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The Agony of Hills

On 23 March 1953, a series of battles began on a hill complex in the north of Yeoncheon county northeast of Seoul, Korea that would be immortalized in books and films as Pork Chop Hill.  In themselves these barren knobs of 300 meters or less in height had limited strategic value, but collectively they have had a meaning attached to them that has come to symbolize the seeming futility of the  “police action” in Korea, and are an excellent example of the differences between Soviet/Chinese-style warfare and American.  The UN forces in Korea, led by the Americans, fought relying on firepower–enormous firepower–that industrial armies had come to rely on since the middle of the 19th century.

The North Koreans in June of 1950 drove easily into the South Korean army, which possessed few tanks, and those were no match for the T-34s. As the Americans and other UN troops arrived, they were pushed them into a corner of the peninsula called variously the Pusan Perimeter or the Naktong River Line.  The Americans, building an army as they went along, defended along a series of hills in battles that would last for up to 60 hours straight.  Not accustomed to this marathon fighting, the Americans edged on exhaustion.

While the North Korean advantage was in its T-34 tanks in the battles of 1950, it lacked the capacity to repair or replace those tanks.  The Immun Gun, the proper name for the North Korean People’s Army, was a force built on a Soviet model, but with some differences.  Few North Koreans had much experience fighting industrialized armies; Japan was something of a Potemkin army with the appearance of industrial capacity but lacking in details.

By the time the Americans landed at Incheon in August 1950 North Korea had only a bare handful of tanks left operational.  Faced with overwhelming force, however, the North Koreans refused to just give up, and instead stood and fought, in some cases until their units were annihilated.  In the early stages of the war both sides strove for the high ground, and to secure supply routes as armies had since Napoleon’s time.  But in October 1950, that changed.

In three months, half the UN territorial gains in Korea were wiped out by a non-mechanized force that smothered the mechanized American, Commonwealth and South Korean forces in flesh–Chinese flesh.  Still clinging to hills, the UN forces were cut off again and again by the foot-borne Chinese who first avoided, then surrounded the major UN positions, cutting them off from retreat, but more important, from their desperately needed supply.  The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), who were at least as “voluntary” as any conscripted force, carried most of its logistic needs on its own back, lacked armored forces and heavy artillery, and could fight night and day for as much as 80 hours.  Like the Romans and the Soviets before them, their endurance was much greater than their enemies.

Following the pattern of industrial states with popular participatory governments, most of the UN forces relied on a core of professional soldiers, a framework of shorter-term technicians, and a mass of volunteers, draftees and earlier service members called back to the colors, for the most part WWII.  In this kind of war, as many have said before, the only thing that saved the UN was the strategic mobility and the tremendous firepower that armies like theirs had to rely on, and that the multitudes of Chinese (some of whom were veterans of the wars against Japan and of their civil war, and of service in the Soviet army against Germany) and the decimated North Koreans simply could not obtain.  When the Chinese closed to grenade range their numbers and fatalistic courage mattered, but before they got that close the UN could lay waste to them by the thousands.

By the spring of 1951 the mobile war had given way to an odd looking conflict that was a mix of WWI and WWII.  There were few frontal attacks but there were trenches.  There were mechanized assaults but few were decisive.  Casualties mounted, troops were rotated, whole national contingents came and went as peace talks stumbled and fluttered.  The one thing that was constant was that both sides were willing to prove their point using military force as needed.  Neither the Chinese nor the UN could “win” anything in the troglodytic twilight war of hills and bunkers, trenches and patrols.  Much of the mid-level Chinese field leadership–the company and battalion commanders on whom most of the tactical decisions fell– was dead by the end of 1950. UN morale dripped practically by the month; the “retreads” of WWII veterans called back to service were frustrated by this impossible no-decision way of war and just wanted to go home.

Ironically, it is becoming clear half a century later, both sides reached this conclusion at about the same time, but neither was willing to concede too much of anything.  One reason for this was neither Chinese nor American, but Soviet: Joseph Stalin.  The Chinese were convinced–wrongly–that without their war in Korea Stalin’s support in the Politburo the Soviet assistance for building their new country would dry up.   The UN, primarily led by the Americans, were facing increased tensions in the Mediterranean basin and in Europe from expansionist Soviet aims.  “The wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy,” however glib and seemingly sage, was Omar Bradley’s short-sighted attempt to redirect attention from the global nature of the Stalinist/Soviet threat.

Peace talks began in the spring of 1951, going exactly nowhere but a few prisoner exchanges while the war of hills and outposts raged on and on.  In the late winter of 1953, nearly three years after it started and nearly two after the talks began, came the agony of Pork Chop.  Readers are likely familiar with the broad details of the American involvement due to the 1957 film starring Gregory Peck.  But it started nearly a week before when the Chinese pushed a Colombian battalion off Pork Chop and Old Baldy south of it in a marathon fight.   A week after the Colombians were displaced, K Company of the 31st Infantry, under the command of Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck’s character), was joined by L Company of the same regiment under Forrest Crittenden in a predawn assault on Pork Chop.  By dark less than a third of K Company was still on its feet; only about 10% of L Company answered the role.  The next day, they were reinforced by another battalion: seven of them walked off the hill.  Like a hundred hills before, the four-month’s fight over Pork Chop and Old Baldy would become a test of wills.

What was it all for?  Either not a lot of anything or a whole lot of everything.  This was the essence of Cold War brinkmanship, when neither would give up until the other slackened even for a moment.  It was played out in Korea as it had been in Greece, and in the Philippines,  and would be again in the Caribbean over some missiles in Cuba, and in Vietnam over a corrupt regime that played out bunch of hills around Khe Sanh, on another worthless rock called Hamburger, and another worthless pbend in a river called Hue.  “Worthless” only in the sense that something as intangible as “freedom” has a price that only a free person would be willing to pay for with his life, and that the free who are not brave will never quite appreciate.

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