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Military history, when superficially studied, will furnish arguments in support of any theory.
-- Bronsart von Schellendorf
The village of Changbong-ni is located in central Korea, below the 38th Parallel and about 7 miles north of Hoengsong. My unit, 0 Battery of the 82nd AAA was armed with M-1 6 half-track vehicles which had a quad-50 turret mounted with four 50 caliber machine guns. The action described below took place on 11-12 February 1951. I was the senior Lieutenant of D Battery.
D Battery was attached to Support Force 21 (SF-21). SF-21 was composed of a Battalion of 105 and a Battery of 155 Artillery with the 1st and 3rd (minus L Co) Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment for close-in protection. My unit was to augment the Infantry's mission.
SF-21 was attached to the 8th ROK Division, a command structure which required total dependence on the ROK Division for command and control. Our normal command line, the 2nd Infantry Division and it's elements, had no position in the chain of command with this attachment.
On 11 February, prior to midnight, we received word that the 8th ROK Division was under severe attack by Chinese forces. This soon turned into a collapse of the ROK units. and SF-21 started a delayed effort to load vehicles and attempt our own withdrawal. Our delay was caused by the complete loss of communications with the ROK unit we were supporting and a lack of control of SF-21 by US Forces. Our withdrawal did not start until 0200 hours, 12 February. By this time, the Changbong-ni area was inundated with fleeing ROK forces being closely followed by elements of several Chinese divisions.
By the time our column started its withdrawal, it came under sporadic machine gun fire and, as the intensity of the fire increased, the movement of the column became more disparate. At this time, I was ranked out of the front seat of my jeep by Captain Joyce, who was acting as assistant to Capt. Steven's, our Commanding Officer. As we were not moving, I left the jeep to move up the column to find out what was wrong. I was not certain that my actions were particularly brave, but it certainly saved my life and provided me with knowledge as to how soldiers can act when they are completely uninformed.
As I moved up the line of vehicles, I discovered that there would be a group of 5-10 vehicles with a huge gap between the lead vehicle and the rest of the column. Each lead vehicle did not have a person in the drivers seat. It wasn't that these drivers had been killed in their vehicle, for they had apparently abandoned their vehicles. My mission became a task of finding drivers to get that portion of the column moving. In one case, I found 10-15 men huddled in the rear of a truck as if the canvas top would provide protection from the rapidly increasing enemy fire. I asked them if anyone could drive and one soldier admitted he could, but didn't have a driver's license. I broke normal military procedure in order to get the column moving. I estimate that 10 percent of the vehicles in that column were without drivers and were blocking the road at a time when rapid movement would have placed them a long way down the road to Hoengsong and safety.
I finally worked my way past an M-16 which was the third vehicle in the column, and climbed on the rear deck of a tank which was not moving. The tank commander told me that he was stopped because the LT. in the leading vehicle was stopping every time the tank fired its cannon. The next time the lead tank stopped, I climbed onto its rear deck and discovered that it had no commander -- the gunner reported that the LT had abandoned his tank. I gave orders that they were to shoot and scoot at the same time, and not stop scooting until I ordered them to do so.
About a mile down the road, just south of Nongol, we had outrun the enemy fire, and I directed the lead tank off the road and advised the sergeant, now tank commander, to take the lead as soon as the rest of the column caught up with us. We waited for 10 minutes, and no one came up to join us. I then ordered the sergeant to take the lead and head down the road toward Hoengsong. I stood on the rear deck of the second tank with intentions of jumping off when we reached the first US unit so I could report what was happening.
As we approached the bridge north of Haktam-ni, the steep side of hill 310 was on the left of the narrow road, and a deep gorge with a small stream was on the right. The lead tank was hit with a burst of machine gun fire from a Chinese roadblock at the bridge. The tank pulled to its left into the steep side of hill 310. The tank I was on attempted to pull around the halted tank which had every possible gun firing. As we came beside the tank, ours was hit with a rocket launcher missile. I was blown off the vehicle and inside that tank all the crew had been killed. Two survivors from the first tank joined me on the road behind the two knocked-out vehicles which now completely blocked the road approach to the bridge.
We three survivors dropped down into the gorge on the left side of the road, and headed south, parallel to the road toward Haktam-ni. We attempted three times to cross the road onto more level terrain but each time we ran into enemy forces. Finally, just north of the bridge, we ran up against a cliff which we could not climb. Again, we made a very cautious attempt to cross to the east side, but just short of the road we stopped and must have spent 10 minutes trying to figure out what a small glowing red light on the road meant to our survival. When we got near enough we discovered it was and abandoned jeep with a large radio, which had not been turned off. We quickly moved across the road and started crossing the river between hills 206 and 333. When we reached the middle of the river, flares started popping over our heads. It was difficult to keep the other two men from moving while the flares were glowing.
Once on the other side of the river, we made our way to the east of hill 206, then south towards the road from Saemal. In the process, we turned the flank of an infantry company from the 3rd Battalion of the 38th Infantry, which was guarding Saemal. After a short and terrifying period of proving that we were not Chinese, we were escorted to the Battalion HQ where I reported what happened. At this point, nothing I had seen indicated a massive Chineseattack, and I could not understand why the Battalion would not immediately go to the rescue of SF-21. At this time I was informed that the road between Seamal and Hoengsong had been cut off. This information and what I had seen made me realize how critical the situation had become.
Stragglers from SF-21 started arriving about mid-morning of 12 February. I found out that D Battery now consisted of only 25 or so men, and not more than 4 or 5 of its M-16s were in operating condition. At the same time, the perimeter came under very heavy attack. About noon we started a breakout with an infantry company on each side of the road with the remaining M-16s providing support to the infantry.
On one point on the road, a Chinese mortar had zeroed in on a bottleneck which could not be avoided. My M-16 went through the impact area, but the vehicle behind me appeared reluctant to follow. So, I left my vehicle; counted the pop from the mortar and attempted to encourage the commander to follow. However, I missed a pop, and a mortar round hit my left foot. My momentum was sufficient to propel me out of the impact area, and a bit of crawling into a ditch provided some protection, at least until the Chinese put a machine gun into position so as to be able to rake the ditch.
At that time, I suggested to several men around a corner and out of the line of fire behind a building, that it would be appropriate to haul the wounded around that corner. This they did and then administered a dose of morphine; loaded me into a jeep and the others into a 3/4 ton vehicle; gave me an M-1 rifle and a bandoleer of ammunition and headed us on our way to Hoengsong. On that trip, one Chinese grenade hit the support bars for the canvas top of my jeep - I watched it explode beside the rear wheel and then thanked God that it was only a concussion grenade. On the left side of the vehicle, an enemy soldier with a burp gun started firing at us. With only my M-1 in a jeep with a rapidly shattering windshield, I could only aim with the front of the muzzle in front of the driver's nose and wait until the jeep moved into a position so I could fire at the enemy. The last round he fired went across the drivers belly, and passed through the upper portion of my thigh. At this point, I was perched on the small fender outside the jeep, my right leg was still in good shape, when another bullet passed through my calf, then between the driver and myself, while I continued hanging on.
Soon the driver saw a M-16 ahead which was lumbering down the center of the road. The road had a sharp drop-off into the rice paddies on each side. After I asked if he thought he could pass around the M-16, we decided that the enemy fire was so heavy that we had no choice but to try. With the morphine slowing my reflexes, I did not draw my right leg into the jeep before my foot hit the rear of the M-16, the impact broke my right ankle.
My memory of what happened after that is not too reliable, but both vehicles made it into Hoengsong. Furthermore, after reading such phrases as "massacre valley", I gather that the carnage just north of Hoengsong was worse than that of the initial attack on SF-231. If so, the retreat from Seamal must have been a horrible example of a command failure by X-Corps. Many of my comrades in SF 21 were the unfortunate who died under the control of an inept ROK command structure and without access to US support and control. As some contemporary US Senators might say, "Shame on you General Almond".
I remain one of the fortunate soldiers of SF-21.
Note: by Paul G McCoy, 82AAA, D Btry.
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