In June 2000 I crashed the big Korean War Commemorative event at War Memorial, and attended a USO bash at the Hyatt Regency in Seoul to salute U.S. Korean War veterans (where I got to meet Piper Laurie who had been a USO entertainer during the war).
And a week-and-a-half later I was on a bus with other journalists on our way to Osan to cover an event that marked America’s entry into the Korean War.
Not even five years after WWII had ended, America found itself in another war and for all practical and semantic purposes—when you figure in the help and advice Kim Il-sung and the North Korean leaders were getting from The Soviet Union and China—the Korean Conflict would become a substitute for World War III.
On July 2, 1950 the first U.S. troops arrived in Daejeon from Pusan (yes Daejeon, the city I am writing from now) and three days later this Task Force would be up against the bulk of North Korea’s army north of Osan (about an hour south of Seoul). Perhaps some leaders with just a little too much bravado in their coffee the morning these plans were drawn up thought that the North Koreans would retreat as soon as they saw that America forces had been committed. Maybe some leaders under estimated the North Korean drive down the peninsula.
Unless you are up on your Korean War history you might not have heard of “The Battle of Osan” before. It wasn’t as much of a battle as it was a rout of poorly equipped U.S. forces up against over 30 Russian T-34 tanks. Just five years after America’s military might had helped to bring an end to WWII, this first engagement with Communist forces had American suffering defeat.
It was to be my first straight news story and one that I had to write and file as soon as I got back to the Korea Times office—wow, my first deadline. I started writing the story on the bus back to Seoul and in many ways the story wrote itself.
Looking back on it now, it still reads well but I could have done so much more with it. Then again this was all new to me—writing features and straight news stories—so I was learning the ropes as I covered one of these events after another. At the same time you can also see how I was still trying to make it read more like a feature story by fictionalizing some of the action. I would get quite good at this I think in longer pieces like “Courage Under Fire.”
It was an honor for me to be there and interviewing veterans along side of CNN, The Associated Press and Reuters. Sometimes I wondered what they might have thought about me, this “accidental journalist” showing up? I suppose I didn’t make that good of an impression on them because I never received a Christmas card from them. Oh well, I hope they will read the book whenever it comes out.
Task Force Smith Heroics Remembered
OSAN, South Korea – Underneath a sweltering July sky, as jet fighters thundered overhead, service members, veterans, and other dignitaries and guests gathered at the base of a monument on a hill north of Osan to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Task Force Smith.
In what would become known as the “Battle of Osan,” Task Force Smith—the hastily designated title that was put together in a Tokyo map room—became the first U.S. ground forces to engage the North Koreans.
“You can feel the spirit when you look at this monument,” noted Gen. Thomas A. Schwartz, UNC/USFK (United Nations Command/United States Forces Korea) commander in his commemorative address, “and the spirit of the heroes produced here.”
In his eloquent and moving speech, Schwartz touched on the symbolic overtones of the battle, not the least of which would soon be the U.S./ROK (Republic of Korea) military alliance that grew out of the war and that still stands strong today.
In response to President Harry Truman’s authorization for ground forces in Korea the 24th Infantry Division was readied for combat in Japan. Spearheading their arrival was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Brad Smith’s 1st Battalion 21st Infantry Division. Ironically, Smith had the distinction of being present at the start of World War II at Pearl Harbor and now, present at the start of the Korean War for U.S. forces.
For Philip Day, a platoon leader, he didn’t know what to expect when he found out that he was being deployed to Korea. Like many soldiers deployed to Korea, he thought they were going to Korea to evacuate U.S. citizens.
“It was raining, muggy and hot when we came to this hill on the evening of the 4th,” Day recalled, “8:00 the next morning, rumbling south from Suwon was a column of 33 Russian T-34 tanks and behind them what seemed like entire North Korean Army. I took one look at all those tanks and thought, ‘Holy smokes, what have I got myself into?’”
The prevailing mood at the time was that once the North Koreans saw the U.S. forces they would retreat. However, the under-strengthened, poorly equipped forces were no match for the advancing North Korean forces.
“Retreat was not in our vernacular,” recalled Wayne Leach, another survivor of Task Force Smith. “We were never trained for withdrawal.”
When Leach found out that he was going to Korea, he thought he was just going to guard the airport.
“We just got paid,” said Leach. “I had no idea we would be committed.”
Leach, who started out as a mechanic, found himself supplying ammunition as the battle waged on. He sadly recalled how out of eight soldiers supplying ammo, only two survived.
“More support people were killed than infantry,” added Leach who would stay in the army until September 1951.
The battle was over in seven hours. The casualties were high—153 U.S. soldiers were killed.
In one of the battle’s more harrowing moments for U.S. forces Day recalled that once the T-34 tanks passed they turned around and started firing at the withdrawing forces. After Colonel Smith ordered a withdrawal to another ridge south of where the battle had taken place, the U.S. forces would continue to withdraw to Daejeon—about fifty miles south of Osan.
“We paid a terrible price,” reflected Day sadly.
Although the “Battle of Osan” might have seemed an inauspicious beginning for America’s entry into the Korean War, Task Force Smith nonetheless bought time for other U.S./U.N. forces to gain a foothold on the Korean peninsula.
On this July morning, 50 years later, those who gathered here to remember the gallant actions of those brave men of Task Force Smith, also remembered the price of freedom paid for by the blood spilled on the hills north of Osan.