Task Force MacLean-Faith

As stated in my banner, this blog mostly contains stories about Marines … but I have also included articles involving Air Force, Army, and Navy personnel.  This article will be about a U. S. Army unit in Korea.  It should be read within this framework: elements of the 7th US Infantry Division operated in conjunction with the 1st Marine Division at a place in North Korea known as the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir.  One of these elements was effectively destroyed in the fighting that took place there.

Background

In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur (shown at right) served as Supreme Allied Commander, United Nations Command (Far East).  He concurrently served as Commander, U. S. Army Forces (Far East).  It was MacArthur’s responsibility to establish an allied force order of battle —essentially an organizational outline reflecting a chain of command within the operating forces.

Responsibility for military operations in Korea was assigned to the Eighth US Army (VIII Army), then commanded by Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, USA.  On paper, Walker’s Army consisted of the Army’s I Corps, IX Corps, and X Corps.  Walker’s direct superior in the chain of command was Douglas MacArthur.  Whether MacArthur lacked confidence in General Walker’s command of a field Army is far beyond my paygrade, but the fact is that General MacArthur stripped 8th Army of its X Corps making it independent of General Walker’s command, answerable directly to himself.

Matters were further compounded by MacArthur’s selection of the officer to command X Corps.  In addition to command of X Corps (a combat command) Major General Edward M. (Ned) Almond concurrently served MacArthur as Chief of Staff, U. S. Army Forces, (Far East) (a senior staff position).  Apparently, because Major General Almond reported directly to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, he felt there was no reason to keep Walker (a mere lieutenant general) informed of X Corps operations.

In combat, as we shall see, this is a recipe for disaster.

Major General Almond previously commanded the 2nd Infantry Division (8 months) and the 92nd Infantry Division[1].  It is difficult for me to understand how any officer as inept, or as maladroit as Almond could ever have reached flag rank.  Almond eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, but in my opinion, he should never have been promoted beyond major.

In 1950, the United States was unprepared for war.  In the aftermath of World War II, President Truman reduced the strength of Army, Air Force, and Navy commands such that they were no longer combat effective.  Worse, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech on 12 January 1950 which failed to mention the Korean Peninsula as part of the United States’ post-war defense perimeter.  The inference here was that the United States government did not view South Korea as having much importance in Truman’s domino theory.  Accordingly, Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung believed that they had a “green light” to invade South Korea.  This level of incompetence would guarantee the loss of the lives of military personnel from the United States and United Nations member nations.

Invade South Korea is exactly what Kim Il-sung did, with the full support of the Soviet Union.  At this juncture, it would take some time to rebuild America’s Armed Forces.  The problem is, of course, there was no time for renewal, so most of the commands Truman committed to the Korean War went as they were. In this post-war environment, Army combat and combat service support units were understrength, poorly trained, and poorly led.

Standardized military organizations have existed since the days of the Roman Republic; in the United States, ground forces are organized as follows: armies have three corps and very often include other supporting units; a corps is composed of three divisions (with additional, reinforcing elements); there are three infantry regiments in a division (with additional reinforcements), three battalions in a regiment, three infantry companies and a weapons company in a battalion, three platoons and a weapons platoon in a company, and three squads in an infantry platoon.

Because American ground forces were dramatically understrength in 1950, the Department of Defense relied upon UN forces to bolster US combat forces.  In June 1950, the Army’s X Corps included  the US 7th Infantry Division (Major General David G. Barr), US 3rd Infantry Division (Major General Robert H. Soule), and the 1st Marine Division (Major General Oliver P. Smith).  All three of these divisions were initially understrength.

At the beginning of the Korean conflict in mid-July 1950, General MacArthur began pulling soldiers away from the 7th Infantry Division and sending them to fill in the ranks of the 25th Infantry Division in Korea.  Within a short time, the 7th Infantry Division only consisted of 9,000 men; its wartime strength was 25,000.  The U. S. Army Service Command (Far East) began to augment the 7th with 8,000 poorly trained Korean conscripts; to this was later added a battalion of Ethiopians.  Similarly, the 3rd Infantry Division had but two regiments; this division was augmented by Koreans, Belgians, and Greek infantry.  General Almond directed one full regiment to serve as X Corps reserve, resulting in only two-thirds of a division remaining available to the 3rd Infantry Division commander for combat operations.

President Truman wanted a quick end to the Korean War, but he didn’t want to precipitate another world war.  So Truman did what we have come to expect from politicians: he vacillated.  He wanted MacArthur to move with speed to occupy North Korea and, if possible, push the North Korean army completely off the map, but he also restricted MacArthur’s operations at or below the 38th parallel.  The JCS later rescinded this restriction, telling MacArthur to operate as he saw fit.  Accordingly, MacArthur ordered the 8th (VIII) Army and Ten (X) Corps to proceed to the Yalu River (North Korea’s border with China).  Observing MacArthur’s movements, China warned him not to approach China’s border; MacArthur wasn’t listening.

North Korean terrain ranks among the most mountainous in the world.  This is significant because mountains hinder communications and terrain dictates ground movement.  With mountain ranges running generally north to south, military units were separated from one another by high elevations.  Moreover, limited roads were vulnerable to blockage by enemy units.  There was a single main supply route (MSR) from Wonsan to the point of furthest advance, Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir.

The location of Marine and Army units in the Chosin operating area is reflected on the map (right).  This map tells us two stories: the first underscores Ned Almond’s ineptitude.  He pushed units so far forward that resupply of these units became a major undertaking.  Forward units were disbursed, exposing them to enemy attack.  Both Almond and MacArthur refused to acknowledge what everyone else knew to be a fact: the presence in North Korea of large numbers of Chinese troops.    The second story tells us what happened to Regimental Combat Team-31 (commonly referred to today as Task Force Faith) —and why.

Almond ordered Major General Barr (7th Infantry Division) to provide a regimental sized force to operate on the right flank of the 1st Marine Division.  In earlier operations, the 7th Infantry Division had become widely dispersed and isolated from one another.  The immediacy of Almond’s directive made it impossible to assemble a full-strength RCT before moving north.  Complying with X Corps orders, RCT-31[2] moved forward to cover the eastern flank of the Marine division with incomplete coordination with the Marines, who were then operating south and west of the Chosin Reservoir.

RCT-31 was initially commanded by Colonel Allan MacLean; the combat team included 3/31, 1/32, two batteries of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion, and one platoon of Battery D, 15th Anti-aircraft Battalion.  It was short one full battalion of infantry and a tank company.

MacLean moved forward on 27 November 1950 and occupied two separate positions along a ten mile stretch along the east side of the reservoir.  Not anticipating enemy activity[3], MacLean’s battalions prepared inadequate perimeter defenses (which is to say linear rather than 360 degrees of security, or “an all-around” defense).  Colonel MacLean intended to move his command forward the next morning (28 November 1950).  During the night, however, undetected Chinese forces infiltrated the area; once in place, they launched a devastating attack on elements of RCT-31 and the Marines.  MacLean asked for, and received a temporary postponement of the planned offensive.

Early the next morning, General Almond flew to RCT-31’s position and after conferring with MacLean, concluded that here was no evidence of any presence of Chinese Communist Forces (CCF). Almond demanded that MacLean continue his northern movement, but then contradicted himself by saying, “The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of Chinese divisions fleeing north.  We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu.  Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundry-men stop you.”

Convinced that RCT-31 was strong enough to begin its attack and deal with these so-called remnants of enemy troops moving north, Almond returned to his headquarters.  Meanwhile, large numbers of Chinese forces occupied the eastern hills overlooking RCT-31’s southern-most position.  MacLean continued to anticipate the arrival of his third infantry battalion and a tank company.

The reinforcements never arrived.

Unknown to Colonel MacLean, China’s reinforced 80th Infantry Division soon surrounded RCT-31.  When RCT-31’s much-awaited tank company reached Hagaru-ri, the column discovered the presence of a well-situated Chinese blocking force.  During this engagement, the tank company lost four of its tanks and withdrew to consolidate its remaining forces.  The tank company renewed its attack on the next morning, but it too failed; the remnants of the tank company withdrew to the small village of Hudong, 4 miles south of RCT-31’s position.

The Marines to the west were also under an overwhelming attack; as a result, they were unable to assist RCT-31.  MacLean’s missing battalion never materialized, but he made no effort to contact his higher headquarters to inform them of his situation.  Perhaps MacLean was intimidated by the blustering Major General Almond.

Chinese forces made another attack on the night of 28 November and succeeded in overrunning several RCT-31 positions.  Their attack against 1/32 included North Korean tanks and self-propelled artillery.  During the attack, weather conditions rapidly deteriorated; heavy snow began to accumulate and temperatures plunged to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Low visibility denied the RCT defenders any clear picture of the enemy’s movements.  That night, American troops suffered from intense cold; several soldiers froze to death in their foxholes.  Colonel MacLean decided to develop a stronger defense position.  He ordered 1/32 to pull back south into the main perimeter.

China’s 27th Corps then committed its 241st Regiment and RCT-31 was now facing two Chinese infantry divisions.  While 1/32 moved south under the protection of 40 Marine ground support aircraft, Air Force cargo planes dropped supplies into RCT-31’s southern-most position.

After consolidating his force, Colonel MacLean observed what he believed was the approach of long-awaited reinforcements.  What Maclean observed was the approach of a Chinese force.  In this encounter, MacLean was mortally wounded.  Command of RCT-31 now fell to the next senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, commander of 1/32.

Faith immediately consolidated his force and formed a proper perimeter.  The Chinese intensified their attack.  The severely understrength RCT fought off a massive assault by two full enemy divisions.  Marine aircraft supported the RCT throughout the day.  The battle continued for two additional days.

All attacks against the RCT’s perimeter were successfully repulsed, but Faith was running low on ammunition.  Half of his force had been killed or wounded.  Realizing that he was surrounded and outnumbered, Colonel Faith decided to break out of the defense and fight his way toward Marine lines to his west.  He intended to take as little of his equipment as possible —only enough vehicles to carry his wounded.  He destroyed excess equipment, permitting the assignment of additional soldiers to infantry roles.

Faith’s break out began on 1 December; Navy and Marine Corps aircraft strafed and bombed Chinese positions as Task Force Faith made its way down a gravel road east of Chosin.  Faith’s progress was interrupted, however, when Corsairs mistakenly dropped ordnance on Faith’s southward moving lead elements; several troops were killed; others horribly burned by napalm.  This unfortunate incident seriously demoralized soldiers already under great stress.  Then, as the forward elements continued their southern movement, heavy small arms fire caused the rear-guard echelon (operating further north along the MSR) to seek shelter in a gully below the roadway.  In doing so, they abandoned their wounded comrades.  Enemy fire killed many of the RCT’s wounded and the drivers of the trucks.  By late afternoon, Faith was able to get the column moving again but he soon ran into a reinforced Chinese roadblock.  Several companies attacked the Chinese; one of these was led by Colonel Faith, who was mortally wounded.

It was at this point that darkness closed in … and with it, the end of protective air support.  Chinese infantry assaults grew bolder, penetrating ever closer to the remnants of RCT-31.  With their commander now dead, the combat team disintegrated; most of the officers and senior NCOs were either dead or wounded.  Leaderless soldiers wandered off across the frozen reservoir seeking safety.  Army tanks and soldiers previously encamped at the small village of Hudong might have saved some of these soldiers, but they had been ordered back to Hagaru-ri the previous day.

The Chinese stepped up their assault with intense small arms fire and white phosphorus grenades, wantonly murdering the wounded and incapacitated; within some elements of RCT-31, the situation quickly degenerated into every man for himself.

Eventually, nearly 400 able-bodied survivors of Task Force Faith were formed into an Army provisional battalion that fought alongside the Marines during their withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir.  Other Army units were brought into the Marine lines as well, including what was left of the 31st Tank Company —assigned to reinforce the 5th Marine Regiment.

Eleven hundred soldiers were too badly wounded or frostbitten to fight; they were evacuated through the heroic efforts of U. S. Air Force pilots and support personnel.  Of its original strength of 3,000 soldiers, one-third of RCT-31 were killed in action.

RCT-31 was the largest American unit ever destroyed in combat.

Commentary

There is ample room for criticism in any discussion about the Chosin Reservoir campaign.  In my view, the severest criticism is properly assigned to Harry S. Truman and his defense secretary, but with equal measure to Douglas MacArthur and Ned Almond.

Major General Barr sent a regimental combat team into hostile territory at about two-thirds of its combat strength.  Considering the weight of the Chinese forces thrown against RCT-31, we must wonder if an additional battalion would have made a difference.  Still, General Barr deserves censure for lacking the moral courage to refuse an inane order from Almond.

Colonel MacLean executed his orders, but one should imagine that a senior infantry officer would have prepared a better defense during hours of darkness.

The mistaken bombing of forward elements of RCT-31 by Marine aircraft is an unspeakable tragedy; these things do happen.  I cannot imagine how the pilot felt when he later learned what he’d done.  It is bad enough losing good men to the enemy; being killed by friendly fire is the worst of all scenarios.

The soldiers of RCT-31 were young, inexperienced, and poorly trained.  They were certainly poorly led by their field generals.  The battle-loss of senior officers and NCOs provided an opportunity for junior officers to seize the moment; they didn’t.  Who were the officers in the rear-guard?  Why did they allow their troops to sacrifice their incapacitated comrades?

I do believe that RCT-31 has been unfairly maligned in statements made by Marines at the time, and in subsequent years.  Part of this “rivalry” stems from the Battle for the Pusan Perimeter, when Marines were constantly thrown into the breech to retake real estate lost by Army units.  At Pusan, Marines were dying because Army units weren’t pulling their own load.  Whether objective, this was the genesis of “hard feelings” between Marines and soldiers.  In effect, the experience of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade at Pusan seemed to reinforce what everyone already knew about the poor combat record of the US 27th Infantry Division at Saipan and Okinawa.

Noted military historian Eric Hammel observed, “Marines [in Korea] evidenced a growing hostility to the army men in their midst.  It was unfair of them to do so, but there was not a member of the 1st Marine Division who did not feel that his plight in some way reflected a lack of concern on the part of the Army officer who ran X Corps.”

Similarly, Colonel Edward L. Magill, USA (a veteran of the Chosin campaign) wrote a piece titled Soldiers of Changjin, saying “The condition of the units at the time of the breakout has never been properly weighed… The soldiers were suffering from hunger, dehydration, lack of sleep, long exposure to severe cold, and the physiological effects of prolonged combat.”

While I agree with Magill —it is also true that Marines experienced these same difficulties and yet did not abandon their wounded, their dead, or their equipment.  The difference, or so it would seem, was in the quality of leadership within the 1st Marine Division.

One of the individuals responsible for criticism of RCT-31 was a Marine officer who helped rescue hundreds of RCT-31 survivors: Lieutenant Colonel Olin L. Beall who, at the time, commanded the 1st Motor Transport Battalion.  In 1953, Beall wrote a scathing report against the Army in the Chosin campaign.  He was there, of course, but I think his criticism reveals a lack of insight.  Were it not for the tremendous fight RCT-31 put up against two enemy infantry divisions, the Chinese would have mauled the Marines of the 1st Marine Division.  In this sense, it should possible for us today to give due credit to the intense bravery displayed by the soldiers of RCT-31.  In the face of extreme adversity, these men put up one hell of a fight.

Notes:

[1] General George C. Marshall served as the U. S. Army Chief of Staff during World War II.  Marshall, a VMI classmate of Almond, was instrumental in Almond’s promotion to major general and his subsequent assignment to command the 92nd Infantry Division between October 1942 and August 1945.  Almond led the division in combat throughout the Italian Campaign.  Almond’s performance, however, was rated as inept.  Rather than taking responsibility for his professional shortcomings, Almond placed the blame for his incompetence on his mostly African-American troops—the source of his failure as a field general.  Almond later advised the Army against using blacks as infantry in combat.

[2] A regimental combat team is a task-organized unit consisting of infantry and supporting units.  The size of infantry and supporting organizations depends upon the assigned mission.  RCT-31 was formed from the 31st Infantry Regiment, and attached supporting units.  Total manpower complement numbered just at 3,000 troops; of these, 600 were Korean augmentees to the US Army (called KATUSA).  General Barr removed the 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment (1/31) and replaced it with the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment (2/32).

[3] X Corps insisted that there was no significant Chinese presence in North Korea.  He ignored the intelligence gained from Chinese prisoners of war and information gathered by forward reconnaissance units.  Colonel MacLean erred when he believed what his seniors were telling him, rather than relying on his own judgment while operating deeply inside “Indian” territory.

3 thoughts on “Task Force MacLean-Faith”

  1. During the rush to reinforce Hagaru-ri, overwhelming Chinese forces interdicted hundreds of American soldiers and Marines along the single MSR from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri; it was an unimproved road barely adequate to the flow of military grade vehicles and tanks. The road was also a steady rise in elevation into the high mountains surrounding it.

    American troops were sitting ducks to the Chinese regiments who were shooting down into the stream of men and equipment. Casualties were mounting, and it occurred to the Chinese that here might be an opportunity for them to defeat the Americans —by offering them the opportunity to surrender. The Chinese commander appealed to the American officers: end the slaughter; surrender your men “and they will be well treated.”

    Captain Charles L. Peckham, U. S. Army, was one of those bottled up along the MSR. Peckham commanded Company B, 1st Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment. Beyond the Royal Marine Commando, his was the only infantry unit on the MSR and his casualty rate was close to fifty percent. Ammunition was critically low; the troops could not resist the Chinese if they did not have the means to fight. Surrender was the humane thing to do.

    A Chinese officer in the company of an American GI approached Charlie Peckham. He told Captain Peckham that he would be well-treated if he surrendered. Peckham gave the Chinese officer a pack of American cigarettes and asked him to take them as a present to his (the Chinese officer’s) superior … and tell him, if the Chinese gave up, Peckham would see that the Chinese troops were well fed and well treated.

    Lacking the ability to resist, having no other choice, Peckham and hundreds of others ultimately did surrender.

  2. Mustang. I just had the opportunity to read your wonderfully concise piece on the Chosin. My brother-in-law, who just recently passed, was there. He had joined the Marine reserves in Baltimore, and was scheduled to attend recruit training upon graduation. That never happened. During his senior year, his reserve unit was activated; he was yanked out of school and deployed with his unit to Korea. Amazingly, he never went to Marine Boot Camp.
    Respectfully,
    Jim

    1. Both Andrew Geer and Eric Hammel have written about Marines who never attended boot camp – and this makes the work of General Smith and his regimental commanders even more amazing in so short a period of time. Thank you for your comment, Jim. Semper Fi.

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