On May 27, 2010 the Korean People’s Army issued a statement declaring that it “will not be bound” by the 1953 armistice that halted hostilities in the Korean War:
David Halberstam completed THE COLDEST WINTER right before he was killed in a car accident on April 27, 2007. Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting, is known for using personal history and techniques favored by novelists to write serious journalism. Although many of the assumptions and conclusions are what you would expect from a book by one of its own acclaimed by the New York Times as “a grand gesture of reclamation and remembrance”, THE COLDEST Winter is the clearest picture I have found of America’s “forgotten war”.
According to Halberstam, Chipyongni was the turning point at which China began to realize that troops could hold UN positions while exacting a terrible toll on Chinese troops. Prior to Chipyongni, there was little reason to be optimistic about the outcome of the conflict.
The Korean War began when the In Min Gun (North Korean Peoples’ Army) began moving into place above South Korea on June 15th, 1950. North Korea removed residents from homes near the Yalu River so that there were would not be reports of the troop build up on the North Korean side. China augmented North Korean with troops that, although allegedly North Korean, had fought as Chinese regiments during WW II. Thus, the In Mun Gun troops were battle-hardened and could travel over the mountainous landscape of the Korean peninsula with very little logistical support other than small packs containing meager amounts of food and ammunition.
The massive Chinese assaults usually came as a complete surprise to UN troops. Engagements like the Chinese assault at Unsan in 1950 usually resulted in American battalions becoming enveloped and then totally overrun by hordes of enemy troops that would suddenly appear with the sound of bugles, a form of psychological warfare that helped to confuse the American troops. The results were usually brutal and devastating for American troops, invariably grouped close to the roads and depending on heavy transport in order to accomplish almost anything, including a retreat.
Americans soon had many wounded men on their hands and suffered from shortages of ammunition. The urgent question quickly became how to evacuate the area without greater loss of life. When the U.S. Eighth Regiment’s First Battalion fought the Chinese in a brief firefight on October 31, 1950, the members of Dog Company (a heavy infantry company) thought they were in a routine firefight with North Korean troops. The Chinese commanded the high ground and even massive U.S. firepower was ineffective when the Chinese struck with full force. The Chinese troops used their bugles as a primitive communication system in order to change the direction of attack. However, the terrifying surprise of masses of Chinese that kept coming like fields of wheat provided the main tactical advantage.
Previously during the war, when UN troops (mostly Americans) broke out of the Pusan perimeter, crossed the 38th parallel and traveled to the Yalu, whole Chinese armies that had not even been identified as potential players in the conflict, were quietly enveloping our troops. Intelligence reports identifying the potential for Chinese involvement were systematically downplayed for a number of reasons, most of them political. Such politics subjected American soldiers to horrifying slaughter that has been swallowed up by the collective consciousness of most of our U.S. talking classes.
The Marines provided invaluable lessons in how to hold up under fire at Chosin Reservoir but the devastation meted out to the Chinese at Chipyongni solved the puzzle of how to wage war against vastly superior numbers of troops. First the Chinese threatened to maim UN forces at the battle of Twin Tunnels, the beginning of a contest for control of transportation routes leading south. Three miles east of Chipyongni, Twin Tunnels was looked upon by both Gen. Peng and the U.S. command as essential to control of Wonju, a transportation center for the central corridor that was considered more strategic than Chipyongni. The Americans had no idea where the Chinese were, other than a few scattered reports that Chinese were in the area.
Reconnaissance troops in the Twin Tunnels area were very much separated from the main U.S. force. Four officers and fifty-six enlisted men carried eight BARs, two heavy and four light machine guns, a rocket launcher, a 60 mm mortar and 57 and 75 recoilless rifles. A spotter unit was overhead looking for Chinese units. Almost as soon as the liaison plane spotted Chinese, communications with the base were lost and everything started to go wrong. Very quickly the recon patrol was under fire and the men were in danger of being overwhelmed.
Engines stalled, Chinese machine gun fire commenced, coolant began draining out of radiators and the troops began racing to a nearby hill, leaving most of the heavy armament behind. The men took two BARs (full-auto 30.06 Browning rifles) and one rocket launcher, a light machine gun and two twenty-pound cans of ammunition up the hill and into heavy snow. Many of the men were fresh recruits with no battle experience and never heard the order to climb the hill. Men picked up weapons when others fell and resumed the barrage for as long as the ammunition held out. Every shot counted as the Chinese appeared from behind cover.
Relief was on its way but only twelve of the sixty returned without being killed or wounded. Thirteen were dead. Ned Almond wanted to clear out the Chinese and sent the Twenty-third regiment back to the area. Almond had already earned a reputation at Chosin for failing to respect Chinese military tactics. He had a “reputation as a martinet who often commanded by instilling fear in subordinates”. In fact, his only claim to command seemed to be that he served MacArthur with unquestioning loyalty.
The U.S. Army now provided a startling venue for demonstrating the age old process of going from green recruit to grizzled combat soldier. Almond’s hubris forced dubious men with better sense than he to head towards Chipyongni in order to do something, anything aggressive, even though Almond’s orders had no tactical rationale other than to create a grave risk to his men.
Battle-tested French troops, veterans of the Indochina war, fought a preliminary battle alongside Americans in an area about four miles from Chipyongni. Led by General Ralph Monclar, the French wanted to warm up at some little fires and an argument ensued between the respective commanders on the way to Chipyongni. Nevertheless, Col. Paul Freeman and Monclars’s troops had time to position themselves, adjust their fields of fire and mortar emplacements were established. Twin Tunnels and Chipyongni were too far apart to support each other and vulnerable to being isolated by the Chinese. Almond wanted units to move into both areas at full speed and already mistakenly had decided that Freeman was too timid.
Almond’s order to fire on some huts at Chipyongni signaled to the Chinese that UN troops were now returning to the Twin Tunnels and Chipyongni areas. At 0430 the Chinese bugles sounded through the chilling fog and snow. The Chinese were reacting to the rapid American move into the area and had not prepared themselves with ammunition. Nevertheless, the ensuing battle was bitter. The French and Americans repulsed constant Chinese attacks and were soon low on ammunition themselves. The Chinese were prepared to suffer huge losses, however.
All available firepower was focused on the hill where the French took the brunt of the Chinese attack and had ample opportunity to demonstrate their proficiency with bayonets (apparently the French were not just bragging when they insisted that they loved to wield bayonets against Chinese).
Meanwhile, U.S. cannons mounted on two tanks along with mortars and twin 40 cannons (antiaircraft guns left over from WW II) “vacuum cleaned” the massed Chinese troops on the ridge. Ammunition was airlifted to the UN troops after Marine pilots delivered surgically placed air support- five hundred pound daisy-cutters followed by 50-caliber machine gun fire and rockets. Now the UN troops advanced to Chipyongni.
Rather than take the highest hills in the area and spread his forces thinly across a twelve mile perimeter, Freeman took the unusual measure of consolidating his firepower on a few smaller hills that were close together creating a perimeter only about two miles long by one mile deep. By doing so he made it possible for the heavy guns to support each other and for reserve units to come to assist when positions came under threat. Because the Chinese lacked long range heavy artillery, the higher ground would not provide a great advantage to the enemy and the Chinese machine guns would have little effect.
The UN forces had ten days to prepare their positions, from February 3 through February 13, 1950. The men’s lives depended on how well they could dig in. Fox holes were prepared and fields of fire for artillery and mortars were marked off precisely; barbed wire was copiously strung and every available mine was laid.
Ten miles southeast, ROK, American and Dutch troops collapsed around Wonju, putting Chipyongni at risk and demanding all available airpower. By February 12, all evidence was that Freeman was also about to be overwhelmed by Chinese. Troops sent to reinforce him had been hit badly and the little salient at Chipyongni was “sticking out like a sore thumb”! Freeman asked permission to execute a tactical retreat but Ridgway wanted Freeman to stay put. All other UN units were pulling back and it was soon too late as the swarms of Chinese in the area made the roads potential gauntlets with roadblocks designed to choke UN transport with murderous machine gun fire.
Nevertheless, a last minute decision was made and Almond issued orders to retreat to Yoju, fifteen miles away. As the men of the Twenty-third prepared to fire off ammunition in order to lighten their loads, the orders were changed again. Ridgway promised to provide whatever support it took to hold even if the whole Eighth Army had to come to their rescue.
With at least four Chinese divisions surrounding them, Freeman instructed every commander to inspect fox holes and check fields of fire once again. Fifty-four hundred men were depending on their ability to hold the line together under Freeman’s command. This is where the respect of his men became critical.
On the other hand, Gen. Almond was known to be racially prejudiced, dismissive towards his own commanders and dismissive of the enemy. Only his close relationship to Gen. MacArthur seems to have recommended him as a leader. His prejudice toward black troops was only matched by his inability to make intelligent assessments of the Chinese “laundrymen” who would have eaten his lunch at Chosin had it not been for the Marines- Marines led by a command that subsequently refused to serve under Almond.
Almond’s strategy of using ROK troops as cannon manure in Wonju also evidenced his disregard for Asians and increased the pressure on Paul Freeman’s troop at Chipyongni. The “police action” in the central corridor was going badly just a short distance from the little hills on which Freeman had dug in. One regiment alone had lost 438 men in “Massacre Valley”.
As Wonju collapsed, a spotter plane flew lower when an observer saw a moving line of trees near a river bank. The camouflaged Chinese, so confident that they had never even stopped when they heard the plane fly over, were caught in the open in front of artillery tubes that were perfectly prepared to deliver massive fire. Even under such a withering barrage, the Chinese waves kept coming. When the ammunition was running low and the big guns began to melt, Stewart ordered, “Keep firing until every last shell is used!” More ammo was ordered from Japan and Stewart, the hero of the battle, according to Halberstam, ordered that the guns be fired “until the barrels melt”. Five thousand Chinese were killed but more hard fighting was to come.
Freeman suffered a minor wound and Almond, who was waiting for his opportunity to remove Freeman from command, now issued orders removing Freeman from the battle. Freeman managed to miss his plane and retained command long enough to get his men through the battle, becoming one of the preeminent leaders of the Korean War, mostly as a result of his actions at Chipyongni.
The command sent Marcel Crombez on a controversial rescue mission in which he inadvisedly placed troops on top of the tanks. Foreseeably, when the turrets rotated the men were swept off the tanks during firefights with the Chinese and were left along the way to be killed and captured or captured and killed, in many cases.
The second night at Chipyongni, the Chinese found a route that focused many Chinese troops on one particular sector of the UN perimeter. A friendly fire incident exposed U.S. troops to some terrible losses as Chinese crawled forward again and again with sticks of dynamite lashed to a pole. Wave after wave of Chinese attacked one machine gun position covering a spur on a hill needed by the Chinese to access the position in front of George Company.
The machine gunner, Corp. Eugene Ottesen, knew he was a dead man but fired short bursts that continued to hold the position until he was knocked out by a hand grenade. Others tried to stand in the gap left by Ottesen but ammunition was running low and almost every U.S. soldier was wounded, dying or dead. Crates of ammo were dropped but much of it was damaged and jammed BARs had to be cleared again and again with pocket knives.
Some men turned to the smaller M1 carbine for the close range fighting, but the cold froze the carbines’ actions and made operation difficult. Each fox hole taken by the Chinese now became a position from which Chinese troops could suppress UN fire and make a way for more determined Chinese to come up the hill. By the time the Chinese took McGee Hill there were eight hundred dead Chinese in front of the one position! A combination of endless artillery fire and napalm, however, devastated the seemingly inexorable wave of Chinese manpower.
The Chinese were positioned to exploit their new vantage point but lack of ability to take initiative, lack of communications and Chinese inability to resupply its troops provided enough time for Crombez to arrive with tanks and troops. Notwithstanding the unnecessary loss of troops along the way, Crombez was a savior to some and a bastard to others, including one Captain that threatened to kill him right in front of the bewildered and dazed survivors of the men of the Twenty-third, who thought they had suffered utter defeat. Additionally, the men of the Twenty-third now believed they were watching an insane man accost Crombez!
This was the battle Matt Ridgeway had been looking for and Freeman’s tactics were studied at the Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth for years to come because this is when the U.S. finally learned to fight the Chinese! The massed troops of Chinese could be handled!
The lesson was that if the fighting men held the right positions with the right fields of fire and had the right leadership, the burden of battle would be on the less heavily armed but numerically superior Chinese. As many as five thousand Chinese are estimated to have died at Chipyongni. Thus, according to Halberstam, the Chinese had also learned a lesson about U.S. firepower by the time Chipyongni was over. And another important lesson was that you should always take a good BAR man along for the fight!