Battle of Sangju (1950)
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
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. The regiments of the 24th Infantry Division were systematically pushed south in battles around Chochiwon, Chonan, and Pyongtaek. 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. 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.
US 25th Infantry Division arrives
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. 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. 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. The division stood at a strength of 13,059 as of July 19.
Victory at Yechon by the 24th Infantry
|“||On 20 July, the battalion was ordered to attack Yechon and take it back from the North Koreans who had overrun the engineer company. L Company's orders were to move out as the assault company and spearhead the attack. I Company was to follow, with K Company in reserve. The heavy weapons company, M Company, with heavy machineguns mounted on jeeps, followed L Company as supporting firepower. A platoon from the 77th Engineers under Lieutenant Chester Lenon (later a winner of the Distinguished Service Cross) was detailed to L Company for support.
L Company moved north toward Yechon. Late in the afternoon of 20 July, I decided to use a tactic that would prevent the North Koreans from slowing our advance as well as keeping us from walking into any traps, which the North Koreans had surely set for us. We anticipated that the road would be mined, or the enemy would have it covered with mortar and artillery fire. My tactic was to move off the road, bypass the villages, stay out of the rice paddies, if possible, and move as far as we could before dark. As we approached the first village, I ordered Lieutenant Oliver Dillard (today a retired major general) to take his third platoon to the left around it. I led the remainder of the company toward the village, expecting to bypass it and leave whatever enemy presence was there to be mopped up by I or K Companies. I wanted to bypass all opposition and get into Yechon as quickly as possible.
When the force approached the village, a U.S. P-51 Mustang fired on it. The P-51 was on a strafing mission to attack North Korean soldiers in the village 100 yards or so in front of the force. A rice paddy and a small canal separated the advance platoon and the village. After the P-51 made a few passes, and after some arm-waving on our part, it flew off. Then the force came under rifle and mortar fire from the village. I saw Dillard's platoon moving to the left of the village, and I hoped he had diverted the enemy's attention from the main assault elements, which I was leading.
Skirting the village, the group crossed a little canal and came under intense mortar fire. I heard hollow thumps as the enemy dropped rounds into mortar tubes. Looking up, I could see the mortar rounds coming down on us. They appeared to be about 60-millimeters in caliber. I ordered my two platoons and engineer units into the stinking rice paddies so any mortar rounds would land in the fecesladen mud, which would absorb some of the force of their explosions in the pudding-like soil. Later, we regrouped on the knoll on our right flank just off the Yechon road.
As night fell, we could no longer see where the enemy was. Platoons could not communicate with each other because there were no radios. I ordered disengagement and sent two runners to find Dillard's platoon and tell him to join the rest of us on the knoll where we took up pre-attack positions and set up night security. The mortar fire ceased. The North Koreans also could not see targets in the darkness and had withdrawn toward Yechon.
Dillard's platoon arrived an hour later. I positioned his platoon on the knoll and ordered Lieutenant James Smith, our supply and mess officer, to prepare a meal for the platoons as quickly as possible. While I was inspecting the platoons' positions, a runner informed me that Pierce wanted me at his command post immediately to receive another attack order.
The attack order was short and clear. On 21 July, at dawn, L Company would lead the attack on Yechon, rush through the town as quickly as possible, and reoccupy its former positions. K Company would follow and mop up. I Company would occupy the high ground overlooking Yechon and keep the North Koreans from attacking L Company's exposed left flank. Lieutenant James C. Cosgrove's M Company, a weapons company, would provide general support by sending crew-served weapons personnel where needed.
On 21 July, at 0400, the heat was oppressive. The air was moist and heavy, and sweating came easily. The stench of the fertilizer in the nearby rice paddies made breathing unpleasant. The men of L Company moved quickly into assault formation. They had not eaten breakfast and were hungry, hot, tired, and thirsty, but they did not touch their canteens. They knew that they would not have any clean water to drink for hours.
Six officers and 116 enlisted men, all volunteers, all professionals in a regiment that bore the stamp of institutionalized racism, were poised, ready to attack. Racism in the Army was of little concern to the men just then. Under such circumstances, no one thinks bigger than a company, and the squad is an entire world. No one likes to fight two wars at the same time, and that was certainly true that morning near Yechon. Racism, although it was a daily annoyance, was far less important to us than the fact that a well-trained enemy had the unit in his gunsights.
We crossed the line of departure at daybreak in formation as a column of platoons. Dillard's 3d Platoon was in the lead because he had farthest to go to reach his old position. L Company followed with Lieutenant Alonzo C. Sargant's platoon behind my group of four. Then came Lieutenant Walter W. Redd's platoon, followed by Lieutenant Clifton F. Vincent's weapons platoon (really a rifle platoon since it had no crew-served weapons). Later it provided security for a 105-mm howitzer positioned to provide AT support.
We were attacking into the face of unknown enemy strength. "Going downtown with speed" was the plan, and it was our best offense. Dillard, superb officer that he was, moved his platoon so rapidly that he caught off guard whatever enemy force was present. His platoon did not receive the enemy fire that the test of the company did. In fact, when I later arrived at the north end of Yechon, Dillard was there waiting for my orders.
Sargant's platoon moved along the bank of the Hanchon River. Reed's platoon moved straight through the city on the double, rushing past snipers and ambush locations. All three platoons quickly occupied the same positions they had held before they had evacuated Yechon a few days earlier. Vincent's weapons platoon, the company's support element, took a position close to the town's entrance. All units were abreast to cover the area assigned to the company.
Dillard's platoon was able to move through the village without opposition because of surprise and speed. The rest of L Company, reinforced, encountered patches of sporadic resistance. (Dillard's unit had alerted the North Koreans.) After the attack, our interpreter learned from villagers that most of the town's defenders took to the hills when they saw us heading down "Main Street."
The North Koreans were caught by surprise. They thought they were under attack by a large force because the attack came at them in two ****gs and looked like a large double envelopment without support, the one textbook maneuver nobody wants to get caught in tactically. Perhaps the North Koreans never heard of Cannae, but professional officers and military historians know the name well.
En route to Yechon, my driver Private First Class Richard Burke and I picked up a wounded engineer, a member of the company that had relieved us earlier. The engineer, suffering from leg wounds, said the North Koreans hit his unit in a night attack and that the engineers did not have a chance against the superior North Korean firepower and numbers. We helped him into the Jeep, and Burke drove him to the battalion aid station. We found no other wounded, but we did find one dead soldier in some bushes near the first house we saw.
As we approached the outskirts of Yechon in my jeep, which had a scrounged .30-caliber machinegun on a pedestal riveted to the floor, we came under machinegun fire from a hut in an open field 200 yards to our left. Then we came under heavy small arms fire from snipers hidden in a large cluster of trees at the entrance to the city. Burke stopped the vehicle. I took a position behind the .30-caliber machinegun and laced the hut with five or six short bursts. The firing from the hut ceased. I then turned the machinegun onto the cluster of trees from which the sniper fire had come and fired another burst. Burke moved the Jeep to the left side of the road. We ran forward with Redd's platoon. We received more small arms fire from the same cluster of trees. I decided we had to move north on the double and not try to clean the enemy out of the cluster of trees. To fight through Yechon house-by-house and street-by-street would have been foolhardy. The best tactic was to rush down Main Street and drive out or bypass anything in the way.
We moved out on the double, firing at anything that fired at us. We came upon two sandbagged positions, both deserted. We did not bother to search any huts or go up any side streets. Any North Koreans there would be sandwiched between L Company on the north and K Company conducting mop-up. We had no artillery support except for three rounds dropped on the cluster of trees from which we had drawn small arms fire. Midway though the attack, tank support arrived--four M-24 light tanks, which withdrew once the town was secured.
The attack was over in less than an hour. We quickly moved into our old positions. Pierce drove up to my command post to tell me that we had done "an extremely fine job," and he extended his congratulations. But his praise rang hollow. Pierce did not acknowledge that the victory was the result of our hastily organized battle plan, a plan which worked only because of its audacity, and without the fire support--artillery, tank, and air support that commanders usually allocate to an infantry attack.
We were not comfortable attacking an enemy about whom we had no intelligence. We did not know the enemy's strength, his weapon emplacements or machinegun dispositions, or if he had tanks. But speed, surprise, daring, and unexpected tactics had won the day.
Although we did not know it at the time, we owed much of our success to the courage of another black officer, Captain Charles Bussey, commander of the 77th Engineers.
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.  Bussey ordered the drivers to unload the two machine guns and ammunition in their trucks and drag them to the top of the hill. 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.
|“||I watched the group of farmer-soldiers coming ever closer and reckoned that farmers scatter and run if you send a long burst of machine-gun fire over their heads, but soldiers flatten out like quail and await orders from their leader...I sent a burst from the .50 caliber machine gun dangerously close above the heads of the approaching group...True to the form of soldiers, they flattened into the paddy as the bullets flew past them...Bullets raked and chewed them up mercilessly...The advancing column was under tight observation from somewhere on the mountain because large mortar rounds started...overhead. I was knicked by a fragment. the gunner on the .30 caliber machine gunner was hit badly, and his assistant was killed. The enemy mortar was accurate. The shells were bursting about twenty to forty feet overhead, showering us with shell fragments. And we were now drawing small-arms fire from the rice paddies below...I chopped the North Korean troops to pieces...I was ashamed of the slaughter before me, but this was my job, my duty, and my responsibility. I stayed with it until not one white rag was left intact.||”|
Drawing battle lines
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. 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. Next, there was a secondary mountain road that crossed the plateau farther west and, once through the mountains, turned east toward Sangju.
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. 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. 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.
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. In the meantime, the ROK 2nd Battalion, 17th Regiment, ambushed a battalion of North Korean troops near Tongkwanri, forcing it to withdraw.
North Korean attack on Sangju
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. 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. 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.
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.
UN consolidates around Sangju
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. In the mountains above Hamch'ang the ROK 6th Division on July 24 destroyed seven North Korean T-34 tanks. Three days later the ROK 1st Division, now relieved northwest of Sangju by the US 24th Infantry and redeployed on the Hamch'ang front, destroyed four more tanks there with 2.36-inch bazookas and captured one tank intact. The remnants of the ROK 2nd Division, relieved by the 27th Infantry Regiment on the Hwanggan–Poun road, were incorporated into the ROK 1st Division. 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.
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. The NK 15th Division, one of North Korea's weaker divisions which consisted mostly of inexperienced youth, moved on Sangju. 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.
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. On July 22, F Company of the 35th Infantry was also attacked north of Hamch'ang, 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.
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. He averaged about 75 stragglers a day, and 150 on the last day of the battle. A contingent of military police were dispatched specifically to collect men abandoning their positions and to return them to the front. 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. 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.
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". 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.
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.
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. Others contend that the other white regiments performed similarly to units of the 24th Infantry Regiment and 1st Cavalry Division in their first engagements. With training, many of the same troops became effective fighters in a matter of weeks. Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Bussey, a member of the 24th Infantry that participated in the battle, 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. 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.
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