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North Korea attacks across 38th parallel, 60 years ago

Jun 23, 2010

By U.S. Army Center for Military History

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 23, 2010) -- Sixty years ago, the Korean War became the first major armed clash between the free world and Communist forces, as the so-called Cold War turned hot.

Although armed clashes between North and South Korea were common along the 38th parallel in June 1950, American observers did not anticipate an invasion. However, aided by Soviet weapons and several thousand Russian trainers, the North Korean People's Army was staging along the border in force.

In June of 1950, four Republic of Korea divisions defended positions along the 38th Parallel. The ROK troops were armed with American M1 rifles and 30-caliber carbines. They had mortars and 105mm howitzers, but no medium artillery, little armor and no fighter aircraft or bombers.

North Korea had about 180 Soviet aircraft, Russian artillery and 150 Soviet T34 tanks. Some 90,000 men - including seven infantry divisions and an armored brigade - had assembled just north of the 38th Parallel in mid-June 1950.

Surprise Attack

On June 25, the North Koreans launched a coordinated attack that ran from coast to coast. The assault began on the Ongjin Peninsula on the western extreme of the parallel, but the North Koreans concentrated half of their forces on the Uijongbu Corridor, an ancient invasion route that led directly south to Seoul. The ROK Capital Divisions defended the area north of Seoul, but the suddenness of the North Korean attack and the shock of enemy armor rapidly pushed the ROK Army back toward it capital.

In the early hours of June 28, the South Korean vice minister of defense ordered a premature blowing of the Han River bridges, located on the southern edges of Seoul, to slow the North Korean advance. This was catastrophic for the ROK Army. Much of the Army was still north of the river and had to abandon transport, supplies, and heavy weapons and cross the Han River in disorganized groups.

The ROK Army, numbering 95,000 on June 25, could account for only 22,000 men at the end of June.

U.N. Resolutions

The U.N. Security Council met on June 25 and passed a resolution that called on North Korea to cease hostilities and withdraw to the 38th Parallel. President Truman authorized ships and airplanes to protect the evacuation of American dependents in Korea and also use of American air and naval forces to support the Republic of Korea below the 38th Parallel.

On June 27, the U.N. Security Council passed another resolution that recommended U.N. members assist South Korea in repelling the invasion. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff then issued a directive that authorized Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan to assume operational control of all American military activities in Korea. MacArthur then sent from Japan the General Headquarters Advance Command and Liaison Group in Korea, called ADCOM, headed by Brig. Gen. John H. Church, to assist the ROK Army.

On June 29, MacArthur personally inspected the situation at the Han River and urged the immediate commitment of American ground forces. President Truman then authorized the employment of Army combat troops to ensure a port and air base at Pusan, South Korea. He also approved sending two Army divisions from Japan to Korea and the establishment of a naval blockade of North Korea.

Fall of Seoul

Following the breakdown of the ROK Army at Seoul, elements of the North Korean 3rd and 4th Divisions captured the South Korean capital on June 28. The North Koreans then repaired a railroad bridge over the Han River, and by July 4, these two divisions, with T34 tank support, were poised to resume their drive south.

In Tokyo on June 30, MacArthur instructed Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker, Eighth U.S. Army commander, to order the 24th Infantry Division, stationed on Kyushu, to Korea at once. Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, commander of the 24th, was to send immediately to Korea by air with a delaying force of about 500 men, and the rest of the division would soon follow by water.

Task Force Smith

Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith, commander of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, of the 24th Division, led the delaying force, called Task Force Smith. On July 5, he established a defensive position three miles north of Osan, assisted by elements of the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion.

Task Force Smith took on two regiments of the North Korean 4th Division and thirty-three T34 tanks. Badly outnumbered and without armor, effective antitank weapons, or air support, the U.S. force was overrun. The next day, Smith could assemble only 250 men, half his original force.

The 34th Infantry, another regiment of Dean's 24th Division, and the rest of the 21st Infantry arrived in Korea during the first week of July. On July 4, Dean assumed command of USAFIK and established his headquarters at Taejon. During that same week MacArthur ordered Lt. Gen. Walker to deploy from Japan and assume operational control of the campaign in Korea.

Walker set up his headquarters for the Eighth U.S. Army in Korea at Taegu and on July 13 assumed command of USAFIK. Shortly thereafter, he also took command of ROK ground forces. Walker's objectives were to delay the enemy advance, secure the current defensive line, and build up units and materiel for future offensive operations.

MacArthur takes Unified Command

On July 7, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that recommended a unified command in Korea. President Truman then appointed MacArthur commanding general of the military forces under the unified command that became the United Nations Command. MacArthur's strategy in the early stages of the Korean War was first to stop the North Koreans and then use naval and air superiority to support an amphibious operation in their rear.

Once he realized that the North Korean People's Army was a formidable force, MacArthur estimated to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that to halt and hurl back the North Koreans would require four to four-and-a-half full-strength infantry divisions, an airborne regimental combat team, and an armored group of three medium tank battalions and reinforcing artillery.

Delaying actions

After the defeat of Task Force Smith, General Dean employed the 34th and 21st Infantry in additional delaying actions against the advance of the North Korean 3rd and 4th Divisions along the corridor that ran south of Osan toward Taejon. Fighting occurred at P'yongt'aek, Ch'onan, Chonui, and Choch'iwon. Dean sought to delay the enemy's approach to the Kum River to support the ROK forces' left flank that was retreating through the central mountains of South Korea.

By early July the ROK Army, which became badly disorganized after the fall of Seoul, had re-formed to some extent. The major part of the NKPA conducted a main attack on a wide front against ROK-defended territory, which was everything east of the main Seoul-Taegu railroad and highway. Five divisions moved south over the two mountain corridors, while a sixth, the 2nd Division, entered the Seoul-Taegu highway.

Defense of Taejon

In mid-July 1950, Dean's 24th Division continued as the primary U.S. Army fighting force in Korea. Taejon, located 100 miles south of Seoul, served as an important road and communications center.

The Kum River makes a semicircle to the north around Taejon that constitutes a protective moat. Dean placed his 24th Division in a horseshoe-shaped arc in front of Taejon-the 34th Infantry on the left, the 19th Infantry on the right, and the 21st Infantry in reserve. By positioning elements of the 34th at Kongju, located about twenty miles northwest of Taejon, Dean hoped to prevent the North Koreans from an early crossing of the Kum River and an immediate drive on Taejon.

Since the division had only about 4,000 men at Taejon, the 24th could not effectively delay two enemy divisions. During July 14-16, the North Korean 4th and 3rd Divisions, operating west to east, penetrated the 34th and 19th Infantries' forward defensive positions on the south side of the Kum River and inflicted substantial casualties. Dean then pulled his regiments into a tighter defensive perimeter around Taejon, and the North Koreans launched their attack on Taejon on July 19.

The men of the 24th at Taejon enjoyed one positive development. They had just received a weapon that was effective against the T34 tank, the new 3.5-inch rocket launcher. The five-foot hand-carried launcher fired a two-foot-long eight-and-a-half-pound rocket with a shaped charge designed to burn through any tank then known. U.S. Army Soldiers destroyed 10 enemy tanks in Taejon on July 20, eight of them with the 3.5-inch rocket launcher.

Medal of Honor

The superior numbers and relentless assault of the North Koreans forced the men of the 24th Division to abandon Taejon on July 20 and withdraw to the south. Dean experienced one of the most dramatic adventures of the withdrawal. Moving down the road to Kumsan, Dean and a small party encountered an enemy roadblock.

Forced back, Dean's party, with some wounded, set out on foot after dark. While trying to fetch water for the injured, Dean fell down a steep slope, was knocked unconscious, and suffered a gashed head and a broken shoulder. Separated from his men, Dean wandered alone in the mountains for 36 days trying to reach the American lines and was betrayed by two South Koreans to the North Koreans. He would spend the next three years as a prisoner of war.

Dean was awarded the first Medal of Honor for service in the Korean War for his leadership and personal bravery with the 24th Division at Taejon. The division suffered a 30-percent casualty rate there and lost all of its organic equipment. The unit had endured many deficiencies since its arrival in Korea. Among them were new subordinate unit commanders who were unfamiliar with their men, poor communications equipment, a shortage of ammunition, outdated maps, and large numbers of young Soldiers in the ranks who were inadequately trained for combat.

As for the North Koreans, in five days they had executed two highly successful envelopments of American positions, one at the Kum River and the other at Taejon. Each time, they combined strong frontal attacks with movements around the left flank to establish roadblocks and obstruct the escape routes.

(Excerpted from a brochure prepared by William J. Webb for the U.S. Army Center of Military History to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War in 2000.)

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