Sent to delay the North Korean communist wave at the outset of the Korean War, Task Force Smith became an object lesson in military hubris.
There should be, somewhere in the annals of American military history, a compendium of battlefield disasters. If so, among them would be a little-known engagement that marked America’s earliest involvement in the Korean conflict and presaged what was to follow. It was known as the Battle of Osan, fought bravely but futilely by a badly outnumbered battalion of U.S. Army infantry and artillery known as Task Force Smith.
At dawn on June 25, 1950, communist North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and surged into the democratic Republic of Korea the People’s Army of in what the United Nations termed “an unprovoked act of aggression.” Ever since the United States and the Soviet Union split Korea in two after World War II, each side had postured, threatened reunification by force and engaged in border spats. This latest action seemed at first to be just one more incident in a five-year standoff marked by mutual threats and hostility.
By June 30, having realized the true scope of the invasion, President Harry S. Truman had ordered General of the Army Douglas MacArthur—supreme commander for the Allied powers in occupied Japan—to commit ground troops to Korea. MacArthur immediately sought authorization to “move a U.S. regimental combat team to the reinforcement of the vital area discussed and to provide for a possible buildup to a two-division strength from the troops in Japan for an early counteroffensive.” Truman approved, and MacArthur instructed Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker, Eighth Army commander, to order the 24th Infantry Division—then stationed in Japan—to Korea with all possible speed. Walker, in turn, conveyed preliminary verbal instructions to division commander Maj. Gen. William F. Dean.
The immediate problem was there was not an established regimental combat team (RCT) in Japan, nor were there enough C-54 cargo planes in the country to transport such a unit and its equipment. The respective commanders chose not to spend time improvising a regiment-sized combat outfit or waiting for more planes, fearing that such delays would compromise MacArthur’s plan for rapid deployment.
Instead, they decided to send a small delaying force to “contact the enemy.” The rest of the 24th Inf. Div. would follow by sea, entering Korea through the port of Pusan. Instead of the called-for full-strength regimental combat team, the delaying force comprised a single understrength infantry battalion totaling barely 400 men. When this tiny force departed for Korea—for what would certainly be a hostile engagement with a numerically superior foe—it would go without the tanks, forward air controllers, combat engineers, medical support, air defense, military police, or signal and reconnaissance platoons indigenous to a standard RCT.
The one thing the Army did right was to pick a good man to lead the unit.
Thirty-four-year-old Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith was a seasoned combat veteran. A 1939 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he’d been stationed at Oahu, Hawaii, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and he fought in the Pacific throughout World War II. Now he was to command the first American combat unit to meet the enemy in the Korean War.
As Smith later recalled, on the night of June 30, 1950, he was awakened at his quarters at Camp Wood on the island of Kyu¯ shu¯, Japan, by a phone call from Colonel Richard W. Stephens, commander of the 21st Inf. Regt., 24th Inf. Div. “The lid has blown off,” Stephens said. “Get on your clothes and report to the command post.” There Smith was ordered to take the makeshift infantry battalion—centered on the regiment’s 1st Battalion, minus companies A and D—to Itazuke Air Base.
General Dean was waiting at Itazuke. He ordered Smith to stop the North Koreans as far from Pusan as he could and to “block the main road as far north as possible.” Dean also directed Smith to seek out Brig. Gen. John H. Church, deputy commander of U.S. Army Forces in Korea (USAFIK), once he landed, then added, “Sorry I can’t give you more information. That’s all I’ve got.”
Smith’s written instructions followed later in the day in a formal operations order: “Advance at once upon landing with delaying force, in accordance with the situation, to the north by all possible means, contact enemy now advancing south from Seoul towards Suwo ˘n and delay his advance.” What Walker and Dean neglected to tell Smith was that the enemy he had been ordered to delay was, in fact, the flower of the invading North Korean People’s Army (NKPA).
Smith’s truncated battalion—dubbed Task Force Smith after him— comprised two undersized rifle companies, B and C, and half of the headquarters company. Supporting them were half a communications platoon; a 75mm recoilless rifle platoon with only two of the four requisite weapons; two 4.2- inch mortars; six 2.36- inch bazookas; and four 60mm mortars. Nearly all the weapons were of World War II vintage.
Each Task Force Smith soldier carried 120 rounds of .30-caliber rifle ammunition and enough Crations for two days. Most of Smith’s 406 men were 20 years old or younger, and only a fraction of the officers and enlisted men had seen combat.
Upon landing in Korea, Smith and his men were driven the 17 miles to the rail station in Pusan, where cheering locals lined the streets, waving banners and streamers as the soldiers passed. From Pusan the train took the small force to Taejo ˘n, arriving on the morning of July 2. There Smith met with Church and gathered U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) army officers. “We have a little action up here,” Church said, indicating a northerly point on a map. “All we need is some men up there who won’t run when they see tanks. We’re going to move you up to support the ROKs and give them moral support.” Church was fully aware the “little action” into which he was sending Smith and his makeshift battalion would pit them against at least two regiments of the NKPA’s 4th Inf. Div., supported by a tank regiment—some 5,000 men and three dozen tanks. It is not known why he failed to inform Smith of this or the fact that the enemy advance had just taken the city of Suwo ˘n and routed several South Korean divisions, leaving no intact ROK army units in the vicinity for Smith to support. Church apparently felt—as had Dean and Walker before him—that a “demonstration of resolve” by two understrength American rifle companies would be sufficient to encourage ROK units and discourage the entire NKPA. Smith, however, was a professional soldier, and he was determined to find out just what lay in store for his men.
After meeting with Church on July 2, Smith set out north by jeep toward Suwo˘n with his principal officers, looking for a likely place to establish a defensive position. As they drove north over miles of rough road, thousands of dispirited refugees and retreating ROK troops passed them in the opposite direction.
Three miles north of Osan the road dipped and bent slightly toward Suwo ˘n. At right angles to the road ran an irregular ridge of hills. The highest hill peaked at around 300 feet, commanding the railroad line to the east and offering a line of sight nearly the entire eight miles north to Suwo ˘n. It was there Smith established his position.
Smith set up his command post in Pyeongtaek, some 15 miles southeast of Osan. On July 4 elements of the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion—134 men and a battery of six 105mm howitzers under the command of Lt. Col. Miller Perry—arrived in Pyeongtaek to bolster the task force. The two officers made a final reconnaissance of the position north of Osan, noting viable positions for the howitzers. Smith submitted his choice of site to headquarters and received orders to “take up those good positions near Osan you told General Church about.”
In many ways the position was optimal, given the situation. It offered good cover and observation, and it controlled the approaches to Osan. However, the enemy had a clear path to flanking Smith, who with his limited force could do little more than deploy his men in a “refused flank” —a line of troops bent back on itself to prevent such an attack.
Just after midnight on July 5 Task Force Smith moved out of Pyeongtaek in dozens of trucks and commandeered vehicles. In blackout conditions, with fleeing ROK troops and civilians clogging the road, it took more than two and a half hours to cover the 12 miles to Osan. They drove on in a pouring rain, reaching their position at 3 a.m. Worse still, the sky showed no sign of clearing, eliminating any possibility of air support.
Smith’s infantrymen began to dig in and set up their weapons in the rain-soaked predawn hours, forming a mile-wide defensive line that flanked the road. Meanwhile, Perry’s men used jeeps to tow all but one of their howitzers up a steep hillside some 2,000 yards to the rear of the infantry and then camouflaged them. The remaining gun Perry placed halfway between the battery and the infantry position to cover the road against enemy tanks. The men strung telephone wires between the artillery and infantry positions. Smith emplaced the four .50-caliber machine guns and four bazookas with his infantry and positioned the mortars 400 yards to the rear. The infantry parked its vehicles just south of their position, while the artillerymen chose to conceal their trucks farther back toward Osan—a decision that would prove fortuitous after the battle.
By first light the men were in position, their situation as good as Smith could make it. “Gentlemen, we will hold for 24 hours,” the commander told his men. “After that we will have help.” Smith was unaware that neither Church nor Dean had made any provisions to come to his aid. As far as the generals were concerned, the mission was simply a delaying action that required no further support. Smith’s tiny force was soon to be as isolated as the men at the Alamo or Thermopylae—and just as outnumbered.
Smith and his men did not have to wait long for the enemy. At around 7:30 a.m. observers spotted eight Soviet-made T-34/85 tanks of the NKPA’s 107th Tank Regiment rolling directly toward them. At 8:16 a.m., at a range of 4,000 yards, the American artillery fired on the forces of North Korea for the first time—to no effect whatsoever. The standard 105mm rounds merely bounced off the tanks. Perry’s battery had only six high-explosive antitank (HEAT) rounds, all assigned to the forward howitzer.
When the T-34s came within 700 yards of the infantry Smith ordered the 75mm recoilless rifles to open fire. Despite scoring several direct hits, they had no better luck. Nor did the 2.36-inch bazookas, firing repeatedly at practically pointblank range. Second Lt. Ollie Connor alone fired 22 rockets from a distance of 15 yards, to no effect. Had the Americans been armed with the more powerful 3.5-inch bazookas then being fielded to U.S. units in Germany, the outcome would have been dramatically different.
The Army maxim of the day regarding tank warfare was, “The best defense against the tank is another tank.” Without tanks of its own, Task Force Smith could have at least used anti-tank mines, but again there were none in Korea. For reasons that remain unclear, they were left on the airstrip in Japan as the task force prepared to deploy.
The T-34s soon opened fire on the Americans with their turret-mounted 85mm guns and 7.62 machine guns. The heavy barrage initially sent some of Perry’s gun crews scurrying for cover, but they soon returned to their howitzers. As the tanks began to roll through Smith’s position, American fire—in all likelihood HEAT rounds from the lead howitzer—finally had an impact, damaging the lead two T-34s. One caught fire, and as its three-man crew emerged from the turret, one of them fired on a U.S. machine gun emplacement, killing an assistant gunner. He was the first American ground soldier killed in action in Korea. Return fire killed the three North Koreans.
The forward howitzer crew engaged the third tank through the pass, but the Americans had expended their six HEAT rounds, and the tank quickly knocked out the gun. Perry’s remaining howitzers disabled two other tanks, but more were on the way. Twenty-five additional T-34s followed the initial eight-tank enemy column in intervals. Perhaps fearing that Smith’s men represented only the forward position of a much larger force, the tanks did not stop to engage the infantry but simply fired on them in passing. Some did not bother to fire at all. Unfortunately for the Americans, the tanks’ treads had cut the telephone wires, severely hampering communication between Smith and the artillery. Two hours after the first tank approached, the last passed through Smith’s position, leaving some 20 Americans dead or wounded, including Perry, who was hit in the leg by small-arms fire after trying in vain to get the crew of one disabled tank to surrender.
An hour later Smith saw what he estimated to be a six-mile column of trucks and infantry, led by three tanks, approaching along the road. These were the 16th and 18th Regiments of the NKPA’s 4th Division, some 5,000 men in all. Inexplicably, the earlier tank column had neglected to alert the infantry to the waiting American ambushers. When the convoy closed to within 1,000 yards, Smith and his men “threw the book at them,” as he later put it. The North Koreans reacted by sending the three tanks to within 300 yards of the ridgeline to shell and machine-gun Task Force Smith’s positions. A 1,000-man enemy skirmish line sought to advance but was driven back by American fire.
Though Perry’s battery, cut off from communication with forward observers, was unable to provide supporting fire, Smith’s infantry fought on for more than three hours. The American infantrymen inflicted punishing casualties on the advancing enemy but were eventually flanked and subjected to heavy fire. Nearly surrounded and almost out of ammunition, Smith realized withdrawal was the only option.
It was during the withdrawal the Americans suffered their greatest casualties. Those who attempted to carry wounded out of the firestorm were cut down. Completely exposed to enemy mortar and machine-gun fire, many of the men broke and ran, leaving their heavy weapons and at least two dozen wounded behind. As the advancing North Koreans came upon the injured Americans, they shot them where they lay or bound and executed them.
When the advance columns of T-34s had passed through, they had destroyed the infantry’s vehicles, so Smith’s surviving infantrymen ran through nearby rice paddies, desperate to find the rear. The withdrawal quickly turned into a rout. The artillerymen still had their trucks, and after disabling the remaining howitzers, they drove off toward Ansong, picking up dozens of scattered infantrymen as they went. Survivors would straggle into headquarters, singly and in small groups, for days afterward. Smith reported 150 of his infantrymen and 31 officers and men of Perry’s artillery force dead or missing— around 40 percent of the task force. The butcher’s bill could have been much higher; had the North Koreans—who had orders not to stop until they reached Pyeongtaek—chosen to pursue Smith’s little force, they could have wiped it out.
In time a new Army slogan was born: “No more Task Force Smiths.” Over the past six decades it has been the norm to lay blame on convenient targets for the defeat of Task Force Smith—poor training, faulty leadership, inadequate equipment—while ignoring the chief underlying causes of the fiasco.
A claim that the men of Task Force Smith were poorly trained is fiction. The soldiers in occupied Japan received the same extensive training given all American troops. Writes one Army historian of the period, “The units that were deployed to Korea were as disciplined as any unit sent to combat in the Second World War.” At the time of Task Force Smith’s deployment the Army’s evaluation program had rated the battalion “tested and ready for combat.” The proof was in its performance. Dramatically outgunned and outmanned more than 10-to-1, the U.S. troops had confronted two regiments of enemy infantry and three dozen tanks, had held their ground for more than six hours and had killed some 42 North Koreans and wounded 85. The fact the GIs took out four tanks with limited antitank weapons and retained discipline under heavy fire speaks volumes.
Some accused Smith and his officers of failing their men, but nothing could be further from the truth. The task force’s officers, from Smith on down, made all the right decisions regarding terrain and tactics. And despite the mad scramble for survival at the close of battle, their men acquitted themselves well in an impossible situation, due in large measure to the example set by their officers.
A charge that the firepower employed by Task Force Smith was inadequate for the mission is true; the condition of much of the equipment was disgraceful. Even the howitzers had earlier been condemned and were no longer allowed to fire over friendly troops. Yet the men under Smith and Perry used the worn artillery pieces and other weapons to their fullest capacity.
U.S. Army Major John Garrett conducted extensive research into the battle and wrote “Task Force Smith: The Lesson Never Learned,” a monograph published in 2000 by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies. In it Garrett convincingly argues that the real responsibility for the mission’s failure lay not with the men who led or comprised Task Force Smith but with the “senior leaders of the 24th Infantry Division, Eighth U.S. Army and higher headquarters who failed to provide the proper operational leadership.…Task Force Smith was deployed to the Korean theater without any concept of how and why it was to be employed.”
Facing a Senate committee MacArthur later said of the Battle of Osan: “I threw in troops from the 24th Division…in the hope of establishing a loci of resistance around which I could rally the fast-retreating South Korean forces. I also hoped by that arrogant display of strength to fool the enemy into a belief that I had a much greater resource at my disposal than I did.” It was a naive and ultimately disastrous gambit, reflective of the hubris that convinced experienced general officers that a small force of American warriors could deter entire NKPA tank and infantry regiments. In all likelihood the North Koreans initially had no idea they were facing an American defensive force. And once they did, it clearly made no difference; their tanks simply rode over and through the Americans. As Garrett wrote, “This brave tiny force was placed in front of the absolute strongest part of the North Korean Army…not out of ignorance of the situation, but out of the thoughtless pride of MacArthur and the failure of any other commander to correct or even see the blunder.”
Nor did the Army learn from Osan. Task Force Smith would not be the last American force precipitately thrown into combat with tragic results in the early days of the Korean War. An oft-repeated quote describes insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Sadly, the results would be the same each time.
Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon and co-author of The Slave Next Door. For further reading he recommends South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, by Roy Edgar Appleman, and the monograph “Task Force Smith: The Lesson Never Learned,” by Major John Garrett.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.