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Korean War: First Battle of the Naktong Bulge

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: August 21, 2006 
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With soft 'pops,' red and yellow flares shot up and glowed briefly and eerily in the warm night. At one minute after midnight, August 6, 1950, 800 men of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the North Korean Peoples Army (NKPA), 4th Infantry Division, began crossing the Naktong River near the Ohang ferry site.

The troops carried no heavy weapons or mortars. After crossing, they formed up quietly in a column of platoons and moved stealthily through a draw leading into American lines. Their objective was the town of Yongsan, about eight miles behind the lines of the U.S. 24th Infantry Division.

And so began the First Battle of the Naktong Bulge, a key part of the general North Korean offensive against the U.S. and South Korean defenders of the Pusan perimeter at the tip of the Korean peninsula.

Before North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, few U.S. troops were stationed in the South–and the four U.S. Army divisions in nearby Japan were woefully below strength and undertrained. Indeed, assignment to the U.S. 1st Cavalry (actually, infantry) and the 7th, 24th and 25th Infantry divisions had meant fairly easy occupation duty. After June 1949, some serious training was begun, but only on a limited scale.

Worse, the 24th and her sister divisions also lacked one-third of their authorized infantry and artillery commands and two-thirds of their anti-aircraft complement. They had only 15 to 20 tanks per division, instead of the 142 authorized. The tanks were often the M-24 light tanks, no match for the Russian-made T-34 that supported the North Korean drive southward.

Instead of their authorized strength of 18,804 officers and men, the divisions in Japan were allocated only 12,500. As the closest division to Korea–and the easiest to send–the 24th was the first command deployed. It was brought up from a strength of 12,197 men to 15,965 from the commands in Japan just before departing for Korea.

By the time it fell back to defensive positions on the South Korean peninsula, east of the Naktong River, on August 2, savage fighting had reduced the 24th to 9,882 men. The attachment of 486 U.S. troops and operational control of the 2,000-man Republic of Korea (ROK) 17th Infantry Regiment brought the aggregate strength to 12,368. Major General John Huston Church, a veteran of both world wars and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, was now division commander. He replaced Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, who was a prisoner of the North Koreans.

Forming a lengthy, serpentine moat along two-thirds of the Pusan perimeter, the twisting Naktong flowed through a valley that averaged 1,000 yards wide, although the river itself averaged no more than 385 yards across and was from 1 to 3 1/2 yards deep.

The 24th occupied a sector 34 miles long, extending northward along the Naktong from its junction with the Nam River. The river frontage was extended by the many loops in the Naktong's course. Hill masses on both sides of the river rose an average of 220 yards, with some reaching 330 yards. The terrain was of equal elevation on either side of the river, except in the far north. There, Hill 409 on the east bank dominated the terrain to the west.

The three battalions of Colonel Kim Hi Chun's ROK 17th Regiment were deployed along the northern 30,000 yards of front, regarded as the most difficult sector to defend and reinforce because of the poor road network. General Church surmised that the North Koreans would strike there.

When the NKPA 4th Division instead attacked to the south, it was unexpected and came sooner than General Church thought it would. The U.S. 21st Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Richard W. Stephens, was south of the ROK 17th. The 3rd Battalion (Lt. Col. John McConnell commanding), consisting of K and M companies, plus part of the regimental Heavy Mortar Company serving as a rifle unit, manned the 12,000-yard regimental front. The 1st Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith, was deployed in separate company positions several thousand yards to the rear of the 3rd. The 14th Engineer Combat Battalion reinforced the 21st Infantry Regiment.

The Heavy Mortar Company was on the 21st Regiment's left flank, just north of a boundary with the 34th Regiment. The company established outposts of four to six men on a line of several thousand yards. A lone halftrack, armed with four .50-caliber machine guns (called a quad .50 by the troops), happened to be close by. Lieutenant Planter Wilson from the Heavy Mortar Company positioned the halftrack so that the four guns could fire all along the company front.

Company K was dug in about a mile from the mortar men, also on an extended frontage. Across the Naktong, a road ran parallel to the river. On August 5, the North Koreans tried to use the road. The men of Lieutenant Elmer J. Gainok's Company K fired at the enemy's vehicles with 3.5-inch rocket launchers, but the range was too great. The company was a mixed infantry-heavy weapons unit, without regular organizational equipment, but it had two 81mm mortars. Just before dusk, the enemy tried to move a truck convoy along the road. Gainok's mortars hit one of the lead trucks, which then blocked the road. The mortars were then systematically fired at the stalled vehicles, inflicting heavy casualties.

South of the 21st was Colonel Charles E. Beauchamp's 34th Infantry Regiment on a 16,000-yard front, guarding what would become known as the Naktong Bulge. Lieutenant Colonel Gines Perez's 3rd Battalion was assigned the river line, with I Company in the north, L Company in the heart of the bulge and K Company in the south.

The somewhat scattered 21st could form a fair defense line, but Perez had to employ platoon-sized strongpoints overlooking the river. The 34th Regimental Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon held two observation posts between L and K companies. Some men from Battery A, 26th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion, employed as infantry, reinforced I Company. The fact that men from a heavy mortar company and an anti-aircraft artillery unit were deployed as infantry on the front lines of the division, and that an engineer battalion reinforced an infantry regiment, shows how understrength the 24th Division was.

The undermanned division's frontage suffered accordingly, with two unfortunate gaps developing–one of two miles between I and L companies and another of three miles between L and K. The front-line troops tried to strengthen their positions with anti-personnel mines and trip flares (both in short supply) and improvised booby traps. Patrols attempted to cover the gaps in the lines, while a regimental reserve (1st Battalion, assembled near the town of Kang-ni) and a division reserve (the two-battalion 19th Infantry Regiment) stood ready to offer emergency support.

One morning a couple of houses in a village across the Naktong moved slightly. Looking through field glasses, the men of L Company could see a tank's gun barrel sticking out of one house. The enemy had simply driven tanks into the mud-and-stick houses.

On the night of August 5, L Company of the 34th's 3rd Battalion, about 50 men under Captain Douglas W. Syverson, and a 10-man platoon under Lieutenant Leonard Korgie were across from the Ohang ferry on a 300-yard front. About dark, the platoon was moved across the river as a listening post.

At about 10:30 that night, Corporal Ed Metowski and Korgie heard slight noises to their front. Frank Pollock and Eugene Singleton, on their left, were also alert. To their right was Alvin Ginn. The men opened fire. Almost at once, the five men were set upon from all sides by enemy soldiers, who quickly overwhelmed and disarmed the Americans. Determined not to be captured, Korgie threw his helmet into the midst of the North Koreans and yelled, 'Let's go, Ed!' Ed didn't escape, but Korgie did. He reached the platoon command post (CP) with the enemy now firing flares and noisily crossing the river. As platoon personnel called for mortar fire over their phone, figures were scrambling up the hill toward the CP. Korgie yelled, 'Halt!' and 15 or so North Koreans jumped up about 40 yards away, yelling, 'Manzai! Manzai!' and spraying the area with burp-gun fire. Korgie and a companion fired into them. When Korgie's rifle was empty, he fell back, fumbling for another clip. As he ran, he noted that he was running parallel to a group of North Koreans advancing in a skirmish line. He knew they were North Koreans, but they thought he was one of them. After running up and down two hills, Korgie collapsed at the top of the third (a victim of bloody dysentery, fatigue and heat), pitched head first over the crest, and rolled about 40 yards down the slope. Just then, the enemy realized who he was, and some began to fire at him. He was able to slip another clip into his rifle, figuring he would shoot as many as he could before they killed him. For some reason, they left. The next morning, Korgie joined about 40 other men of the 34th farther north along the riverbank.

Robert Bayless, a machine-gunner with L Company, had been on the extreme right of the company line. The enemy thrust behind L Company and cut it off. A lieutenant led Bayless and some others north to join I Company, but I Company, with the few men from L, lost its hill. A counterattack was unsuccessful. I Company's old position was then hit by friendly mortar fire. Bayless and his group wandered into the sector of the 21st Infantry. There, he and some of his comrades fell, exhausted, into a roadside ditch, and Bayless dozed off. He was awakened by a column of men coming up the road in the dark. They proved to be the 24th Reconnaissance Company, preparing to counterattack along the southern flank of the 21st Infantry.

Colonel Beauchamp of the 34th Infantry reported the situation in his front line 3rd Battalion to General Church and committed the regimental reserve to counterattack. Mounting 1st Battalion's C Company (about 100 men) on trucks, with A and B companies following on foot, Lt. Col. Harold B. Ayres moved at 7 a.m. to counter the enemy. As Ayres and C Company arrived at Colonel Perez's now abandoned 3rd Battalion CP, they were hit by heavy fire from the nearby hills.

The company commander, Captain Clyde M. Akbridge, was hit three times and had to be evacuated. Ayres was able to escape and go back for the remainder of his battalion. Lieutenant Charles E. Payne took over the company, which was being swept by fire from nearby higher ground. The unit did get a 60mm mortar into action, but the assistant gunner was soon killed as he rose to observe where the rounds were striking. Robert Witzig fired the remaining mortar ammunition, then helped drag the wounded to a culvert. His platoon leader, Lieutenant McDonald Martin, was shot in the stomach. Surviving members of the company took shelter in a nearby grist mill. The defenders also used the .50-caliber machine gun taken from an abandoned personnel carrier to fight off the enemy. In spite of this, the North Koreans often came within grenade range of the mill. Early in the fight, Battery B, 13th Field Artillery, which was deployed nearby, was also attacked. Battery personnel abandoned four howitzers and hastily withdrew with about 50 men and one howitzer.

The fight at the grist mill went on for several hours. Finally, C Company's Lieutenant Payne asked for volunteers to go for help. Witzig and another man volunteered, but intense fire drove Witzig's companion back into the mill. Witzig managed to crawl about 40 yards before being blown up into the air and knocked unconscious. He had three wounds in the back. Coming to, he looked up to see a North Korean soldier reaching for his belt and grenades. Witzig killed him with his .45-caliber automatic pistol. Then he was hit again, his helmet spinning off. At first he thought he had been shot in the head, but he then realized the blood and flesh on his hands were from the back wounds he had patched up with his aid packet. Retrieving his helmet, he saw that its whole right side had been blown away.

Corporals John Nearhood and Harold Tucker, braving heavy enemy fire, dragged Witzig back into the grist mill. Every man who could handle a weapon helped to fend off the determined enemy assault. The wounded Witzig manned a Browning Automatic Rifle. The situation was now desperate. Nearhood volunteered to go for help and was quickly killed by enemy fire.

Soon after, Captain A.F. Alfonso's A Company, led by a tank, came to the rescue. Unfortunately, a tank round went through the grist mill, mortally wounding three of the men and injuring several more, all members of C Company.

After seeing that the dead and wounded of C Company were evacuated, Alfonso's company continued the attack, eventually reaching L Company on the river. The combined force numbered 90 men, including the wounded.

In the meantime, Company B had been stalled on Cloverleaf Hill (Hill 165) by the enemy.

By then, General Church, thoroughly alarmed, had ordered the 24th Reconnaissance Company and the 19th Infantry forward. That alleviated the pressure, but the enemy was across the river and on high ground. Throughout the night, American artillery fired into all known or suspected river-crossing sites, but the North Koreans still reinforced their bridgehead.

The main attack, it now could be seen, had come through the gap between the 34th Infantry's I and L companies. By 3 a.m. on August 6, the North Koreans had penetrated to the village of Kogong-ni, overrunning 3rd Battalion's CP and a detachment of the regiment's Heavy Mortar Company. On the next night, August 6-7, the ROK 17th Infantry repulsed enemy attempts to cross the Naktong in the northern sector. By prior plan, the ROK unit then traded off with fresh American troops while the U.S. 21st Infantry halted the enemy after they developed a lodgement in the village of Sadung near the river. Three companies of the 34th also held to their riverside positions for the moment.

Now, too, the 19th and elements of the 34th were poised for a counterattack against the northern shoulder of the enemy penetration. Local counterattacks had gained time for the 19th and, later, the 9th Infantry–a new and untried regiment from the freshly arriving 2nd Infantry Division–to move against the North Koreans.

But on August 7, the 19th and 34th regiments failed to dislodge the North Koreans, who seized most of Cloverleaf Hill and part of Obong-ni Ridge. From that critical terrain astride the main east-west road in the bulge area, the enemy could see all the way to Yongsan, five miles to the east.

Cloverleaf, as its name implies, was shaped like a four-leaf clover, with the stem pointing north. It was somewhat higher than Obong-ni Ridge, across the pass to the south. Obong-ni Ridge (or No-Name Ridge to some Marines) was a mile and a half long, curving somewhat southeast in a series of knobs known as Hills 102, 109, 117, 143, 147 and 153. The village of Tugok lay at the southern base of Cloverleaf, north of the road between it and Obong-ni Ridge. Obong-ni village was at the eastern base of the ridge a half mile south of the road.

On the nights of August 6-7 and 7-8, the enemy reinforced their bridgehead. At least two battalions crossed on August 7-8, and the NKPA 4th Division completed its crossing on August 10, using an underwater bridge and rafts. Trucks, heavy mortars, about 12 artillery pieces and possibly some tanks were moved into the bulge.

Commitment of the fresh 9th Infantry did not appreciably help the American situation. On the night of August 8-9, Captain Alfonso's force of A and L companies was ordered back from its exposed position along the Naktong. One platoon kept close to the road instead of moving south around Obong-ni, and suffered heavy casualties. The rest of the group entered U.S. lines well after daylight.

On August 10, the 9th Infantry lost 2,000 yards of critical terrain. The enemy also set up a roadblock on the Namji-ri-Yongsan road. Only along the Naktong were the Americans successful. The 19th took Ohang Hill, but its 2nd Battalion was reduced to about 100 effectives in each rifle company.

Church ordered the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, to Yongsan and told his operations officer, Lt. Col. James Snee, to seek whatever aid he could. Snee asked Eighth Army for the use of the 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. Church also ordered a reconnaissance company sent to Yongsan.

As Lt. Col. Gordon E. Murch's 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, attacked north from Namji-ri, its F Company seized a bridgehead across the Naktong. Company personnel had to push through throngs of supposed refugees. At one point, a 'refugee' cart tipped over, spilling rifles and ammunition to the ground, and about a dozen enemy soldiers, disguised as civilians, began to flee across a field. Staff Sergeant Glenn Ellison and his comrades shot down eight of them.

The 2nd Battalion's attack progressed the next day, supported by artillery, mortars and airstrikes. And on August 10, Church created Task Force Hill, giving command of the 9th Regiment (less the 3rd Battalion), 19th and 34th regiments, and the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, to Colonel John G. Hill of the 9th. But the 19th and 34th were mere shadows of regiments, both reduced by casualties to about 1,100 men each. The entire 24th Division now totaled 9,755 men, with 5,401 more being attached, including elements of the 2nd and 25th Infantry divisions. The addition of 247 replacements and weapons manned by the replacement crew helped minimally.

Task Force Hill was supposed to drive the enemy across the Naktong on the 11th by a general counterattack, driven ahead by the 9th and 19th regiments. But the enemy launched a surprise attack against the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, while in its assembly area at about 9 a.m. Although few casualties resulted, the attack was disconcerting. Task Force Hill's general attack failed.

The situation around Yongsan by now had so deteriorated that one regimental commander was moved to remark: 'There are dozens of enemy and American forces all over the area. And they are surrounding each other.'

In response to a call for help from Church, a composite company of men from A Company, 14th Engineers, plus cooks and staff from its headquarters, was sent to Yongsan. Their force numbering fewer than 100 men, the engineers set up four separate positions at about 800-yard intervals along the road from Yongsan. Another ad hoc force, under Captain George Hafeman (commander, 24th Division Headquarters Company), was deployed at the Simgong-ni and Wonjon passes, farther east. Known as Task Force Hafeman, it consisted of clerks and bakers from Hafeman's unit, military police personnel, men from the 24th Recon Company and others from eight different units, all supported by two tanks. Throughout August 12, the engineers and Hafeman battled North Korean infiltrators. Hafeman's two posts held, but two of the smaller engineer positions fell to the enemy. Three times, U.S. armored vehicles dashed into the Wonjon enclave with food, water and ammunition. Hafeman reinforced his group with an 81mm mortar and continued to hold.

As one highlight well worth noting here, K and L companies of the 34th Infantry at last were ordered to withdraw from their exposed positions along the Naktong. There has been a persistent, and erroneous, impression in the minds of many that the Army ran when the North Koreans attacked across the Naktong in August and, later, in September 1950. This is false. In August, the bulge, a front covering 16,000 yards, was manned by three understrength rifle companies. Two of those units remained in position, although completely cut off. One of the two was reinforced by a counterattacking unit, and the combined force then dug in and held. Only the most northern company was displaced. Men from that unit moved north into the sector of the 21st Infantry. The frontage was far too great for the force available to even outpost, let alone defend. The men of those units have been wrongly, even cruelly, reviled for too long. They stayed in their defensive positions until ordered out by higher authority. They performed their duty with honor. Meanwhile, shortly after midnight on the 15th, the North Koreans attacked across a wide front. Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, the Eighth Army commander, was upset. 'I am going to give you the Marine Brigade,' he told Church. 'I want this situation cleared up, and quick!'

Although the U.S. 24th Division's situation was grim, prisoners reported that the opposing NKPA 4th Division was also in poor condition, low on ammunition and supplies, and hurting in morale. Hurting or not, the enemy continued their attack on August 16, while on the United Nations side (for this was a U.N. 'police action' against the Communist aggressor, it may be recalled), both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps were preparing for a new attack of their own on the 17th. It would be led by Brig. Gen. Edward Craig's 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, consisting of the 5th Marine Regiment (three battalions with only two rifle companies each), supported by a 105mm howitzer battalion from the 11th Marines and a tank company. The Marines also had their own air support–the 1st Marine Air Wing's gull-winged Vought F4U-5 Corsair fighters.

With Obong-ni Ridge ranked as objective No. 1, the plan of attack for August 17 called for the Marines to go first, with the Army's 9th Infantry providing supporting fire from Hill 125. The Marines then would support the 9th when it launched its own attack on the ridge west of Tugok. Unfortunately, the Marine preparatory artillery fire fell beyond the objective for the most part and was ineffective. The planned airstrike was so late the Corsairs had time for just one pass at Obong-ni before the infantry moved out.

After some problems in communications–and tough fighting–massed 24th Division artillery raked Cloverleaf late in the afternoon with airbursts. The 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry, then took both Cloverleaf and Tugok without difficulty, as surviving enemy soldiers fled. The 9th now could protect and support the Marine right flank. The day ended with Marines on Hills 102 and 109 and in the gully between 109 and 117. On the 24th Division's right flank, the 34th and 19th Infantry regiments had taken Ohang Hill that afternoon. About 8 p.m., four enemy tanks clanked forward toward the Marines north of Obong-ni. They were met by 75mm recoilless rifles, 3.5-inch rocket launchers and fire from two Marine tanks. Three enemy tanks were quickly destroyed. While retreating, the fourth tank was destroyed by a rocket-launcher team from Company F, 9th Infantry.

A North Korean attack that night on F Company, west of Tugok, netted 100 yards. On Obong-ni, the enemy attacked down Hill 117, splitting Marine A Company, shattering its center platoon and driving it to the bottom of the ridge. The enemy assault then sputtered and receded. They made no attempt to flank the company position, nor to attack one of its platoons that was dug in by itself. Some officers believed that the attack was designed to conceal an enemy withdrawal.

On the morning of the 18th, the Marines continued their attack along Obong-ni, and by 9 a.m., they had taken Hills 117 and 143. Enemy soldiers retreated, in full view, to the hills beyond. Before morning's end, all of Obong-ni was in Marine hands–but A and B companies now totaled only 216 men, about half their original combined strength.

Once Obong-ni Ridge had been taken, artillery, mortar and tank fire blasted away; Corsairs dove to the attack, and the enemy retreat became a rout.

While the Marines cleared the North Koreans from the ridge and nearby Hill 207, the Army's 19th and 34th regiments still struggled. But by noon on August 18, they, too, had taken their objectives, Hills 240 and 223, and sent masses of enemy soldiers fleeing toward the river. Late in that afternoon Marine and Army attacks resumed, the Marines supported by an awesome array of mortars, artillery, recoilless rifles and tanks. By the end of August 18, most of the North Korean bridgehead had been eliminated, with a fearful slaughter of the enemy.

On the 19th, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, launched the final assault; at 8:45 a.m., the Marines and 34th Infantry linked up with each other.

The price had been high. The Americans lost 137 killed, 763 wounded, 564 missing, and at least 161 non-battle casualties. Of the total, Marine casualties were 66 killed, 278 wounded and 1 missing. Many of the Army missing were later classified as dead. For example, the surgeon of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, discovered the bodies of 30 soldiers in an overrun aid station. All had been murdered by the North Koreans.

The NKPA 4th Division, however, suffered horrendously. The Americans buried more than 1,200 of their dead. Estimated to have numbered no more than 8,000 men at the beginning of the battle, the North Korean division was reported to now number about 3,500. Only the enemy's lodgement on Hill 409 remained. No effort was made to reduce it.

The U.S. 2nd Infantry Division replaced the 24th along the Naktong. On August 31, the NKPA 2nd and 9th Infantry divisions crossed the Naktong both north of and into the old bulge area, and the struggle started all over again. This time, the North Koreans were not driven back across the Naktong until the final enemy retreat from the entire Pusan perimeter following the Inchon landing on September 15.


This article was written by Uzal W. Ent and originally appeared in the August 1994 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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