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Nightmare on the Naktong
It was seventy -five miles from Hill 202 near Sachon to the town of Miryang, now threatened by an estimated 7,000 enemy troops, who had waded across the shallow Naktong River, towing crude rafts loaded with heavy weapons, vehicles, and supplies. By August 8, an entire reinforced North Korean regiment had established a bridgehead on the east bank of the river, which was the last natural barrier between the Communist army and Pusan.
Over the next few days, the NKPA had steadily broadened its foothold until most of its crack Fourth Division the same unit that had shared in the capture of Seoul, then routed Task Force Smith was on the American side of the stream, opening a yawning gap in U.S. lines. The gap was in a cluster of rugged hills, where a sharp bend in the river surrounded a thumbshaped strip of land on three sides to form a topographical oddity that the Americans called the Naktong Bulge. Unless the gap could be closed, the main supply route between Pusan and the inland city of Taegu, headquarters of General Walker's Eighth Army, was in danger, and Taegu itself might be overrun.
In his first attempt to dislodge the enemy troops, Walker ordered the recently arrived Second Infantry Division's Ninth Regiment, commanded by Colonel John G. Hill, to join elements of General John Church's 24th Division to create Task Force Hill. In addition to his own regiment, Hill was placed in control of all 24th Division units in Church's southern sector giving him a force equal to three full infantry regiments and ordered to assault the enemy bridgehead.
To Walker's distress, however, the attack by Task Force Hill on August 11 met a reception hauntingly similar to those encountered by previous Walker task forces. The attack lost its momentum and dissolved in confusion when the North Koreans attacked at the same time. Hill tried twice more, on August 14 and 15, but his troops ran into a stone wall of resistance, and bad weather deprived them of air support.
During this interval, the enemy had spirited more than 100 machine guns, considerable artillery (including a number of American 105s seized at Taejon), and even several tanks across the river. Entrenched in the high ground and with superior weaponry, the NKPA force was simply too strong, and Hill was forced to break off the attack and take up defensive positions east of the enemy stronghold.
By now, Walker's patience was frayed to the breaking point. He minced no words when he told Church, "I'm giving you the Marine brigade, and I want this situation cleaned up and quick!"
On their arrival at Miryang on the afternoon of August 15, General Craig and his men confronted stakes that could not have been higher. The consensus among high-echelon UN commanders was that if Miryang fell, neither Taegu nor Pusan could be held. Walker himself pledged to fight in the streets if the enemy got into Taegu.
"And you'd better be prepared to do likewise," he told one field commander, whose reticence and excuses brought Walker to the boiling point. "Now get back to your division and fight it! I don't want to see you back from the front again unless it's in your coffin."
Meanwhile, by August 15, more than 400,000 Korean refugees had crowded into Taegu, and the ROK government, fearing its security could no longer be guaranteed in the city, packed up and moved to Pusan.
In addition to the precarious situation at the Naktong Bulge, Walker faced serious problems all across the front. The First Cavalry Division, charged with anchoring a tremendously wide section of the front west of Taegu, had repulsed repeated NKPA incursions across the Naktong farther to the north but remained under heavy pressure from the enemy. In the far southwest, although the Marine attacks had left NKPA forces weakened and disorganized, Army lines continued to develop leaks after the Marines' hurried withdrawal from Sachon. On the east side of the peninsula, the ROK Third Division was forced out of the secondary port of Pohang-dong and evacuated under cover of American air and naval forces, then relanded farther south. With NKPA troops only a few hundred yards from its runways, the U.S. Fifth Air Force abandoned Yonil Airfield, its only base on the east coast, and moved its desperately needed F-51 squadrons back to Japan. The entire eastern front looked to be hovering on the verge of collapse.
If there was any small shred of hope remaining, it lay with the Marines. As a British military observer attached to the 24th Division observed in a wire dispatched on the morning of August 16, as Craig's brigade prepared for its new mission,
"The situation is critical, and Miryang may be lost. The enemy has driven a division-sized salient across the Naktong. More will cross the river tonight. If Miryang is lost...we will be faced with a withdrawal from Korea. I am heartened that the Marine brigade will move against the Naktong salient tomorrow. They are faced with impossible odds, and I have no valid reason to substantiate it, but I have the feeling they will halt the enemy....
"These Marines have the swagger, confidence, and hardness that must have been in Stonewall Jackson's Army of the Shenandoah. They remind me of the Coldstreams at Dunkirk. Upon this thin line of reasoning, I cling to the hope of victory."
When the Marines reached Miryang, however, they were dragging their heels rather than swaggering. To a man, they were drained, hungry, caked with dirt, and red-eyed from lack of sleep. Many of the troops had had to march most of the previous night after a promised convoy of trucks failed to show up, and the forced journey, after days of heavy fighting, had been an ordeal for everyone. "By that time," recalled PFC Ben Wray, a native Texan and a BAR man in the First Battalion's Second Platoon, "we looked and felt like an old horse that had been rode hard and put away wet."
During the withdrawal from near Sachon, the situation had been so hectic that Colonel Harold Roise, commanding the Second Battalion, received his only orders for the move scribbled on a scrap of paper. The terse message, written by Colonel Joe Stewart, Craig's operations officer, and left with a fleet of parked vehicles, read simply, "These are your trucks. Move to Naktong at once."
After all this, Miryang proved to be an unexpectedly pleasant surprise.
Compared to the sun-baked, unforgiving hills they'd just left, the picturesque village was the closest thing to paradise the Marines had seen since leaving the States. To Colonel Robert Taplett of 3/5, it looked like "a heavenly oasis" and "an ideal spot for a picnic," and Saturday Evening Post writer Harold H. Martin, embedded with the brigade, called it "the most beautiful bivouac in all Korea."
"Our bivouac area was in a cool grove of trees on the grassy banks of the Miryang River, which would soon be our bedroom, bathroom, and laundry," Taplett recalled. "Everyone looked forward to our first night of uninterrupted sleep, a dip in the river, a change of clothes, and our first hot meal since leaving the USS Pickaway."
After a dozen days of living and fighting in the same field dungarees, Taplett and his troops were, in his words, as dirty and smelly as "a herd of goats." They took to the river in droves while dozens of native women, recruited by unit supply officers and paid with wages of cigarettes, washed grimy Marine uniforms and laid them out on the riverbank to dry.
Medical officers tried to warn the Marines that the pristine-looking stream might harbor potentially dangerous contaminants, but the warnings were ignored. Even normally cautious Navy corpsman Herb Pearce joined in the splashfest. But, as he observed later, "My enjoyment of the swim was lessened somewhat when I got out of the stream and discovered that some Koreans were busily skinning a dog in the water just around the bend from us."
The Marines realized that their interlude of rest and rehabilitation would be brief and that another brutal ordeal loomed ahead. On August 16, barely twenty hours after their arrival at Miryang, they received orders to move west about twenty-four miles to the area of Yongsan, a village less than ten miles from the Naktong. This would be the jumping-off place for their attack.
Intelligence reports indicated that the enemy was almost ready to break out of his Naktong salient, seize Miryang, and split UN forces into northern and southern halves. Miryang lay astride the double-track railroad over which vital supplies flowed between Pusan and Taegu. If Communist forces gained control of the rail line or cut it, Taegu would be cut off from supply and reinforcement.
That night, Fifth Marines commander Colonel Ray Murray met with Colonel Harold Roise, whose Second Battalion had been chosen to lead a frontal assault the next morning on Obong-ni Ridge, part of a jumbled mass of high ground held in strength by the NKPA. Roise's battalion would be followed by Taplett's 3/5, with Colonel Newton's 1/5, which had been badly battered in the fight for Sachon, in brigade reserve.
"Obong-ni Ridge sprawled across the Marine front like some huge prehistoric reptile," wrote Marine historian Lynn Montross. "Its blunt head overlooked the main supply route...and the elongated body stretched to the southeast more than 2,000 yards before losing its identity in a complex of swamps and irregular hill formations."
The ridgeline included half a dozen dominating peaks (identified by number, from north to south, as Hills 102, 109, 117, 143, 147, and 153), several smaller hills, and a succession of steep spurs, separated by deep gullies that ran all the way down to a series of rice paddies on the plain below. It presented a vast, demonic puzzle for the men of the Second Battalion's D and E companies assigned as the first Marines to climb it.
"You must take that ground tomorrow," Murray told Roise. "You have to get on that ridge and hold it. Understood?"
"Understood," Roise assured him. "This battalion goes only one way straight ahead!"
Dug in and waiting for the American "yellow legs," as the North Koreans now called the Marines, were confident, seasoned troops of the NKPA's Fourth Division. "Intelligence says we are to expect an attack by American Marines," said Colonel Chang Ky Dok, veteran commander of the division's 16th Regiment, in a speech to his officers. "To us comes the honor of being the first to defeat these Marines soldiers. We will win where others have failed. I consider our positions impregnable. We occupy the high ground, and they must attack up a steep slope. Go to your men, and tell them there will be no retreat. I will take instant action against anyone who shows weakness."
H-hour for the brigade's attack was set for 8:00 AM on August 17 as part of a general offensive by the entire 24th Infantry Division, reinforced by the Marines and the Ninth Infantry Regiment. The Marines had a long, historic relationship with the Ninth Infantry, having served with the Army unit during the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the twentieth century and again in France during World War I. But in the futile attacks by Task Force Hill, the Ninth had sustained heavy losses in recent days, and when Craig visited Colonel Hill's command post, he was less than reassured by the condition of Hill's troops and the thinness of their lines.
Fifth Marines commander Colonel Murray also met with Hill, and he was even more concerned than Craig about the battle-weariness and generally poor condition of the Ninth. The two agreed, however, that the Marine battalion would attack on the left side of the main road against the multiple peaks of Obong-ni Ridge, while the Ninth attacked to the right of the road against two other formidable pieces of high ground, designated as Hill 125 and Observation Hill.
For the Marines, a ragged, red-clay gully near the center of Obong-ni would form the dividing line between two attacking companies. (Because of the ridge's confusing topography and the number of separate hills involved, American news correspondents covering the action were soon referring to Obong-ni in their dispatches as "No Name Ridge," while the Marines called it "Red Slash Hill," in reference to the gully that divided it.) Marine air and artillery were scheduled to pound the ridge for forty-five minutes before the infantry attacked, but problems largely negated their efforts. The shelling was so inaccurate that many observing 2/5 officers thought there had been no artillery preparation at all. Then two supporting squadrons of Corsairs from the carriers Badoeng Strait and Sicily arrived late at the target area and had time for only one bombing run before the two rifle companies jumped off abreast. The end result was that enemy fortifications were scarcely touched.
On the right of the Marine attack was D Company, commanded by Captain Andy Zimmer, and on the left was First Lieutenant Bill Sweeney's E Company. After placing his Second Platoon in reserve to provide covering fire, Zimmer sent his Third Platoon, led by Second Lieutenant Mike Shinka, off the main road and across three rice paddies toward the foot of Hill 109. Advancing close behind Shinka's unit was the First Platoon, led by Staff Sergeant T. Albert Crowson. A rocket section trailing Crowson's unit stopped near the road and set up its weapons to protect the main supply route.
After struggling up a gully, Shinka and his men were almost halfway to the top of the ridge when dozens of NKPA machine guns opened fire at once from all directions, much of the outburst coming from the crests of Hills 117 and 143 on the left. Simultaneously, from directly above, at the top of Hill 109, enemy troops in holes on the reverse slope hurled down scores of hand grenades on the Marine riflemen. But the costliest fire and by far the most difficult to defend against came from Hill 125, almost directly behind the Marines on the opposite (right) side of the road.
Hill 125 was one of the Ninth Infantry's major objectives, but in the planned order of battle, the Army unit had been told to delay its attack on 125 until the Marines had secured 109. Now, however, it was obvious that the Ninth's part of the attack needed to commence at once. Otherwise, all of Shinka's Third Platoon stood to be slaughtered.
Despite the intense hail of bullets, and even after enemy mortars joined in, the Third Platoon continued to inch forward up the steep slope. But Shinka lost fully one-third of his thirty-man force on the hellish climb up the barren face of 109, and he lost several more within minutes after reaching the crest. Shinka's men were the only Americans to claw their way to the top that morning, but they were so cruelly exposed that any man's slightest movement invited sudden death. With only fifteen unwounded Marines remaining, they were unable to hold the ground and too isolated for reinforcements to reach them.
"It's too hot to stay up here!" Shinka yelled to his platoon sergeant. "Collect the wounded and weapons, and let's get back down the hill."
Dragging their wounded on ponchos, the Marines slid and stumbled down the same gully they'd ascended to a point about three-fourths of the way to the base of 109. There, with a reasonable amount of protective cover, surviving members of the platoon huddled together. Shinka counted only six men who were still able to fight.
"I decided to go forward to find out if we'd left any of our wounded behind," Shinka later recalled. "As I crawled along our former position [on the crest of 109], I came across a wounded Marine between two dead. As I grabbed him under the arms and pulled him out of the foxhole, a bullet shattered my chin. Blood ran into my throat, and I couldn't breathe."
Choking on his own blood, Shinka was hit again, this time in the arm. The impact sent him rolling helplessly down the hill for a considerable distance, but he survived to receive a Bronze Star for valor. Sergeant Crowson, leading the First Platoon, single-handedly wiped out two of the enemy machine guns that had taken such a horrendous toll on the Marines. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by order of General MacArthur.
Meanwhile, one platoon of E Company, commanded by Second Lieutenant Nickolas Arkadis, moved into Obong-ni Village at the foot of Hills 143 and 147, where it also came under heavy fire. Arkadis and his men fought their way to the lower slopes of the ridge, then bogged down with mounting casualties.
After the GIs of the Ninth Infantry were beaten back in their first attack on Hill 125, they regrouped and stormed the hill again. This time they succeeded in ending the deadly flanking fire that had decimated D Company's two platoons, but by now the Marines' chance to seize Obong-ni Ridge had, for the time being, been bled away.
At 3:00 PM on August 17, with D and E companies suffering a combined total for the day of 142 casualties almost 60 percent of the 240 infantrymen who had begun the attack that morning and no replacements available, Colonel Murray ordered the Second Battalion to pull back.
By noon it had been one of the bloodiest days yet for the Marines in Korea. "The worst day I've ever seen," said a doctor at the First Battalion aid station. "But 146 men have come in here so far, and all but one of them have gone out of here alive."
Unfortunately, both the day and the bloodshed were far from over.
At midafternoon on August 17, Colonel Roise's Second Battalion was ordered to break off its efforts to advance and hold where it was, while Colonel Newton's First Battalion passed through to take the lead position in the attack. Captain John "Blackjack" Stevens's A Company was assigned to the left flank, in relief of the Second Battalion's E Company, and Captain John Tobin's B Company was to relieve D Company on the right.
The troop exchange quickly drew enemy fire. Tobin had just gone forward to a ridgeline running parallel to Obong-ni to be briefed by D Company commander Captain Zimmer when both Zimmer and his radio operator were wounded and had to be evacuated.
Tobin immediately called Lieutenant Ike Fenton, his executive officer, and told Fenton and his three platoon leaders to meet him at a point where the main road passed through a saddle in the ridgeline, so that Tobin could point out the route of attack.
"We'd barely arrived at the meeting place when a North Korean machine gun opened up and severely wounded Captain Tobin in the chest and arm," Fenton recalled. "After he was evacuated, I contacted battalion and told Colonel Newton I was assuming command of the company. A minute or two later, we jumped off in the attack with the First and Second platoons on line and the Third Platoon in support."
Almost instantly, both lead platoons came under savage enemy fire, and neither was able to advance until Lieutenant Nick Schryver, commanding the Second Platoon, adjusted his mortar section's aim and had it pound the enemy positions for twenty minutes without letup. Then Schryver's men surged forward with renewed determination.
From an observation post in the distant high ground, where he could view the full sweep of Obong-ni Ridge through his field glasses, General Craig watched the men of Able and Baker companies fighting their way up Hill 109, and he winced at what he saw.
"They're getting hurt," Craig said, as Colonel Joe Stewart, his operations officer, and other members of the brigade staff stood by. "I can see them bringing the wounded down." Suddenly Craig stiffened and began to count aloud. "One...two...three...four...five! Hey, they're making it to the top! There's twenty of them in that little saddle to the right. Now thirty of them...now forty! By God, Baker Company's up there! Now, if they can only hold!"
Once the men of B Company had seized their sector of the ridge (the part to the right of the red slash), they were able to relieve some of the pressure on the Second Platoon's front, and by 5:00 PM the company's sector of Obong-ni was secure.
Meanwhile, out on the left flank, the men of Able Company were being hammered hard by relentless enemy fire. Their stubborn, repeated attempts to reach the tops of Hills 117 and 143 yielded some ground, but despite the aggressive leadership of Captain Stevens and his veteran gunnery sergeant, they were pinned down and stopped short of both objectives.
"Our seizure of the right portion of the ridge did relieve a little pressure on A Company," said Fenton, "but their casualties were heavy, and they were having great difficulty securing the high points on the left."
Second Lieutenant Francis W. Muetzel, commanding A Company's machine gun section, took cover in an abandoned gun pit, along with one of his riflemen and another officer. It was a grave mistake because the enemy mortars and artillery were already registered in on the emplacement, and the three Marines instantly came under fire.
"Four rounds from 82-millimeter mortars landed around it," Muetzel said. "The blast lifted me off the ground, and my helmet flew off. A human body to my left disintegrated. Being rather shook up and unable to hear, I crawled back to the CP."
As soon as Muetzel's hearing returned and he regained his equilibrium, he made his way back to the gun pit to look for the rifleman from his platoon. When he found him, he wished he hadn't. "One of the mortar rounds must have landed in the small of his back," Muetzel recalled. "Only a pelvis and legs were left. The stretcher bearers gathered up the remains with a shovel."
By dusk, however, the battered survivors of A Company had established a foothold on Obong-ni and extended their front from the southern portion of Hill 109 to the center of the saddle separating 109 from 117. Hoping that the First Battalion was now capable of holding this bloody ground, General Craig directed his unit commanders to consolidate their positions for the night.
"I want you to account for the location of every individual and be prepared for a counterattack," Craig warned. "Prepare plans of fire both within and to the rear of your positions."
At about 7:00 PM on August 17, a lull fell over the embattled ridgeline, and A and B companies were able to tie their lines together for increased security. Lieutenant Fenton, now commanding B Company in relief of Captain Tobin, decided to take extra precautions. "I'd learned my lesson at Changchon," Fenton said, "so to make sure we maintained contact with all our units, I made up my mind to lay two lines of telephone wire to all three platoons as well as battalion headquarters."
Less than an hour later, with the last vestiges of daylight still lingering amid hurried defensive preparations, one of Fenton's Marines ran up to him in alarm.
"Sir," he said, "some gook tanks are coming this way, and they're headed straight for our position!"
Fenton grabbed his field glasses and took a quick look. About 5,000 yards up the road to the battalion's immediate front, he spotted two Russian-built T-34s coming on in no particular hurry. A moment later, he made out a third enemy tank trailing a few hundred yards behind the first two. A fourth was still farther back, beyond Fenton's field of vision.
Fenton felt an adrenaline rush as he hit the "flash" signal on his telephone, alerting all units on the battalion network. "Enemy tanks in the area," he said. "They're coming right up the road like they own the world."
During the past few weeks, the Marines had heard a lot about the supposed invincibility of the North Korean tanks, but because of the rugged terrain in which they'd been continuously fighting, they'd yet to come face to face with enemy armor. Now, with their first confrontation obviously only minutes away, even a hardened combat veteran such as Fenton was swept up in the excitement.
"It was like sitting on the 50-yard line of the Rose Bowl about 150 feet up," he recalled much later. "We had a great seat for the show that was about to take place."
Then Fenton heard Colonel Newton's voice on the phone. "Just hold your fire and let the tanks pass through, Lieutenant," he said. "Our antitank platoon and 3.5 rocket section are primed and ready to deal with them as soon as they get into range, and our own tanks are refueling and almost ready to roll."
"Aye, sir." Fenton's voice was calm, but he'd already watched a flight of F-51s try and fail to stop the tanks, and his thoughts were troubled:
Whatever you say, Colonel. But by then, those T-34s are going to be practically sitting in your lap!
It had been a tense, agonizing day at General Craig's headquarters, and runnerborne casualty reports filtering in from the First and Second battalions at sunset on August 17 did nothing to brighten the prevailing mood.
According to a detailed account of the battle published in the Saturday Evening Post, each of the four companies committed on Obong-ni Ridge had counted about 200 enlisted men and seven officers when the day began. Now A Company had 4 officers and 68 riflemen still combat-capable, and some of these had minor wounds but had refused evacuation. B Company had 103 riflemen and only 2 officers left; D Company had 85 riflemen and 2 officers; and E Company reported 3 officers and 78 riflemen in fighting shape. Based on these figures, the four companies' rifle platoons had lost close to 55 percent of their total strength since morning.
Craig and his staff were mulling over this bleak news when the phone rang. Colonel Joe Stewart yanked up the receiver, listened for a moment, then grunted and hung up.
"Regiment says three gook tanks are coming up the road toward the First Battalion CP," Stewart told Craig. "The observation plane spotted them, and they're already behind our positions on the hill."
When Navy Captain Eugene Hering, the brigade surgeon, heard what Stewart was saying, he jumped to his feet. "God almighty," he said. "The aid station's just a quarter mile from there! If those tanks break through "
"Don't worry; they won't," Craig reassured Hering. "Colonel Newton will know what to do."
The general's faith in his First Battalion commander was well placed. A Pacific veteran of World War II, Newton was no stranger to crisis command situations, and fortunately the early tip-off from the pilot of the Grasshopper plane had given him ample time to ready a network of defenses as the North Korean tanks approached.
"We set up two of our guns in record time in a rice paddy near the road," said Sergeant Rusty Russell, a squad leader in the 75-millimeter recoilless rifle platoon attached to the First Battalion, "and our 3.5 rocket launchers were positioned off to our left in the ditches along the roadside. We also had two M-26 tanks on the road with 90-millimeter cannon. We were sick of hearing about how 'unstoppable' these Commie tanks were, and we intended to find out for ourselves."
Corporal Edward T. "Red" Martin, a Minnesota native and an assistant gunner in another section of 75s, was helping pull a machine-gun cart carrying his weapon up a small hill to get it into firing position on the opposite side of the road from Russell when a Marine in a passing jeep slowed down and shouted,
"Better run, you SOBs! Those tanks are just around the bend!"
"To hell with that!" Martin yelled back. "They're the ones who'd better run!"
Not far away, at the battalion aid station, when PFC Don Kennedy, a rifleman being treated for a shrapnel wound in his shoulder, heard about the tanks, he grabbed his M-1 and made his way a short distance up the road to a small hill, where he lay down to observe the action.
"It was after sundown, but there was still plenty of light," Kennedy recalled. "I watched the bend in the road, where it came around the nose of the hill. You could see the dust rising, and then this long, bulb-nosed gun sort of poked around the corner."
Texas-born Second Lieutenant Charles M. C. Jones, commander of the recoilless rifle platoon, was understandably nervous. But he told his men to hold their fire until the tanks came within point-blank range.
"They were less than fifty yards away when we opened fire," Jones recalled many years later, "and we tore them up."
"We were looking right down the barrels of their guns," added Sergeant Russell of the recoilless gun unit, "when Corporal Victor Malacara, the gunner in our seven-man squad, blew the hell out of them."
As the first tank rounded the bend in the road and rumbled toward the First Battalion CP, it was met almost simultaneously by 3.5 rocket fire from the ditches and 75-millimeter recoilless rifle rounds from either side of the road.
"It came on slow," said PFC Kennedy, still watching from his vantage point on a nearby hill, "and then all of a sudden, the bazooka men started throwing those big rockets into its flanks.... It stopped and began to swing right and left, like an elephant swinging its head, but not moving forward, and it was firing all its guns, but it was firing wild."
When the first rounds from the 75s struck the tank, they tore through its armored hide as if it were tissue paper. One of its machine-gun mounts was ripped out by the roots, and all firing from the tank immediately stopped. The turret swung open, sending flames leaping skyward as the crew tried to scramble out, but Marine rifle fire sent them tumbling back into the blazing tank.
"I put my first round into him broadside between the body and turret of the tank, using a HEAT shell," said Corporal Robert Whited of Laramie, Wyoming, a gunner on one of the 75s. "It made a hole no bigger than a .50-caliber slug, but it sprayed molten metal all through the inside of the tank and set the whole thing on fire."
Trying to escape a similar fate, the second tank attempted to pull around the first one on the narrow road, but it had gone only a few feet when it was hit in the track and skidded off the road, where the cannon fire from one of the M-26s finished it off.
"It only took us about a minute and a half to take out all three tanks," said Red Martin. "Our only casualty was PFC Bob Strand, a friend of mine from Minnesota, who was hit in the leg by a stray machine-gun bullet. Doc Rocket Pearce took good care of him, and he was able to rejoin us a few weeks later."
"This was one time that the tanks could easily have maneuvered because there was plenty of firm ground on both sides of the road," said Ike Fenton. "But the third tank made the same mistake as the second by trying to stay on the road and squeeze past the other two tanks. One of our M-26s took it out with a direct hit. No one escaped from any of the tanks."
The fourth T-34, well to the rear of the others, fell victim to Marine air. The 75-millimeter antitank unit was credited with two of the four kills, the other going to the M-26 tankers.
"What happened that evening gave us confidence and helped solidify us as a unit," said Corporal Whited, who would advance to the rank of captain during his Marine career. "We were never in awe of those Russian T-34s again."
Long after full darkness descended, Marines of Able and Baker companies continued to dig foxholes and organize their defenses. Wires were strung and attached to trip flares in front of their lines. Artillery of the 11th Marines was zeroed in on likely enemy approaches, while Korean laborers hauled supplies to the ridgeline and carried casualties back to the rear. During much of this preparation, the battalion was forced to dodge sporadic sniper fire from the crest of Hill 117.
Not a single man among the Marines on Obong-ni Ridge had the slightest doubt that the North Koreans would strike before morning with all the firepower they could muster. "We were quite worried about another night counterattack," said Ike Fenton, "and we cautioned all the men to maintain a 25 percent listening watch."
What the Marines didn't know was that heavy losses, coupled with a shortage of food, weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies, had prompted Colonel Chang Ky Dok, veteran commander of the NKPA's 16th Regiment, to ask permission to withdraw that night back to the west bank of the Naktong. Late in the afternoon, elements of the U.S. Ninth, 19th, and 34th Infantry regiments had launched a series of punishing attacks against the right flank of the NKPA salient, and Chang sensed that his dwindling force couldn't withstand another day of intense pressure on the ground and fierce pounding from the air.
Chang's request was denied, but in the meantime also unknown to the Americans he'd obtained a captured U.S. SCR-300 field radio tuned to Marine frequencies. Consequently, he knew from monitoring on-air messages that the First Battalion had relieved 2/5 as well as the exact locations where Companies A and B were dug in on the ridge.
His only hope, Chang decided, was to hurl his remaining troops, under cover of darkness, in an all-out assault against the Marines' thin lines on Obong-ni before the Americans could deliver a knock-out punch of their own.
"This had been the longest day I could remember," recalled Sergeant Mackie Wheeler of A Company. "I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the night coming up was going to be even longer."
The night remained eerily quiet until about 2:30 AM on August 18, when lookouts of the First Battalion's Second Platoon reported suspicious activity to its immediate front. Moments later, a green signal flare lit the sky above Obong-ni Ridge, and the North Koreans struck with frenzied fury at the precise point where A and B companies were tied together.
The enemy's clear intent was to separate the two companies by driving a wedge between them, then to envelop and annihilate them one at a time. The ferocity of the attack produced a quick breakthrough on B Company's left flank, held by Lieutenant Scotty Taylor's Second Platoon. As soon as Lieutenant Fenton realized what had happened, he grabbed the phone and managed to reach Taylor.
"They're all over us, Ike," Taylor yelled. "It's hand to hand, and we can't hold."
"You've got to pull back fast, Scotty," Fenton told him. "Fall back toward the company CP, and form a perimeter defense with the other platoons."
Meanwhile, Fenton got word that the men of A Company were catching hell all along their front. Their left flank was being pushed back, and their right flank had already been turned. Enemy troops were almost certainly moving through the gap between the two companies, and the sound of small-arms fire at close range told Fenton that the enemy was only a few yards from his command post.
The telephone rang, and Fenton heard Colonel Newton's tense voice on the line.
"I know you're under heavy pressure up there," Newton said, "but you've got to hold your position at all costs. I'm pouring in all the supporting mortar and artillery support I can. A Company's got three major breakthroughs on their front, and if your company gets pushed off the ridge, we'll have it all to do over in the morning."
"We'll do our best, sir," said Fenton, "but we've got gooks all around us, and they've turned my left flank. The situation's very confused, and we can't see a damn thing."
"I understand, Lieutenant, but I'm asking you can you hang on till daylight?"
Fenton ground his teeth as he replied: "Don't worry, Colonel. The only Marines that leave this ridge tonight will be dead ones."
The first Marines to feel the enemy's wrath that pitch-black morning were those of A Company's mortar section, set up in a gully near the company CP. Because of the intercepted radio messages, the North Koreans knew precisely where the mortarmen were, and they took full advantage of that knowledge.
At about 2:00 AM, the Marines in the gully heard the telltale whine and rattle of incoming fire and ducked low in their foxholes. Then the explosions started, enveloping the position with sheets of flame from deadly white phosphorus rounds. Virtually every man in the gully suffered painful wounds, leaving Captain Blackjack Stevens's company with no remaining mortar defense.
The edge of the NKPA barrage also struck the area occupied by the Third Platoon, wounding First Lieutenant George Fox, the platoon commander, and half a dozen of his men. Two riflemen were evacuated, but Fox and the others remained on the line after receiving first aid.
Half an hour later, the full-scale enemy assault began with a hail of machine-gun fire from the crest of Hill 117 and an avalanche of grenades from directly above the Marines. Then a platoon of NKPA infantry charged down the slopes and pounced directly on Stevens's reeling troops, cutting the company in half and forcing its survivors to withdraw part of the way toward Hill 109.
"Me and my buddy, Sergeant R. D. Lopez, were together in our foxhole when four North Koreans ran right up on us," recalled Sergeant Mackie Wheeler, who served as a runner and radio operator for Stevens. "They were within ten feet of us when we opened fire. They didn't get any closer."
At about the same time, Lieutenant Tom Johnston led his Second Platoon up a shallow defile toward the saddle between Hills 117 and 143 until they were pinned down by machine-gun fire about seventy-five yards from their goal. After maneuvering Corporal Cleylon Camper into firing position with a BAR, Johnston borrowed a grenade from PFC Billy Lindley to augment the two he already carried.
"Now gimme some heat!" Johnston yelled and charged up the slope. He hurled one grenade, hitting the deck an instant before it exploded, then jumping back to his feet and running on. As he threw a second grenade, an enemy grenade exploded within a few feet of him, killing him instantly.
All told, the Second Platoon slugged it out for a full half hour with an enemy force three times its size, thanks in large measure to the courage and leadership of Tech Sergeant Frank J. Lawson, who took command after Johnston's death, staying at his guns and refusing evacuation despite three painful wounds.
Eventually, though, the platoon's survivors were forced to give ground, along with all the rest of A Company. As the attackers penetrated the Marines' lines, Captain Stevens was cut off from many of his men, and several enemy soldiers with burp guns invaded his command post. Stevens and his headquarters staff were forced to make a fighting retreat down a nearby draw, but the attackers were wiped out.
Because of confusion among the attackers, deadly accuracy by Marine mortars and artillery, heavy NKPA casualties suffered in the attack, or a combination of all these factors, only a single squad of enemy troops slipped through the hole punched in the brigade's front. When no reinforcements arrived to join them, this small group was soon overwhelmed. As a result, although both companies of the First Battalion suffered horrific losses, they retained their foothold on Obong-ni.
On learning that A Company's lines had been breached, Colonel Newton ordered continuous artillery and mortar barrages on all enemy approaches to the ridge. Supporting fire from the brigade's 4.2-inch mortar section proved especially valuable because the high trajectory of its rounds allowed them to strike shielded enemy positions that artillery couldn't reach. The First Battalion's own 81-millimeter mortar section also joined in, although it had to borrow most of 2/5's available ammo to keep firing.
When daylight returned, Marine air quickly entered the picture as well. At this point, a single enemy machine gun was keeping A Company's right flank pinned down. To take the gun out, Captain Stevens called for a high-risk air strike within 100 yards of his own lines.
"The plane came in and actually pinpointed the target with a direct hit," recalled Lieutenant Fenton, who observed the action from where B Company still held fast to Hills 102 and 109. "After this bomb hit, a few strafing runs and a napalm strike were called. Then A Company was able to move up and retake their sector of the ridge."
Fenton had high praise for his company's veteran NCOs, who had taken the lead in regrouping their ravaged, officer-short units and inspiring their riflemen to fight like fiends to hold their ground. He called them "the finest batch of noncommissioned officers ever assembled in any Marine regiment."
His rank-and-file infantrymen also drew plaudits from their new company commander. "In some cases, it wasn't just noncoms," Fenton said. "It was the PFCs and privates holding the job of a fire team leader or squad leader. It was their fine leadership, outstanding initiative, and control of the men that turned a possible defeat into a sweet victory."
Also singled out for special recognition were Lieutenant Nick Schryver, commanding B Company's First Platoon, and Lieutenant Francis W. Muetzel, who was transferred from command of A Company's machine-gun section to take over the company's Second Platoon, replacing Muetzel's fallen friend Tom Johnston.
Although suffering head and facial wounds from a grenade that exploded a few feet in front him, Schryver refused evacuation, had himself patched up by a corpsman, and continued to lead his men with what his subsequent citation for valor called "fierce determination."
"I didn't even have to come to Korea in the first place, because my wife was pregnant at the time, and my daughter had been born the day after we sailed," Schryver recalled many years later. "But I figured as long as I was there, I might as well earn my keep. Ike Fenton and I were the only two officers left in the company because Scotty Taylor had been fatally wounded that morning [he died later at the Army field surgical hospital at Miryang], and I didn't want to let Ike down. He was a fine officer and an outstanding human being."
Muetzel, who had been wounded and left for dead in his foxhole after the enemy breakthrough, had regained consciousness to find himself completely alone except for the enemy. Dragging his wounded leg behind him, he fought his way past several NKPA soldiers until he reached the Marines' new lines.
Both Muetzel and Schryver were awarded the Silver Star.
By sunup on August 18, the enemy attacks on Obong-ni had spent themselves, and the attackers were in disorganized retreat. On an adjacent ridge, the Army's Ninth Infantry also had been rolled back by a nighttime assault but had counterattacked and reclaimed the lost ground.
At seven o'clock that morning, General Craig ordered a resumption of the Marines' attack, and the ragtag remnants of the First Battalion swept forward again to secure more of the high ground. "The Second Platoon, which had borne the brunt of the night attack, had only eleven riflemen left [out of its normal complement of forty]," said Ike Fenton. "We were shot up, but morale was good. The boys felt like they'd done a pretty fine job of holding our line that night."
A couple of hours later, Colonel Robert Taplett's 3/5 moved through 1/5 and took the lead in the attack on the Marines' next objective, driving beyond Obong-ni Ridge against feeble resistance toward a piece of high ground designated as Hill 207. The First Battalion remained behind to rest its battle-scarred bones and count the dead bodies and abandoned weapons left by the North Koreans. Their finds included forty machine guns, numerous small arms, a 3.5-inch rocket launcher, four antitank rifles, and large amounts of ammunition and hand grenades many of which had been forfeited earlier by retreating American troops. They also found the captured SCR-300 field radio that had allowed the enemy to listen in on 1/5's tactical net and enabled him to pinpoint Marine positions.
By late morning on August 19, all three of the Marines' objectives in the Naktong Bulge were secure, and Army and Marine troops met on the east bank of the river while hundreds of fleeing enemy soldiers swam frantically toward the other side. Repeated strafing runs by Marine Corsairs and massive shelling by U.S. artillery left the river "definitely discolored with blood," in the words of one American pilot.
Fewer than 3,000 North Koreans made it back across the Naktong. Behind them, they left more than 1,200 dead, plus vast quantities of arms and equipment, including thirty-four artillery pieces, hundreds of automatic weapons, and thousands of rifles. The NKPA Fourth Division had been shattered beyond repair in what an official Army history termed "the greatest setback suffered thus far by the North Korean Army."
Marine losses totaled 66 dead, 278 wounded, and 1 missing in action. The First Battle of the Naktong was over. There would be a second.
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Sloan