THE FRONT LINE
Last week, allied forces suffered their second major defeat within a month at the Battle of Hyeon-ri when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army used intelligence to pinpoint and attack vulnerable areas.
ROK, U.S. try to fend off Chinese
The right decision at a critical moment can have a huge effect on the outcome of a war. A lot can be lost if the correct decision is not made at such a time. The cost of poor decisions can be detrimental, and could result in the loss of countless lives and supplies.
With the Chinese People’s Liberation Army penetrating the defensive line manned by the ROK 7th Division in Gangwon in mid-May of 1951, the U.S. commanders made a crucial decision that would ultimately make up for a tactical loss at the Battle of Hyeon-ri.
The U.S. Army commanders decided to relocate a division from Paju, Gyeonggi to Hongcheon, Gangwon. Gen. James Van Fleet of the 8th U.S. Army mobilized his 3rd Infantry Division from Gwangju, Gyeonggi to the east. The move was to provide support to an area hit hard by PLA troops.
The U.S. 3rd Division showed amazing efficiency in its relocation. The distance from Gwangju to Hongcheon is roughly 250-kilometers (155 miles). It was a near miracle that some 17,000 troops armed with tanks, artillery and other supplies moved through the rough terrain in only a day and a half.
They marched and drove through the night to provide support to the defensive line, which had caved in under pressure from the PLA. It was even more amazing to me considering the American troops detested moving in the night. The 3rd Division had about 1,000 trucks. They took turns driving the vehicles, which helped cut down travel time.
Upon arriving in Hongcheon, the U.S. 3rd Division split into two with one group providing help to the U.S. 2nd Division and the other going to support the ROK 3rd Corps in Hajinburi, near Inje, Gangwon.
The U.S. 3rd Division’s arrival in Hongcheon was a huge boost to the South Korean troops in the area.
Having concentrated its troops on attacking the ROK 7th Division and ROK 3rd Corps, the People’s Liberation Army had advanced pretty far through the defensive line. If we failed to hold them off, they would have advanced even further, past Daegwallyeong and into Gangneung, Gangwon. The PLA also had the option of advancing deep into the west via Hajinburi.
It was crucial at this time to form a proper line to prevent the PLA from advancing further to the east or west. That was easier said than done because the PLA proved to be too tough for the U.S. 2nd Division and ROK 1st Corps to fend off.
We were badly in need of support and General Van Fleet had made the brash decision to mobilize his trusted 3rd Division to the east.
General Van Fleet had the reputation of being a commander who put everything on the line in order to defeat the enemy. He had the distinction of serving under Gen. George S. Patton during World War II with the U.S. 3rd Corps. And as the commander of the 8th U.S. Army during the Korean War, he used a massive amount of artillery shells to get things done.
After witnessing General Van Fleet’s aggressive tactics, the phrase “Van Fleet Load” was born in Washington. With the PLA successfully gaining a foothold in the ROK-U.S. defensive line in Gangwon, he came to the conclusion that he could not waste any time in sending in support troops.
The PLA relied on outnumbering its opponent, but was also known to use unconventional measures. For example, it had successfully played to the psyche of the opposing side by making plenty of noise while American and South Korean soldiers were trying to sleep.
The U.S. Army, for its part, used what seemed like unlimited supplies and superb troop mobility to out-maneuver enemy troops and also relied on superior technology and trained tacticians.
While the PLA was now looking for ways to gain a foothold deeper into South Korean territory, we were fortifying our defensive line. Despite having the U.S. 3rd Division come to our rescue, it was still difficult for us to forecast the outcome of the impending battles. The PLA put all its resources into its attacks and was eagerly looking for a chance to advance.
One of the areas targeted by the PLA was a pass referred to as Omachi Hill in Inje, Gangwon.
It was a narrow pass - barely wide enough to have five horses pass through in the old days. It was also a strategically important area, considering all supplies to the U.S. 7th and 5th Divisions and the ROK 3rd and 9th Corps protecting the area had to go through the pass.
The area was originally under ROK 3rd Corps control, but the 8th U.S. Army was very hesitant and wanted an American division to protect the area against the expected PLA attack.
The ROK 5th Division, located just to the west of the ROK 7th Division, was also in tough shape, but had the benefit of help from the U.S. 2nd Division.
The PLA started its attack again on May 16.
It attacked the ROK 5th Division, but retreated on several occasions after coming across U.S. 2nd Division troops in the area. The PLA would focus on sending small brigades to target the ROK 5th Division, but the ROK 5th Division was able to hold off the PLA troops with ground and air support from the U.S. 2nd Division.
The ROK 5th Division would return the favor when the PLA’s attack stalled and the U.S. 2nd Division started its counterattack.
The problem was the ROK 3rd Corps. It was in a state of panic on May 17, a day after the PLA started its second massive attack. Word had spread that the PLA had already taken Omachi Hill. The ROK 3rd Corps started its attempt to retake Omachi Hill on the night of May 17, but the mission ended in total failure. Its troops were dispersed and the chain of command had broken down.
In retrospect, we made several mistakes. The biggest of which was promoting Choi Seok, the commander of the ROK 9th Division. He had worked on administrative duties in the past and did not have any experience commanding troops in combat.
Having such an inexperienced officer commanding a group of men in their attempt to retake a key strategic area might not have been the best decision.
According to some accounts of the ROK 9th and 3rd Division’s attack on Omachi Hill, senior officers were nowhere in sight and the men of the two divisions were seen retreating in chaos. The men attempted to flee the area by crossing Changchon River and many of the noncommissioned men were killed as they proved to be easy targets for PLA troops waiting nearby.
Aware of the risks involved in taking such a route, a large majority of the 3rd Division decided to retreat over the rough terrain of Mount Bangdae.
Gen. Kang Young-hoon, second in command of the ROK 3rd Division at the time, went to extreme measures to try and secure order among his men.
General Kang urged his men to return to Hajinburi, but more than half of the ROK 3rd Corps were either killed or captured by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. To make matters worse, a large number of the weapons, ammunition and supplies in possession of the ROK 3rd Division were captured by PLA troops.
Part of the problem was the delay in communication. The news of the ROK 7th Division’s defeat at the hands of the PLA did not reach the ROK 3rd Division in time and the PLA troops attacked them the following afternoon. An order to retreat from the area was handed down by the ROK 3rd Division’s commanding officers the following morning.
It’s still unclear why there was such a long delay.
60 years with the military, by Paik Sun-yup
Translation by Jason Kim [firstname.lastname@example.org]