Battle of P'ohang-dong
The Battle of P'ohang-dong was an engagement between United Nations and North Korean forces early in the Korean War, with fighting continuing from 5–20 August 1950 around the town of P'ohang-dong, South Korea. It was a part of the Battle of Pusan Perimeter, and was one of several large engagements fought simultaneously. The battle ended in a victory for the United Nations after their forces were able to drive off an attempted offensive by three North Korean divisions in the mountainous eastern coast of the country.
Forces of the South Korean Republic of Korea Army, supported by the United States Navy and United States Air Force, defended the eastern coast of the country as a part of the Pusan Perimeter. When several divisions of the North Korean People's Army crossed through mountainous terrain to push the UN forces back, a complicated battle ensued in the rugged terrain around P'ohang-dong, which contained the vital supply line to the main UN force at Taegu.
Over two weeks, North Korean and South Korean ground units fought in several bloody back-and-forth battles, taking and retaking ground in which neither was able to gain the upper hand. Finally, following the breakdown of the North Korean supply lines and amidst mounting casualties, the exhausted North Korean troops were forced to retreat.
The battle was a turning point in the war for North Korean forces, which had seen previous victories owing to superior numbers and equipment, with the distances and demands exacted on them at P'ohang-dong rendering their supply lines untenable.
Outbreak of war
Following the invasion of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) by its northern neighbor, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the subsequent outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950, the United Nations decided to enter the conflict on behalf of South Korea. The United States—a member of the UN—subsequently committed ground forces to the Korean peninsula with the goal of fighting back the North Korean invasion and to prevent South Korea from collapsing. However, U.S. forces in the Far East had been steadily decreasing since the end of World War II, five years earlier, and at the time the closest forces were the 24th Infantry Division, headquartered in Japan.
Advance elements of the 24th Infantry were badly defeated in the Battle of Osan on 5 July, the first encounter between American and North Korean forces. For the first month after the defeat of Task Force Smith, 24th Infantry was repeatedly defeated and forced south by superior North Korean numbers and equipment. The regiments of the 24th Infantry were systematically pushed south in engagements around Chochiwon, Chonan, and Pyongtaek. The 24th made a final stand in the Battle of Taejon, where it was almost completely destroyed but delayed North Korean forces until July 20. By that time, the 8th Army′s force of combat troops were roughly equal to North Korean forces attacking the region, with new UN units arriving every day.
While the 24th Infantry Division was fighting on the Korean western front, the 5th and 12th North Korean Infantry Divisions advanced steadily on the eastern front. The North Korean army, 89,000 men strong, had advanced into South Korea in six columns, catching the Republic of Korea Army by surprise, resulting in a complete rout. The smaller South Korean army suffered from widespread lack of organization and equipment, and it was unprepared for war. Numerically superior, North Korean forces destroyed isolated resistance from the 38,000 South Korean soldiers on the front before it began moving steadily south.
North Korean advance
With Taejon captured, North Korean forces began surrounding the Pusan Perimeter from all sides in an attempt to envelop it. The 4th and 6th North Korean Infantry Divisions advanced south in a wide flanking maneuver. The two divisions attempted to envelop the UN′s left flank, but became extremely spread out in the process. At the same time, the NK 5th and 12th Division pressured the South Koreans on the right flank. They advanced on UN positions with armor and superior numbers, repeatedly defeating U.S. and South Korean forces and forcing them further south. On 21 July, the NK 12th Division was ordered by the II North Korean Corps to capture P'ohang-dong by 26 July.
Though it was steadily pushed back, South Korean forces on the right flank increased their resistance further south hoping to delay North Korean units as much as possible. North and South Korean units sparred for control of several cities, inflicting heavy casualties on one another. The Republic of Korea Army forces defended Yongdok fiercely before being forced back. They also performed well in the Battle of Andong, forcing the NK 12th Division to delay their attacks on P'ohang-dong until the early August. The South Korean forces had also undergone significant reorganizations, and after receiving a large number of recruits by 26 July, the South Korean Army had reached an effective strength of 85,871 men.
Along the South Korean front of the perimeter, on the eastern corridor, the terrain made moving through the area incredibly difficult. A major road ran from Taegu 50 mi (80 km) east, to P’ohang-dong on Korea's east coast. The only major north-south road intersecting this line moves south from Andong through Yongch'on, mid way between Taegu and P'ohang-dong.
The only other natural entry through the line lies at the town of An'gang-ni, 12 mi (19 km) west of P'ohang-dong, which is situated near a valley through the natural rugged terrain to the major rail hub of Kyongju, which was a staging area for moving supplies to Taegu. General Walton Walker—commanding the 8th Army—chose not to heavily reinforce the area as he felt the terrain made meaningful attack impossible, preferring to respond to attack with reinforcements from the transportation routes and air cover from Yonil Airfield, which was south of P'ohang-dong.
With the exception of the valley between Taegu and P'ohong-dong, the terrain along the line was extremely rough and mountainous thanks to the Taebaek Mountains which ran from north to south down Korea's east coast. Northeast of P'ohong-dong along the South Korean line the terrain was especially treacherous, and movement in the region was extremely difficult. Thus, the UN established the northern line of the Pusan Perimeter using the terrain as a natural defense. However the rough terrain also made communication difficult, particularly for the South Korean forces.
The Republic of Korea Army—a force of 58,000— was organized into two corps and five divisions along the line; from east to west, ROK I Corps controlled the 8th Infantry Division and Capital Divisions, while the ROK II Corps controlled the 1st Division and 6th Infantry Division. A reconstituted ROK 3rd Division was placed under direct ROK Army control. Morale among the UN units was low due to the large number of defeats at that point in the war. The South Korean Army had lost an estimated 70,000 men up to that point in the war.
At the same time, forces of the U.S. 5th Air Force provided 45 P-51 Mustang fighters to provide cover from Yongil Airfield, and the U.S. Navy provided several ships to provide support by sea. Evacuation of wounded and surrounded troops was carried out by the aircraft carriers USS Valley Forge and Philippine Sea. The heavy cruisers USS Helena and Toledo also provided fire support for troops operating in the town.
The North Korean People's Army forces were organized into a mechanized combined arms force of ten divisions, originally numbering some 90,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops in July, with hundreds of T-34 Tanks. However, defensive actions by U.S. and South Korean forces had delayed the North Koreans significantly in their invasion of South Korea, costing them 58,000 of their troops and a large number of tanks. In order to recoup these losses, the North Koreans had to rely on less experienced replacements and conscripts, many of whom had been taken from the conquered regions of South Korea.
The North Korean forces suffered a shortage of men and equipment; their divisions were far understrength. Opposing the South Koreans, from west to east, were the 8th, 12th, and 5th Divisions and the 766th Independent Infantry Regiment. On 5 August, the NK 8th Division was estimated to have 8,000 men, the NK 5th Division had 6,000 men, the NK 12th Division had 6,000 men and the 766th Independent Regiment had 1,500 men, giving these units a total strength of at least 21,500.
In early August, the three North Korean divisions mounted offensives against the three passes through the South Koreans' line. The NK 8th Division attacked Yongch'on, the NK 12th Division attacked P’ohang-dong and NK 5th Division, in conjunction with the 766th Independent Infantry Regiment, attacked toward An'gang-ni at Kigye, 6 mi (9.7 km) north of the town. The South Korean forces had far less training and were poorly equipped, and so they presented the weakest line on the Pusan Perimeter. The North Koreans knew they could be most successful there.
The NK 8th Division's attack stalled almost immediately. The division drove for Yongch'on from Uiseong. However, the attack failed to reach the Taegu-P'ohang corridor after being surprised and outflanked by the ROK 8th Division. NK 8th Division's 3rd Regiment was nearly destroyed by South Korean forces immediately, forcing its 2nd Regiment to attempt to relieve it, resulting in at least 700 casualties for the 2nd Regiment. At least six tanks were also destroyed by U.S. Air Force F-51 Mustangs and mines.
This fighting was so heavy that the NK 8th Division was forced to hold its ground a week before trying to advance. When it finally broke out, it was only able to advance briefly before it was stalled again by South Korean resistance. The division was forced to halt a second time to wait for reinforcements. However the other two attacks were more successful, catching the UN forces by surprise. The North Koreans quickly pushed South Korean forces back.
East of the NK and ROK 8th Divisions, the NK 12th Division crossed the Naktong River at Andong, moving through the mountains in small groups to reach P'ohang-dong. The division was far under strength and at least one of its artillery batteries had to send its guns back north because it had no ammunition for them. UN planners had not anticipated that the 12th Division would be able to do this effectively, and thus was unprepared when its forces infiltrated the region so heavily.
On 9 August, troops from the ROK 25th Regiment, Capitol Division probed through the mountains from Kigye to establish contact with the ROK 3rd Division south of Yongdok. It advanced 2.5 mi (4.0 km) north before encountering fierce North Korean resistance, which pushed it almost 5 mi (8.0 km) south. It was apparent to the UN forces that the ROK 3rd Division was being outflanked. It held the road 20 mi (32 km) north of P'ohang-dong but there were no defenses inland in the mountains and North Korean units had penetrated there.
In the meantime, the ROK 3rd Division was heavily engaged with the NK 5th Division along the coastal road to P'ohang-dong. The divisions clashes centered around the town of Yongdok, with each side capturing and recapturing the town several times. On 5 August, the North Koreans launched their attack, again taking the town from the South Korean forces and pushing them south. At 19:30 on 6 August, the South Koreans launched a counteroffensive to retake the hill.
U.S. aircraft and ships pounded the town with rockets, napalm and shells before South Korean troops from the 22nd and 23rd regiments swarmed the town. However, NK 5th Division forces were able to infiltrate the coastal road south of Yongdok at Hunghae. This effectively surrounded the ROK 3rd Division, trapping it several miles above P'ohang-dong. The NK 766th Independent Regiment advanced around the ROK 3rd Division and took the area around P'ohang-dong.
Due to severe manpower shortages, ROK commanders had assigned a company of student soldiers to defend P'ohang-dong Girl's Middle School to delay the NKPA advance into the town. On August 11, the squad held their ground and confronted more numerous NK forces. Out of initial 71 squad members 48 died in the 11-hour-long battle. This part of the battle is depicted in the movie 71: Into the Fire.
On 10 August, the 8th Army organized Task Force P'ohang, consisting of the ROK 17th, 25th, and 26th Regiments as well as the ROK 1st Anti-Guerrilla Battalion, Marine Battalion and a battery from the U.S. 18th Field Artillery Battalion. The task force was given the mission to clear out North Korean forces in the mountainous region. At the same time, the 8th Army formed Task Force Bradley, consisting of elements of the U.S. 8th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division under the command of Brigadier General Joseph S. Bradley, the 2nd Division′s assistant commander. Task Force Bradley was tasked with defending P'ohang-dong from the North Korean 766th Independent Regiment which was infiltrating the town.
On 11 August, Task Force Bradley struck out from Yongil Airfield to counterattack the North Korean forces around P'ohang-dong while Task Force P'ohang attacked from An'gang-ni area. Both forces immediately met resistance from North Korean forces. By that time, the North Korean forces had captured P'ohang-dong. What followed was a complicated series of fights through the large region around P'ohang-dong and An'gang-ni as South Korean ground forces, aided by U.S. air forces engaged groups of North Korean forces operation all around the vicinity.
The NK 12th Division was operating in the valley west of P'ohang-dong and was able to push back Task Force P'ohang and the ROK Capital Division. At the same time, the NK 766th Infantry Regiment and elements of the NK 5th Division fought Task Force Bradley at and south of P'ohang-dong. U.S. naval fire was able to drive NK troops from the town, but it became a bitterly contested no man's land as fighting moved to the hills around the town.
UN forces pull back
By 13 August, North Korean troops were operating in the mountains west and southwest of Yongil Airfield. U.S. Air Force commanders—wary of enemy attack—evacuated the 45 P-51s of the 39th and 40th Fighter Squadron from the airstrip, against complaints of General MacArthur. However, the airstrip remained under the protection of UN ground forces and never came under direct North Korean fire. The squadrons were moved to Tsuiki on the island of Kyushu, Japan.
As the battles at P'ohang-dong raged to the south, the ROK 3rd Division faced increasing pressure from the NK 5th Division. North Korean officers from the division continued to attack the ROK unit hoping it would collapse, and the North Korean troops were able to slowly erode at the South Korean division′s defenses, forcing it into a smaller and smaller pocket. The ROK division was forced further south to the village of Changsa-dong, where U.S. Navy planners began preparations to evacuate the division by LSTs and DUKWs.
The division would sail 20 miles (32 km) south to Yongil bay to join the other UN forces in a coordinated attack to push the North Koreans out of the region. This evacuation was carried out on the night of 16 August under heavy support from the U.S. Navy. In all, 9,000 men of the division were evacuated south, as well as 1,200 national police and 1,000 laborers. Now at the height of their advance, the North Korean divisions had pushed the line to within 12 mi (19 km) of Taegu.
North Korean defeat
By 14 August, large forces from the NK 5th and 12th Divisions, as well was the 766th Independent Regiment were focused entirely on taking P'ohang-dong. However they were unable to hold it because of U.S. air superiority and naval bombardment on the town. More importantly, the supply chain had completely broken down for the division, and more food, ammunition and supplies were not available. Captured North Korean prisoners claimed the units received no food after 12 August and had been so exhausted that they were completely unable to fight. Opposing them, the ROK Capital Division and Task forces P'ohang and Bradley which had joined forces to prepare for a final offensive to push the North Koreans out of the region.
UN forces began their final counteroffensive against the stalled North Korean forces on 15 August. Intense fighting around P'ohang-dong ensued for several days as each side suffered large numbers of casualties in back-and-forth battles. By 17 August, UN forces were able to push North Korean troops out of the Kyongju corridor and An'gang-ni, putting the supply road to Taegu out of immediate danger. The NK 766th Independent Regiment—now down to 1,500 men—was forced to withdraw north to prevent being surrounded.
The NK 12th Division, also down to just 1,500, evacuated P'ohang-dong after this, having been exhausted from heavy casualties. The two units merged and received replacements, with the NK 12th Division re-forming with 5,000 men. By 19 August the North Korean forces had completely withdrawn from the offensive and retreated into the mountains. Troops of the ROK Capital Division advanced to 2 mi (3.2 km) north of Kigye, while the ROK 3rd Division retook P'ohang-dong and advanced north of the town the next day. The ROK line had been pushed back several miles, but it had managed to repel the North Koreans.
The fight at P'ohang-dong was the final breaking point for North Korean units already on the verge of exhaustion from continuous combat. North Korean supply lines were overextended to the point of breaking down, causing a collapse in resupply that is seen as a primary factor in turning the tide of the battle. Moreover, U.S. air superiority was also crucial to the engagement, since repeated bombing runs by U.S. aircraft prevented North Korean ground forces from reaching and holding their objectives.
Poor organization among both North and South Korean units made it extremely difficult to estimate total casualties for both sides. Several units were completely destroyed in the fighting, making precise casualty counting difficult. A memo from the South Korean army claimed 3,800 North Korean killed and 181 captured in the P'ohang area from 17 August onward. However, casualty numbers are likely far higher. The NK 12th Division alone likely suffered at least 4,500 casualties on top of that number, reporting a strength of 6,000 on 5 August and only 1,500 on 17 August.
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Into the Fire, a 2010 Korean dramatization of the 71 student soldiers who defended the P'ohang Girls Middle school.