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.

Like the Capital Division and the Blue Dragon Brigade, the 9th (White Horse) Division saw its share of combat in South Vietnam. The 9th Division gained its nickname in 1952 after its successful action against communist forces at the Battle of White Horse Mountain. In 1966, the White Horse Division was deployed to the Ninh Hoa region, Dar Lac Province, where Highway 1 met Highway 21. In addition to maintaining a presence in the province and opening up Highways 1 and 19, the White Horse Division contributed its 29th Regiment to the defense of the Ninh Hoa airbase and the 30th Regiment to the defense of Cam Ranh Bay. The 28th Regiment was deployed to Tua Hoa.

The White Horse Division was busy in 1967. In addition to its normal counterinsurgency activities, the division participated in several offensive operations, including Operation Oh Jac Kyu, a surprise attack against the 95th NVA Regiment in Phu Yen Province. The operation spoiled a planned communist offensive. Later that year, the White Horse and Capital Divisions conducted operation Hong Kill Dong, also in Phu Yen Province, and fought dozens of actions against the communists. In one engagement on July 27, the South Koreans killed 32 Vietcong. Two days later, the South Koreans killed another 18. In three weeks’ time, South Korean forces swept the province and killed more than 400 NVA and Vietcong. The White Horse Division had similar success the next year in Operation Baek Ma 9. In one notable battle fought on October 25 (the anniversary of the division’s founding), the White Horse soldiers killed more than 200 Vietcong without a single loss to themselves.

The South Koreans of Operation Lincoln

About that time, General Westmoreland asked the South Korean Army to contribute a battalion to the U.S. Army’s Operation Lincoln, an effort to seal off the Cambodian border. After some haggling, in which Chae got the United States to agree to send new radio sets and supplies, Chae detached the 3rd Battalion (Tiger Regiment) for the task.

In June, the 3rd Battalion left its base along the coast and took up positions along the Cambodian border. Two companies were arrayed across the front, with a third held in reserve. Each company built a well-fortified base featuring interlocking fields of fire, inner and outer trenches. The bases were stocked with three days’ worth of ammunition. The 3rd Battalion operated there for the rest of July, conducting hundreds of reconnaissance missions and ambushes.

In early August 1967, the 9th Company was occupying a position a few miles from the border, where it had also been reinforced by an American armored platoon (1st Platoon, 1st Company, 69th Armored Regiment). The recon elements encountered signs of Vietcong movement in the area, including footprints. The next day, they found four dead Vietcong, killed by a booby trap set by the South Koreans. The 9th Company stayed on alert that night with its 2nd Platoon manning the trenches. After midnight, soldiers reported sounds of movement in the jungle. Not long afterward, a mine exploded. The 2nd Platoon’s leader reported the signs of movement, but the company commander was skeptical that these represented a major Vietcong attack and took no action.

A soldier in the Korean 9th (White Horse) Division encounters a frightened Vietnamese woman and her children on patrol north of Bon Son in 1966.
A soldier in the Korean 9th (White Horse) Division encounters a frightened Vietnamese woman and her children on patrol north of Bon Son in 1966.

Just before 0100 hours, the wood line came alive with small arms and machine-gun fire. The base was also subjected to a heavy mortar barrage, which wounded two platoon leaders and hit the command post, wounding Captain Kang. The old company commander, Captain Lee, who was still with the 9th, took command. After directing artillery fire against several suspected enemy concentrations, Lee ran from the CP, joined his men in the trenches, and ordered them to fight to the death. The Vietcong emerged from the woods and attempted to envelop the base, with the main blow falling on 3rd Platoon in the base’s southern sector.

As the Vietcong closed, South Korean soldiers tossed grenades and fixed bayonets. American tanks lashed away at the enemy, pouring fire into their ranks as they moved across no-man’s-land. The combined fire turned back the communists. The Vietcong tried again minutes later, but met a similar fate. At 0400 hours, they shifted their axis of attack against 2nd Platoon, which was facing west northwest and managed to advance as far as the barbed-wire perimeter. By dawn, the enemy was in full retreat, pursued by the 10th and 11th Companies. Lee and his men counted 184 communist bodies and several prisoners.

An Integral Allied Force in the Vietnam War

While the Vietnam War is often remembered as a purely American effort, U.S. forces were not alone. They were accompanied by units from allied nations such as Australia, New Zealand and, most importantly, South Korea. Throughout the Vietnam War, South Korean troops were an integral part of the American effort in South Vietnam, conducting pacification and counterinsurgency operations and fighting countless pitched battles against Vietcong and NVA troops. 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.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.