One of the first real heroes of the Korean War was without a doubt Major General William Dean. MG Dean was the commanding general of the 24th Infantry Division. The 24th Infantry Division was stationed in Japan conducting occupation duties prior to the start of the Korean War. With the outbreak of the Korean War the division was picked to deploy from Japan to Korea to stop the North Korean advance. The most famous unit from this division would go down in history known as Taskforce Smith.
Normally a general would want his division to deploy as a single unit and fight as a single formation, however due to the speed of the North Korean assault the 24ID had to deploy piece meal in order to delay the North Korean advance to the southern port city of Pusan. Taskforce Smith was just the first of all the 24ID’s battalions to be deployed to Korea in this piece meal manner.
Starting with Taskforce Smith, which first engaged the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) on July 5th, 1950 just North of Osan, every battalion of the 24ID would eventually be defeated and over run by the numerically and militarily superior NKPA forces. 24ID units were defeated in Pyeongtaek and Choenan as well. What was left of the 24ID fell back to the division headquarters in Taejon commanded by MG Dean.
MG Dean knew immediately the strategic importance of Taejon. The Kum River ran to the north of the city and provided the only natural defensive line for the US forces to take advantage of before falling back to the last and final natural defensive line the Naktong River near Pusan. Additionally the additional units from the US mainland and Japan had not arrived in theatre yet to relieve the 24ID much less set up an defensive line along the Naktong River. The bottom line was that if Taejon fell quickly the war was lost because the North Koreans could quickly advance to Pusan and end the war before US reinforcements arrived on the peninsula. MG Dean knew his division had to fight to the end in order to buy time for the US forces. It was a job no general would want but Dean executed it without complaint.
MG Dean utilized what was left of his 24ID’s, 21st Infantry Regiment (Taskforce Smith was part of), 19th Infantry Regiment, and the almost combat ineffective 34th Infantry Regiment which had it’s commanding officer killed in action and the entire regiment almost destroyed before retreating from Choenan. Dean assigned the 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry the sister battalion of Taskforce Smith, to man the hill tops north of the Kum River. The Taskforce Smith remnants would remain in reserve. The regiment was commanded by COL Stephens who was given orders on July, 10th 1950 by MG Dean to hold the positions for 4 days.
The next day the regiment found themselves in a life and death battle with first the North Korean 3rd Division which days earlier the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, had designated the “Seoul” Division for “liberating” Seoul. The NK 3rd Division’s morale was high and headed straight for the US3-21 battalion. The NK 3rd Division used their tried and true tactics of massing fire on the Americans while tanks and infantry flanked around them and set up road blocks denying the Americans their natural avenues of retreat. These road blocks caused units to disentegrate as soldiers ran wildly to escape the North Koreans instead of conducting an orderly withdrawal. Often the soldiers when they did retreat would just drop their rifles and helmets due to their weight and run as fast as possible once their unit was over run by the NKPA. By mid-day on July 11th the lead 21IN battalion was overrun and their battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Jensen killed along with most of his staff.
COL Stephens from his command post in the rear began to round up the straglers retreating from the front. COL Stephens quickly reorganized the soldiers and then committed the 1-21 battalion (Taskforce Smith) into action once again. By this time the battalion plus worth of soldiers was now facing two complete North Korean Divisions, both the NK4th and NK3rd Divisions. Ironically enough the Taskforce Smith soldiers had retreated once from the NK4th and now found themselves going into battle once again against them.
On a side note, some may remember both of these North Korean divisions as well from an earlier posting I did on The Battle of Uijongbu.
Much like the original Taskforce Smith battle against the NK4th north of Osan, the unit aquitted themselves quite well, but just didn’t have the man power and equipment to handle the North Korean tanks and their superior numbers. In fact it is amazing the 21st Infantry held out until July 12th before requesting withdrawal south of the Kum River from MG Dean. MG Dean agreed and the 21st moved south of the Kum River by 1600 on the 12th. MG Dean had ordered the 21st to hold their positions for 4 days, it was quite amazing I think that they even lasted the three days they did against the two North Korean divisions.
If anything this fight so far had demonstrated that the NKPA divisions were not the unstoppable force at the beginning of the war as is widely believed. The NK4th could have been forced to retreat by the ROK7th Division during the Battle of Uijongbu if the ROK2nd Division hadn’t withdrew during the battle allowing their rear to be exposed by the NK3rd. Earlier the during the battle in Pocheon further up the highway 43 corridor north of Seoul the ROK2nd actually forced the NK3rd into retreat before the ROK2nd was forced to retreat to Uijongbu where they did ultimately collapse. With a shortage of men and no anti-armor weapons the ROK military actually aquitted themselves quite well considering the circumstances and now the Americans with the same limitations in fire power and men had also proven that this was not an invincible enemy when confronted by determined men.
Though history has judged Taskforce Smith harshly, the reality is that the soldiers of not only Taskforce Smith, but also the entire US21st Infantry Regiment fought bravely and should be remembered for the determined defense they put up against tremendous odds early on in the Korean War. As courageously as they fought, more fighting for the US21st and the rest of the 24ID was to come.
Next Posting: The Kum River Defense