Tuesday, October 11, 2011

From the Pages - War Stories of the Tankers

In the following excerpt from War Stories of the Tankers, Lt. Chris Byron (U.S. Army) recounts his experience as a tank commander in the 70th Tank Battalion at Songhyon-ni, South Korea on October 12, 1950.

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I served in the Korean War as a platoon leader and was a member of the 70th Tank Battalion, which was attached to the 1st Cavalry Division.

In Korea, because of the terrain, tank battalions and even tank companies didn’t operate together as a unit. We were usually parceled out to an infantry unit. Quite often, it was just a platoon of tanks that was attached to an infantry battalion, and the platoon operated under the direction of the infantry battalion commander. Chances were that he didn’t know anything about tanks. Even so, some of them were pretty good. One would say to me, “Tell me how you can help us in this mission that we have.” Others were bullheaded and told you what to do. They thought they knew everything, like the one that I worked under quite a bit, Lt. Col. Paul Clifford. A good example would be on October 12, 1950.

Colonel Clifford commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment. His battalion was given the mission of passing through the 8th Cavalry in a place called Songhyon-ni and attacking toward Kumchon, South Korea. On that morning, Colonel Clifford told me that he wanted me to lead an attack through a valley that contained heavy ground fog. Fog was not a common occurrence in Korea, but on that day, it was thick. I told the colonel that because of the heavy ground fog the gunners could not see through their telescopic sites; under those circumstances, it would be much better if the infantry lead the attack. His reply to me was, “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you.” Of course, you know, they could hear us coming, and because of the size of the tanks, we would be seen first. Tanks in those days were not known for their stealth in storming enemy positions.

My protests to him were ignored, and I was ordered to proceed with his battle plan. In the plan of action, there was no room for the maneuver of tanks. To the west of the tortuous road leading north up a small mountain was high ground, not tremendously high, but hilly. Nevertheless, that high ground was impassible by tanks. In addition, I was told that there were friendly troops in that area. To the east of the road was a precipitous drop to a ravine. I don’t ever remember seeing a guardrail on a mountain pass in Korea. There was none here. So, in other words, the tanks and the troops, particularly the tanks, had to stay on the road. The troops could go up the hill if they wished. That was up to the battalion commander. Keep in mind, though, that because his information was that friendly troops occupied the high ground on the west of the road, it was not likely that his initial plan would direct the infantry to that area. There was no question that the tanks would be road-bound and could only proceed in a single file.

As was my usual custom, my tank was at the head of the column to lead the attack. I can recall the names of most of the people in my platoon. Sergeant Phillips was the commander of the second tank. Sergeant Culbertson was the commander of the third tank. I’m not sure who commanded the fourth tank, but my able and seasoned platoon sergeant, Wayne Smith, commanded the fifth tank. The infantry followed close behind. My radio contact with the infantry battalion commander was by way of a tank liaison officer, Lt. Edward “Corky” Corcoran.

At the appropriate time, I gave the order to advance through the dense fog in the road. We moved cautiously, expecting the worst and hoping for the best. Because of the limited visibility, I kept my turret hatch open. It was not long before we received heavy small-arms fire, forcing the infantry to halt after they had suffered many casualties.

Enemy troops, attempting to damage the tanks, began throwing hand grenades and satchel charges from the high banks overlooking the road. A fragment from a grenade entered the turret opening of my tank, striking me in the back. The wound was minor and didn’t require hospitalization. Such a grenade or other explosive could cause minor damage to the tank, though, so at that point, I decided to close the turret of the tank. Before long, the fog lifted and we could see enemy troops on the high ground to our left. I reported our position and the situation to battalion headquarters through Corky, our liaison officer. Corky said to me, “If you are where I think you are, there should be friendly troops to your left.”

My response was, “I don’t know where you think I am, but all I can see to my left are men in brown uniforms pointing guns in your direction and advancing toward you. They sure don’t look friendly.” At the end of the day, I learned that we had broken through the defensive lines of the North Koreans and we had encountered a counterattack by a battalion of enemy troops.

We were urged to continue the attack, and as we rounded a bend in the road, there was an antitank gun in a defensive position pointing directly at us. My gunner, Sergeant Fred Sellers, destroyed it with one shot of the cannon. He was a superb gunner. He never missed. I hardly ever had to give him a fire command. I would just tell him what and where the target was, and chances were that he’d have the gun sight right on it and proceed to knock it out.

We continued to press the attack, and there were many infantry casualties resulting in bodies of American soldiers in the road. The tanks were not moving continuously, so when my tank was not in motion the bodies of some brave soldiers that had been killed landed in front of me. There was no room to maneuver around the bodies of those American soldiers. The road was too narrow; to the left of the road was a bank about ten feet high and to the right was a precipitous drop to the ravine.

We had some choices: dismount from the tanks to remove the bodies, remain in a static position until the infantry took the high ground to our left, attempt to go down the cliff to our right, or run over the bodies. The first option was not practical. Enemy troops on the high ground had been throwing hand grenades down upon us and had been firing at the infantry that accompanied us. There would be more bodies along the road. The second option, waiting until the infantry cleared the area, would stall the offense, would give the North Koreans a better opportunity to succeed in repelling us and pursuing their attack, and would be contrary to the principles of armored warfare. That choice would probably result in greater casualties. We had to be aggressive and move forward as quickly as possible. Although we were always fearful of getting close to the right edge of the road, the third option was never a choice that I would choose voluntarily. With great sadness that brings tears to my eyes whenever I think about it, I made the decision that resulted in the crushing of some American bodies.

Thus, we proceed forward. There were other bends in the road, and we encountered other antitank guns, which my gunner, Fred, also destroyed. I used to tell people that Fred made me look good and that certainly was true on that day.

With each encounter and each destruction, I would report the result to the battalion by way of Corky. At some point during our attack, Fred told me, “We’re in deep trouble.”

“Why?” I asked. He told me that the tank cannon could not be reloaded. I immediately called a halt to our forward progress just before a bend in the road. A high cliff and the bend in the road offered us protection from direct antitank fire.

“Well, what should we do, Fred?” I inquired.

“We can’t go forward and we can’t go backward,” he said in his southern drawl. On this narrow road, no other tank could move around us to lead the assault. We had to correct the problem as soon as possible. The difficulty appeared to be that unburned powder in the breech of the gun was preventing a shell from being properly seated in the firing chamber.

Apparently, the rear echelon realized that we weren’t moving forward, because Corky radioed to inquire about our lack of progress. I explained to him our difficulty. A few moments later, he stated that Colonel Clifford was upset that I wasn’t moving forward and that he wanted me to press on, regardless of the consequences.

My response to Corky, no private communication over the airwaves, made a big hit with the men of my platoon, and indeed with others who heard it. It was, “Tell that stupid bastard that I’m not going around another bend in this road without a round in the chamber of the gun.” A few years ago, Fred Sellers told me that I also said, “If he wants us to move forward, tell him to come up here and get things moving.” There was no reply.

An infantry officer on Colonel Clifford’s staff later told me that at battalion headquarters they had been listening to all my radio communications, which included reports of each time an enemy cannon had been destroyed. He stated to his fellow members on the staff, “He’s doing all right. Why doesn’t he (Colonel Clifford) leave him alone?”

In short order we were able to clear the breach of the cannon, then we loaded it. The advance continued with more antitank guns destroyed. I didn’t count the number of guns that were destroyed on that day. I was just doing my job. The official account as reported in a research report of the Armored School states that we had destroyed ten antitank guns and an estimated 175 enemy infantry. Neither of those figures came from me, and I did not contribute to that report. Nobody asked me.

Although the enemy had used great skill in setting up their defenses in depth, their positions were overrun with slight damage to our tanks. The infantry, though, because of withering enemy fire, was not able to keep up with us. After we reached the summit of the hill, I looked down the other side to the valley to the north and could see that the North Koreans were retreating. We pursued them down the road and onto a flat plain.

There, the tanks behind me, automatically fanned out to the right and left to form a line. This was done without any command from me, and it was a good feeling that they knew what to do. They knew what was expected of them, and I was proud of them. After this maneuver was completed, I called a halt to await our infantry. In the meantime, we continued to fire at the retreating enemy troops, mainly with .30-caliber machine-gun fire. Each tank carried two .30-caliber machine guns and a .50-caliber machine gun that was used mainly for antiaircraft fire. The North Koreans didn’t have any aircraft up in the air at that time.

In order to take full advantage of the enemy rout I got out of the tank turret and stood on the back deck of the tank to man the .50-caliber machine gun and fire at the retreating enemy. I was probably more gung-ho than I should have been.

We waited for about an hour for the infantry to catch up with us. As the infantry advanced through a cornfield on my right, they flushed out a North Korean soldier who was armed with a submachine gun. We used to call it a burp gun because it had a rapid rate of fire. He was no more than a hundred feet from me. He easily could have killed me while I was busily firing the machine gun, but probably was too terrified to try. In addition to the infantry, an army photographer who as on the scene apparently must have been impressed by what he heard on the radio and what he had seen because he asked me and my crew to pose for a picture together with our damaged tank in the cornfield. About a year later, an army captain who I had met at Fort Knox and was then in the public information bureau in Washington, D.C., ran across the photograph and sent me a copy.

In the meantime, Colonel Clifford finally arrived at the scene in his jeep, and having taken the same route as the tanks, had observed what we had accomplished. After he set up his battalion command post, I reported to him. I was wondering what I was going to say to him. He invited me into his tent to discuss what occurred. I expected a big reprimand for the language I had used. During our conversation, I alluded to my caustic radio transmission without stating the words that I had used, but he didn’t want to hear it.

He said, “I’m recommending you for the Distinguished Service Cross.” (Higher authority downgraded the award to the Silver Star.) Then he reached under his folding cot, removed a bottle of Ballantine’s Scotch Whiskey, and offered me a drink. In fact, I had several drinks with him. He was obviously pretty happy with what my platoon had accomplished. From that day forward, we had a cordial relationship.

To give you an example, one time he sent me on an armored patrol that included infantry and a South Korean guide. We proceeded up a valley. As we approached a small village, we encountered some small-arms fire and sporadic rounds of mortar fire. We retaliated, and the situation stabilized.
The South Korean guide pointed to a house on the side of a mountain and told me that it had been used as an observation post by the North Koreans. I directed cannon fire on that house, and it was destroyed. When we returned from our mission, I reported to Colonel Clifford. After I told him what the guide had told me, he asked, “What did you do about it?”

I looked him straight in the eye and replied, “Colonel, there’s no longer a house on that mountain.”

A big smile came upon his face, and he stated, “That’s what I like about you. How many times did you fire?”

“Twice,” was my answer.

He reached under his cot and produced a bottle of Ballantine’s Scotch, saying, “Take two drinks.” I dutifully complied without the slightest complaint, and I guessed that I should have told him that I fired more than twice.

On the day following the battle of October 12, 1950, I took over another tank because the minor damage to my tank had to be repaired. It’s customary that the crew, with the exception of the tank commander if he is an officer, go to the rear area with the tank. The officer’s duty is to take command of another tank until his tank is returned or he receives a replacement tank. One of the crewmembers had a camera and took some photographs of the destroyed enemy cannons and bodies of enemy troops. While the tank was in the repair area, the crew took it upon themselves to have a mount for a .30-caliber machine gun welded on the top front of the turret so that I could fire a machine gun without having to get out of the turret and expose my full body to target practice by the enemy. Well, that’s about the story of that particular day.

I may have spoken disparagingly of Colonel Clifford, but really, he was a brave man. I saw him many times right up at the front, right next to my tank. All of a sudden, he would appear when there was a lot of fighting going on to give me some information and to see what was going on. So, I really had a high regard for him.

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