A frantic, chilling winter withdrawal

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A frantic, chilling winter withdrawal


A Chinese photographer took this picture of U.S. soldiers being taken prisoner during the Battle of Unsan. It appeared later in Chinese historical materials. Provided by Paik Sun-yup

Last week, General Paik described confusion in the ranks as he was moved back and forth within the hierarchy while the Chinese approached. He also quoted from a letter he received later from a priest who had worked with the military during the war, Father Go Deok-hwan.

The experiences Father Go related in his letter vividly reminded me of my own painful memories from that time. The Chinese had just conducted a flanking maneuver, avoiding the front of the 1st Division and positioning themselves in the hills around it. During the day, the Chinese attacks were manageable because of support from artillery, tanks and air assets, but at night we were at their mercy.

The Chinese used the darkness of night and their flutes to provoke fear during an attack. The sound of the flute was just as frightening as the rumble of the North Korean tanks that rattled our ranks in the initial stages of the war. The cold wind blowing from the Jeogyu Mountain Range had become another enemy to our soldiers who were still in their summer kit.

On Oct. 31, I went back to Unsan and met with Col. William Hennig, who was in charge of the division’s artillery. With a strained face he told me, “I can’t help but say that it will be difficult for us to last the day.”

I retorted, “Where is your fighting spirit?”

He grew even more solemn. “Okay, General. I’ll give it to you straight. If we don’t withdraw within today there is the possibility that we’ll be destroyed.” He told me I should recommend withdrawal to Gen. Frank Milburn, commander of the 1st Corps. It was painful to hear but I had to face reality.

I visited each of my three regiments and talked with each regimental commander. All of them said the same thing, that the situation was very serious. The 15th regiment, which had led the division as we tried to advance north from Unsan, was in particularly grave condition, while the rest of the regiments were also in enormous and imminent peril.

Colonel Hennig’s face was strained, even stricken, when he made the recommendation to withdraw. We had been through thick and thin together since we first met at the front line on the Nakdong River north of Daegu. Until that point he had been a laid-back and calm person, not the kind who was rattled easily, much less panicked. But the look on his face that day in Unsan was different.

“Is there no option but to withdraw, then?” I asked myself this question as I reflected on past battles and how we got here passing through Pyongyang. If we could push just a little further north we would be able to reach our final objective, the Supung Dam.

Fortunately, I had the chance to tour other areas on the front outside of Unsan for four days in the capacity of corps commander. This bird’s-eye view made me aware of the desperate situation facing the 2nd Corps, which operated to the east of the 1st Division. Two regiments under the 2nd Corps were overexposed to Chinese forces while two regiments belonging to the 6th Division, in their race northward, had become too isolated from the rest and were in a very dangerous situation.

There was a need to take quick measures. I didn’t know what the situation on the eastern front was, but the 1st Division fighting in Unsan and the 2nd Corps near the division to the east were both facing a crisis. Under such circumstances, what was the most logical decision? I decided a withdrawal was the best answer to that question.

Withdrawals are also part of military operations. When the enemy is strong, you take a step back to regroup and wait for an opportunity to counterattack. In order to do so successfully, you have to minimize your losses and move your forces and materiel to safety first.

I asked Colonel Hennig how many artillery shells were left. He said, “About 15,000.”

“Can you concentrate your guns on our front if we make a withdrawal tonight?” I asked him. He said that he would do just that.

Now the only thing left was to kick the idea upstairs and get approval from corps commander General Milburn and the upper echelons. In my jeep I raced through Yongbyeon and then again towards Sinan where the headquarters of the 1st Corps were located.

Perhaps because I was anxious to get there as quickly as possible, the roads seemed quite rough. Hitting the pedal mercilessly, the jeep got overturned as we failed to slow down in a tight corner.

The mounted prop to support machine guns saved our lives. Otherwise we might have perished then and there. Finally we arrived at the headquarters. Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay, the commanding officer of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, was also present.

I explained the dire situation. “We have to withdraw by today. The conditions at the front are very serious,” I told the general. The faces of General Milburn and the others looked heavy as they listened to my argument. When I was finished he picked up the telephone and called Gen. Walton Walker at 8th Army Headquarters to explain the situation, and after a long conversation finally put down the telephone.

He asked me if it would be possible for the ROK 1st Division to conduct a night withdrawal tonight. “I have agreed with Colonel Hennig to cover the withdrawal by firing a curtain of shells in front of the enemy,” I told the general. General Milburn gave the order that the ROK 1st Division would withdraw to a line between Ipsok and Yongbyeon. He also ordered General Gay to cover the withdrawal of the ROK 1st Division. Then he also gave the withdrawal order to the U.S. 24th Division that was heading to Sinuiju. I immediately contacted my regiments in Unsan and gave the order to withdraw to the regimental commanders, then accompanied General Gay to his 1st Division Headquarters.

Col. Raymond Palmer’s 8th Cavalry Regiment - subordinate to the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division - had passed Yongsandong and was heading toward Unsan at the time. The 8th Cavalry Regiment’s previous order had been to pass the ROK 1st Division and head north. The regiment was now ordered to cover the withdrawal of the ROK 1st Division, but by the time it received the order the Chinese forces had cut off its withdrawal route already.

To head back to Unsan there were two roads to choose from. The regiment chose the one heading westward, which was separated from the eastern route chosen by the ROK 1st Division by a hill. We didn’t know how much difference that would make later. After my meeting with General Milburn, I arrived at General Gay’s headquarters at midnight on Oct. 31.

But the moment I entered the divisional headquarters incoming radio reports of tremendous fighting were filling up the room.

“Enemy soldiers are climbing up on our tanks!”

“Enemy soldiers have breached our perimeter!”

The screams were underlined with the sound of explosions and gunfire. The situation was just shocking. It became clear that the unit has been hit by surprise and was now in a life or death struggle. The gunfire, explosions and screams continued to pour in. The horror of war had unexpectedly arrived. The Battle of Unsan was unfolding.

Translated by Brian Lee [africanu@joongang.co.kr]

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