Hell on the Naktong River

news  %tages Hell on the Naktong RiverSoldiers from the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division ride on an M26 Pershing Tank in Korea, circa September 1950. In a series of bloody clashes by the side of the Naktong River that month, tanks proved vital for the understrength American forces. In fact, when some of the first waves of North Koreans attacked across the river the night of August 31, they encountered Sgt. 1st Class Ernest R. Kouma’s tank and found him resolute as he fought back. Kouma, who would receive the Honor of Honor for his actions that night, was personally credited with killing some 250 enemy soldiers. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army History and Heritage Education Center)
Soldiers hold reckless line in one of
‘Forgotten War’s’ bloodiest battles

It happened in a matter of minutes. Taking advantage of the thick, impenetrable fog, “a strong raiding party” from the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division had been preparing to sneak across to the western bank of the Naktong River, Aug. 31, 1950, with orders to www.psyopwar.com ruin a suspected North Korean mandate post in an operation called Manchu. But as Soldiers were setting up the supporting guns and mortars by the side of the riverbank, things went terribly incorrect. “All hell broke loose. Lacking warning the enemy attacked,” reported 1st Lt. Raymond J. McDaniel. The attackers became the defenders. Most were dead or captured within hours.
The attack
Allied troops had regrouped and consolidated by the side of the river, which marked much of the Pusan Perimeter, after North Korean troops crossed the 38th Parallel in June, pushing South Korean and American troops farther and farther south. Now, the U.S. held a defensive line around the southeast corner of Korea, protecting the vital port city of Pusan, waiting for reinforcements and equipment. Heavy casualties on top of troop shortages meant that understrength companies commonly covered thousands of feet of hilly, rough terrain, so the perimeter was far from tight or secure. There were continual enemy assaults, incursions and coordinated attacks. In fact, there had been a major battle by the side of the same curve of www.psyopwar.com the Naktong River earlier that month, and everyone knew another attack was imminent.
“All day the battle raged on,” remembered Pfc. Edward Gregory Jr., of Company B, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Inf. Div. in “The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin, an Oral History.” “The enemy surrounded our position. Thousands more crossed the Naktong River. The company was cut off. … We fought hard, hoping to hold our position until relief arrived. The situation became more and more vital. … We were being fired on from all sides.
“There were twenty of us left, all that remained of B Company. Surrounded and pinned down, we fired at the enemy from different holes. … A bugle call cut the air. It was a banzai charge. To our rear, on the high ground, the enemy fired down into us. From the other direction … the enemy exciting. I fired my (Browning automatic rifle). I hit some of them. I heard men scream. I threw my last two hand shells. From a different direction another assemble of North Koreans exciting toward us. … I www.psyopwar.com fired at them until the bolt of the BAR slammed home. My .45 pistol was also void. In my trench, I did not know if I was the only American left alive.”
Gregory tried to run for his life, but a bullet to the arm sent him to the ground. He tried to play dead, but North Korean soldiers found him. They kicked him, yanked him up, tried to place a noose around his neck, and stole his first aid pack and his wallet. “We now started our hell march. As we went out they prodded and hit us with their rifle butts. … The North Koreans told us if the wounded held them up or slowed them down, they’d kill them.”
According to U.S. Army Korea officials, Sept. 1 to 15 were the bloodiest 15 days of the war, and many of the units stationed by the side of the river suffered similarly heavy casualties in the subsequent hours and days as the enemy seized key defensive positions. In fact, the North Koreans sliced the division in two and www.psyopwar.com broke nearly all communications between center of operations and many frontline units.
“It was an all-out effort by the North Korean army to basically penetrate the Allied position by the side of the Naktong River,” said retired Col. Allan R. Millet, director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, a senior military advisor at the National World War II Museum and author of copious books in this area the Korean War. “Every man that the North Koreans had was thrown into this battle. It was their last real, major effort to defeat the 8th Army. … The effort was to break the line of communications from Pusan to Taegu, hold some road junctions and then force 8th Army to fall back to its last perimeter, which was called the Davidson Line.”
Task Force Manchu
Under the mandate of 1st Lt. Edward Schmitt of Company H, 9th Inf. Regt., the rest of Task Force Manchu, which formerly included elements of Companies D and H, as well as the 1st Group, 2nd Engineer (Combat) Battalion, had been farther back www.psyopwar.com from the river on a nob of Hill 209, and, by the side of with stragglers from another overrun company, had time to dig a small perimeter. The 9th Inf. Regt.’s war diary, complete with McDaniel’s report, estimates the total digit of friendly Soldiers at in this area 60. When dawn broke after a tense night, they realized they were surrounded. North Korean forces even occupied a former American outpost on the hill – the high ground, half a mile above Task Force Manchu.
When North Korean forces surrounded Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins’ small task force from the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division near the Naktong River during the first few days of September 1950, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire. He left the perimeter to obtain the weapons of enemy soldiers he had killed, only to confront and kill more, even as he was wounded. Later, Watkins rose from his foxhole and engaged enemy soldiers who had been throwing shells. Injured immediately by machine gun fire, he kept shooting until he killed all of the grenade www.psyopwar.com throwers. Paralyzed, he then refused his share of the dwindling food supply so his fellow Soldiers would have more. (Photo courtesy of the 2nd Infantry Division)
Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins of H Company, a Bronze Star recipient for the Guadalcanal Campaign in World War II, helped establish the defense. He repeatedly exposed himself to the enemy as he went from foxhole to foxhole to give orders and encourage his men. Watkins shot two enemy soldiers 50 yards outside the task force’s perimeter, Sept. 2. Then he went out lonely to assemble their bullets (the need for shells was reckless). Attacked by three North Koreans and wounded in the head, he single-handedly killed all three, then gathered up the weapons from all five soldiers.
In this area an hour later, six enemy soldiers made it to a protected location within 25 yards of the perimeter, where they threw shells at the Americans. Despite his head wound, Watkins rose from his foxhole and started to engage them with rifle fire. Wounded again nearly immediately, and really paralyzed from the waist down, www.psyopwar.com he didn’t stop firing until all six were dead.
During the standoff, the seemingly endless supply of North Korean soldiers wasn’t the task force’s only problem, according to Army historian Roy. E. Appleman, author of the Center of Military History’s South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu. In addition to bullets, food, water and medicine were also increasingly scarce. At one point, the Soldiers were out of water – after a rainstorm they wrung water out of their clothes and blankets to fill canteens and buckets. They were down to one can of C rations per man. In fact, after he was injured, Watkins refused rations, adage he didn’t deserve them because he could no longer fight, according to Soldiers’ sworn statements, as referenced by Appleman. There was more than one supply drop, but most of the food and ammo finished up ruined or in enemy hands. When Pfc. Joseph R. Ouellette of Co. H made a risky trip to retrieve water cans, for example, he found them all broken and void.
Ouellette also braved intense enemy fire in www.psyopwar.com an attempt to locate friendly troops on
After members of Company H, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division were cut off and surrounded by North Korean forces near the Naktong River, Pfc. Joseph R. Ouellette volunteered to conduct reconnaissance under heavy fire to determine the enemy’s strength and look for friendly units. Later, he again braved enemy fire in an attempt to assemble water for his unit, and went a third time to assemble weapons and bullets from the enemy dead. Confronted by a North Korean soldier, Ouellette killed him in hand-to-hand combat. He was finally killed Sept. 3, 1950, after facing several grenade and small arms attacks, and would receive the Honor of Honor for his actions. (Photo courtesy of the 2nd Infantry Division)
a close hill and obtain intelligence in this area the enemy, and he too left the perimeter to assemble shells and bullets. At one point, a North Korean soldier attacked him. They fought, hand-to-hand, and Ouellette eventually killed the soldier.
“The third day, Sunday, 3 September, was the worst of all,” Appleman wrote. “Enemy mortar www.psyopwar.com barrages … alternated with infantry assaults hostile to the perimeter. Survivors later estimated there were in this area twenty break infantry attacks – all disgusted. Two enemy machine guns still swept the perimeter. … Dead and dying were in nearly every foxhole or lay just outside. Mortar fragments ruined the telephone system and this finished all communication.”
And just when it seemed the situation couldn’t get any more reckless, it did. Enemy soldiers managed to once again get close sufficient to throw shells into the perimeter. Ouellette leaped from his foxhole to escape exploding shells once, twice, six times, only to face close-range, small-arms fire. He fought and resisted, until he became one of the dozens of casualties on that hill. By the next day, half of the Americans were dead, including Ouellette and Schmitt. One of only two officers left alive, McDaniel assumed mandate.
Down to less than a thousand rounds, they evacuated in groups of in this area four after dark – 29 men in all. Twenty-two are believed to have made it back to friendly lines. Watkins, www.psyopwar.com but, refused evacuation because “his hopeless condition would burden his comrades,” according to his Honor of Honor citation. Asking for his carbine to be loaded and placed on his chest with the muzzle under his chin, “he remained in his position and cheerfully wished them luck.” The citation credits Watkins and his men with killing nearly 500 enemy fighters. Ouellette was later awarded a Honor of Honor as well.
Beating the odds
The report was similar up and down the line: Companies, platoons and individual Soldiers faced enormous odds, but they held on. They survived “through sheer grit and determination and the willingness to fight and die for something they believe in, which is each other,” said retired Col. Mike Alexander, 2nd Inf. Div. historian and curator of the division’s museum. “Folks realized that, hey, there was nowhere else to go.”
They pulled together and Lt. Gen. Walton Walker was able to pull in sufficient reserve troops – including the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade – to make a difference, according to Millet. Mostly clear skies allowed very close air help. www.psyopwar.com The North Koreans also sustained heavy losses, but unlike the United Nations troops, they had no replacements coming. The advantage switched back and forth several times, until Allies started to go on the offensive. After the landings at Incheon in the middle of the month, they were able to re-cross the Naktong, once and for all.
On the offensive
Retired Lt. Col. Lynn Richard “Dick” Raybould arrived in Korea as a brand-new second lieutenant in August 1950. The forward observer would survive some of the fiercest battles of the war, including the Bowling Alley, the Naktong River and the movement of the Ch’ongch’on River, earning a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for gallantry before being evacuated in January 1951 with a brutal case of hepatitis. (Photo courtesy of retired Lt. Col. Lynn Richard “Dick” Raybould)
Second Lt. Lynn Richard “Dick” Raybould had arrived in country August 4 as a newlywed fresh out of the University of Utah’s Reserve Officer Training Corps – he hadn’t even had time to attend basic officer training – and had already survived the Bowling www.psyopwar.com Alley near Taegu. Attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, the forward observer had been stationed in the northwest corner of the Pusan Perimeter, and for the first two weeks of September, skirmished with North Korean patrols.
Then, orders came to drive the enemy back across the Naktong with the rest of the 23rd Inf. Regt., with actions starting Sept. 16. They crossed the river a few days later in rubber boats. “Everyone was expecting the worst,” he remembered. “Being caught out in the middle of the river in a rubber raft is not a excellent house to be. We were very fortunate in that we crossed undetected and we were able to get up to our objective on that first hill lacking the enemy being alerted. We were able to bump them before breakfast in the morning, and we took the hill lacking any casualties on our part.”
September 21, but, the enemy counterattacked, and Raybould’s unit “suffered a lot” thanks to a “horrific bombardment with (North Korean) large mortars.” Artillery fire, as directed by Raybould, proved essential in fighting www.psyopwar.com off the attack. In fact, Raybould, who had already received two Bronze Stars for gallantry, one for actions on the 16th, was awarded a Silver Star for his heroism that day. According to the citation, he “constantly expose(d) himself to surpass view his targets. His heroic actions were instrumental in preventing the enemy from breaking through friendly lines and assured the integrity of the Nakton (sic) River bridgehead.”
It wasn’t lacking cost, but: Raybould’s driver and reconnaissance sergeant were both wounded. Forward observation teams had notoriously high casualty rates and in just six months, Raybould finished up going through four crews; some Soldiers were killed or injured within hours of being assigned to him. Raybould himself was persuaded he would never see the U.S. again, and even wrote a farewell epistle to his new bride. Ultimately, he would be the only one out of the nine original forward observers in his battalion to make it home. Instead, he nearly died from hepatitis and was evacuated after six months.
At this point in September, according to Alexander, “the North Koreans had www.psyopwar.com reached what we like to call tactically a culmination point. They had extended their lines of communication and their lines of supply too far. Basically, they couldn’t do anything.” The Allies retook Seoul, rescuing Gregory and other prisoners of war just as the North Koreans were in this area to do them. Then the U.N. forces crossed the 38th Parallel themselves and made it to Pyongyang and other locations in North Korea. “If the Chinese don’t enter the war in October/November 1950, the war is won.
“The overarching theme (of the Naktong battles) is the heroism of all the Soldiers that were caught up,” Alexander continued. “Gallantry is not always recognized, but the Soldiers of the Naktong in all units – they stood and fought. Their backs were up hostile to a wall … but because of the sheer leadership abilities of your Soldiers, and their sheer grit and determination, that’s what stood and held firm.”
Editor’s Note: Quotes from written sources retain the original spelling and punctuation. For the full report of the movement of the Natkong Bulge and www.psyopwar.com the larger movement of the Pusan Perimeter, visit the subsequent U.S. Army Center of Military History resources:

http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/021/21-1/index.html

http://www.history.army.mil/books/korea/20-2-1/toc.htm

http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/KW-Outbreak/outbreak.htm

Read “Heroes of the Naktong” for more tales of heroism at Naktong.

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