WHITE SANDS, N.M. (Nov. 30, 2011) -- Soldiers from the 2nd Engineer Battalion held a ceremonial Burning of the Colors Nov. 30, in front of the battalion headquarters on White Sands Missile Range to commemorate a historic moment in the battalion's history.
In a ceremony attended by Battalion leadership, Soldiers, veterans, and family members of the 2nd Engineer Battalion the Battalion's Colors were ceremonially burned. The tradition of burning the colors stems from the events that took place during the Battle of Kunu-Ri during the Korean War.
By the fall of 1950, UN forces had pushed the North Koreans all the way to the Yalu River, the river that defines the border between North Korea and China. Taken by surprise when China joined the conflict US and UN forces were forced to withdraw. Part of this withdrawal was the battle of Kunu-ri, a holding action intended to slow the North Koreans and Chinese advance long enough for other units to escape.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers history, the 2nd Infantry Division, the unit to which the 2nd Engineer Battalion was attached at that time, was ordered to perform a rear guard action to hold the town of Kunu-Ri until Nov. 30, while the rest of the 8th Army withdrew south along the main supply route to the area. The 2nd Infantry Division ordered its 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments to keep the road clear of enemies, and along with the 38th Infantry Regiment the 2nd Engineer Battalion was to hold a ridgeline east of Kunu-Ri.
The morning of Nov. 30 word came to the Engineers that the road to the south had been blocked by the Chinese and that the 23rd Infantry Regiment was withdrawing to the west instead of to the south as planned. This left the 2nd Engineers as the only unit in the rear guard. That afternoon the Engineers began to fall back, with D company leading.
C, B and A companies were to break contact and withdraw from the ridge line to the road. Under a brutal assault by Chinese troops the Battalion was ultimately overrun. With the ridge line in Chinese hands and the road south blocked by enemy forces, the surviving Engineers were forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal through the hills. Eighteen hours later the remaining Engineers arrived at friendly lines.
By the end of the battle, the battalion was down to only 266 out of 977 men authorized, with the Engineer Battalion's Intelligence and Security officer performing the duties of Battalion Commander, Executive Officer, Personnel Officer, Operations Officer, and Supply Officer in addition to his existing duties, as all the other officers as well as the company commanders had been lost.
It was during this costly action that the tradition of the burning of the colors originates.
Outnumbered and seeing that they were about to be overrun by the Chinese, Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Alarich Zacherle gave the order to burn the battalion's flag to prevent it from being captured by the enemy.
"Lieutenant Colonel Zacherle wanted to make sure of one thing, and that was the flag, the battalion colors, were not to be captured," said retired Lt. Col Robert Nerhling, a former member of the 2nd Engineer Battalion and veteran of the Battle of Kunu-Ri.
Traditionally, a unit's colors serve as a symbol of honor and a rallying point for troops on a battlefield.
At the battle of Agincourt in 1415, English King Henry V positioned himself in the center of the British defensive line and displayed his battle flag for all the troops to see and rally to.
During the U.S. Civil War, carrying the flag into battle was both an honor and a risk for the color bearers. Enemy Soldiers targeted the colors for capture, which could then be used to confuse and demoralize a unit's Soldiers. Some units destroyed their colors rather than suffer the shame of having them captured.
Thus, in a desperate act Zacherle decided to destroy the 2nd Engineer Battalion colors rather than have them captured by the Chinese and displayed as a war trophy.
Today the battalion colors are ceremonially burned on the anniversary of this battle as the unit's way of remembering its history and inspiring its Soldiers to fight as bravely as their predecessors did in Korea.