William T. Bowers, John T. Greenwood, eds. Passing the Test: Combat in Korea, April-June 1951. Battles and Campaigns Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. Illustrations. 488 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-3452-9.
Reviewed by James Matray (California State University, Chico)
Published on H-Diplo (June, 2012)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Military historians of the Korean War have labeled the second six months of the conflict from January to June 1951 as the period of mobile warfare. This book is the last installment in a three-volume study that describes U.S. combat operations in Korea during this phase of the war “at the lowest levels: battalion, company, platoon, squad, and individual soldiers” (p. ix). This project is part of the Battles and Campaigns series that the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) sponsors for the purpose of providing insights about “the military and strategic results of particular combat techniques, strategies, and methods used by soldiers, sailors, and airmen throughout history” (p. ii).
William T. Bowers, a retired U.S. Army colonel, skillfully edited the first two volumes, publishing in 2008 The Line: Combat in Korea, January-February 1951 and, the following year, Striking Back: Combat in Korea, March-April 1951. Previously, he coauthored Black Soldier, White Army: The 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea, published in 1996. A year earlier, “Tom” Bowers retired after serving since 1992 as the chief of the histories division at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He then worked as a freelance historian and writer affiliated with the George C. Marshall Foundation and First U.S. Army Division Museum at Cantigny in Illinois. Sadly, on September 18, 2008, death from esophageal cancer prevented Bowers from finishing his trilogy on the Korean War. John T. Greenwood, retired chief of the Office of Medical History in the Office of the U.S. Army Surgeon General, finished editorial work that remained on the last two volumes of the Combat in Korea project. Bowers, he reports, “had completed preliminary drafts of the text and maps” for both books (p. v).
Passing the Test focuses on a key point in the war when the Chinese staged two major offensives in April and May 1951. This was China’s final effort to compel forces of the United Nations Command (UNC) to evacuate Korea. Bowers and Greenwood reprint excerpts from copies of interviews with participants housed at the U.S. Army Center of Military History that U.S. Army historians recorded within hours or days after combat actions. They supplement these firsthand accounts with information from unit historical files at the National Archives, as well as the official U.S. Army history (Ebb and Flow: November 1950-July 1951 ) that Billy C. Mossman wrote covering this period and Russell A. Gugeler’s Combat Actions in Korea (1954). The authors rely on Internet sources for information on a variety of subjects, especially about casualties, while making good use of Spencer Tucker’s superb Encyclopedia of the Korean War (2000). Although they have consulted important secondary works on the topic, these bibliographic references escape extensive citation.
In the first of thirteen chapters, Roger Cirillo, director of the AUSA Book Program and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, provides cursory coverage of battlefield developments during the first nine months of the Korean War, before summarizing more precisely events at the front after General Matthew B. Ridgway replaced General Douglas MacArthur as UNC commander on April 11, 1951. At that time, China’s Mao Zedong wanted General Peng Dehuai, the commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV), “to undertake a major offensive before UN firepower and numbers could stalemate the front north of the 38th parallel” (p. 10). “The central theme of Peng’s operations,” Cirillo perceptively explains, “was a mirror image of Ridgway’s own tactics. Ridgway, who demanded that no units be sacrificed and ground given when pressed by numbers, was countered by Peng’s concept that destroying enemy divisions would prevent [the UNC] from regaining the offensive” (p. 11). Bowers and Greenwood then present eyewitness accounts often of the same events “set off by brief remarks in italics to set the stage and link the interviews together” (p. xiii). Only in chapters 2 and 3, they report, “did the interviewees personally review, edit, and authenticate their comments in the transcripts prepared by the military historians” (pp. x-xi).
Following the introductory first chapter, the editors divide coverage of the recollections of U.S. soldiers during the Chinese Spring Offensives into three unequal sections. The first consumes almost half of the study, with chapters 2 through 7 describing events before, during, and after the Communist assaults from April 22 to 30, 1951, that fell unevenly across the front, hitting at weak areas and aimed at seizure of Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Bowers and Greenwood logically begin with a description of the “Battles Along the Outpost Line” on the eastern front, where forces of the 32nd Regiment, 7th U.S. Infantry held Hill 902 (p. 13). Before dawn on April 22, the North Koreans had begun staging probes, but accurate artillery fire had compelled a demoralized enemy to withdraw, leaving the defenders expecting a major assault. “The enemy was thought to be new troops,” a U.S. lieutenant recalled, “as they wore new uniforms, had fresh haircuts, new weapons, and were very young” (p. 30). Before dawn the next day, “the enemy sledgehammer fell,” but effective leadership prevented the loss of Hill 902. “Scores of enemy dead littered the command post area” (p. 33). Reflecting the new pattern emerging in conduct of the Korean War, “very quiet and dejected” U.S. troops executed new orders to abandon this exposed outpost (p. 38).
Meanwhile, the Communists were staging stronger assaults to the east and far west along Line Kansas. Chapter 3 describes how on the morning of April 23, CPV forces attacked the ROK 1st Division anchoring the western end of the U.S. I Corps front on the Imjin River directly north of Seoul. Reinforcing the ROK division was the U.S. 999th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, an African American unit, which found itself faced with imminent destruction as the South Korean forces gave ground. “I looked across the field and they were coming like flies,” Corporal Anthony Johnson reported (p. 51). To survive, the artillery unit had to pull back to new firing positions and “put survey men, cooks, mechanics, and firemen on the guns” (p. 58). While this battery provided effective support for these South Korean forces, to the east the ROK 6th Division on the left flank of the IX Corps collapsed on April 24 north of Kap’yong. U.S., Australian, and Canadian infantry fought all night to halt the Chinese advance and then the 72nd Tank Battalion, 2nd U.S. Infantry, “‘mowed them down’” as enemy forces withdrew, showing the “relative ineffectiveness of the rocket launcher in open terrain against a coordinated tank effort” (pp. 73, 86). A U.S. lieutenant added to deception a more critical lesson learned: “If overrun at night, it is better to stay in position and fight than to run.... During daylight hours friendly forces have the advantage” (p. 84).
Repeating the “past success of enemy infiltration and penetration of friendly lines in Korea,” Chinese forces overran U.S. artillery units that had moved forward to support the ROK 6th Division (p. 116). However, the 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, IX Corps Artillery, repelled the assault of enemy soldiers, “yelling and throwing hand grenades” that reached the center of its position (p. 91). Despite limited infantry training, these artillerymen prevailed because of frequent drills, very high morale, and a commander whose “indifference in the face of enemy fire inspired the men to be cool” (p. 109). By contrast, the U.S. 8th Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne) had difficulty achieving its mission of securing Hills 628 and 1010 on the right flank of the 24th Infantry Division where the ROK 6th Division had disintegrated. Exhausted after a long march in hot weather, they found that Korean laborers had not transported bedrolls or rations to the site. “The fluid situation,” a combat historian wrote later, “the lack of exact knowledge of the enemy territory, when combined with individual nervousness, caused part of the 8th Ranger Infantry Company to panic when contact with the enemy was made” (p. 141). The unit then fragmented and withdrew, a result that its executive officer attributed to not having a clear mission. However, the division commander believed that “the company saved the 21st Infantry Regiment from being entirely surrounded, and saved the entire right flank of the division” (p. 139).
Chapter 7 presents firsthand accounts of the destruction of the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, 29th British Independent Infantry Brigade, on Hill 235. The “Glosters” defended the front to the left of the ROK 1st and U.S. 3rd Divisions that guarded the primary lanes to Seoul at the Imjin River. UNC units were probing large gaps with the Chinese before April 22 because “it was known that the enemy intended some mischief on a considerable scale” (p. 146). That morning, a British review of the battle reported, “the fog of war was lifting a little” (p. 147). But that night, when the enemy assaulted the Glosters with the support of mortar and machine gun fire after initial contact, “it was a case of ‘cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’” (p. 149). The editors reprint the very detailed descriptions of deployments of other UNC units in the vicinity, quoting Andrew Salmon’s explanation for the disaster that followed as “a consequence of a brigade holding a divisional front” and “the fortunes of war” (p. 179). Quickly running short on ammunition, rations, and water, the Glosters received orders to withdraw, but would not. While the U.S. 3rd Division and the I Corps “conducted a fighting withdrawal and sought a cohesive defensive line further south,” the British soldiers “were left to their own resources” as “the advancing hordes moved closer and closer” (pp. 166, 174). “Some of the men stated that the Chinese seemed to be doped,” one survivor recalled. “They moved in a stupor” (p. 177). “Their heroic stand,” read the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation conferred on the fallen Glosters, “provided the critically needed time to regroup other 1st Corps units and block the southern advance of the enemy” (p. 174).
Section 2 describes in four chapters events during China’s second Spring Offensive in May after UNC forces had established a defensive position along No Name Line. Focusing first on the IX Corps sector, the editors reprint recollections from the members of Task Force Lindy Lou “because a composite-type organization of artillery elements is rarely encountered” and “upon dissolution does not always record in a formal manner its achievements and its problems” (p. 182). Created to support the newly formed 2nd ROK division, Task Force Lindy Lou was deployed to the east of the U.S. 24th Infantry Division with the mission of operating “as a covering force to the front of the general defense line, to detect the enemy, cause him to deploy, harass him, and kill as many as possible” (p. 184). Task Force Lindy Lou provided good artillery support despite the lack of a road network and regular rainfall, as well as interrupted delivery of supplies to a unit with a makeshift identity. The inexplicable retreat of ROK forces, however, left the U.S. 19th Infantry Regiment open to a Chinese assault that required using knives, bayonets, and rifle butts to regain control of its position. The editors briefly describe Task Force Byorum’s foray behind enemy lines on May 18 and the difficulty its tanks experienced in maneuvering through the mud. “The worst problem of the battalion is that of tank recovery,” one captain reported, because towing tanks often tore transmissions or hit mines with regularity (p. 220).
Chapter 9 shifts attention to the east, where “the Chinese directed most of their forces ... with the objective of destroying [the X Corps and ROK divisions] in the rugged mountainous terrain where UN mobility and firepower would not be dominant” (p. 222). Deployed in “Peaceful Valley” east of Ch’unch’on, the U.S. 15th Field Artillery Battalion was supporting the 9th Infantry Regiment when the CPV attacked late in the evening of May 16. Retreating U.S. soldiers called in artillery fire that landed on the Chinese entering positions which the Americans had abandoned. “‘We fired every damn thing but the tubes at them’” before these units moved east on May 18 to fill a gap between the U.S. 38th and 23rd Infantry Regiments that were engaged in hard combat south of the Soyang River (p. 242). The CPV assault continued despite heavy artillery fire, resulting in infantry units receiving orders to withdraw with support from the 72nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division. “The advance up the rice paddies was slow, and the enemy was running up to the tanks, throwing grenades and satchel charges,” while U.S. planes bombed and napalmed Chinese forces deployed on overlooking high ground (p. 283). At the high cost of 72 killed, 158 wounded, and 190 missing, plus the loss of 150 vehicles and a large amount of equipment, ammunition, weapons, and supplies, U.S., Dutch, and French forces halted the Chinese momentum on May 22 and the enemy never would mount another major offensive.
Section 2 concludes with a chapter describing how the X Corps overcame challenges complicating supply operations during the Battle of the Soyang from May 10 to June 7. As the editors explain, the Chinese had picked “this region ... owing to the mountainous terrain and limited road net, which would restrict the employment of tanks and artillery and make ammunition resupply difficult” (p. 285). But U.S. ordnance units provided ammunition far in excess of prior engagements, permitting, for example, daily artillery expenditure per piece during the period ranging from 7,000 to a high of 49,986 on May 22, when the normal rate was 250 rounds. U.S. transportation units kept every vehicle available operating 24 hours a day, while utilizing tailgating to cut the loading time in half to 10 minutes and reducing turnaround time from Hongch’on to the front to 12 hours. “Traffic jams and bottlenecks were eliminated,” Colonel J. K. McCormick, G-4, X Corps, explained, “by the effective placing of military police at the vital passes and one-way bridges,” while helicopters and planes used radio communications to maintain uninterrupted flow (p. 293). Construction of light airfields permitted C-47s to deliver supplies close to the front. Terrain and enemy tactics caused consumption of everything to far exceed rates in World War II. “Because of the intensity of fighting against massed hordes,” McCormick asserted, “replacement items must be available to keep the troops ... in top fighting condition” (p. 296).
Two chapters comprise section 3, which discusses the Eighth U.S. Army’s plans and operations for the counteroffensive that the UNC launched in late May 1951. On May 19, Peng ordered withdrawal of Chinese forces after suffering huge losses. Acting on orders the following day to initiate counterattacks, X Corps formed Task Force Gerhart and gave it the mission of advancing to the Soyang River and killing as many enemies as possible. On May 24, the U.S. 72nd Tank Battalion started its advance northward, but soon stopped to coordinate reconnaissance and await the arrival of infantry. Suddenly, a helicopter arrived with Lieutenant General Edward M. Almond, X Corps commander, aboard. “Get those god damn tanks on the road and keep going until you hit a mine,” he barked while “shaking his swagger stick” at Major Charles A. Newman, the unit’s executive officer. “I want you to keep them going at twenty miles per hour” (pp. 306-307). “What in the hell are we going to do now?” a lieutenant asked after his departure. “We’re going to attack the Chinks,” Newman replied, because “we’ll run into General Almond if we turn back” (p. 315). Not waiting for air attacks on surrounding hills where the enemy reportedly was in a state of confusion, the tanks moved north. Arriving at the Soyang River at 1715, members of the tank unit exchanged gunfire with the withdrawing enemy for another hour, while other Chinese waved white flags and surrendered voluntarily.
Task Force Gerhart’s advance to the Soyang exposed the weakness of enemy forces after the Spring Offensives. While the first Chinese that the unit encountered “just stood and stared at the tanks,” later enemy troops waved, laughed, and smiled (p. 318). Usually, the tanks did not fire, allowing the infantry that followed to take prisoners. But when one group of eighty waving Chinese approached two abreast, the 2nd platoon tank commander gave the order to fire after the enemy came nearer: “When the first shot landed in the center of the enemy group, pieces of arms and legs were seen flying through the air. The enemy stood and looked dumbfounded; the leader took several steps forward, several backward, and several forward again, as if in a daze. The tanks continued firing for about five minutes and the entire enemy group was killed or wounded” (p. 321).
Meanwhile, Almond had flown to the unit command post and relieved Lieutenant Colonel Elbridge Brubaker as commander of the 72nd Tank Battalion. On May 25, Task Force Gerhart returned after accomplishing its mission. Newman attributed the success to the speed of the advance, which threw the Chinese into confusion and disrupted communications. The editors, however, quote Gugeler’s reasons for giving all the credit to Almond, who asserted that “a weak but timely jab at a faltering enemy is often effective” (p. 329). Moreover, an armored advanced guard must take bold and aggressive actions. Almond’s orders for the point of the task force to move without the main body was “an example of positive leadership at a critical point by a senior commander” (p. 330).
A final chapter describes how on May 24, the IX Corps ordered a one-day advance northward to prevent the enemy from regrouping and reorganizing along the eastern front. Captain Charles E. Hazel commanded the reconnaissance patrol, comprised of six tanks and a tank dozer, that also “might cut off certain groups and lead to their annihilation” (p. 332). Enemy gunfire and rugged terrain delayed movement north, but after resuming the advance, “the enemy was not employing antitank fire, so the task force barrelled [sic] down to Ch’unch’on as fast as possible” (p. 338). When the task force arrived at 1715, “there was an unearthly quiet in town, and Hazel had a spooky feeling” (p. 344). U.S. forces then arrested surprised enemy troops, but most fled without firing a shot and UNC planes left roads littered with dead Chinese. Concerned about gas shortages and not knowing enemy strength led to securing approval for return at 2025. Task Force Hazel should have stayed the night because “if the Chinese had used any ingenuity at all, [it] would have lost all its tanks on its return trip” (p. 371). The mission, however, was a success, prompting a U.S. armored officer to argue that if Task Force “Hazel had been reinforced in Ch’unch’on instead of withdrawn, the bag of enemy prisoners would have been greatly increased” (p. 372). The operation at least had shown how a task force could break resistance and demoralize the enemy through “roving deep in the rear of established enemy defense lines, to surprise and terrorize forces in the enemy rear” (p. 373).
A shortcoming of the first volume of this series was how detailed and often tedious descriptions of terrain and troop movement dominated most entries. The finale of the trilogy, however, consistently allows the statements of participants to “describe what happened,” usually presenting a series of recollections from ordinary U.S. soldiers about the same event (p. 66). Also in contrast to volume 1, references of heroic deeds are few and understated. In one typical example, a company after-action report said that Sergeant First Class Daniel F. Benton’s “bravery was an inspiration to every man present” on Hill 680 (p. 34). But both accounts regularly share anecdotes that add interest and insight. After morning “chow” on April 22, soldiers in the U.S. 32nd Infantry Regiment “went out in front of their position to pick up the ‘loot’ and found maps, a picture of Joe Stalin, a chart of the five-year plan, and propaganda leaflets,” as well as a North Korean payroll (p. 18). Amazingly, a 120 mm mortar landed among U.S. soldiers without killing any of them. “When a mortar hit the ammunition trailer,” Master Sergeant Enoch Scott, an African American artilleryman, remarked, “it exploded and looked like Harlem, New York” (p. 54). Defecating soldiers on each side are the subjects of humorous tales. One American “had no weapon, so when he saw several Chinese, he ... yelled and threw his roll of toilet paper at the enemy soldier who ducked involuntarily” (pp. 95, 101). “‘That big [Chinese] ass was a perfect target, but my machine gun jammed,’” another U.S. soldier recalled. “‘So, I fired a round of HE and made a bull’s eye’” (p. 260).
Bowers and Greenwood acknowledge that different participants witnessing the same events provided accounts that “were sometimes contradictory, even about such routine matters as orders, indicating that the confusion of combat remained after the fighting ended” (p. x). Vague recollections also derived from the trauma of experiencing danger and witnessing death in combat. The editors underscore the disintegration of the 6th ROK division as the source of enormous distress: “As a result of this, widespread readjustment of friendly positions had to be made. For several days, as friendly units withdrew, the situation was fluid. Communications were not always reliable. Supporting units, in the process of moving to new positions, were sometimes unable to render support. Rumors of organizations encircled and destroyed by the enemy gave rise to feelings of uneasiness, presentiments of disaster, nervousness” (p. 117).
Further frustration derived from fighting alongside units from different nations. For example, because of one U.S. medic’s “lack of knowledge of the English or Australian evacuation system, he could not find an aid station until he got to the Indian 60th Field Ambulance” (p. 69). “On two occasions, infantry companies ... engaged friendly troops in fire because of ignorance of the dispositions of friendly elements” (p. 194). But there are other conclusions that some U.S. officers advanced which are hardly profound. “Mutual confidence between tanks and infantry is essential in any combined arms action” is only slightly more insightful than “it was also evident that a tank commander with an open hatch is better able to locate enemy tank hunters during daylight than buttoned up” (p. 85).
Generous annotations accompany the twenty-five photographs of battle sites, tanks, armored vehicles, U.S. officers, and common soldiers. Readers will find valuable the comprehensive list defining abbreviations. A glossary defines symbols used for terrain features and military units in twenty-six helpful maps, the majority redrawn, usually not to scale, from originals located at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Interpretive comments are sparse because the editors intend for the recollections to speak for themselves. This may be a blessing because Cirillo mistakenly writes that North Korea “attacked a peaceful ... South Korea” and the UNC crossing of the 38th Parallel was the “second great turning point, promising to unify Korea under a democratic banner” (pp. 1, 2). This volume leaves no doubt, however, about the troubled relations between U.S. and South Korean soldiers. When a dozen ROK troops trudged up Hill 1010, they were silent when challenged because they could not speak English. By the time they recognized them, the U.S. soldiers had wounded several of their allies. More important, the Americans regularly disparaged the fighting ability of the ROK soldiers, with the exception of acknowledging that they “had held very well on the Pukhan River barrier” (p. 192). U.S. soldiers complained that the South Koreans were difficult to locate and control. “‘They were just a disorganized mob,’” Captain Orlando Ruggerio remarked (p. 250). Worse, ROK units overreported enemy troops in the area and were “prone to fall back and call for artillery fire” (p. 194). On May 16, Ruggerio estimated that a thousand South Koreans retreated through his defensive position in just three or four hours.
Few Korean War scholars would disagree that the United States provided the UNC with a huge advantage in firepower over the enemy in this conflict. Passing the Test provides confirmation for this observation with respect to tanks and airpower, but especially mortars and artillery. “Hundreds of enemy dead littering the approaches,” one report of the 3rd Battalion, U.S. 32nd Infantry Regiment concluded, “were mute proof of the accuracy, foresight, and battle effectiveness of Company M” (p. 36). In their conclusion, Bowers and Greenwood reinforce this point when they explain how the devastating impact of “the U.S. ‘sea of fire’” during the Chinese Spring Offensives caused a shift in enemy strategy. “‘The main emphasis’” thereafter, a Chinese prisoner divulged, would be “‘to avoid concentrating large numbers of [its] troops where the U.S. can bring its superiority of artillery into effect’” (p. 380). In addition, they stress that these engagements were “costly to both sides, but more so to the enemy,” noting how Peng later “admitted that the Fifth Offensive saw the highest losses the [CPV] suffered in the course of the Korean War” (p. 381). On May 22, the UNC initiated Operation Piledriver. “By the end of the month,” the editors report, “virtually all enemy elements had begun to defend ... a line almost identical to what they held when the Fifth Offensive began” (p. 380). Bowers and Greenwood do not address the question of whether the UNC at this juncture could have launched an offensive north either to the Pyongyang-Wonsan line or even the Yalu. Speculation remains the only proof that this was a lost opportunity.
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James Matray. Review of Bowers, William T.; Greenwood, John T., eds., Passing the Test: Combat in Korea, April-June 1951.
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