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Avatar of GI KoreaBy on July 18th, 2008 at 3:24 pm

Heroes of the Korean War: Lieutenant Colonel George Koumanakos – Part 2

» by in: Korean War

Defending “Outpost Harros”
On the morning of June 16th the Greeks began their march up the hill to OP Harry as American soldiers from the 15th Infantry Regiment they were replacing, dragged their dead and wounded down the mountain. By now the Greeks had begun to call Outpost Harry, Outpost Harros which means death in the Greek language. This moniker was appropriate considering the amount of blood that was being spilled to defend this remote hilltop fortress. When the Greeks reached the hilltop fortress they were amazed to find nearly nothing left standing due to the blasting the hilltop had taken from Chinese artillery. The Greek soldiers had knew the hilltop had been fairly devastated, but even though they were forewarned about the damage done to OP Harry the level of destruction once on the hilltop still surprised them and made them wonder how anybody had survived such an attack in the first place? More importantly it made them wonder how they were going to survive such an attack as well?


The view from Outpost Harry towards Star Hill.

Realizing how the hill could not be held if the fortifications were not reconstructed, Colonel Koumanakos immediately had his soldiers with the aid of Korean Service Corps workers, begin redigging the trench lines as well as reconstructing the sandbagged fortifications. The Chinese rarely ever attacked during the day so as much work as possible had to be completed during the daylight hours they had left. The Greek soldiers felt like they were digging up a graveyard due to the sheer amount of Chinese bodies left on the hill. The smell death wreaked everywhere from the decomposing Chinese bodies. Occasionally the Greek soldiers and KSC workers would find an American body intermingled with the masses of Chinese bodies which really showed how up close and personal the hand to hand combat had been to hold the hill. As the American bodies were found the Greeks would carry them back down the hill to be transported to a casualty collection point. It was a grim task that made the Greek soldiers if the next morning it would be them be dragged down the mountain like their American comrades?


Chinese bodies litter the sides of Outpost Harry.

Reconstruction on the southern trench line of OP Harry was going well, but Lieutenant Colonel Koumanakos faced a great problem with trying to refortify the northern trenchline of the hilltop garrison. When he sent soldiers to the northern side of the hill to begin the reconstruction the Chinese soldiers were able to see them unlike with the southern trench line and began to rain down accurate mortar fire on them. The first casualties for Colonel Koumanakos men during the Battle of Outpost Harry came from this mortar barrage. Koumanakos ordered his men back to the southern side of the hill and decided to wait until dark to begin work on the northern trenchline again.

This was a risky proposition considering the Chinese usually attack at night which meant the soldiers probably had little time to reconstruct the trench. As night fell Colonel Koumanakos pulled his machine gun teams forward to overwatch the soldiers he had working in the darkness to reconstruct the northern fortifications. Surprisingly that night the Chinese did not attack the outpost. The Greeks were lucky that the Chinese had taken a night off on their offensive to reconsolidate and rest their troops. Ceasing this opportunity Colonel Koumanakos had has men work through the night to rebuild the northern defenses. At daybreak the Chinese saw the Greek soldiers working on the northern defenses again and began firing mortar rounds at them once again. With some of the fortifications reconstructed enough to shelter from mortar fire in, the Greek commander decided to keep his troops on the northern hill face in order to keep improving the defenses despite the mortar fire. The Greeks worked throughout the day improving the northern defenses despite the mortar fire and then that night the readied themselves for the inevitable Chinese onslaught that was sure to come.

The Final Chinese Offensive
At 11PM the night of June 17th the Chinese onslaught did come as the Chinese after their operational pause made their last ditch effort to capture OP Harry. However, this time it wasn’t the Americans they would be fighting but the men of Colonel Koumanakos Greek Battalion. Just like in the prior days battles the Chinese just through sheer numbers was once again able to get into the northern trench line. Colonel Koumanakos soldiers just like the ancient Spartan warrior of King Leonidas fought hand to hand against the vastly numerically superior foes. By midnight the Greeks were able to push the Chinese back out of the northern trench line due to the stubborn defense by the Greeks as well as the massive artillery advantage the allied forces employed against the advancing Chinese. Despite this initial setback the Chinese were not done with the Greeks yet.


Aerial view of the Outpost Harry and Star Hill landmass.

The Chinese launched another attack on the northern trench and this time brought even more soldiers to capture it. The Greeks fought on the hill for three more hours that included once again hand to hand combat in the northern trench line. The Chinee by 3AM on June 18th had recaptured the northern trench line and tried to refortify by massing a ring of artillery fire around the position to deter any counterattack. However, Colonel Koumanakos decided to commit another Greek company of men backed by a platoon of US tanks to recapture the trench line. The Greek soldiers charged through the artillery fire and descended into the trenches to expel the Chinese invaders. The counterattack was successful and the Greeks successfully recaptured the northern trench.

Day break on June 18th approached and the Chinese who still had not captured OP Harry and were in fact reeling from the heavy casualties inflicted on them by the gallant Greek defense of OP Harry. Seeing that they had no chance of recapturing their lost positions the Chinese decided to start withdrawing back down the hill in defeat. The Battle of Outpost Harry would be a combat victory worthy of the recognition of their ancient Greek ancestors since the Sparta Battalion had held their ground despite overwhelming odds.

However, like the American units they had replaced, the next morning the Greeks began their grim task of dragging their own dead and wounded back down the mountain. Amazingly the Greek casualties had been relatively light in comparison to the Chinese with six Greeks being killed in action with 21 others wounded. The Greek battalion would continue to rotate companies on to OP Harry until June 21st when they handed the outpost back over to the US 15th Infantry Regiment. After the final battle against the Greek defenders the Chinese never did attack again as the allies continued to hold the hill.

The Aftermath
It is estimate out of 13,000 Chinese soldiers used to assault OP Harry 4,500 of them died with many wounded which left the entire Chinese division combat ineffective for the few remaining weeks of the war. The allies losses were heavy though they were no where near as bad the sacrifice in blood the Chinese made on their assault on OP Harry. American units had 91 men killed as well 8 Korean KATUSA soldiers. The Greeks would ultimately loose 15 men over the course of the eight day battle to defend OP Harry. American and Greek units also had a combined total of 419 more men wounded in action. The amount of men that died, Chinese, American, Greek, and Korean over eight days of fighting over a featureless hill is staggering; especially when one considers that when the ceasefire was signed a little over a month later on July 27, 1953, the allied forces agreed to abandon this featureless hill anyway as part of the Armistice Agreement. There has probably never been as many people killed and wounded in the history of warfare fighting over such an utterly barren and featureless rock. To make matters worse the sacrifice by the men on OP Harry have never been truly remembered as well as overshadowed by more famous battles during the Korean War that didn’t nearly have the same amount of lives lost or strategic significance of the Battle of Outpost Harry.


The Chorwon corridor that formed the Iron Triangle during the Korean War. Notice the productive farming land on the South Korean side of the DMZ compared to the North Korean side.

Despite all this, it is important though to realize these men did not die in vain. The valiant defense of OP Harry showed the Chinese that the allies were still resolved to defend South Korea as well as the battle delivering a huge blow to Chinese morale with the steep casualties they received attacking OP Harry. These steep casualties served to speed up the armistice talks to end the war to stop the heavy losses the Chinese were taking. The fact that the large agricultural plain of the Kumwha Valley remains as part of South Korea today is largely because of the sacrifice in blood made by the men who fought on OP Harry back in 1953. I wonder how many people in South Korea know that the existence of a large portion of some of the nation’s most productive agricultural land is because of the largely unknown efforts of a battalion of soldiers from the far away land of Greece?

In the aftermath of the battle a number of awards for combat valor were handed out to include for the first time in US military history five Distinguished Unit Citations to five different companies for actions during one battle. Distinguished Unit Citations were award to four companies from the US 15th Infantry Regiment and to Company P of the Greek Sparta Battalion that conducted the hand to hand fighting to hold Outpost Harry on the final night of the Chinese assault.

Here is the wording of the Company P’s Distinguished Unit Citation:

Company P Greek Expeditionary Forces Battalion (Second Award) is cited for extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Surang-NI, Korea during the period 17 June to 18 June 1953. Assigned the defense of a vital outpost position (Harry), the company encountered a major enemy assault on the evening of June 17. After an intense concentration of enemy mortar and artillery fire, the hostile forces, which had taken up an attack position on the northeast and northwest side of the outpost , moved rapidly through their own and friendly artillery fire to gain a foothold on the northern slope of the position. Refusing to withdraw, Company P closed in and met the attackers in a furious hand to hand struggle in which many of the enemy were driven off. The aggressors regrouped, quickly attacked a second time, and again gained the friendly trenches. Immediately, the Greek Forces launched a series of counterattacks, simultaneously dispatching a diversionary force to the east of the outpost which successfully channeled the enemy thrusts. After 2 hours of close in fighting, the aggressors were again routed and the friendly positions restored. The outstanding conduct and exemplary courage exhibited by members of Company P, Greek Expeditionary Forces Battalion, reflects great credit on themselves and are in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service and the Kingdom of Greece.

In total the Greek forces in the Korean War would be awarded six Distinguished Unit Citations, along with individual servicemembers being recognized with 32 Silver Stars and 110 Bronze Stars from the US military. A total of 4,992 Greeks would fight in the Korean War with 186 men killed in action and 543 more wounded. The final Greek unit would redeploy from the Korean peninsula in 1955 with the stabilization of the Demilitarized Zone.


A ROK Officer, the Commander of the Belgian Bn., Lt.Col. George Koumanakos, Commander of the Greek Bn, and 3rd Infantry Division Commander Major General George W. Smythe engage in a four way handshake symbolizing the joint effort in the Korean War.

Lieutenant Colonel Koumanakos six month tour of duty in Korea would come to an end on July 20, 1953 just days before the signing of the Armistice Agreement officially ending the war. He would receive many combat awards due to his service in Korea. He would go on to become a Lieutenant General in the Greek Army and would remain the nation’s most decorated military officer before retiring and unfortunately passing away in 2003. However, nothing in Lieutenant Colonel Koumanakos long military career would be able to surpass the truly heroic stand against overwhelming odds by the soldiers of the Sparta Battalion he commanded during the Korean War. Lieutenant Colonel Koumanakos was not only respected by the soldiers of the Sparta Battalion but also US soldiers respected him more then many of their own leaders as evident by this passage from a book written by a soldier who fought in the Battle of Outpost Harry:

For the first time in my experience we had company. In addition to the scouts, this bunker housed a forward observer for the artillery, along with his aides and other occasional guests. For example, it was the custom of the commander of the Greek Battalion, Colonel Koumanakos to sleep on the front line when his troops were on line. He and his staff would come forward to the outpost at night, returning to their battalion headquarters to work during the day. This resolve of the high ranking Greek officers to expose themselves to the same dangers as their men impressed me at the time and still impresses me. Our squad had not seen its own officer up front in the two months I been on the line. So far as we knew, neither had our other squads seen him. To see the lieutenant, someone had to drive back to regimental headquarters. If the lieutenant needed to communicate with us, he used the telephone, if it was working, or the radio.

We Are Innocents: An Infanryman in Korea
By William D. Dannenmaier, page 119


Hero of the Korean War LTC George Koumanakos

Lieutenant Colonel Koumanakos may not have been singularly as heroic as King Leonidas, but his combat leadership as witnessed by both Greek and American soldiers is sure to have made the spirit of King Leonidas proud and that is why he and all the soldiers of the Sparta Battalion are truly heroes of the Korean War.

Prior Posting: Historical Parallels

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8
  • Cloying_odor
    2:52 pm on July 18th, 2008 1

    Unrelated: Did Marmot's have a meltdown?

  • Gerry
    10:22 am on December 17th, 2008 2

    Interesting comment on the American Lt who always found his duty further to the rear. Apparently, the troops didn't think to well of him.

  • stavreas
    5:05 am on August 24th, 2009 3

    I think that we must refer the leader of the company, captain George Skaltsas. Captain George Skaltsas, who was surely alive until 2007 living in Athens, when I saw him last time, was the most decorated officer in Greek Army, with the absolutely amazing record of 6 (six) promotion οn heroism. The whole strategic of the action of the Greek company was designed by C. Skaltsas. Captain George Skaltsas was friend with distinguished and famous Col. Koumanakos from the years of Greek Civil War (1946 -1949). It is very interesting to mention that Skaltsas was a student of Law School of University of Athens without any aim to become officer. At the war of 1940-1941 (WW2) he was enlisted as corpal. After of about 9 years of war he had been captain!!!! It was in 1947 when Koumanakos (then major) and Skaltsas met in the battlefield. Koumanakos and Skaltsas had about 9 years of battle experience when they arrived in Korea.

  • joe
    12:02 am on November 30th, 2009 4

    the Belgian leader name is LT col GATHY

  • Tina Stephanou Russe
    12:37 pm on March 12th, 2010 5

    I just want to know if anyone knew my father Second Lieutenant Christos J. Stephanou who was decorated with a bronze star for his service with the greek army in the Korean war. Thank You.

  • gerry
    1:53 pm on March 13th, 2010 6

    Not likely that US troops would be aquainted with greek sevicemembers during the korean war, even among the old farts on this blog. Best bet would be to look up the unit he was in on Google. See if you can find more info on dates, units etc. they may be of more help.

    Hope you get what you're looking for.

  • Jim
    12:56 pm on March 24th, 2013 7

    GERRY said “Not likely that US troops would be aquainted with greek sevicemembers during the korean war, even among the old farts on this blog”

    Not so – many US/UN troops were friends with Greek troops and had very formal relationships while together in Korea. My father did.

  • Obama's Speech Coach
    3:49 pm on March 24th, 2013 8

    4th paragraph: “Ceasing this opportunity” should be “Seizing this opportunity”?

    Awesome heroes in that war…

 

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