North Korea 1950
printed by permission from 31st Infantry, Karl Lowe (COL, Ret)
Near the inlet bridge behind K Company's former line, everyone in the 3rd Battalion's CP was either killed or seriously wounded, including Lieutenant Colonel William R. Reilly, the Battalion's Commander. The CP was in a sturdy mud house, surrounded by a courtyard. Enemy troops arrived too quickly for the position to be evacuated, so the men inside were caught up in the fight. Wounded by a machinegun round that passed through his right leg and another that took off several toes. Colonel Reilly sat propped against an interior wall and fired his pistol at what he assumed were enemy soldiers trying to crawl through a window on the opposite side of the room. Captain Melville E. Adams, the S-4, and Major Clifton Z. Couch, the Battalion Executive Officer, were both shot in the chest defending the open doorway. Lieutenant Johnson, the Air Force Liason Officer, was killed when a mortar round detonated on the roof above him. Lieutenant James A. Anderson, the Assistant Fire Support Coordinator, complained of having trouble getting his pistol out of his holster. When the flash of an explosion outside momentarily illuminated the darkened room, Reilly realized why. Anderson's right arm had been blown off by the same mortar round that killed Lieutenant Johnson. Anderson, probably in shock, did not seem to know his arm was missing. Reilly took Anderson's pistol out of his holster and put it in his left hand, but to little purpose. The young officer quietly bled to death where he sat.
Around 3:00 A.M., a Chinese concussion grenade sailed through the window, wounding Reilly again and knocking him unconscious. Outside the CP, tucked into shadowed corners of the surrounding courtyard, were members of the 3d Platoon. Their original position, located in a mud hut nearer the bridge, was in danger of becoming isolated early in the battle, causing the group to retreat to the courtyard around the Battalion CP, which they thought had been abandoned. They fought from there most of the night, several times at close quarters when Chinese troops flooded into the courtyard. Neither they nor the men inside knew the other group of Americans was there.
Just 20 feet across the courtyard in a mud hut housing part of the 3d Battalion's Communications Platoon, a similiar drama was unfolding. There, a bullet passed through the wall, hitting PFC John Hale in the back and perforating one of his lungs as he sat at the switchboard. The 3d Battalion's Communications Chief, Staff Sergeant Harry Cutting, took over the switchboard while PFC Don Mayville made Hale as comfortable as he could. Shortly afterward, two men brought in a badly wounded KATUSA, laying him on a pile of straw opposite the switchboard. He lay moaning "Etai, Etai", Japanese for "it hurts" and died during the night. Staff Sargeant Max Maynard, the battalion's Radio Section Chief, rushed into the hut asking for a rifle because he had been hit while exchanging fire with the Chinese outside. He took PFC Mayville's carbine and went back outside to rejoin the fray. He was killed soon afterward. Near the outdoor latrine, PFC Joseph M. Harper was hit in the chest and lay unattended, laboring for air while the firefight raged all around him. When Don Mayville went there in the morning, he found Harper laying on his back with his eyes still open and a ghastly expression on his frozen face. Years later, Mayville would still shudder at the memory of his dead friend's staring green eyes.
In A Battery's area, several Chinese soldiers stopped to look for food and to warm themselves at a fire barrel. They became easy targets in the firelight and were quickly shot down by Captain Hodge and several others. At the nearby 3rd Battalion Aid Station, a medic was killed while treating a critically wounded man in a blackout tent. When A Battery was overrun, survivors of K Company and A Battery made their way back to B Battery, which was positioned nearer the reservoir and oriented north to support the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry.
No one knew or cared which units they fought among. Most were only interested in finding shelter from the outbursts of fire lashing back and forth around the inlet. At daylight, many Chinese were still there, but it was obvious from their diminished fire that they were nearly our of ammunition. Knowing they could not retreat the way they had come without being gunned down, they stayed put and fought with whatever weapons and ammunition they could find. Lieutenant Hank Traywick, the 3rd battalion Motor Officer, gathered any men he could retake the Battalion CP. Captain Robert McClay, the 3rd Battalion Adjutant, gathered still more men to reach M Company's battered CP. Others, led by Captain Kitz and Captain Hodge, retook A Battery's positions. A cook who had hidden under a trailer throughout the night reported seeing the Chinese leading away an American and twelve KATUSAs just before dawn. About 30 Chinese were captured during the counterattacks launched after daylight.
Half a mile farther south, another fight broke out near dawn at the 57th FA Battalion's CP. There were no infantrymen at the site, but D Battery, 15th AAA, with its four twin 40mm "Duster" and four quad .50 caliber machineguns, all mounted on half-tracks, offered ample protection. Lieutenant Colonel Raymond O. Embree was awakened by the sound of mortar fire dropping around his CP. As he rushed to his radio to find out what was happening, a burst of automatic weapons fire hit him in both legs. With his bones shattered, he dropped to the floor like a sack of flour. He was out of the fight before he could even enter it.
From the hill overlooking the site, another column of enemy soldiers was hurrying down to the valley to join the fight. The snowy hillside made running figures stand out as in daylight. Captain James R. McClymont, commanding D Battery, ordered his twin 40mm guns to engage the fast-moving column. The enemy unit practically evaporated in a long, crackling burst of explosions. Around the same time, enemy troops overran D Battery's 1st Platoon. With a small group of antiaircraft and field artillery support from his 2d Platoon, Captain McClymont retook the position. Among the dead at the 1st Platoon's overrun CP was Major Max Morris, the 57th FA Battalion's Executive Officer.
The first night's fighting had taken a sever toll on leaders. All four of the most senior officers in the two battalions at the inlet were dead or seriously wounded. The artillery XO, Major Morris, was dead and the Infantry XO, Major Couch, would not regain consciousness. Command of neither battalion passed immediately to the surviving senior officers, Major Harvey H. Storms, the 3d Battalion's S-3, and Major Robert J. Tolly, the 57th FA's S-3. Their battalion commanders were seriously wounded but were still giving orders from the aid station the next day. The 3rd Battalion Surgeon was dead and over a third of the regiment's 170 medical personnel were killed or wounded when the Medical Company convoy was ambushed at Hill 1221. Radios critical to maintaining internal cohesion and coordinating external support had also been destroyed.
Because the 3rd Battalion switchboard had been damaged during the fighting, PFC Mayville went outside at daybreak to string wire to the CP across the courtyard. He was shocked to find so many bodies lying all around his hut. Among the perimeter's still living defenders were PFC's Bernie Schwartz and Tommy Melbourne of the Pioneer and Ammunition Platoon, two of Mayville's best friends from basic training. As Mayville looked up, he saw Colonel Riley sitting against the outside wall of the CP, silently watching his every move. "He looked so helpless and that was upsetting to me because I wondered who was running the show."
After daybreak, the 57th FA Battalion's Command Post and D Battery 15th AAA moved hurriedly to the inlet to join the main body. They left their dead behind, along with a destroyed half-track. The artillery repositioned to avoid offering the same target as the night before, but the Chinese were watching from the hills, paying particular attention to the heavy weapons' dispositions. By late afternoon, K Company regained its original positions atop the ridgeline, aided by airstrikes and reinforcement from L Company. The wounded were collected at a makeshift aid station in one of the mess tents at the inlet.
That afternoon, Master Sargeant John Watlington, a recalled reservist from Tennessee who served as the 3rd Battalion's Operations Sargeant, came into the communications shack seeking a medic. From a considerable distance away, a burst of automatic weapons fire stitched through the hut's thin wall, killing Watlington as he stood in the doorway. daylight had not brought safety anywhere in the perimeter.
Farther north, another consolidation was taking place. Colonel Maclean's forward CP, with about 60 vehicles, moved into the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry's perimeter about 4 miles north of the inlet. MacLean had no idea of how bad the situation was at the inlet, did not know where his 2nd Battalion or Tank Company was, did not know that his Medical Company had been destroyed, and did not know that his Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon had been sent by General Hodges on a scouting mission from which it would never return.
That morning, Lieutenant Colonel Richard R. Reidy's 2nd Battalion began moving by open rail car from Pukchong along the coast to Hamhung. The battalion's trucks, following by road, reached Hamhung late that night. They were still 72 miles from the RCT's perimeter at the Pungyuri inlet, a full day's motor march on an icy, single track road along which ambush sites were established by the Chinese. At Hamhung, Reidy was instructed by X Corps' G-3, that he should move by the road and rail to Majon-dong the next morning and that X Corps trucks would take his troops the rest of the way to the reservoir. Unaware of the delay, Colonel MacLean expected to hear that the 2nd Battalion had reached the inlet during the night. Operating in a communication void would prove fatal.
From Hudong-ni, the Tank Company, accompanied by General Hodes, attempted to break thought the inlet early on November 28. SFC George Chastain accompanied them to point out positions from which the Chinese had ambushed his company the night before. When they reached the hairpin curve, Chastain asked Captain drake to stop his jeep. Standing besides the road with General Hodes and Captain Drake, he was pointing at a path up the side of Hill 1221 when a bullet struck his head, killing him instantly and spraying the officers with his blood. Hodes and Drake scurried to safety behind their vehicles.
As the two lead tanks approached knocked out Medical Company vehicles blocking the road, a Chinese soldier armed with an American antitank weapon hit the lead tank, knocking it out. The second tank slid off the road and threw a track when it tried to by-pass the disabled lead tank. Both were abandoned by their crews who barley escaped with their lives as Chinese troops swarmed over the site. Two more tanks tried to negotiate the narrow, icy path up Hill 1221 but one slipped over a steep embankment and the other threw a track. Two more became stuck as they tried to parallel the road along a marshy stream. Chinese troops swarmed over them, trying to throw hand grenades into their hatches and engine compartments. Tanks farther back dusted the Chinese off with machinegun fire. Both of the bogged tanks managed to extricate themselves and withdraw to Hundong-ni. After another unsuccessful try in the early afternoon, Captain drake called off the attack and pulled what remained of his company back to Hudong-ni. He would need infantry and air support to breach the enemy roadblock and he had neither.
Before nightfall in November 28, the Chinese resumed their attack, striking almost exactly where they had the night before. Again, the porous infantry line was penetrated, despite being reinforced by two rifle platoons and most heavy weapons of Captain William W. Etchmendy's L Company. Chinese troops again got as far as the artillery positions. Unlike the night before, however the rifle companies stood their ground, even when penetrated. For a time, a large group of Chinese halted a K Company's overrun mess tent to enjoy what would be the last meal for most. They were caught in a blistering crossfire after regrouping near the bridge spanning the inlet. The 57th Field Artillery, reinforced by the 15th AAA twin 40mm Dusters and Quad .50s, took a horrendous toll on their tormentors.
There was an ominous new development in the fight. One body of enemy troops approached from the south near dawn, taking control of the road and rail line between the reservoir and the perimeter. They were probably from the same unit that ambushed the Medical Company the night before. Unlike the light brown quilted uniforms of the troops who attacked from the north and northeast, these troops wore a heavy dark green uniform, were armed with large numbers of American .45 caliber sub-machineguns, and had plenty of ammunition. The attacks from the northeast were no less intense, but some enemy soldiers on that end of the line were armed with only hand grenades. Strangely, the two attacks were uncoordinated, neither staring nor ending at the same time. There was ample evidence that the 31st RCT was being attacked by two Chinese divisions, but no one was putting the story together yet, leaving Colonel Maclean and his superiors with an incomplete picture of what the 31st RCT was up against.
Over forty years later, when China opened its archives to American scholars, it was revealed that all six regiments of the 80th and 81st Divisions, plus a regiment of the 90th Division from farther east, attacked the 31st RCT over a four day period and that most were destroyed in the process. It is a testament to the determination and courage of desperate men that two half-Americian, half-KATUSA infantry battalions, supported by only 8 howitzers and 8 antiaircraft weapons held off 7 Chinese Infantry regiments for 4 days and 5 nights. After fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, neither the 80th nor 81st Divisions ever returned to combat. They suffered so many casualities, including most of their officers, that both were used to replace losses in other divisions.
The 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, still four miles north of the inlet, was having troubles of its own. Like the 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry at the inlet, its perimeter was hard pressed to hold against steady pressure from the Chinese. Complicating matters, the weather was getting worse. Snow began falling after midnight and visibility was gradually deteriorating. Men from the regimental CP, including Sergeant Major John A. Lynch Jr., filled empty foxholes among the depleted rifle squads. Lynch was a former machine gunner who had served with the regiment since its reactivation at Seoul in 1946.
Around 2:00 AM on November 29, Colonel MacLean directed Lieutenant Colonel faith to pull his battalion back to the inlet before daybreak. faith set the departure time for 4:30 AM, but some men didn't get the word until they heard vehicles starting and idling their engines in unison, a sure sign the battalion was leaving. Sergeant Major Lynch sent PFC Laverne Tate, the S-1's driver with whom he shared a foxhole, to see who was in the adjacent foxhole on the left while Lynch checked the one on the right. Both were empty and there was no one in the foxholes beyond those either. The company had departed without telling its fillers. Lynch and Tate scurried down the hill just in time to join the rear of the departing column.
When the warning order for the withdrawal was issued, Major Hugh Robbins, the regimental Adjutant, gathered anyone he could find to help unload trucks to make room for the wounded. In the S-1 truck were the National and Regimental Colors, still on their disassembled staffs and packed in the wooden boxes in which they had traveled from Japan several months before. In tthe dark, soldiers unloading the trucks, mostly KATUSAs, had no opportunity to sort through what they were discarding.
Their instructions were simply to empty the trucks to make room for the wounded and that is what they did. The boxed Colors likely went into a discard pile with filed desks, typewriters, and all the other trappings of a personnel shop. Someone suggested burning the abandoned equipment, but that idea was squelched to avoid making the convoy an illuminated target. Moreover, Lieutenant Colonel Faith directed that any vehicles that could not be operated would be disabled, but not destroyed since he intended to return to the area within 24 hours. It is now clear that Chinese troops found the regimental colors in their packing container and took them back to China because they are displayed in the People's Liberation Army Korean War Museum in Beijing.
Colonel MacLean still planned to attack northward as soon as the 2nd Battalion arrived at the inlet. At the time, the 2nd Battalion was loaded aboard trucks at Majong-dong, as ordered by X Corps G-3, but was ordered off the road to make way for a convoy laden with ammunition for the Marines at Koto-ri. Given the congestion on a single lane road, X Corps issued new orders. The battalion would proceed north the next morning, November 30. For the 31st RCT, it would be much too late. The battalion would make a huge difference in helping the Tank Company break through the ambush site at Hill 1221 and it would have provided a denser line at the inlet, perhaps enabling the regiment to hold the Chinese at bay on November 27 and 28, but while X Corps fumbled its instructions, the RCT's fate was being sealed.
Just north of the inlet, Colonel Faith's convoy encountered a log roadblock, covered by automatic weapons fire. While Faith and a group of men he collected from the vehicles near the head of the column removed the obstacle, he ordered a dismounted platoon and a recoilless rifle section to outflank the enemy from higher ground. Perhaps seeing what was happening, the Chinese fled. The roadblock was removed and the convoy's lead element rolled into what had been the 3rd Battalion's perimeter at around 9:00 AM. At the time, the 3rd Battalion was still heavily engaged, trying to eject the Chinese from its midst. Men in Faith's unit who reached the crest of Hill 1324 overlooking the inlet had a panoramic view of what was taking place. In the valley, they could see two large columns of Chinese troops advancing on the inlet from the south and knots of enemy troops still fighting their way down from the eastern ridges. It was obvious that the inlet had nearly been overrun during the night because tents and vehicles were either on fire or destroyed and hundreds of bodies from both sides littered the ground, particularly around the 3rd Battalion's CP and A Battery's positions.
One person who did not make it into the perimeter that day was Colonel Allan Duart MacLean. He was 43 years old at the time, nine years older than the regiment he commanded. When the vehicle encountered the roadblock near the Pungnyu-ri Bridge, the command group split into two parts. One went forward with Lieutenant Colonel Faith to clear the roadblock and the other remained atop a rise with Colonel MacLean. Although there was incoming fire, most assumed it was spent rounds from fighting still raging in and around the inlet. Captain Erwin B. Bigger was stsndind with MacLean looking across the flat inlet. In the dim distance, they could see a long column of troops approaching on foot from the south. There were flashes of firing from the head of the column and fire from the inlet was obviously hitting the approaching troops. MacLean exclaimed, "Those are all my boys, they cut each other to pieces." He no doubt assumed the in-coming column was the long awaited 2nd Battalion running head-long into the 3rd Battalion. It was not, but it would have been hard to tell across a mile of hazy battlefield. MacLean gave Bigger a verbal order for Lieutenant Colonel Faith that detailed where he wanted Faith's battalion on the perimeter and where he was to meet MacLean.
Eager to take charge of the situation and stop what he assumed was a fratricidal engagement between two of his battalions, MacLean ran across the frozen inlet alone, crossing a small, brush-covered island before proceeding to the south bank. Bigger and several others saw him fall several times as he crossed the final stretch of ice. Bigger was too far away to help and looked on in horror as Chinese soldiers shot MacLean from the south bank. A search was staggered on. Bigger saw Chinese soldiers come out to grab MacLean and drag him to the south bank. A search was mounted by Faith after his battalion entered the perimeter but it was too late. The Chinese were gone and MacLean was being marched away in a column of POW's. A soldier released from captivity at the war's end reported what happened. MacLean was still able to walk but grew steadily weaker each day of the trak and had to be helped by other POW's. On the night of December 3, he died and was buried in a ditch beside the road. He was the second commander of the 31st Infantry to die in captivity, following Jasper Brady's death on a Japanese hell ship by only six years.