Task Force Faith

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Task Force Faith
Date November–December 1950
Location Chosin Reservoir
Result Chinese victory
Belligerents
 United States  China
Commanders and leaders
United States Allan MacLean  China Peng Deqing
Strength
3,000, consisting of elements of two regiments 15-20,000, six infantry regiments
Casualties and losses
1,000 killed (American record); 1,400 killed and wounded, 300 captured (Chinese claim) 7,000-10,000 killed (American estimate); 4,300 killed and wounded (Chinese record)

Task Force Faith, also known as Task Force Maclean (and by its official designation, Regimental Combat Team 31 (RCT-31)) or the Polar Bear Regiment (Chinese: 北极熊团; pinyin: Běi Jí Xíong Tuán), was a United States Army unit destroyed in fighting at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War between 27 November – 2 December 1950. It comprised primarily infantry, artillery, and tank units from the 7th Infantry Division, numbering approximately 3,000 soldiers. Of these, about 600 were KATUSAs (Korean Augmentee To the U.S. Army). The name Task Force Faith was originally coined by a U.S. Army historian, however the unit was never known by this name. RCT-31, which consisted of the 31st Infantry Regiment and supporting units, had the 1/31 Infantry detached and the 1/32 Infantry (from the RCT-32) added, and the designation RCT-31 was never changed.

Purpose and composition[edit]

The task force was created as part of the final United Nations Command offensive to occupy North Korea and cut the main supply route into the neighboring Eighth United States Army zone. In the X Corps area of northeastern Korea, the main effort would be made by the 1st Marine Division, attacking northwest from the Chosin Reservoir. The 7th Infantry Division was ordered by Major General Ned Almond, X Corps commander, to provide a regiment-sized force to guard the Marines' east (right) flank, by occupying the east side of the reservoir. This force would also attack north to the Yalu River, the boundary between North Korea and China, once the offensive began.

In earlier operations, 7th Division units had become widely spread out and isolated from each other in the rugged, mountainous terrain and primitive road network of the region. This made it impossible to assemble a full-strength task force in time, or to effectively coordinate its operations with the Marines on the south and western sides of the Chosin Reservoir.

Nevertheless, by 27 November, RCT-31, commanded by Colonel Allan MacLean, had arrived in two separate positions along a 10 mile (16 km) stretch down the east side of the reservoir. Consisting of the 3/31st and 1/32nd infantry battalions, two batteries of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion, and one platoon of Battery D, 15th Antiaircraft Battalion, it was short one infantry battalion and a tank company, both of which were expected to arrive soon. Basic defensive positions were established, but the Americans, not expecting enemy activity, did not set up a tight perimeter with 360 degree security. Colonel MacLean planned to attack north the following morning.[1]

Chinese attacks and isolation[edit]

However, during the night, powerful Chinese forces – which had infiltrated the area undetected – made a surprise attack on the task force elements as well as the Marines, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing the postponement, though not the cancellation, of the planned offensive. The following afternoon General Almond and his aide, 1st Lt. Alexander Haig, flew into the perimeter of RCT-31. Despite all the evidence of massive Chinese intervention, Almond exhorted the soldiers to begin the offensive. "The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of Chinese divisions fleeing north" he told the soldiers, "We're still attacking and we're going all the way to the Yalu. Don't let a bunch of Chinese laundry-men stop you." [2] The corps commander then flew back to Hagaru-ri, convinced that RCT-31 was strong enough to begin its attack and deal with whatever "remnants" of CCF forces were in their way.[3] Although large numbers of Chinese troops were seen moving south all day, on the hills east of the task force position, U.S. officers did not change their view of the situation. MacLean still expected reinforcements: his second infantry battalion (2-31) and the 31st Tank Company.

The reinforcements did not arrive. The PLA 80th Division reinforced with the 242nd Regiment from the 81st Division, both from the elite PLA 27th Corps, had – unbeknownst to MacLean – completely surrounded the task force, cutting it off from the south, where they established a strong roadblock a few miles north of the Marine base at the ruined village of Hagaru-ri. When the tank company reached the south end of the reservoir and moved north past Hagaru-ri, it was stopped by the Chinese roadblock, losing four tanks to enemy fire. The next day, it tried again, this time with scratch infantry support from headquarters and service troops of the 31st Infantry and 57th Field Artillery, but it was again beaten back. This force then returned to the position they had occupied at Hudong, a small, abandoned village north of Hagaru-ri, about 4 miles (6.5 km) south of RCT-31.

The Marines – surrounded and under heavy attack – had been unable to give assistance to the Army relief effort. MacLean's expected infantry battalion never made it to the Chosin area at all. MacLean was unaware of this and for some reason he made no effort to establish communications with higher headquarters and report his situation using Capt. Edward Stamford's (the Marine air controller) radio.

During the night of 28 November, the Chinese again struck the task force, overrunning several positions, again inflicting many casualties. Chinese prisoners indicated the 80th division and elements of another, likely the 81st. The Chinese attacked 1/32's position with North Korean tanks and self-propelled guns (they were destroyed both by air strikes as well as infantry weapons). The weather conditions deteriorated rapidly. The temperature plunged as low as -30 degrees F (-34 C), as heavy snow fell, impeding mobility. Visibility was low and the troops were suffering from the intense cold (several men froze to death in their foxholes). Colonel MacLean decided to pull his lead battalion, the 1/32 Infantry, back into the perimeter of his other units a few miles to the south, to provide a stronger defense.

All the rest of the day 1/32 moved under cover of Marine and Navy planes from VMF-212, VMF-214, VMF-312, VMF(N)-513, and Hedron-12. At the same time, the PLA 27th Corps committed the 241st Regiment from the 81st Division into the area. Thousands of enemy troops moving south made excellent targets. In addition to the cover afforded by F4U Corsair fighter-bombers, much-needed supplies were dropped by the Air Force Combat Cargo Command. At times, Capt. Stamford found himself directing both air drops from cargo planes and close support strikes over the same radio net. The air was filled with cargo planes, chutes, and agile Corsairs.

Finally, 1/32 joined the casualty-ridden 3/31 after 40 Marine aircraft had hit the enemy with some 225 rockets, 18 napalm tanks, 10 500-lb bombs, and 29 fragmentation bombs. This ordnance was delivered from early morning until the last flight left its station at 1705.

During this withdrawal, MacLean saw what he thought were his long awaited reinforcements, but as he approached them they turned out to be Chinese, who shot MacLean several times and took him prisoner; he died four days later. Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, commander of 1/32, now took command. Reaching the southern position, he consolidated the task force into one defensive perimeter as the Chinese intensified their attacks. With the assistance of Marine Corps air support – expertly coordinated by Capt. Stamford and without which the task force would have been overwhelmed – RCT 31 fought off heavy assaults by the PLA 80th and 81st divisions for another two days, inflicting severe losses on the communist forces who left hundreds of bodies in the snow around the army position. During the day Stamford directed 38 sorties, making this the major effort of the 1st Marine Air Wing for the day. From 0645 until 1830 Marine planes attacked the Chinese, dropping 21 napalm tanks, 16 500-lb bombs, 21 fragmentation bombs, and firing 190 rockets. All attacks on the perimeter were repulsed.

Breakout attempt[edit]

The Americans were running low on ammunition, and over half their number had been killed or wounded, including a high proportion of key leaders. Faith, realizing he was surrounded and greatly outnumbered, decided to attempt a breakout to the south, toward Marine lines. The situation was so desperate that only a minimum of equipment and sufficient vehicles to carry the wounded were taken, freeing more soldiers to fight as infantry. The rest of the equipment was destroyed in place, including the artillery's howitzers after they fired their last rounds.

The breakout began on 1 December, greatly aided by Marine F4U Corsairs and Navy F7F twin-engine fighters which strafed and bombed Chinese positions as the American truck column, encumbered with hundreds of wounded and under constant attack, made its way down a gravel road on the east side of Chosin Reservoir.

The march south was interrupted when the Corsairs mistakenly bombed short, spraying the lead platoons of the task force with napalm, killing and burning troops. The napalm drop had a demoralizing effect on the task force. As the front of RCT-31 made their way against close-range fire, heavy small arms fire from across the small valley caused many members of the rear guard to seek shelter below the road, instead of protecting the trucks. The enemy fire killed or wounded those already in the trucks as well as the drivers who viewed the job as a form of suicide. In the late afternoon, with light fading, Faith got the column moving again, albeit slowly, until it approached Hill 1221 overlooking the road. One battalion from the PLA 242nd Regiment had set up a strong defensive position on the Hill and a roadblock beneath it to block Faith's retreat. Several units attacked Hill 1221 trying to clear it. As Faith led an assault on the roadblock, he was hit by an enemy grenade and badly wounded.

Destruction[edit]

At this point, darkness closed in, ending the protective Marine air cover. Chinese infantry assaults grew bolder, penetrating closer to the convoy. RCT-31 began to disintegrate. Almost all of its officers were dead or seriously wounded. Separate attacks were made on the hill which cleared part of it, but many of the leaderless soldiers, instead of returning to the column, continued out onto the frozen reservoir immediately behind the hill and walked on the ice toward Marine positions several miles to the south, seeking safety.

The roadblock at the base of the hill was finally removed, and the truck column again crept forward in the dark but was finally halted by another Chinese roadblock just north of Hudong. The U.S. troops and tanks occupying Hudong – who might have saved at least part of the task force – had been ordered back to Hagaru-ri the previous day (an action which remains controversial).

Here the Chinese renewed their attack, swarming among the trucks, throwing white phosphorus grenades into vehicles loaded with wounded, setting some of them on fire.[4] Lieutenant-Colonel Faith, hit again by rifle fire, died of his wounds (he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor). Major Harvey Storms, the last commander of 3/31 Infantry and a respected and admired leader, was also killed. The remaining American rear-guard soldiers abandoned the truck convoy and attempted to escape individually, many crossing onto the ice of the reservoir.

Chinese officers and soldiers involved in this battle were new to international conflicts. They had been used to allowing their Chinese Nationalist opponents to survive and surrender after the combat on their own volition. They often just stood by as American soldiers dropped their weapon and left once the combat was over. There were instances in which they actually let go of prisoners who already surrendered. The 27th Corps was later criticized by PLA historians for not making any serious attempts to gather POW's, thus enabling so many members of Task Force Faith to reach safety and fight again.[dubious ]

Aftermath[edit]

Withdrawal from North Korea[edit]

The 385 able-bodied survivors of Task Force Faith were formed into a provisional battalion which was attached to the Marines and fought with them in the breakout of the 1st Marine Division during the remainder of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. This unit was made up of survivors from east of Chosin, as well as units from Hudong-ni and Hagaru-ri; Tank Company, 31st Infantry, which had been at Hudong-ni and withdrawn on 30 November with other Hudong units, was attached to the 5th Marines as rear guard during the breakout on 6–7 December. The so-called Provisional Battalion (known as "31/7" under Lt.Col. Berry K. Anderson) was actually formed into two small battalions of three rifle companies each, 3/31 (Maj. Carl Witte) with I, K and L, 1/32 (Maj. Robert Jones) with companies A, B and C.

Casualties[edit]

During the night of 1 December, hundreds of survivors from the task force reached Marine positions south of the reservoir at Hagaru-ri. Several hundred more were rescued the following day by Marine jeep patrols. Some soldiers taken prisoner by the Chinese were released a few hours later. Of the 2,500 troops trapped by the Chinese north of the roadblock, about 1,500 eventually made it back to American lines, the majority of them wounded or badly frostbitten. Over 1,000 soldiers of Task Force Faith were killed or died in Chinese captivity, that is, about a third of the original strength of RCT-31.

RCT-31 was the largest American unit destroyed, and Colonel MacLean was the highest ranking American officer killed in action during the Korean War. Casualties for the opposing Chinese 80th and 81st Divisions are not known precisely but are believed to be extremely heavy. Both divisions were not identified again on the battlefield until early April 1951. Chinese record claims 4,300 killed and seriously wounded. This number does not include the many Chinese soldiers frozen to death due to a lack of winter clothing.

The majority of RCT-31 survivors, suffering from wounds and/or frostbite, were evacuated to hospitals in Japan. 7th Division units comprising the task force were soon reconstituted, going back into battle in February 1951.

Legacy[edit]

The presence and fate of the Army troops east of Chosin in November and December 1950 is not well known. Many accounts of the Chosin Reservoir campaign tend to overlook or minimize their role. Also overlooked is that RCT-31 accomplished at least part of its mission. It successfully guarded the right flank of the 1st Marine Division, protecting it from Chinese attack for four days. If not for the presence of the task force, the Chinese 80th and 81st Divisions might have captured the key Marine base and air-strip at Hagaru-ri before the Marines had concentrated sufficient units to defend it. This would have blocked the only escape route of the Marines and other Army units, leading to a significantly different outcome at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

From 1950 through 2000 many maintained that RCT-31 had behaved in a cowardly fashion at Chosin, based on the statements of the 1st Marine Division commander, General O.P. Smith and a US Navy Chaplain. They were probably puzzled by the large number of survivors escaping the combat without their weapons and reached the incorrect conclusion that these men had abandoned the fight. In reality, it was the PLA's strange obsession with destroying only the heavy equipment and vehicles that spared these fighting men, over half of whom had been wounded in the series of fierce battles.

Eventually, released Chinese documents and research by historians like Marine Corps Maj. Parrot and Roy Appleman convinced the world that the RCT-31 had fought bravely and performed well given the circumstances. In recognition of the heroic efforts of the 31st RCT, after half a century, in 2001 the Navy awarded the task force the Navy Presidential Unit Citation.[5][6]

Honors[edit]

Lt. Col. Don C. Faith, Jr., was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The following soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, for actions East of the Reservoir:

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Appleman, Roy. East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea. 1950, Texas A&M University Press, College Station(1987)
  • Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War. Times Books, NY(1987)
  • Department of Defense News Release, Soldier Missing from Korean War Identified. http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=15922.

External links[edit]