The only unforeseen event complicating North Korea's strategy was the swift decision by the United States to commit forces in support of South Korea. On June 26, 1950, the day after the North Korean invasion and the beginning of the Korean War (1950-1953) Truman ordered the use of United States planes and naval vessels against North Korean forces. The next day, the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council asked all its members to assist in repelling the North Korean attack and the United States announced it was going to send troops to support South Korea.

On June 30 United States ground troops were dispatched. They arrived later on July 5th. A headquarters was set up in Taegu but it had to be abandoned not long afterwards to avoid being overrun by North Korean forces. The United States, fearing that inaction in Korea would be interpreted as appeasement of communist aggression elsewhere in the world, was determined that South Korea should not be overwhelmed and asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene.

Britain took similar action as the U.S., and a multinational U.N. Command was created to help South Korea fend of the invasion. Meanwhile, North Korean troops had pushed into the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

In July 1950, Douglas MacArthur was named commander of the United Nations forces in Korea. He said, "There is no security on this earth. There is only opportunity." By this time MacArthur was the hero of two wars, and the Mikado of Japan who was regarded as “senior to everyone but God.” Truman was suspicious of his plans and made sure his orders were written so MacArthur didn’t have too much discretion. MacArthur directed much of the war from his headquarters in Tokyo.

American military and civilian leaders were caught by surprise, and only the intercession of poorly trained and equipped US garrison troops from Japan managed to halt the North Korean advance at a high price in American dead and wounded.

CIA: U.S. Caught Off-Guard in Korean War

In June 2010, the CIA released a massive amount of documents dealing with the Korean War, some of which point to the failure of the CIA — then a fledgling intelligence agency — in the late 1940s to understand crucial events on the Korean peninsula in the run-up to the conflict. One CIA analysis said "American military and civilian leaders were caught by surprise" when North Korean troops moved south across the 38th Parallel in June 1950. "Only the intercession of poorly trained and equipped US garrison troops from Japan managed to halt the North Korean advance at a high price in American dead and wounded," the report said. That document, "Two Strategic Intelligence Mistakes in Korea, 1950," also describes how U.S. military and civilian leaders were caught off-guard four months later when the Chinese "intervened in massive numbers as American and U.N. forces pushed the North Koreans back."[Source: Maria Sudekum Fisher, Associated Press, June 16, 2010]

“The release of the 1,300 CIA documents includes 900 papers that had either not been made public before or now contained new information. The CIA release coincides with the 60th anniversary this month of the Korean War's start. The CIA documents include intelligence reports, correspondence and National Intelligence Estimates, and foreign media accounts of activity in the region.

“Peter A. Clement, CIA's deputy director of Intelligence for Analytic Programs, said the documents showed the CIA was "not very well-organized" at the time. "They didn't call the invasion," he said. "It showed very clearly that we didn't put the signs all together." Clement said the documents illustrate how the agency then relied on "a small crew of people who looked over the entire world," as opposed to current iterations involving separate staffs each assigned to a specific region.

James F. Person, program associate for the Woodrow Wilson center, said the documents his center had collected from 1955 to 1984 depict the "rocky relationship" between North Korea and China that continues today. Clayton Laurie, a CIA staff historian, said the "breadth" of the documents release indicates the Truman administration's interest in the region. "Even though this is not a primary area of interest for the Truman administration, they're still reporting on this area," he said.

Events Before American Involvement in the Korean War

In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had publicly declared a defensive containment line against the Communist menace in Asia, based upon an island defense line. The Korean peninsula was outside that line. Still, America viewed Korea as one of several developing democratic nations that could serve as counterbalances to Communist expansion. In March 1949, President Truman approved National Security Council Memorandum 8/2, which warned that the Soviets intended to dominate all of Korea, and that this would be a threat to US interests in the Far East. That summer, the President sent a special message to Congress citing Korea as an area where the principles of democracy were being matched against those of Communism. He stated the United States “will not fail to provide the aid which is so essential to Korea at this critical time.” [Source: “Two Strategic Intelligence Mistakes in Korea, 1950" by P. K. Rose, CIA, Center for the Study of Intelligence, CSI Publications, Studies in Intelligence Studies, fall-winter 2001]

When US and Soviet troops withdrew from their respective parts of Korea, the Soviets left behind a well-equipped and trained North Korean Army, while the United States had provided its Korean military forces with only light weapons and little training. As US forces withdrew, MacArthur instructed Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, a longtime loyal staff member and his G-2, to establish a secret intelligence office in Seoul. Known as the Korean Liaison Office (KLO), its responsibility was to monitor troop movements in the North and the activities of Communist guerrillas operating in the South.

By late 1949, the KLO was reporting that the Communist guerrillas represented a serious threat to the Republic of Korea (ROK). The office also noted that many of the guerrillas were originally from the South, and thus were able to slip back into their villages when hiding from local security forces.

U.S. Caught by Surprise Because It Saw North Korea as a Soviet Puppet

At the end of World War II, then-Capt. John Singlaub had established an Army intelligence outpost in Manchuria, just across the border from Korea. Over the course of several years, he trained and dispatched dozens of former Korean POWs, who had been in Japanese Army units, into the North. Their instructions were to join the Communist Korean military and government, and to obtain information on the Communists’ plans and intentions . [Source: “Two Strategic Intelligence Mistakes in Korea, 1950" by P. K. Rose, CIA, Center for the Study of Intelligence, CSI Publications, Studies in Intelligence Studies, fall-winter 2001]

These and other collection capabilities contributed to CIA analytic reports, starting in 1948, regarding the Communist threat on the peninsula. The first report, in a Weekly Summary dated 20 February, identifies the Soviet Union as the controlling hand behind all North Korean political and military planning. In the 16 July Weekly Summary, the Agency describes North Korea as a Soviet “puppet” regime. On 29 October, a Weekly Summary states that a North Korean attack on the South is “possible” as early as 1949, and cites reports of road improvements towards the border and troop movements there. It also notes, however, that Moscow is in control.

These reports establish the dominant theme in intelligence analysis from Washington that accounts for the failure to predict the North Korean attack — that the Soviets controlled North Korean decisionmaking. The Washington focus on the Soviet Union as “the” Communist state had become the accepted perception within US Government’s political and military leadership circles. Any scholarly counterbalances to this view, either questioning the absolute authority of Moscow over other Communist states or noting that cultural, historic, or nationalistic factors might come into play, fell victim to the political atmosphere.

The United States was caught by surprise because, within political and military leadership circles in Washington, the perception existed that only the Soviets could order an invasion by a “client state” and that such an act would be a prelude to a world war. Washington was confident that the Soviets were not ready to take such a step, and, therefore, that no invasion would occur.

This perception, and indeed its broad acceptance within the Washington policy community, is clearly stated in a 19 June CIA paper on DRPK military capabilities. The paper said that “The DPRK is a firmly controlled Soviet satellite that exercises no independent initiative and depends entirely on the support of the USSR for existence.” The report noted that while the DPRK could take control of parts of the South, it probably did not have the capability to destroy the South Korean government without Soviet or Chinese assistance. This assistance would not be forthcoming because the Soviets did not want general war. The Department of State and the military intelligence organizations of the Army, Navy, and Air Force concurred.

Washington’s strategic theme also played well in Tokyo, where General MacArthur and his staff refused to believe that any Asians would risk facing certain defeat by threatening American interests. This belief caused them to ignore warnings of the DPRK military buildup and mobilization near the border, clearly the “force protection” intelligence that should have been most alerting to military minds. It was a strong and perhaps arrogantly held belief, which did not weaken even in the face of DPRK military successes against US troops in the summer of 1950. It grew even stronger within military circles in Tokyo as American and U.N. forces pushed back the DPRK troops in the fall of 1950. By then, it had become an article of faith within the FEC, personally testified to by MacArthur,that no Asian troops could stand up to American military might without being annihilated. This attitude, considered a “fact” within the FEC and constantly repeated to the Washington political and military leadership, resulted in the second strategic blunder — the surprise Chinese intervention in the war.

American Efforts to Slow the North Koreans

North Korean efforts to take the entire Korean peninsula were blunted by heavy United States Air Force bombing and stubborn resistance by the combined United States and South Korean forces on the Pusan perimeter. The United Nations force that landed at Pusan and quickly set up a defensive perimeter there was 48 percent American, 43 percent South Korean and 9 percent other. Still believing the invasion was part of a large scale Communist attack, Truman order the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to block of Chinese invasion of Taiwan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

The first American unit to enter the fight, Task Force Smith, was poorly train and equipped, soft from postwar duty in Japan while North Koreans were well trained and well equipped. The Americans were airlifted from Japan into Pusan and formed into Task Force Smith. They were sent northward to block the North Koreans southward advance. At their first battle with North Korean forces at Osan on July 5th they retreated after taking heavy casualties. After the battle for Taejon from July 19 to 22, they were are routed again and retreated. An American general was captured and large units were wiped out.

Despite this, ROK and U.S. forces fought off the North Korean Army with stubborn determination. The commander of the defense, General Walton Walker used his small mobile reserves with great skill and his men, ROK and American, fought bravely. The dearly acquired battle experience and the fresh strength pouring into Korea began to show in greater enemy losses and a slackening of his advance. Nevertheless, the Eighth Army lost ground and fell back toward Pusan. [Source: U.S. Army in the Korean War: Policy and Direction: the First Year, U.S. Army Center Of Military History / ]

Unprepared Americans Soldiers Enter the Korean War

The American soldiers who landed in Korea were as surprised as anyone by North Korea’s early successes. One American soldier who was in Japan when the war started recalled, “It was Sunday, so we were out in town, and the Japanese started saying, ‘North Korea invaded South Korea!’ We were so dumb. We didn’t even know what North Korea or South Korea was. I didn’t know.”

The first Americans to arrive in Korea were not much better equipped than the South Korean forces. They lacked heavy artillery and tanks and their anti-tank weapons — bazookas — were ineffective. The shells they fired couldn’t penetrate the armor of the T-34 tanks and bounced off.

One unit commander told the Washington Post. “I lost a hell of a lot of people who I wouldn’t have had we been better equipped and better prepared. We had machine guns that didn’t work. We had radios that didn’t work...New people coming in would have no infantry training whatsoever, yet they were called on to act as infantrymen in a very brutal war.”

Arriving in Pusan

Denis Warner, a reporter during the Korean War, wrote: “Five days after the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, I landed in South Korea singularly ill-equipped for what lay ahead. Wearing green suede shoes, light linen trousers and a sport coat, and carrying a new small typewriter and the minimum of necessities I hitchhiked a ride on a Douglas Dakota to Pusan, at the southern end of the Korean peninsula. “‘No flights north of Pusan,’ said the sergeant at the Tachikawa terminal. ‘There are too many goddamned Yaks [Soviet-built Yakovlev fighters]. If you want to go to Pusan, we can put you aboard, but you won’t find any planes flying north from there.’ [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006, Warner covered the Korean War for the London Daily Telegraph and several Australian newspapers]

“Pusan, I found, was in chaos. The small airstrip, rarely used after the Japanese had abandoned it at the end of World War II, consisted of a narrow strip of metal in a sea of rice. The metal was already cracking under the weight of the supply planes. Hundreds of Koreans stood by with long baskets filled with rocks and sand on their backs to fill in the holes knocked in the runway by each incoming aircraft, tamping down the repairs with their bare feet.

“Backing them up were hundreds more, the A-frames on their backs loaded with stones and sand to refill the baskets of the strip repairers. Tons of supplies lined the side of the airstrip, where aged charcoal-burning cars, trucks, oxcarts and more peasants with A-frames loaded up to carry the supplies over the 12 miles of clay road to the railhead. For some, the journey took hours.

“At Pusan station, there were no trains to move the supplies piling up and no scheduled departures or arrivals. No one had any idea when the next train might arrive or leave. ‘Maybe we lost all the trains in Seoul,’ said the station master. But at least the ticket office was open. I bought a single ticket for unreachable Seoul, valid for an unscheduled train, and sat down to wait.”

Heading North from Pusan to Taejon

Denis Warner wrote:“I attached myself to a young American major with urgently needed radio and radar equipment for Taejon, about 150 miles to the northwest, where, he told me, the U.S. Army’s 24th Division had established its headquarters. For five hours he had been trying to arrange for at least an engine and a freight car to take the equipment. We waited for another three hours, when at last a special train came in — an engine and one carriage — all for the major, his equipment, half a dozen American soldiers and me. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006, Warner covered the Korean War for the London Daily Telegraph and several Australian newspapers]

“Or so we thought when we began the journey north in mid-afternoon. But we were not alone in our haste to get to the war. Before the evening shadows settled over the green rice fields and even greener mountains, hiding the villages, we were riding a full-fledged troop train. As the miles passed by, carriages and freight trucks joined us. At all the stops new recruits pushed and shoved through the carriage.

“Most of them brought old, long-stocked Japanese rifles, with five or 10 rounds of ammunition in clips on their belts. They came running to the little village stations as the train approached, waving their rifles to stop us, buckling on equipment, saying goodbye to their families and tripping over the swarms of little brothers and sisters to whom the occasion was all great fun.

“Korean girls in long white trousers and wearing the armbands of local women’s auxiliaries brought us tea and fruit and rice cakes at each station. Since I had eaten nothing since a quick 4 o’clock breakfast in Tokyo many hours before, I joined in happily.

“Just before dark, an American missionary, a tall, angular man who popped up here and there for months during the war, joined us with a band of Korean first-aid girls headed for Suwon, about 20 miles south of Seoul, where, it was believed the Americans and South Koreans had formed a line. In the night, with the lights doused for fear of an air attack, they began to sing hymns. One by one the troops joined in until almost everybody was singing in English or Korean. In fiction, this scene would have seemed ridiculous; in fact, we rattled our way to war to the tune of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’

Reaching Taejon and Heading to the Front Lines

Denis Warner wrote: “We reached Taejon just after daylight, still 70 miles by rough road from the war. It was serving as the temporary headquarters for the South Korean government. After the retreat from Seoul, the U.S. Embassy had moved into a cluster of houses built for U.S. aid groups. Major General William F. Dean, commanding the U.S. 24th Division, also had his headquarters there. Everyone was cheerfully optimistic. The first U.S. Army forces in the field were digging in at Osan, south of Suwon. There had not yet been any contact, but the troops were ready for anything. An infantry battalion was positioned forward, supported by a battery of artillery. Another battalion was in reserve four miles to the south. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“Crowded Taejon was much less cheerful. First stop for the thousands of refugees from Seoul, it was jammed with half a million people, clustered without food around the railway station and stretching in all their misery through the streets. There had been neither time nor means to organize the distribution of food or any other aid.”

There was one privately commandeered jeep among the correspondents. In the early morning of July 5 (Korean time) I was offered a ride to the front in it. “We left in pouring rain, which blew in through the open sides of the jeep. The going was slow. The unsurfaced road was rough, slippery and jammed with retreating South Koreans who paid no heed to time or weather. Trucks, traveling without headlights, roared along as fast as they dared. Before dawn, we passed at least half a dozen that had toppled down the steep levees into the flooded rice fields below.

“We made better time in daylight, pausing briefly for a C ration breakfast. We pushed on through the rain past the gutted railway yards at Pyongtaek, where three days before the Royal Australian Air Force, acting on false intelligence, had attacked what were believed to be enemy formations. Ammunition trucks in the rail yard were still burning and exploding. Along the road there were a score or more of wrecked and burned-out trucks and the first bodies we had seen.

“Just north of Pyongtaek we found the Americans. A sign pointing to a four-room mud-and-thatch farm cottage showed us the way. The inhabitants had fled a day or two earlier, leaving their poultry behind. Quacking ducks wandered in and out of the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 34th Regiment, 24th Division, under Lt. Col. Harold Ayres.

▪‘Red’ Ayres filled us in on the war news. Suwon had been abandoned on July 2, as soon as the North Korean troops appeared across the Han River, just south of Seoul. The 3rd Battalion, 34th Regiment, under Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith — Task Force Smith — was some miles ahead, dug in on both sides of the main road, with a battery of artillery. So far, there had been no contact, but the South Koreans guessed there were up to 35,000 Northern troops now south of the Han River.

“While Colonel Ayres was still briefing us, a second jeep drove up, bringing with it Brig. Gen. George B. Barth, commander of the forward areas. Barth, a burly figure, threw off his dripping poncho and helmet with its single star and announced, ‘Well, boys, it’s on. I’ve got the first shell out there for General MacArthur.’ Barth said that when the range was 1,500 yards he had given the order to open fire. He had come with the glad tidings that the North Koreans were now up against real opposition. ‘Those Commie bastards will turn and run when they find they’re up against our boys,’ said Barth. ‘We’ll be back in Seoul by the weekend.’

“Just a few minutes after 8am, the forward artillery observation post had seen eight tanks advancing down the road toward the 3rd Battalion. After presiding over the first exchange of fire between North Korean and American troops, Barth had come straight back and was heading for divisional headquarters with the all-important news that U.S. ground forces were now in action.

Refugees Fleeing the North Korean Advance

Edward Daily, a soldier just off the ship from Japan in the early weeks of the war told Associated Press:“Thousands of refugees were fleeing south. With so many refugees mixing with GIs, trucks and equipment, the roads became jammed and impassable. Being surrounded by so many Koreans made us a little jumpy. Reports had filtered down that North Korea regulars were masquerading as civilians, donning the traditional white clothing worn by peasants. It was impossible to tell friend from foe.”

Denis Warner wrote:“Our jeep went back to Taejon with Barth, leaving a couple of us without transport. We decided to walk toward Task Force Smith in the hope that someone else going in the same direction might give us a lift. Everyone was sure that the North Koreans were getting a trouncing. The optimism was not even muted by the discovery that the telephone link with Task Force Smith had broken down, a mishap attributed to rain. No one suspected enemy action. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“The long line of trucks, jeeps, tradesman’s vans and even an odd fire cart or two had thinned out since daylight, but the foot migration had multiplied. Following the narrow paths of clay that divided one level from another, people trudged in thousands for miles across the paddy fields. The road itself was covered with a mass of people — babies tied to their mothers’ backs, old men and women bowed under crippling loads, and thousands of soldiers. More than anything else there were soldiers, outnumbering the civilians by about 10-to-1.

“We had not walked more than a mile when a South Korean cavalryman, mounted on a horse about the size of a Shetland pony, came down the road, scattering the refugees, waving a sword and shouting excitedly, ‘Tanku, tanku‘ (‘Tanks’). His words panicked the refugees, who stumbled and fled. We shouted angrily at the man on ponyback, and went on our way. No sound came from the front, where Task Force Smith, we still believed, had sent the North Koreans in precipitate retreat.

Confronting a North Korean Tank

Denis Warner wrote: “We proceeded to the crest of one of the undulating hills, beyond the rice fields into well-cultivated vegetable land. For a moment there was peace. We only noticed that there were no longer any refugees. Then we saw the tank, there on the next crest, perhaps half a mile from us, moving steadily and majestically forward. It fired one round from its main armament, and, as we discovered later, about 100 machine-gun rounds. I have no idea where the shots went, or whether they were directed at us, my attention being fully directed to the problem of tactical withdrawal. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“I hastened back breathlessly to Ayres’ headquarters. Despite Barth’s statement that eight tanks had been seen earlier, Ayres remained skeptical. ‘There’s a tank coming down the road,’ I said. ‘We don’t have any tanks,’ he replied. ‘Not ours, theirs.’ He asked me to describe it, and I gave what was no doubt an exaggerated account. ‘The bridges around here wouldn’t take a tank of that size,’ he said. Perhaps to humor me, he suggested that I might care to go with a bazooka team and show them where I had seen the tank.

“So, this time in a jeep, my journalist companions and I sallied forth again, now accompanied by a bazooka team. We made our way cautiously, surveying the ground ahead and proceeding in a series of leaps and bounds. The rain pelted down. Though I drew my blanket around me, it soon became soaked. I was soon shivering with the cold, convinced that if I did not die from enemy action I would surely succumb to pneumonia.

“We reached the spot where the tank had fired, collected the discarded shell case and measured the distance across the track marks — 7 feet — all of which we felt might be of some intelligence significance to Ayres. It was not so much the caliber of the shell — about 76 millimeters — but the length of the casing that was impressive. We went back to headquarters and left the shell case with Ayres before returning to the hunt.

American Bazooka Teams Pursue North Korean Tank

Warner wrote: “We had acquired a welcome platoon of infantry in support and were advancing with a good deal more confidence when we were halted by a sharp exchange of rifle and machine-gun fire to our left. Three of us climbed the muddy bank of a small rise off the road to gain a better view. Once again, we found the tank — if it was the same tank — about a quarter of a mile away, crawling along the railway line in a southerly direction. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“We called to the bazooka team, and the men came up to the rise, mapping out their line of approach through the field of maize that separated us from the tank. The rifle fire we had heard came from behind a stranded train, where a group of South Korean soldiers were courageously taking potshots at the tank. The tank’s crew treated the whole proceedings with a good deal of disdain, keeping the hatch open and occasionally answering with a burst of machine-gun fire.

“While this was going on, a second tank appeared close behind its companion, the long barrel of its gun pointing in our direction. We sank into the wet grass and weeds on the rise, while the bazooka team, in stage whispers, planned the attack. Once they reached the maize, the cover was good; the problem was to get there undetected It was a haphazard operation, but finally two groups with bazookas moved forward without attracting attention from the railway line, where the lead tank and the train were still exchanging fire. We were above the tanks, well placed for a rare, grandstand view of the action.

“Every now and then we lost track of the bazooka teams in the maize, but as soon as they moved we could pick them up. When they were about 200 yards from the lead tank, one team stopped. We could see the gunner taking aim. There was a whoosh, and the tank disappeared in a cloud of black smoke. The men on the hill leaped to their feet and cheered. As the smoke cleared, the turret of the tank swung into line with its companion and from both came shell and machine gun fire that sent us scuttling back over the brow of the hill.

After 10 minutes of uncertainty behind the rise and no further display of hostility from the tanks, we eased farther to the left and back into our grandstand seats. The first bazooka team had disappeared, but the second was now much closer to the railway embankment and still moving forward. They got to within 30 yards of the tank before firing. Again the cloud of black smoke. Again no damage. The shell had simply bounced off the tank.

The tanks turned to depress their guns, firing burst after burst into the maize. The heavy guns were aimed astray, but a machine gun put a bullet through the heart of a young ammunition carrier, a private named Kenneth Shadrick. His friends carried him out, evidence of a respect for the dead that was soon to be forgotten in the awful days ahead.

Trying to Make a Stand as North Korean Tanks Advance

Warner wrote: “When I left Ayres’ headquarters that afternoon to hitchhike my way back to Taejon, we had no news of Task Force Smith. The phones were still not working, and the survivors of the action had not yet begun to straggle in. The first men, bearing the appalling news that most of the battalion had been lost, arrived after midnight. Soon thereafter Ayres and his men were on the run. Barth’s headquarters also broke during the night, minutes before the tanks burst through. At dawn on July 6, the tanks were in Pyongtaek, five miles down the road. By breakfast they were in Songwan, and before the day was over they had advanced to Chonan, 36 miles in 36 hours. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“The next day, July 7, I was with Barth. The road was blocked by vehicles, all heading south. Stragglers came bootless and beaten and without their guns across the hills and splashing through the rice fields. ‘Colonel, you will hold a line here,’ said Barth. ‘We’ve got to stop them and sort out this show.’ With his back to the flood of men and machines and his arm outstretched, he indicated a new defensive position. ‘We’ll stop them,’ replied Colonel Jay B. Lovless, commander of the 34th Infantry. \

“Three hours later, with Barth in his jeep, we struck a new tide of defeat — trucks, artillery, infantry, all heading south.
‘What in the hell is going on here?’
‘Told to pull out, Sir.’
‘Who told you?’
‘Orders, Sir.’
‘Goddamn it, I give the orders.’

“And then came the colonel’s jeep, laboring along in the swim. Barth leaped angrily out with his burp gun. ‘Goddamn it! Where do you think you’re going?’ he demanded.
‘I couldn’t hold.’
‘Were you attacked?’
‘No, Sir.’
‘You’re relieved of your command, Colonel. Now stop this column. Stop. Stop it, I say. No truck goes another inch.’

“And momentarily the retreat halted and Barth, with the way clearing reluctantly before him, moved forward to find his man. ‘Colonel Martin, you’ll take over the regiment,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to stop them. Pick your ground and hold.’ Colonel Robert R. Martin would die at Chonan at 8:00 the next morning, just 15 hours after taking command and a little more than a day after stepping off the train at Taejon with his duffel bag. I went back to Taejon that night in a jeep arranged for me by the weary Barth. ‘We can’t get through on the radio,’ he said. ‘God knows what’s happened to the telephone lines. Nothing seems to work. You’ve been with me today. See General Dean and tell him how it is,’ and he scribbled down a brief note and gave it to me. I saw the general as soon as I reached Taejon and explained to him what had happened during the day. Dean did not shoot the messenger. Instead he dismissed Barth as the forward commander.

““Before his dismissal, Barth had done his best to regain the initiative. He turned his guns around and raced to retake six miles of ground. But the outgoing artillery in the night only helped to mask the North Koreans’ preparations for a renewed attack. Their tanks slipped quietly along the road, waiting in laager. Another crept along the railway line, taking with it three companies of infantry that moved under cover of the stone embankment.

North Korean Attack Near Taejon

Warner wrote:“The Northerners hit at daylight. The tanks opened fire at 200 yards and closed in. It was all over in an hour. The survivors fled from their burning trucks and jeeps. The walking wounded got out; the rest stayed. The survivors’ stories left little to the imagination. Describing what had happened to one of his men, a young lieutenant said: ‘His legs were gone and he cried when he asked me, ‘What are they going to do with me, Lieutenant?’ ‘I gave him a grenade and said, ‘Son, this is the best I can do for you.”
‘I left my buddy in the street and propped him up so he could put up his hands and surrender,’ said a GI. ‘They cut him in half with a burp gun.’
‘This isn’t war. This is fornicating slaughter,’ another GI bitterly observed. ‘They sent us here with nothing.’
‘Jesus Christ! How can we fight?’ asked another. ‘What have we got to fight with?’ [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

““I found Colonel Ayres with the 1st Battalion holding a mile south of Chonan on a high, bald hill. It was midmorning on the fourth day and first Saturday of the Americans’ war. Six officers were left in the 3rd Battalion. All day they had tried to get their surviving troops together. There weren’t enough and those who were left were in no shape to fight.

“To the immediate rear, Colonel Richard W. Stephens, commanding the 21st Infantry Regiment, was fresh and eager. But in the late afternoon even his warm red cheeks momentarily lost their glow. The news came over the radio. Written down, it was worse than it sounded. Ayres surrounded. Troops exhausted, throwing away their equipment, rifles, everything, even taking off their boots (‘Good God, why?’ an officer asked. The soldier replied, ‘It’s easier to walk in the rice fields, Sir.’).

“Stephens decided to go forward in his jeep to establish some sort of liaison with the disaster ahead of us. I went with him. We drove fast enough to miss the long-range bullets along the winding road, but a long bridge defeated us. A wooded hill rose sharply at the end, and snipers waited there. We reached the quarter-way mark with bullets buzzing around us like bees on a spring morning and went back in disorder.

Fighting on the Road to Chonan

Warner wrote: All was quiet as I got back to Chonui — on Sunday, that is. The city fell at dawn on Monday. The tanks broke through frontally. The infantry encircled the battalion defending the town from two ridges and descended to cut the road behind. By midmorning, all was in chaos. The North Koreans raced along the ridges. The road south was blocked by trucks and guns. Drivers cursed as their trucks bogged down. Five American light tanks were trying to come up, but they didn’t have a chance. A Cessna L-5 spotter plane flew high above the hills while jets flew over the valley, rumbling like a giant box being dragged across the sky. A battery of 155mm guns fired at extreme range along the road toward Chonan. The 105s worked the hills on the right flank with white phosphorus, firing at right angles to the 155s. A neat piece of flanking went on up there. A couple of us went forward on foot to witness the first tank-to-tank battle of the war. Our tanks, three of them, were all knocked out. Small-arms fire convinced us to get the hell out of there. But the flanking North Koreans were closing in. We came under rifle fire and ran for a corner and cover. The shots followed us beyond the corner. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“What was left of Colonel Stephens’ 21st Regiment broke off the action on Wednesday, July 12, one week to the day after the first action south of Osan, and fell back over the Kum River. On the Chochiwon road the survivors, black with dust and weary from fighting a war they had not expected, understood, or been trained to fight, streamed past toward the bridge. All afternoon and long after dark, they straggled on. The last across were a group of engineers following the infantry down the Chochiwon road, blowing the bridges as they went.

“At midnight, July 12-13, seven days and 16 hours after the Northerners hit Task Force Smith, a U.S. sergeant was following the rule book as if we were back in a stateside training camp. ‘Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!’ — three times he repeated the cry before ramming home the plunger of the dynamo exploder. The long bridge erupted in a cascade of flying concrete, and a 100-foot gap and the deep and fast-flowing river now separated us from the North Korean steamroller. There were cheers. The night passed without further sound. For the first time in a week the guns were silent. The sun came up on new and brighter spirits. Now there was a line that could be held, or so we thought. On the far bank, the refugees had been gathering in the night, and at first light they walked into the water in little groups, holding their belongings over their heads, trying to wade the mighty river. So much for the line that could be held!

Empty Taejon

Warner wrote: For six days I abandoned the Taejon front to report the arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been rumored incorrectly to be landing behind enemy lines. While I was heading back to Taejon late at night on July 19, the train in which I was traveling came to a halt. No signals, nothing we could see. An hour went by. Two. Walt Simmons of the Chicago Tribune went forward to determine the trouble. The driver was asleep by the side of the track and wouldn’t budge. ‘Get up, you sonofabitch,’ Walt said. ‘Get up. This goddamned train is going to Taejon with supplies.’ Walt kicked him up, literally. We went on slowly in our most reluctant train. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“Early on the morning of the 20th we arrived in Taejon. Three locomotives with steam up were hitched to empty freight cars and standing by in case of emergency. The American railway transport officers held the drivers at gunpoint. The great enclosed station was otherwise deserted. There was no sound but the hissing of steam and one man’s footsteps as he walked along the platform.

“The streets were abandoned, the shops shuttered and deserted. Along the whole mile length of the main street, jammed the week before with thousands of people, there was no man or woman, and only one child, a naked girl, not more than three, coated with dirt and trickling with dysentery, left on the pavement in front of a shop. We knocked on the shutters of the shop and searched the rear but no one was there. When we passed that way in the evening to phone in our stories from the rear headquarters of the 24th Division outside Taejon, the child was gone.

“The 34th Regiment was now headquarted at the airfield. Another new commanding officer, Colonel Charles E. Beauchamp, welcomed us in his sandbagged office. He had been with the regiment for only a couple of days, and the war still seemed pretty much of an adventure for him. While the rest of us were going for the floor when a mortar shell landed outside, Beauchamp was on his feet, shouting with excitement: ‘Boy! That’s getting closer. Where did that one go?’

Taking Fire from North Korean Soldiers

Warner wrote: “The next day, July 21, while approaching from rear divisional headquarters just south of the town, we met the always depressing, far-too-familiar knots of dejection walking across the rice fields from Taejon. ‘What happened?’ “‘It was awful,’ one of them replied. ‘All hell broke loose.’ “Their story was that the North Korean tanks had gone into the town at daylight, attacked the headquarters and that all was over. But clearly some resistance, whether impromptu or organized, was continuing. We could see a great fire burning in the western and northern parts of the town. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“A captain with a machine gun across his knees arrived in a jeep. ‘I’ve got some trucks back there with ammunition,’ he said. ‘Let’s go and beat our way in. There’s a roadblock, and we ought to take it out.’ The motion lapsed for want of someone to second it. We sat through the long morning and watched, trying to muster enough courage to go into Taejon — and failing. The stragglers thinned out as the sun rose higher.

“A Texan private who had stolen a jeep in Pusan and headed north to go to the war joined our little group of perhaps half a dozen correspondents and two or three soldiers in the early afternoon. He offered to take anyone who would go with him into Taejon. Again there were no takers. About half past 3 a jeep appeared at the edge of town and drove quietly along the road toward us. Its occupants were in the uniform of South Korean police. We flagged them down. One spoke English and was reassuring about the situation. Certainly, the North Koreans had sent in tanks, he said, but they had all been knocked out. General Dean had command of the situation. He had seen him outside his headquarters only 10 minutes before. The firing? Why, just some mopping up, he said. He had just come out of the town to see what was happening to the south and now he was going right back. Roadblocks? No, no, nothing, he said. Everything was quite safe.

“The jeep turned and went back to where it had come from. The problem now was to find the Texan, who had gone back along the road to the south. When we found him, he was delighted with the chance. I climbed aboard with Lachie McDonald, a London Daily Mail correspondent who had accompanied me on July 7 with Barth, and we set off. The fire had spread over about half the town, and a huge area on our left lay smoldering. On the right, the buildings had been saved by the width of the main road, but there was a good deal of evidence that even more lethal fire had passed this way. Broken and hanging telephone lines, shrapnel-pocked buildings, dead bodies and the sound of heavy action immediately beyond brought us to a sudden halt. For the first time we began to have serious doubts about the validity of the information given to us by our ‘South Korean’ friends.

“A volley of rifle fire down the street aimed in our direction sent us racing for cover. I ran into a narrow lane, turning as I ran to see where the firing came from. The Texan, with his .45 pistol in his hand, came haring after me. As he ran, he raised his pistol. His bullet went whistling past me as I hurled myself on the ground. Ten yards down the lane a rifle clattered and a North Korean ran with the Texan’s bullets flying around his ears. ‘The gook nearly had you,’ said the Texan. ‘He was gonna shoot you in the back when I let fly.’ We waited for a few minutes and then made a dash for the jeep. The Texas native drove. I had his gun, but there was no call to use it. No one tried to stop us.

“For one day more before he was relieved by units of the 1st Cavalry Division, just south of Taejon, Colonel Stephens held the line with the remains of the 21st Regiment. He had in all about 500 men, cooks, drivers, clerks, storemen and mechanics. ‘You know what I’ll do if they attack?’ Stephens asked, as he sat at a desk at his new headquarters in a schoolroom. ‘I’ll throw the book at them,’ he said, picking up an Army manual. ‘It’s the only goddamned thing I’ve got left.’ Colonel Stephens was not exaggerating the extent of the disaster. Within three short weeks the 24th Division had lost its commanding officer and suffered more than 30 percent casualties, including 2,400 officers and men listed as missing in action.”

Pusan Perimeter

Walker proved a determined and tenacious commander. He well appreciated the great danger of pulling back upon his base of supply under continuous pressure. He hated to give up any more ground to the North Koreans, but on 26 July, with the enemy pressing in on Taegu where irreplaceable signal equipment was in danger of being lost, Walker called Tokyo and asked permission to move his command post back to Pusan. He did not imply in any way that he wanted to pull his divisions back to Pusan. [Source: U.S. Army in the Korean War: Policy and Direction: the First Year, U.S. Army Center Of Military History / ]

On 29 July as a result of MacArthur's visit, Walker issued a widely publicized order, in the form of a public statement during a speech to the staff of the 25th Division. Walker stated that the Eighth Army would retreat no more, that there was no line to which it could retreat, and that, in effect, every man in Eighth Army would "stand or die" along the present line. The defensive line behind which Walker intended his troops to "stand or die" lay mainly on the Naktong River barrier in the west and fanned out from Pusan. Rectangular in shape, measuring nearly 100 miles from north to south and about fifty miles from east to west, the area quickly became known as the Pusan Perimeter.

Between 1 and 4 August, U.S. and ROK units withdrew behind this line and prepared for a last-ditch stand. Most of the western edge of the perimeter was traced by the Naktong River with the exception of about fifteen miles at the southern end of this line. The northern border ran through the mountains above Waegwan and Uisong to the sea, with the town of Yongdok forming the eastern anchor. ROK troops held this portion of the line.

General MacArthur sent his deputy chief of staff, General Thomas Hickey, into the Pusan Perimeter on 6 August to confer with the Eighth Army commander. Walker told Hickey he was worried about the condition of the 24th Division. He appraised that unit's combat worth as negligible after a month of hard fighting. Before it could become effective again, it would have to be completely rehabilitated. His other divisions were in somewhat better condition. The 25th Division, which had seen less action than the 24th and which had been less severely attacked by the enemy, was in fairly good shape. General Walker expressed some doubts as to its offensive capabilities, as he felt it lacked leadership. The Eighth Army commander told General Hickey that, because they were too few, all his army staff members were overworked. That they were not getting enough rest was being reflected in the quality of their work.

The mounting toll of American casualties and the depleted ranks of Walker's divisions underscored the great need for fresh fighting men in Korea {And} every feasible means of meeting this need was being exploited by the Department of the Army.

Heavy Fighting to Preserve the Pusan Perimiter

The United Nations forces fought desperately to maintain the shrinking perimeter around Pusan.The commander of the defense, General Walton Walker, warned, “It won’t be Dunkirk. It could be an Alamo.” The fact that Pusan did not become an Alamo was due to the leadership of Gen. Walker and his brilliant strategy for defenses, overwhelming air support by the United States and the arrival of troop reenforcements well equipped with tanks and heavy artillery.

The first weeks of August were marked by savage North Korean efforts to break through the Pusan Perimeter. Several enemy penetrations across the Naktong into Eighth Army's lines came perilously close to success, but in each case skillful deployment of reserves along interior lines enabled Walker to contain and beat back the enemy thrusts. Fresh units arriving in the perimeter were quickly thrown into the fight at key points in the perimeter. Elements of the 2d Division arrived from the United States on 31 July, the 5th RCT reached Korea on the same day from Hawaii, and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade closed at Pusan on 3 August.

Some of the heaviest fighting of the war to look place in late August and early September along the perimeter. With some tanks and heavy artillery, the United Nations forces were able to put up a fight. The Pusan perimeter was breached on countless occasions but with air support and heavily-armed reenforcements plugged the gaps. On August 31, three North Korean divisions crossed the Naktong River in a push to take Pusan. The only thing in the way were the men of Company C and other elements of the 2nd Infantry Division (See Below).

Company C at the Naktong River: Only a Few Came Home

Charlie Company — 1st Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, or "The Late Company C," as the men themselves refer to it – fought bravely at Naktong River about two months after the initial North Korean invasion of Korea. Among its members were squad leader Berry F. Rhoden and platoon sergeant Joe Stryker. David Halberstam wrote in Parade: “It was in Korea that Company C passed into military legend, and Rhoden is one of three here who were serving in the unit on that terrible day in 1950. Hit by massive waves of North Koreans-probably as badly outnumbered as any American unit ever sent into battle against a modern enemy-they were almost completely annihilated. "We took up positions on the east bank of the Naktong River," recalls Rhoden, "and we were stretched so thin-really isolated from each other. We knew that a major attack might be coming soon. We knew we were extremely vulnerable. And we knew there was nothing we could do about it." [Source: David Halberstam, Parade, November 7, 2004]

“The attack by the North Koreans began on the evening of Aug. 31 and ended in the morning of Sept. 1. When it was over, at least 120 men, and perhaps more, of the original 200 were dead. At first it appeared that only seven men had lived through the night, but others managed to survive. Stryker, who had been reassigned just days before and missed the attack, is something of an unofficial historian for Company C. He knows for certain of 37 survivors and thinks there may be as many as 30 more.

“Rhoden's squad had seven men including himself-four on the recoilless rifle and two on the BAR (automatic rifle). "That day," Rhoden continues, "we had seen a lot of activity on the other side of the river. Then that night they hit us, and we had never seen so many Koreans in our lives-men coming across the river as far as the eye could see." What was happening, they later learned, was that elements of three North Korean infantry divisions, perhaps as many as 20,000 men, were crossing the Naktong in that general area. Thousands of those soldiers were crossing right smack in front of them, where the only thing in the way was Company C.

“It was part of the last great offensive of the North Korean army, the high-water mark of its success fighting without Chinese troops. "We held them off for a time, but there were so many of them," Rhoden recalls. "They were pouring automatic weapon fire and grenades on us. I think we ran out of ammo in about 45 minutes." "It was like millions of ants crossing the river and coming at us when we first saw them," joins in Terry McDaniel, who was a supply sergeant with Company C.

Fighting at the Naktong River

David Halberstam wrote: The third veteran who was with Company C that night, Rusty Davidson, recalls only the very beginning of the battle-the moon illuminating the North Koreans as they crossed the Naktong so that, for a moment, they presented a great target. "Someone in our platoon yelled out that it was going to be a turkey shoot, but then there were so many of them that we realized that we were the turkeys," he says. At that point, Davidson blanked out-he has no memory of what happened the rest of the night, of being overrun or of how he somehow made it back to American lines. [Source: David Halberstam, Parade, November 7, 2004]

“Charlie Company's commander was Capt. Cyril Bartholdi. Known to the men as Captain Bart, he had served in World War II and was strong, experienced and very much trusted by the men. He was the great-grandson of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. And he had known almost from the start that his men had no chance. At best, they were a light trip wire in the way of a formidable enemy.

“At the time, Berry Rhoden recalls, he was a relatively newly minted soldier-18 years old, a kid from rural Florida whose previous incarnation had been as a moonshiner. He had volunteered for the Army because the feds were getting close to picking him up. On that day, Rhoden was the last man to hear the final anguished cries of the unit being overrun and the sad answer from a powerless higher headquarters that could do nothing for them, except to ask them to hold out a little longer. 'We cannot hold! Repeat:We cannot hold!" Rhoden heard Captain Bartholdi yell into his radio. "Hold your positions at all costs!" the voice at battalion headquarters replied. Soon they were completely surrounded. There was a moment when Rhoden looked up and saw nothing around him but North Koreans in all directions. So he and his men surrendered.”

Wounded and Left for Dead at the Naktong River

“David Halberstam wrote: Three men were shot as the enemy troops moved in, their dead bodies then bayoneted by their captors. The remaining four, including Rhoden, were beaten and tortured. The next day, they were taken out into the rice paddies and shot from behind, sprayed with a burp gun. [Source: David Halberstam, Parade, November 7, 2004]

“Rhoden was hit with one bullet, and he thinks that two of the other men took more hits. Rhoden's intestines partially flopped out, and he knew his chances of making it were marginal. He pretended to be dead. When night came, he turned his T-shirt into a giant bandage by folding it up and locking in his loose intestines with his belt.

“Two of the other men were still alive and desperately wanted water; the third had been badly beaten and at first could not move. So Rhoden crawled to a nearby stream, took off his T-shirt, sopped up water in it, brought it back and squeezed water onto the lips of his comrades. Rhoden told the man who had not been wounded to try to get away. Then Rhoden passed out. Sometime that night, he reached over to touch his comrades and found that both were dead. "I just refused to die,"Rhoden says. "I kept telling myself I was an American soldier, and I could not give up."

Nearly Dead but Escaping to Safety

“David Halberstam wrote: That began eight days of trying to find his way to safety. He was picked up twice more by enemy troops but each time was able to escape: first, when an American airstrike hit; second, when the unit that held him was hit by American artillery fire. On the final day, exhausted, having had almost nothing to eat except one cucumber, which made him violently ill (the last cucumber he ever knowingly ate), Rhoden crawled to a bridge. He was too tired to move any farther. Behind him he heard the heavy roar of a tank. "If it's American, I'm rescued," he thought. "And if it's North Korean, I'm dead." On the tank was a white star-American! Rhoden kneeled in its path, doubled over. Just then a jeep pulled up. [Source: David Halberstam, Parade, November 7, 2004]

“It's odd, he says, how you recall the little things-often the dumb little things. One of the men in the jeep had yelled out, "What's the matter, Mac, you got a cramp?" "A cramp," he'd thought. "I'm dying. I can't move another step, and he thinks it's a cramp." He had traveled, he later estimated, some seven or eight miles to his rescue point. Most of that had been covered by crawling. His Korean war was over. (He stayed in the Army, served in Vietnam and got out in 1969.)

“Terry McDaniel, who also had been captured and watched North Koreans execute some prisoners, was liberated by advancing Americans several weeks later. Of those who had started the battle, few were as lucky or resilient as Rhoden or McDaniel. Captain Bartholdi, for example, was captured, tortured and killed.

“Those who survived understood in some elemental way that their unit had been sacrificed to buy time for others who might delay the North Korean drive. It was a hard thing for any soldier to accept-that in the cruelty of war he had been judged to be expendable. Yet somehow the strategy had worked: Although the North Koreans pushed forward some 10 miles, they failed to drive the Americans off the peninsula.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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