The battle that raged along the Naktong River in southeast Korea in the first half of September 1950 was a battle of almost overwhelming odds and desperation. It was a battle of blood, sweat and tears, and of ordinary men-turned-heroes who risked their lives, and often sacrificed them, to give their buddies a chance to make it to safety.
They were men like Sgt. 1st Class Ernest R. Kouma of Company A, 72nd Tank Battalion, who confronted the first enemy wave as it crossed the river the night of Aug. 31. A seasoned World War II veteran, Kouma had positioned his tank near the river with two rifle squads from Company A, 9th Infantry Regiment in the tiny village of Agok, close to the 2nd Infantry Division’s southern boundary. They heard some dogs barking that night and some splashes, and then there was a heavy mortar barrage, but thick fog meant the Soldiers couldn’t actually see across the water. So when the fog suddenly lifted around 10:30 at night, Kouma was stunned to see that not only was the enemy laying a pontoon bridge across the river, they were almost done.
He and his gunner opened fire, destroying the bridge in minutes, but it wasn’t long before about 500 North Korean soldiers began crossing the river anyway. After the infantry Soldiers received orders to withdraw to ridge positions, Kouma’s armored unit – two tanks and two antiaircraft trucks – remained. They fought off enemy attack after enemy attack.
At one point, seven soldiers in American uniforms ran toward him and explained – in excellent English – that a large force was approaching his position and that most of the company had been killed or captured.
“I was on top of the turret checking my 50 cal. machine gun,” Kouma later wrote to Army historian Roy E. Appleman, author of “South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu.” “They leaped from the tank and began throwing grenades … and about the same time a steady spray of machine gun fire and rifle fire began hitting the tanks and (antiaircraft) guns from the crest of the high bluff about 150 yards to my right. My gunner at once took them under fire as well as (Sgt. 1st Class Oscar V.) Berry’s and the AA guns. I got back in the turret and threw about 7 or 8 grenades.”
According to Army reports, Kouma, who was wounded twice, “leaped from the armored turret, exposing himself to a hail of hostile fire, manned the .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the rear deck, and delivered pointblank fire into the fanatical foe. His machine gun emptied, he fired his pistol and threw grenades to keep the enemy from his tank.”
By 1:30 in the morning, the other vehicles had all been overrun or damaged and Kouma’s tank crew stood alone. They fought on until daylight, when the attacks finally stopped. The rising sun revealed a bloody killing field around Kouma’s tank, with North Koreans dead by the hundreds. Then, despite his injuries, Kouma attempted to resupply his tank and return to battle. After he was treated, he once again asked to return to the front.
As President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor the following spring, the Army would estimate that Kouma was personally responsible for killing about 250 enemy soldiers, allowing “the infantry sufficient time to reestablish defensive positions.” Promoted to master sergeant, Kouma would remain in the Army for another 20 years.
Private 1st Class Luther H. Story of Co. A, 9th Inf. Regt. was also near Agok for that first wave of attacks, and his company beat off several throughout the day, Sept. 1. When Story observed yet another North Korean unit crossing the Natkong, he grabbed a machine gun from a wounded Soldier and sprayed the enemy column with a hail of bullets, killing or wounding some 100. Still, they were about to be surrounded, and Story’s commander ordered the company to withdraw.
“Take cover!” Story yelled to his comrades; an enemy truck filled with soldiers and towing an ammunition trailer was headed straight for them. Fearless, Story stood in the middle of the road, throwing grenade after grenade after grenade. He crawled to his squad, grabbed more grenades and threw those as well. More North Koreans attacked as the company retreated, however, and although Story was wounded, he rallied his men and helped repel the assault. He knew that he would slow his buddies down, so he refused to go any farther — he would cover the company’s withdrawal. “When last seen,” according to his Medal of Honor citation, “he was firing every weapon available and fighting off another hostile assault.”
Unit after unit fell, and there were few in reserve to draw from, so theater commanders attached the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade to the 2nd Inf. Div., with orders to destroy the enemy east of the Natkong and restore the river line, starting Sept. 3. The joint counterattack made some progress over the next few days, although there were still many lethal pockets. September 5, for example, Company G, 9th Inf. Regt. found itself in a desperate battle. As Sgt. 1st Class Loren R. Kaufman’s platoon moved along a ridge two miles from the main company, it was quickly encircled by the enemy.
Kaufman, another decorated World War II veteran, charged forward, bayonetting the lead North Korean scout and engaging the rest in a rifle and grenade assault so intense that the enemy retreated in confusion, according to Army documents. When his platoon linked up with the rest of Co. G, they found their comrades pinned down. Kaufman then led several grenade, rifle and bayonet assaults. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, and he even seized an enemy machine gun. Finally able to regroup, Co. G went back on the offensive.
“Leading the assault, (Kaufman) reached the ridge, destroyed a hostile machine gun position, and rerouted the remaining enemy” before destroying an enemy mortar position. When all was said and done, Kaufman had bayoneted four additional North Korean soldiers, and the enemy fled to a local village. “Kaufman led a patrol into town, dispersed them, and burned the buildings,” according to the Medal of Honor citation he would later be awarded. It was a posthumous award, however: While Kaufman survived the Naktong, he would be killed in action the following February.
Other Medal of Honor recipients from the battle include
All of the men but Gomez were killed in action. Dozens of others received Distinguished Service Crosses, Silver Stars and Bronze Stars for valor. Countless Soldiers will never be recognized for their actions because their units were nearly wiped out, leaving no witnesses to their heroism.
“The people who are heroes don’t always get medals,” said retired Col. Mike Alexander, 2nd Inf. Div. historian and curator of the division’s museum. “These (Medals of Honor) are a representation of hundreds if not thousands of brave Soldiers who stood and fought and ultimately won because of their belief in each other … not necessarily for Mom, Chevrolet and apple pie or the freedom of Korea, but also … food, shelter, clothing and preservation – believing in each other and being successful.”
Editor’s Note: Quotes from written sources retain the original spelling and punctuation. For more information about the battle of the Naktong Bulge, read “Hell on the Naktong.”