Today is the 61st anniversary of The Battle of Osan, which marked America’s entry into the Korean War when Task Force Smith battled over 20,000 North Korean troops and 33 Russian T-34 tanks north of Osan.
This is what I wrote about Task Force Smith in my Korean War novel, War Remains:
Five days after the Inmin Gun—the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA)—invaded South Korea on June 25, and after General Douglas MacArthur had flown to Korea to personally inspect the crisis unfolding on the Korean peninsula, the US responded by sending the hastily assembled and understrength battalion from the 24th Infantry Division in Japan, commanded by Colonel Charles Bradford Smith to slow down the advancing North Korean juggernaut. After arriving in Korea, this battalion known as Task Force Smith had proceeded north from Pusan to Taejon and then north to the village of Osan where it took position in a series of hills that crossed the road.
The battalion was never really meant to stop the Inmin Gun—not in the strictest sense of the word, maybe delay, but not stop. Major General William Frishe Dean told Colonel Smith before they deployed to Korea to, “block the main road as far north from Pusan as you can.” It was believed that once the North Koreans saw the Americans they would turn around and head back north.
Even the Americans were quite confident this would happen, filled with a sense of bravado and thinking about the sweet, cushy life they had in Japan, they went off to do some “policing” and didn’t expect to be gone too long. When they had boarded a train at Pusan to take them to north to Taejon, many Koreans turned out unfurling banners and cheering the troops. It would be the last cheering the men who survived would hear for a very long time.
After having arrived early, around three in the morning on July 5, Smith’s 540 men had dug in along those low hills that straddled the highway and positioned their six 105mm howitzers. It was cold and rainy, and after a breakfast of cold c-rations, the men were ready to take on the advancing NKPA. They would not have to wait long.
“Eight o’clock the next morning, rumbling south from Suwon and headed our way was a column of Russian T-34 tanks and behind them what seemed like entire North Korean Army,” an officer in the Task Force recalled later. “I took one look at all those tanks and thought, Holy smokes, what have I gotten myself into?”
When the first North Korean tanks were within range of Smith’s artillery, the Americans opened fire. However, the artillery could not stop the tanks, nor could their WWII-era bazookas—the shells were ineffective against the Russian-made T-34 tanks.
“They just bounced right off the armor,” one of the survivors recalled later that summer. “It was like trying to stop them with rocks.”
Over 1,100 North Korean infantry and more than 30 tanks threatened Smith and his men. The Americans held onto the ridge for as long as they could, but the tanks literally rolled over them. When it was over, 150 of Smith’s men were lost. Obviously, the sight of the Americans on those low hills did not dissuade or deter the North Koreans. Maybe they were unconvinced of the American fighting machine that had whipped the Japanese (and ironically, liberated the Korean peninsula from Japanese colonial rule).
“Guys just turned and fled when those tanks kept on coming,” another soldier said. “I guess a lot of us expected the North Koreans to stop once they saw us.”
The Inmin Gun did not turn around nor were they stopped. On those muddy hills north of Osan, Colonel Smith and his men had only delayed the North Koreans for seven hours before they were forced to withdraw back to Pyongtaek.
America had gone to war again.
Fifty years ago, Smith and his men faced an advancing North Korean juggernaut, which had been unstoppable since June 25th. Today, South Korean’s urban sprawl has hid most of the battlefield that signaled America’s entry into the Korean War. This is photograph, taken between the two hills were Smith and his men waited for the North Koreans 50 years ago. To the right is a new UN Peace Park dedicated to the 21 UN member nations, which assisted South Korea during the Korean War. To the left, beyond the second sign is a new subway station.