Little-Known Fact: South Korea Fought with the U.S. as Allies in Vietnam

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October 23, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: South KoreaVietnam WarPark Chung-heeUnited StatesSouth Vietnam

Little-Known Fact: South Korea Fought with the U.S. as Allies in Vietnam

South Korean units were as tough and professional as any in the United States Army or Marines, and came to be justly feared by the communists. More than 300,000 Korean troops passed through Vietnam at some point, and more than 5,000 were killed.

On the night of February 13-14, 1967, the 11th Company of the 2nd South Korean Marine Brigade was occupying a position near the village of Trah Bin Dong in Quang Ngai province, South Vietnam. Its oval-shaped base was dotted by bunkers and trenches; the lines of thick barbed wire to the front were laced claymore mines. In front of the tough South Korean marines lay a line of hills from which the communists attacked Highway 19 and coastal Highway 1. Rather than go into the hills after the communists, the South Korean marines set a trap—with themselves as bait.

The communists regularly harassed the South Koreans but did not attack them directly until that night. Two Vietcong regiments, the 1st and 21st, came out of the hills under cover of heavy mortar fire and hit the base from all directions. The South Koreans delivered devastating return fire from their bunkers with machine guns and mortar rounds dropped at point-blank range. As the communists closed, the outnumbered South Koreans fought hand to hand, refusing to surrender their positions. Some marines dismantled their heavy machine guns rather than let them fall into enemy hands. One wounded man refused to be taken alive and pulled the pins on a pair of grenades as the communists entered his bunker.

Led by their commanding officer, Captain Chung Kyong Gin, the South Korean marines eventually pulled back and allowed several hundred Vietcong to break into the camp. Chung sent two squads to plug the gap. He then ordered the rest of the marines to fix bayonets and close with the now trapped enemy, killing more than 100 inside the camp. By 0730 hours, the marines had cleared their base and chased the communists back into the jungle. American Marine Douglas A-4 Skyhawks punished them as they withdrew.

In all, 254 communists were killed in the assault compared to 15 South Koreans deaths. For his outstanding leadership, Chung was awarded South Korea’s highest honor. In the aftermath of the fight, word of the 11th Company’s deeds spread throughout South Vietnam. Even South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu stopped by for a visit. The entire company was promoted one rank. Later, the Koreans received a Presidential Unit Citation for their actions at Trah Bin Dong.

South Korea’s Commitment to Vietnam

In 1964, as the communist effort in Vietnam grew more intense, the South Vietnamese government made a formal request to the Republic of Korea for military assistance. Actually, the ROK government had offered to send help as early as 1954 but was turned down. The first Korean units arrived in Vietnam in February 1965 in a brigade group called Dove Force. These included engineers, a MASH unit, military police, a navy LST, liaison staff, and other support personnel. Dove Force was deployed to the Bien Hoa region of South Vietnam, where it engaged in counterinsurgency activities. Engineering units built schools, roads and bridges. Medical teams treated over 30,000 South Vietnamese civilians.

As the communist presence in South Vietnam grew and the situation in the countryside worsened, the United States sought to spread the burden to other allied nations. Accordingly, the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson asked the South Korean government if it would be willing to contribute a combat division. After meeting with President Johnson in June 1965, Korean President Park Chung Hee agreed to his request. There was considerable negotiation and haggling between American and South Korean authorities over several issues. The South Koreans insisted that their troops answer only to their own officers. The two sides eventually agreed that South Korean officers would exert tactical control over their units but would subordinate themselves to the senior American officer in a combat zone. South Korean units would also ultimately answer to General William Westmoreland, overall commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam.

The South Korean government sought several other concessions, including combat pay for their soldiers (at American expense), military equipment for South Korean reserve units, and a guarantee of American force levels in Korea. American authorities agreed to the terms, and on August 19, 1965, the South Korean assembly authorized the deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. The deployment began that autumn and included the Capital (Tiger) Division and the 2nd Marine Brigade, the Blue Dragons. By the end of the year, more than 18,000 South Korean troops were in country.

In 1966, the South Vietnamese government requested more troops from the Republic of Korea. After further negotiations, the 9th (White Horse) Division was deployed to Vietnam as well, bringing the total strength of South Korean forces in Vietnam to nearly 45,000 men. On the recommendation of General Westmoreland, Chae Myung Shin, the commander of the Capital Division, formed a corps headquarters under his command out of Nha Trang. General Lew Byong Hion (later the South Korean ambassador to the United States) took command of the Capital Division.

Soldiers of South Korea

South Korean divisions were organized along similar lines as the Americans. They featured three regiments, four artillery battalions, an engineering battalion, and several supporting units such as MPs, signals, and reconnaissance. The first South Korean combat formation in Vietnam, the Capital (Tiger) Division, was formed in 1948 and saw extensive action during the Korean War. The Capital Division survived the initial North Korean onslaught, fought on the Pusan Perimeter, and later participated in General Douglas MacArthur’s celebrated counterattack.

Upon the insistence of Korean President Park Chun Hee, soldiers deploying to Vietnam would be volunteers. Both he and the military wanted to demonstrate to the Americans and the world, through the army, that South Korea had come of age and was no longer wholly dependent on the Americans for its defense. The very best of the army were plucked from their units and assigned to the Capital Division. Enlisted personnel were given special incentives to volunteer, including higher pay and credit for three years of military service. President Park personally selected senior officers.

Korean soldiers were highly motivated. Because of their own struggle with Stalinist North Korea, they hated communists. They were also tough. Each man was trained in the art of tae kwon do, with 30 minutes’ practice forming an integral part of morning physical training. They were also subjected to harsh discipline. Two soldiers who raped a Vietnamese woman were executed before their company.

The South Korean soldier was also feared by the Vietcong. Time magazine reported in 1966, “Captured Vietcong orders now stipulate that contact with the Koreans is to be avoided at all costs—unless a Vietcong victory is 100 percent certain.”

Koreans in the 2nd Marine Brigade, the Blue Dragons, practice Tae Kwon Do during a morning exercise near Qui Nohn, South Vietnam, in April 1966.
Koreans in the 2nd Marine Brigade, the Blue Dragons, practice Tae Kwon Do during a morning exercise near Qui Nohn, South Vietnam, in April 1966.

The South Koreans felt better able to conduct counterinsurgency operations than the Americans. Despite the language barrier, Korean soldiers were dealing with people they considered fellow Asians whose culture they understood better. They shared Buddhism and similar dietary habits; both consumed rice prodigiously. Korean soldiers did their best to interact with the local population. They attended Buddhist religious services, ran medical clinics, and repaired damage inflicted on people’s homes. Even so, a 1968 evaluation conducted by the Americans criticized some aspects of the South Koreans’ pacification efforts, saying they were too focused on pursuing the Vietcong at the expense of building civil organizations.

South Korean troops did not always conduct themselves correctly. As in any war, civilians in South Vietnam suffered grievously. In one notorious incident, South Korean troops searching the village of Tho Lam murdered 46 civilians after a booby trap killed four of their comrades. South Korean documents indicate that as many as 8,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed by their troops from 1965 through 1973. In an interview given in 2000, General Chae admitted that his men killed civilians but blamed it on what he called “battlefield rage” and “the uncertainties of war.”

“Extraordinarily Thorough and Effective”

The first year of operations for the South Koreans was a huge success. The Capital Division established government sovereignty over large swaths of the province, opening up Highway 19 and Highway 1 north to Phu Cat Mountain. In the field, they killed more than 3,000 Vietcong and captured nearly 600 in return for 290 South Koreans killed. In conjunction with the American 1st Cavalry Division and ARVN (Army, Republic of Vietnam) forces, the Capital Division gradually pushed NVA (North Vietnamese Army) forces off the mountain, securing it by the end of the year. The U.S. Army called the attack “extraordinarily thorough and effective.”

To the south, the Blue Dragon Brigade moved from its initial area around Cam Ranh Bay down the coast to Tuy Hoa in Phu Yen Province, a rice-producing region of about 70,000 people. Tuy Hoa had been infiltrated by elements of the North Vietnamese 95th Regiment, which relied on the farmers for food and shelter. The Blue Dragons worked for several weeks with the 1st Brigade of the American 101st Airborne Division. In Operation Van Buren, the American paratroopers and South Korean marines spent a month clearing Tuy Hoa of communist infiltrators. Over 33 days, 54 Americans and 45 South Koreans were killed, in exchange for 679 communists. Together, they secured the harvest of 30,000 metric tons of rice. At the conclusion of the operation, the American paratroopers left and the South Koreans took sole responsibility for the area.