Battle of Sangju (1950)

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For the Imjin War battle, see Battle of Sangju (1592).

Coordinates: 36°26′23″N 128°10′11″E / 36.43972°N 128.16972°E / 36.43972; 128.16972

Battle of Sangju
Part of Korean War
A crew of men on a howitzer as it fires
Artillery in support of the US 24th Infantry fire from Yongdok, July 22.
Date July 20–31, 1950
Location Sangju, South Korea
Result Pyrrhic North Korean Victory
  • North Korean Forces push back ROK, U.S. and U.N. forces to the Pusan Perimeter.
  • North Korean Forces suffer heavy casualties

Tactical United States Victory,

  • First United States land victory over North Korean forces in the taking of Yechon by the US 24th Infantry Regiment.
  • Successful withdrawal of U.S., U.N. and ROK forces to the Pusan Perimeter.
Commanders and leaders
  • North Korea Ch'oe Hyon
Units involved
  • US: 13,059
  • South Korea: 5,727[1]
Casualties and losses
  • US: 27 killed, 293 wounded, 3 missing
  • South Korea: ~2,500 casualties
  • ~2,500 casualties
  • 17 T-34 tanks

The Battle of Sangju (Korean: 상주 전투) was an engagement between the United Nations and North Korean forces, occurring on July 20–31, 1950, in the village of Sangju in southern South Korea, early in the Korean War. It ended in a victory for the North Korean forces after they were able to push troops of the United States and South Korea out of the area.

Republic of Korea Army units had been unsuccessfully resisting advances by the North Korean People's Army in the region when they were reinforced by the United States Army's 25th Infantry Division, newly arrived in the country. In the subsequent fight, the 24th Infantry Regiment was able to inflict substantial casualties on the advancing NK 15th Division but was not able to hold its positions. In 11 days of fighting, the UN forces were forced to withdraw from Yechon County, the city of Sangju, and the surrounding areas due to the superior firepower of the North Korea's 15th Division.

The US 24th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Division was very effective in the taking of Yechon. The regiment, historically composed of Black troops since the Indian Wars, fought alongside the Republic of Korea's 1st Division against the advances of North Korea's 15th Division. As were most American units then, black or white, the 24th Infantry Regiment was ill-equipped for combat. L Company of the 24th Infantry landed without any light machineguns, 60-millimeter (mm) mortars, Browning automatic rifles, or bazooka antitank weapons, which had been standard equipment in World War II. The regiment was unfairly singled out by racist authors and falsely accused by the Army of being quick to retreat under heavy fire. Historians have described the Army's statements as biased, overstating its failures from the early stages of the war, and downplaying the regiment's later many successes in the shared defense of the Perimeter, the advance to the north, the tragic fighting retreat from a Chinese trap in December 1950, and the battles that ended in a stalemate and truce at the 38th Parallel.


Outbreak of war[edit]

Following the invasion of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) by its northern neighbor, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), the United Nations decided to commit troops to the conflict in support of South Korea. The United States subsequently sent ground forces to the Korean peninsula with the goal of fighting back the North Korean invasion and to prevent South Korea from collapsing. However, US forces in the Far East had been steadily decreasing since the end of World War II in 1945, and at the time the closest forces were the 24th Infantry Division of the Eighth United States Army, which was headquartered in Japan. The division was understrength, and most of its equipment was antiquated due to reductions in military spending. Regardless, the 24th Infantry Division was ordered into South Korea.[3]

The 24th Infantry Division was the first US unit sent into Korea with the mission to take the initial "shock" of North Korean advances, bravely fighting alone and outnumbered for several weeks.[4] They delayed much larger North Korean units while additional UN forces arrived and moved into position: the 7th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and other Eighth Army supporting units. South Korean forces in the meantime were systematically defeated and forced south along Korea's east coast, with entire divisions being overrun by the North Koreans' superior firepower and equipment.[4] Advance elements of the 24th Infantry Division were badly defeated in the Battle of Osan on July 5, during the first battle between American and North Korean forces.[5] For the first month after the defeat at Osan, 24th Infantry Division soldiers were repeatedly defeated and forced south by the North Korean force's superior numbers, artillery and equipment.[6][7] The regiments of the 24th Infantry Division were systematically pushed south in battles around Chochiwon, Chonan, and Pyongtaek.[6] The 24th Infantry Division made a final stand in the Battle of Taejon, being almost defeated but delaying North Korean forces from advancing until July 20.[8] By that time, the Eighth Army's force of combat troops were roughly equal to North Korean forces attacking the region at around 70,000 for each side, with new UN units arriving every day.[9]

US 25th Infantry Division arrives[edit]

At the same time, on the east coast, the NK 12th Division was resting from its heavy battles north of the town of Sangju, a crossroads center for all the mountain roads in that part of Korea. Situated south of the Mun'gyong plateau and the dividing watershed between the Han River and the Naktong River, Sangju had a commanding position in the valley of the Naktong, 45 miles (72 km) northeast of Taegu.[10] There was a large amount of confused activity around Sangju during the end of July, as refugees and stragglers from the defeated ROK Army poured south through the town. Many ROK units were retreating to Sangju and some had passed south through it. Isolated fighting had already begun between North Koreans and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces for control of the Mun'gyong plateau when the US 25th Infantry Division under Major General William B. Kean, newly arrived in Korea on July 10–15, received orders from General Walker to concentrate there to bolster ROK defenses of the central mountain corridors.[11][12] Eighth Army Commander Lieutenant General Walton Walker looked to the 25th Division to help the ROK forces in central Korea prevent a major North Korean movement into the valley of the upper Naktong.[13][14] The division stood at a strength of 13,059 as of July 19.[15][16]


Victory at Yechon by the 24th Infantry[edit]

A group of men standing around a large gun
24th Infantry artillery fires on North Korean targets.

The first action between the 24th Infantry and North Korean forces took place at Yechon on July 20.[17][18] Col. Bradley Biggs describes the assault in detail.

Black Officer Charles M. Bussey was returning to his 77th Engineer Combat Company with mail from the states for one of his platoons, when he came across a dozen "lollygagagging" (resting) army truck drivers. Bussey heard fighting in the town ahead, in which Bussey states his company was supposed to provide back up support. He climbed a nearby hill. A kilometer to the rear of the vehicle column he spotted a large body of white-clad Koreans coming toward them.[19][20] [21][22][23][24] Bussey ordered the drivers to unload the two machine guns and ammunition in their trucks and drag them to the top of the hill.[22] Manning a .50-caliber machinegun that he had taken from a truck and assigning a .30-caliber machinegun to an M Company crew, Bussey fired one burst over the heads of the advancing Koreans. When they fired back, he and his crew fired both guns directly into them. The Koreans continued to advance in short rushes. Enemy mortar fire killed the soldier manning the .30-caliber machinegun, but Bussey continued firing the .50-caliber machinegun until it jammed; he then manned the .30-caliber weapon. Bussey fired for about 15 minutes. The fire proved effective. He and three other soldiers were credited with killing 258 enemy soldiers. The North Korean attack stopped after about an hours. Charles M. Bussey describes the encounter.

Men in trucks driving down a road
Troops of the 24th Infantry move to the Pusan Perimeter battleground.

The North Korean flanking units were destroyed.[22] Bussey's group was given credit for killing 258 enemy soldiers in the battle.[19]

Drawing battle lines[edit]

Major General Kean and his 25th Division had to guard two main approaches to Sangju to keep the town from falling to the North Koreans.[26] The main road crossed the Mun'gyong plateau and passed through Hamch'ang at the base of the plateau about 15 miles (24 km) north of Sangju.[27] Next, there was a secondary mountain road that crossed the plateau farther west and, once through the mountains, turned east toward Sangju.[26][28]

On the main road, the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, held a blocking position northwest of Hamch'ang, supported by a platoon of tanks from A Company, 78th Tank Battalion, and A Battery, 90th Field Artillery Battalion.[29] The 1st Battalion was emplaced with the 2nd Battalion but stayed less than 24 hours before it was sent to reinforce the US 27th Infantry Regiment on the next north-south line of communications westward.[30] Thus, in effect, one battalion of US troops stood behind ROK units on the Hamch'ang approach. On the second road, that leading into Sangju from the west, the 24th Infantry Regiment assembled two, and later all three, of its battalions.[29]

The 2nd Battalion of the 35th Infantry took up a hill position northwest of Hamch'ang and south of Mun'gyong on the south side of a stream that flowed past Sangju to the Naktong. On the north side of the stream an ROK battalion held the front line. Brigadier General Vennard Wilson, the 25th's Assistant Division Commander, ordered F Company of the battalion to be inserted in the center of the ROK line north of the stream, and this was done over the strong protests of the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel John L. Wilkins. Wilson thought the American troops would strengthen the ROK defense but Wilkins did not want the untried company to be dependent on ROK stability in its first engagement. Behind the ROK and F Company positions the ground rose to another hill within small arms range. Heavy rains had swollen the stream behind the ROK and F Company positions to a torrent that was rolling large boulders along its channel.[29] In the meantime, the ROK 2nd Battalion, 17th Regiment, ambushed a battalion of North Korean troops near Tongkwanri, forcing it to withdraw.[31]

North Korean attack on Sangju[edit]

On July 22 the North Koreans attacked. The ROK troops resisted briefly, but withdrew from their positions on either side of F Company without communicating their intentions.[29] The withdrawal had been a part of the plan for reorganizing the line to incorporate the US troops, but F Company expected them to send a message before doing so, and did not adjust their defenses to compensate.[32] North Korean troops quickly flanked F Company and began attacking it from the rear. This precipitated an unorganized withdrawal. The swollen stream prevented F Company from crossing to the south side and the 2nd Battalion positions. Walking wounded crowded along the stream where an effort to get them across failed. Two officers and two noncommissioned officers tied a pair of twisted telephone wires about their bodies and tried to swim to the other bank and fasten a line, but each in turn was swept downstream where they floundered ashore on the same bank where they had started. Some men drowned trying to cross the swollen river. The covering fire of a platoon of tanks on the south side held off the North Koreans and allowed most of the survivors to eventually escape. F Company lost 37 men: 6 killed, 10 wounded, and 21 missing.[29]

The next morning five North Korean T-34 tanks crossed the river and moved toward Hamch'ang. Artillery fire from A Battery of the 90th Field Artillery Battalion knocked out four of the tanks immediately. The fifth moved back across the river, where an air strike later destroyed it.[29]

UN consolidates around Sangju[edit]

The 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, was still in its position when it received orders to withdraw to a point 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Sangju on July 23. On July 28 the battalion fell back 2 miles (3.2 km) further, and the next day it moved to a position south of Sangju. On the last day of July, the 35th Infantry was ordered to a blocking position on a line of hills 8 miles (13 km) south of Sangju on the Kumch'on road. In 11 days it had fallen back about 30 miles (48 km) on the Sangju front without encountering strong resistance, only North Korean patrols.

The ROK 6th Division continued its hard-fought action on the road through the mountains from Mun'gyong, but gradually it fell back from in front of the NK 1st Division.[28] In the mountains above Hamch'ang the ROK 6th Division on July 24 destroyed seven North Korean T-34 tanks.[33] Three days later the ROK 1st Division, now relieved northwest of Sangju by the US 24th Infantry and redeployed on the Hamch'ang front,[28] destroyed four more tanks there with 2.36-inch bazookas and captured one tank intact.[33] The remnants of the ROK 2nd Division, relieved by the 27th Infantry Regiment on the HwangganPoun road, were incorporated into the ROK 1st Division.[28] Thus, by July 24 the US 25th Division had taken over from the ROK 1st and 2nd Divisions the sector from Sangju westward to the Seoul–Taegu highway, and these ROK troops were moving into the line eastward and northward from Sangju on the Hamch'ang front.[33]

By July 27 all the Mun'gyong divide was in North Korean possession and their units were moving into the valley of the upper Naktong in the vicinity of Hamch'ang. Prisoners taken at the time and others captured later said that the NK 1st Division suffered 5,000 casualties in the struggle for control of the divide, including the division commander who was wounded and replaced. The NK 13th Division, following the 1st, suffered about 500 casualties below Mun'gyong, but otherwise it was not engaged during this period.[33] The NK 15th Division, one of North Korea's weaker divisions which consisted mostly of inexperienced youth, moved on Sangju.[34][35] It was part of a concentrated attack by North Korean troops aiming to push the UN forces south before they had time to organize an effective defensive line.[36]

Simultaneously with their appearance on the Hamch'ang road at the southern base of the Mun'gyong plateau north of Sangju, the North Koreans approached on the secondary mountain road to the west.[33] On July 22, F Company of the 35th Infantry was also attacked north of Hamch'ang,[37] when it was confronted with a North Korean battalion three times its size. The company fought effectively and inflicted heavy casualties, though the next day rains caused flooding of a river to the unit's rear and cut off its route of supply. Assisted by artillery, it was able to disengage.[38]

US withdrawal[edit]

In the final days of the fight, to the west of Sangju, Major John R. Woolridge, one of the regiment's senior officers, set up a check point west of the town and stopped every vehicle coming from the west, taking off stragglers attempting to retreat. Many jeeps were filled with six or seven men claiming they were retreating after their position was overrun.[11][32] He averaged about 75 stragglers a day, and 150 on the last day of the battle.[39] A contingent of military police were dispatched specifically to collect men abandoning their positions and to return them to the front.[40] After regimental commanders pleaded unsuccessfully with Gilbert to return to his position, he was arrested and tried for desertion under fire, a capital offense, and sentenced to death. His sentence was later reduced to 17 years in prison, but he served only five of them.[41] The NK 15th Division set up a new defensive line at Sangju the next day as the 25th Infantry Division was moved to deal with a growing attack on Masan to the south.[41]


24th Infantry soldier rests and reads a newspaper
24th Infantry soldier reads the news during a break in the Pusan Perimeter fighting.

In July 1950, national radio announcers broadcast reports about a battle that had been fought in Yechon, a small town in Korea. The U.S. Army had won its first victory in Korea. The news jolted many Americans from their apathy. The soldiers responsible for the victory were African Americans of the "Deuce-Four," the 24th Infantry Regiment. "Negroes Gain First Korean Victory," read a New York Daily News headline, and on 22 July 1950, CBS Radio Network news commentator H.V. Kaltenborn exulted, "Hooray for the colored troops of the 24th Infantry Regiment!" Soon Yechon became part of the Congressional Record and UN speeches. The firefight at Yechon was not a great battle in terms of World War II notoriety, nor for death and destruction, but it came at a time of great emotional need, and it lifted the spirits of many Americans. An Associated Press reporter filed a story about the entire battle and said it was "the first sizable ground victory in the Korean war".[24] However, the US Army, preoccupied by the Battle of Taejon, took little notice and credited the victory to the South Koreans instead. News of the capture was picked up by the US media as the first fight won by black soldiers of the mostly black unit.[42]

The euphoria over victory at Yechon was short-lived. As the North Koreans pushed on elsewhere, the 24th Infantry Regiment was withdrawn from Yechon in a realignment of forces. Communist divisions continued to advance, forcing U.S., Republic of Korea, and newly arrived UN forces into a small pocket of southeast Korea called the Pusan Perimeter. In the months that followed, the 24th Infantry Regiment shared in the defense of the Perimeter, the advance to the north, the tragic fighting retreat from a Chinese trap in December 1950, and the battles that ended in a stalemate and truce at the 38th Parallel. During this time, the 24th Infantry Regiment had its share of combat successes and failures. White troops had a similar record.

In reaching the upper Naktong valley at the end of July, the North Korean divisions engaged in this part of the drive southward had suffered heavy casualties. The NK 1st Division in battling across the Mun'gyong plateau against the ROK 6th Division not only suffered great losses in the ground battle but also took serious losses from UN aerial attack. Prisoners reported that by the time it reached Hamch'ang at the end of July it was down to 3,000 men from the 5,500 it had before the push. The NK 15th Division, according to prisoners, also lost heavily to artillery and mortar fire in its drive on Sangju against the 24th Infantry and ROK troops, and was down to about 5,000 men at the end of July, from 7,500 before the fight. In contrast, the NK 13th Division had bypassed Hamch'ang on the west and, save for minor skirmishes with ROK troops and the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, it had not been engaged and consequently had suffered relatively few casualties.[39]

White racists in and out of the military denigrated the performance of blacks in Korea. In such an atmosphere, on 1 October 1951, the black 24th Infantry Regiment, whose 3d Battalion had scored the first U.S. victory in Korea at Yechon, was erased. The deactivation order dated 22 September 1951, specified that "personnel will not be reduced in grade as a result of the action directed herein." Still, a cloud of racist innuendoes and allegations of poor performance hung over the entire affair. In Black Soldier, White Army, a 1988 book by William T. Bowers, William M. Hammond and George L. MacGarrigle, concluded that a combination of an overextended line and inexperienced white officers who were not firm or effective in asserting their authority were the primary factors in the performance of the 24th.[43] Others contend that the other white regiments performed similarly to units of the 24th Infantry Regiment and 1st Cavalry Division in their first engagements.[44] With training, many of the same troops became effective fighters in a matter of weeks.[45] Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Bussey, a member of the 24th Infantry that participated in the battle,[46] claimed in his memoir Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korean War that the 24th Infantry's good performances, particularly at Yechon, were ignored, and soldiers denied medals for their actions because of racism.[47] Bussey's action contributed to L Company's success in Yechon by preventing a right rear flanking attack. The 25th Infantry regimental commander awarded the Silver Star to Bussey, saying it was "intended as a down payment for a Congressional Medal of Honor" which Bussey has yet to receive.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Millett 2010, p. 351.
  2. ^ Millett 2000, p. 435.
  3. ^ Varhola 2000, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b Alexander 2003, p. 52.
  5. ^ Catchpole 2001, p. 15.
  6. ^ a b Varhola 2000, p. 4.
  7. ^ Alexander 2003, p. 90.
  8. ^ Alexander 2003, p. 105.
  9. ^ Fehrenbach 2001, p. 103.
  10. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 82.
  11. ^ a b Hastings 1988, p. 80.
  12. ^ Millett 2010, p. 350.
  13. ^ Appleman 1998, p. 190.
  14. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 88.
  15. ^ Appleman 1998, p. 197.
  16. ^ Alexander 2003, p. 117.
  17. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 85.
  18. ^ Millett 2010, p. 355.
  19. ^ a b "Decades after battle, fight continues; Korea veteran says he was denied Medal of Honor because of racism". The Dallas Morning News: 38A. 1 May 1994. 
  20. ^ Taylor, Michael (20 April 2004). "Charles Bussey -- member of Tuskegee Airmen". The San Francisco Chronicle: B7. 
  21. ^ "After 4 Decades, a Battle for Recognition of a Soldier Still Goes On". The New York Times: 13. 25 April 1994. 
  22. ^ a b c "Soldier still waits for medal; Charles M. Bussey was an officer in an all-black army unit during the Korean War. His supporters". Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA): B01. 27 April 1994. 
  23. ^ Bussey, Charles M. (March 2002). Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korean War. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-6201-9.  p. 100-102
  24. ^ a b Astor, Gerald (2001). The Right to Fight: A History of African American in the Military. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81031-X.  p. 353
  25. ^ Bussey, p. 103
  26. ^ a b Appleman 1998, p. 191.
  27. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 87.
  28. ^ a b c d Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 96.
  29. ^ a b c d e f Appleman 1998, p. 192.
  30. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 92.
  31. ^ Millett 2010, p. 378.
  32. ^ a b Millett 2010, p. 379.
  33. ^ a b c d e Appleman 1998, p. 193.
  34. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 97.
  35. ^ Millett 2010, p. 370.
  36. ^ Millett 2010, p. 376.
  37. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 99.
  38. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 104.
  39. ^ a b Appleman 1998, p. 195.
  40. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 115.
  41. ^ a b Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 121.
  42. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 93.
  43. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 120.
  44. ^ Hastings 1988, p. 81.
  45. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 122.
  46. ^ Millett 2007, p. 158.
  47. ^ Bowers, Hammong & MacGarrigle 2005, p. 141.