Note: This semester I’m teaching a course at my school, the University of North Texas, on “The U.S. Army in the Korea and Vietnam Eras,” and I’ve been forced to think about the men who led and fought in those wars. It was a generation (and an army) that came of age in the ETO in World War II:
By all accounts he was as brave as they come, and he had proven it repeatedly in World War II. MG William F. Dean once leaped into action during a 1943 training exercise when a flamethrower hose came loose. In attempting to save the life of his soldier, he was so badly burned that the doctors spoke of amputating his leg. The next year would find him fighting in the ETO, both legs intact, limping on a hawthorn cane. He served first as an assistant division commander to the 44th Infantry Division and then, when his CO got hit and sent back to the States, took over the division himself. More than once he made sure he was in the thick of the fighting, he led the division well in some tough scraps near Mannheim and Heidelberg, and he came away with a DSC for his exploits. Tall and brave and handsome, Bill Dean was a model U.S. general of World War II, an über-competent leader of an army that had vanquished the Wehrmacht in the West.
Fast forward five years to a town in central Korea called Taejon. Dean’s division this time around is the 24th, and it’s been having its troubles. He’s had to feed it into battle piecemeal, a regiment–no, a battalion–at a time, desperately trying to halt a southward lunge by the North Korean People’s Army in the summer of 1950. Most of 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment (“Task Force Smith”) had already bought it just north of a town called Osan. After that there were unsuccessful stands at Pyongtaek, then Chonan, and finally behind the Kum river. That last one had been a complete SNAFU. Two regiments, 34th on the left, 19th on the right, drawn up in a nice defensive arc on the high ground behind a river, and the enemy had blown through them as if on parade. Infantry fleeing, complete breakdown in command and control, entire field artillery battalions captured intact: it was a mess.
You know what they say, though: things can always get worse. At Taejon, they did. Here Bill Dean did what his training and his World War II experience had instructed him to do: gather in his regiments in order to fight his entire division as a concentrated whole. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left of it, just the remnants of previously defeated units, the men already shaken by their earlier encounters, jittery and–metaphorically, at least–already looking over their shoulders to find the nearest road out of Taejon.
The attack came in like all the previous ones: a frontal attack, involving armor (old Soviet T-34/85s, supposedly “obsolete” by this point in time), along with wide flanking maneuvers by detachments. It was a major attack, with most of two full North Korean divisions involved, and they did exactly what they had done previously, blasting through a U.S. Army defensive position with ease.
Dean reacted like just like he had in the previous war. He was a brave man (“a fighter,” his commander, GEN Walton H. Walker of 8th Army had called him), and he didn’t think combat was just for the enlisted ranks. Some reports have him grabbing one of the new, improved 3.5” bazookas and going tank hunting in the midst of the melee, and when the ammunition was gone, taking out his .45 automatic and blasting away at a North Korean tank. Only when the retreat routes were already threatened did he try to get to safety himself. That, unfortunately, went about as well as everything else had up to now. Setting off in his jeep with an aide, he took incoming fire while trying to elude a North Korean roadblock. Abandoning the vehicle, he set out on foot, apparently fell down an embankment and knocked himself out. He would wander the countryside for weeks until picked up by the North Koreans, and would spend the next three years in a prison camp, the Korean War’s high-ranking POW.
Bill Dean had come a long way, perhaps the longest journey a commander can take: from victor to vanquished, from domination to disaster. So too, we might add, had the army he served. His own experience was the army’s in microcosm. Both of them had traveled a long way downhill from the heights of 1945 and total victory over the Wehrmacht to the depths of 1950, when they could no longer, apparently, handle even a minor power like North Korea.
Let us go deeper next week, however, and ask a few fundamental questions. Just how different was the 1950 version of the army from the one that had fought in Europe a few short years before? Just how different were these two wars? And finally, looking back, is there anything that Taejon 1950 can teach us about the U.S. Army in World War II?
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