Disaster at Unsan: In 1950, Soldiers faced Chinese forces during the Korean War

By Elizabeth M. CollinsNovember 7, 2016

An exhausted Soldier is carried off the battlefield in Korea,
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun (right) and Capt. Jerome A. Dolan, a medical officer with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, carry an exhausted Soldier off the battlefield in Korea, early in the war. Kapaun was famous for exposing himself t... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers receive medical aid at the 8063rd Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sgt. 1st Class Louis F. Walz (left), Company E, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Divisioin, and Pfc. Raymond M. Szukla, Co. G, 5th Regimental Combat Team, 24th Infantry Division, receive medical aid at the 8063rd Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, attac... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The rumor mill was in overdrive in late October 1950 on the Korean Peninsula.

A Republic of Korea unit had first battled what seemed to be Chinese soldiers, Oct. 25, and United Nations forces had begun picking up prisoners who looked different from North Korean troops. They had different uniforms. They spoke another language.

When someone could be found to translate, the prisoners told stories of a massive Chinese force lurking in the North Korean mountains, with more fighters arriving every day.

In fact, about 10,000 to 20,000 Chinese troops were massing outside the town of Unsan, where a significant UN force was assigned, according to Army historian Roy E. Appleman in "South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu."

The 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division arrived Oct. 30 as ROK soldiers battled the Chinese, desperately trying and failing to hold their positions as more columns of enemy infantry closed in.

The American reinforcements weren't enough, however. After days of hard fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, the regiment's ranks were decimated, and its ammunition was running low, its communications lost.

Orders came to pull out, but much of the regiment's 3rd Battalion, "Scrappy Blue," was trapped southwest of Unsan, Nov. 2.

The battalion command post even experienced a deadly assault from all sides: "Hand-to-hand encounters took place all over … as the Chinese soldiers … fanned out, firing on anyone they saw and throwing grenades and satchel charges into the vehicles, setting many of them on fire," wrote Appleman.

Soldiers managed to drive them off, but the entire battalion staff was wounded or missing, and the situation continued to deteriorate. The battalion's only hope lay in a promised relief column from the division's 5th Cavalry Regiment.

Captain Norman Allen of Company I, 5th Cavalry Regiment, was to have led the rescue attempt. In "The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin, an oral history," he explained that after two ridges were secured, "my task force would race down the road … collect the men and race back. I was told the last five miles … would be uncovered … without protective fire."

From his vantage point, he could see the life and death struggle for the two hills as Soldiers tried and failed to take them, and he watched as "the wounded streamed up the road past our position. It was obvious that some real tough fighting was going on up ahead."

Orders came to abandon what would have likely been a suicide mission. "That night the rest of the 8th Cavalry pulled out of the line," said Allen. "The poor devils in their 3rd Battalion remained in the trap. We were told they would have to get out themselves any way they could."

The Chinese took heavy casualties as well, but each attack became harder and harder to fend off as ammunition dwindled and casualties mounted, and the next night, the Chinese overran a dugout filled with American wounded.

They took the ambulatory men prisoner, along with the battalion's Roman Catholic chaplain, Capt. Emil Kapaun, who would become famous for exposing himself to enemy fire. Kapuan even carried a wounded Soldier on their subsequent march to prison. He died in captivity and posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2013.

Then came another long, bitter day and night of fighting for the remaining Soldiers.

"Daylight of 4 November disclosed that there were about 200 men left able to fight," wrote Appleman. "There were about 250 wounded. A discussion of the situation brought the decision that those still physically able to make the attempt should try to escape. Captain (Clarence R.) Anderson, the battalion surgeon, volunteered to stay with the wounded."

As able-bodied Soldiers "left the wounded behind, one who was present said the latter shed tears but, instead, simply said to come back with reinforcements and get them out.

The wounded knew there was no alternative for those who still might escape." Anderson would receive the Distinguished Service Cross in 1951. He was freed from captivity in September 1953.

The escaping men didn't make it far. After about 36 hours, "within sight of bursting American artillery shells," Appleman continued, "Chinese forces surrounded them and the battalion group … broke up into small parties in the hope that some of them would escape.

"At approximately 1600 on the afternoon of 6 November … the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, as an organized force, came to an end. Most of these men were either killed or captured."

In fact, more than 1,000 men from the 8th Cavalry Regiment were initially listed as missing in action. As the days passed, about 400 stragglers managed to return to friendly lines.

Enemy sources later indicated the Chinese captured between 200 and 300 men at Unsan. They would have been forced to endure death marches, torture, forced labor, frostbite, medical experiments, disease and starvation. Many would have been murdered outright or left to die from battle wounds or malnutrition.

A 1954 Congressional report termed the Korean War "one of the most heinous and barbaric" periods in history, citing some 1,800 cases of war crimes involving thousands of victims:

"Virtually every provision of the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of war prisoners was purposely violated or ignored by the North Korean or Chinese forces."

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 7,000 Americans still remain unaccounted for 60-some years after the war.

American Soldiers endured additional brutal battles against North Korean and Chinese forces in the following months, some of them essentially massacres.

Then, under Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, they regrouped and took the fight back to the enemy.

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