Battle for Outpost Vegas
The Battle for Outpost Vegas was a battle during the Korean War between the armed forces of the United States and China from March 26–28, 1953, four months before the end of the Korean War. Vegas was one of three outposts called the Nevada Cities north of the Main Line of Resistance (MLR), the United Nations defensive line which stretched roughly around the latitude 38th Parallel. Vegas, and the outposts it supported, Reno and Carson, were manned by elements of the 1st Marine Division. On March 26, 1953 the Chinese army launched an attack on the Nevada Cities, including Vegas, in an attempt to better the position of China and North Korea in the Panmunjon peace talks which were occurring at the time, and to gain more territory for North Korea when its borders would be solidified. The battle raged for five days until Chinese forces halted their advance after partially obtaining their objective through capturing one outpost north of the MLR on March 28. The battle for outpost Vegas and the surrounding outposts are considered the bloodiest fighting to date in western Korea during the Korean War. It is estimated that there were over 1,000 American casualties and twice that number of Chinese during the Battle for Outpost Vegas. The battle is also known for the involvement of Sergeant Reckless, a horse in a USMC recoilless rifle platoon who transported ammunition and the wounded during the U.S. defense of outpost Vegas.
In March 1952, the 1st Marine Division redeployed from east-central to western Korea, where they were assigned a 35-mile (56 km) sector to defend on the Main Line of Resistance (MLR). The specific sector on the MLR was called the Jamestown Line. This sector was located between Chinese forces to the north and the South Korean capital of Seoul to the south. The 1st Division was supported by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, who had also been recently deployed to western Korea.
1st Battalion, 5th Marines defended the Nevada Cities, reportedly coined as such by Lieutenant Colonel Tony Caputa because "it's a gamble if we can hold them.".:76 Lieutenant Colonel Jonas Platt commanded 1st Battalion, while Colonel Lew Walt commanded the 5th Marines.
The 1st Division's formations from left to right comprised the South Korean Kimpo Provisional Regiment, 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, 1st Marines, and the 5th Marines. The 1st Marines had replaced the 7th Marines earlier in March.:265
I Corps was supported by separate units of artillery, tanks, and aircraft. The 11th Marines commanded by Colonel Mills provided artillery support.:268 Three of four companies of the U.S. Army's 1st Tank Battalion supported with M46 Pattons, flame tanks, and retrievers.:270The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, with 6,400 personal located throughout Korea, supported with helicopter evacuations of night frontline combat casualties, artillery spotting flights, airborne control of airstrikes and routine liaison and reconnaissance, administrative, and resupply flights.
Opposing the Marines was the Chinese line of formations, from left to right: the 19th Division of the 65th People's Volunteer Army (PVA), who had three regiments forward; and the 120th Division of the 40th PVA (under the control of the 46th PVA), who had three regiments forward. According to the 1st Marine Division Diaries, the Chinese were active in patrolling and ambushing in defense of positions during the first part of March. During the last part of March the Chinese began "limited objective attacks" against U.S. outposts. These attacks varied from a squad to two battalions in strength against outposts Reno and Vegas, in order to deny the U.S. observation into the Chinese rear areas.:270
The Commanding Officer of I Corps advocated U.S. defense on the hills north of the MLR to deny the tactical advantage they offered to the Chinese. Vegas was the highest of the "Nevada Cities" and 1,310-yard (1,200 m) north from the MLR. "From North to South this observation included in its 180-degree sweep, enemy hill mass 57 to the right, friendly outpost Berlin, the MLR, key Marine defense highpoints, Hills 229 and 181 in the 1st Marines sector, and intervening terrain.":276 However, soldiers on Vegas could not see Reno. A rifle platoon of 40 Marines and two Navy corpsmen manned each outpost.:265 250-yard (230 m) of trench line surrounded the outpost, which ranged from 4-foot (1.2 m) to 8-foot (2.4 m) deep. Beyond the trenches two parallel lines of barbed wire lay, linked with more parallel aprons of wire connecting the two, sometimes referred to as the "Canadian system.
U.N intelligence did not expect a Chinese attack during late March. Winter had turned to spring, and with the change of temperature, the melting snow turned the roads to mud, making logistics near to impossible. The newly deployed 1st Marines expected a comparatively quiet front in western Korea to the fighting they experienced elsewhere.:263Furthermore, the lines of resistance had for most of the war remained static.
There are different reasons for the Chinese attack to come on March 26. According to Elliot Akermann, the Chinese wanted to capture the Nevada Cities north of the MLR in order to gain leverage at the Panmunjom peace talks. If the Chinese gained a victory here, they could threaten Seoul, thus embarrassing and putting pressure on the U.N. negotiators at the talks. For Lieutenant Colonel Pat Meid and Major James M. Yingling, the Chinese wanted to take the hills and ridgelines adjacent to the Marine MLR. This would then better their position at the peace talks, and solidify captured territory for North Korea after peace was achieved.:264
March 26: Chinese attack
Until the end of March, the Chinese had shown no sign of attacking the Nevada Cities outposts. The Chinese were reluctant to engage the U.S. Marines' patrols unless they engaged in their own positions. Meid and Yingling wrote that the Marines were as follows: "Operation orders read that the Marines were to make contact, capture prisoners, and deny the ground to the enemy.":279
The Chinese offensive began on the night of March 26 against outposts Vegas, Carson, and Reno, in conjunction with attacking nearby outposts Dagmar, Esther, Bunker, and Rudy (Kudy?). At 19:00, small arms and machine gun fire erupted from the Chinese positions on the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines positions.:17 This was followed by 15 minutes of mortar and artillery fire on the 5th Marines rear areas and supply routes along the MLR. At 19:10, over 3,500 Chinese soldiers from the 358th Regiment, 120th Division, 46th PVA attacked ouposts Carson, Reno, and Vegas. One of the Chinese companies engaged the Marines atop outpost Vegas. Marine artillery responded to the Chinese attacks by firing "protective boxes" and VT proximity fuses around the outposts and routes of attack.:281 When VT was fired at Chinese soldiers who were very close to the Marine positions – as was often the case – the Marines would run into previously dug caves on the opposite slope of the hills. There they would wait until the overwhelming numbers of Chinese soldiers were pushed off the hill by the VT shells, and then the Marines would reemerge from the caves to man the defenses. Overwhelming Chinese numbers and supporting fire forced the Marines on Vegas to abandon the outer ring of less easily defended trenches.
At the same time during the evening of the 26th, Marine tanks and artillery had been positioned on the MLR to support an infantry raid to destroy Chinese bunkers scheduled for the next morning on the 27th, designated "Operation Clambake." It was pure chance that they were positioned there just as the Chinese launched an attack in the same front.:281
By 19:40, communications wire between Vegas and 1st Battalion Command Post had been lost because of the Chinese artillery and mortars striking in the rear areas of the Marine positions. Occasionally Marine engineers would repair the wires until the next barrage destroyed them again. By 19:50, more than 100 Chinese soldiers occupied the lower trenches of outpost Vegas, where they could survive Marine artillery bombardments. 10 minutes later, the Marines at outpost Vegas withdrew in face of overwhelming numbers of Chinese soldiers.:284 A little over an hour later at 21:29 a Marine platoon was sent to Vegas to support the Marines who had just withdrawn. Yet even before they were able to get to the outpost's hill, they were pinned down from engulfing fire from nearby Chinese soldiers.:285 Three minutes before midnight, 1st Battalion lost communications permanently with the Marines near outpost Vegas. All of the Marines on Vegas were killed or captured.:21
After 5 hours of fierce combat, the Chinese attack had been partially successful. They had captured 2 outposts (Vegas and Reno) and Marine reinforcements to those outposts had been thwarted. Carson was still controlled by the Marines.:286 Shortly after midnight, F Company 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines made an effort to recapture Vegas, but the lead platoon only managed to get close enough to confirm that Vegas was in enemy hands. By 03:00 on 27 March, these units had retreated back to the MLR. Wounded Marines were either carried to the aid stations of the 1st or 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, or in severe cases, evacuated by helicopter to Navy ships in Inchon harbor to the west of outpost Vegas.:22 After eight hours of fighting in and around the Nevada Cities, the Chinese had endured an estimated 600 casualties, 4 times more than that of the Marines.:21
March 27: USMC reorganization and counterattack
After the Marines abandoned their initial attempts to fight their way to Vegas, Major General Edwin A. Pollock commander of the 1st Division sent observation planes to direct fire for ground artillery and Air Force and Marine planes. Their fire was directed at Chinese artillery behind their front lines and at Chinese fortifications atop of captured outposts Reno and Vegas. On March 27 over 60 fire missions were called against Chinese targets. Marine mortars, artillery, and self-propelled guns contributed to the bombardment. Over 2 dozen Air Force and Marine aircraft also flew missions against Chinese positions on the captured outposts, including Grumman F9F Panther jets.:23
Instead of attacking both Reno and Vegas outposts, Pollock ordered attacks to be concentrated just on Vegas. This decision was made at 9 am as the bombardment climaxed against Chinese positions on both outposts. Company D, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines was the first to assault Vegas, but they never reached their objective, and retreated with only 9 able-bodied soldiers remaining.:23
At the same time, D company was pinned down while en route to Vegas.:292 By 13:05, D company had reached the lower slopes of outpost Vegas. By 13:22, the Marines had "gone over the top" on the outpost's hill. E Company soon followed and passed through D Company's ranks to secure the trenches and crest of Vegas. At 18:00, F Company was still 400-yard (370 m) behind the other companies from outpost Vegas. After 10 hours of intense fighting on the 27th of March, the Marines had held the lower slopes of Outpost Vegas, Chinese soldiers held the opposite slope of outpost Vegas but no-one held the summit.:295
March 28: Fight for Vegas summit and final USMC capture
On the morning of March 26, for 23 minutes the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing dropped some 28 tons of bombs on outpost Vegas. Their bombs landed 450-foot (140 m) from the lower trenches occupied by the Marines.:96 Up until that time, Marine commanders had hoped they could recapture the outposts with defenses intact in order to be used at another time. But after the unsuccessful Marine attacks the night before, they concluded that the outposts could not be retaken without the necessary fire support and so destroying the facilities of outpost Vegas.:96–97At 13:13 E Company gained control of outpost Vegas after heavy fighting and by 14:55 the outpost was secured. At 23:00 more than 200 wounded Marines were kept at a makeshift hospital on the slope of Vegas. Soon after the hospital staff learned that a Chinese formation estimated at battalion strength was moving in their vicinity. Armed with as many grenades as they could carry, wounded Marines threw the grenades down the slope in an attempt to blunt the Chinese maneuver.:98
March 29–30: Conclusion of battle
For two days from the end of March 29 to the end of March 30, Chinese formations continued to attack and counterattack in an effort to take back Vegas. According to Akermann, the Chinese "went through 4,000 men" in two regiments. The attacks eventually halted on March 30 because the Chinese simply could not afford to lose any more soldiers.:98 By 11 am on March 30, as Marine artillery attacked Chinese positions, Chinese attacks finally stopped. The battle for Outpost Vegas was over.:100
According to the 1st Marine Division diaries, American casualties in the month of March were at 141 killed in action, 29 died of wounded, 701 wounded and evacuated, 510 wounded and not evacuated, and 104 missing in action. Chinese forces suffered 1,351 killed in action, 3,631 wounded, and 4 captured. The Korean Marines had a minor presence during the battle for outpost Vegas, their casualties 26 killed in action, 97 wounded in action, and 5 missing in action.
According to Akermann, the 1st Marine Division had 1,488 killed, wounded, or missing in the month of March. In the "Nevada Cities" sector, the 1st Marine Division had 1,015 casualties (killed, missing, wounded), which was nearly 70% of their total strength. 156 Marines were killed, 441 wounded and evacuated, 360 wounded but not evacuated, and 98 missing including 19 captured. These casualties were from Marines in action; non-combatant casualties are not included.:101
A young Marine purchased a horse for $250 in October 1952 during the Korean War. The horse was trained as an ammunition carrier for a Recoilless Rifle platoon in the 5th Marines. Sergeant Reckless, as she was later called after the nature of the recoilless rifle and the platoon's radio call sign, went with the 5th Marines as they were put in support of a string of outposts on the MLR. It was there where she had her first taste of battle.:63
Reckless had been moving about the Nevada Cities when the Chinese attacked on March 26, 1953. When artillery began to hit Outposts Vegas and the support network behind it on the MLR, Reckless ran to the nearest bunker, where she remained clearly shocked by the impact of war. The next morning on the 26th, as the 5th Marines recovered from the previous day’s fighting, Reckless was readied for her duties as ammunition carrier.:78–80
Before dawn Reckless was fitted with 8 recoilless rifle projectiles, 192 pounds of weight distributed across her back. Reckless was then led by the other Marines in her platoon to the platoon's firing positions opposite of the southern slopes of outpost Vegas. She continued to haul ammunition, and at one point wounded Marines, up and down the hill.:84–5
- Hutton, Robin L. (2014). Sgt. Reckless: America's war horse. Washington DC: Regnery History. p. 75. ISBN 9781621572756.
- "1st Marine Division Diaries" (PDF). Korean War Project Digital Initiative. Korean War Project. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
- Nalty, Bernard C. (2003). Outpost War: United States Marines from the Nevada Battles to the Armistice (PDF). Washington DC: Department of the Navy. p. 27. ISBN 978-0160676321. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
- Meid, Yingling, Lt. Col. Pat, Major James (1972). Operations in West Korea. Washington DC: Historical Division USMC. p. 263.
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Battle for Outpost Vegas