Since the 1950s South Korea has achieved an incredible record of growth and is now fully integrated into the high-tech modern world economy. The rugged little country has come a long way since serving as the killing floor for the first major confrontation of the Cold War. At the conclusion of military hostilities in 1953, following three bloody years of war, one in ten Koreans had perished, along with some 35,000 American and over 100,000 Chinese KIA. By signing the armistice at Panmunjom the combatants settled for the restoration of the status quo ante– a divided peninsula along a demilitarized zone at about the 38th parallel– so there were no victors in Korea on July 27, 1953.
Time passed and despite the tense legacy of unresolved grievances South Korea has achieved rapid economic growth with per capita income rising to many times the level of North Korea. The country, about the size of Indiana, today has a trillion dollar economy with some 35 million Internet users. (World Fact Book) The South Koreans hosted the Olympic Games in 1988 and they have developed politically into a full-fledged democracy. It’s clear that with western military and financial assistance the Southerners have caught up with the march of time– it’s also pretty clear that their disowned northern counterparts have fallen far off the pace. South Korea’s rise from the ashes of war is a truly incredible rags to riches story.
But things could have been drastically different had it not been for the heroic actions of a tenacious band of American and French soldiers who fought against overwhelming odds in a forgotten battle that changed the face of the post-war world. If not for the bravery and expertise of these men and their leaders South Korea might be unrecognizable today.
There were several times in the Korean War when it looked grim for the US led forces– their eviction from the peninsula was a very real possibility– at no time were things as dire as they were in the Winter of 1950-51. The troops had been ambushed and were on the run, they were devastated by the unthinkable losses they had just suffered in the frozen mountains up north. To make matters worse, everyone was in shock at the sudden realization that they were now up against a massive Chinese juggernaut. If something didn’t change fast it looked like MacArthur’s forces were heading for another Dunkirk. With hope for a unified Korea fading fast in the rear-view mirror, it was looking more and more like the future prospects for an independent South Korea were also in serious danger. Enter Ridgway, Freeman and Monclar….
In February 1951 the American led UN forces in Korea were several months, and hundreds of miles, into a demoralizing retreat from the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF). The success of General MacArthur’s brilliant Inchon landing (code named OPERATION CHROMITE ) in September 1950 was but a dim memory. The vainglorious General had gambled one time too many when he ordered his forces to barrel aggressively toward the Yalu River along the Chinese border. His goal was to destroy the North Korean Army and create the conditions for Korean national reunification.
The Chinese wanted none of it—and true to his public warnings (discounted by MacArthur at the time) Mao directed his generals to forcefully intervene on behalf of Kim Il Sung–the UN advance into North Korea was blind-sided the day after Thanksgiving 1950 when more than 300,000 Chinese “volunteer” infantrymen (and women) burst forth from the frigid North Korean hillsides at the Chongchon River and the Chosin Reservoir. Mao’s surprise attack overwhelmed the UN forces and inflicted heavy casualties (the 2nd Division was trapped near Kunu-ri and nearly destroyed). After heavy fighting and unbelievable sacrifice and heroism on both sides the UN forces were turned around and sent into full scale retreat. MacArthur’s gamble (tacitly condoned by the Truman Administration?) had failed. Like Icarus he flew too high and tragically plunged back to earth. The infantry took the brunt of it.
It was going to take great leadership to stop the retreat and regain the fighting spirit of the United States military. The first piece of the puzzle fell into place quite by accident when LTGeneral Matthew Ridgway replaced the embattled General Walton “Johnny” Walker as Eighth Army commander after Walker was killed in a freak jeep accident in December 1950. Once in theatre, Ridgway, who had led 82nd Airborne paratroopers behind enemy lines at Normandy on D-Day, quickly discovered how demoralized the American forces were. In one of his first actions he flew to the front to personally deliver a message to his commanders: “there will be no more retreating.” Ridgway sought to instill a new confidence among his men and he meant to lead by example. His new strategy emphasized maximum enemy casualties rather than the acquisition of territory. He planned to accomplish this by using more artillery and air assets– his army would turn and array itself tightly in a straight line east to west and learn to roll with the Chinese punches. They would bend but never break and fight in a coordinated deliberate manner to slowly push the front northward.
Making a Stand at Chipyong-ni:
However, it is one thing to order an end to retreating and quite another to halt a fleeing army and turn it around. Ridgway needed a victory to convince the field commanders that they could believe in the effectiveness of the new strategy. The village of Chipyong-ni was of immense strategic value because it was a key road intersection for all vehicular movement in the area south east of Seoul (held again by the Communists at the time). The ability for the US to launch effective counter-offensive operations would be badly curtailed without control of the tiny crossroad village. What’s more– if overrun a huge gap would open in the UN defenses that would have severely threatened the flanks of an already shaken Eighth Army. Just as important, Ridgway needed to set a new positive tone, it was imperative that his men hold at Chipyong-ni.
The 23rd Infantry RCT (Regimental Combat Team) commanded by Colonel Paul Freeman, fresh off hard fighting at nearby Twin Tunnels, was ordered to move to Chipyong-ni and defend it at all costs. Ridgway needed someone to make a stand against the advancing Communist force to show the rest of his army that the Chinese were not an invincible foe. He knew the Chinese couldn’t sustain their attacks due to their dangerously overextended supply lines and he was counting on the men of the 23rd RCT, along with the attached French Battaillon de Coree, to be the ones to make that stand. History has since validated his choice of defenders—the 23rd had performed superbly early in the war in the Pusan Perimeter and had come through the Battle of the Chongchon River and Kunu-ri relatively unscathed (one of the few units to do so). This had fostered an esprit de corps within the unit not often seen in those desperate days. The soldiers of the 23rd had a strong fighting spirit and were not lacking in confidence in their leadership. The French had also shown well at Wonju and Twin Tunnels; they were under the command of the larger than life figure LTColonel Ralph Monclar. This veteran Frenchman was already a national hero, a 3 star general at the time, but he voluntarily requested a demotion to Lieutenant Colonel to lead the battalion in Korea. Monclar fought in World War I where he was wounded seven times and received eleven awards for valor. At war’s end he was almost entirely disabled. In 1924, a fully recovered Monclar was selected for the French Foreign Legion, leading soldiers in Morrocco, the Middle East, and Vietnam. During World War II he fought with the French resistance from England. He was in his fifties by the time of Korea and was on the verge of retirement when he volunteered to lead his beloved battalion. (Leadership in the Crucible. Kenneth Hamburger. PG 68-70)
The French and American forces numbered around 4500 while their opponents in the nearby hills were estimated to be 25,000, not exactly good odds. But the two leaders, Freeman and Monclar, proved to be a dynamic duo (although Freeman later related that he found it uncomfortable at first giving orders to his more experienced counterpart) and as it turned out they were more than equal to the challenge…
The Battle – February 13-15, 1951:
(Source: Combat Actions in Korea. Russell Gugeler. PG 100-137)
Colonel Freeman outlined the mission to his officers on the evening of February 13, 1951: hold the small garrison against an advancing enemy force of five Chinese Communist Force (CCF) Divisions. Don’t count on reinforcements anytime soon– stand and fight it out, to the bitter end if need be. The men listened and accepted their lot. So be it. With quiet confidence Freeman’s charges dug-in and prepared for the inevitable onslaught.
Shortly after midnight the deafening sound of whistles and bugles signaled the initial Chinese attack. This first attack was met and defeated by Monclar’s French battalion in close hand-to-hand fighting. The heroic French confused the Chinese raiders by cranking their own sirens before charging with fixed bayonets howling all the way–the Chinese were rattled and they turned and fled. The Battaillon de Coree will always be remembered for the legendary bayonet charge at Chipyong-ni. The spirited defense set the tone for the rest of the defenders of Chipyong-ni that night.
Elsewhere, throughout the first night the Chinese attacked the perimeter again and again, and although they held, the exhausted men were short of ammunition and food as dawn broke on 14 February. True to form the Chinese forces, fearing the devastating effects of daylight artillery and air strikes, broke contact, withdrew and prepared to resume the fight again the next night. Later that day, Valentines day, LTGeneral Ridgway appeared suddenly in Chipyong-ni! He toured the garrison and met with Col. Freeman and his astounded troops, encouraging them to fight on. From most accounts the soldiers appreciated his visit and gained confidence from his presence. This was not the last time Ridgway would risk his life by dropping in on a battle zone unexpectedly. He walked the walk.
As was expected, soon after dark, sirens, whistles and howling echoed through the frigid night air and flares soared into the sky signaling the beginning of another desperate night of fighting. Throughout that awful night the Chinese launched repeated human wave attacks against the perimeter. Undaunted in the face of the savage and relentless raids the French and American defenders refused to yield. Even when ammunition supplies were desperate the men remained resolute. The fighting raged on fiercely until daylight finally broke on the morning of 15 February. The light of day revealed a snowy battlefield littered with enemy dead, many were literally piled on top of each other in front of some positions. This had been brutal, hard, fighting. Once again, the Chinese attackers faded away into the hills for the day. That morning the skies suddenly cleared for the first time during the siege– this was a great stroke of luck because it allowed for deadly air strikes– napalm was dropped across the surrounding hills annihilating countless enemy troops. Cheers went up from the beleaguered ranks. The planes dropped loads of ammunition and food to the encircled fighters– things were looking up.
In the meantime a relief convoy built around tanks from the 5th Cavalry Regiment had been fighting its way north through tough enemy fire taking significant casualties to reinforce their valiant brothers in Chipyong-ni. The arrival of the relief column, known to history as Task Force Crombez, coupled with the deadly strafing and napalm attacks sent the Chinese fleeing– they simply withdrew and disappeared from the area. With dogged determination the defenders had finally broken the enemy onslaught. Ridgway had his victory. The 23rd received two Presidential Unit Citations (the highest award possible for a unit) for their destruction of six CCF divisions at Twin Tunnels and Chipyong-ni. Colonel Paul Freeman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The battle marked a turning point in the war– the victory resulted in the defeat of a massive Chinese offensive and caused the CCF to suffer its first tactical defeat at UN hands– this time it was the Chinese who were turned back and they never again regained the momentum. The battle of Chipyong-ni has since been referred to as the “Gettysburg of the Korean War.”
When it was said and done the UN forces had inflicted heavy losses on attacking CCF units but they too received many heartbreaking casualties– the 23rd suffered approximately 50 KIA and hundreds more were wounded (including Colonel Freeman). Sadly, a number of men went missing in action at Chipyong-ni. Enemy casualties were estimated to be in the thousands. Although the CCF fought on for another two and a half years, the battle of Chipyong-ni permanently altered the direction and outcome of the Korean War. The 23rd and their French allies stood strong despite long odds, vicious fighting and traumatic casualties. While desperately fighting for their lives and for the lives of their brothers in the next foxhole they unknowingly stamped their signature on the future. Their story, written over a half-century ago in a snow covered valley on the other side of the world, still resonates strongly all these years later. The victory at Chipyong-ni allowed the Eighth Army to survive and fight another day, the events that transpired there supplied the troops with a new fighting spirit and will to win– from this battle forward the Eighth Army only faced north. There would be no more retreating in Korea–Just as Ridway had ordered. The future survival of South Korea was all but assured.
An interesting side note: Chipyong-ni was the first time that transfusions of whole blood were given as far forward as the regimental area during combat. (Treatment of the wounded at Chipyong-ni. R. M. Hall. PG 127-132)
- Lessons from the Korean War (time.com)