Miller O. Perry rejects claims that Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith and the troops of Task Force Smith failed to adequately stem the 1950 North Korean invasion of South Korea.
On July 4, 1950, two U.S. Army officers stood on a scrubby hilltop north of Osan and watched a stream of refugees and demoralized Republic of Korea (ROK) Army soldiers heading south along the two-lane road. There, they formulated a plan for the first battle of the Korean War to pit American soldiers against the North Korean People’s Army.
The tall leader with crossed rifle insignia on his collar was Lt. Col. Charles B. “Brad” Smith, commander of Task Force Smith, a hastily organized, understrength battalion ordered to Korea by General Douglas MacArthur. The shorter man using binoculars to mentally plot artillery concentrations was Lt. Col. Miller O. Perry, commander of the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion, in support of the task force. Task Force Smith was the advance element of the Eighth Army, which would carry out President Harry Truman’s decision to commit ground troops to enforce a United Nations resolution calling on member nations to furnish assistance to the Republic of Korea.
Many of Task Force Smith’s soldiers—and many of their superiors—thought their presence would stop the North Koreans and end the war quickly. They were wrong. The Korean War would last three years and cost the United States 142,091 casualties—33,629 dead, 103,284 wounded and 5,178 captured or missing.
Like Smith, Miller Perry was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a World War II veteran. In an October 2005 interview with James Pocock for Military History, Perry described that first battle, in which his actions would earn him the Distinguished Service Cross.
Military History: What was the status of your battalion prior to its deployment to Korea?
Perry: The 52nd Field Artillery Battalion was living in Quonset huts on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, and I had been in command for eight months. The battalion was at 70 percent of authorized strength, with only two firing batteries, A and B. We were the direct support artillery for the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division. Because of budget cuts, the Army had reduced the size of its 10 combat divisions by removing one company or battery from each battalion. Also they took out the tank company that was part of the infantry regimental organization. We had limited training areas for battalion-size exercises, but the battalion had recently passed its Army Training Test, and the soldiers were qualified with their weapons. Most of my senior officers and noncoms had combat experience from WWII. The 105mm howitzers and machine guns were in good shape, but many of our FM radios were old and not very reliable.
MH: What was the situation at that time?
Perry: I got a call on June 30 from Colonel Jim Beynon, the DivArty [divisional artillery] exec, to come to his headquarters, where I got the word that part of my battalion would be airlifted to Korea to support a task force being organized around Brad Smith’s 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry. Because the airlift couldn’t transport my trucks or howitzers, I was instructed to take only 12 jeeps and their trailers and told that we would pick up replacement howitzers at Pusan. It was raining heavily, and we worked all night to get our vehicles and equipment prepared. The next day we learned that the rains and pounding from the first flights of Douglas C-124As had damaged the Korean airfield, so we were directed to reconfigure for sea transport. That was fortunate, because we had space then to take the howitzers, supplies and trucks we would have left behind. But it took the rest of the day to reload the equipment, so we left the next day from the port of Fukuoka on a Japanese-operated landing ship, tank. The Japanese had used the LST for fishing, and it reeked of the smell of fish and made a lot of us seasick on the trip to Pusan. By the time we landed and linked up with Smith’s battalion, my guys had been three days with little rest.
MH: You had a wife and two children. What did you tell them?
Perry: I didn’t have much time to discuss events with them, but I did tell Polly that despite what she was hearing, I thought this war was going to take some months. We had been told that dependents would have an option of returning to the United States if they wished. David was 14, and Susan was 13, and we thought they should stay in Japan and continue school there. Later, when a medical unit moved into our barracks and set up an evacuation hospital, Polly became a volunteer helper at the hospital.
MH: What was the situation when you joined Colonel Smith?
Perry: We met at Pyongtaek, south of Osan. Brad Smith had received orders to move his two rifle companies to a hill north of Osan that he had previously reconned. He and I drove up to that location to select defensive positions. Brad placed one company on each side of the main road leading south from Suwon on a hill that had good observation and fields of fire. I found a good spot for the six howitzers of Battery A and my headquarters and service batteries, alongside the same road about 2,000 meters behind the infantry position. Although we didn’t have much specific information about the enemy, we were concerned about defending against tanks. Before leaving Japan, the 24th Division could only supply us with about 10 rounds of HEAT [high explosive antitank] 105mm ammunition. The only other antitank weapons in the task force were 2.34-inch bazookas and 75mm recoilless rifles. I don’t remember why we weren’t given antitank mines—maybe the rush to get us there—but we sure could have used them. Because of the tank threat, I decided to place one of the howitzers with Smith as an antitank gun covering the road where it cut through the ridgeline. We moved the troops into those positions that evening. It rained all day and night, so it was an effort to set up our guns, offload ammunition and lay communications wire. At first light, we test-fired machine guns and registered the howitzers. My gunners were good—it only took three rounds to register the base howitzer.
MH: When did you first encounter the enemy?
Perry: That morning, July 5. About 0700 hours, eight T-34/85 tanks were seen moving down the road from Suwon. The T-34 had an 85mm gun and thick armor, and we knew we were in for trouble. American tanks were still en route, and the South Koreans didn’t have any because our political leaders had been worried that furnishing tanks as part of military assistance would trigger a response from North Korea. There was still steady rain and cloud cover that prevented the Air Force from supporting us. Our forward observers [FOs] called for artillery fire as the tanks came in range, and we put 105mm HE [high explosive] rounds right around them, but they just buttoned up and kept moving. When they came near the task force’s forward positions, the infantrymen made direct hits on several tanks with 75mm recoilless rifles and 2.34-inch bazookas, but they didn’t penetrate or stop them. When the tanks came over the crest of the hill, my forward gun crew opened up with their HEAT rounds and knocked out the first two. On their next round, the brass crimped in the tube, and the gun jammed. The other tanks used their weapons to suppress other fire from the task force.
MH: What happened when the tanks reached the artillery position?
Perry: We relayed our pieces and used direct fire at ranges of 100 to 300 yards, but the HE rounds just bounced off. We disabled one tank before we ran out of HEAT ammo, and I took some men with me to capture the crew, who had put a stick with a white flag out the top hatch. But the first tanker came out shooting and hit me in the lower right leg. The others tried to run, but we killed them. My wound wasn’t too bad, and I wrapped a cloth around it and kept going until a medic could look at it. More tanks came through our position in small groups—several carrying infantry—and some of my younger soldiers ran for cover. But I gathered enough officers and noncoms to crew the guns, and we blasted the enemy troops off the tanks and knocked the track off another tank. With the help of 1st Lt. Dwain L. Scott, the A Battery commander, I got the men back to their guns, and we managed to keep most of the following tanks buttoned up. One of our howitzers had been destroyed by a tank round, and some of our battery vehicles were smashed and burning. About 30 tanks went past our position.
MH: Where was the enemy infantry?
Perry: They came next. Things were quiet for about an hour or so. It was raining steadily, and we were busy repositioning ammunition and sending out wire parties to try to reestablish communication with the infantry. The tanks had run over and cut the wire we had previously laid. Around midmorning Brad Smith saw a long column of trucks and walking enemy soldiers, led by three tanks, on the road from Suwon. He estimated that two regiments of about 4,000 North Koreans were about to hit us. We still didn’t have communications with our FOs, as their radios were inoperable, but we began firing at some predetermined coordinates, and when the enemy got closer to Smith’s position, the doughboys opened up with their 4.2-inch mortars and machine guns. Many of their trucks were hit, and they took a lot of casualties, but after some delay and confusion, the North Koreans spread out and began maneuvering behind the fire of their tanks to outflank the U.S. infantry position.
MH: When did you realize that Smith was withdrawing?
Perry: We could hear a great deal of the firing from the main battle position well into the afternoon. My wire parties came back and reported that they couldn’t get through because of the intensity of enemy fire, but I sent them back to make a determined effort to reestablish contact with Smith’s force. The SCR 610 radios with the FOs were wet and old and practically useless. Brad Smith was in a tough fight against thousands of North Korean foot soldiers supported by tanks and artillery, and his artillery support was hampered by the disruption of our communications. I learned later that he thought the artillery had been destroyed by the enemy tank column. When he gave the order to withdraw, he directed his companies to leapfrog one at a time to a rearward position while the other covered it by fire. But when they left their foxholes, the doughboys were hit by machine gun fire from the flanks, and there were many casualties. So their withdrawal was broken into small groups that weren’t able to establish another blocking position. I didn’t know they had withdrawn until Brad Smith and some of his men came into our position on foot.
MH: How did you avoid being surrounded?
Perry: We had to move fast, so we removed the sights and breechblocks from our howitzers and walked, with me hobbling, a considerable distance to our remaining trucks. We moved out on a dirt road going east to try to get around Osan to our south, where the enemy tanks were. Fortunately, I had a capable South Korean liaison officer, Captain Yoon, who helped me find a way out that would get by Osan. We drove throughout the night, picking up about 100 infantry stragglers, with a number of close brushes with enemy troops. The radiator of my jeep had several bullet holes, and I had to change vehicles along the way. On July 6, we reached Chonan, where the 34th Regiment of the 24th Division had established a position and where more of Smith’s men showed up.
MH: What were your casualties?
Perry: Of the 440 men in the task force, the final count of missing was 148 soldiers and five officers. The five officers were from my battalion: three FOs, one liaison officer, and a lieutenant who took some of our artillerymen, who were also missing, forward with the infantry to provide additional crew-served weapons support.
MH: What was your battalion’s next mission?
Perry: [Referring to a 1952 letter he had written describing the 52nd Artillery’s actions from July 6-17, 1950, contained in Colonel Robert F. Hallahan’s memoir, All Good Men]: The rest of my battalion under the control of my executive officer had arrived from Japan during the night of July 5. I reported to the 34th Infantry Regiment’s CP [command post] at Sanghwan-ni, a small village on the road between Chonan and Pyongtaek, and learned they were displacing back to Chonan. After discussing the situation with Colonel Jay B. Loveless, the regimental commander, we decided to displace headquarters and service batteries back to Chochiwan, where Brad Smith’s 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, was assembling. I left B Battery with the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry, until its normal support artillery was available. After checking on B Battery, I went to Chochiwon to see what could be done for A Battery after the battle at Osan. My S-4 [supply officer] had already submitted requisitions for needed equipment, and with some items from other units, A Battery was soon ready to shoot again in support of the 21st Infantry. Two days later, the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, arrived and occupied a blocking position near a bridge east of Chochiwon. This was a very fluid time on the battlefield as arriving units of our three infantry regiments [19th, 21st and 34th] tried to stem the advance of several North Korean divisions. Much of my time was spent moving the firing batteries from one position to another, where we could best support the infantry as they displaced. The constant stream of refugees was a big problem, especially when what appeared to be farmers in white clothing turned out to be enemy soldiers who fired on our troops. One of our Piper Cub planes flew up from Taejon and gave us valuable air observation and relay of radio messages from forward observers.
MH: What strategy was the 24th Division commander, Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, pursuing at that time?
Perry: His plan was to trade space for time—to delay the North Koreans as much as possible until the rest of Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s Eighth Army reached Korea and stopped the enemy attack. But we were trading more space than we expected, and by July 15, the division had withdrawn south of Chonan to defensive positions behind the Kum River. The 19th Infantry took over from the 21st, which had suffered many casualties and was placed in reserve to regroup. We found a good firing position where we could reinforce the fires of the 13th Field Artillery, the battalion normally supporting the 19th Regiment. The night of the 15th, we fired heavy defensive fires and also adjusted fire on attempted enemy crossings. By daylight on the 16th, enemy activity had quieted down until about 1000 hours, when we observed a long line of enemy troops in white clothing come over a mountain ridge about two miles away. They crossed over the ridge to the south and disappeared. We ordered A Battery to place direct fire on the column and warned the 13th Field Artillery they were about to be hit. Some of these troops, who were in uniform, continued on toward B Battery, crossed the riverbed and started to move across the rice paddies. Since this force was on the flank of our CP, we formed a small assault group of our FDC [fire direction control] and wire people and some soldiers from the 19th Infantry who were in the area. I took along a radio and adjusted fire on the enemy as we closed with them. In the meantime, B Battery turned half its pieces to the left and placed direct fire on them at ranges of 400 to 600 yards. Then mortar fire began falling on B Battery’s position. The first rounds killed the battery commander and his first sergeant. The men of B Battery responded quickly and poured .50-caliber machine gun, carbine and artillery fire on the enemy. When the attack stalled, we closed in on the enemy’s flank and drove the survivors back into the woods and hills to the south. The 19th Infantry made a counterattack that morning to restore their positions, and I believe the regimental commander was wounded and evacuated during that engagement. Heavy fighting continued throughout the day until we received word about 1600 hours that the 19th Infantry was withdrawing and that we should move back also. When my CP and firing batteries began to move out, they were stopped by vehicles trying to move south through a roadblock. The North Koreans had a defile covered with accurate machine gun fire. Burning vehicles were all over the road. After consulting with the infantry commanders, I decided to wait until dark to get through, but then orders came from, I believe, the regimental exec who had taken command, to destroy the vehicles, since the enemy was closing in and several attempts to run the roadblock had failed. I gave up the idea of waiting for dark and took my headquarters elements around the roadblock on foot over the hills. However, B Battery made it through with some of its vehicles after dark.
MH: When did the American and South Korean withdrawal reach the Pusan Perimeter?
Perry: The day following the battle at the Kum River, the battalion began to assemble. We collected our bits and pieces and put together one battery that could fire until the 1st Cavalry Division relieved us. Then with a company of infantry attached, we became Task Force Perry and displaced to Yongdok on the east coast, where we supported two ROK divisions on the northeast sector of the Pusan Perimeter. On July 25, we rejoined the 24th Division in the battle along the Naktong River, again in support of the 21st Regiment. During that time we were able to draw new equipment from Eighth Army and were at full strength for the rest of the war. Shortly after the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, I was promoted to full colonel and assigned to Division Artillery as the executive officer. I remained in that assignment throughout our pursuit of the North Koreans to the Yalu River, the offensive by the Chinese army and our counteroffensive. The war ended for me in July 1951, when I received orders to attend the Army War College.
MH: What is your reaction to postwar criticism of Task Force Smith as an example of a unit’s not being prepared for combat?
Perry: It makes me angry. I read such an article in a veteran’s magazine, so I wrote the editor telling him the real facts. The reason combat units were at two-thirds strength with limited funds for equipment and training was the result of our political leaders trying to skimp on the military budget. Despite that, Brad Smith’s soldiers and my artillerymen performed heroically. There were numerous examples of personal courage—young officers and sergeants who continued attacking tanks at close range, knowing the best they could do with inadequate bazookas was to disable one of its tracks; and my gunners dueling face to face with tanks without the antitank rounds they needed. We stopped an enemy army 10 times our strength, forced its deployment, cost the enemy substantial casualties and gave time for arriving American units to set up defensive positions. I think Task Force Smith should be remembered for the bravery of its soldiers in an almost hopeless situation.
MH: You retired from the Army in 1961 as a brigadier general. What did you do then?
Perry: Because of all my military service in foreign countries, I had an interest in international relations. I came to Michigan State University in East Lansing, first as a graduate student and then as assistant to the dean of international studies and programs. That brought me into contact with many foreign students, whom I enjoyed helping in their pursuit of advanced degrees. In 1975 I retired again and became involved with a variety of volunteer service organizations. I also did a lot of traveling to Europe with my wife. After Polly died, I continued to travel to visit friends and family and to join my daughter, Susie, for summer vacations in Pennsylvania.
MH: Robert Hallahan wrote in his memoir, “Colonel Perry’s calm demeanor under fire and his optimism in the many desperate battles during the summer of 1950 were an inspiration to all.” Fifty-five years later, you continue to inspire people. You still live in your own home and maintain an active lifestyle at age 98. How do you do it?
Perry: Well, I suppose I’m lucky that, except for a fall a couple of years ago that gives me some back pain, I’m in good health. I stopped smoking long ago, and I drink alcohol in moderation. Last month I went to Orlando, Fla., for our annual get-together with Korean War veterans from the 52nd Field Artillery and the 21st Infantry Regiment.
James A. Pocock is a retired U.S. Army major general with 11 active and 27 reserve years of service, including Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. He is the author of the historical novel Across the Barbed Wire. For further reading, he recommends: This Kind of War, by T.R. Fehrenbach; America’s First Battles, 1776-1965, by Charles E. Heller and William A. Stoft; and Korea: The Untold Story of the War, by Joseph C. Goulden.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.