Soldiers fight through some of the Army’s darkest days in the Korean War
Sick to their stomachs with dread, with the screams of the wounded and dying and the grim staccato of mortars and gunfire echoing all around them, Soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division prepared to run the Gauntlet, a six-mile stretch of hell leading out of Kunu-ri, North Korea, Nov. 30, 1950. Chinese soldiers lined the mountains above the narrow road, picking off Soldiers and destroying tanks and other vehicles. Ruined equipment blocked the already-clogged road, making it nearly impassable and rendering the tiny valley a deathtrap.
“The Chinese were hitting us with machine guns and mortars,” remembered Pfc. Kenneth Poss of the 9th Infantry Regiment in “The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin, an Oral History.” “They’d knock out the lead vehicle, then beat the hell out of us. … At one spot another guy and I pushed a jeep off the road. … At another point the road climbed up a steep grade and doubled back on itself in a U-turn. At the top of the U, the Chinese had a machine gun. I was riding in a truck at the time. The machine gun opened fire and many of the men riding with me were hit. The guy next to me fell across me and took another bullet, the one meant for me.”*
The Gauntlet and the battle of the Ch’ongch’on River that proceeded it marked some of the darkest days in Army history, but for many Soldiers, it would be their finest hour. They proved their fighting spirit, their dedication, their bravery, said Thomas Kenny, museum manager for the Korean War National Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
“As everything seems to be going against them, you have them fighting tooth and nail. … Under incredible hardship, the Soldiers were able to turn an incredibly bad situation into a little bit better one. I think it goes into some of the training, the leadership the Soldiers have experienced throughout their training. They’ve really instilled that attitude and effort to survive and to proceed.”
The first attacks
The Chinese had first attacked at the end of October and early November, annihilating the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Unsan. Then they disappeared. “Most Americans interpreted that as they just wanted to give the UN forces a bloody nose and then they were going to withdraw and create a buffer zone,” according to former Capt. William M. Donnelly, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
Indeed, despite prisoner testimonials alleging a massive Chinese force, and Chinese warnings that they would intervene if United Nations forces crossed into North Korea, intelligence reports suggested that only a few thousand soldiers, perhaps a couple of divisions, were in Korea.
“When you look back, you can see a lot of indications, but you didn’t have a complete picture,” Donnelly continued. “The people who are making decisions (especially Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of Far East Command) often have preconceived notions … and they just ignore intelligence that doesn’t fit.
“The Chinese were really good at concealing their troop movements into Korea. We picked up their massing on the border in Manchuria, but we didn’t pick up how many they had actually moved into Korea.” Everyone still expected to head home by Christmas. Soldiers resumed the march north, with some advance units reaching the Yalu River (the Manchurian border), Nov. 21.
Unfortunately, according to Army historian Richard W. Stewart in “The Korean War: The Chinese Intervention,” about 300,000 CCF soldiers were already in country, with more arriving every day. They were waiting for the right moment to strike, “trying to tempt the UN forces into over extending,” said Donnelly.
The Ch’ongch’on River
The night of Nov. 25, an eerie bugle call sliced through the frigid night air along the Ch’ongch’on River. Lacking radios and other communication equipment, the CCF used bugle calls to relay orders in battle. It also proved to be an excellent intimidation tactic, Kenny pointed out, for Soldiers knew the sound was a harbinger of death.
In fact, agreed Donnelly, the Chinese were aware of their own limitations – poor logistics; a lack of supplies, including food and ammunition; very few vehicles and no airpower – and compensated for them. They attacked at night, for example, to counteract American air superiority, and infiltrated the gaps between units instead of confronting the Allies head on. They were good at close combat, often rendering American artillery useless.
Retired Lt. Col. Lynn Richard “Dick” Raybould was a highly decorated 2nd lieutenant in the 37th Field Artillery Battalion, recently assigned as a forward observer for Company L, 3rd Battalion, 9th Inf. Regt. after surviving the Naktong battle in September. Left Company, as he still calls it, was
the northernmost tip of the spear for the entire division, according David Halberstam in “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.” Thanks to the rough terrain when it crossed the Ch’ongch’on, the company had been forced to leave behind supplies and extra ammunition and grenades. At first, the men weren’t too concerned. After all, the war was practically over.
But as they trudged northward, it quickly became evident that something was off, from the perfectly square foxholes they found to the men’s sixth senses. Raybould told Halberstam he felt the company’s platoons were positioned poorly, with a perimeter that might be easily flanked. Nor did their fields of fire interlock as well as they might have.
He was right to be concerned: A regiment of several thousand Chinese soldiers attacked their position that night. Like so many others, the company fought until the ammunition ran out. Man after man fell, giving their lives in a country many had never heard of six months earlier. In one night, Left Company went from 170 men to about 20. Raybould’s own radio operator was captured. A few survivors escaped, planning to rendezvous with K “King” Co., which was located down one steep hill and up another, only to find that there “was no King Company” anymore.
Raybould, went “through hell,” according to his buddy retired Col. Ralph Hockley, then a second lieutenant in the 37th Field Artillery Bn.“He got cut off. Dick … knows maps so well that he managed to read the maps to see how he could evade the Chinese. He told his men, ‘Anybody who wants to go with me, follow me. If you don’t want to, you do what you want to do.’ The guys who went with him got out. The others didn’t.”
Raybould credits his survival to the skills he learned during childhood games of hide-and-go-seek.
“I was very good at hiding,” he said. “Most of the people tried to take a soft, gradual slope down, but it was out in the bright moonlight. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going there. I stayed in the shadows and worked my way down the steeper part of the hill. I got down into this dry riverbed.
“Once we got to the river, the artillery started shooting at us from the other side,” he continued. “We identified ourselves as U.S. and they stopped firing. We crossed the river and it was so cold that (while) walking a hundred yards or so up to the warming tents, our pant legs froze solid. It was well below zero.” Indeed, the bitter cold made combat even more miserable, as Soldiers not only had to worry about bullets, but frostbite and hypothermia.
“Americans haven’t fought a battle like that since in terms of how cold it was,” said Donnelly. “The Americans didn’t have sufficient cold weather gear to go around because they were expecting the war to be over by the end of 1950. Of course, it was even worse for the Chinese army. They literally had thousands of men freeze to death.”
After several days of Chinese attacks, the 2nd Inf. Div., and indeed much of the 8th Army as well as its UN partners, had suffered heavy casualties; the 9th Inf., for example, was left at half strength, according to Army historian Billy C. Mossman in “Ebb and Flow: Nov. 1950 – July 1951, the U.S. Army in Korea.” Soldiers retreated south, with the 2nd Inf. Div. setting up a new defensive line at Kunu-ri, but the CCF continued to close in. Entrapment became a real possibility.
“On Nov. 29, Lt. Gen. (Walton) Walker, commander of 8th Army … decided the most important thing to do was to save 8th Army, and if that meant withdrawing 8th Army to South Korea, then he was going to do it,” said Donnelly.
It was too late, however. The Chinese were blocking the main road south.
Their retreat quickly became the Gauntlet, the trap so many Soldiers were forced to endure, Nov. 30, as they inched their way through the valley of death, a living “horror movie” according to Donnelly. It was an ambush so ghastly and chaotic that unit cohesion broke down as leaders were killed and many wounded were left along the side of the road.
“I grabbed my rifle and jumped out of the truck,” Poss recalled. “A shot went between my legs. I ran over and hid in a little depression. … The Chinese had us pinned in there. On the other side of the road there was a steep gulley. I waited for the Chinese to stop firing … then bounded across the road and fell, tumbled and rolled. … I could see the Chinese machine gun. I stopped and thought, ‘I can take that damn thing out.’ … There were three Chinese operating the gun. I picked each of them off.”
It was well after dark by the time Raybould and his driver were able to get through. The Chinese were targeting the big trucks with the ammunition, Raybould explained. “We were fortunate in being able to get out with neither of us being injured.” Survival was down to a combination of air strikes, grit and sheer luck.
What was left of the 2nd Inf. Div. was shattered, its artillery almost nonexistent, its morale crushed. In five days, it had lost about 4,500 men, according to Mossman. Eighth Army retreated back to South Korea in what quickly became known as the “Great Bugout.” They destroyed everything that might be useful to the communists along the way, including, by some reports, winter uniforms. They even destroyed battle reports and unit histories.
The American press, according to Donnelly, compared the Soldiers unfavorably to the Marines who were simultaneously fighting their way out of the Chosin Reservoir. The press openly wondered what was wrong with the Soldiers, why they couldn’t repeat the successes of World War II.
“Nothing had really happened like this in American history,” said Donnelly. “You have to go back to St. Claire’s Defeat in 1791, and most Americans would not have heard of it. … Then there was also the sense of American Soldiers – they read the newspapers. They can hear the radio broadcasts. … We thought we were going to win the war and now we’re back in South Korea and the war’s still going on with no end in sight.”
Fighting another day
Walker’s quick retreat did save many other units, according to Donnelly. But then Walker himself was killed in a vehicle accident, Dec. 23. He was immediately replaced by then-Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, who quickly set about instilling a new esprit de corps in his men and cleaning house of ineffective leaders.
It helped, too, said Kenny, that operations under Ridgeway were named “Killer and Ripper and Thunderbolt, very kind of aggressive names. … He slowly moves back and starts gaining territory back up toward the 38th Parallel and really starts instilling this confidence in the Soldiers. He would bring in attention to detail.”
The men of the 8th Army also learned how to exploit Chinese weaknesses, a talent that Ridgeway employed with his meat-grinder tactics – basically, kill as many of the enemy as you could, added Donnelly. Men became battle hardened, and more Soldiers, including several field artillery units, arrived in Korea, although the Pentagon and the White House were never willing to commit enough troops for total victory.
“In 1951, the 8th Army is able to advance quickly and methodically north, back up to the parallel. The battle of Chipyong-ni (February 13 to 15, 1951) … is based on how Americans have analyzed Chinese tactics and operations, and they deliberately set things up to maximize Americans strength. … They dug in. They stockpiled their ammunition. They coordinated with their artillery and the Air Force. When the Chinese attacked, they didn’t understand that the Americans had learned all of this.” The resulting victory was a huge morale boost for the UN forces.
But, at the same time, Donnelly continued, “I think it’s very instructive for American Soldiers to read about the disasters as well as the great achievements and victories. … That’s more important, usually, for your development as a Soldier.”
Editor’s note: Written sources retain their original spelling and punctuation. For more information about the first Chinese strike, read “Disaster at Unsan” on the Soldiers Web page. For more information about Ch’ongch’on, Kunu-ri and the Gauntlet, read the following Center of Military History resources: