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Korean War: Battles of the Bowling Alley

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: August 21, 2006 
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The Battles of the Bowling Alley took place in a narrow valley north of Tabu-dong, Korea, on the Taegu-Sangju road. There, between August 18 and 25, 1950, the U.S. Army's 27th Infantry Division ('Wolfhounds') and the Republic of Korea's (ROK) 1st Infantry Division faced off against a determined effort by the North Korean People's Army's (NKPA) 1st and 13th Infantry divisions to break through this segment of the Pusan Perimeter.

There were many onslaughts against the Pusan Perimeter in the course of the struggle. As an officer of the 27th Infantry, I happened to be both an eyewitness and a participant in this one, a grueling seven nights of armored attacks against United Nations infantry and artillery units. The stakes in this contest were very high: If the North Koreans could break through the 27th's defense, they could barrel down to Taegu, the site of Eighth Army and ROK Army headquarters, capture its key communications center and rail line, then be in a position to threaten Pusan–the city that on August 18, as a result of the NKPA's ability to shell Taegu, had been declared the temporary capital of South Korea, and now housed President Syngman Rhee's government. One nightmare scenario had it that from Pusan, the NKPA could end the war by pushing American and South Korean units into the sea.

The 27th Infantry played an unusual role in the early anxious moments of the war. It was normally attached to the 25th Infantry Division, but Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker, who commanded the U.S. Eighth Army and United Nations forces in Korea at the time, chose to use the regiment as one of his 'Fire Brigades'–detached units that were rushed at crucial times to shore up threatened areas in the Pusan Perimeter.

By August 14, the ROK 1st Infantry Division, guarding a segment of the perimeter north of Taegu, was reporting that an enemy regiment with six tanks had entered the village of Kumwha, just two miles north of Tabu-dong.

On August 17, the Eighth Army handed the assignment of stopping the NKPA's initial advance towards Taegu to the commander of the 27th, Colonel John H. Michaelis. He responded by moving without delay the regiment's headquarters along with one reinforced battalion to a point across the Kumho River three miles north of Taegu on the Tabu-dong-Sangju road. His orders were to secure Taegu from enemy penetration from that direction.

Michaelis was a commander in whom Walker had a great deal of confidence. Just three days shy of his 38th birthday when he got this tough assignment, he was a 1936 graduate of West Point, had risen to the rank of full colonel in World War II and commanded an airborne infantry regiment until he was wounded. On his return to duty, he was appointed chief of staff of the 101st Airborne Division until the end of the war, then served as aide-de-camp to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel for that duty, but was publicly praised by Eisenhower as one of four lieutenant colonels in the Army 'of extraordinary ability.' When the Korean War broke out, Michaelis was in the G-3 (operations) Section of the Eighth Army in Japan. His assignment to command the 27th came suddenly. Walker's chief of staff broke the news, then added: 'Your plane leaves in 45 minutes.' Michaelis recalled, 'I put $25, a razor, and tooth brush in my pocket and took off.' When Michaelis arrived at Pusan, I was aboard a troop ship, and vividly recall seeing this lone figure on the dock, standing with feet spread and hands on hips. Someone said, 'Who's that?' Someone else replied, 'That's Colonel Michaelis, our new commander.'

All three of the 27th's battalions had seen battle. In the early part of August, the 2nd and 3rd had been used to attack the southern face of the Naktong Bulge in support of the 24th Infantry Division.

The 2nd Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Gordon E. Murch, also 37 years old, had faced tough challenges during the Battle of the Naktong Bulge, driving hard into the southern face of the enemy's penetration. A third battalion–the 3rd Battalion of the 29th Regiment–was seconded to Michaelis' 27th on August 7. Earlier, on July 24, the 3/29th had landed in Pusan and then lost almost half its men three days later battling elements of the NKPA 6th Division. When reassigned to the 27th, the 3rd Battalion, commanded by 41-year-old Lt. Col. George H. DeChow, joined Murch's 2nd Battalion at the Naktong Bulge.

Two weeks before the Battles of the Bowling Alley began, the 27th's 1st Battalion, under Lt. Col. Gilbert Check, had conducted a daring reconnaissance in force more than 15 miles into enemy territory one day, then fended off a determined enemy attack on the regimental command post (CP) the next morning. Check was an educator in civilian life. Michaelis liked to call him the 'bravest schoolteacher that ever existed.'

Michaelis' support assets in the hastily constructed but seasoned force included a platoon of 4.2-inch mortars from the Heavy Mortar Company, as well as Lt. Col. Augustus Terry's 8th Field Artillery Battalion (less Battery B). The 8th's gunners proudly called themselves 'The Wolfhound's Bark,' while the men of the 27th called the artillery battalion 'The Automatic Eighth' because of its rapidity of supporting fire.

Michaelis later said that he and his units 'drove like hell all day and night to get up there.' By dark, the 27th, reinforced by Company C, 73rd Medium Tank Battalion, had arrived at the appointed location on the Tabu-dong road already equipped with seven different counterattack plans.

Still alarmed by artillery fire that could be heard to the north of its headquarters, the Eighth Army augmented the 27th's artillery support on August 18, ordering the 37th Field Artillery Battalion (less Battery A), under Lt. Col. John B. Hector, to reinforce the 8th.

Three days earlier on August 15, the ROK 1st Infantry Division's 29-year-old commander, Brig. Gen. Paik Sun Yup, fighting valiantly in the mountains north of Taegu against heavy attack, had urgently requested immediate reinforcement because enemy tanks had begun probing the perimeter. The NKPA 13th Infantry Division had fought its way into the Tabu-dong corridor against Paik's 11th and 12th regiments. By the 17th, the North Koreans were poised to drive through the deep valley there to assault Taegu causing the emergency that Michaelis was asked to address.

Initially, the NKPA 13th and 15th Infantry divisions were north of Tabu-dong, the 13th west of the Tabu-dong road and the 15th on its western flank. By August 15, North Korean commanders reinforced those divisions with 21 new T-34/85 medium tanks and 200 personnel. The 13th was now believed to have 14 tanks and was positioned only 13 miles from Taegu.

At that point, the North Korean high command made a second decision, one that proved fateful for Michaelis: It ordered the NKPA 1st Division to move up on the 13th Division's left (east) flank and also ordered the 15th Division in the Taegu area to move to help the NKPA 8th Division, which was failing in its mission to cut the highway from Taegu east to the P'ohang area. This meant that when the U.S. 27th Infantry and two regiments of the ROK 1st Division were ordered to attack north on August 18, the NKPA 13th and 15th divisions were both in the zone of attack. For the next 10 days, the 27th, reinforced by ROK units, was locked in heavy fighting with two NKPA divisions in a tight mountain passageway that came to be dubbed the 'Bowling Alley.'

On the morning of the 18th, as the Wolfhounds motored north from Tabu-dong toward their chosen line of departure, I recall riding forward in one of the trucks with my rifle platoon–1st Platoon, Company B–and looking up to see Paik's men and the enemy fighting on the mountains overlooking the road.

There was little time to prepare. Our first attack was scheduled for 1 p.m., but crowded road conditions prevented the regiment from getting into position on time. The attack finally started at 3:30 p.m. Check's 1st Battalion was responsible for the road and the slopes to its left. Check assigned responsibility for the road itself to Company B, which had tanks. Company C moved over the paddies and lower slopes of Yuhak-san, a mountain to the left of the road, followed by Company A. Murch's 2nd Battalion moved forward on the right of the road. Company E was positioned beside the road, with Company G on its right. Company F followed Company E.

The American tanks fired at targets of opportunity as they rumbled along toward their assigned position across the road. Slogging through fields, paddies and low hills, the infantry struggled to keep up with the tanks. Soldiers in North Korean outposts withdrew without opposing the Wolfhounds–their main line was about two and a half miles farther on. When the 27th reached a point about two miles north of Tabu-dong, Colonel Michaelis was ordered to stop and organize a defensive position astride the road.

In peacetime, the valley would have been very pretty. Lombardy poplar trees lined the road and a small stream ran along the west side. A low stone fence paralleled the road about 20 to 30 feet to the west. Fields and paddies covered flat areas. Steep, high, forested mountains flanked the valley. Just west of the 27th, the Yuhak-san, a prominent mountain landmark, rose 2,700 feet, while a similar mountain to the east swept to a height of 2,400 feet, then ended two and a half miles southward in a 2,900-foot peak atop which sat the old fortress city of Kasan.

The road north of the regiment's position led to the village of Ch'onp'yong, where it forked. The right fork led to Kunwi; the left was the main road to Sangju. Just beyond that fork on the Sangju road lay the village of Sinjumak, which was hidden from the 27th's line of sight by hills, and in which consequently NKPA tanks apparently lay in concealment during the day. The Battles of the Bowling Alley were to be played out along this stretch of the narrow inter-mountain road between Ch'onp'yong-dong and various positions of the 27th.

It was almost dusk when Michaelis' leading companies received the order to halt. Some of the 1st Battalion officers gathered on the road to receive orders for the defense. I was in this group. As we stood there, an NKPA column, led by two T-34 tanks and an SU-76 self-propelled (SP) gun, came down the road. Enemy infantry, some on foot and others in trucks, followed. The lead tank, acting as observer, clanked forward without firing. The second tank and SP gun fired in the general direction of Company F on our right flank, but it was obvious that they had no particular targets. Soon enemy mortar and artillery fire began falling throughout the area.

The 27th's officers scattered to their respective commands. It was now a little after 8 p.m. I joined my platoon, which was spread out along the low stone fence on the left of the road.

The approaching North Koreans had been first spotted near Ch'onp'yong, 800 yards forward of the leading elements of the 27th. The commander of the attached C/73rd Tank Battalion overheard the enemy advance and deployed two of his M-26 tanks onto the road. Three other tanks stayed in a streambed that was more or less at right angles to the road. Another four or five tanks were in a column farther back, each about 75 yards apart.

The lead T-34 stopped and fired. Its first round was 25 yards short. The second round set a U.S. truck on fire. The light of the burning vehicle revealed an enemy tank about 300 yards from the American tanks, accompanied by infantrymen in the ditches. Two NKPA tanks following the first opened up on the M-26s to the rear, but the leading M-26 returned fire with a 90mm high explosive round, striking the front plate of the leading T-34. This was followed by five high-velocity armor piercing rounds, which destroyed the enemy tank. The three M-26s in the stream then joined the duel.

The Wolfhounds had already made their defensive plan when the North Koreans attacked. Company F had the road and low-lying area to the right. Company B was to deploy left of the road and across the low ground, the foothills beyond and the lower slopes of Yuhak-san. Captain Gordon C. Jung had about half of his B Company in the paddies on the left of the road, as the NKPA column drew near. My 1st Platoon was scattered along the low stone fence, but our 3.5-inch rocket launcher was at the tail end. I called for it to be brought forward, but we were too late.

As darkness enveloped the valley, fire from the 37th and 8th Field Artillery began falling onto the North Korean troops. A rocket launcher team from Company F engaged the T-34s and hit the second tank. Sergeant Joseph E. Marlett, of Company B's Weapons Platoon, recalled that a team led by his platoon sergeant also hit the second tank with a rocket, but the sergeant lost an arm to enemy fire. Two rockets that struck the first tank failed to explode, but the enemy abandoned it. Artillery fire knocked out an SP gun and two trucks. Company B held its fire until the enemy infantry approached to within 50 yards, then blasted them with small arms and automatic fire.

Lieutenant Dixie Parker, a forward observer for the 8th Field Artillery, was with Company F. He and his three men were in an observation post, and when one of the North Korean tanks halted about 15 to 20 feet away, Parker and his men could hear the tank crew talking. Then the T-34 fired its 85mm gun. Its concussion was unnerving. About midnight, Parker decided 'to do something about them stinking tanks.' He ran back, grabbed a rocket launcher and some ammunition and returned to his OP.

'We sneaked a peek and let fly,' he said. As soon as the rocket left the launcher, Parker and his men'scuttled like mad about 10 feet to our right.' The rocket missed, but the tank crew figured where it had come from and, as Parker noted, turned 'their machine guns around [and] poured a hail of lead into the place we had been. They kept traversing, probing for us, and the tracers were terrible, yet fascinating.' Parker's men spotted another T-34 and fired one round at it. The tank was destroyed 'with a helluva roar and a big flash,' Parker recalled.

Corporal Glenn V. Ellison of Company F was in a foxhole on a dike next to the road with two other men. Ellison was armed with a carbine and a flame-thrower. One of the men had a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and the other had an M1 rifle. On their right a crew manned a heavy, water-cooled .30-caliber machine gun. An American tank was behind Ellison, partially shielded by the dike.

An enemy SP or tank round hit next to Ellison's hole, showering the occupants with rocks and dirt. He was only slightly wounded, but the exploding round had blown all the men's weapons out of reach down the forward slope of the hole. Machine-gun fire from the tank behind them and answering fire from North Korean machine guns criss-crossed overhead.

Without their weapons and fearful of being killed by the machine-gun duel while trying to retrieve them, Ellison and his comrades periodically rolled hand grenades out of their hole. Adding to the confusion, one of the men had been hit hard by a flying rock, which dented his helmet. For a while, the poor soul thought he had been fatally wounded.

First Lieutenant Lewis Millett (awarded a Medal of Honor later in the war), also a forward observer from the 8th Field Artillery, was with the Wolfhounds. When the NKPA tanks and infantry got within 50 feet of his foxhole, he called artillery fire in on them.

Lieutenant Posey Starkey, commanding the Machine Gun Platoon of Company D, had his guns attached to Companies B and C. He was with Company B. It was 'a turkey shoot when the tanks and SPs tried to come into the battalion position,' he recalled. 'I can still see the silhouettes of the burning vehicles and the thunderous artillery fire concentrated on the attackers.'

By 12:30 a.m., the first fight was over. Three of the surviving NKPA tanks turned on their running lights and sped to the rear. The North Koreans had lost two tanks, an SP gun and an estimated 100 men. Another, weaker attack against Companies E and F came about 2:30 a.m., but was broken up by artillery and mortar fire.

The 27th was finally able to organize its defense just north of the tiny village of So-ri, two miles above Tabu-dong and about 15 miles northwest of Taegu. This was a good position: From So-ri, the road stretched north in a straight line for a mile, giving our units a straight shot at any enemy advances. The 1st Battalion was deployed here on the left of the road and the 2nd Battalion on its right in what amounted to a sort of 'U' shape. The 2nd Battalion was responsible for covering the road itself. Captain Jung, commanding Company B, suggested to Captain Martin L.V. Merchant, F Company's commander, that Company B put one of its rifle squads on Company F's side of the road and that F put one its rifle squads on B's side of the road. 'That way,' Jung said, 'we'll really be tied in.' That's what they did. It worked beautifully, Jung reported.

Company B's 2nd Platoon, led by Platoon Sergeant James R. Wilson, occupied the company's right, next to Company F. First Lieutenant John B. Hammond's platoon of Company F tied in with Wilson. Company B carried the line west across the rice paddies and onto the lower slopes of Yuhak-san. Company C was on a finger ridge 400 yards forward of B Company's left front, which afforded observation of the enemy's approach. Company A was on a ridge just behind B's left flank. On that flank, from front to rear, were Company C, my own 1st Platoon of Company B, then Company A. The 2nd Battalion continued the line east of the road, with Company F defending the ground to its right. Company E was on F's right, and Company G held a ridge behind E.

The regiment thus held a tight four-company front, with refused flanks. Two tanks were placed on the line near the road, two others in the streambed to the rear, and four more farther back, ready to reinforce. Colonel DeChow's 3rd battalion was held in reserve to give added depth to the position and protect the regimental rear areas. The 8th and 37th Field Artillery battalions, each less one firing battery, were behind the infantry. Between them, the two battalions had 24 105mm howitzers with which to pummel the enemy.

The 1st Platoon climbed the lower slope of the mighty Yuhak-san in pitch-black darkness. All the earth had been washed away long ago by erosion, and the platoon had to 'dig in' by piling up rocks. My platoon sergeant and I dug down about 5 feet, when we struck a stream.

Here we stopped digging. Each night we ended up with wet butts because we took turns on alert and resting in the bottom of the hole. We sat on flattened cardboard ration cases to try to keep the water from our bottoms, but it always eventually seeped through.

On the morning of August 19, the ROK 11th and 13th regiments, both from the 1st Division, attacked along the ridges, making small gains. General Walker was forced to send the ROK 10th Infantry Regiment and two battalions of the U.S. 23rd Infantry Regiment to close gaps: the 3rd Battalion to protect the 8th and 37th Field Artillery Battalions; the 2nd set up behind the 27th astride the road, which was also the main supply route (MSR).

Heavy NKPA mortar fire forced the 3/27th Infantry's CP to relocate. Beginning about 3:45 p.m., A/8th Field Artillery was hit by heavy artillery, mortar and small-arms fire, killing two men and wounding 12 more. But the men stood to their guns and at one point they turned several howitzers to fire point blank at attacking enemy infantry. A number of airstrikes were called down that day on known and suspected NKPA artillery and mortar positions.

That night the presence of a battalion of the ROK 10th Infantry near Paik's CP thwarted a company-sized NKPA raid aimed at capturing the general.

August 20 was fairly quiet. Aircraft strafed North Korean positions, beginning their runs so close to American lines that their machine-gun fire hit the panels laid out by the troops to identify themselves to the planes and expended .50-caliber cartridge casings fell into Wolfhound foxholes. In general, however, the 27th Infantry was able to improve its positions during the day.

After the battle the previous night, a North Korean repair crew came out and worked on one of the knocked-out T-34 tanks. On the morning of the 20th, 17-year-old BAR-man Daniel Cooper and three other riflemen from G/27th Infantry were ordered out to disable the tank's main gun. 'It was several hundred yards in front and within [the enemy's] range most of the way,' said Cooper. 'We took off down the road, using whatever cover we could find and made our way to the tank.' Cooper could not remember being fired on, but admitted that they were so intent on completing their mission and getting back to their lines that the men ignored everything else.

When the patrol arrived at the tank, they decided not to open the hatch; it was probably booby-trapped. They had nothing with which to disable the gun, but one of the men suggested stuffing mud down the barrel. They did this and returned to friendly lines. That night, 'they were back out there,' Cooper recalled, 'and fired one shot and that was the end of that barrel and anyone else that was standing around. The picture of that tank with the flared barrel made the Associated Press, Life magazine and all. That was my little part of the Bowling Alley.'

At 5 p.m. NKPA 120mm mortar fire struck the Heavy Weapons Company. Silhouetted by a bright moon, North Korean tanks and supporting infantry ground forward down the valley. They were taken under mortar and artillery fire. When the North Korean infantry came within 150-200 yards, American machine guns, BARs and company mortars opened a devastating fire. Tracers from both sides criss-crossed and occasionally ricocheted over the battle area.

Milton R. Olazagasti of the 60mm Mortar Section of Company F wrote, 'We had set up our mortars in a gully.' He and another man from the section dug in near the road. At first he was happy about this because he didn't have to climb a hill to dig in. He soon regretted this, however, because 'we were right in the middle of the action.' The 60s joined in to repel every enemy attack from that night on. Olazagasti thought they may have set a record for rounds fired, but in any case, he said, 'we fired a hell of a lot of rounds in those three or four nights….'

The leader of 3rd Platoon, C/73rd Tank Battalion, was unable to see the approaching North Korean armor, and his tank's first round missed. A T-34 fired back, but also missed. It then turned and retreated, hastened by several more rounds from the M-26. Unknown to the Americans and the ROKs, the NKPA 15th Division actually exited the Bowling Alley area that day, having been ordered to support the 8th Division, which was trying to cut the Taegu-P'ohang road.

The pyrotechnics on the 20th were just the first round of continuous nightly fireworks. My platoon on the slopes of Yuhak-san had a ringside seat. Most of the heavy fighting was on the valley floor.

The North Koreans never stood a chance, despite their numbers and heavy armor. Our artillery, tanks, mortars and machine guns proved too much for them as they tried to come south through the gantlet we had set up. What is truly amazing is the fact that these nightly heavy attacks were essentially against one Company B rifle platoon and one (or perhaps two) from Company F–certainly against fewer than the 100 defending infantrymen at the point of attack.

Soldiers from the ROK 1st Division on the hills above us would come down off the mountain to my CP almost every day, usually toward evening. We gave them food and sometimes ammunition, then they would go back up the mountain. Some of their wounded also came by. Once, a litter team brought a young soldier down who had a bad chest wound. My medic tightened his bandages and gave him a shot of morphine for the pain. Through these daily contacts with our neighboring ROK soldiers, we developed considerable respect for them and their tenacious fight for the rugged mountain above us. If Paik and his men had collapsed, we would have been goners.

On the morning of the 21st, white flags were seen in front of American lines. Civilians reported that many North Korean soldiers wanted to surrender. At 9:45 a.m., we sent a patrol to investigate and to make an estimate of enemy losses. The patrol advanced about 1,500 yards, drawing some artillery fire and skirmishing with small groups of North Koreans. When NKPA SP guns began firing at the patrol, it was ordered to withdraw. The patrol managed to come back with some intelligence: They had seen one enemy 37mm anti-tank gun with a dead crew, a disabled T-34 and its dead crew, a 120mm mortar, two destroyed SP guns and five disabled tanks, which the Americans had destroyed with thermite grenades. They also found the bodies of 20 North Korean soldiers. An action report written by men on the patrol records that tanks that accompanied them knocked out one SU-76 SP gun on the right-hand side of the road and two T-34 tanks parked in a schoolyard south of Ch'onp'yong. The patrol returned to friendly lines with the loss of two men killed and two wounded.

At dusk that day, a proactive defensive strategy was instituted: The 2nd Battalion sowed an anti-tank minefield, anti-personnel mines and trip flares 150 yards forward of Company F. As part of a planned deception, a second belt of mines was laid on top of the ground about 100 yards forward of the buried mines. The mines were booby-trapped and machine guns were laid to cover both fields.

In preparation for the expected battle that night, crews from the two tank platoons that had been deployed behind the lines manned the tanks of the two forward platoons–the five tanks of the 4th Platoon were then moved into a forward staggered column along both sides of the road. All tank guns and rocket launchers were zeroed in on the road.

North Korean flat trajectory fire–the first Bowling Alley shots–began about 10 p.m. from several thousand yards up the road. Some 250 rounds were fired over the next several hours, most of it against the MSR–straight shots through the alley. U.S. artillery answered back up the alley, concentrating on the road junction. The NKPA force consisted of eight tanks, four SP guns, an unknown number of trucks and a regiment of infantry, advancing from a point 2,000 yards beyond Wolfhound lines, according to a post-battle report. The friendly artillery appeared to break up this attack.

At 1:37 a.m.: 'Able Charlie to Amazing Able, over.' Captain Alfred S. Burnett, Company C commander was calling from his forward position to report the sound of tanks to his front. Our artillery then fired illuminating rounds. By this light, Burnett counted 19 enemy vehicles moving down the road toward the 27th's position, including nine tanks and a number of SP guns. North Korean infantrymen also walked rapidly along the road and flanking ground, their tanks and SP guns firing as they moved along. Most of the fire landed in rear areas, but it was clear by its size that this force was part of a major assault by the NKPA 13th Division against the ROKs and Wolfhounds.

American artillery, mortars and machine-gun and rifle fire rained down on the advancing North Koreans as they entered the minefield and as they approached the dug-in infantry. But the tanks held their fire until the lead T-34 stopped about 50 yards forward of the first M-26. Then the American tank fired, hitting the T-34 dead on. About the same time, a rocket round also hit the North Korean tank. Frank Schivone of Company F disabled a second tank, with one rocket round. The crew was killed trying to escape. The M-26's crew spotted that same T-34's silhouette in the night and fired at it also. Their first round missed, but their second hit the T-34's bogie wheels. Later, Corporal Kenneth E. Taylor painted '27th INF., courtesy of Fox Co.' on the side of that tank.

The third NKPA vehicle was an SU-76 which had been firing up the draw east of the road. That was the only enemy round fired at American tanks that night, and it hit nothing. The 27th Infantry and the 73rd Tank Battalion subsequently competed for the honor of having destroyed this gun with a rocket round and a shell fired by the lead M-26. The fourth enemy vehicle in the column, a T-34, turned and fled.

Nearly one platoon of NKPA infantry were with the tanks, 10 riding on the lead tank. Ten or 15 were killed, the others ran back. The battle raged for five hours, with the 8th Field Artillery firing 1,661 rounds, the 37th about 1,400 and the 4.2-inch heavy mortars 902. The 81mm mortars pumped out another 1,200 rounds and Fox Company's 60mm mortars 385.

Each round of armor-piercing ammunition the North Korean tanks fired flashed through the night as a flaming ball. Some rounds ricocheted off the road and careened off erratically into the night.

'The NK tanks started shooting blindly down the center of the road,' wrote Sergeant Phil File of Company A, who was on a hill overlooking the action. 'From our vantage point, the red-hot shells going straight down the road in the black of night suggested bowling balls rolling down a darkened alley.'

Most of the NKPA infantry and vehicles never got close enough to be fired on by American tanks. The artillery destroyed several trucks, personnel carriers and more SP guns.

The North Korean attack through the valley was thwarted, but the NKPA 1st Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, attempted a feint, and slipped around our eastern flank, setting up a five-mile-long fire block on the road northward from a point only nine miles above Taegu. They were defeated in part by machine-gunners.

At dawn Colonel Check went forward to get a first-hand report of the battle. Captain Merchant asked him to compliment Company B. 'Their machine-gunning was beautiful, just beautiful,' he said happily.

It had been the NKPA's most determined attack yet in the Bowling Alley, but it was defeated like the others. According to patrol reports, the enemy lost an estimated 1,300 men. Eleven prisoners confirmed that only about one-fourth of the attackers survived. Nine T-34s, six SPs and two trucks were also destroyed that night. Later the Americans learned that the defeat generated squabbles among the North Koreans: The NKPA commander blamed the commander of the 19th Infantry Regiment, Major Kim Song Jun, for incompetence and failure to coordinate the action of his regiment with the division during the battle.

Beginning at 4:05 that afternoon, the North Koreans attacked our artillery by beginning the most intense shelling of 8th Field Artillery positions experienced to date. At 4:30 p.m., the 8th's War Diary records, 'the FDC [Fire Direction Center] took two hits instantly killing four officers and two non-commissioned officers. The killed included Major Byron Magee [the battalion executive officer]; Captain Sten E. Westin, Asst. S-3; Captain Joseph W. Terman, Liaison Officer, First Lieutenant Teddy B. Akins, Asst. S-2 [Intelligence officer]; Master Sergeant Kenneth S. Richards, Intel Sgt., and Communications Sergeant First Class James O. Relogle.' Millard Fletcher, an 8th Artillery staff officer who had just left the FDC, was about 100 feet from it when the mortar fire came in. 'I was knocked to the ground and rolled into a ditch, was not hit,' he reported. 'One round made a direct dead center hit on the command post.'

The individual batteries immediately took over and continued to fire, but the 8th Field Artillery CP had to displace under fire.

The 27th Regiment's CP was also heavily attacked. Captain Frank U. 'Rocky' Roquemore, Assistant S-3, wrote, 'The regimental command post was receiving machine gun fire direct from [a nearby hill]. My driver and three others were wounded. The tanks placed direct 90 mm fire and eliminated that particular position.'

But the enemy attack continued, forcing Michaelis to call artillery fire down on his CP. He then also called for air support. It came in the form of North American B-25 bombers, ordered by the air controller to drop their bombs on the regimental CP. The pilots protested that if they followed orders, they would hit the CP, but the controller insisted that 'it didn't make any difference because [they] would be dead anyway.' The bombers subsequently dropped 4,400 pounds of bombs, breaking up the enemy attack and saving the CP.

In the midst of all this, Michaelis received a report that the ROKs had given way on his left. Alarmed, he relayed this to higher headquarters. Word went out to some American troops to shoot, if necessary, to force the ROKs back onto the mountain.

I received such an order and, based on my assessment of Paik and his men, thought it was ridiculous. Taking my interpreter and another man with me, I began climbing the mountain to find out the situation for myself. I soon came upon a few ROKs, who told me that they just wanted fresh ammunition, food and water. I reported this to my company commander. Michaelis also soon found out the truth: One ROK battalion had been cut off for two days without water, and had finally broken out. General Paik found the battalion and reorganized it. He told the men: 'Look at those American troops over there. They're fighting because they trust the ROK Army, and if we retreat we bring shame down on the entire ROK Army….We're going to kick…the enemy off our ridge….' And that's what they did. Some observers said that the ROKs charged through their own supporting artillery to get at the enemy.

Michaelis apologized to Paik, who made it clear that he resented the implication that his men could not stand up under the test. His men were indeed having a tough time defending the rugged mountains while the Wolfhounds defended the valley. But the ROKs never wavered; the men of the 27th greatly admired and respected the soldiers of the ROK 1st Division after this campaign.

There was a consistent NKPA strategy followed every night before an attack. The enemy shot red and green flares into the sky at various points along the front: A red flare meant that the NKPA had found a strong American or ROK position; a green flare meant that they had found a gap or weak point. The Wolfhounds tried deception again, firing some of their own flares to confuse the enemy. But there is no evidence that this worked.

There was a very unusual episode during the Battles of the Bowling Alley: A fairly high-level NKPA officer rallied to the U.N. side. The commander of the NKPA 13th Division artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Chong Pong Uk, reacting to a dispute with his commander, deserted and surrendered to the ROKs on August 22. He was the highest ranking prisoner at that moment in the war, and as revenge on his former commander, revealed the location of seven operable 120mm mortars and 13 76mm guns. American fighter-bombers and artillery subsequently pummeled the site. Chong also revealed that the NKPA 13th Division was down to about 3,000 men, only 1,000 of them infantrymen, and that it had only three tanks and seven of its original 16 76-mm SP guns.

Before the day was out, the ROK 12th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, finally seized the peak of Yuhak-san and drove its surviving NKPA defenders away.

On August 23, the North Koreans acknowledged defeat, blew craters in the road, mined it and pulled back. Just before noon, a force of about 100 North Koreans hit K/27th Infantry and 1st Platoon, C/65th Engineer Combat Battalion, but were driven away, leaving 50 dead behind. Just after midnight on the 24th, an estimated two NKPA companies and a few tanks made the final attack on the 27th. They were easily repulsed, with the loss of two more tanks.

But even with this retreat, not all was well. During that day, I watched from my vantage point on the hill as an ordnance technical team tried to evacuate a damaged T-34. The project attracted a number of onlookers, who gathered close by. Suddenly, I saw an explosion at the tank, which I thought at first to be a booby trap. As the dust and smoke cleared away, many of the bystanders were lying there, obviously injured. The retriever pulling the tank had dragged it onto a U.S. mine. The tank was damaged, and 12 Wolfhounds were wounded.

That night the 27th was ordered out of the Bowling Alley, the 1st ROKs to take over their positions. The 23rd would remain north of Taegu in support of them.

At 2:30 p.m. on August 25, a small contingent composed of a rifle platoon from Company B and one from Company F, supported by a platoon from C/73rd Tank Battalion, launched a limited objective attack to secure a line of departure for the ROKs. The force advanced 2,000 yards without opposition. As the Americans awaited the arrival of the ROKs, both forces were subjected to NKPA mortar fire. All the ROK officers were killed and the Wolfhound contingent suffered a number of casualties. The Americans withdrew, as did the leaderless South Koreans. The ROK outfit was quickly reorganized with new officers, however, and returned to the attack.

In the meantime, the 2nd and 3rd battalions, U.S. 23rd Infantry, attacked northward along the road and the high ground east of it. By August 24, however, they had eliminated all but an estimated 200 NKPA troops, and the MSR was completely open.

As a result of the Bowling Alley exchanges, the North Koreans lost 13 T-34 tanks, five SP guns and 23 personnel carriers and other vehicles. The NKPA 13th Division had spent itself in its attempts to batter its way through the ROK 1st Division and U.S. 27th Infantry Regiment. The NKPA 1st Division's 1st Regiment was reduced to 400 men and had lost all its heavy mortars, howitzers and anti-tank guns.

The U.S. 23rd Infantry suffered 37 casualties, while the Wolfhounds lost 17 KIA, 88 WIA and four missing. The 8th Field Artillery lost four men killed, 32 wounded and two missing. General Paik wrote that his 1st Division lost 56 officers and 2,244 enlisted men. He estimated the NKPA dead at 5,690.

The 27th was relieved by ROK troops on the night of August 25-26. Enemy fire during the relief killed one ROK battalion commander and Major Arthur B. Butler, S-3, 2/27th Infantry.

For its uncompromising and courageous stand in the Bowling Alley, the 27th Infantry Regiment was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation (then known as the Presidential Unit Citation).


This article was written by Uzal W. Entand originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!



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