Ambushes and failed rescues

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Ambushes and failed rescues


The divisional artillery under Col. William Hennig fires shells to cover the withdrawal of the ROK 1st Division after a surprise Chinese attack on Nov. 1, 1950. Provided by Paik Sun-yup

Last week, General Paik recounted his reluctant agreement that the UN and Korean forces would have to withdraw, faced with a relentless Chinese assault.

After my brief stay at Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay’s 1st Division headquarters, I tried to head back to the ROK 1st Division headquarters as quickly as possible. As I was driving toward it I could hear in the distance the sound of artillery fire from the direction of Unsan. Col. William Hennig’s divisional artillery was at work. It was a good sign, and confirmation that the general withdrawal of our forces was being covered by the artillery as planned. The withdrawal continued till the morning hours of Nov. 1, and by then Colonel Hennig had fired 13,000 shells out of the 15,000 available. Thanks to the barrage the ROK 1st Division’s three regiments and the divisional artillery also escaped from the Chinese.

Nevertheless, the situation surrounding the U.S. 8th Cavalry Regiment, especially that of the 3rd battalion, was desperate. The communist forces mixed frontal attacks with flanking movements, a classic Chinese tactic. It puts direct pressure on the enemy’s front line, while other elements encircle the enemy from behind. A reconnaissance team of soldiers from Pyongyang who were former soccer players and belonged to the ROK 12th Regiment was put into action to rescue as many of the trapped U.S. troops as possible. They were the best in search and rescue missions, but even this elite unit was only able to get three or four American soldiers out and had to retreat before the Chinese onslaught.

At the end, out of a total strength of 800, the 8th Cav. Regiment lost 600, either killed or missing. For the U.S. military the battle was especially shameful. General Gay, the commanding officer of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, had used the entire 5th Cav. Regiment to rescue the 8th, but they failed. The Chinese forces created a smoke screen during the day by setting hills on fire and remained in their trenches. Gay couldn’t identify targets and on Nov. 2 finally gave the order to withdraw. It was the first time U.S. forces had abandoned rescue efforts for fellow units that had been encircled by the enemy.


Chinese communist soldiers move to attack the ROK 1st Division at Unsan. The Chinese offensive at the time resulted in the loss of a U.S. battalion, but the ROK 1st Division escaped relatively unharmed. Provided by Paik Sun-yup

The Chinese offensive entered a temporary lull after the beginning of November. The encounter with Chinese forces served as a yardstick to gauge their combat ability. They were much stronger than initially thought.

I had lived in China, so for me the Chinese military’s strategy was somewhat familiar. They made their living ambushing and launching surprise attacks. They rarely opted for frontal attacks. It was all about flanking and startling the enemy. It was no different with the Chinese forces that participated in the Korean War. They hid in places we couldn’t see and approached our lines under the cover of darkness with flutes blaring. For the U.S. soldiers, who hated night combat, the sound of the Chinese flutes got on their nerves. Even the South Korean forces were taken aback in the beginning at the sound of the flutes, and often morale dropped.

Many thought that the Chinese military was solely focused on sending human waves toward the enemy, but the Chinese forces that I had faced were different. They attacked by surprise, ambushed, encircled and made use of psychological warfare, all in a very clear tactical manner. What was interesting is that once captured, the Chinese had a very different attitude than the one projected through their fearful night attacks. They were so docile it was strange, and some appeared even optimistic.

In this regard, Col. Kim Jeom-gon once told me an interesting story. He was getting ready to conduct the second interrogation of a Chinese prisoner who had been captured at Unsan - a more “in-depth session” to find answers to some strategic questions. The prisoner in question had a request. He didn’t care about most of his belongings, but he asked that his “expensive fountain pen” be spared. The rules dictated that all the belongings of prisoners were to be confiscated, but the colonel found the prisoner’s request odd and ordered the pen be brought to him so he could take a closer look and find out what was so special about it.

The moment he saw the fountain pen, Colonel Kim had to laugh at the cheap old thing, which leaked ink everywhere. The Chinese prisoner practically begged for its return, and the colonel finally gave it back to him while discovering a weakness of the Chinese forces: their poor logistics, a crucial factor for maintaining combat power and operations. If the ranks are all relying on such shoddy tools for communication, Kim mused, then initially the Chinese attack would be powerful but in the end it would be hard to maintain that momentum because of logistical issues.

Some prisoners made me laugh too. I can’t remember which battle it was that he got captured, but one Chinese prisoner told us, “I am a very good cook. I will cook delicacies for you.”

Nevertheless, in battle these laid-back soldiers turned into fierce enemies because of the strict rules of the communist army. Especially concentrated Chinese infantry attacking in a column of four were a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, despite having tasted battle with Chinese forces, the U.S. was still underestimating them. At the end of November, in order to achieve the objective of spending “Christmas at home,” the U.S. forces were preparing for a grand offensive. Someone called it - rightly - a “blind march to disaster.”

60 years with the military, by Paik Sun-yup
Translation by Brian Lee []

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now