Korean War Series: Task Force Smith and the Battle of Osan.

“Advance at once upon landing with delaying force, in accordance with the situation, to the north by all possible means, contact enemy now advancing south from Seoul towards Suwo ˘n and delay his advance.” – Operations Order from Major General William F. Dean to Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith, commander of Task Force Smith.

Task Force Smith arriving in South Korea 1 July 1950. Photo Credit: Association of the United States Army.

The breakout of war on the Korean peninsula caught America and her allies by surprise. With all eyes of the world focused on Europe and the fear of Soviet tanks moving into Western Europe, Communist tanks and infantry invading their neighbor in a country no one had really heard of was unsettling.

American policy in regards to Communism became one of containment. When war broke out in Korea, with Communist North Korea threatening to take over the whole of the peninsula under their rule, the American policy faced it’s first major challenge. China had fallen to Mao’s Communist force the year prior, so another Asian nation falling in line with the Red Wave was not palatable. So once again, American forces would be sent overseas, this time however without a formal declaration of war.

The American military at this time was a shell of what it had been during the Second World War. President Truman and his advisors had been focused on the economy and ways to cut costs, which inevitably led to defense cuts. Based on his policy, spending was done domestically first, then whatever was left would go to defense. Cutting the military was done at a time that America was spreading it’s influence throughout the world as it took on its role of superpower following World War Two. In a brief to Truman in December of 1949, Defense Secretary Louis Johnson stated America had expanded it’s role in the world while failing to maintain it’s military might to enforce it’s new role.

The US Army at this time had been reduced to 677,000, far below the 900,000 that was authorized. As tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States continued to rise, the best and more modern equipment was sent to Europe to counter percieved Soviet aggression there. Anti-armor munitions and updated tanks were in Europe to defend against Soviet tanks rolling into Europe.

President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur.
Photo Credit: History.com.

Following the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the UN voted to assist South Korea. President Harry Truman on 30 June 1950, as the situation in Korea continued to go badly for the Republic of Korea (ROK), ordered General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to send American ground troops to Korea. General MacArthur in turn directed Lieutenant General Walton Walker, commander of the Eighth Army stationed in Japan on occupation duty, to send the 24th Infantry Division to Korea. In turn, Lieutenant General Walker issued orders to 24th Infantry Division commander Major General William F Dean to ready his division for immediate response to Korea.

Eighth Army commander Lieutenant General Walton Walker (left) confers with 24th Infantry Division commander Major General William F Dean (right).
Photo Credit: Pinterest.

The major issue facing the 24th Infantry Division was the fact they had no Regimental Combat Team (RCT) ready for rapid deployment. Without also having enough aircraft in Japan to move such a force, the powers that be determined that they did not want to create an ad hoc force for such a task, as that would take more time than what General MacArthur called for.

Since the logistics of moving the whole division were lacking, the decision was made to send a small force to delay the North Koreans while the rest of the 24th Infantry Division sailed from Japan to Korea. Instead of sending a full regiment, the decision was made to send an understrength infantry battalion, 406 soldiers in all. This force would go forward without the tactical support of an actual RCT, to include no tank support. The commander for this force, Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith, was a veteran of the Pacific Campaign in World War Two. This force that would be the first Americans to make contact with the battle hardened North Koreans would be dubbed Task Force Smith after their commander.

Task Force Smith was not a full strength infantry battalion. It was made up of two understaffed infantry companies, Baker and Charlie, and also half of a Headquarters Company. In addition to these three understaffed companies they had half of a communication’s platoon, a 75 millimeter recoilless rifle platoon. This platoon was part of the anti-armor capability however they only had two of the weapons, when the organizational chart of the military said they were supposed to have four. They also had two 4.2 inch mortars, six World War Two aged 2.36 inch bazooka rockets, and four 60mm World War Two aged mortars.

Each man carried 120 rounds of ammunition for their rifles, which were either M-1 Garands, or M-1 Carbines. They were given two days worth of rations to sustain their fighting capabilities. Most of the men were young, with a fraction of the leadership having any combat experience.

General Dean was waiting for Lieutenant Colonel Smith at the launching point to give him verbal orders in person. Dean told Smith to move north from Pusan and stop the North Koreans as far from there as possible. He was to meet up with Brigadier General John Church who was the deputy commander of US Army Forces in Korea to develop a more detailed plan. Task Force Smith loaded up and headed to Korea.

On 1 July 1950 Task Force Smith arrived in Korea. They moved north and arrived in Taejon on 2 July, meeting up with Brigadier General Church, American and Republic of Korea (ROK) officers. There Church directed Smith to take up a position to support ROK forces at a point he indicated on a map. The thinking of Church and other senior leadership was that the mere sight of American forces, no matter how small, would inspire the ROK troops to stand and fight and discourage the numerically superior North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) forces. Never mind that the NKPA forces they faced numbered 5,000 strong supported by thirty-six T-34 tanks. These were two regiments of the NKPA’s 4th Division. They had just routed several ROK Divisions and taken another city. But for some reason Church didn’t mention this to Smith.

105mm Howitzer in action in Korea.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Smith moved north and selected a location north of the town of Osan that commanded the approach he expected the North Koreans to come from. He set his Task Force up and received support on 4 July in the way of a battery of six 105mm howitzers from the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion. It’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Miller Perry conferred with Lt. Colonel Smith on the best place to position his artillery. After arriving in Pusan on 2 July, the six guns and it’s crew had moved north as quickly as possible to link up with Task Force Smith with 1,200 rounds, including six high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds. Smith and Perry inspected their location, and awaited the arrival of NKPA forces.

Battle of Osan and Task Force Smith’s positions map. Photo Credit: Wikimedia.

Contact with the NKPA.

Task Force Smith finished digging in and getting their defensive positions set around 3:00 in the morning on 5 July 1950. It rained during the night, so as the sun rose the men were dirty, tired and soaking wet. Lt. Colonel Smith told his men that they needed to hold for 24 hours and that help would arrive. Unfortunately for Task Force Smith, there was no plan to relieve them as the bulk of American forces were still enroute to Korea via ship. They were on their own.

Task Force Smith soldiers engaging NKPA tanks with their 75 millimeter recoilless rifle.
Photo Credit: History Central.

Around 7:30 am eight NKPA T-34’s were spotted heading right towards Task Force Smith. When the tanks were within 4,000 yards Lieutenant Colonel Perry’s battery opened fire, and everyone watched as the rounds bounced off the armor of the tanks. Remember they had only six HEAT rounds meant for tanks, and those had been deployed with the forward most howitzer.

When the unaffected tanks were within 700 yards of Smith’s positions he ordered the recoilless rifles to open fire, and once again they failed to destroy the tanks despite several direct hits. Even the 2.36 inch bazookas got in on the action, however they also were no match for the tank armor. The more modern bazookas, the 3.5 inch, were deployed in Europe to face off with Soviet armor. An unfortunate oversight for Task Force Smith. Even when fired at point blank range of 15 yards the smaller rockets just didn’t pack the punch to destroy the tanks. A second lieutenant named Ollie Connor fired a remarkable 22 bazooka rounds at close range, without destroying a single tank. A scary sight to see these iron monsters absorb everything you threw at them.

Bazooka Team from Task Force Smith engaging NKPA tanks.
Photo Credit: War History Online.

The tanks began to return fire on the American positions, sending some men scurrying for cover. The two lead T-34’s were knocked out, likely from the HEAT rounds of the 105’s. The surviving tanks rolled on, with Perry’s gunners knocking out two more. By this time they had expended all their HEAT rounds, and return fire from a tank disabled one of the howitzers. The eight lead tanks were followed by twenty five others, approaching in intervals. The NKPA commanders must have assumed that the Americans were an advance force and not the main force, so they stayed buttoned up and pushed on through. This thrust had killed or wounded 20 Americans, including wounding Lt. Colonel Perry.

An hour later a six mile long column of NKPA troops, led by three tanks, appeared, clearly not having been warned of the American’s presence by the lead element. The total amount of troops was 5,000, clearly a numerically superior force to the American defenders. They remained mounted in the vehicles, victims of a lack of communication from the lead element. When they were within 1,000 yards, the entire American force opened up on them.

The three tanks closed the distance and fired on the American lines with their main guns and mounted machine guns. The enemy dismounted and engaged and a three hour battle ensued. The communication wires between TF Smith and the howitzers had been cut by the lead element of tanks, so the fighting was between TF Smith and the NKPA troops. While TF Smith inflicted heavy casualties on the North Koreans, eventually they were flanked and close to being surrounded.

Lt. Colonel Smith realized the best way to save his unit at this point was to withdraw before they were surrounded and wiped out. At first they withdrew in good order but withdrawing while in contact with the enemy is always dangerous. They were exposed now to enemy machine gun and mortar fire while in the open. The bulk of the casualties suffered during the Osan battle happened during the retreat that quickly developed into a route. Members of the Task Force left their weapons behind and ran. They even left behind two dozen wounded comrades. When the North Koreans came upon the wounded, they bound their hands and executed them.

The artillerymen disabled their guns before retreating, using their vehicles to make good on their escape. They picked up any infantrymen they encountered and made their way south. Many of the infantrymen had taken to the rice paddies and fields in their hasty retreat and if the North Koreans had chose to pursue them, they would have annihilated the entire force. Thankfully for them, the NKPA continued on their mission to capture Pyeongtaek.

Survivors of the Battle of Osan would straggle into the headquarters area for days after the battle. The losses suffered by Task Force Smith was 150 infantrymen and 31 artillerymen and officers killed or missing, a loss of 40 percent. Much speculation has been made as to the reasons why and who was to blame. What isn’t disputed is the fact that facing overwhelming odds, 10-1 to be exact, TF Smith inflicted casualties on a numerically superior force and delayed them for six hours. They accomplished this all by using less than adequate anti-tank weapons and no air support due to the weather. Despite their efforts, the NKPA drive south continued, driving ROK and now American forces ahead of them.

Sources

Fontenot, Gregory (Colonel US Army Retired) & Swain, Richard (Colonel US Army Retired) Korean War Echoes in Today’s Challenges Association of the US Army. 9 June 2016 https://www.ausa.org/articles/korean-war-echoes-today%E2%80%99s-challenges

Soodlater, Ron. Rush to Disaster: Task Force Smith. History Net. July 2014. https://www.historynet.com/rush-disaster-task-force-smith.htm

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