The recent animated film 300 dramatized the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC that featured a protracted battle between a small Spartan force led by King Leonidas that was tasked with delaying the advance of the overwhelmingly much larger force of the invading Persians led by King Xerxes.
The battle was portrayed as the small Spartan force protecting the fledgling start of western democracy from being enslaved by the dictatorial Persian King. This movie would go on to be a huge box office success and raise public awareness about the significance of the battle. However, though this famous historical battle happened nearly 2,500 years ago few people today (even in Greece) realize that Greek soldiers just 55 years ago had fought in their own modern day Battle of Thermopylae during the Korean War for similar reasons and fortunately even better results.
When the United Nations authorized the use of force to expel the North Korean military who had invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950 for the sole purpose of reuniting the peninsula under communism, one of the nations that provided a large contingent of combat troops was the nation of Greece. Greece volunteered to supply one Air Force transport squadron and one combat infantry battalion of 840 men to fight in the defense of the Republic of Korea.
It would seem strange at first that a small nation like Greece would be willing to send so many soldiers to fight in a war that on the surface would appear to have nothing to do with them considering how far Korea is from Greece and the fact the nation has no geo-strategic implications to Greek security. However, before the Korean War Greece had its own internal civil war against a communist movement that was ultimately crushed by the Greek government. Greece’s own experience against communist backed forces caused much Greek sympathy with the situation that South Korea was now faced with.
Another factor that influenced Greece’s decision to go to war in Korea was that their ancient rivals, the nation of Turkey had also agreed to send a large combat force in support of the US led war effort in South Korea. Turkey had sent a large combat force to build stronger defense relations with the United States in case Turkey ever needed military assistance in return from the US due to the looming threat of Soviet expansionism. Much of the same thought process could be attributed to the Greek government that sat on the frontier of Soviet expansionism as well. So there was a variety of reasons for why the Greeks decided to go to war in Korea and with that decision the Greeks really did their best to put together a capable combat force to fight for the freedom of South Korea.
Arrival in Korea
The Greeks arrived in Korea on December 9, 1950 and their Air Force transport squadron was immediately put to use in support of allied operations. The Greek ground forces which were deployed under the name, The Royal Hellenic Battalion had to go through initial pre-combat training at the allied training facility located in Daegu. Unlike some other allied nations that had arrived in Daegu for training the Greek forces were quite well trained on arrival due to many of the soldiers in the unit having prior combat experience fighting in the Greek civil war.
By January the Royal Hellenic Battalion would see its first combat operation when it was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division and fought in the Battle of Hill 381 at Icheon on January 29, 1951. The unit would go on to conduct other combat operations in Korea with the division, but when the Korean War’s frontline began to solidify and the war turned into one of holding hill top garrisons as peace talks went on at Panmunjom, the Greeks spent a year defending the South Korean frontier near the village of Yeoncheon just north of Seoul before being moved to conduct operations in the Chorwon area which had by then begun to be known as the infamous Iron Triangle.
Despite the amount of combat the Greeks had seen in two and half years of fighting in the Korean War the bloodiest fighting and their greatest combat achievement of the entire war would occur ironically enough during the very last days of the war.
Prelude to Battle
By June of 1953 an armistice from the peace talks at Panmunjom appeared to be imminent. The Chinese military leadership understood that a truce could be signed at any time and thus they began a series of operations to capture key strategic territory from the United Nations forces that would give the communist allies a military advantage when a truce was signed. One of the most key pieces of terrain that the Chinese wanted to capture was a lonely mountain top outpost in the Iron Triangle known simply as Outpost Harry.
The Iron Triangle area during the Korean War.
Outpost Harry had received its name because other adjacent hilltops were known as Tom, Dick, and then there was Harry. However, unlike Outposts Tom & Dick, Harry stretched out as a peninsula like landmass from the rest of the allies’ frontlines and the landmass was connected to a Chinese occupied hilltop known as Star Hill. The hill top that the allies garrisoned on OP Harry was 1,280 feet high and looked across the ridge line of the landmass back at Star Hill which was only about 400 yards away and slightly taller then OP Harry.
The reasons the Chinese decided that OP Harry was an important tactical landmass to capture was because the hill offered the best observation of the surrounding area that allowed the allies easy view of any enemy troop movements on their side of the frontline. If the hill was captured the allies wouldn’t just lose their ability to observe Chinese troop movements, but the allies would also have to fall back a distance of about 10 kilometers because the Chinese would have the ability to rain down accurate artillery on the allied side of the border due to the great observation the hilltop provided of the Kumwha Valley that the allies currently occupied.
At the time OP’s Tom, Dick, & Harry were all being defended by the US 15th Infantry Regiment of the US 3rd Infantry Division. At the time, the Greek Battalion, which had become known as the Sparta Battalion was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Koumanakos and was attached to the 15th Infantry to help fortify this section of the frontline. Companies from the regiment would rotate defending the outposts the regiment was responsible for holding on their sector of the frontline. The regiment at the time had roughly 4,000 soldiers including the Greek Battalion to defend their sector.
Greek Battalion Commander LTC George Koumanakos
The Chinese on the other hand had decided to commit their entire 74th Division of 13,000 soldiers in their offensive operation to capture the OP Harry from the US 15th Infantry Regiment and fully expected the operation to be a quick and easy success due to the sheer size of the force they were committing. The confidence of the Chinese was quite evident to the soldiers of the 15th Infantry defending the OP because the Chinese made no effort to disguise their offensive operation. The evidence was quite clear that the Chinese were going to launch an attack as additional troops, equipment, and supplies could be seen entering the Chinese side of the frontline. An attack was imminent and the soldiers of the 15th Regiment to include Colonel Koumanakos and his men of the Sparta Battalion braced themselves for the heavy combat to come.
The Battle of Outpost Harry Begins
The Chinese assault began on June 10, 1953 with a heavy artillery and mortar barrage on the allied positions. A night time assault which was customary by Chinese forces during the Korean War due to the allies’ air superiority was launched against all the 15th Infantry Regiment’s positions to include the Chinese main effort attacking across the ridge line from Star Hill to capture OP Harry. The American defenders of OP Harry held off the Chinese attack until day break but fighting continued.
View of Outpost Harry with the Chinese held Star Hill in the background.
Just after midnight on June 12th the Chinese forces through hand to hand fighting against US forces had captured the northern trench of OP Harry. Once the trench line was captured the Chinese then began efforts to reinforce it before proceeding over the hilltop to capture the southern trench line the US forces still occupied. As the Chinese began to reinforce the trench line a US counterattack using heavy artillery and tanks targeting Chinese soldiers trying to reinforce those in the trench line was launched. The Chinese began to take heavy casualties and by day break withdrew out of the northern trench line when it became apparent they would not be able to successfully hold it from US air attack once the sun came up.
During the day the Chinese continued their artillery barrage on OP Harry as a fresh batch of US forces rotated on to the hilltop while the prior unit carried their dead and wounded off the mountain. Over 200 dead and wounded were pulled off the hill from the previous days fighting all because of the need to hold a bald barren hill. The next night would be a near exact repeat of the night before as the Chinese would once again capture the northern trench line to only lose it once again due to a US counterattack and the Chinese having to abandon the trench line at daybreak. The next day the American unit dragged their dead and wounded back down the hill and were replaced by another American company just like the unit before it.
This cycle would continue until June 15th when Lieutenant Colonel Koumanakos was alerted that his men of the Sparta Battalion would be the next unit to defend OP Harry. By this time nearly two US infantry battalions of soldiers had been decimated by the five prior days of fighting on the hill and the Greeks would be the next to withstand the fury of the Chinese attacks.
Next Posting: Defending “Outpost Harros”