Truth, Lies and History:
The 1st Cavalry Division and Nogun-ri
Summarized from the book Nogun-ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident.†
(Visit www.amazon.com for order information about this book.)
By Robert Bateman
††††††††††† This is what happened: On 26 July 1950 a group of approximately 75 South Korean refugees, among them at least two, but possibly more South Korean communist guerillas, approached U.S. lines with the apparent intent of passing through those lines.† Somebody, most likely a company grade officer acting on his own initiative, called for mortar fire to land in front of the civilians when they were still approximately 500 yards away. Because of a long delay between the call for fire and impact, the civilians were inadvertently hit with the mortar fire that was intended to land in front of them. Some were wounded, and probably killed. Some desultory direct fire also occurred in the few seconds after the rounds impacted as individual soldiers assumed the group was hostile. At that point the guerillas among the civilians returned fire against the Americans using at least one Japanese rifle and one Russian made sub-machinegun. The Americans returned fire in a larger fusillade that lasted anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds and included fire from one, and possibly two, light machineguns. But this was enough to cause anywhere from 8 to 35 civilian casualties, the two guerillas among them. When the officers called cease-fire, and some men went forward to examine the mixed group they had been shooting at, they found a Japanese rifle and a Russian sub-machinegun. As is normal with captured equipment, they turned these in to their company supply sergeant and through him to the battalion and regimental supply channels. Most of those civilians (and possibly additional guerillas) that survived slipped off to the flanks or went back up the valley. The 7th Cavalry continued to defend in place. On 29 July 1950 the 7th Cavalry pulled back to a new position in support of a general retrograde of the division, a little closer to what would become the famous "Pusan Perimeter."
††††††††††† This is a synopsis interpretation of the available and reliable facts. Understanding the "why" and the "how" of things requires a little more knowledge. What happened at Nogun-ri was no more an isolated event than had been the disastrous first engagement of "Task Force Smith" from the 24th Infantry Division. It was the logical result of the training and preparations for combat of the men of the 7th Cavalry, the available resources in men and material they had at the time, and the situation in the mountains of South Central South Korea before they arrived and at that time.
††††††††††† During the drawdown of forces in the immediate post-war period the Army plummeted to just ten divisions, four of which were in Japan. This, combined with the turbulence of soldiers rotating in and out, as well as severe financial handicaps placed on the Army by a Congress eager to spend the "Peace Dividend," meant that the unit was not stable and barely existed as a "regiment" except on paper. In January 1947, for example, of an authorized organizational strength of more than 2,600 officers and men, only 346 stood in the ranks. Barely the equivalent of two companies, let alone three full battalions and the regimental assets called for by doctrine. The regiments were cut to just two battalions, and by 1950 the manpower levels were somewhat higher, but the regiment was still understrength. It is difficult to train with half a force.
††††††††††† When interviewing former enlisted soldiers and officers one finds vastly differing opinions on this topic. Men who were privates in 1947-1950 felt that they were well trained for combat. The former officers on the other hand, almost universally state that they were not trained. The difference rests in the perspective of each group.
Understanding this is simple. The former private, looking back over the years, considered himself trained because he had regularly qualified with his rifle or crew served weapon. His personal equipment was in good repair and he may even have gone on local maneuvers with his squad or platoon.
††††††††††† The officers, on the other hand, focused on collective training. They looked at the fact that there was almost no training above the squad or platoon for years. Only one brief battalion level exercise in the year prior to combat, and that was a static live fire event, not combined arms maneuver. No significant maneuver training at the company or battalion level took place, and very little occurred even at the platoon level. The officers look back and recall that while individual skills were practiced, even those were not perfected to wartime standards. There was always something "more important," like yet another review parade for General Douglass MacArthur. But even if the unit had been training collectively, there would still have been major problems.
The fact that, especially among officers, rotations continued at a rapid pace right up until June 1950, hurt readiness. For example, in the six months preceding the beginning of the Korean War one company of 2/7 Cavalry alone had four different company commanders. Personnel stability is one of the foundations of unit cohesion, and 2/7 Cavalry, like the rest of the units in Japan in that era, did not have anything like that prior to the war.
Another reason for the lack of training was the very real lack of training space for the men in 2/7 Cavalry stationed in downtown Tokyo. At best a nearby peninsula provided a few acres suitable to squad and platoon maneuvers, but even that was limited. To conduct any live-fire training with their individual weapons, let alone training with crew-served weapons or larger scale maneuvers, they had to wait their turn in the rotation up to the training area near Mount Fuji. That turn did not come before North Korea invaded South Korea.
The cumulative effect of all of these elements was a unit in which the men were marginally well trained as individuals, but at the unit level their collective competence decreased at each higher echelon.
†As in China, the end of the Second World War did not bring peace to the Korean peninsula. Arguably there were at least two factors at work in that time and place. To begin with, one should not underestimate the power of dogma. When taught to peasants, especially peasants who have labored for decades under a harsh totalitarian foreign rule, communist ideology certainly struck a chord. To a far larger number of South Koreans than the current government of South Korea would like to admit, communism also seemed like a viable alternative.
For most peasants South Korean President Syngman Rhee was in far away Seoul and had not spent his whole life in Korea. Given the right "spin" it is not too difficult to see how many South Korean peasants could perceive Rhee as yet another figurehead Korean "propped up" by yet another foreign power, us.
Outright guerrilla warfare broke out in South Korea in late 1948. It was a brutal war, with the South Korean government, the Army and their National Police, killing an estimated 100,000 of their own people. By early 1949 the Central Intelligence Agency estimated that there were between 3,500 to 6,000 active and armed communist guerillas operating in the mountains in the center of South Korea.
The guerillas operated in classic form. Rather than directly confront the government in strength, they raided and ambushed and conducted harassing operations as they built their own strength. Their protected bases were off the main routes, most especially in the mountains that run down the spine of the Korean peninsula in the south. In this mountainous terrain the guerillas could hold villages and be supported from them. These armed guerillas were part and parcel of the territory. By and large they were not infiltrated North Koreans. Only some sixty North Koreans could be confirmed as having made their way into the south, so although the North did provide significant support, the majority of the guerillas were South Koreans. From their bases they could sally out to conduct raids and ambushes on the main roads and towns.† At the very center of the South Korean communist guerilla territory in the south-central mountain range, off the main road between the small towns of Yongdong and Hwanggan, were the villages of Chu Gok, Im Ke Ri, Sot Anmak and Nogun-ri. Even today the people in these villages remember some of their men that went to war against their government as guerillas. This was the situation waiting for the 1st Cav Division in that area.
"The" Korean War
††††††††††† North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. In a massive attack across the entire length of the border the North Korean Peopleís Army (NKPA) rolled south, supported by tanks and combat aircraft. The army of the Republic of Korea (ROK) was not designed to face a modern combined arms assault and lost ground rapidly. Within days the capital Seoul was in NKPA hands and in the United States the decision was made to intervene under the auspices and with the support of the United Nations. Unfortunately, there was little with which to respond.
††††††††††† Four American infantry divisions were in Japan at that time. All of them reduced to 2/3 strength due to budgetary restrictions, even before one starts counting the effect of "normal" attrition in units due to things like re-enlistment leave, training in in-house army schools, and garrison duties like guarding various headquarters. The first unit to be sent to Korea, the 24th Infantry Division, had to be supplemented with additional officers, sergeants and men. Because the need was immediate, the decision was made to raid the other divisions in Japan for the needed personnel. The 1st Cavalry Divisionís slice of that was more than 700 sergeants and officers. In the two battalions of the 7th Cavalry Regiment that meant 168 sergeants left on two days notice. Basically, and with only a few exceptions, this translated to every single assistant squad leader, squad leader, platoon sergeant, and one half of the first sergeants. The unit would go into combat with nothing but privates and second lieutenants. It was a fateful combination.
The 360 Degree Fight: Yongdong
The 7th Cavalry was the last regiment to deploy to Korea from the division. They embarked in Japan on 18 July 1950, but would not even start to land in Korea until 22 July 1950. While the 7th Cavalry was enroute, the 5th and 8th Cavalry were fighting for their lives in the small town of Yongdong. This town of approximately 3,000 in 1950 was the epicenter for guerilla activity in the region in the preceding three years. Although the Rhee governmentís brutal repression campaign had largely "pacified" active resistance, the North Korean offensive re-ignited old flames. The guerillas of Yongdong county took to their hills once more. The result was that from the outset the 1st Cavalry was not dealing with North Koreans, but with South Korean guerillas.
The first conventional combat faced by the division came even as the 7th Cavalry was unloading one hundred miles away in the port town of Pohang-dong on 22 July 1950. A roadblock established by guerillas well behind one of the two widely separated battalions of the 8th Cavalry claimed itís first victim, wounding the battalion commander of 2/8 Cavalry, LTC Field. It was a portent of things to come.
Although rumors at the time were rampant, it appears that there was very little, if any, actual infiltration by the North Korean Peopleís Army. The simple reason for this was that it was not needed. Think about it. Conducting an infiltration is hazardous, slow, and dangerous for the participants as they break up into tiny groups. It was far easier merely to walk around each successive U.S. position. Why do it the hard way? Some snipers and observers certainly infiltrated, but not whole units of infantry as we feared at the time. Not until the Naktong would we learn that all perimeters should extend 360 degrees. In Yongdong we were still learning this hard fact.
Adding to the confusion were guerilla attacks inside our loosely defined division perimeter in Yongdong. First 2/8 Cavalry was cut off by a guerilla roadblock, then the two artillery battalions that landed with the 5th and 8th Cavalry Regiments were attacked inside Yongdong. By 25 July, when 2/7 Cavalry arrived in Hwanggan, (10 miles to the east, "behind" the "lines") the decision to pull the division out of Yongdong had already been made. In the chaos of the retrograde one company of 2/8 Cavalry and a platoon of light tanks were cut off by retreating North Koreans entering Yongdong. Wandering to the south east of Yongdong this group of roughly 200 men under the command of Captain Field from F Company, 2/8 Cavalry searched in vain for a route back to their battalion. Topography and bad luck stymied them. Finally, as the night grew darker, a reconnaissance by Lieutenant Matta and several soldiers from F/2/8 Cavalry found an open route to the main valley floor. On that reconnaissance they saw their road blocked by what they thought were North Koreans. It was actually 2/7 Cavalry, setting up for their very first night on the line in Korea.
It appears that at around this time the tanks and the main body of F/2/8 Cavalry parted company. For their own reasons, the tankers felt more secure taking their chances going down the road rather than trying a cross-country route (which would have meant abandoning their tanks). Some of the tankers from the already abandoned tanks accompanied them, and possibly there were some infantrymen from F/2/8 with them as well. We may never know the exact composition of that group, but near midnight on the night of 25-26 July 1950 what we do know is that three or four of the tanks that had been with F/2/8 Cavalry "broke through" what they thought was a North Korean roadblock, but was actually 2/7 Cavalry. Blitzing down the road with guns blazing the light tanks made a beeline for the safety of Hwanggan. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry returned the compliment with a moderate volume of small arms fire, sending the dismounted soldiers accompanying the tanks off into the hills to the south again where they would continue their wandering odyssey for another day. But in 2/7 Cavalry the damage had been done.
The sounds of the tanks reverberated through the valley and isolated elements of the battalion fired their weapons into the dark. Although it was never mentioned in the post-combat reports or in the more current media reports, it is possible that at least some of the refugees already stopped in front of the battalion were caught in the fratricidal crossfire in the darkness between "Team Field" and 2/7 Cavalry that night.††††††††
The collapse of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry on the night of 25-26 July 1950 was not instantaneous. The men largely made individual decisions. In action at night for the first time, separated into their individual positions and without much leadership to help them make sense of what they heard and dimly perceived through the darkness, they were forced to make sense of the sights and sounds of night combat by themselves.† In simple terms the young men of the 7th Cavalry had too many stimuli coming in that would, unchecked, create fear. Compounding the problem was that they did not have enough leadership there on the ground with them to hold them in place. Though there was a full compliment of officers, few of them had much more large unit night operations training than did the men. But that was almost a moot point. Even if all of the officers were combat hardened veterans, there were barely any sergeants to make the link between the orders of officers and the actions of men. Without the steadying influence of the NCOs who would normally be with them, the men took counsel of their fears. That night there was barely a single man in the ranks with any combat experience. There were damned few sergeant who might help the soldiers separate the sounds, friendly weapons from enemy weapons, the sound of an American tank versus the sound of a tank that was not American. At a minimum the experience of combat veterans might counsel those around them to wait and see how the situation developed.† As a result the unit disintegrated. Between midnight and about 2 a.m on the morning of 26 July the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry went from being an organized and cohesive force operating under a unified command and the control of their officers to a scattered and random collection of men operating according to their own perceptions and fears. Though some groups held together better than others, this was the classic definition of a term that came into popular usage in those opening days of the Korean War, the "bug-out."
The battalion was, with the exception of one company, largely scattered across the South Korean countryside when the sun came up on the morning of 26 July 1950. Most of the battalion ceased to exist as a viable force over those several hours. The initial report from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry appears in the 1st Cavalry Division G2 log at 0714 that morning. It states that the entire battalion had 80 "effectives," meaning that 80 soldiers were under the direct command and control of their officers at a known place on the ground.
There were no accurate morning reports filed that day, many of the men that would file them were themselves wandering among the hills or strung out on the road between Yongdong and Nogun-ri. Personnel strength reports were either ignored or skipped for the morning of 26 July. At the same time the battalion reported to regiment and division the loss of one light set (used to illuminate the inside of a command post tent), four .30 caliber light machineguns, four .30 caliber water-cooled heavy machineguns, three .50 caliber heavy machineguns, 119 M1 Garand Rifles, and more. For all intents and purposes this battalion existed in name only at that point. Recovery from the disintegration of the night before did not mean just getting all the men back, it also meant recovering the weapons and equipment abandoned during the night.
††††††††††† This process continued all day, with ad hoc platoons of men walking forward to recover their weapons wherever they were abandoned. Fortunately for the battalion most of the men found their way to the road at some point in the night, and so much of the equipment was easy to find. Over the course of the day the battalion recovered the following material, not all of which had originally been reported as missing: 9 light machineguns, 2 .50 caliber heavy machineguns, 5 SCR-300 tactical radios, 4 of the "536" [Walkie Talkies] radios, 120 M-1 rifles, 26 M-1 carbines, 7 Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), and 6 60mm mortars.† This was, in some ways, even more damning than the original report of the material lost. Not only was it more material (the mortars and BARs, for example, were not mentioned in the first message to higher headquarters) but it paints a picture of complete and utter chaos, that so much gear lay abandoned by the road.
The Events at Nogun-ri
At some point in the mid to late afternoon, as the battalion was still collecting itself in the vicinity of the village of Nogun-ri, a group of roughly 75 civilians, apparently refugees from further up the valley, was seen in the distance. They were trudging down the down, towards the lines of 2/7 Cavalry. At 10 am that morning there had been a division order put out, in writing, which stated that no civilians were to pass through U.S. lines without first being screened by the South Korean National Police, but no police, or South Korean Army liaisons, or translators of any sort, were available or in the area at the time. As the refugees continued to approach an ill-considered decision was made. Mortar rounds would be fired in front of this group, hopefully warning them away and keeping them from pressing in closer to the already shaken and barely recovered battalion. It was a fateful decision.
When one considers the relative low level of live fire of training the mortars had, their total lack of mortar fire plotting boards, and the inexperience of the forward observers, this was, in hindsight, an extremely bad idea. But hindsight is 20/20. The call for fire went to the company mortars. As anyone that has fired mortars can attest, an untrained crew, with an untrained plotter, can take forever to send rounds downrange. In this case "forever" was long enough for the civilians to move much closer to the battalion than was originally forseen. They moved, in fact, far enough to place them at the point of impact. Between three and nine rounds coughed out, landing in the center of the refugees.
At the same time another group of soldiers had been moved, standing, slightly forward of the line. Their orders were to fire over the heads of the civilians, also as a warning measure. When the rounds impacted among those same civilians some of these men, as well as several dozen still in their shallow holes along the main line, assumed it was intentional, and that this was actually an enemy force. No sergeants were there to tell them otherwise, and for that matter, most of the lieutenants knew little more. This firing lasted but a few seconds before there was a smattering of return fire from among the civilians.
It was almost certainly South Korean guerillas, quite possibly fellow villagers of the legitimate civilians in the group, who returned the American fire. Just as certainly it was not North Korean "infiltrators." To the men in 2/7 Cavalry the difference was academic. One submachine-gun and one Japanese rifle at least responded to what they probably thought was a deliberate attack on the Americans part. It was a fatal mistake. The soldiers in the area, probably 40-50 of them that had a clear shot towards the general area, returned fire in a lethal although brief fusillade. A concentrated burst of fire erupted from most of the line with direct observation of the area. This heavy fire lasted anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds, but it was enough.
The combined total, for both the mortar fire and the direct fire appears to have been between eight and thirty-five civilians, wounded or killed in the vicinity of the railroad overpass and culverts.† These figures are, by necessity, an estimate. There is no forensic evidence that anyone at all died outside the village of Nogun-ri. No bones, no bodies, no mass or individual graves remain today or were photographed by South Koreans, North Koreans, or USAF air reconnaissance aircraft that took pictures of the area in the days that followed as part of a normal mission. This estimate is based in part upon this lack of evidence. It is also based upon photographic evidence that does exist. The camera images taken by a reconnaissance flight a little more than one week later show no evidence of mass graves, individual graves, signs of cremation, or any human remains.
In the immediate aftermath of this firing it appears that the men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry did little to aid the civilians caught in their fires. Added to the eyewitness accounts of return fire from among the refugees is the material evidence. Soldiers from one of the nearby platoons collected a Japanese rifle and the Russian submachinegun during a subsequent sweep through the refugees and sent them up through the supply channels, thereby giving us some of our only documentary evidence that there were South Korean communist guerillas among the South Korean refugees. These weapons were accounted for in the logistics reports at the time.
Further bolstering the account given by the soldiers is forensic evidence. Examinations of the site by the South Korean government fifty years later found American made .30 caliber rounds and shell casings near the former American positions, but they also found some of the Russian weaponís cartridges in the area.
The day ended uncomfortably. As late as sundown that night there were still more than 100 American soldiers from the Second Battalion still unaccounted for and wandering the hills.
††††††††††† The next day, 27 July, found the Americans still in their positions. For a third day there were no concentrated attacks against the regiment, the only major action occurring when USAF fighters strafed the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, destroying one truck and damaging a jeep and a trailer. Two tanks harassed the battalions from the front and were also strafed that evening. The battalions remained there, offering little to no assistance to the South Korean villagers to their front, for another day. On 29 July the regiment pulled out and established a new line to the south and east of Hwanggan. This is the reality of what happened at Nogun-ri. It is not pretty, it is not something to be proud of, but it is history.
The full story of these events can be found in Robert L. Bateman, Nogun-ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident (Stackpole Books, April 2002).† Author Robert Bateman welcomes e-mails regarding this article or the book at Bateman_maj@hotmail.com.†