CHANGJIN JOURNAL 07.10.03
Photo by Lt. Joseph Rodgers, medic with 2/31. Photo taken on arrival of 2/31 at Koto-ri shows the narrow gauge railroad that begins at the top of the aerial
tramway in the Funchilin Pass and makes its way through Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri, then north on the east side of the reservoir.]
IN THIS ISSUE we look at Koto-ri from the point of view of the 2d Battalion, 31st Infantry (2/31), which in the past has received little detailed coverage. Some of the coverage has been negative based on
Gen. Almond's aerial observation while the battalion moved north through the Funchilin Pass. Some may see this as a forerunner of using helicopters for command and control later in Vietnam. Let us compare
what Almond saw with happenings on the ground.
The lead units of the 7th Marines (RCT 7) were the first to occupy Koto, seen at the time as a logical location for a unit to control the MSR, probably because it was a junction of a road leading in from
the west, the direction of Gen. Smith's concern because of the 80-mile gap between X Corps and Eighth Army. At the time he was probably less concerned about the right because of the 7th Infantry Division.
A map study will reveal the distance from Koto to the 7th Division MSR due east was more than 50 miles, a mountainous gap large enough to hold a field army of Chinese troops.
After RCT 7 moved north to Hagaru the Koto sector was taken over by the 5th Marines (RCT 5), and later by the battalions of the 1st Marines (RCT 1) when RCT 5 moved north to the east side of the Changjin
Reservoir. These moves resulted in the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines (BCT 2/1), and the command post of Col. Puller's RCT 1 being located at Koto, after which the Chinese blocked road between Koto and Hagaru
causing the units to stack up in the Koto perimeter. Even though Koto was reduced in size on 29-30 November with the forward movement of units assigned to Task Force Drysdale, other units continued to
arrive from the south until the bridge in the Funchilin Pass was finally made impassible. Eventually the major units manning the Koto perimeter consisted of one Marine and two Army battalions, and smaller
companies and detachments.
THE ENEMY THREAT
As soon as the road was cut between Koto and Hagaru the garrison became concerned about the west flank. A combat patrol was dispatched in that direction where it made contact with the Chinese, thereby
developing that sector as an enemy threat. Smaller groups of enemy were also seen to the east. Surrounding Koto were mountains that made excellent observation posts for the enemy. None were manned by
friendly forces except for Hill 1328 on the southwest portion of the perimeter, a hill that became a thorn in the side of Lt. Col. Reidy after his 2/31 closed into the Koto perimeter on 1 December. Reidy
had the hill taken by Fox Company, later relieved by George Company. This defensive position served as an important observation post, providing a view to the west where the OP often reported seeing
thousands of Chinese moving south toward the Funchilin Pass. Although the threat was obvious, there is no record of the use of recon patrols to expand the horizon of knowledge about the enemy, as the
Marines were prone to use company-size combat patrols to seek out the enemy, a tactic that was easily countered by the Chinese who revealed themselves only when they were ready. Those who had daily contact
with the command and control staffs at Koto reported a sense of concern and anxiety based on reports from units in action with the Chinese around the reservoir, a concern compounded when they witnessed the
results of Task Force Drysdale.
THE SECOND BATTALION, 31ST INFANTRY, MOVES TO KOTO
Those who have read various versions by Appleman, Blair and other authors of the movement of 2/31 Infantry to Koto may recall it being similar to the most recent version published in the Marine Corps
monograph, FROZEN CHOSIN, U.S. Marines at the Changjin Reservoir, the latest Marines in the Korean War Commemorative Series. On page 73 we read that Almond had flown "over a column of trucks halted on
the road south of Koto-ri," suggesting "to [Gen.] Barr that he relieve the slow-moving battalion commander." From Hagaru Almond phoned his chief of staff telling him to "expedite the
movement north" of the battalion, after which Capt. Gurfein was sent to get Reidy moving; "Gurfein found Reidy and his battalion ... stalled about three miles south of Puller's position."
Then, "Reidy's battalion, urged on by Gurfein, made a faltering night attack and eventually pushed its way into Koto-ri." This version, as those in the past, has been based on a report by Gurfein.
Of interest is that key personnel of 2/31 who participated in the action had never been used as sources. In this journal we use one of the most knowledgeable officers, the battalion S-3. This was the late
Lt. Col. Richard Mitchell who we interviewed extensively during Chosin reunions and who left us with many documents on Chosin. We now continue the story from the battalion point of view.
On 27 November the 2d Battalion, 31st Infantry (2/31), was southeast of Pungsan working with the Korean National Police in active antiguerrilla operations when it was suddenly ordered to join the 31st
Infantry Regiment (RCT 31) at the Chosin Reservoir. The scattered units of battalion were assembled and moved to the railhead at Pukchon, and on 28 November they moved to Hamhung arriving in the late
afternoon where they were joined by Capt. Charlie Peckham's B Company (B1/31) from the 1st Battalion, assigned to replace E Company (E2/31) that remained on a security assignment with division headquarters
at Pukchon. [Readers are reminded that the rifle company designations in Army battalions are: 1st Bn: A, B, C; 2d Bn: E, F, G; 3d Bn: I, K, L (D, H and M are Heavy Weapons companies).
Reidy and his staff visited X Corps headquarters where they were informed that one company of the battalion would move to Chosin and join the RCT as soon as transportation became available. The 2/31 (-)
would then move by rail and organic vehicles to Majon-dong the next day, 29 November. X Corps was to provide transportation for the movement north. Reidy selected B Company to move immediately because it
had been at Hamhung longer and was rested.
The units moved as planned on the 29th, experiencing traffic problems later in the day when they positioned guides for the Corps trucks that were to arrive the next morning. All this time the battalion had
little knowledge of what was happening to the remainder of the regiment east of Chosin, only the urgency to join the regiment.
On 29 November the battalion staff attempted to find out when the trucks would arrive. About this time Reidy received another mission from Corps to "clear and secure the MSR" while moving north
to join the regiment. With the arrival of the trucks the morning of 30 November the battalion loaded and moved out with Fox company leading. The move was uneventful until the lead jeeps received machine
gun fire from the vicinity of Hill 1304 near the top of the Funchilin Pass, resulting in casualties and the loss of two jeeps. The enemy was taken under fire by the lead platoon of F Company, supported by
.50 caliber truck-mounted machine guns.
THE FUNCHILIN PASS PROBLEM
Shortly after the attack on the lead elements a small enemy force launched an attack from Hill 1547 on the right; this attack was repelled by elements of F and G companies. Knowing that the motor column
could not continue through the pass without controlling the high ground, Reidy ordered an attack by F and G companies to seize the high ground east of the MSR. This attack was successful with few
At this time Reidy became concerned about the conflict in missions. He knew he was to proceed as quickly as possible to join the regiment, but he also had to "clear and secure the MSR." He knew
the battalion controlled the critical terrain of the Funchilin Pass, but realized the Chinese would close the pass as soon as the battalion moved forward. [Hindsight reminds us there is no mention in past
writings about the vulnerability of the bridge at the Gatehouse, nor that the high ground controlling the pass was far more important than the road junction at Koto.]
Unable to contact X Corps by radio, Reidy send a liaison officer, Lt. Lex Byers, to Corps recommending that the battalion be relieved by another unit or remain in place to secure the pass. At Corps
headquarters Byers received little attention, other than being told to lead Maj. Joseph Gurfein (a Corps staff officer) back to the battalion, and that "Gurfein will give Reidy the word." On
arrival, Gurfein clarified the battalion's mission and the battalion moved out at 2300 hours (in a column of twos as directed by Gurfein).
After a brief delay as the Pioneer & Ammunition Platoon (P&A) removed booby traps from a roadblock, Company F led the way. As the column neared the south perimeter of Koto, Capt. Mitchell as
Battalion S-3 radioed the 1st Marines Operations Center to inform them the battalion as nearing the perimeter. A few minutes later the head of the column came under .50 caliber machine gun fire from the
perimeter. Mitchell moved quickly to the head of the column and called Operations once again, telling them they were receiving friendly fire. He was told, "If anybody is shooting at you it's the
Chinese, not us." Mitchell replied "The fire is coming straight down the road...If you'll get out of your tent and listen, this is what you'll hear"...holding the SCR 300 microphone pointed
at the path of fire a few feet away. After a "wait one" they came back on the air and said, "Sorry, somebody forgot to tell the engineers...it's OK now, come on in." After that the head
of the column moved into Koto without incident.
FROZEN AND PARALYZED...OR SEEKING TRUTH
Past coverage of the actions of 2/31 has often been based on the negative, such as a statement by a former member of the Second Battalion who had been aide to Gen. Barr. He wrote years later to Clay Blair:
"Reidy was a disaster, a very poor battalion commander and a consummate asshole who drank too much." Statements such as this as well as Gurfein finding Reidy "frozen and paralyzed" can
only lead a reader to think the entire battalion was ineffective. This was surely not the case if one digs deeper by communicating with more members of the battalion. Reidy's concern about the security of
the Funchilin Pass indicates he thought more of the problem at hand than did outside observers and subsequent historians. These negative statements hardly support reality when a few days later Gen. Almond
awarded Reidy the DSC. [See p.512, Clay Blair in THE FORGOTTEN WAR.]
MEDIC REMEMBERS THE PASS
Cpl. John Zitzelberger was an 18-year-old medic who at the time was a litter team leader with Fox and George companies, 2/31, going up the Funchilin Pass.
"We proceeded to go to the top of the hill (my two Koreans and myself). At that time I noticed there were pockets of Chinese, two or three in a bunch that had been dispatched [killed] by Fox Company
on its charge up the hill. This conflict happened in the early afternoon [of 30 Nov.]. We got to the top of the hill and there were a number of dead Chinese over in the bushes, a number on the other side
of the hill, and one member of Fox Company, a rifleman who was shot in the stomach. He was seriously injured. He had taken about 8 or 10 rounds in the belly, because when I started patching him up, his
spaghetti [C ration can] he kept next to him kept it warm. I had to take it out of his intestines. The can was ruptured and I had to dig for parts. There wasn't a gross amount of bleeding, although he was
in some short of shock already. I patched him up the best I could and we carried him down to the road. At that time I contacted battalion aid section that was in the last vehicle in the column, and they
said there was a jeep going back towards Hamhung or the base of the hill [Chinhung-ni]. I put Littlefield [who had a shoulder wound] in charge of this guy and I sent him back, because I figured this would
be a good opportunity to get this seriously injured man to a hospital (he died on the way). At this time I also put my field jacket and sleeping bag over him to keep him warm because I had cut most of his
clothes off. My plan was to always evacuate to the aid station, then get back to my unit.
"Later that evening [close to midnight] we were told we were going to proceed. However, the Chinese had set up a roadblock barrier at the crest of the pass. In trying to
disassemble the barrier the EOD man was seriously injured when it exploded. This was at the front of the column. My team went forward and we patched him up at the barrier. There was no fire from the
Chinese at that time."
REIDY MEETS PULLER
As soon as the battalion command group arrived they were summoned to the RCT 1 Operations Center for a meeting with Maj. Lonigan, the S-3, then with Puller. Reidy told Puller he wished to continue move at
first light to join his regiment, after which Puller suggested they go no further. Puller then provided details about the previous day's actions of B Company in Task Force Drysdale. (At that moment Puller
had not yet been informed by X Corps that 1/32 was to remain at Koto.) Puller informed Reidy that 2/31, while at Koto, would be under his command.
Later it was learned that some of the trains [logistics] elements had not arrived and were under attack. When Mitchell informed the Marine S-3 he was told that there would be no movement of troops outside
the perimeter during darkness. He then asked for a section of tanks to provide covering fire for a platoon to clear the road to the trains at dawn; the request denied, even when informed that the tanks
would not leave the perimeter. A platoon of F Company led by Lt. Thoms was alerted for action after first light.
After more prodding by Mitchell including information that the trains were carrying much-needed ammunition, the Marines agreed to provide a section of tanks. (Mitchell recalls that the preferred Marine
solution was to call in an air strike to destroy the vehicles.) Later, the operation was successful with recovery of most vehicles. [The cut-off trains included Maj. Frank Fife, commander of Headquarters
Company, 31st Infantry. During the enemy action involving the trains, Fife, a WW II veteran, played an important role which won him the Silver Star for valor.]
The next day Reidy was informed by Puller that X Corps decided to keep 2/31 at Koto-ri and assigned it the southwest section of the perimeter, relieving engineers and marines to bolster the perimeter
elsewhere. Reidy's section of the perimeter was dominated by Hill 1328, the ridgeline that extends south to the pass, a hill occupied by the Chinese who were using it to observe and deliver sniper fire on
the Koto perimeter. After taking a few casualties and having a bullet hit a tent pole above Reidy's head, that was enough. He ordered an attack on the hill.
GROWTH OF THE KOTO PERIMETER
At 1330 on 3 December, F Company 2/31, after a pre-planned air strike, attacked the seized the objective. This action, supported by Marine tanks and Lt. Arthur Wilson's platoon of the 31st Heavy Mortar
Company, was important in that it permitted men to walk in that section of the inner perimeter without being targets. Far more important was observation to the west from Hill 1328.
Lt. Ernest Rajala, a platoon leader in G Company, wrote years later: "What I do remember is that...about 7 Dec. I witnessed a column of troops 3 to 4 abreast snaking its way down the hills toward the
Changjin River and village of Hamadae-ri. This was probably around midday, the obscuring weather, possibly low clouds, had lifted for a time. The head of the column was 3 to 4 kilometers from Hill 1328 at
an approximate azimuth of 300 degrees. The tail was beyond the horizon. Upon reporting this I was told no fire units were available. By the way, my platoon was on the NW side of Hill 1328 overlooking the
Changjin River and the area mentioned." Whoever decided that fire was not available for that lucrative target was probably wrapped up with the breakout from Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri, not realizing that
columns of Chinese troops were heading for the Funchilin Pass. The lesson was learned by RCT 7 when they met the Chinese west of the MSR during the attack south on 8 December.
In our next issue we will look at the defense of Koto in more detail that provides indicators as to why the Chinese did not launch a major attack against this perimeter. We will also include many
never-before-published photographs taken of activities at Koto-ri.
Photo by Lt. "Gus" Guth of 185th Engineer (C) Battalion. The troops manning the perimeter had a good supply of warning tents in the valley while the
Chinese suffered cold casualties in the mountains.]
END CJ 07.10.03