Monday, May 18, 2015

Crossing the Han River September 1950 Part II

Marine Corps amphibian tractors and DUKWs ferry troops across the Han River after the assault waves.

The 5th Marines calmly decided to approach the crossing as an amphibious assault mission—tightly coordinated preliminary fires on the objective, an intermediate and final objective assigned, and troops organized into boat teams configured to each LVT. Taplett’s 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, would lead the landing in assault waves, followed by Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise’s 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, to expand the beachhead; the entire regiment with its attached tank company to cross before dark. Marine Corsairs would arrive soon after sunrise to pound Hill 125 and scorch the Seoul-Kaesong highway to discourage any NKPA reinforcements.

Only a veteran force like the 5th Marines could have made such last-minute adaptations and passed the word to all hands in the remaining minutes before dawn. Taplett’s original skepticism about the Reconnaissance Company’s ability to hold an opposed bridgehead had served 3d Battalion, 5th Marines well; the battalion had already prepared worst-case alternative plans. By the time General Almond, Vice Admiral Arthur D. Struble, USN (Commander, Seventh Fleet), and Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., USMC (Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific) arrived they found Lieutenant Colonel Murray as unflappable as ever and the crossing well underway. Lieutenant Colonel Ransom M. Wood’s 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, pounded the far bank with 105mm howitzers; Murray’s own 81mm and 4.2-inch mortars joined the chorus. Taplett’s first wave of six LVTs chugged resolutely on line towards the far bank.

At this point the NKPA battalion on Hill 125 opened a disciplined fire on the LVTs, scoring more than 200 hits on the vehicles as they trundled ashore. Fortunately their one antitank gun proved less accurate than their small arms fire. Taplett pressed on. His LVTs discharged Captain Robert A. McMullen’s Company I, then pulled away for the return transit. McMullen quickly deployed his platoons up the open slopes of Hill 125 in a double envelopment. The fighting became point-blank and deadly.

With most NKPA gunners now taking aim at McMullen’s Marines, the remaining companies of 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, crossed the river with relative ease. Corporal Larry V. Brom, a Company H squad leader, worried more about the claustrophobia his men experienced in their LVT’s cramped troop compartment than “the occasional splat of bullets against the armor plate.” Company H’s LVTs lurched out of the river and continued rolling north, crossing the railroad and highway to secure distant Hill 51. Corporal Brom led his men in a mad dash up the rise as soon as the rear ramp dropped, vastly relieved to discover the crest undefended.

By contrast, Company I had its hands full taking Hill 125. The lower approaches contained scant cover. Well-sited NKPA gunners scythed down Captain McMullen’s exposed 60mm mortar section and two sections of light machine guns. The situation improved dramatically with the appearance overhead of four Corsairs from Lieutenant Colonel Walter E. Lischeid’s Marine Fighter Squadron 214 (VMF-214). The Black Sheep pilots launched at 0551 from the escort carrier USS Sicily (CVE 118) in the Yellow Sea, southwest of Inchon, arriving over the river just in time to even the odds against Company I’s arduous assault with a series of ear-splitting rocket and napalm attacks against the North Koreans defending the high ground. McMullen spurred his men forward, upward amid the bedlam. Their difficult double envelopment converged on the crest, culminating in a vicious flurry of hand-to-hand combat. An abrupt silence followed, broken only by the Marines gasping for breath.

Taking Hill 125 cost Company I 43 casualties; it inflicted at least 200 upon the enemy. It had been a beautifully executed tactical assault, highlighted by the high- speed, low-level strikes of the Corsairs. General Almond, observing this conflict from barely 500 yards away, admitted it was “one of the finest small-unit actions I’ve ever witnessed.”

The forcible taking of Hill 125 meant the remainder of the 5th Marines could cross the river unimpeded. By the time General MacArthur arrived the crossing seemed routine. “You’ve done a perfect job,” he told Lieutenant Colonel Murray, unaware of the all-night flail that preceded the perfection. Murray by then had his eye on the main objective, and he pointed upstream to the convoluted ridges that protected the approaches to Seoul from the northwest, the regimental route of advance. “They’ll all evaporate very shortly,” MacArthur assured Murray.

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