The Korean War, described by many, including then President Harry S. Truman, as a police action, marked the first time that the United States and the fledgling United Nations organization entered into a partnership to halt the advance of the Cold War into the Far East.
A total of 22 nations agreed to send either troops or medical units. Sixteen countries responded to the U.N. resolution by sending troops to halt the invasion of South Korea by the North Koreans. One of the first of the major participants to send a brigade was Turkey. The first Turkish contingent arrived on October 19, 1950, and in varying strengths remained until midsummer 1954.
Initially, Turkey sent the 1st Turkish Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Tahsin Yazici. The brigade consisted of three battalions commanded by Major Imadettin Kuranel, Major Mithat Ulunu, and Major Lutfu Bilgon. The Turkish Armed Forces Command (TAFC) was a regimental combat team with three infantry battalions, along with supporting artillery and engineers. It was the only brigade-sized UN unit attached permanently to a U.S. division throughout the Korean War.
More than 5,000 men of the 1st Turkish Brigade, including liaison and the advance party, arrived in Pusan, South Korea, on October 17 from the eastern Mediterranean port of Iskenderun, Turkey. The brigade unloaded from their ship and proceeded to the newly opened U.N. reception center located just outside of Taegu. The bulk of the enlisted men were from small towns and villages in the mountains of eastern Turkey. For these volunteer officers and volunteer enlisted men who were just completing their compulsory two year service, it was not only the first time that they had left their native country–it was the first time they had been out of the villages of their birth. It was, at least for the enlisted men, the first time that they had encountered non-Muslims. Vast cultural and religious differences existed between the Turks and the Americans.
Their commander, aging Brig. Gen. Yazici, was highly regarded in the Turkish military establishment and willingly stepped down a rank in order to command the first contingent of Turks in Korea. He had only one drawback–no real command of English–yet he was attached to an American division. Later, that lack of language proficiency would prove to be a major hindrance to his understanding of orders and troop deployments.
The U.S. Army command was unaware of the difficulties in coordination, logistics and, above all, basic communication in a common language that would complicate orders and troop movements, especially in the crucial early months of their joint exercises. Unfamiliar food, clothing requirements and transportation would come to create more problems than the American high command had counted on. The dietary requirements of the Turks forbade pork products, and the American rations definitely contained pork products forbidden to all Muslims. A Japanese food processor was hired to provide rations that met the Turkish requirements. Bread and coffee presented other problems. The Turks favored a heavy, substantial bread containing nonbleached flour along with thick, strong, heavily sweetened coffee. The U.S. Army found a way to satisfy these needs along with those of the other Allied forces.
Few American liaison officers were attached to the Turkish companies, thereby adding to the problems the Turks faced in their initial combat operations. Misinterpretation of orders resulted from the lack of communication between Allies. The problem, at first overlooked and judged to be only minor, only became exacerbated in the heat of battle.
The Turks’ arrival in Korea garnered a considerable amount of publicity. The Turkish soldiers’ fierce appearance, flowing mustaches and great knives were a war correspondent’s dream come true. Although they had not fought in a major conflict since World War I, the Turkish soldiers had the reputation of being rough, hard fighters who preferred the offensive position and gave no quarter in battle. Most of the enlisted men were young and carried a sidearm sword that, to Americans and the other U.N. troops, appeared to be a long knife. No other U.N. troops were armed with that kind of knife, or indeed any other weapon out of the ordinary. The Turks had a dangerous proficiency in close combat with their long knives that made all other Allied forces want to stay clear of them.
Most of the enlisted men were from the eastern steppe region of Turkey near the Russian border and had little more than three or four years of basic schooling. In the conscription process, they were given uniforms, plus some training by the Turkish military and their U.S. military advisers. Life in their native villages had been largely unchanged for hundreds of years. A central village well still provided water, and news of the outside world seldom penetrated village daily life.
It was to that patchwork U.N. army, composed mainly of Americans but having diverse units from 16 other countries, that the orders suddenly came to General Walton ‘Johnnie’ Walker’s Eighth Army headquarters to mount a massive offensive and push for an early end to the war. General Douglas MacArthur’s promise to relieve two divisions and have ‘the boys home for Christmas’ gave the impetus to an ill-conceived move to the Yalu River. There were some expressed misgivings, especially by the Eighth Army commander, General Walker. Those objections, however, were quickly pushed aside by the clique that surrounded MacArthur. Pressure to conclude the war in one massive offensive became too difficult to contain. The generals and commanders in the field who would actually commit their men to one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war were protesting voices that were either never acknowledged or ignored.
Intelligence reports given to MacArthur indicated the presence and capture of Chinese troops in late October and early November. Major General Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, kept him abreast of all incoming reports of larger numbers of Chinese troop movements. Nonetheless, the die was cast for Walker’s Eighth Army. Walker tried several times to delay the inevitable by protesting the lack of logistical support and supplies that were en route from Japan and the United States, but all he accomplished was to increase MacArthur’s ire toward him and impatience at the delay.
Bitter winds from Manchuria churned over the steep, granitic mountains and treacherous valleys of North Korea. The coldest weather in at least 40 years gripped the land. Numbed and miserable soldiers tried to keep warm around makeshift fires made in empty 50-gallon drums. Medical units began treating their first cases of frostbite. More and more, Korea became the proverbial ‘Hell froze over.’ It was necessary to mix alcohol with the gasoline to prevent gas lines from freezing in the vehicles and equipment. Blood plasma had to be heated for 90 minutes before it could be used. Medicines that were water-soluble froze, and sweat that accumulated in the soldiers’ boots froze during the night. The terrain of northern Korea, with its long v-shaped valleys, high craggy mountain ridges and the lack of any real discernible roads, along with the incredible numbing cold sweeping across the forward-moving army, contributed the elements of tragedy that shaped the battle to come.
The U.S. Army’s 7th Division and other units were not prepared for arctic warfare. Few of the fighting units had arctic parkas. Yet they were ordered forward. On November 21, they were ordered to move across a riverbed containing what they had been told would be only ankle-deep water that would present no problem. The night before, however, upstream dams had been opened and the water released. The soldiers waded into frigid, waist-deep water with chunks of ice floating in it. After several unsuccessful attempts, the crossing was called off. Eighteen men suffered severe frostbite and had to have their frozen uniforms cut off.
During the dogged advance, Walker’s army became more thinly stretched as the Korean Peninsula widened and forced the army to cover more territory as it moved steadily northward. His order of battle was comprised of the U.S. I Corps, consisting of the U.S. 24th Division, the British 27th Brigade, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) 1st Division; the U.S. IX Corps including the U.S. 2nd and 25th Divisions and the 1st Turkish Brigade; the ROK 6th, 7th, and 8th divisions; and the 1st Cavalry Division in Army reserve.
Walker was cautious about committing his troops. Intelligence tried to get some realistic estimates about the Chinese troop strength and their movements. Daily briefings in early November indicated a dramatic increase in Chinese and North Korean troop strength from 40,100 to 98,400 men. These estimates still were woefully inadequate.
Assembled in front of Walker’s IX Corps in the west was the XIII Army Group of the Chinese Fourth Field Army, consisting of 18 infantry divisions totaling at least 180,000 men. Opposing the U.S. I Corps in the east was the IX Army Group of the Chinese Third Field Army with 12 infantry divisions of about 120,000 men. The total Chinese strength was about 300,000 men; 12 divisions of the North Korean Peoples Army added approximately 65,000 men to the enemy strength. The North Korean soldiers had recovered sufficiently from their earlier reverses at the hands of the Americans to be judged by their commanders to be battle worthy. Added to that array were about 40,000 guerrillas operating behind the U.N. lines. Enemy strength was more than slightly underestimated.
The Chinese army had managed to move a vast number of troops by the most primitive means. Using animals and their own backs to transport supplies, they were not restricted to the primitive roads. They moved overland without the benefit of trucks or other mechanized equipment and therefore had the advantage of greater mobility. The United Nations, on the other hand, stuck with basic roads and improving existing roads to move men and equipment. Engineering companies moved ahead, trying to make roads passable for tanks and trucks.
Another difference that was to count very highly against the United Nations and the United States was adherence to routine, World War II thinking and tactics. Chinese used soldiers were expected to carry on their backs all the food each soldier required for at least six days. The food was cooked rice and soybean curds in concentrated form as well as similar items that required no cooking or heating in order to be eaten. Recovered diaries of the Chinese soldiers recount their pangs of hunger from these severely restricted rations, but they achieved their objective in the same bitter cold and biting winds and over the same terrain that handicapped their U.N. opponents.
The Chinese generally marched at night and averaged at least 18 miles per day for approximately 18 days. In the daylight hours, they concealed themselves in the rough, mountainous terrain. The only daylight movement allowed was by scouting parties. Restrictions were so onerous that officers were authorized to shoot to kill any soldier who violated the order for concealment. Many of the Chinese movement tactics were similar to those used by Napoleon Bonaparte a century and a half earlier.
On November 19, the U.S. 25th Division left Kaesong at 6 a.m. and bedded down at the mining town of Kunu-ri around 2 o’clock that night. The next day, the Turkish Brigade, which was largely an infantry unit without trucks for troop transport, was detached and reassigned to the IX Corps reserve at Kunu-ri. Walker’s Eighth Army command was split down the middle by the Chongchon River.
As part of the IX Corps’ general northward advance, the Turks were ordered on November 21 to move north with the 25th Division. By November 22, 1950, the Turks had completed their assignment of neutralizing North Korean patrols in their assigned area. The steady movement to Kunu-ri had begun in earnest. Kunu-ri, much like all the other small villages in the northern sector, was mainly mud-and-stick houses. It was a totally unremarkable place, little different from any of the other villages perched on the mountainsides and in the deep valleys cut by swift-moving mountain rivers and streams.
Advancing along with their American counterparts, the Turks were ordered to establish contact with the U.S. 2nd Division on the right flank of the IX Corps and also to cover the right flank and rear of their division. The brigade had received information concerning a Chinese regiment known to be northwest of Tokchon. General Yazici described the situation that confronted him in these words:
‘This was what the order was. Further intelligence was asked about the enemy and the ROK Corps, but none was available or more information was not supplied lest it lower the morale of the Turkish Brigade….The situation was serious, and demanded prompt action.’
On November 26, the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) launched strong counterattacks against the U.S. I Corps and IX Corps. The main Chinese force moved down the central mountain ranges against the ROK II Corps at Tokchon. The South Koreans could not withstand the attack and their defenses collapsed.
The Chinese onslaught assumed alarming proportions, and the Turks were ordered to protect the U.N. right flank. Trucks were assigned to transport the Turks’ 1st Battalion to Wawon, 15 miles east of Kunu-ri, about halfway to Takchon, unload and return for the 2nd Battalion. After insufficient trucks arrived, some of the brigade set out on foot. Orders, counterorders and garbled transmissions made the situation an unintelligible mess. The Turks were ordered to close the road and secure Unsong-ni. Trying later to explain the confusion of that time, General Yazici wrote:
‘There was no time to move the brigade to Unsong-ni and deploy it there before dark. Besides, the enemy, which was supposed to be at Chongsong-ni, was in fact too close to the line which the Corps wanted us to hold. That the Brigade might be subjected to a surprise attack before reaching its position was highly probable. Even more important was the fact that the civilian population had not been moved out of the area. If the peasants and the guerrillas that might have been infiltrated among them attempted to block the mountain crossing or the Wawon Pass in the rear, the Brigade might suffer heavily. As a matter of fact, the 2nd Division, of which we were supposed to defend the right flank, was withdrawing. It was impossible to fulfill the task from Karil L’yong, where the Brigade was, because the terrain was very rugged and thickly wooded. In order to protect the Kunu-riTokchon road and the other roads to the north and the south, a 12-mile-wide front had to be held. This was impossible against a numerically superior enemy who knew the region well. Further, the terrain restricted the effective use of artillery and heavy infantry weapons.’
As Yazici clearly outlined, the Turks were in an unenviable situation. They had to withdraw to the southeast. That withdrawal compounded the exposure of the Turks’ own east flank as well as the 2nd Division’s east flank. Yazici ordered his men to move in the direction of Wawon northeast of Kunu-ri. The brigade had lost contact with corps. Therefore, Yazici assumed responsibility and ordered his men to position themselves at Wawon. When they reached Wawon, they attacked toward Tokchon, on foot and without tank support. The terrain was upstream along the Tongjukkyo River into the mountain divide that separated the Chongchon River from the Taedong drainage. Here, the headwaters of the Tongjukkyo River fan out into numerous small streams.
When he received intelligence that air observers had seen hundreds of Chinese moving toward Tokchon, Maj. Gen. Laurence Kaiser, commanding the U.S. 2nd Division, remarked, ‘That’s where they are going to hit.’ The Chinese counteroffensive actually struck all along the front. Two platoons of the Turkish Brigade assigned reconnaissance duty were now given rear-guard duty. The Chinese followed the brigade closely. The reconnaissance unit engaged the oncoming Chinese at the Karil L’yong Pass, was unable to break contact. Only a few men survived.
The Turks had achieved one objective–they had tied down the enemy. The Chinese suffered heavy casualties trying repeatedly to take the Turkish position, and all their attacks were repelled. Finally, Yazici, understanding that the brigade was being encircled by the numerically superior Chinese, ordered withdrawal.
The Turks were isolated in the subzero temperatures, their orders not fully understood. And during the night, the Chinese kept up a steady barrage of sudden noises using drums, bugles, whistles, flutes, shepherds’ pipes and cymbals, along with the shouting, laughing and chattering of human voices.
The offensive had changed and now became a rout of the U.N. forces. The engulfing enemy constantly changed tactics and directions.. Communications resumed with the Turkish Brigade. Some orders were understood, but most were not. The brigade was ordered to merge with the U.S. 38th Regiment, cover the 38th’s flank and secure a retreat route westward. In the confusion of the retreat and the garbled, misdirected and delayed messages, that crucial directive was two hours late in delivery. The column got turned about in the mass confusion and congestion of the road.
Once again, as the Turks approached Wawon, they encountered heavy enemy fire. The CCF had arrived before the Turks were able to reassemble and assume defensive positions. The Chinese ripped into the ragged column and the soldiers were ordered to turn about once again. The Turkish 9th Company took the brunt of the attack as it covered for the retreating main body. The 10th Company of the brigade’s 3rd Battalion received orders to form the brigade’s general outpost line.
Major Lutfu Bilgin, commander of the 3rd Battalion, sent his 9th Company to defend the 10th and 11th companies’ flank. The Chinese eased off on the 10th but continued to besiege the 9th and the 11th. Midmorning on November 28, the Chinese broke through and attacked the 9th’s position in force. The company was overrun, and Major Bilgin and many of his men were killed.
Enemy reinforcements tried to encircle the entire brigade. General Yazici, however, assessed the situation and took steps to protect his flank and avoid encirclement. The CCF poured forward, and the Turks were caught in the trap that the Chinese were laying. Suddenly, the Chinese broke off after encountering strong resistance of the 3rd Battalion.
During the withdrawal, the Chinese had attacked the Turks with overwhelming force and the brigade took such high casualties that by November 30 it was destroyed as a battleworthy unit. The only support the Turks received from IX Corps was a tank platoon and truck transportation. That was added to the brigade’s artillery and enabled some of the brigade to survive.
The flow of messages and changed orders to the Turks on the road to Tokchon on November 27 reflected the lack of precise information and the high level of uncertainty that IX Corps and the Eighth Army experienced as they struggled to interpret the rapidly enfolding events. One certainty was that, during the day, the Chinese attacked the leading 1st Battalion at Wawon and this ambush inflicted the devastating blow to the Turks. The battalion was surrounded, and a hand-to-hand battle between Chinese bayonets and Turkish long knives took place. It was reported that the two companies of Turks were still fighting east of Wawaon and had about 400 men wounded. General Yazici was at his headquarters in Taechon, a larger village southeast of Kunu-ri. The Turks held out at Wawon until the afternoon and then withdrew to another position southwest of Wawon. Again, the Chinese outflanked those Turks, who then withdrew toward Kunu-ri. The Turkish battalion lost most of its vehicles. The survivors scrambled into the hills when all other means of escape was denied them. By that time, the Chinese held all the roads. The Turks continued to fight delaying actions to gain time for the rest of their troops to re-form and establish some semblance of an orderly defense, but they were not successful in any of those efforts.
At the 2nd Division Headquarters, information about the Turks and their actual movements was more and more difficult to obtain. The tanks sent toward the Turks’ position were repeatedly turned back. Confusion led to startling events, such as American soldiers simply abandoning their positions and equipment, including their weapons. The Chinese appeared to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Confirmation of Chinese movements was sparse and often erroneous. The Chinese, reported to be just ahead, turned out to be advancing on the soldiers from behind. The Turks decided to evacuate the command post. A new and yet ancient style of warfare had begun.
The Chinese and North Koreans used a multiple of tactics in a mountainous terrain that left little, if any, mobility. The weather had become an enemy as cruel as the terrain. The Turks and Americans, unable to communicate and coordinate, fought valiantly, but without much direction and without knowing what their fellow soldiers and units were doing.
The U.N. response to the Chinese offensive in November 1950 has been described as a ‘bugout,’ a massive retreat that should not have happened. Very little has been written about the conditions that contributed to the failure of MacArthur’s November offensive, an offensive that began with high expectations of bringing the soldiers home for Christmas. Afterward, the words ‘home for Christmas’ rang hollow in the ears of both the military and the politicians. The terrain, the weather, the lack of adequate language skills by the Americans and the Turks, and the lack of options for that massive an operation preordained the bloody, tragic outcome.
In the course of the U.N. offensive and the Chinese counteroffensive, the 1st Turkish Brigade suffered 3,514 casualties, of which 741 were killed in action, 2,068 wounded, 163 missing and 244 taken prisoner, as well as 298 noncombatant casualties.
The Turks, armed and trained by American military advisers, did better than even they had hoped or expected in this, their first real combat since World War I. The American units to which they were attached respected their skills and tenacity in combat. Some comments by American officers give insight into the Turks and their abilities. ‘They really prefer to be on the offensive and handle it quite well,’ went one appraisal. ‘They are not as good at defensive positions, and certainly never retreat.’ Another report told of their patrol skills: ‘Certain Turkish patrols always reported high body counts when they returned from patrols. Headquarters always scoffed at the high numbers, much higher in fact than any other unit, until the Turks decided to bring the enemy bodies back and dump them at headquarters for the body count.’
The Turks acquitted themselves in a brave and noble fashion in some of the worst conditions experienced in the Korean War. Very little else could have been required or expected of them. Their heavy casualties speak of their honor and commitment. Their bravery requires no embellishment. It stands on its own.
This article was written by A.K. Starbuck and originally published in the December 1997 issue of Military History magazine.
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