The Soldiers of Taskforce Smith
It has been 57 years since the Task Force Smith Battle against the communist North Korean forces on July 5, 1950 at the beginning days of the Korean War. The battalion of soldiers called Task Force Smith after their commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith was quickly deployed from occupation duty in Japan to Korea to delay the North Korean advance until more American units could arrive to fight the communist aggressors. History tends to record Task Force Smith as a an example of a military blunder, but the fact of the matter is that Task Force Smith really did fight the best they could with what they had and should not be looked down upon as being an example of poor soldiering. They were great soldiers and Americans that fought well in defense of freedom for a country few had ever heard of. To truly understand Task Force Smith it is important to examine the morale and psychology of the unit at the time.
The soldiers that composed Task Force Smith were from 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. The 24ID was located in Japan and were conducting peacekeeping operations. The priority of the military at the time was on occupation and reconstruction duties in Japan and not collective unit training. Plus the soldiers were living a soft life that included personal shoe shine boys and flirting with numerous prostitutes. Even the lowest private felt like a king in 1950 Japan.
American Occupation Troops Raise Old Glory Over Yokosuka, Japan
Plus many of the soldiers in the Army at the time were not old enough to have fought in World War II. They were young teenagers during World War II and grew up believing the US and especially the military was invincible. However these young soldiers had no idea what real combat was like, but John Wayne had taught them on TV that combat was glorious and you can run around the battle field with out fear of bullets and when somebody does gets hit they just spin around and lie on the ground motionless. There was no movies like Saving Private Ryan that conveyed the real horrors of actual ground combat.
The soldiers of 1-21IN, 24ID were not a lone and unique example of untrained soldiers at the time, as the unit is sometimes referred too. In fact LTC Smith actually instituted a vigorous company level training program to improve the soldiers basic infantry standards beginning in January of 1950. However, the unit would not have time to conduct vigorous battalion level training due to the on set of the Korean War that was launched on June 25, 1950..
LTC Smith’s unit was in fact a microcosm of the entire post-war military in 1950. The army was filled with untrained, but highly patriotic youths brought up to believe America and it’s military were the best in the world without appreciation for the realities of the hard work and training it takes to stay the best. All the John Wayne movies in the world do not make up for tough, realistic training. Unfortunately for them, they would soon learn this reality in the far away hills of Korea. A place many of them had never heard of and would soon give their lives for.
The Deployment of Taskforce Smith
It was not their fault that no one had told them that the real function of an army is to fight and that a soldier’s destiny, which few escape, is to suffer, and if need be, to die.
T.R. Fehrenbach, author of This Kind of War
Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith was first notified of his 1-21 Infantry Battalion’s deployment to Korea on July 1, 1950 when he was called into the office of the 24th Infantry Division’s Commanding General’s office. The commander General Dean notified LTC Smith that his battalion was chosen to lead a delaying action in Korea against the advancing North Korean forces. They would be the speed bump that would slow down the North Koreans until more US forces could arrive to destroy them.
Commander of all US forces General Douglas MacArthur had referred to Task Force Smith as an “arrogant display of American strength.” This sentiment caused many of the soldiers in Task Force Smith to feel that this was just a temporary “Police Action” as the Korean War is sometimes referred to, and they would be back to their comfortable lives in Japan in no time. They believed that once the North Koreans saw the all mighty American Army in front of them, they would turn around and run back to North Korea. The North Koreans had other plans.
LTC Smith’s orders were to deploy the battalion as quickly as possible to Pusan and from there advance as far North as possible along the Taejon to Seoul road to set up a defensive line to delay the North Korean advance until General William Dean could get the rest of the 24ID deployed to Korea. The 24ID was spread throughout Japan on occupation duty and was not configured for rapid deployment. They needed time to get everyone mobilized and prepared for deployment. Task Force Smith’s mission was to give the Division that time.
1-21IN deployed on July 2nd from Camp Wood, Japan with two rifle companies, headquarters, and a two mortar platoons, and a 75mm recoilless rifle platoon. In total the small battalion totaled roughly 430 men. The unit flew by plane to a military airfield near Pusan. By July 3rd 1-21IN had arrived by train to Taejon where they began to move North to meet the advancing North Koreans. On America’s birthday, the 4th of July, 1950, 1-21IN met up in Pyongtaek with part of the 52nd Field Artillery battalion. Field Artillerymen only had six 105mm howitzers, totaled 108 men, and were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Miller Perry. Task Force Smith now totaled roughly 540 men and were on their way to stop two advancing North Korean Divisions totaling upwards of 20,000 men who had days prior routed the ROK Army. But this was a “police action”, and those 20,000 North Koreans are supposed to run in fear when they see the US soldiers in front of them. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Task Force Smith moved North from Pyongtaek and set up a defensive line on some key high ground along Highway 1 just North of modern day Osan. The Task Force dug in and prepared to fight the advancing North Koreans. These soldiers would soon learn that warfare is not a John Wayne movie and the enemy doesn’t always follow the script.
Taskforce Smith Engages the Enemy
(The T-34), perhaps it was the best all-around tank developed in World War II, with very high mobility, a good low silhouette, and very heavy armor plating. It could be stopped, but not with the ancient equipment in the hands of the ROK’s or Task Force Smith.
T.R. Fehrenbach, author of This Kind of War
On July 5, 1950 Task Force Smith sat entrenched in a defensive line just North of modern day Osan. A steady rain fell on the defenders as they awaited for the inevitable battle. At 0700 Lieutenant Colonel Smith saw eight North Korean T-34 tanks moving south down the highway from Suwon to Osan heading straight for the ridge line the US soldiers were dug in at.
LTC Smith called on his six supporting howitzers from the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion to pour what artillery men like to call “steel rain” on the enemy. The howitzers fired their 105mm artillery rounds on the enemy tanks but this “steel rain” met even stronger iron as the rounds were unable to penetrate the thick armor of the T-34 tanks.
The T-34 tanks were from the NK 105th Armor Brigade that were screening in front of the advancing NK 4th Infantry Division. Some of you may remember the NK 4ID from when they battled the ROK 7ID in the Battle of Uijongbu. The Americans would be equally frustrated by the superior T-34′s armor as their ROK Army counterparts were.
The eight T-34′s continue to move forward and engage the Americans on the ridge line oblivious to the artillery fire that could not penetrate their armor. Lieutenant Ollie Connor took a bazooka and ran down the hill into a ditch along side the road and fired on the T-34. The bazooka round had no effect. He then fired into the rear of the tank which is supposed to be the T-34′s “soft spot” which that also had no effect. In all Lieutenant Connor fired a total of 22 bazooka rounds which all had no effect on the T-34′s. The tanks would of been easy kills with anti-tank mines but the infantrymen had none at their disposal. Air power could of also hit the tanks hard, but the steady rain caused the US Air Force to not fly sorties in the vicinity of Task Force Smith due to concerns of friendly fire incidents.
The first T-34′s unimpressed by the ambush continued forward looking for the real fight not realizing that was in fact the real fight. The North Koreans felt there had to be a stronger American force awaiting somewhere to ambush them and this was just a road block to occupy them with. This was the legendary American Army they fighting, there had to be more. However, there was no more; it was just Smith and his men.
The tanks continued down the road towards the artillery positions. The artillery men fired one of their total of nine anti-armor rounds at one of the tanks. There was only nine of these rounds in country at the time. The lead tank was hit in the front and burst into flames. The three NK tankers jumped out and fired at an American machine gun position killing an assistant gunner. This assistant gunner would become the first US fatality of the Korean War, he soon would not be alone; many more would follow. The three North Korean tankers were eventually quickly shot down by the other Americans.
The other tanks were not detoured by the destroyed tank and moved forward. The artillery men were practically using their howitzers as direct fire weapons firing at ranges of 150-300 meters at the T-34′s. One more tank was disabled when it was hit in the treads, but the other tanks kept coming. The tanks moved to the rear of the howitzers and destroyed LTC Perry’s headquarters and vehicles but by passed the howitzers and kept moving south. The Americans still had their six howitzers but no means of communicating with LTC Smith’s infantry men because the tanks had cut the communications line in between the infantrymen and the artillery men. Artillery is of no use if there is no one to communicate with them to call in the indirect fires.
Once LTC Smith realized that his communications with LTC Perry had been cut he sent runners to try and restore communications but they twice returned saying they could not run a line due to enemy direct fire on them. The radios between the infantry men and the artillery also would not work due to the rain damaging their equipment. Comms or no comms the tanks just kept coming.
The artillery men continued to fire at the tanks as they passed by. However, some of the young artillery men panicked and ran at the sight of over 40 tanks moving through their area. Officer and sergeants took over the howitzers, continuing the heavy fire on the tanks. They were able to disable another track before all the tanks passed them and continued south. Amazingly the artillerymen took only two wounded including LTC Perry with no dead. The nearby infantry men had sustained 20 dead in the fight against the tanks. The artillery men had only one destroyed howitzer but most of their headquarters and support vehicles had been destroyed. The artillery men from the 52nd FA had fought bravely against the enemy tanks destroying three of them but without communications the artillery men would have no more impact on this fight.
Routed But Not Forgotten
The withdrawal immediately became ragged and chaotic. Nobody wanted to be last in a game where all advantage obviously lay with being first.
T.R. Fehrenbach, author This Kind of War
Taskforce Smith soldier engage the enemy.
After what must have seemed like an endless column of North Korean tanks, they passed by the ridge defended by LTC Smith’s infantry men with little resistance. The main column of the NK 4th Infantry Division came into sight. The NK column was composed of dismounted infantry, approximately 4,000 of them, walking in congested groups down the road accompanied by more T-34 tanks. Great more tanks, but at least there was finally something Smith and his guys could actually kill.
However, by this point in the battle, the John Wayne movie illusions of combat had been shattered after the unit’s fight with the North Korean tanks. The soldiers couldn’t have been to thrilled to see more tanks and let alone 4,000 enemy infantry on top of it.
Heavy casualties could of been inflicted on the dismounted North Korean infantry if LTC Smith had communications with his howitzers to fire artillery on them. LTC Smith was still not able to restore communications and figured the artillery men had been destroyed by the North Korean tanks that had passed by. Also if the steady rain would of stopped, American air power could of decimated the North Korean column, but Smith had neither and would pay dearly for it.
Smith ordered his mortars to start the attack. The enemy took casualties and began to search for cover. The North Korean soldiers though battle hardened and mentally prepared for combat were not tactically disciplined and did not realize their numerical superiority and initially did not mount an effective dismounted counterattack. The North Koreans did however unload on the ridge line with artillery and tank fire. The volume of fire was ferocious but without an effective infantry counterattack to dislodge Smith’s men, the US soldiers continued to hold the high ground.
However, after the North Koreans began to realize their numerical superiority they began slowly to flank the American forces. Task Force Smith was slowly becoming enveloped by the North Koreans and sustaining heavy casualties, plus many soldiers had simply ran out of ammunition to fire. LTC Smith made the tough decision to withdraw. A withdrawal is difficult to execute even with a well disciplined unit much less soldiers that were scared and poorly trained in withdrawal operations. Once the order was given many of the soldiers simply took off and ran, leaving behind their weapons and equipment.
LTC Smith headed towards LTC Perry’s position to see what had become of the artillery men. He was amazed to see the artillery men were still intact. However, it was to late for them to provide any effective fires in this battle. He gave the order for them to retreat, but not before they effectively disabled their howitzers rendering them useless to the enemy. The artillery men still had a few trucks left and loaded up their men and began retreating.
To make matters worse for Smith, the already chaotic withdrawal was rendered more difficult because the prior enemy tanks had now occupied Osan to the unit’s rear. He had to have the unit withdraw towards the east instead. Nobody wanted to mess with those tanks again. However, the east was filled with slimy rice paddies the soldiers had to navigate through instead. I’m sure the soldiers preferred that then to fight those tanks again. Some of the trucks from 52nd FA stopped and picked up about 100 infantry men along the way.
The North Koreans were happy with just capturing the ridge line and chose not to pursue the Americans. Not because they were exhausted but because there was to much good loot on the hill to plunder. I’m sure the NK soldiers have a great time taking watches, wallets, and equipment from all the dead and wounded American soldiers. This probably slowed the North Korean advance more than the battle itself.
The next morning LTC Smith could only account for half of the unit’s 540 men. Approximately 181 American soldiers were either killed or captured that summer day in July 1950 and inflicted approximately 127 casualties on the North Korean enemy. Those 181 lives had delayed the North Koreans for 7 hours.
Weeks later scattered soldiers from Task Force Smith would trickle into Pusan. Some soldiers had made it all the way to the East Coast and followed the coast line down to Pusan. One soldier reached the Yellow Sea and used a Korean sampan to travel to Pusan.
Other 24th Infantry Division units had arrived over night and set up positions in Choenan and Taejon areas. They to would be routed at a great cost of American lives, but more time had been bought. The 24ID had been piece mealed and trickled into Korea one unit at at time. No general would ever want to fight a battle with piece mealed units, but the 24ID has no choice, but to do so to delay the advancing enemy. The 24ID had actually delayed the enemy long enough for the 1st Cavalry and 25th Infantry Divisions to arrive in strength from Japan. These two units would go on to achieve heroic acts of bravery in saving the country of Korea by holding the Pusan Perimeter. However, the Pusan Perimeter would of never been formed without the precious time payed for in American lives by the units of the 24th Infantry Division and Task Force Smith.
The Lessons Learned from Taskforce Smith
Task Force Smith though poorly trained and ill equipped was still able to put up an effective defense for a limited amount of time. If they had land mines, air support, and more ammunition they probably could of sustained their defense longer and inflicted more casualties. However, with two approaching North Korean divisions they were sure to be over run at some point and the Army commanders in Tokyo knew this. So to blame the defeat of Task Force Smith solely on the unit and LTC Smith, like some people like to believe, for allowing his unit to become so poorly trained and outfitted during peace time, I find to be misguided.
The Army commanders in Tokyo are the ones that allowed the soldiers of 1-21 Infantry and the rest of the occupation forces in Japan to become so poorly trained and ill equipped in the first place, but it really isn’t their fault either. As is so often the case the blame really lies with the politicians.
The US Congress at the time set the Army’s strength at 10 combat Divisions, but they did not provide enough money to sustain these 10 Divisions. At best there was enough money to fund only 6 Divisions. The politicians however are always eager to not be seen as “soft on defense” and mandated that 10 Divisions had to be kept knowing full well they would not be properly funded. After all the US had the atomic bomb, who needs ground forces when you have nukes, right? At least that is what Congress thought.
The Army short on money chose to use their scarce resources to ensure that the front line Divisions in Germany were fully manned and trained due to the increasing Soviet threat than to allocate resources to an occupation force in Japan. Thus the four Army Divisions in Japan received little money for equipment and training and many units were only filled with 50% of their required personnel.
Combine this with the John Wayne attitude of the military’s youth at the time and this is how you end up with a Task Force Smith. It is important to understand that Task Force Smith was not unique. It was just microcosm of the military in the Pacific that was allowed to weaken by the US government due to budgetary reasons that forces the military to focus its scant resources to defend Europe then to train an occupation army.
The politicians apparently thought just like the young soldiers, that enough John Wayne movies and patriotism can make up for rigorous training and good equipment. Past greatness doesn’t sustain the readiness of an Army. If this was the case the French and Italians would still be military powers today. Training and the best equipment are what makes a military strong.
However, as often is the case, the politicians don’t pay for their bone headed errors, the soldiers do and Task Force Smith payed for these mistakes in blood.
Today a memorial to the soldiers of Task Force Smith can be found just off of Highway 1 between Osan and Suwon. It is a fitting memorial with sculptures depicting American soldiers facing off in every direction just like they were that rainy day on July 5, 1950.
Next Posting: The Taskforce Smith Memorial Site Today
Check out these references for more information about Task Force Smith:
This Kind of War by T.R. Fehrenbach
North to the Yalu, South to the Naktong by Roy Edgar Appleman