance, tides and all, and it worked. As Napoleon used to say about his commanders, the critical element is luck. And he had it.

And one of the other critical elements is picking good subordinates. So if Krueger was good, who picked him?

No argument that Mac thought he was better than he really was. But the guy wasn't George MacClellan, and you can despise the man's personality and his politics (and the Bonus Army action is and should be an enormous disgrace and should be remembered as such) and still admit that he had some gifts...

mike said...


I had conceded in an earlier comment that early on Dugout Doug tried to pick good subordinate commanders and staff. Sometimes he succeeded. But like many before him who did not want to hear dissent from his own views he eventually became surrounded by yes men and never got the feedback he should have gotten if he had not been so vain and conceited.

As far as Inchon goes, I give the credit to Admiral Struble. Navy Lieutenant Eugene Clark who infiltrated Inchon prior to the invasion deserves more kudos for the success than Doug's so-called luck.

rangeragainstwar said...

There are 2 salient points in your essay.Pls excuse the pun.
-Don't reinforce defeat.
-Beyond the range of mutual support.
We never studied this battle in any military schooling that i attended.
Well done piece.
Chilling to read.