The Buzz

How North Korean Tanks Overran the Army’s Task Force Smith in Korea

Both the old M9A1 bazooka and M20 recoilless rifle could theoretically only barely pierce the T-34’s one hundred millimeters of front armor with their shaped-charge warheads. However, because hits to the weaker side armor also failed to penetrate, it seems likely the warheads were defective. Furthermore, the howitzers’ 105-millimeter high-explosive rounds, though powerful, were not designed for armor penetration.

As the tanks charged towards the howitzers, they ran into a carefully laid ambush: the artillerymen did possess exactly six High Explosive Anti-Tank rounds—reportedly, one third of the supply then available to U.S. forces in all of Asia! These were all allocated to the number-six gun of Corporal Herman Critchfield, who managed to disable two tanks at short range.

One of the T-34s brewed up in flames, and its dismounting crewmembers sprayed a nearby machine-gun position with his burp gun, causing the first death of an American soldier in Korea. Shellfire from the T-34s blew up most of the infantry’s trucks, knocked out Critchfield’s gun and wounded the battery’s commanding officer, Capt. Miller Perry. A third tank was immobilized by a hit to its treads, while the five remaining tanks eventually continued down the road to Taejon.

Task Force Smith’s misfortunes had only just begun. An hour later, another twenty-five tanks came barreling towards their position. Howitzer fire managed to immobilize another tank and damage a few more, but the rest got through and personnel from the demoralized battery nearly fled from the field before being rallied by Captain Perry.

Then, at 11 a.m., a six-mile long column of North Korean trucks from the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Infantry Regiments escorted by three tanks advanced on Smith’s position, oblivious to the skirmishes that had taken place earlier that morning. Once they had closed within a thousand yards, the American troops opened fire with mortars, machine guns and howitzers, spreading chaos through the column.

However, Smith’s force was outnumbered ten to one by the more than five thousand North Korean troops. Under command of Gen. Lee Kwon-mu, the Communist infantry spread out to envelope the isolated roadblock from both ends. After three hours of fighting, Smith decided he would have to withdraw to avoid losing his entire force.

Unfortunately, the passing tanks had crushed Smith’s communication lines, and word of his planned orderly withdrawal did not make it to all the troops. One platoon only found out at the last moment, and left its wounded soldiers behind in its haste to escape. They were later found to have been murdered in their stretchers.

The retreat exposed the American infantry in the open to enemy fire, and as Korean machine-gun and shell fire raked their positions, panic set in. The controlled retreat disintegrated into a pell-mell route. The howitzer crews at least managed to spike the sights on their howitzers before roaring away in their truck, picking up stragglers here and there as they went.

Ultimately, Task Force Smith lost over a third of its strength: sixty men killed in action, another twenty-one wounded and eighty-two captured (only fifty of whom survived the war). The survivors straggled back to American lines over the course of several days, linking up with the defenses established by the rest of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry Division. Historians estimate the inexperienced troops had bought U.S. forces in Korea seven vital hours.

However, things did not improve much from there. Despite quickly winning air superiority, U.S. and South Korean troops suffered defeat after defeat on the ground over the next two months until they were confined to a small defensive perimeter around the southeastern port city of Pusan. The first M24 light tanks to enter action were outgunned by the T-34s, while World War II–vintage Shermans were at best only evenly matched. Only in September did a surprise amphibious assault at Inchon, west of Seoul, reverse UN fortunes in the theater by cutting North Korean supply lines.

The debacle of Task Force Smith is relatively well documented, and has become a byword in the Army for the risk that rapid-response troops hastily inserted into a crisis situation may run, by lacking the necessary firepower to defend themselves.

Could a similar situation occur today? In the Korean theater this is unlikely, as the South Korean army has grown dramatically in capability, and defenses along the demilitarized zone are very well developed. Of course, the U.S. military has also greatly improved its technological advantage vis-à-vis potential adversaries, and can field highly portable Javelin antitank weapons and more precise air-to-ground weapons.

However, there are scenarios in which a relatively small U.S. advance force could get overwhelmed. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War, the Eighty-Second Airborne division was deployed to defend a thin defensive line across the open deserts of Saudi Arabia against a vast force of Iraqi armored units. Fortunately, the Iraqi tanks did not attack, but clearly the light infantry would have been hard pressed in such a scenario.

In 2016, analysts at the RAND Corporation projected that U.S. armored units forward deployed to eastern Europe would be overwhelmed in the event of a surprise invasion of the Baltics by Russia. However, such a scenario would depend on Russia concentrating many troops in the region without NATO noticing and mustering its own forces in reply; furthermore, it is generally unlikely.