It was a battle fought for possession of an unimpressive crossroads village less than a mile in length, a few blocks wide, and already reduced to rubble by previous combat actions in the ebb and flow of a savage war. Yet here, at Chipyong-ni (ni means ‘village in Korean) in February 1951, the U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division fought the Red Chinese to the death. And I, for one, will never forget it.
Just a few weeks after the disastrous defeat and winter retreat of United Nations forces in North Korea in late November 1950, General Matthew B. Ridgway had issued new orders to patrol aggressively, to seek, fix and kill, as initial steps of Operation Thunderbolt, a forthcoming U.N. attack northward. On January 29, 1951, a motorized patrol from my own 23rd Infantry had been ambushed, bloodied, and finally rescued after uncovering a major outpost line of the Chinese 125th Division at the Twin Tunnels, just three miles southeast of strategic Chipyong-ni. There, the Seoul-Chipyong-Wonju railroad was tunneled under two ridgelines before continuing south and east to Wonju, and Twin Tunnels became a designation on military maps.
Responding to Ridgway’s order to fix and kill, the 23rd Infantry, with the French Battalion attached, had moved in and, in a vicious two-day battle, brutalized three regiments of the Chinese division at the Twin Tunnels. Defeated and in disarray, the survivors had fled up the hills toward Chipyong-ni and beyond, where other Chinese divisions were preparing their own attack in answer to Thunderbolt.
Late in the afternoon of February 3, the American-French force, only 70 percent effective after its losses, began the weary trudge, now unopposed, to the village of Chipyong-ni. As we moved along under heavy packs of individual and combat gear, our infantry boots crunched through patches of icy snow and stepped around occasional dead Chinese along the shoulders of the narrow gravel road. I was commander of D (Dog) Company, comprised of veteran machine-gunners, 81mm mortarmen and 75mm recoilless riflemen, who had all been tested severely in past combat actions. Now they were marching behind me on both sides of a pathway leading to whatever role would be played, along with the rest of the 23rd Infantry, in the days ahead.
Colonel Paul Freeman, the 23rd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) commander, was also walking the road. Only a small metal eagle affixed to the front of his steel helmet distinguished the wiry, handsome, gray-haired Virginian from the rank and file. Trading a word or two with soldiers around him, he was unpretentious, sometimes pessimistic, often expecting the worst in order to deal with it, and occasionally profane when orders from higher-ups seemed inane or ill-advised. He had been General Joe Stilwell’s supply officer during World War II, and a lot of Vinegar Joe had rubbed off on Paul Freeman.
Chipyong-ni was located near the east-west center of South Korea. Forty miles north, the 38th parallel crossed the peninsula, generally marking the border separating Communist North Korea from free South Korea. Fifty miles west, twice-ravaged Seoul lay in Communist hands again, after the winter retreat of U.N. forces. Wonju, located 15 miles southeast of Chipyong-ni and in better times an important hub of communications and transportation, was now a wasted, deserted city. Chipyong-ni and Wonju were linked by a single-track railroad and a gravel road. Another town, Yoju, was situated about 20 miles south of Chipyong-ni and connected to it by a gravel road; these three, in military-geographical terms, formed the Chipyong-Wonju-Yoju triangle.
The advance guard of Lt. Col. George Russell’s 1st Battalion entered Chipyong-ni. Patrols encountered a few Chinese soldiers, who fled after a few cursory rifle shots. The other two battalions of the 23rd, with the French Battalion, closed on the village later in the afternoon. Still later, Freeman’s regimental combat team was augmented by Battery B, 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, with its 155mm howitzers; by the 105mm howitzers of the 37th Field Artillery Battalion; by Battery B, 82nd AAA AW SP Battalion (anti-aircraft artillery, automatic weapons, self-propelled); by Company B, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Ranger Company; and by a platoon from the 2nd Medical Battalion.
Freeman ordered a full alert. He realized that his 4,500-man force, including fewer than 2,500 front-line infantrymen, could not adequately man all the higher hills around Chipyong-ni. Instead, he decided to install a rectangular-shaped perimeter on the lower hills immediately surrounding the village.
In clockwise order within the perimeter, Colonel Russell’s battalion was responsible for the 12 o’clock sector; Lt. Col. Charles Kane’s 3rd Battalion was emplaced at 3 o’clock; Lt. Col. James Edwards’ 2nd Battalion was deployed at 6 o’clock; and the French Battalion was prepared to defend the entire western side. Company B of the 1st Battalion and the Ranger Company made up the reserve force. Field artillery units and the regimental 4.2-inch heavy mortars were emplaced inside the perimeter, with forward observers out on the line. Fourteen M-4 Sherman tanks and the anti-aircraft 82nd’s vehicle-mounted twin 40mm Bofors guns and quad .50-caliber machine guns were also inside, awaiting call. The unit command post, the field kitchens and the medical station were housed in sandbagged tents and straw-roofed mud huts, with trenches and dugouts nearby.
Darkness and an ominous silence crept over the Chipyong Valley. Soldiers hunkered down in their newly dug burrows. Cigarettes glowed below the surface of the earth. On the west side, a few small fires twinkled in the darkness; the Frenchmen were out of their foxholes, strolling about and visiting neighbors. An occasional burst of song was heard. Only when Freeman bellowed over the field phones that the fires must be extinguished did they flicker out, one by one. The French soldiers were volunteers from Legion garrisons in Africa and other parts of the world. Their leader was a battle-scarred veteran of the Legion who led them in battle wearing his monocle, a beret, a bright red scarf–and using a cane to compensate for his limp. Sixty-year-old Raoul Monclar, as he called himself, had given up his three-star general’s rank and his true name of Magrin-Venery and had reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, since general was too high a rank for a battalion commander. Now, with a nom de guerre and the proper rank to lead a volunteer battalion in combat under the U.N. flag, he and his 1,000-man force had become Colonel Freeman’s Fourth Battalion. This is my finest hour, Monclar declared.
For more than a week, the garrison planned and prepared its positions. Dig, dig, dig, Freeman ordered. The machine guns and their crews of D, H and M companies were attached to the rifle companies on the perimeter. Barbed wire, mines and trip flares were installed in fields of fire along final protective lines. The 81mm mortar barrages of D, H, and M companies were coordinated with the powerful 4.2-inch heavy mortars, the eighteen 105mm artillery howitzers, six mighty 155s, and the automatic weapons of the 82nd. Illuminating shells were readied; ammunition, food and other supplies were hauled in from Wonju, and the engineers constructed a small airstrip for liaison planes and helicopters.
While Freeman prepared a defensive salient miles ahead of friendly regiments, Eighth Army staff officers were asking, Where are Lin Piao and the ‘Phantom Army’? Actually, the famous Chinese general was not in Korea. He never had been. He was back in China–ill, and openly pessimistic about China’s intervention against the Americans. General Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence concerning Lin was faulty–the fact was, General Peng Teh-huai (Peng Dehuai) was commander of Chinese Volunteers in Korea, and the Phantom Army of 200,000 men actually was lurking in the villages and valleys of central Korea while he was planning a Fourth Phase Offensive.
Like Lin himself, General Peng was a master of leadership and deception. In 1934, as disciples of Mao Tse-tung, they both were corps commanders, leading more than 100,000 Communist soldiers who had escaped the Nationalists’ entrapment effort in southern China. Heading west and turning north, they disappeared from sight into wild, uncharted, sometimes hostile lands until, a year later, they reached the safety of the Yenana caves near the Great Wall. The Long March of 6,000 miles was a physical, military epic unparalleled in history. Its survivors formed the nucleus of a 600,000-man army under Mao Tse-tung that helped the Nationalists fight Japan in World War II, then turned on the Nationalists again in the Chinese civil war–and defeated them.
Only two years later, on October 14, 1950, the 38th Army of the powerful Fourth Field Army marched over the Antung bridges spanning the Yalu River and disappeared from sight in North Korea. General MacArthur’s intelligence was deceived; General Peng hurried additional troops, including the 39th, 40th and 42nd armies, over other bridges and the frozen Yalu during the bitterly cold November of 1950 until nearly 400,000 Chinese soldiers were massed in hidden valleys, forests and villages south of the Yalu border. On America’s Thanksgiving night, the Red Chinese streamed out of hiding places and entered the Korean War. Within hours, they rolled back the American-dominated U.N. forces, forcing a 1,250-mile retreat in the snows of North Korea that finally ended below the 38th parallel.
Later–weeks later–in the early evening hours of February 11, 1951, Peng’s armies mustered for a massive attack across Korea, from Seoul eastward. Columns of at least four armies padded southeast, twisting over hills and through valleys, the soldiers chattering, chanting and singing as all Chinese did when sweeping along toward battle. These were tough, simple peasants, wearing furred caps and warm, quilted, mustard-brown jackets and pants. A few had fur-lined boots, but most wore lined canvas sneakers. Each soldier carried a three-day supply of grains in a compartmented cloth sack slung around his neck and over a shoulder. No truck hauled him from place to place; he used feet and legs, marching and trotting 25 miles nightly, as necessary. He had mortar and artillery support, but only a primitive communications system that included whistles, signal flares and bugles. Some soldiers operated sirens, which, when cranked by hand, inspired fear among some defenders. Individual weapons had an international flavor–often they were captured American or Japanese pieces; mortars and artillery pieces were supplied by the Russians–and all soldiers carried several grenades and suitable ammunition for their particular weapons.
Aware of the growing Chinese movement around him, Colonel Freeman asked permission to withdraw. United Nations commander General Matthew Ridgway said no. He planned to use Chipyong-ni as a baited trap, enticing the Chinese to turn and attack it out in the open with large forces that could be destroyed by the combined firepower of the 23rd infantrymen, tanks, mortars, artillery and close-in Air Force sorties.
As daylight faded on February 13, G Company observed Chinese crawling, walking and trotting around the railroad tracks, creek bed, road and hills to the south. The supply road from Wonju was closing, as elements of the Chinese 40th and 66th armies shied away from Wonju and advanced on Chipyong-ni from the south and east. Parts of the 39th and 42nd armies were closing in from other directions.
The Chipyong Valley was surrounded. The Chinese were bent on revenge because the hated 23rd Infantry had bloodied their noses previously at Kunu-ri during the winter retreat in North Korea and at Twin Tunnels a few days before.
The command post of D Company was on full alert. As a U.S. Army captain and company commander, I had just scanned the ominous, red-penciled arrows on Captain Sam Radow’s situation map at 1st Battalion headquarters. Ponchos covered the primitive windows of the hut. Sergeant First Class Joseph Loy tended the portable switchboard, while Lieutenant William Penrod checked the alternate communication wires in the command dugout just outside the hut. D Company was ready for the part it would play.
Sergeant Loy and I stepped outside just as rifle fire flared in the southwest. A burst of machine-gun fire answered in the south. Chinese bugles and whistles were heard in front of Captain James Raney’s C Company. In the west, red and green flares hung in the air over the French. A number of trip flares lighted the rice paddies in front of A and C companies. The machine guns of my own D Company chattered as shadowy figures tried to escape the illumination. Suddenly the wild whistle of a single 120mm mortar shell sounded directly overhead. Loy and I dived for the command post’s trench, and it landed with a mighty ker-whomp on an unoccupied hut about 30 feet away. Rocks, frozen clods of dirt and shell fragments rained down as the hut collapsed.
In the nearby command hut, someone yelled, Outta here! and ran for the door and leaped into the dugout. An officer picked up the switchboard, ran for the door and gained the relative safety of the new command post. An instant later, another incoming whistle ended in a booming explosion on the straw roof of the vacated command hut. The building vanished in a shower of debris.
Whistles, horns, sirens and bugles sounded all around the perimeter now. Chinese mortar and artillery fire slammed down on our interior position as well as the forward positions. Chinese infantry began to close in, probing for weak spots. A platoon, charging and screaming a battle cry of Manzai! was repulsed by Companies E and G. Slightly after 11 p.m., enemy forces moved down the slopes of Hill 397, approaching E and G companies again. As they started to attack, G Company soldiers detonated a series of fougasse drums in front of their positions. (First used extensively during World War I, a French fougasse was a 50-gallon drum planted in the earth at an angle and half-filled with gasoline and oil.) As a group of the enemy came within range, the defenders pulled wires attached to grenades under the drums, exploding them and spraying the attackers with a fiery bath.
By midnight the entire perimeter was under attack. Sergeant First Class Charles Klein of D Company was killed, and Private John Hansen, Corporal Leon Dubinsky and Pfc Denvil Meadows were wounded. D Company’s machine guns were directing fire along the 1st Battalion perimeter, while Captains James Raney and Glen McGuyer of C and A companies, respectively, were calling for the supporting volleys of 1st Lt. Donald Hoskin’s 81mm mortar platoon.
Sergeant Harley Wilburn, a forward observer for a 4.2-inch heavy mortar on the perimeter, was adjusting devastating fire for effect on the charging groups in front of A and C companies. The automatic weapons of Captain Clyde Hathaway’s Battery B, 82nd AAA, were being called to critical points along the perimeter throughout the night. Chinese units struck Captain Ed Haynes’ K Company, dominating the road leading westward and north into Chipyong-ni with such intensity that the wounded of K Company could not be evacuated to the medical station. A wave of assailants reached the foxhole line, and a squad of Captain Leander O’Neil’s I Company swung over to help in hand-to-hand combat.
An ambulance jeep raced down the road leading to K Company, but it was raked by machine-gun fire–the driver and a medical aidman were wounded. The driver was captured by the Chinese, but the medic crawled to an E Company foxhole. A squad from E Company, supported by a tank, was unsuccessful in an attempt to reach the wounded soldiers of the 3rd Battalion.
A noisy party of Chinese seemed about to fall upon the French in the west. Hearing the preparations, the legionnaires leaped out of their positions screaming a battle cry, fixing bayonets as they charged, and cranking a shrieking Chinese siren of their own. They set upon the surprised and terrified enemy. Survivors turned to escape, only to be tackled, caught, and hauled back by the French as prisoners of war.
Chinese infiltrators penetrating between A and C companies were met by machine-gunner Corporal Charles Sherwood of D Company. He was wounded and his machine gun was destroyed, but other men held fast, including Pfc Donald Byers, until a replacement gun could be brought up. Adamantly refusing evacuation, Sherwood said: I’m not coming out, Captain. Where would I go, anyway?
At daybreak, 37 enemy dead were counted in front of his emplacement.
Just after midnight, three incoming mortar shells landed in quick succession on dirt-filled sandbags in the 81mm mortar positions of D Company, covering two mortar tubes temporarily and wounding mortarmen Vernon Stout and Chester Darling. At the same time, a thundering salvo bracketed the command post, and Pfc Frank W. Perry was mortally wounded. Sergeant Loy ran for a litter as I cradled Perry, deep in the dugout. Two men finally carried him to the medical station.
At about 2:30 a.m., two flares in the south signaled a third assault on the hills of G Company. Squads of enemy attacked along the series of three hills, concentrating on Curtis Hill (named after an officer of the 1st Battalion) with showers of grenades. Just after 4 a.m., a fourth attempt was beaten back, but fighting flared anew just west of the hill, where only a few men held the line between G Company and the French. A group of artillerymen with a machine gun moved up; only five survived, but they did plug a potential entryway leading directly into Chipyong-ni. A regimental tank was finally dispatched to augment the thin line.
As dawn peeped over the hills around the village, enemy pressure eased–except in the 3rd Battalion’s area, where Chinese commanders continued to order charges at I and K companies. Finally, at 7:30 a.m., a bugler sounded again and the Communists withdrew. They would soon return with additional forces–and renewed hatred for the 23rd Infantry.
A light mantle of snow cast a veil over the Chinese dead in front of the perimeter. Soldiers climbed wearily out of the earth to count more than 500 slain just beyond their positions. Private First Class Marion Augustyniak’s camera clicked away, recording the chaos and various positions of violent combat death. Along with the clusters of stiffened, nearly frozen Chinese bodies outside, a number of Americans and Chinese were sprawled side by side alongside American foxholes, and a few more shared dugouts in death, apparently having succumbed after frenzied hand-to-hand struggles in the darkness.
American and French wounded and dead at the medical station awaited evacuation by air.
He brought us in, he’ll take us out, muttered a company rifleman, shivering in his hovel next to Corporal Sherwood’s new gun. He was speaking of Colonel Freeman.
A 120mm projectile slammed in close to the regimental command post. A staff officer, Major Harold Shoemaker, was killed, and Paul Freeman was wounded.
It was St. Valentine’s Day.
Moving about painfully on a bandaged leg, Colonel Freeman later walked the perimeter, urging officers and men to continue the fight. Observer planes reported that great numbers of enemy soldiers were massing outside the range of Chipyong-ni’s artillery and mortars. In the afternoon, General Ridgway himself flew in by helicopter, promised help and asked Freeman’s soldiers to hold for one more night. A terse note was scribbled in the D Company diary: One more night. Ammo low. Cold and snowy. How can we….
Early in the evening of February 14, we were subjected to a furious bombardment, the prelude to an all-out assault. Although many foxholes had at least a partial overhead covering of railroad ties, timbers and sandbags, a direct hit often would blast some of the cover away, and the detonation itself would create casualties. At midnight, a Chinese attack wave struck A Company, then veered over into C Company and the 1st French Company. Soon the entire perimeter was under siege for the second consecutive night. Casualties continued to deplete the ranks, with no replacements available. C-47 cargo planes, called Fireflies, dropped parachute flares, which cast a momentary, garish light over the battlefield before fading into eerie shadows.
Corporal Sherwood’s second machine gun was destroyed, and he was mortally wounded. In the southeast corner, E Company was repelling endless numbers of Chinese trying to break through barbed-wire obstacles out in front. Firing along the rows of wire, the machine guns of H Company stopped fanatical charges that hurled bodies against, up to and over the wire, building human bridges of the dead. By 1:30 a.m., the wires were choked with bodies snagged and hanging on the barbs.
Chinese infantry erupted from Hill 506, frontally assaulted K Company and flowed over the foxholes of I Company. Elements of Captain Chester Jackson’s L Company counterattacked, supported by the machine guns and 81mm mortars of M Company, and the line was restored. A blazing firefight raged across McGee Hill, located in G Company’s sector, and its platoon leaders soon were calling for help. A dozen artillerymen were brought forward, but by 3 a.m. the hill was lost.
Lieutenant Paul McGee and two other men retreated to the G Company command post. Curtis Hill was captured by the Communists, and only 16 men were holding the third hill, which tied in with the French lines. A squad from Captain Stanley Tyrell’s F Company shifted over to help; within minutes all were killed or wounded, and the hill was lost.
Just before 4 a.m., Lieutenant Robert Curtis led a composite force of a Ranger platoon, a platoon from F Company, 14 G Company men and three tanks in an assault that temporarily regained the crests of McGee and Curtis hills. On the way, Captain John Ramsburg, who had just joined the force, was wounded and limping; Lieutenant Thomas Heath, G Company commander, was seriously wounded; and the two platoon officers of F Company and the Rangers were killed. At this critical moment, the three tanks on the road below unleashed a heavy fusillade on the hilltops, assuming that they were blasting the enemy. Only Curtis’ running, raging screams and waving arms halted the fire. Suddenly a Chinese counterattack overwhelmed the handful of shocked men and regained the crests.
Curtis and five men backed down the hill, where the lieutenant formed a last-ditch ring of 15 men in front of the 155mm howitzers.
The Chinese now owned the hills of G Company, but inexplicably failed to exploit the passage to victory. Looking down the shadowy road leading into the village, they began to dig in. Possibly their officers felt that the coup de grâce could easily wait until later in the day that February 15, not knowing that the U.S. Air Force would soon darken the sky around Chipyong-ni, and that a relief column of Sherman and Patton tanks was being organized on a road a few miles south.
Just after daybreak, Freeman ordered his reserve, Captain Sherman Pratt’s B Company, and the remnants of G Company and the weakened Rangers to report to Colonel Edwards’ 2nd Battalion; then he limped away to a waiting medical helicopter for evacuation. Lieutenant Colonel John Chiles had already arrived to replace him.
Led by Lieutenant Richard Kotite’s platoon, the reserve force was thrown back three times during the day as it clawed and grappled uphill in efforts to reclaim the lost hills of G Company. Finally, the 23rd’s staff made a desperate, crucial decision: to send four regimental tanks under Captain Perry Sager a very short distance south, down the Yoju road, then have them swing left to blast the exposed flanks and rear of the Chinese on Hill 397 and the reverse slopes of the G Company hills. At the same time, the reserve force would assault the crests in one final, frontal attempt.
Meanwhile, other help was on the way. Colonel Marcel Crombez, commander of the 5th Cavalry Regiment, moved out with his tank-infantry team on the Yoju-Chipyong road at 3:45 p.m. The force consisted of 23 tanks, with 160 infantrymen of L Company, the 5th Cavalry and four engineers riding on top. At least twice during the wild, harrowing, six-mile drive, the column was forced to stand and fight, with infantry dismounted. The Chinese incessantly lashed the tanks and their riders with a hail of gunfire along the way, often rushing the tanks with explosives. The running battle reached a crescendo as the tanks entered a deep road cut and another enemy gantlet just east of Hill 340.
Finally breaking through with sirens screaming, the Chinese came upon the four 23rd Infantry tanks, which had just opened up on the enemy-held hills.
Under this combined assault, the Chinese began running away from the perimeter battlefield and abandoning the hills. Many of them headed for their Hill 397 stronghold, but soon the Crombez tanks were bombarding Hill 397, as well. As the thin line of B Company crawled and plodded back uphill, a contagious panic apparently was triggered among the remaining Chinese everywhere at the sight of the mighty, cannonading tanks and their fellow soldiers running away, surrendering their hard-earned hills. Thousands of Peng’s soldiers started a mad stampede toward north and south, leaving the battlefield and being pursued by the fiery napalm bursts and strafing gunfire delivered by U.S. tactical-fighter planes. Most were throwing away their weapons, and the 23rd Infantry was firing at their backs.
Twenty-one 5th Cavalry tanks now rolled into the Chipyong-ni perimeter. Of the original 164 infantry-engineer riders, only 23 remained, and 13 of those 23 were wounded, clinging to the hulls.
As night came on, gunfire ceased. The Battle of Chipyong-ni was over. During the next few days, more than 5,000 Chinese dead were counted around the perimeter and in the hills and valleys beyond. Chinese divisions totaling 25,000 veteran soldiers had been mauled and defeated by a single American regimental combat team of less than 5,000.
This was a turning point, a pivotal, singular moment of the Korean War. Rising from the wintry ashes of defeat and humiliation, Americans had won a victory, and the myth of Communist invincibility was finally shattered.
Standing before a joint session of Congress more than a year later, in May 1952, General Ridgway stated: I shall speak briefly of the Twenty-third United States Infantry Regiment, Colonel Paul L. Freeman commanding, [and] with the French Battalion….Isolated far in advance of the general battle line, completely surrounded in near-zero weather, they repelled repeated assaults by day and night by vastly superior numbers of Chinese. They were finally relieved….I want to say that these American fighting men, with their French comrades-in-arms, measured up in every way to the battle conduct of the finest troops America and France have produced throughout their national existence.
This article was written by Ansil L. (Lee) Walker and originally appeared in the December 1993 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!