Korean War 1953: Towards the Truce

‘How it ought to be done’- Battle for Hill 256, Korean War- by Rick Reeves

In February 1953, General James Van Fleet handed over command of Eighth Army in Korea to the veteran paratrooper Maxwell Taylor. The outgoing general disappeared into retirement with bitter complaints that he had been prevented from launching an all-out offensive to drive the Chinese out of Korea once and for all. His frustration was widely shared by other senior officers. It seemed profoundly unsoldierlike, to that generation which had come to maturity during World War II in which defeat and victory were absolutes, to allow an army to stagnate upon the mountains of Korea, restricted to patrolling. Van Fleet was probably correct in believing that, with the vast firepower at his disposal, the Chinese line could have been breached and eventually rolled up. But such a campaign would have cost many thousands of UN casualties. There was never the remotest possibility that Washington or the Allied capitals would entertain the plan. Yet the last months of the war saw some of the fiercest fighting since the 1951 spring offensive. The Chinese made a series of determined attempts to test the UN’s will on the battlefield, as negotiations at Panmunjom reached a critical stage. On each occasion, they were thrown back; but only after bitter struggles.

‘Old Baldy’, a hilltop in the midst of the peninsula that possessed no special strategic significance, nonetheless became the focus of intense Chinese offensive effort in the summer and autumn of 1952. In March 1953, at last they gained possession of it after the collapse of a Colombian regiment rashly entrusted with its defence. Taylor was reluctant to lavish lives upon its recapture. But the communists quickly made it clear that they proposed to make use of the advantage that they had gained, to advance another bound: Old Baldy overlooked a feature named Pork Chop Hill, garrisoned by two under-strength platoons of the 31st Infantry of 7th Division. Soon after 10 p.m. on the night of 16 April 1953, an American patrol moving into the valley between Pork Chop and the enemy positions opposite encountered two companies of Chinese sweeping forward to assault the hill. Within minutes, the ninety-six Americans on Pork Chop found themselves isolated under furious attack. The lieutenant in command lost radio and telephone contact with the rear, and summoned emergency artillery cover by flare. But when the barrage at last lifted, the Chinese stormed forward again. By 2 a.m., they held most of the hill. Two hours later, an American counter-attack managed to link with the surviving defenders on the high ground, but was not strong enough to recapture the lost positions.

All through the next day, some fifty-five Americans clung to their precarious foothold on Pork Chop, pinned down by the Chinese. At Eighth Army, the decision was made that at all costs, American dominance of the position must be re-established. It was essential that the communist delegation at Panmunjom should be denied the opportunity to claim a victory on the battlefield. At 9.30 p.m. on the night of 17 April, two companies of the 17th Infantry struck the western end of the feature from both sides. The battle continued all through the following day, with a stream of reinforcements being thrown in by both sides. By the night of 18 April, the Chinese had conceded tactical defeat. They withdrew their surviving elements from Pork Chop, while the Americans began an intensive struggle to rebuild the defences before the next assault came.

The battle for Pork Chop continued at bitter intensity deep into the summer of 1953. The US garrison on its blasted slopes grew to five battalions, under incessant communist mortar and artillery fire. On 10 July, a fortnight before the armistice was signed, Taylor and his commanders concluded that the cost of maintaining it, still under constant surveillance from Old Baldy, outweighed even the moral benefits. It was evacuated. The struggle for Pork Chop became part of the legend of the US Army in Korea, reflecting the courage of the defenders and the tactical futility of so many small unit actions of the kind that dominated the last two years of the war. It was said that there were eleven stars’ worth of American generals at the regimental headquarters behind Pork Chop at the height of the battle. The divisional commander, Arthur Trudeau, won a Silver Star for personally leading a counter-attack battalion reconnaissance party on to Pork Chop under fire, after switching helmets with his driver. Some of the Allies were deeply sceptical about the price the Americans paid to regain the position. General Mike West, who succeeded Cassels in command of the Commonwealth Division, was asked what he would have done to recapture it, and answered: ‘Nothing. It was only an outpost.’ But this view reflected, yet again, the interminable conflict between military reason and political interest.

A succession of almost equally bitter battles was conducted for possession of a ridge within a few miles of the western coast of Korea, named ‘The Hook’. On the night of 26 October 1952, the US 7th Marines fought a successful defensive action under the most unfavourable conditions. Thereafter, the Hook passed into the hands of the Commonwealth Division. The British lost more casualties on its steep flanks than on any other single battlefield in Korea. The 1st Black Watch fought the second Hook battle on 18 November 1952. The third battle, in late May 1953, was a much more protracted affair, of which the brunt fell on the 1st Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. On each occasion, the Hook was the object of a set-piece Chinese night attack. ‘It was a sore thumb, bang in the middle of Genghis Khan’s old route into Korea,’ said Major Lewis Kershaw of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, one of the men who defended the position, ‘it commanded an enormous amount of ground.’ Kershaw was a quiet-spoken forty-year-old Yorkshireman, who much regretted having spent World War II in inactivity, garrisoning Iceland and suchlike. He was commanding the Support Company of his battalion, which arrived in Korea in October 1952. Every platoon’s establishment of weapons was dramatically increased when manning a sensitive sector like the Hook. Each man on the position knew that at any time, the Chinese could come.

On the night of 28 May 1953, Kershaw and his comrades were warned by the intense mortar and artillery bombardment that an attack was imminent. At 7.50 p.m., he himself had just come forward from the Battalion Command Post to D Company’s positions, where it had been decided to send out a patrol, which he would control. Suddenly, the screams and bugles in the darkness told them the Chinese were coming. The defenders began to pour small-arms fire forward down the hill. Kershaw and the others in the forward platoon headquarters had to stumble out of the bunker into the trenches as it began to collapse under a succession of direct hits. Chinese soldiers were dropping in amongst them. There was a fierce short-range exchange of grenades. Alongside Kershaw, a conscientious, fresh-faced little National Service subaltern named Ernest Kirk was hit by a burst of burp-gun fire as he threw a grenade, and fell dead at Kershaw’s feet. Kirk was twenty-one, a few weeks short of demob. He was planning to leave the army and become a school sports master. The defenders had been warned that if their position was overrun, British DF artillery fire would be called down upon it. When the shells began to land among the trenches, Kershaw swung himself down a ladder into an ammunition store as a Chinese stun grenade landed beside him. His legs and buttocks were peppered with fragments, his helmet blown off, his sten gun blasted out of his hands.

Kershaw staggered back into the trench above, grabbed his platoon sergeant’s sten gun, and propped himself against the earth wall to remain upright. Fighting against spasms of blindness and unconsciousness, he tossed a few more grenades, then stumbled into a cave and fell down. When he came to, he found himself alongside four Korean ‘Katcoms’. His leg was useless and bleeding. Clumsily, he tied a tourniquet with a bootlace. Then they lay in silence, Kershaw drifting in and out of consciousness, while the British artillery bombardment hammered the hill above their heads. Communications between D Company’s forward positions and the rear had been shattered. Along the Dukes’ front, most of the defenders were now trapped in tunnels and bunkers by earth-falls or shelling. After a time, Kershaw asked a Korean to look out and see if it was dawn. The man replied that he could see nothing, though Kershaw doubted that he had dared to put his head above ground level. A second man went, and returned to report that the Chinese were no longer on the position. An hour later, the company commander found them. Kershaw was dragged out on a ground-sheet, and transferred to a jeep at the foot of the Hook. His lower leg was amputated before he was put on a train to Seoul.

At first light on 29 May, the British surveyed the customary chaotic aftermath of battle on the Korean hills: positions painstakingly hacked out of the earth over months were flattened or caved in, the ground blackened and the scanty foliage stripped by bombardment. The forward area was littered with fragments of wire and shreds of sandbags, ammunition boxes and debris. The Dukes had suffered 149 casualties, including twenty-nine killed and sixteen taken prisoner. They estimated Chinese casualties at 250 dead and 800 wounded. It required hours of digging to extricate men buried by shelling. Soon after daybreak, communist artillery fire began again. Another battalion relieved the battered Dukes on the Hook, in expectation of another infantry attack. This never came. The Chinese had been too badly battered the previous night. The Dukes had mounted a fine defence for a battalion three-quarters composed of National Service conscripts, rewarded by a grateful country with the princely sum of £1.62 a week.

In the last months of the war, the names of the hills Carson, Vegas, and Reno became forever identified with the US Marine Corps, which fought so hard to retain them. Sergeant Tom Pentony was an artillery forward observer with the 5th Marines. He had found boot camp untroublesome after the rigours of a Catholic upbringing in New Jersey, ‘where the nuns taught you that you would die as a martyr if you went fighting communism’. On 26 March 1953, Pentony was with the 3/5th behind Vegas, when the Chinese overran the American ‘Combat Outposts’, and the Marines went in to retake the position. Pentony watched, appalled, as the Americans fought their way up the hill under punishing Chinese fire: ‘I used to think officers were smart. Now I felt: “This is stupid. Do they have any plan?” They just seemed to think: “The Marines will take that hill, frontal assault, that’s it.” ’ On the afternoon of 27 March, Pentony’s senior gunner officer, a major, was so appalled by the spectacle of infantry still struggling forward, having lost all their own officers, that he received special permission to go forward and lead them himself. His radio operator returned two days later with the dead major’s pistol and watch. The March battles for Carson, Reno and Vegas cost the Marine Corps 116 men killed out of a total of over a thousand casualties, and inspired some of the most remarkable feats of American courage to come out of the Korean War.

Pentony found that his own mood, his attitude to the war, vacillated greatly from day to day: ‘It was like indigestion: some days you felt very brave, nothing bothered you, sounds at night didn’t worry you. Then on other days, for no special reason you were scary, jumpy – the smallest thing bothered you.’ The atmosphere on the Marine positions was consciously ‘macho’ by comparison with that in the army lines. When the Chinese propaganda loudspeakers began to blare forth their raucous messages with their customary exhortation: ‘American soldiers and officers!’ the Marines at once interrupted to shout back: ‘We’re not soldiers! We’re Marines!’ Many men were reluctant to be switched out of the line into reserve, not only because they were earning fewer points towards their day of release, but because reserve units were nagged by training and inspections, and were still liable to be called forward to fill sandbags and dig trenches, often more dangerously exposed than the men on line.

The American points system was regarded as one of the most pernicious innovations of the campaign: a man needed thirty-six to go home; on line, he earned four a month; in the combat zone, three; in country but beyond reach of enemy action, two. Thus, most men serving with an American combat formation might expect to go home after about a year in Korea, while support personnel served eighteen months. It was a discipline which earned intense dislike among professional soldiers and commanders, because it caused men to become increasingly cautious and reluctant to accept risk as they grew ‘short’, and approached release date. It militated strongly against the unit cohesion the British achieved, by shipping men in and out of Korea by battalions, because each soldier focused upon the schedule of his own tour in country. Yet the system persisted in Vietnam throughout the sixties, with equally negative effects upon the US Army there.

Private James Stuhler was a New York high school drop-out who had run away to join the Marines at sixteen, been sent home again, and finally went to Korea for the last few months of the war with the 3rd Division, in the Kunwa Valley. An initial irony struck him on his way to the front, when the truck in which he and his draft of replacements were being carried forward was stopped and booked by the military police for speeding. Even at this late stage of the war, the routines and strains of life and death on the line were undiminished. They spent their first days in new positions digging incessantly, for the only contribution the unit they relieved had made to its own defence was to hang out a Chinese skull on a long pole. A squad leader in his platoon, obsessed with fear of being killed, deliberately put a bullet through his own hand. To pass the time, they fitted a telescopic sight on a .50 calibre machine gun, stabilised its tripod with sandbags, and sought to snipe at Chinese forward observers.

Then their company commander, an eager young first lieutenant, planned a raid to relieve the monotony. It went disastrously wrong. During their advance through the darkness, they walked into the American covering bombardment. Dankowski, their platoon leader, was killed almost immediately. ‘O’B, what the f– are we going to do?’ Stuhler cried desperately to O’Brien, their radio operator. The Chinese were now firing into them, hitting their squad leader as he ran along a ridge line. Stuhler’s machine gun jammed. He pulled out a .45 pistol and fired in sheer fear and frustration. To his horror, he found that he had narrowly missed shooting an American lying in front of him. Then a rock splinter struck him on the finger, numbing his entire arm. A grenade exploded, horribly wounding his fellow machine-gunner in the face. Stuhler looked in horror at the man’s eye, hanging loose from its socket. ‘Pull back! Pull back!’ shouted O’Brien among the chaos of explosion and pyrotechnics now breaking up the night sky. Discipline collapsed as they stumbled away into the valley towards their own lines. Stuhler hastily wrapped a field dressing on his companion’s ragged face, and told the man to hold his collar while he guided him out. His helmet had fallen off, and a moment later he was stunned by a flying rock hitting him on the head. The New Yorker never knew how he got back. He and his companion waded chest-high through a creek, and were told later that they had walked through a minefield. Towards dawn, a sudden burst of machine-gun fire ripped over the exhausted men’s heads. They threw themselves flat, the wounded man groaning: ‘We’re gonna get killed! We’re gonna get killed!’ Stuhler yelled to the Americans in front of him to hold their fire. They dragged the casualty in. ‘Oh for Chrissake, will you look at this guy?’ said the shocked medical orderly who examined his face. The victim was still conscious, and Stuhler said furiously, ‘You’re not supposed to say things like that.’ Around half the platoon which had set out were dead or wounded. Stuhler received a Bronze Star for bringing back his buddy. To their fury, the company commander, who had never left the lines, was awarded a Silver Star. The battalion area was named Camp Dankowski, in memory of their squandered platoon commander. This pathetic little drama unfolded barely a month before the armistice was signed. Of such stuff was the armies’ weary disillusion with the Korean War made, by the summer of 1953.

A brief history of the Korean War

Military Resources: Korean War