All the following text is excerpted
FROM CHAPTER VII OF
SOUTH TO THE NAKTONG, NORTH TO THE YALU
by Roy E. Appleman
of the Center of Military History, U.S. Army
The 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division had now crossed from Japan to Korea. Colonel Stephens, commanding officer of the regiment, arrived at Taejon with a trainload of his troops before noon on 7 July. Stephens, a bluff, rugged soldier, reported to General Dean for instructions. Within the hour Dean sent him northward to take up a delaying position at Choch'iwon, support the34th Infantry, and keep open the main supply road to that regiment.
At Choch'iwon all was confusion. There were no train schedules or train manifests. Supplies for the 24th Division and for the ROK I Corps troops eastward at Ch'ongju arrived all mixed together. The South Korean locomotive engineers were hard to manage. At the least alarm they were apt to bolt south with trains still unloaded, carrying away the supplies and ammunition they had just brought up to the front. American officers had to place guards aboard each locomotive.
Messages from General Dean to Colonel Stephens emphasized that the 21st Infantry must hold at Choch'iwon, that the regiment must cover the left flank of the ROK forces eastward in the vicinity of Ch'ongju until the latter could fall back, and that he could expect no help for four days. General Dean's intent was clear. The 34th and 21st Infantry Regiments were to delay the enemy's approach to the Kum River as much as possible, and then from positions on the south side of the river make a final stand. The fate of Taejon would be decided at the Kum River line.
The Fight at Chonui
On the morning of 9 July, the 3d Battalion, 1st Infantry, completed moving into the positions north of Choch'iwon, and Colonel Jensen began registering his 81-mm. and 4.2-inch mortars. Engineers blew bridges in front of Chonui. By noon the 21st Regimental Headquarters received a report that enemy tanks were moving south from Ch'onan.
In mid-afternoon, Capt. Charles R. Alkire, in command at the forward blocking position at Chonui, saw eleven tanks and an estimated 200-300 enemy infantry move into view to his front. He called for an air strike which came in a few minutes later. Artillery also took the tanks under observed fire. Five of the eleven tanks reportedly were burning at 1650. Enemy infantry in Chonui came under 4.2-inch mortar and artillery fire. Observers could see them running from house to house. The men on the low ridge east of Chonui saw columns of black smoke rise beyond the hills to the northwest and assumed that the planes and artillery fire had hit targets there. Aerial observers later reported that twelve vehicles, including tanks, were burning just north of Chonui. At dusk another air report stated that of about 200 vehicles on the road from P'yongt'aek to Chonui approximately 100 were destroyed or burning. The third and fourth tactical air control parties to operate in the Korean War (Air Force personnel) directed the strikes at Chonui.
While this heavy bombardment of the enemy column was still in progress, Colonel Stephens arrived at the forward position about dusk and announced he was going to stay overnight. In their front, burning Chonui relieved the blackness of the night. Enemy patrols probed their position. Unless all signs failed there would be action on the morrow.
About 500 men of A and D Companies and fillers for B and C Companies who had arrived at Pusan too late to join Task Force Smith for the Osan action comprised the composite battalion of the 21st Infantry at the Chonui position. They occupied a three-quarter mile front on a low ridge 500 yards east of Chonui and on a higher hill 800 yards south of the town. Rice paddy land lay between this high ground and Chonui. The railroad and highway passed between the ridge and the hill. Still another hill westward dominated the left flank but there were too few troops to occupy it.
From the low ridge east of Chonui one normally could see the road for a mile beyond the town, but not on the morning of 10 July. The day dawned with a ground fog billowing up from the rice paddies. With it came the North Koreans. At 0555 the American soldiers could hear enemy voices on their left. Fifteen minutes later those on the ridge at the center of the position heard an enemy whistle at the left; then firing began in that direction. Soon, some of the men near Colonel Stephens began shooting blindly into the fog. He promptly stopped them. At 0700, enemy mortar fire began falling on the ridge.
Lt. Ray Bixler with a platoon of A Company held the hill on the left. The rate of small arms fire increased and those in the center could hear shouting from Bixler's platoon. It was apparent that the main enemy attack centered there, coming from the higher hill beyond it. A concentration of friendly registered mortar fire covered the little valley between the two hills and in the early part of the morning prevented the enemy from closing effectively with Bixler's platoon. But an enemy force passed to the rear around the right flank of the battalion and now attacked the heavy mortar positions. At the same time, enemy tanks came through Chonui on the highway and passed through the infantry position. The men on the ridge could hear the tanks but could not see them because of fog.
At 0800 the fog lifted. Chonui was still burning. Four tanks came into view from the north and entered the village. Stephens radioed for an air strike. Then the men heard tank fire to their rear. The enemy tanks that had passed through the lines earlier were joining their flanking infantry force in an attack on the American heavy mortar position. Stephens had already lost wire communication with the mortarmen; now he lost radio communication with them. The mortars fell silent, and it seemed certain that the enemy had overrun and destroyed them. Although artillery still gave support, loss of the valuable close-in support of the 4.2-inch mortars proved costly.
North Korean infantry came from Chonui at 0900 and began climbing the ridge in a frontal attack against the center of the position. The artillery forward observers adjusted artillery fire on them and turned them back. Men watching anxiously on the ridge saw many enemy fall to the ground as they ran. The T34's in Chonui now moved out of the town and began spraying the American-held ridge with machine gun fire.
Shortly after 1100, intense small arms fire erupted again at Lieutenant Bixler's position on the left. The absence of the former heavy mortar fire protecting screen enabled the enemy to close with him. The fog had lifted and men in the center could see these enemy soldiers on the left. Bixler radioed to Stephens at 1125 that he needed more men, that he had many casualties, and asked permission to withdraw. Stephens replied that he was to stay-"Relief is on the way." Five minutes later it came in the form of an air strike. Two American jet planes streaked in, rocketed the tanks without any visible hits, and then strafed the enemy infantry on the left. The strafing helped Bixler; as long as the planes were present the enemy kept under cover. Soon, their ammunition expended, the planes departed. Then the enemy infantry resumed the attack.
While the air strike was in progress, survivors from the overrun recoilless rifle and mortar positions in the rear climbed the ridge and joined the infantry in the center of the position. At 1132, according to Bigart's watch, friendly artillery fire began falling on the ridge. Apparently the artillerymen thought that enemy troops had overrun the forward infantry position and they were firing on them. Enemy fire and tanks had destroyed wire communication from the battle position to the rear, and the artillery forward observer's radio had ceased working. There was no communication. Stephens ran to his radio jeep, 100 yards to the rear of the foxholes, and from there was able to send a message to the regiment to stop the artillery fire; but it kept falling nevertheless.
As the men on the ridge crouched in their foxholes under the shower of dirt and rocks thrown into the air by the exploding artillery shells, Stephens at 11 35 received another report from Bixler that enemy soldiers surrounded him and that most of his men were casualties. That was his last report. The enemy overran Bixler's position and most of the men there died in their foxholes.
Even before the friendly artillery fire began falling, some of the men on the north (right) end of the ridge had run off. About the time of Bixler's last radio message, someone yelled, "Everybody on the right flank is taking off!" Stephens, looking in that direction, saw groups running to the rear. He yelled out, "Get those high priced soldiers back into position! That's what they are paid for." A young Nisei from Hawaii, Cpl. Richard Okada, tried to halt the panic on the right but was able to get only a few men together. With them he formed a small perimeter.
At 1205 Colonel Stephens decided that those still on the ridge would have to fall back if they were to escape with their lives. On a signal from him, the small group leaped from their foxholes and ran across open ground to an orchard and rice paddies beyond. There they learned, as thousands of other American soldiers were to learn, that crossing flooded rice paddies in a hurry on the narrow, slippery dikes was like walking a tightrope. While they were crossing the paddies, two American jet planes strafed them, thinking them enemy soldiers. There were no casualties from the strafing but some of the men slipped knee-deep into mud and acquired a "lifelong aversion to rice." Stephens and his small group escaped to American lines.
In this action at Chonui, A Company had 27 wounded and 30 missing for a total of 57 casualties out of 181 men; D Company's loss was much less, 3 killed and 8 wounded. The Heavy Mortar Company suffered 14 casualties. Of the total troops engaged the loss was about 20 percent.
Upon reaching friendly positions, Stephens ordered Colonel Jensen to counterattack with the 3d Battalion and regain the Chonui positions. Jensen pressed the counterattack and regained the ridge in front of the town, but was unable to retake Bixler's hill south of the railroad. His men rescued about ten men of A and D Companies who had not tried to withdraw under the shell fire.
Jensen's counterattack in the afternoon uncovered the first known North Korean mass atrocity perpetrated on captured American soldiers. The bodies of six Americans, jeep drivers and mortar-men of the Heavy Mortar Company, were found with hands tied in back and shot through the back of the head. Infiltrating enemy soldiers had captured them in the morning when they were on their way to the mortar position with a resupply of ammunition. An American officer farther back witnessed the capture. One of the jeep drivers managed to escape when the others surrendered.
American tanks on the morning of 10 July near Chonui engaged in their first fight of the Korean War. They performed poorly. In the afternoon, tanks participated in the 3d Battalion counterattack and did better. One of them got in a first shot on an enemy tank and disabled it. Two American light tanks were lost during the day.
Elements of the N.K. 4th Division had pressed on south after the capture of Ch'onan and they had fought the battle of Chonui. Leading elements of the N.K. 3d Division, following the 4th by one day, apparently came up to Chonui late on the 10th. They found the town such a mass of rubble that the reserve regiment bypassed it.
On the afternoon of 10 July American air power had one of its great moments in the Korean War. Late in the afternoon, a flight of jet F-80 planes dropped down through the overcast at P'yongt'aek, twenty-five air miles north of Chonui, and found a large convoy of tanks and vehicles stopped bumper to bumper on the north side of a destroyed bridge. Upon receiving a report of this discovery, the Fifth Air Force rushed every available plane to the scene-B-26's, F-80's, and F-82's-in a massive air strike. Observers of the strike reported that it destroyed 38 tanks, 7 half-track vehicles, 117 trucks, and a large number of enemy soldiers. This report undoubtedly exaggerated unintentionally the amount of enemy equipment actually destroyed. But this strike, and that of the previous afternoon near Chonui, probably resulted in the greatest destruction of enemy armor of any single action in the war.
Just before midnight of 10 July Colonel Jensen began to withdraw the 3d Battalion from the recaptured ridge east of Chonui, bringing along most of the equipment lost earlier in the day. When the battalion arrived at its former position it received a surprise: enemy soldiers occupied some of its foxholes. Only after an hour's battle did K Company clear the North Koreans from its old position.
In a message to Colonel Stephens at 2045 General Dean suggested withdrawing the 3d Battalion from this position. But he left the decision to Stephens, saying, "If you consider it necessary, withdraw to your next delaying position prior to dawn. I am reminding you of the importance of the town of Choch'iwon. If it is lost, it means that the SKA [South Korean Army] will have lost its MSR [Main Supply Route]." An hour later, in talking to a regimental staff officer, Dean authorized falling back four miles to the next delaying position two miles north of Choch'iwon, but ordered, "Hold in your new position and fight like hell. I expect you to hold it all day tomorrow."
Meanwhile, Task Force Smith, re-equipping at Taejon, had received 205 replacements and on 10 July it received orders to rejoin the 21st Regiment at Choch'iwon. Smith arrived there with B and C Companies before dawn of 11 July. A and D Companies had re-equipped at Choch'iwon and they joined with B and C Companies to reunite the 1st Battalion. Colonel Smith now had his battalion together in Korea for the first time. At 0730, 11 July, the 1st Battalion was in position along the highway two miles north of Choch'iwon. Four miles north of it Colonel Jensen's 3d Battalion was already engaged with the North Koreans in the next battle.
At 0630 that morning, men in the 3d Battalion position heard tanks to their front on the other side of a mine field, but could not see them because of fog. Within a few minutes four enemy tanks crossed the mine field and loomed up in the battalion area. Simultaneously, enemy mortar fire fell on the battalion command post, blowing up the communications center, the ammunition supply point, and causing heavy casualties among headquarters troops. Approximately 1,000 enemy infantry enveloped both flanks of the position. Some forward observers had fine targets but their radios did not function. In certain platoons there apparently was no wire communication. Consequently these forward observers were unable to call in and direct mortar and artillery fire on the North Koreans.
This attack on the 3d Battalion, 21st Infantry, was one of the most perfectly co-ordinated assaults ever launched by North Koreans against American troops. The North Koreans who had been driven from the 3d Battalion's position shortly after midnight, together no doubt with other infiltrators, apparently had provided detailed and accurate information of the 3d Battalion's defenses and the location of its command post. The attack disorganized the battalion and destroyed its communications before it had a chance to fight back. Enemy roadblocks behind the battalion prevented evacuation of the wounded or re-supplying the battalion with ammunition. For several hours units of the battalion fought as best they could. Many desperate encounters took place. In one of these, when an enemy machine gun placed a band of fire on K Company's command post, Pvt. Paul R. Spear, armed with only a pistol, charged the machine gun emplacement alone, entered it with his pistol empty and, using it as a club, routed the enemy gunners. Enemy fire seriously wounded him.
The North Koreans overran the 3d Battalion. Before noon, survivors in small groups made their way back toward Choch'iwon. Enemy fire killed Colonel Jensen, the battalion commander, and Lt. Leon J. Jacques, Jr., his S-2, when they tried to cross a stream in the rear of their observation post. The battalion S-1 and S-3, Lieutenants Cashe and Lester, and Capt. O'Dean T. Cox, commanding officer of L Company, were reported missing in action. The 3d Battalion, 21st Infantry, lost altogether nearly 60 percent of its strength in this action. Of those who escaped, 90 percent had neither weapons, ammunition, nor canteens, and, in many instances, the men had neither helmets nor shoes. One officer of L Company who came out with some men said that after he and others had removed an enemy machine gun blocking their escape route many uninjured men by the side of the road simply refused to try to go on. One noncom said, "Lieutenant, you will have to go on. I'm too beat up. They'll just have to take me." A remnant of 8 officers and 142 men able for duty was organized into a provisional company of three rifle platoons and a heavy weapons company. But by 15 July a total of 322 out of 667 men had returned to the battalion. Four tanks of A Company, 78th Heavy Tank Battalion, were lost to enemy action north of Choch'iwon on 10 and 11 July. The 21st Infantry on 10 and 11 July north of Choch'iwon lost materiel and weapons sufficient to equip two rifle battalions and individual and organic clothing for 975 men.
At Chonui the 3d Division had passed the 4th on the main highway. It struck the blow against the 3d Battalion, 21st Infantry. The 4th Division turned back from Chonui and took the right fork toward Kongju, following the retreating 34th Infantry.
Toward evening of the 11th, after he had full information of the fate of the 3d Battalion, 21st Infantry, General Dean ordered A Company, 3d Engineer Combat Battalion, to prepare every possible obstacle for the defense of the Choch'iwon area and to cover, if necessary, the withdrawal of the regiment. Dean also started the 18th Infantry Regiment and the 13th Field Artillery Battalion from Taegu and P'ohang-dong for Taejon during the day.
That night the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, rested uneasily in its positions two miles north of Choch'iwon. It had to expect that the North Koreans would strike within hours. At dawn an enemy patrol approached C Company's position, and members of the battalion saw hostile movement on both flanks. At 0930 an estimated enemy battalion, supported by artillery fire, attacked Smith's left flank. Very quickly a general attack developed by an estimated 2,000 enemy soldiers. Colonel Stephens decided that the under-strength 1st Battalion, with its large percentage of replacement and untried troops, would have to withdraw. At noon, 12 July, he sent the following message to General Dean: "Am surrounded. 1st Bn left giving way. Situation bad on right. Having nothing left to establish intermediate delaying position am forced to withdraw to river line. I have issued instructions to withdraw."
Colonel Smith disengaged the 1st Battalion by moving one company at a time Regimental trucks loaded the troops near Choch'iwon. While the infantry were displacing southward, enemy artillery began shelling the regimental command post in Choch'iwon. The retreat was orderly and there was no close pursuit. By 1530 the 1st Battalion occupied new defensive positions on the south bank of the Kum River where the highway crossed it at Taep'yong-ni. The 21st Infantry Regiment completed its withdrawal across the Kum at 1600, but stragglers were still crossing the river five hours later. A thin line of approximately 325 men held the new blocking position at the river-64 men from the 3d Battalion, the rest from the 1st Battalion.
In the series of battles between Chonui and Choch'iwon the under-strength two-battalion 21st Infantry Regiment had delayed two of the best North Korean divisions for three days. It was the most impressive performance yet of American troops in Korea, but the regiment paid heavily for it in loss of personnel and equipment.