Key point: War is terrible, especially for forces that were used to lighter occupation duties. Every conflict leaves many dead and broken- the Korean War as no different.
War is always chaotic, bloody and tragic. Rarely is there an easy or clean battlefield victory. The American 24th Infantry Division’s (24th ID) experience at the Battle of Taejon in July 1950, however, is an example of how a bloody tactical loss can result in a desperately needed strategic victory. That ultimately successful outcome, however, was not apparent as the last Americans withdrew from Taejon under North Korean pressure and it came at great personal cost to the men fighting it.
The 24th ID’s performance at Taejon was ordained before the battle had even begun. At the conclusion of World War II, the Division was in the Philippines where it had participated in the battles to clear Japanese from the islands. Following the end of the war, they had been dispatched to Japan for occupation duty. U.S. troops had suffered more than one million killed and wounded in World War II, and the American people were sick of war—and Congress had no appetite for funding the military.
By early 1950, more than 80 percent of the 24th’s WWII combat veterans had been replaced by inexperienced recruits. Funding for the Armed Forces was very low on the postwar priority list in Congress, and the Division had little money for training, equipment maintenance, or heavy weapons. As important, the 24th was also badly understrength and had spent most of its time performing easy occupation duty, not conducting demanding combat training.
When the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950, the situation was dire and tenuous from the start. North Korean armor and infantry formations poured through the ill-prepared Republic of Korean (ROK) army and headed south. President Harry S. Truman realized that if the U.S. didn’t stop the North Koreans soon, the enemy would likely capture the entire peninsula; the president feared the possibility of communism engulfing another Asian nation.
Though the U.S. Army and Marines were not ready to fight a war, he threw them into the breach anyway. Truman believed the loss to North Korea would be catastrophic and vowed to pay any price to prevent it. The first to get the call was the 24th Infantry Division.
Division Commander Maj. Gen. William Dean got the alert for action from Truman on June 30, 1950. The next day he assembled as many men as he could deploy with the equipment and transportation assets he had on hand. A partially-manned, under-trained battalion, led by Lt. Col. Charles Smith, was the first American unit thrown into the breach. Task Force Smith, as his outfit was known, was tasked by Dean to stop the North Koreans as far forward of Taejon, about 100 miles south of Seoul, as possible.
Lt. Col. Smith knew his men were not trained or equipped as well as American World War II troops have been, but the North Koreans were thought to be backwards, peasant conscripts. He was soon to find out how wrong American intelligence had been. The Soviets had been training North Korean leader Kim il-Sung’s men and had provided them with then-state of the art tanks, the T34.
The first engagement took place on July 5, near the town of Osan, south of Seoul and north of Taejon. When the North’s tanks made contact with Smith’s troops, the few anti-tank weapons they had bounced harmlessly off the enemy armor. Task Force Smith was mauled and slowed down Kim’s southward march by mere hours.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Dean had been deploying the remainder of the 24th ID at five southern ports centered on Pusan. After the disaster at Osan, Smith pulled the survivors thirty miles back to the first position from which he could set up a new defense, Chonan. Dean threw the first unit available forward to support Smith’s men, the 34th Regimental Combat Team (34th RCT).
On July 7, Kim’s tanks attacked the Americans at Chonan. After a short but fierce engagement, the 34th RCT was surrounded by the communist troops. After suffering many casualties, they succeeded in breaking through the encirclement and moving further south towards more defensible terrain in the direction of Taejon. The 21st RCT was the next to enter the fight, joining the remnants of the previous units at Chochiwon. The North Koreans, however, were also reinforcing their troop numbers.
On July 11, three divisions of enemy mechanized forces attacked the Americans at Chochiwon and quickly overwhelmed and surrounded them too. Showing resolve and courage, U.S. troops broke through the trap and moved south to set up the next line of defense, along the south bank of the Kum River, just north of Taejon. Dean ordered all his troops to withdraw across the river and then blow the bridges to slow the communist advance.
Taejon was a major transportation hub in the southern part of South Korea. It had many rail, river, and road lines running into and out of the city. If Taejon fell as quickly as Osan, Chonan and Chochiwon, North Korean forces would be able to move to Pusan, further to the southeast, and take the ports. For the United States to have any chance at eventually winning the war, Pusan would have to remain in American hands. The defense of Taejon was critical in accomplishing that objective.
Dean moved the 24th ID’s third regiment, the 19th RCT, to join the badly wounded 34th and 21st RCTs in the defense along the Kum River. The North Koreans didn’t slow or hesitate, but continued their relentless march, and on the morning of July 14 began a multi-pronged attack against the American defenders.
All the units had been badly shaken psychologically, as just three weeks before the battle began, these men were all in Japan living the luxurious and easy life of occupation troops. That life had been permanently shattered for them all. The 21st RCT in particular had been crushed in early fights, suffering 1,400 casualties of its initial strength of 2,500. More would die soon—and the fate of the war hung on the outcome of the Battle of Taejon.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1. This first appeared in 2019.