A Tale of Two Wars: World War II and Korea

A Tale of Two Wars: World War II and Korea

By Robert M. Citino
9/28/2010 • Fire for Effect

Note:  This semester I’m teaching a course at my school, the University of North Texas, on “The U.S. Army in the Korea and Vietnam Eras,” and I’ve been forced to think about the men who led and fought in those wars.  It was a generation (and an army) that came of age in the ETO in World War II:


By all accounts he was as brave as they come, and he had proven it repeatedly in World War II.  MG William F. Dean once leaped into action during a 1943 training exercise when a flamethrower hose came loose.  In attempting to save the life of his soldier, he was so badly burned that the doctors spoke of amputating his leg.  The next year would find him fighting in the ETO, both legs intact, limping on a hawthorn cane.  He served first as an assistant division commander to the 44th Infantry Division and then, when his CO got hit and sent back to the States, took over the division himself.  More than once he made sure he was in the thick of the fighting, he led the division well in some tough scraps near Mannheim and Heidelberg, and he came away with a DSC for his exploits.  Tall and brave and handsome, Bill Dean was a model U.S. general of World War II, an über-competent leader of an army that had vanquished the Wehrmacht in the West.

Fast forward five years to a town in central Korea called Taejon.  Dean’s division this time around is the 24th, and it’s been having its troubles.  He’s had to feed it into battle piecemeal, a regiment–no, a battalion–at a time, desperately trying to halt a southward lunge by the North Korean People’s Army in the summer of 1950.  Most of 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment (“Task Force Smith”) had already bought it just north of a town called Osan.  After that there were unsuccessful stands at Pyongtaek, then Chonan, and finally behind the Kum river.  That last one had been a complete SNAFU.  Two regiments, 34th on the left, 19th on the right, drawn up in a nice defensive arc on the high ground behind a river, and the enemy had blown through them as if on parade.  Infantry fleeing, complete breakdown in command and control, entire field artillery battalions captured intact:  it was a mess.

You know what they say, though:  things can always get worse.  At Taejon, they did.  Here Bill Dean did what his training and his World War II experience had instructed him to do:  gather in his regiments in order to fight his entire division as a concentrated whole.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left of it, just the remnants of previously defeated units, the men already shaken by their earlier encounters, jittery and–metaphorically, at least–already looking over their shoulders to find the nearest road out of Taejon.

The attack came in like all the previous ones:  a frontal attack, involving armor (old Soviet T-34/85s, supposedly “obsolete” by this point in time), along with wide flanking maneuvers by detachments.  It was a major attack, with most of two full North Korean divisions involved, and they did exactly what they had done previously, blasting through a U.S. Army defensive position with ease.

Dean reacted like just like he had in the previous war.  He was a brave man (“a fighter,” his commander, GEN Walton H. Walker of 8th Army had called him), and he didn’t think combat was just for the enlisted ranks.  Some reports have him grabbing one of the new, improved 3.5” bazookas and going tank hunting in the midst of the melee, and when the ammunition was gone, taking out his .45 automatic and blasting away at a North Korean tank.  Only when the retreat routes were already threatened did he try to get to safety himself.  That, unfortunately, went about as well as everything else had up to now.  Setting off in his jeep with an aide, he took incoming fire while trying to elude a North Korean roadblock.  Abandoning the vehicle, he set out on foot, apparently fell down an embankment and knocked himself out.  He would wander the countryside for weeks until picked up by the North Koreans, and would spend the next three years in a prison camp, the Korean War’s high-ranking POW.

Bill Dean had come a long way, perhaps the longest journey a commander can take:  from victor to vanquished, from domination to disaster.  So too, we might add, had the army he served.  His own experience was the army’s in microcosm.  Both of them had traveled a long way downhill from the heights of 1945 and total victory over the Wehrmacht to the depths of 1950, when they could no longer, apparently, handle even a minor power like North Korea.

Let us go deeper next week, however, and ask a few fundamental questions.  Just how different was the 1950 version of the army from the one that had fought in Europe a few short years before?  Just how different were these two wars?  And finally, looking back, is there anything that Taejon 1950 can teach us about the U.S. Army in World War II?

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13 Responses to A Tale of Two Wars: World War II and Korea

  1. […] original here:  A Tale of Two Wars: World War II and Korea » HistoryNet Post a […]

  2. Bill Nance says:

    Of course, you might ask why a Division Commander is out “tank hunting” even in WW II as opposed to commanding his division. Leading from the front and understanding what is going on is ok, but if a 2 star is doing a rifleman’s job, something is seriously, seriously wrong.

  3. Rob Citino says:


    You’re right, of course, but I still think we could defend Dean. By the time he went tank hunting, that battle was already lost!

  4. Bill Nance says:

    True, but it seems to be a trend with this particular guy. Don’t get me wrong, I like aggressive, lead from the front types, but I also like people that do their jobs. There were a LOT of failures in the opening of the Korean War, but highest among them were the failures of the 8th Army’s leadership prior to the war in training and preparing their men for combat. Not having a lot of funds or equipment is one thing, chilling out and living high on the hog in Japan is another.

  5. Rob Citino says:

    Point taken, Bill. But being equipped with 2.36″ bazookas that can’t penetrate the armor you’re facing might also have had something to do with it! Not sure who gets credit for that, but my guess: it wasn’t Dean.

  6. Bill Nance says:

    Roger, bad equipment sucks, but there’s ways around that, but it requires properly trained infantry with enough discipline to pull it off, even then it’s tricky, and won’t always work.

    Maybe I’m being too hard on the guy, but he was in charge during one of the worst performances in modern American military history. There was a LOT stacked against him, and you can’t blame the commander for not having the right equipment, having enough manpower (beyond what he controls), complete lack of air cover, complete lack of reconnaissance, etc. However, his troops fought poorly showing a lack of discipline and training and THAT is his fault.

  7. Rob Citino says:

    Bill–No one can say much good about what happened to the 24th ID in Korea. Perhaps we should let MG Dean have the last word. Responding to his Congressional medal of Honor (this was years later, after finally getting back to the States), he said:

    “There were heroes in Korea, but I was not one of them. There were brilliant commanders, but I was a general captured because he took a wrong road…. I wouldn’t have awarded myself a wooden star for what I did as a commander.”


  8. Bill Nance says:

    I can respect the guy for that. Reminds me of our conversation over why Moyer responded so poorly to Vann. Looking forward to your next blog.

  9. MattJ says:

    Mr. Cinto, thank you for publishing this wonderful account of an American hero. The General Dean life-story is perfect for the big screen.

    I’d like to share a couple of observations of the man. The 44th veterans genuinely admired and respected General Dean. In one way the General reminds me of another great leader, General William Tecumseh Sherman. Both held a deep kinship with their soldiers after the conflicts. As told by many 44th vets, General Dean had an open door for his ‘boys.’ Even as a big-shot bank executive, the General would receive any of his boys despite their circumstance. Just like Sherman.

    Dean had an interesting transformation, if this account is true. The official record for the number of 44th soldiers taken as prisoner of war by the Germans is miniscule. I believe the number is 19. I have personally met something like eight 44th vets held in captivity by the Germans. This cadre which represents half of the official POW count recounted the unfortunate capture many other fellow GIs. By their eye-witness account, far more than 19 buddies were taken POW in battles at Rauwiller and during Nordwind. Why the discrepancy? One 44th vet account told me General Dean provide the answer to him in personal visit in the 1960s. Before Dean’s capture by the North Koreans, Dean felt surrender was cowardice, a dishonor. A fight to the death was the only honorable alternative. And for this reason, the official battle record was understated. Dean would have it no other way. Paradoxically, Dean himself was captured in Korea. This humbled him and changed, 180 degrees, his view on the honor of surrender.

    It is an interesting anecdote.

  10. Rob Citino says:

    Fascinating, MattJ! Wars are fought by human beings. A lot of things happen “off the books,” and I continue to be amazed by the accounts I read and hear from vets of every war from WWII to Iraqi Freedom.

  11. Steve Mitchell says:

    Early on, Bill Nance said, ” There were a LOT of failures in the opening of the Korean War, but highest among them were the failures of the 8th Army’s leadership prior to the war in training and preparing their men for combat. Not having a lot of funds or equipment is one thing, chilling out and living high on the hog in Japan is another.”

    Not fair, Bill. From ’45 to the ’50 surprise jump into the South, American forces were hard at work, as an army of occupation, policing, supervising and helping to rebuild and develop modern infrastructure in Japan. I recall reading that about 500 troops total were doing the same in SK. Sipping on a cold American brew while the locals were struggling to get decent drinking water for their families is NOT chilling out.

    What were the North Koreans doing for those 5 years ? Russian-supervised training and preparing for the Asian blitzkrieg to come. Historians tell us that the senior partisan leadership in the North had been secretly spirited away to Moscow for schooling in the ” fine arts

  12. Steve Mitchell says:

    – cont’d –

    ” fine arts – Stalin style ” since ’43, as championed by Kim Il Sung.

    We have learned that Stalin never expected the American quick response to his/their strategy to reunite the peninsula by force, particularly after his Japanese spies reported that MacArthur was convinced that SK would go communist eventually anyway.

    Stalin badly needed that ice-free port of Pusan, which had been denied him by Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta in Feb, ’45 and again at Potsdam by Truman. Approving Kim’s dream and providing Russian training, materiel and support were no-brainers.

    Society rebuilders and builders vs. expanding Russian totalitarian economic interests and influence in the Far East.

    The “playing field” was NOT level !! Archival documents released in the 90s show Stalin pulled the plug when he realized his mistake, leaving a vacuum filled by massive Chinese manpower.

  13. Steve Mitchell says:

    Finally, we have to remember an army travels and fights on its stomach. The Korean drought of ’50 found Americans troops forced to survive by drinking rice paddy water rich in Korea’s human fertilizer.

    Diarrhea and disease were major factors in the 8th’s performance in 1950.

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