Tank Action at Chongju


M4A3E8 (76W) HVSS, Co. C, 89th Tank Battalion, Han River, Korea 1951

Following the capture of Pyongyang, the enemy’s capital city, in October 1950, the left-flank unit of Eighth Army hurried north to fulfill the long-range mission of reaching the Yalu River and the end of the war. This force was built around the British 27 Commonwealth Brigade which, at the time, consisted of a battalion from the Royal Australian Regiment, a battalion from the Argyle and Sutherland Regiment, and a battalion from the Middlesex Regiment. Since these infantry battalions were without supporting arms or services of their own, Eighth Army attached to the brigade U. S. artillery units, engineers, and the 89th Medium Tank Battalion. This combined force, commanded by Brig. B. A. Coad of the British Army, was under the operational control of the 1st Cavalry Division, but worked as a separate task force at a considerable distance from, and without physical contact with, that division or other friendly units.

Starting early on the morning of 22 October 1950, the task force resumed its advance from Pyongyang north. Usually the infantrymen rode on the tanks or in trucks near the end of the column that stretched for two and a half to three miles. A platoon of tanks led. Nothing unusual happened until near noon of the second day, when the task force engaged a large but disorganized enemy unit at the town of Sukchon. There was no trouble the third day as the column crossed the Chongchon River at Sinanju and Anju, but at Pakchon, to the north, the bridge across the Taenyong River was destroyed, and there was a two-day delay before the column headed west toward Chongju. North Koreans offered some resistance to the river crossing at Pakchon and, more significant, there was a sudden stiffening of enemy activity. As a result, the brigade commander concluded that the days of “rolling” were over. When the advance began again at 0800 on 28 October it was with greater caution. Lead companies investigated all likely enemy positions instead of leaving them to the follow-up units, and the column therefore moved only fifteen miles during the day.

Again on the morning of 29 October the task force resumed its march westward. The day’s objective was Chongju. The Royal Australian battalion and Company D, 89th Medium Tank Battalion, led the column. The infantrymen dismounted frequently to screen suspected high ground to the flanks, and the tank battalion’s liaison plane patrolled the area well ahead of the column. The liaison pilot (Lt. James T. Dickson) stopped the column several times during the morning while fighter planes made strikes against enemy tanks. About noon, as the head of the column neared the top of a high hill, Lieutenant Dickson sent a radio message to the tankers warning them of enemy tanks dug in and camouflaged on each side of a narrow pass where the road cut through a low hill, This position was at the top of the ridge ahead, beyond a narrow strip of paddy fields and about two and a half miles away over a winding and narrow road. Proceeding slowly, the leading platoon of tanks went down to the bottom of the hill to the east edge of the valley. There Lieutenant Dickson dropped a message advising them to hold up temporarily because of the enemy tanks.

After a delay of a few minutes, the tank battalion commander (Lt. Col. Welborn G. Dolvin) and the Australian infantry battalion commander arrived at the head of the column. While they were planning the next move, Lieutenant Dickson spotted what he believed to be a camouflaged tank position on the reverse slope of a low hill just beyond the next ridge ahead. The fighter planes were busy with another target, so he radioed the tankers to ask them to place indirect fire in the area. The platoon of tanks that was second in line, led by Lt. Francis G. Nordstrom, opened fire from its position on top of the hill. Nordstrom did not expect to hit anything but, after firing about ten rounds, with Lieutenant Dickson adjusting the fire, smoke started to rise from the camouflaged position. It was heavy, black smoke such as that made by burning gasoline. Lieutenant Dickson called off the firing.

Meanwhile, the battalion commanders had worked out their plan of attack. Since Lieutenant Nordstrom liked the point position where he could open the action and control it, they decided to let his platoon lead the attack. No infantrymen would accompany his tanks. The other two tank platoons, mounting infantrymen, would follow in column. This force consisted of thirteen tanks and about two companies of infantry.

Nordstrom’s platoon was to head at full speed for the point where the road went through the narrow pass-a distance of about two miles. This seemed to be the most important ground since there was no apparent way to bypass it. The next platoon of tanks, under Lt. Gerald L. Van Der Leest, would follow at a 500-yard interval until it came within approximately a thousand yards of the pass, where the infantrymen would dismount and move to seize the high ground paralleling the road on the right side. The third platoon of tanks, under Lt. Alonzo Cook, with a similar force was to seize the high ground left of the road. After discharging the infantrymen, the tank platoon leaders were to maneuver to the left and right of the road and support the advance of their respective infantry units.

The attack started with Lieutenant Nordstrom’s tank in the lead. Within a hundred yards of the road cut Nordstrom noticed enemy soldiers hurriedly climbing the hill on the left of the road. He ordered his machine gunner to open fire on them. At about the same time he spotted an enemy machine-gun crew moving its gun toward the pass, and took these men under fire with the 76mm gun. The first shell struck the ground next to the enemy crew, and the burst blew away some foliage that was camouflaging an enemy tank dug in on the approach side of the pass on the right side of the road. As soon as the camouflage was disturbed the enemy tank fired one round. The tracer passed between Nordstrom’s head and the open hatch cover. In these circumstances he did not take time to give fire orders; he just called for armor-piercing shells and the gunner fired, hitting the front of the enemy tank from a distance of less than a hundred yards. The gunner continued firing armor-piercing shells and the third round caused a great explosion. Ammunition and gasoline began to bum simultaneously, Black smoke drifted east and north across the high ground on the right side of the pass, effectively screening that area.

Lieutenant Nordstrom ordered the commander of the last tank in his platoon column (Sgt. William J. Morrison, Jr.) to fire into the smoke with both machine guns and cannon. At the same time other tank crews observed other North Koreans left of the pass and directed their guns against them. Lieutenant Nordstrom did not move on into the pass itself because by this time it seemed to him that the enemy would have at least one antitank gun zeroed in to fire there and could thus block the pass. He remained where he was-about seventy yards from the pass with the other tanks lined up behind his. Fire on the enemy to the left of the road tore camouflage from a second enemy tank dug in on the left of the pass in a position similar to that of the tank already destroyed. Nordstrom’s gunner, firing without orders, destroyed this tank with the second round. There was another violent explosion, which blew part of the enemy tank’s turret fifty feet into the air.

While this fire fight was going on at the head of the column, the Australian infantrymen were attacking along the ridges on each side of the road. There was considerable firing in both areas. Lieutenant Cook’s tanks, on the left side of the road, had been able to follow the infantrymen onto the hill and provide close support.

In the midst of the fighting at the head of the column, the guns in the two leading tanks jammed because of faulty rounds. At that time a shell came in toward Nordstrom’s tank from the left front. Nordstrom instructed his platoon sergeant (MSgt. Jasper W. Lee) to fire in the general direction of the enemy gun until he and the tank behind him could clear their guns. This was done within a few minutes, and Nordstrom, having the best field of fire, started placing armor-piercing rounds at five-yard intervals along the top of the ridge to his left, firing on the only logical positions in that area, since he could see no enemy vehicles. Following the sixth round there was another flash and explosion that set fire to nearby bushes and trees.

The next enemy fire came a few minutes later-another round from a self-propelled gun. It appeared to have come from the right-front. It cut across Lieutenant Nordstrom’s tank between the caliber .50 machine gun and the radio antenna about a foot above the turret, and then hit one of the tanks in Lieutenant Cook’s platoon, seriously injuring four men. Because of the smoke it was impossible to pinpoint the enemy, so Nordstrom commenced firing armor-piercing shells into the smoke, aiming along the top of the ridge on the right side of the road. He hoped that the enemy gunners would believe that their position had been detected, and move so that he could discover the movement. Another green tracer passed his tank, this time a little farther to the right. Nordstrom increased his own rate of fire and ordered three other tank crews to fire into the same area. There was no further response from the enemy gun and, to conserve ammunition which was then running low, Nordstrom soon stopped firing. It was suddenly quiet again except along the ridgelines paralleling the road where Australian infantrymen and the other two tank platoons were pressing their attack. No action was apparent to the direct front.

At the rear of the column, Lieutenant Cook had gone to his damaged tank, climbed in and, sighting with a pencil along the bottom of the penetration, determined the approximate position of the enemy gun. He radioed this information to Nordstrom, who resumed firing with three tanks along the top of the ridge on the right side of the road. Again he failed to hit anything. For lack of a better target he then decided to put a few rounds through the smoke near the first enemy tank destroyed. He thought the two rounds might possibly have come from this tank even though the fire and explosions made this very improbable. The third round caused another explosion and gasoline fire. With this explosion most enemy action ended and only the sound of occasional small-arms fire remained.

Shortly thereafter both Australian units reported their objectives secured. Since it was now late in the afternoon, the British commander ordered the force to form a defensive position for the night. It was a U-shaped perimeter with a platoon of tanks and an infantry company along the ridgeline on each side of the road, and Lieutenant Nordstrom’s tanks between them guarding the road.

When the smoke cleared from the road cut there was one selfpropelled gun that had not been there when the action commenced. It appeared that it had been left to guard the west end of the road cut and its crew, becoming impatient when no tanks came through the pass, had moved it up beside the burning tank on the right side of the road, using the smoke from this and the other burning tanks as a screen.

At 2100 that night enemy infantrymen launched an attack that appeared to be aimed at the destruction of the tanks. Lieutenant Nordstrom’s 1st Platoon tanks, which were positioned near the road about a hundred yards east of the pass, were under attack for an hour with so many North Koreans scattered through the area that the tankers turned on the headlights in order to locate the enemy. The Americans used grenades and pistols as well as the tanks’ machine guns. Gradually the action stopped, and it was quiet for the rest of the night. When morning came there were 25 to 30 bodies around the 1st Platoon’s tanks, some within a few feet of the vehicles. At 1000 the column got under way again and reached Chongju that afternoon. This was the objective, and here the task force broke up.

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