Barely two weeks after their June 25, 1950 surprise attack against South Korea and their American allies, the North Korean Army, under its commander Kim Il-Sung, had achieved stunning success. They had blown past all the South Korean frontier defenses, captured the capital of Seoul, and most alarming, had routed the American Army in a series of battles from Osan to the Kum River. If the city of Taejon were to fall as rapidly as the previous towns and cities, Kim might drive the U.S. troops into the sea at Pusan and win the war.
The North Koreans realized what was at stake and sought to move on Pusan with haste before too many U.S. troops arrived. They attacked the Kum river with two full divisions, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions. After three days of relentless attacks, 24th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. General William Dean and his outnumbered American defenders were pushed back from the Kum river and into Taejon—and again surrounded.
Dean was a veteran of World War II and knew Taejon’s urban terrain did not favor the defense, but he had no choice. Unlike previous rounds of the fighting, the Americans would not be able to attempt an immediate breakout of the encirclement as they had done previously, because doing so would have strengthened the communist troops’ position and risked losing Pusan as well.
More to the point, Dean’s boss, Eighth Army Commander Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, ordered Dean to hold Taejon until at least 20 July: the 1st Cavalry Division and 25th Infantry Divisions were madly trying to establish strong defensive positions north of Pusan along the Nakdong river, where the terrain was more favorable for the defender. But they needed time to prepare fortifications before the North Korean armor arrived.
On 19 July, Kim’s lead troops penetrated into the city itself and began attacking American gun emplacements, destroying all food, water and ammunition storage sites they could find, and setting fire to many of the city’s old wooden structures. The battlefield was turning into an inferno. Dean had been ordered to hold the city at all costs until the next day, and he took the charge seriously: he refused to move his headquarters out of the city where it would be safer, choosing instead to endure the same hardships he was asking of his men. That decision would bolster his troops—but cost him dearly.
The situation for the Americans went from bad to worse, as elements of a third North Korean division soon joined the fight on the 19: the 105th Armored Division. Not only were the U.S. soldiers at a disadvantage owing to their unpreparedness to fight, they also suffered because many of the Korean residents of Taejon were sympathetic to the North Koreans and informed them where many of the U.S. fighting positions were.
The loss of men, equipment, and ammunition began to take a fatal toll on the Americans. Much of the 19 and 20 of July, Dean’s men had to fight bloody, vicious house-to-house battles with the North Koreans, often without radios to coordinate actions. The defense began to break down in any coherent fashion and North Korean troops continued the relentless onslaught into the city, unopposed from the North, East, and West. Dean tried to personally rally his men to establish new lines of defenses at subsequent neighborhoods, but each was pushed back.
Late on the 20, Dean finally ordered the remnants of his beleaguered force to withdraw to friendly lines further to the south of Taejon. 1st U.S. Cavalry Division tanks moved forward to help cover their withdrawal. They were too late, however, for the survivors of the 34th RCT, as their fifty vehicle convoy out of the city was ambushed by Kim’s troops and almost all were destroyed. The battle of Taejon was over and the North Koreans had won.
The cost to the Americans had been considerable. After having already been mauled in the series of withdrawals from Osan to the Kum River, the 24th Infantry lost almost 1,000 more men killed, nearly 230 wounded and another 2,400 missing. One of the missing had been the division commander.
In the confusion and chaos of the final withdrawal, Dean’s jeep got separated from the rest of his command vehicles, and he was lost behind enemy lines. For a while he fought on, destroying an enemy tank with a hand grenade with a small band of soldiers he had gathered (he would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism). After thirty-five days, however, he was captured, spending the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp.
Though the Americans had lost the battle at extreme cost, the struggle had not been without value. Owing to Maj. Gen. Dean’s tenacious leadership and the willingness of his soldiers to fight on even under the most horrifying conditions, the remainder of Lt. Gen. Walker’s Eighth Army troops were able to land at Pusan and move inland far enough to establish a solid line of defense.
As it turned out, that defense—and the casualties the 24th ID had been able to inflict on the North Koreans in the process—proved to be decisive. The Americans had a perpetual logistics lifeline at Pusan and a virtual limitless ability to continue to pour more troops and material to overwhelm Kim’s forces, who now had to sustain resupply lines hundreds of miles long. American and allied airpower began crushing those lines, depriving the North of resupply in men and material. Kim’s chance of winning the war was now permanently defeated.
The Battle of Taejon had been a tactical loss for the United States but it had been a strategic victory that prevented the North to win the war in July 1950.
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.