Monday, May 18, 2015

Crossing the Han River September 1950 Part I

LtCol Raymond L. Murray, a tall Texan who had earned a Silver Star on Guadalcanal, a second Silver Star on Tawara, and a Navy Cross on Saipan, commanded the 5th Marines.

Few things could faze Lieutenant Colonel Murray, the 5th Marines’ commander, after his month-long experience as the Eighth Army’s “Fire Brigade” in the Pusan Perimeter, but preparing his veteran regiment for an opposed crossing of the Han River on 20 September proved a daunting task. To begin with, Murray found his command post crowded with high-ranking observers and correspondents. Each wondered how Murray would execute a crossing of such a broad river without heavy bridging material; all offered free advice. Murray abided these kibitzers for awhile, then cast them out.

A second situation proved more troublesome. While Murray felt confident the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion could shuttle his riflemen across in their tracked landing vehicles (LVTs then, AAVs now), and while he was reasonably sure Lieutenant Colonel John H. Partridge, the division engineer, could ferry his attached tanks across by using 50-foot pontoon sections, he still knew nothing of the river—its current, shoreline gradients, exit points. Nor did Murray know anything of the enemy’s strength and capabilities in the vicinity of the abandoned ferry site at Haengju. Mile-long Hill 125 on the north bank dominated the crossing. Six years earlier Murray had led his 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, ashore at Saipan under direct fire from Japanese guns occupying the coastal hills, and he had no intention of repeating that experience here.

Murray asked General Smith to assign Captain Kenneth R. Houghton’s division Reconnaissance Company to the crossing operation. Murray wanted an advance party of reconnaissance Marines to swim the Han after dark on 19 September, stealthily determine any enemy presence, and then signal the remainder of the company to cross in LVTs. Murray then expected the company to man a defensive perimeter to cover the predawn crossing of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett’s 3d Battalion, 5th Marines.

Taplett considered the plan too ambitious. The Reconnaissance Company had the heart, he believed, but not the numbers (127 strong) to cover the sprawling high ground along the river. No one knew anything in advance about the possibility of enemy presence in strength along the far bank. Taplett quietly ordered his staff to draw up contingency plans for the crossing.

The North Koreans had not ignored the former ferry site. Aware that the Marines would likely cross the Han soon, the NKPA deployed an infantry battalion in the underbrush along Hill 125. Their camouflage discipline proved excellent. The Marines did not detect their presence throughout the afternoon and evening of the 19th.

After dark, Captain Houghton led 14 swimmers across the 400- yard-wide river. An ill-timed artillery mission set fire to a house in Haengju village, exposing the men in their final approach to the north bank. Technical Sergeant Ernest L. Defazio complained the blaze “lit up the place like a Christmas tree,” but nothing stirred. Houghton dispatched four men to check for signs of the enemy on Hill 125, then sent an exultant but premature message to Murray: “The Marines have landed and the situation is well in hand.” Houghton also radioed his executive officer to launch the balance of the company in its nine LVTs.

So far, so good. But few sounds attract more attention on a quiet night than the sudden revving up of nine pairs of Cadillac V-8 Amtrac engines. The noise seemed enough to wake the dead, and abruptly the NKPA battalion on Hill 125 opened a vicious fire against the approaching LVTs and Houghton’s small group, now dangerously backlit by the burning building.

Second Lieutenant Philip D. Shutler commanded the second platoon of the Reconnaissance Company, his men divided between two LVTs that nosed into the river in column. Young as he was, Shutler had already been in tight spots. He had spent the month of August making night raids from USS Horace A. Bass (APD 124) in the Sea of Japan against the North Korean coastline, his Marines teamed with Underwater Demolition Team 1. Crossing the Han was a dissimilar experience, he later recounted. “Amphibian tractors were hardly stealthy vehicles,” Shutler recalled. “We received enemy fire as soon as the vehicles entered the water. You could hear machine gun rounds plinking against the armored cab. Mortar rounds, possibly from our own ‘four-deuce’ tubes, were exploding in the river.” In the chaos some LVTs became stuck in the mud near the far shore, others veered away. Captain Houghton sprang into the river to rally the vehicles toward the landing site. Mortar rounds landed in the water near him; the concussion from one near miss knocked him out.

Lieutenant Shutler could see none of this from the crowded troop compartment of his lurching LVT. He scrambled topside, discovered to his horror that the vehicle had turned upstream, broadside to the NKPA gunners on Hill 125. He whacked the driver jumped into the waist-deep water, and attempted to guide the vehicle directly ashore. He saw no sign of the advance swimmers.

At this point someone passed the word to abort the mission and return to the south bank. Five LVTs returned, leaving four stuck in the mud along the far shore. One of these contained Captain Houghton’s unconscious body. Other Marines were missing. Shutler found one of his troops had died of wounds in the confused melee. The crossing had failed.

When Technical Sergeant Ernie DeFazio discovered his captain missing he promptly led a swimmer team back across the river. They rescued Houghton and his radio operator, retrieved two of the stuck vehicles and restored more than a bit of the company’s honor.

But the night was nearly spent, the enemy occupied the crossing site in considerable strength, and every VIP in the theater—including General Douglas MacArthur—had announced their intentions of observing the morning crossing. As assistant division commander, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig frankly observed: “The eyes of the world were upon us. It would have looked bad for the Marines, of all people, to reach a river and not be able to cross.”

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