CHANGJIN JOURNAL CHANGJIN JOURNAL 02.28.03
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CHANGJIN JOURNAL 02.28.03
IN THIS ISSUE we begin a series on the breakout from Hagaru-ri to the coast where the other units of X Corps were busy preparing the Hungnam Perimeter. This presents the breakout from Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri with emphasis on the organization and operations of the Army "Provisional Battalion." Quotes used are from the Command Report of the 31st Infantry Regiment, 10 March 1951.
PHASE I - HAGARU TO KOTO
Map 11-2 from The Chosin Chronology Copyright 1992, 2003 George A. Rasula.
Click for a larger image.
The big picture reveals that the 2/7 Marines would lead the attack covering an area 200 yards on both sides of the road, while the 1/7 Marines would take the right (west) side out to the 1000 yard line, and the Army 31/7 Provisional Battalion on the left, creating a wedge formation that would plow its way to Koto. At this time the 5th Marines, which had taken over the Hagaru perimeter, would attack the enemy on East Hill, preventing them from interferring with the breakout from that commanding piece of terrain on the left (east) of the road, then fall in as rear guard. Tank Company/31 was attached to the 5th Marines where it performed as rear guard of the division force. The division trains, a total of about one thousand vehicles, would move in two sections between the regiments with close in protection on both sides.
This plan would sound simple if one knew the dispositions and strength of the enemy; obviously they didn't because specific objectives based on known enemy locations were not provided. Information available was based on the experience of Task Force Drysdale on 29 November - a week before the breakout - that the Chinese had considerable strength east of the road in the narrows called Hellfire Valley. At that time those who studied the plan did not find designated objectives or phase lines on which to base subordinate plans, only town names and grid coordinates. The fact that the enemy held strong positions within a few hundred yards of the Hagaru perimeter was not known, nor was their strength, all learned in the next 24 hours.
When the last of the Marines from Yudam had closed into the bulging Hagaru perimeter on 5 December, feeding ten thousand hungry stomachs was the main problem. Cooks working three Army field kitchens remember feeding more than a thousand men each meal around the clock, the main course being pancakes washed down with coffee, and handfuls of Tootsie Rolls to supplement frozen C rations later during the breakout.
Soldiers who had withdrawn from Hudong-ni on 30 November had been farmed out to defense positions and remained there until they were relieved on 5 December, leaving less than a day to get organized for the breakout.
ARMY PROVISIONAL BATTALION 31/7
The Army's Provisional Battalion designated "31/7" for the breakout was under command of LTC Berry K. Anderson, senior army officer present. The organization was made up of able-bodied survivors of RCT 31's breakout east of Chosin and the RCT units withdrawn from Hudong-ni. Although the exact strength is unknown, a reasonable estimate is 400, including ROKs, and excluding Tank Company/31 that was attached to the 5th Marines. 31/7 was attached to the 7th Marines for the breakout.
31/7 was organized into two small battalions of three rifle companies each:
1/32 commanded by MAJ Robert Jones: A Company - LT C. G. Smith (men from HHC/1/31 and HHB/57FA); B Company - CPT Thacker (men from B1/32, AT&M Plat/31, and C/13Engr Bn; C Company - LT Barnes (men from C1/32 and HvMortar/31).
3/31 commanded by MAJ Carl Witte: I Company - CPT Rasula (men from Svc/57FA and I3/31; K Company); CPT Robert Kitz (men from K3/31, M3/31 and HHC/31); L Company - LT Robert Boyer (men from L3/31 and 7SigBn).
Weapons and other equipment for the provisional units were extremely limited; men were armed with M1 rifles, carbines and pistols. Each company of about 90 men including ROK soldiers had one SCR 300 radio and one light machine gun. On 5 December soldiers test-fired weapons on the perimeter and helped themselves to clothing and other gear available in the supply dumps that had been airdropped into the Hagaru perimeter, supplies that would eventually be burned or scavenged by Chinese soldiers or Korean civilians after the last Americans departed.
BREAKOUT FROM HAGARU
The attack began in the darkness at 0430 when the 1/7 Marines moved on the right flank to Tonae-ri where they found 24 Chinese soldiers asleep. At 0630 the 2/7 Marines moved out along the road led by F Company with a platoon of tanks. The Chinese allowed them to move about a mile, then hit the lead tank with a bazooka, followed by heavy fire from Chinese who were well dug in on the left. This cut the 2/7 column when observation was limited by fog, meaning there was neither air support nor observed artillery or mortar support. This halt began at 0730 and continued until 1100 hours, time used to issue orders for the Army 31/7 to "extend the left flank" as called for in the operation plan.
Marines at Hagaru perimeter watch Corsairs drop napalm on Chinese as Item Company 31/7 moves around high ground at left to attack enemy position. -Photo DOD (USMC) A5461. Click on the picture for a larger image.
ITEM COMPANY LEADS 31/7
CPT Rasula reports:
"At 0630 hours 6 December we were ready jump off. Right off the bat the Marines ran into machine gun fire on the left just beyond the Hagaru-ri perimeter. Tanks moved into position to support. It seemed as if heavy mortar fire was then delivered on the Chinese for hours.
"COL Anderson then committed my Company. I moved my men around the left flank climbing the southeast side of East Hill to get into position to the flank or rear of the Chinese position. While climbing we could look into the cockpit of the Corsairs as they were dropping napalm. I then moved one platoon into position building up a base of fire as the 4.2 mortars fired on the objective; that's when it got a bit hairy because I was standing on a knob with SCR 300 radio just above my assault platoon waiting for word from Anderson that the supporting fire had been lifted, all this time hearing snaps of incoming from the Chinese. This was to be classic fire and maneuver, an Infantry School solution taught at Fort Benning. Artillery was not available because it was being used on the other side of the perimeter, so we were told.
"After the mortar fire lifted and I received a cease fire from Anderson, I waved my assault platoon forward while the Chinese were still firing, a moment when I was proud to be commanding a rifle company made up of this group of artillerymen. Within moments after the assault began the Chinese began coming out of their foxholes with hands raised in surrender. We captured 115 frostbitten Chinese soldiers without losing a man, although we did have four soldiers wounded in the base of fire platoon. I did have one critical moment that required a quick decision. When the Chinese began surrendering my assault platoon leader signaled me, pointing his carbine at the Chinese then his hand slashed across his throat, asking if I wanted him to take them all out. Having gone through a similar experience on Peleliu, I immediately waved a cease-fire; no killing for the sake of killing. We did
have a difficult time with our ROK soldiers, yet I understood, having grown up in a multilingual mining town in Northern Minnesota, the problem of supervising untrained people who did not speak our language.
"Our immediate problem was getting rid of the prisoners, quickly making contact with Anderson to request help from the 1MarDiv Military Police. In the meantime the main column was able to move and they really took off. After getting rid of the prisoners we had a long march to catch up with our battalion.
"I later learned that LT Boyer's L Company had been committed on the left which resulted in Boyer being killed and LT Skilton being mortally wounded, buried later in the mass grave at Koto-ri. It was after this action when MAJ Witte was wounded and placed on a tank and later evacuated from Koto. Witte told LT Escue to 'find CPT Rasula and tell him to take over the battalion'. That seemed strange since CPT Kitz ranked me by five years."
1/32 TAKES OVER LEFT FLANK
MAJ Jones reports:
"At about 1600 the motor column was stopped by a roadblock on the left consisting of an enemy machine gun emplacement and a number of riflemen. The point of the Marines was held up by heavy small arms and automatic weapons fire from the left flank. LTC Anderson instructed MAJ Jones to take his battalion and build up the left flank of the point and reduce the roadblock which was holding up the column. MAJ Jones instructed LT C.G. Smith to take his company and attack the positions and to build up on the left of the Marines, with CPT Thackus' company to follow and build up on the left of Smith's company. The enemy machine gun was knocked out by LT Smith and LT Barnes and the enemy positions were overrun. About 30 prisoners were taken and the buildup was successfully made on the left flank of the Marine point and the motor column was able to proceed.
"LTC Anderson had also instructed MAJ Witte to bring in his battalion as their missions were completed and to stay with the motor column in readiness to be committed if the occasion demanded. The column was attacked by the enemy who had allowed the point and flank troops to bypass. The RCT CP vehicle was hit and the S-3 sergeant [SSGT Joseph Wells] and MAJ Witte were wounded and placed on one of the four Marine tanks that were attached to his battalion."
CPT Rasula reports:
"The point fought a few road blocks from there on. When it turned dark we were about half way to Koto-ri, a time when another Marine battalion took the lead. Command and control became impossible when we met the enemy at Hellfire Valley where they had obviously been reinforced since Drysdale's experience. When someone called for "I Company this way" the mixture continued to get worse. By this time Anderson was no longer in control of his units because the batteries in the SCR 300 radios failed. We were riflemen with loud voices knowing survival was based on effective use of the supporting tanks until daylight brought in Corsairs.
"From then on we moved slowly. About an hour after dark we hit another roadblock, got tanks up for cover and then had the men make a run for it, taking a few casualties on the way. This area turned out to be the strongest Chinese fireblock of the night; the Chinese seemed to be firing in all directions, most just inches above our heads. Our tanks provided good cover and occasionally the exhaust was used to warm our hands. Beyond that block we formed a perimeter for a short time waiting for the rest of the troops to catch up as the engineers repaired a damaged bridge. Then we moved another mile though the mass of vehicles that had been ambushed by the Chinese when Task Force Drysdale had tried to break though the week before. I'd never seen such a mess. I recall walking around small mounds of snow, thinking I did not want to disturb the dead. It seemed there were hundreds of vehicles in all descriptions covered with newly fallen snow.
"After that we took positions in ditches for what seemed to be hours. Then suddenly it was daylight and the fighting stopped. Looking at the terrain in daylight I recognized that Koto-ri was just a mile or so around the bend.
"Knowing that the Chinese feared our combat air support allowed me to do what I had been telling my troops - 'take care of your feet.' At that moment my feet were in pain telling me they were on the verge of serious damage, so I sat down on the packed snow, removed my shoepacs and insoles, replaced my socks and insoles as I massaged my feet, then put on the shoepacs. After that I pinned the damp socks and insoles to my pack harness to freeze dry, a process I knew from childhood, refined by the Finns I had trained with in Alaska three winters before Chosin."
Troops from Hagaru arriving at Koto perimeter. Photo by Cpl David E. Klepsig, jeep driver for LTC John U.D. Page who arrived at Koto 29 November (awarded Medal of Honor for later action at Sudong during the breakout). Photo courtesy Michael C. Kaminski. Click on the picture for a larger image.
MAIN BODY ARRIVES
Far to the rear the units continued the battle, soon eased by the presence of air support. East Hill had been a major operation for the 5th Marines with one concluding action witnessing enemy massing for an attack which resulted in effective air strikes; 220 Chinese surrendered. In the darkness an artillery unit was attacked, resulting in using 105 howitzers in direct fire, quickly scattering the enemy. The 31st Tank Company bringing up the rear of the 5th Marines had its moments when meeting scattered resistance in Hellfire Valley, as the last of the breakout column arrived at Koto before dark on 7 December. Battle casualties for 1MarDiv were 103 killed, 506 wounded and seven missing; accurate counts for 31/7 were unknown as the frozen bodies of Skilton and Boyer were about to be buried in the mass grave at Koto. It took 38 hours to move ten thousand men and one thousand vehicles eleven miles.
Photo taken by David E. Klepsig shows unloading dead from truck at Koto. Bodies were then checked and registered by graves registration personnel prior to burial in the mass grave. Photo courtesy Michael L. Kaminski. Click on the picture for a larger image.
7 DECEMBER - THE KOTO PERIMETER
CPT Rasula reports:
"Members of Reidy's 2/31 who had been at the entry into the Koto-ri perimeter told us later they could not recognize Army soldiers because they came by in a variety of outer garments picked out of the Hagaru-ri supply dumps. Most soon found the 2/31 tents near the south end of the Koto-ri perimeter, there finding space in a tent to sleep. I went to the 2/31 CP tent where I enjoyed a cup of hot coffee and had a brief chat with those present, including LTC Reidy who seemed to avoid conversation. Anderson organized one scratch group of soldiers that was send back north to hold a piece of key terrain along the road while the remainder of the units withdrew into Koto.
"In need of sleep we checked into our sleeping bags, not knowing at the time what plans were being made for the next day. Thoughts at the moment were of the previous day, wondering what had happened to friends. This was no time for a muster to count noses, especially since our present organization didn't have a company clerk to check his roster, nor a first sergeant to get the troops in line. We were but a group of soldiers bent on accomplishing our mission, that of reaching the coast at Hungnam where we would find a secure perimeter and a hot meal."
Based on this phase of the breakout, hindsight asks why the provisional battalion was assigned the left flank (east) mission when it was known from Drysdale experience that the terrain favored the enemy. Was it because the Army had been on the east side of the reservoir? Hindsight also tells us that the loss of the first half day was the reason the lead elements of the 7th Marines encountered the enemy strength in Hellfire Valley during darkness, a time when air and other fire support was ineffective, delaying the advance to Koto.
The next issue will continue the breakout: Phase II - Koto to the Funchilin Pass.
END CJ 02.30.03