The 24th Infantry Regiment moves into battle in Korea, July 18, 1950.
A U.S. army field artillery battalion firing an eight-inch howitzer during a battle in Korea.
Smith picked out what he thought would be a good defensive position on three hills that overlooked the main road. His men arrived about 3 a.m. on July 5, their clothes soaked through from a cold drizzle. They moved into the hills to dig foxholes and dragged heavy boxes of ammunition up through the mud to their positions. “Everyone was tired, wet, cold, and a little bit pissed off,” Lieutenant Day would recall. The overcast skies also meant that the soldiers of Task Force Smith could expect no help from the U.S. Air Force if they got into trouble.
Trouble was not long in coming. Shortly after dawn a sergeant called Day’s attention to a column of tanks moving down the road. Lieutenant Day, excited and unsure of what he was seeing, asked what they were. The sergeant replied calmly, “Those are T-34 tanks, sir, and I don’t think they’re going to be friendly toward us.”
The artillerymen, who had set up their howitzers about a mile south of Smith’s infantrymen, zeroed in on the tanks. They fired the first American shots of the ground war in Korea at 8:16 a.m. on July 5, 1950. The infantrymen opened up with their 75-mm recoilless rifles, bazookas, and mortars. Although four North Korean tanks were knocked out, many of the American shells, left over from World War II, turned out to be duds. The Americans began to take casualties in return. One North Korean crewman, abandoning his wrecked tank, fired his machine gun at Americans as he leapt to the ground. An American machine gunner fell dead before the enemy tankman was killed. The name of the dead American, the first U.S. death of the war, has been lost to history. Lieutenant Day, firing on the tanks with a 75-mm recoilless rifle, found himself a target of North Korean tank fire; his gun was destroyed and the concussion caused blood to pour from his ears. All the while the North Korean tanks kept rolling south. Within two hours after the fighting started, 29 tanks had passed by Task Force Smith, and 20 Americans had been killed or wounded.
An hour later trucks carrying thousands of North Korean infantrymen rolled down the highway to the American positions. U.S. artillery fire blew up several trucks, killing dozens of NKPA soldiers. The rest climbed out of their trucks and began to encircle the Americans. Colonel Smith pulled his forces together into a tighter perimeter, and they fought back with rifles, grenades, and artillery. Many on both sides were killed.
Finally, Colonel Smith was left with no choice but to withdraw or risk the destruction of his entire unit. The Americans had to abandon their wounded to the enemy. Some of the young soldiers panicked, throwing away their weapons so that they could travel faster. Lieutenant Day recalled: “We moved as fast as we could. Everything had broken down and it was every man for himself.” Colonel Smith and some of his men were able to break out of the enemy encirclement, but when the battle was done, more than 185 Americans had been killed, wounded, captured, or were missing.
News of the destruction of Task Force Smith spread quickly through the ranks of American soldiers arriving in South Korea, undermining their morale. Things had not worked out the way the planners in Tokyo and Washington thought they would. All in all, it was an unpromising beginning for the first full-scale American war on the Asian mainland, a conflict that Gen. Omar N. Bradley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, would in the spring of 1951 call the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Task Force Smith never really had a chance. The unit was in part the victim of an arrogant miscalculation by U.S. military commanders, a presumption that the North Koreans would never stand and fight against Americans. But the soldiers of Task Force Smith were also victims of the uncertainty and confusion in American foreign policy in Asia since the end of the World War II. Between 1945 and 1950, the U.S. government committed itself to the struggle to stop communism wherever it threatened to spread—a struggle that became known as the cold war. Yet neither the leaders of the American government nor the American people as a whole seemed to realize, or were willing to pay, the true costs of a policy of anticommunist “containment” on a worldwide scale. The U.S. government and military had spent five years getting ready to fight a World War II–style conflict on the European continent. That would have been the “right” war, in terms of American expectations and preparation. A limited war in Asia was another matter altogether.
Yet the Korean War would mark a dividing line in American history. It was the moment when the U.S. truly became a superpower, displaying the will and developing the means for global intervention.
With the end of World War II in 1945, the wartime Grand Alliance of the United States and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany collapsed. President Franklin Roosevelt had hoped that the United States and the Soviets could cooperate in guaranteeing the peace and stability of the postwar international order. But when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin imposed a system of puppet communist regimes on the countries of Eastern and central Europe, the bright hopes of postwar friendship faded. The United States strengthened the defenses of Western Europe against further Soviet advances. George Kennan, an American foreign service officer in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, sent a long telegram to the State Department in February 1946, analyzing postwar Soviet policies. In an expanded version of his telegram, printed in the influential journal Foreign Affairs in 1947, Kennan warned of the hostility of the Soviet leadership to the Western world and their determination to spread the communist system beyond its present borders.