scene, horrible almost beyond belief, shocked even the toughest men of
the 7th Marine Regiment. Some averted their eyes. Others broke off their
macho banter to talk in hushed, church-like tones.
It was death that spooked them -- death that hung
like an eerie cloud over the narrow valley north of Hoengsong, Korea,
that cold, quiet day in 1951.
In early February, with the Chinese offensive
stalled, U.N. commanders prepared a counter assault across the center of
the Korean peninsula. This time, however, Republic of Korea (ROK) troops
were to do the bulk of the fighting -- with elements of various U.S.
infantry, artillery and other units supporting them. The notion of
Americans supporting ROK troops was very much an experiment -- one U.S.
military leaders later regretted.
What U.N. commanders didn't know was that Communist
forces also were launching a major offensive and had moved four Chinese
and two North Korean divisions into the area north of the village of
Hoengsong. On Feb. 11, ROKs tangled with Communist forces, quickly
disintegrating the planned South Korean offensive.
At one point, GIs of the supporting 15th Field
Artillery (FA) Battalion (2nd Division) encamped for the night, relying
on ROK infantry for protection. When the Chinese attacked in the dark,
the South Koreans fled. The enemy swarmed over the U.S. position. Some
204 artillerymen ultimately died, resulting in one of the most
concentrated losses of American lives in the entire war, according to
Joseph Gould in "Korea: The Untold Story."
Retreating ROKs streamed south past U.S. support
forces, allowing the Chinese to flank American positions. Soon, the
Chinese owned the narrow, twisting valley north of Hoengsong and the
road that ran through it -- the only escape route.
Steep hills rose up on both sides of the road,
turning the valley into a shooting gallery. The Chinese relentlessly
rained mortar fire down on the withdrawing and vastly outnumbered GIs.
Later came the hand-to-hand fighting.
"At times," said one battalion commander,
"U.N. troops lined up on one side of the road and tossed grenades
at the enemy attacking from the other side of the road."
38th Inf. Regt...........462 KIA
15th FA Bn..............208 KIA
503rd FA Bn.............56 KIA
During one withdrawal, forward observer (for the mortar platoon) Sgt.
Charles Long of M Co., 38th Inf. Regt., 2nd Div., chose to remain at his
position atop Hill 300. It was rapidly being overrun, so he wanted to
better direct mortar fire on the Chinese. For a while, he held off the
enemy with rifle fire and grenades, but his last radio message reported
that he was out of ammo. He used his last words to call for 40 rounds of
high explosive fire on his own position, by that time swarming with enemy
soldiers. For his bravery, Long posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
American rescue forces fought their way north from
Hoengsong to the besieged units only to find that a river of Chinese
soldiers poured in behind them. Points secured just an hour or so earlier
reverted quickly to enemy hands.
U.S. infantrymen tried to clear an escape route for the
howitzers, supply trucks and other vehicles, but Chinese soldiers were
everywhere. U.S. artillery fired point blank into ranks of attacking
enemy, but it did little good.
As soon as the withdrawing GIs pushed through one
Chinese strongpoint, they would run smack into another -- while enemy
forces reformed behind them. Some 2,000 Chinese troops manned one enormous
roadblock. But the route south was the only way out. So the Americans
continued to run this meat grinder of a gauntlet toward Hoengsong, taking
heavy losses all the way.
Finally, the column of weary survivors reached
Hoengsong. GIs who made it to the village joined a more general and less
hazardous retreat farther south and lived to fight another day. Yet in the
little valley to the north there was only death.
On March 7th, the 7th Marines re-entered the area north of Hoengsong for
the first time since the rout three weeks earlier. Frozen in time -- and
frozen literally -- the battle scene remained eerily preserved.
"Everyone looked into the valley and saw the smoke twisting toward
the sky," wrote Marine Bill Merrick in his book Tan Vat. "The
smoke came from overturned trucks and jeeps. They had burned so long only
the frames remained. The area looked like an enormous graveyard with the
bodies buried. The troops lay in the road, in the rice paddies, and in the
cabs of the trucks that had not caught on fire."
Hundreds of GI bodies remained where they had fallen.
"We had to push arms, legs, and heads to the side of the road so
vehicles behind us would not run over dead soldiers," wrote Marine
Rod Bennett. Some GIs had been stripped naked by enemy soldiers. One
naked, dead soldier lay across the barrel of an anti-tank gun. In many
trucks, dead Americans lay behind the wheel or hung out the doors. One
truck contained two lifeless GIs and two dead Chinese soldiers.
"The road was blocked by a Sherman tank with one
set of tracks blown off," wrote Merrick. "The hatch was open and
the tank commander was hanging out of it. His jacket was full of holes,
and blood made a big design on his back. Two GIs with their hands tied
behind them had been shot in the back of the head. There were powder burns
on the back of the caps they wore."
Marines, sickened by the sight, erected a sign along
the body-strewn road. It read: "Massacre Valley, Scene of Harry S
Truman's Police Action. Nice Going, Harry!"
U.S. units suffering losses in the Hoengsong debacle
included elements of the 38th and 17th Infantry; 15th, 503rd, 49th, 96th
and674th FA battalions; 82nd Anti-aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Bn.;
and the 187th Airborne RCT.
Several outfits incurred severe battle deaths. Korean
War vet Dick Ecker, using the Army's Adjutant General's Korean War
Casualty File, determined the following breakdown by unit:
* 15th FA Bn. -- 208 (106 KIA & 102 in captivity)
* 503rd FA Bn. -- 56 (27 KIA & 29 in captivity
* 38th Inf. Regt. -- 462 (328 KIA & 134 perished in captivity).
Among the 15th's dead was its commander, Lt. Col. John
Keith, and Master Sgt. Jimmie Holloway, both of whom died after being
taken prisoner. "Holloway was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but
it was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross," according to
the 15th's historian, Dan Gillotti.
Ecker summed it up succinctly: "It was, of course,
the nature of the fatalities in this action that was the real tragedy --
many of them MIA, never found and declared dead or captured and died in
Because military authorities tried to hide the extent
of the disaster, casualty figures regarding the Hoengsong massacre are
extremely jumbled. But according to a Time war correspondent,
"It was part of the most horribly concentrated display of American
dead since the Korean War began."
Gary Turbak writes from Missoula,
Mont. He is a Vietnam veteran.