Rifle Platoon of 5th RCT, 24th Infantry Division on The Korean Front.
North Korean T-34 tanks destroyed by US Air Force bombs.
On the evening of June 30, 1950, unexpected and unwelcome news reached a few hundred soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Division stationed in Japan. They were told to get their gear together immediately. They were leaving for South Korea. They were going to be the first U.S. soldiers to fight in the Korean War.
Five days earlier, on June 25, soldiers from Communist North Korea (known as the North Korean People’s Army, or NKPA) had launched an invasion of their noncommunist neighbor, South Korea. South Korean troops (known as Republic of Korea, or ROK, forces) were surprised, outnumbered, and outgunned by the invaders. Though some South Koreans fought bravely, many others fled in terror from the Communists. In the first week of the war, ROK forces suffered 44,000 casualties—killed, wounded, captured or missing—just under half their total strength. Unless something was done quickly, all of South Korea would fall to the invaders.
On June 27, President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. military forces based in Japan to launch air and naval strikes against the North Korean invaders in the South. Later that same day the United Nations (UN) Security Council, meeting in New York, voted in support of a resolution calling upon member nations to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression. On June 28, U.S. bombers and fighters went into action over the Korean Peninsula. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Far East Command based in Japan, was given overall control of UN efforts to aid South Korea. Stretching the limits of his orders from Washington, MacArthur ordered U.S. planes to hit targets north of the 38th parallel, which divided North and South Korea, as well as the invading NKPA forces in the South.
Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military services, meeting in Washington, authorized MacArthur to send U.S. ground forces to South Korea if he thought it necessary. The following day, June 29, MacArthur flew to South Korea for a quick inspection tour. He saw Seoul, the South Korean capital, in flames and about to fall to the communists. ROK forces were retreating in panic, throwing away their weapons and uniforms. When MacArthur returned to Japan later that day he cabled Washington, advising an all-out American military effort, including the use of air, naval, and ground forces. Otherwise, he warned, the defense of South Korea would be “doomed to failure.”
Just before midnight on June 29, Washington time, MacArthur’s cable arrived at the Pentagon, requesting the dispatch of two U.S. Army divisions to South Korea. Aides awakened President Truman at about 5 a.m. next morning with the news. Truman ordered MacArthur to get a regimental combat team of a few thousand U.S. soldiers into combat in South Korea as soon as possible; later that morning he approved orders for tens of thousands more to follow them.
Even getting a few thousand troops together to fight in South Korea was no easy matter. MacArthur had four army divisions (about 50,000 men) under his command in Japan. These occupation garrisons were the nearest U.S. forces available. But they were far from combat-ready. Occupation duty in Japan was known in the postwar military as a very soft assignment. With the Japanese economy still recovering from the devastation of World War II, even enlisted men in the U.S. Army could live very comfortably there. Many enjoyed the attentions of Japanese servants and girlfriends. As a fighting force, U.S. soldiers in Japan were undertrained, poorly disciplined, and poorly equipped. And there were neither plans nor the necessary planes and ships to get them to the battlefront in a hurry.
While he mobilized his forces, MacArthur ordered a token force of Americans to leave immediately for South Korea. The U.S. military command in Japan believed that the sight of American soldiers at the front would improve the morale and stiffen the resistance of their South Korean allies. No one in MacArthur’s headquarters, or in Washington, respected the fighting qualities of the communist North Koreans. They referred to them as gooks—a racially insulting term. Surely when the North Koreans realized they were up against the overwhelming power of the United States of America, they would turn around and flee back to the North.
Two companies of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, based on the Japanese island of Kyushu, were ordered to Korea on June 30. They were nicknamed Task Force Smith, after their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Charles “Brad” Smith, a 34-year-old West Point graduate and veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign in the Pacific in World War II. Smith’s men faced a long, tiring trip from their barracks in Japan to the front line in Korea. Leaving their barracks at 3 a.m. on July 1, they embarked on a five-hour truck ride through heavy rain to the airfield at Itasuki. There they boarded U.S. Air Force C-54 transport planes, which carried them across the Sea of Japan to an airstrip near Korea’s southern port city of Pusan. They stepped off the planes and onto Korean soil at 11 a.m. on July 1.
For most of the men of Task Force Smith, Korea would be their introduction to combat. Some of them were cooks and clerks who had not been trained as infantrymen. The average age of the enlisted men in the unit was 20, too young to have fought in World War II, which had ended just five years earlier. On July 2, the Americans boarded railroad flatcars in Pusan that would carry them northward. As they waited to pull out, a train arrived, filled with refugees and soldiers just back from the front. The sight of the train provided one of Task Force Smith’s officers, 1st Lt. Philip Day, Jr., with his first inkling of the disasters of war that the Americans were to encounter. The train was
covered with human beings—troops, officers, old men, women, children and most important, at least to me, wounded. My God, I thought, maybe there was a real war going on!
Worse sights awaited them the farther north they traveled. As the train carrying Task Force Smith reached the town of Pyongtaek, it passed the wreckage of another South Korean train, bombed mistakenly by UN pilots who thought they were over North Korean–controlled territory. The corpses of hundreds of dead ROK soldiers and South Korean civilians lay strewn around. When the Americans got off the train and climbed into trucks heading north, they found the roads clogged with refugees and ROK soldiers desperately fleeing the communist advance. Nevertheless, the young American soldiers and their officers remained confident that once they reached the front they would turn the tide of battle.
U.S. military commanders in Korea ordered Task Force Smith to block the path of the onrushing North Korean soldiers. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, had already fallen to the Communists, who were now heading southward along the Seoul-Pusan highway. The Americans would take up positions on a stretch of the highway about 50 miles south of Seoul, between the towns of Suwon and Osan. Lieutenant Colonel Smith had driven up ahead of his troops in a jeep to reconnoiter the area. Task Force Smith, reinforced by 108 artillerymen from the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion and six other 105-mm howitzers, followed their colonel northward by truck.