FORT MEADE, Md. (Sept. 22, 2015) -- It happened in a matter of minutes. Taking advantage of the thick, impenetrable fog, "a strong raiding party" from the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division had been preparing to sneak across to the western bank of the Naktong River, Aug. 31, 1950, with orders to destroy a suspected North Korean command post in an operation called Manchu.
But as Soldiers were setting up the supporting guns and mortars along the riverbank, things went terribly wrong. "All hell broke loose. Without warning the enemy attacked," reported 1st Lt. Raymond J. McDaniel. The attackers became the defenders. Most were dead or captured within hours.
Allied troops had regrouped and consolidated along the river, which marked much of the Pusan Perimeter, after North Korean troops crossed the 38th Parallel in June, pushing South Korean and American troops farther and farther south. Now, the United States held a defensive line around the southeast corner of Korea, protecting the important port city of Pusan, waiting for reinforcements and supplies. Heavy casualties on top of troop shortages meant that understrength companies commonly covered thousands of feet of hilly, rough terrain, so the perimeter was far from tight or secure. There were repeated enemy assaults, incursions and coordinated attacks. In fact, there had been a major battle along the same curve of the Naktong River earlier that month, and everyone knew another attack was imminent.
"All day the battle raged on," remembered Pfc. Edward Gregory Jr., of Company B, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, in "The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin, an Oral History." "The enemy surrounded our position. Thousands more crossed the Naktong River. The company was cut off. … We fought hard, hoping to hold our position until relief arrived. The situation became more and more critical. … We were being fired on from all sides.
"There were 20 of us left, all that remained of B Company. Surrounded and pinned down, we fired at the enemy from different holes. … A bugle call cut the air. It was a banzai charge. To our rear, on the high ground, the enemy fired down into us. From the other direction … the enemy charged. I fired my [Browning automatic rifle, or BAR]. I hit some of them. I heard men scream. I threw my last two hand grenades. From a different direction another group of North Koreans charged toward us. … I fired at them until the bolt of the BAR slammed home. My .45 pistol was also empty. In my trench, I did not know if I was the only American left alive."
Gregory tried to run for his life, but a bullet to the arm sent him to the ground. He tried to play dead, but North Korean soldiers found him. They kicked him, yanked him up, tried to put a noose around his neck, and stole his first-aid pack and his wallet. "We now started our hell march. As we moved out they prodded and hit us with their rifle butts. … The North Koreans told us if the wounded held them up or slowed them down, they'd kill them."
According to U.S. Army Korea officials, Sept. 1-15 were the bloodiest 15 days of the war, and many of the units stationed along the river suffered similarly heavy casualties in the following hours and days as the enemy seized key defensive positions. In fact, the North Koreans sliced the division in two and broke nearly all communications between headquarters and many frontline units.
"It was an all-out effort by the North Korean army to basically penetrate the allied position along the Naktong River," said retired Col. Allan R. Millet, director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, a senior military advisor at the National World War II Museum and author of numerous books about the Korean War. "Every man that the North Koreans had was thrown into this battle. It was their last real, major effort to defeat the 8th Army. … The effort was to break the line of communications from Pusan to Taegu, hold some road junctions and then force 8th Army to fall back to its last perimeter, which was called the Davidson Line."
TASK FORCE MANCHU
Under the command of 1st Lt. Edward Schmitt of Company H, 9th Infantry Regiment, the rest of Task Force Manchu, which originally included elements of Companies D and H, as well as the 1st Platoon, 2nd Engineer (Combat) Battalion, had been farther back from the river on a nob of Hill 209, and, along with stragglers from another overrun company, had time to dig a small perimeter. The 9th Infantry Regiment's war diary, complete with McDaniel's report, estimates the total number of friendly Soldiers at about 60. When dawn broke after a tense night, they realized they were surrounded. North Korean forces even occupied a former American outpost on the hill -- the high ground, half a mile above Task Force Manchu.
Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins of H Company, a Bronze Star recipient for the Guadalcanal Campaign in World War II, helped establish the defense. He repeatedly exposed himself to the enemy as he moved from foxhole to foxhole to give orders and encourage his men. Watkins shot two enemy soldiers 50 yards outside the task force's perimeter, Sept. 2. Then he went out alone to collect their ammunition (the need for grenades was desperate). Attacked by three North Koreans and wounded in the head, he single-handedly killed all three, then gathered up the weapons from all five soldiers.
About an hour later, six enemy soldiers made it to a protected location within 25 yards of the perimeter, where they threw grenades at the Americans. Despite his head wound, Watkins rose from his foxhole and began to engage them with rifle fire. Wounded again almost immediately, and actually paralyzed from the waist down, he didn't stop firing until all six were dead.
During the standoff, the seemingly endless supply of North Korean soldiers wasn't the task force's only problem, according to Army historian Roy. E. Appleman, author of the Center of Military History's South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu.
In addition to ammunition, food, water and medicine were also increasingly scarce. At one point, the Soldiers were out of water -- after a rainstorm they wrung water out of their clothes and blankets to fill canteens and buckets. They were down to one can of C rations per man. In fact, after he was injured, Watkins refused rations, saying he didn't deserve them because he could no longer fight, according to Soldiers' sworn statements, as referenced by Appleman.
There was more than one supply drop, but most of the food and ammo ended up ruined or in enemy hands. When Pfc. Joseph R. Ouellette of Co. H made a risky trip to retrieve water cans, for example, he found them all broken and empty.
Ouellette also braved intense enemy fire in an attempt to locate friendly troops on a nearby hill and obtain intelligence about the enemy, and he too left the perimeter to collect grenades and ammunition. At one point, a North Korean soldier attacked him. They fought, hand-to-hand, and Ouellette eventually killed the soldier.
"The third day, Sunday, 3 September, was the worst of all," Appleman wrote. "Enemy mortar barrages … alternated with infantry assaults against the perimeter. Survivors later estimated there were about twenty separate infantry attacks -- all repulsed. Two enemy machine guns still swept the perimeter. … Dead and dying were in almost every foxhole or lay just outside. Mortar fragments destroyed the radio and this ended all communication."
And just when it seemed the situation couldn't get any more desperate, it did. Enemy soldiers managed to once again get close enough to throw grenades into the perimeter. Ouellette leaped from his foxhole to escape exploding grenades once, twice, six times, only to face close-range, small-arms fire. He fought and resisted, until he became one of the dozens of casualties on that hill. By the next day, half of the Americans were dead, including Ouellette and Schmitt. One of only two officers left alive, McDaniel assumed command.
Down to fewer than a 1,000 rounds, they evacuated in groups of about four after dark -- 29 men in all. Twenty-two are believed to have made it back to friendly lines. Watkins, however, refused evacuation because "his hopeless condition would burden his comrades," according to his Medal of Honor citation. Asking for his carbine to be loaded and placed on his chest with the muzzle under his chin, "he remained in his position and cheerfully wished them luck." The citation credits Watkins and his men with killing almost 500 enemy fighters. Ouellette was later awarded a Medal of Honor as well.
BEATING THE ODDS
The story was similar up and down the line: Companies, platoons and individual Soldiers faced enormous odds, but they held on. They survived "through sheer grit and determination and the willingness to fight and die for something they believe in, which is each other," said retired Col. Mike Alexander, 2nd Infantry Division historian and curator of the division's museum. "Folks realized that, hey, there was nowhere else to go."
They pulled together and Lt. Gen. Walton Walker was able to pull in enough reserve troops -- including the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade -- to make a difference, Millet said. Mostly clear skies allowed very close air support. The North Koreans also sustained heavy losses, but unlike the United Nations troops, they had no replacements coming. The advantage switched back and forth several times, until allies started to go on the offensive. After the landings at Incheon in the middle of the month, they were able to re-cross the Naktong, once and for all.
ON THE OFFENSIVE
Second Lt. Lynn Richard "Dick" Raybould had arrived in country Aug. 4 as a newlywed fresh out of the University of Utah's Reserve Officer Training Corps -- he hadn't even had time to attend basic officer training -- and had already survived the Bowling Alley near Taegu. Attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, the forward observer had been stationed in the northwest corner of the Pusan Perimeter, and for the first two weeks of September, skirmished with North Korean patrols.
Then, orders came to drive the enemy back across the Naktong with the rest of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, with actions starting Sept. 16. They crossed the river a few days later in rubber boats.
"Everyone was expecting the worst," he remembered. "Being caught out in the middle of the river in a rubber raft is not a good place to be. We were very fortunate in that we crossed undetected and we were able to get up to our objective on that first hill without the enemy being alerted. We were able to catch them before breakfast in the morning, and we took the hill without any casualties on our part."
September 21, however, the enemy counterattacked, and Raybould's unit "suffered a lot" thanks to a "horrific bombardment with [North Korean] large mortars." Artillery fire, as directed by Raybould, proved essential in fighting off the attack. In fact, Raybould, who had already received two Bronze Stars for valor, one for actions on the 16th, was awarded a Silver Star for his heroism that day. According to the citation, he "constantly expose[d] himself to better view his targets. His heroic actions were instrumental in preventing the enemy from breaking through friendly lines and assured the integrity of the Nakton [sic] River bridgehead."
It wasn't without cost, however: Raybould's driver and reconnaissance sergeant were both wounded. Forward observation teams had notoriously high casualty rates and in just six months, Raybould ended up going through four crews; some Soldiers were killed or injured within hours of being assigned to him. Raybould himself was convinced he would never see the United States again, and even wrote a farewell letter to his new bride. Ultimately, he would be the only one out of the nine original forward observers in his battalion to make it home. Instead, he almost died from hepatitis and was evacuated after six months.
At this point in September, Alexander said, "the North Koreans had reached what we like to call tactically a culmination point. They had extended their lines of communication and their lines of supply too far. Basically, they couldn't do anything." The allies retook Seoul, rescuing Gregory and other prisoners of war just as the North Koreans were about to execute them. Then the U.N. forces crossed the 38th Parallel themselves and made it to Pyongyang and other locations in North Korea. "If the Chinese don't enter the war in October/November 1950, the war is won.
"The overarching theme [of the Naktong battles] is the heroism of all the Soldiers that were involved," Alexander said. "Valor is not always recognized, but the Soldiers of the Naktong in all units -- they stood and fought. Their backs were up against a wall … but because of the sheer leadership abilities of your Soldiers, and their sheer grit and determination, that's what stood and held firm."
Editor's Note: Quotes from written sources retain the original spelling and punctuation. For the full story of the Battle of the Natkong Bulge and the larger Battle of the Pusan Perimeter, visit the U.S. Army Center of Military History resources listed under Related Links.