Band of Brothers, Part 3: Into the Void
“On the 22nd of April 1951, 350,000 Chinese troops launched their largest offensive of the Korean War. The attack broke the 6th Republic of [South] Korea Division that retreated 21 miles, leaving the right flank of the U.S. 24th Infantry Division exposed. The Commanding General of the 24th Infantry Division sent the 90 men of the 8th Ranger Infantry Company into this void.”
— From the Fort Benning Ranger Hall of Fame
For the last couple of weeks, I have been telling you the story of America’s profound influence on the Republic of South Korea through the lens of the Korean War and, specifically, the 8th Airborne Ranger Company. If you have stuck with the narrative thus far, this installment is the dramatic climax to that story. It is also the longest of this series. However, I could find no way to break it up and do the story justice. So, get a cup of coffee and settle in for an epic tale.
In the first piece of this series on Korea, I said that I had gone to the DMZ for a reason that went beyond the DMZ itself. My reason was personal, and it was related to the hill to which my guide was then pointing across the barbed wire of the demilitarized zone.
Hill 628, as the United States Army called it, is a gray, barren, meaningless piece of real estate. Its bleak mass rises 1,000 feet above the plain just across the border in North Korea. A week or so ago, I stood on the concrete, barbed wired, and earthen wall known as the DMZ looking at it through field glasses from the South Korean side of the line. I might as well have been looking at a mountain on the moon through a telescope, so absent did it appear to be of life and activity.
I say it is a meaningless piece of real estate and, as things currently stand in the geopolitical scheme of things, it is. Unlike the land beneath Hacksaw Ridge (visited earlier on our journey) which today sprawls with beautiful beaches and hotels and reveals no scars of war, neither Ritz-Carlton nor Sandals have such plans here and the war appears to have ended only yesterday. And, from the way things looked through those high-powered lenses, North Koreans aren’t particularly interested in the place either. But for three bloody days in April 1951, Hill 628 held the fate of an American infantry company, a regiment, and the endangered right flank of an entire division.
Hill 628 sat within the imaginary geometry of what was known as the “Iron Triangle.” It was there that so many of the Korean War’s key battles occurred, and that it because it was that space at the center of the chessboard that both sides were trying to occupy. Control the Iron Triangle and you control the flow of supplies, troops, armor, and very likely the outcome of the war itself. On a modern map, the peak of the triangle is in North Korea while the two points of its base rest in South Korea.
On the afternoon of April 22, 1951, CCF (Communist Chinese Forces) artillery opened up a ferocious bombardment all along the front. What no one then knew was that this signaled the beginning of the largest offensive of the war. The Chinese sent 350,000 troops—some historians put the number as high as 700,000—sweeping southward in a dramatic bid to drive the forces of the United Nations right off the Korean Peninsula. As the fighting began, the 24th Infantry Division lost contact with the 6th ROK (Republic of South Korea Army) Division on the 24th’s right flank. Commander of the 24th, Major General Blackshear Bryan, believed the 6th ROK Division was some 13,000 yards (i.e., 7.38 miles) to the northeast in the vicinity of Hill 628. But he couldn’t be sure. Even so, his orders to Captain James Herbert, 8th Ranger Company’s commanding officer, were unequivocal:
“Captain Herbert, go find them and report back on their situation.”
Writes one historian of this moment: “Obviously 24th Infantry Division had become convinced that their Rangers were Paul Bunyans who marched in seven-league boots, because 13,000 yards—all through enemy infested mountains—was almost half the distance across the entire IX Corps front! This mission was more of an expedition than a patrol. The Rangers might as well have been told to cross Niagara Falls, then come back to report what the Canadians were doing.”
Too often it is the plight of elite fighting forces to find themselves inadequately supplied with intelligence for the operations to which they have been assigned. What General Bryan did not know—and, thus, the Rangers did not know—was that the 6th ROK Division was not 13,000 yards off of his right flank; they were no longer on his right flank at all. Having been hit hard by the Chinese offensive, the roughly 12,000 men of the 6th ROK Division had retreated 21 miles to the south, leaving behind most of their trucks, artillery, and machine guns. What General Bryan certainly did know was that he had sent 8th Ranger Company, then consisting of a total of 90 men, into a yawning gap through which CCF troops were then pouring.
Adding to the nearly impossible nature of their task, the Rangers were to avoid detection by the CCF until they had reached their objective. Because the mission was deemed to be of utmost importance, they could not wait until nightfall and use the cover of darkness; they would have to leave immediately, in daylight. Avoiding trails that the CCF were using in their southward advance and the ridgetops which might silhouette them against the sky, they trudged onward. At 3 am on April 24th, they reached Hill 628. Making the steep climb fully loaded with packs, bedrolls, rifles, and extra ammunition—110 pounds in all—they found stragglers from the 6th ROK Division at the summit who informed them that their division was gone.
Communicating this information to 24th Infantry Division headquarters, the reply Herbert got was disheartening—8th Company was to press on to Hill 1010 where, according to headquarters, they would find the 6th ROK Division. The Rangers knew this was not true. The 6th was long gone. Ranger opinion was summed up in the comment of one who said, “We might as well have been sent out to find El Dorado.” Nevertheless, 8th Company followed orders and, 4 hours later, they reached the summit of 1010. From this excellent vantage point Rangers could see Chinese flowing “like a river” through the valley below. They called in for artillery to hit the enemy but were quickly rebuffed and told that these were friendly forces.
“The hell they are! I know the damned communists when I see them! I’ve seen them before!” one Ranger protested with characteristic sarcasm. But to no effect. Artillery support would not be forthcoming because division headquarters was certain such a bombardment would hit the 6th ROK Division. They wanted more confirmation. They got it shortly thereafter when the 24th Infantry Division was itself attacked in its rear by the forward elements of the forces the Rangers had infiltrated and were now seeing from atop Hill 1010. As General Bryan was ordering the Rangers to move forward, he ordered his entire 24th Infantry Division to pull back several miles, thus leaving 8th Company even farther beyond the reach of friendly lines.
8th Company dug in and prepared for the CCF to eventually note their presence. A few CCF patrols attempted to probe the top of 1010, but the Rangers quickly killed them all. By now, more ROK stragglers were spotted by 8th Company patrols and were brought to join the others. The only English they could speak was, “Many, many Chinese!” This was intel the Rangers did not need. Said Ranger Robert Black, “No problem finding [the Chinese]. They were rolling down the valleys like tumbleweed.”
Before dawn on April 25th, 8th Company’s orders were changed. They were released from their original mission to locate the 6th ROK Division and were now ordered to return to Hill 628 and occupy it. A patrol went out to recon the hill and found that it was now occupied by the Chinese. Before returning they killed several of the occupants and brought back a prisoner who informed Herbert that 8th Company’s presence had indeed been noted and had caused the CCF to divert their southward advance further to the east. Was this because the CCF had wrongly assumed 8th Company to be a much larger force? He couldn’t know, but whatever the reason, it was buying the 24th more time.
Herbert knew that his Devils, as 8th Company was called, would almost certainly have to fight it out against overwhelming numbers of CCF in the move from 1010 to 628, and his provisions of food, water, and ammunition were running low. Men can go a long time without food but not without water and not without ammunition when facing a numerous and well supplied enemy.
Great stories have unlikely heroes. Corporal Tom Uldall is one of them in this story.
Thirty miles south of the 38th parallel in Seoul, Uldall was enjoying much needed R&R. One historian gives us a vivid picture of the corporal’s circumstances: “Uldall was not a chaplain … [and] when the CCF offensive began he was participating in non-religious activities at a Seoul hotel. But awakened by the far away rumble of constant artillery, Uldall began answering Ranger prayers.” Uldall wasn’t a Ranger either, but he knew many of the men of 8th Company and he knew that the thundering of those guns could only mean one thing: all hell had broken loose and 8th Company was in the thick of it. Hurriedly he dressed, said goodbye to his “temporary companion,” and hitched a ride to the 21st Infantry Regiment which was, by then, fully engaging the enemy advance.
Rangers are, by definition, light infantry. Major John Provost describes them this way: “The [Korean War] Rangers were to be capable of infiltrating enemy lines and destroying his installations. They were trained to repel enemy assault by fire, close combat, or counterattack, to operate in all types of terrain and climate, to conduct intelligence operations, to conduct assaults by parachute, glider, or assault aircraft, and with augmentation, the company was to be capable of independent operations for short periods of time [my emphasis]. If without its own augmentation, Ranger companies must be attached to another unit for administration, mess [i.e., food], supply, and organizational maintenance.”
Uldall knew 8th Company had no such “augmentation.” Therefore, it wasn’t difficult to conclude that they would be low on food, water, and ammunition. Part of the unlikely heroism here is that it was a corporal who figured this out—no, a corporal on vacation—rather than an officer whose job it was to know such things. At 7 pm, Uldall arrived at 21st Infantry Regiment lines and went straight to the headquarters of their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gines Perez. Making Perez aware that the 8th Ranger Company was out there dangling far to his front, unsupported and unsupplied, he convinced him to send them the supplies he knew they desperately needed. It is to Lieutenant Colonel Perez’s credit that he agreed. He might as easily have decided that such a mission would be a waste of men and materiel, and that even if it was successful, 8th Company would likely be wiped out anyway. “[8th Company] was a pebble in a Chinese torrent then crashing down through our lines.”
The start of this mission, however, would seem to justify any decision not to send it in the first place. A team of Korean porters and mules were cobbled together, loaded with provisions, and set out for 8th Company under the leadership of a 21st Infantry Regiment corporal who was almost immediately killed. The lead fell to Uldall. All through the night they marched, dodging and hiding, until they reached the foot of Hill 1010. 8th Company men, alerted by radio that they were coming, welcomed them heartily. They were further encouraged by the news that the 5th RCT (Regimental Combat Team) had been sent out to assist them back to friendly lines. Fed, watered, and reloaded, the Rangers began the descent from 1010.
The battle began almost immediately along the ridge leading to Hill 628. Historians Thomas Taylor and Robert Martin describe the action:
“Standing, sitting, or kneeling as the ground permitted, fighting from behind boulders and folds in the earth, Rangers kept up a heavy fire. Tracers played among the rocks, splattering and singing off stone…. All over the ridgeline Rangers were fighting as individuals and groups, attacking here, defending there, engaging at long range in one place, at point blank in another.”
But 8th Company was taking losses. Rangers Sparko, Rish, Hooks, and Ingram were all hit. Medic Harry Trout was killed while attempting to aid them. Nevertheless, 8th Company drove the Chinese off of Hill 628 and reoccupied it. This was, however, little comfort and of less long-term strategic value. The CCF, having seen the Rangers coming off of Hill 1010, were now aware that they were facing only a small company of elite soldiers. They prepared for a massive assault on the hill. No company, no matter how elite its soldier may be, can hold out indefinitely when the enemy, who has vastly superior numbers, is willing to use his numerical superiority without regard for the cost to his own soldiers. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans had repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to do just that. If 8th Company remained on 628, they would be annihilated.
It was at this point in the battle that 8th Company received word that no help would be coming. The 5th RCT had turned back due to heavy enemy resistance. 8th Company was told: “Get out the best way possible.” Through long experience, soldiers learn to know the subtle differences between the sound of their own guns, shells, and engines and those of the enemy. Rangers now reported that they were certain they could hear the distant rumble of American tanks. Captain Herbert told Ranger radio operator E.C. Rivera to request their support. Using their only remaining radio, Rivera, accompanied by a rifleman to protect him, climbed to the highest point of 628 to make contact. The rifleman was wounded but managed to keep firing while Rivera made the call for help. He was told that the tanks had been ordered to withdraw. Using 8th Ranger Company’s codename of Old Rose, he made their situation brutally clear:
“If they don’t assist, Old Rose will be No Rose.”
Listening to this distress call was Lieutenant David Tiech, 3rd Platoon Leader of Company C, 6th Medium Tank Battalion. This was fortuitous for the Rangers because Teich had worked with them before. Indeed, Teich had an affection for them. They had saved him once. Now that circumstances were reversed, he had no intention of leaving their call for help unanswered. He reported to his commanding officer, Captain James Houtz, that 8th Ranger Company was in trouble. Tiech remembers what happened next:
“[Captain Houtz] replied, ‘F—k them. Let them fight their own battles. I have orders to pull back, and that’s what I’m going to do.’
I replied, ‘Captain Jim, those are American soldiers just like we are, and they need help and we have to help them.’
He said, ‘We have orders to move out.’
I replied with, ‘What if I volunteer to stay behind with my platoon and help the Rangers out?’
He said, ‘If you’re that stupid that’s up to you. I’m moving out with the rest of my company.’
I returned to my tank platoon and explained to them that the 8th Rangers were cut off, surrounded, and needed assistance. I said I had volunteered our platoon to stay behind and help them. They were all in favor. My platoon at the time consisted of four M-46 Patton tanks painted to look like Tigers.”
Teich told Rivera that if 8th Company could breakout from Hill 628, his four tanks would meet them a mile away in the valley below.
“We mounted up and moved north into a large valley and continued until we came to the base of Hill 628. We could hear the firefight going on at the top of the hill.”
The situation at the top of the hill was becoming dire for the Devils. They were killing a lot of the CCF, but they just kept coming. Rangers knocked out a team of machine gunners repeatedly, only to see them replaced until they managed to destroy the gun. Seven Rangers were dead and more than 20 were wounded. That number quickly rose to nine dead when both artillery spotters were killed by mortar fire. Herbert saw Lieutenant Bert Strong hobbling along, rifle in one hand, the other holding his entrails in his stomach. Then Captain Herbert was himself hit in the neck, the bullet passing through the soft flesh and through his shoulder. Losing large quantities of blood, he passed out. When he awakened, the medic told him, “Sir, can you put your left thumb in the left-side hole in your neck and reach around and put your left index finger in the hole on the right?”
But 8th Ranger Company wasn’t done yet. With Captain Herbert down, command fell to Lieutenant Alfred Giacherine. The Rangers, joined by the ROK stragglers who now numbered almost thirty, prepared to breakout. Calculating that the CCF would not expect them to abandon their fixed positions on 628 and attack, the Rangers closed ranks, formed a spearhead, put the wounded in the middle, and assaulted the side of the hill between them and Teich’s four tanks. One platoon remained on the hill to provide cover fire as the other two platoons slammed into the unsuspecting Chinese. The effect was devastating: “As the Rangers approached, Chinese came out of their holes in a banzai attack. They were mowed down—nothing was going to stop 8th Company unless every man took a bullet…. Chinese were everywhere but they seemed disorganized.”
The 1st and 3rd platoons moved forward relentlessly, firing point-blank into foxholes on both flanks and wheeling to fire at targets to their front. Men were hit. Some, injured, kept firing; others tumbled down the steep hillside. The ROK additions, following the example set for them, fought bravely. The 2nd platoon, still on 628, concentrated their fire to make way for 1st and 3rd’s advance. Chinese mortar fire temporarily broke-up the Ranger spearhead, but U.S. artillery began hitting with deadly accuracy, cutting a swath through CCF lines and a path forward.
Meanwhile, down in the valley, Teich’s tank company had problems of their own. Hundreds of Chinese were passing his tanks on both sides. Teich ordered his men not to engage and to sit still and play dead. The tension was palpable. The Chinese, apparently assuming these tanks had already been knocked out because they did not turn their turrets and fire, ignored them.
Back on the slopes of 628, 2nd platoon now had to fight its way out: “The rearguard had the toughest fight getting off of the hill.” In their book Passing the Test: Combat in Korea, William Bowers and John Greenwood describe what happened next:
“Sergeant Charles Taunton’s [2nd] platoon was in a trench moving across the ridge, and even though fire was coming in, he saw nothing to fire at. Then enemy machine gun fire came in from the front left. He moved around the right of a knoll to escape the fire, then located the enemy machine gun. He started firing at it and got a BAR [Browning automatic rifle] to flush out the machine gun position. Several enemy ran up the trail, and the BAR man and Taunton picked them off. Taunton got three BAR men, several riflemen, and one light machine gun set up, and this group fired on the ridge and the point of the hill…. After the squad to his rear came down the hill, Taunton came off the ridge. He went down into the valley and with three BARs acted as a rear guard for the company in case the Chinese followed the company out. The wounded were carried off the hill. As Taunton was going forward to contact the tanks, an air strike hit the mountain.”
The air strike came from a U.S. Navy gull wing Corsair fighter bomber hitting the mountain with napalm. Ranger Robert Black recalled it years later: “A black canister fell from beneath the plane and a moment later a towering gout of flame erupted from behind the hill. The Chinese attack was finished.”
David Teich describes the action from his position with his tank platoon:
“I don’t remember the exact time frame that we were at the base of Hill 628, but you could hear the firefight getting closer to us as the Rangers fought their way down the hill. Then out of the trees at the base of the hill came two soldiers carrying a litter with the Ranger Company Commander [James Herbert] on it. I moved my tank closer to where they were, and they placed the litter down next to my tank. I climbed out of my tank and approached the Company Commander. He had his finger stuck into his jugular vein stopping the bleeding from his wound. He looked up at me and said, ‘boy, am I glad to see you. If you pull your pants down, I’ll kiss your ass.’
I replied, ‘Captain, we have to skip the formalities and get on the tanks as fast as we can because the Chinese are on both our flanks.’”
With the arrival of the Rangers, Teich’s tanks, hitherto ignored by the Chinese, started taking fire. More Rangers appeared with ROK and litter bearers, until every man, including the wounded, were off of Hill 628. Said Teich, “I don’t remember the exact count, but I thought that with the Rangers 90 men and the stragglers, they had picked up, there were approximately 110 to 120 men riding on my four tanks…. There were so many infantrymen on the outside of our tanks that you couldn’t see anything but the tracks.” Teich told them to hang on tight, and in a cloud of dust they headed south. After a brutal three days, 8th Ranger Company was headed back to friendly line, leaving in their wake a bloody calling card: “Chinese dead littered Hill 628.”
When 8th Company rolled into 24th Infantry Division headquarters, the entire division front was engaged in a heavy fighting. Even so, Major General Bryan, who had sent 8th Company out on this mission, came to congratulate the men on a job well done. Lieutenant Giacherine recalls the conversation:
“‘This entire mission,’ Giacherine said, ‘was not clear to me or my men. General Bryan, the 24th Division commander, repeatedly commended the 8th Ranger Company for this action. The third time that he did so, I asked the pointed question, ‘Exactly what good did we do?’ He looked at me in surprise, and in all earnestness replied that by our action he was definitely able to determine that his entire right flank was exposed. He had had such an idea, but he was not sure. We undoubtedly prevented the 21st Infantry from being cut off, if not the entire 24th Division. I was then satisfied to learn this because men had died and been hurt without knowing why.’”
A third of 8th Ranger Company were wounded or killed on Hill 628. So numerically devastated was 8th Company that it was declared “combat ineffective,” a designation indicating that a unit had suffered too many casualties to be deemed fit to perform its normal duties.
As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, my father was in 8th Ranger Company. He was recruited from the 82nd Airborne Division and he would be in 8th Company for the whole of its existence. I have waited this long to mention him because I think that is how he would have wanted it. He never spoke of what he did as a Ranger; he always spoke of what they did as Rangers. And that is noteworthy because my dad, like any other Ranger or elite soldier I have ever met, was a proud man who carried himself with a swagger. I grew up around such men, and they believed they were the best—and not without justification. Others thought it, too.
“When those men entered a bar,” one regular army Korean War veteran told me, “you got up and offered them your seat and a drink. We respected them that much.”
But they didn’t consider themselves heroic and certainly not more so than any other man who stood his ground. It sounds cliché, but they just thought of themselves as doing what they had volunteered to do. Almost any of them would tell you that the only heroes on 628 were the men who died there—and they would mean it. And so it is with many other places with names like Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Peleliu, El Guettar, Pointe du Hoc, Nijmegen, Kapyong, Pork Chop Hill, Ia Drang, Mogadishu, and Wanat to cite only a handful. Places far from your front door and to which you may have heard some vague reference but are otherwise meaningless to you. Indeed, I wager that more people know what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast today than know of the importance of these places.
My father spent four years in Korea. After the war, he was an Imjin Scout, a prestigious designation given only to those who survived 20 or more missions patrolling the dangerous DMZ. When he left it, the Republic of South Korea was a fragile democracy recovering from 35 years of Japanese occupation and a devastating war that had wrecked the whole of the Korean Peninsula. I think my father, like so many Korean War veterans, died wondering if all the fighting, the death, the sacrifice, the suffering and privation had been worth it.
As I walked the streets of Seoul recently, I found myself wishing that I had been able to do this before my father passed away. I would have wanted to tell him what I saw. Almost seven decades since the end of the war that resulted in the deaths of more than 3 million people, I saw a city as modern as any in America. I saw men and women, fashionable and educated, enjoying a standard of living and a quality of life once unthinkable in this part of the world. I saw businesses and churches flourishing. In short, I saw a strong, vibrant free society.
Standing on a street corner, I paused to take it all in. What would dad think of this post-war marvel had he lived to see it? At that moment, a group of about twenty happy, healthy, rosy-cheeked elementary school children emerged onto the sidewalk from the subway. Their teachers herded them along as they merrily followed and sang what sounded like a nursery rhyme. In that instance, I knew exactly what my father would have concluded. The scene of those children sealed it. He loved children. Indeed, he would have been moved by the sight of them. That, I can well imagine, would have brought tears to his eyes and a deep satisfaction to his heart. It did mine.
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It has been pointed out to me that I have been remiss in ending each entry with a link to a song that is appropriate to the theme or topic. Well, for this installment, the choice was easy. In honor of my father and the men of his day, I link to one of his favorite tunes by one of his favorite bands. Enjoy.