71 years ago today on November 21st 1950, the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, occupied Hyesanjin, and the banks of the Yalu River. This would be the farthest north US units would make it during the Korean War. Technically the farthest north of any UN unit was the ROK Capital Division, but due to the angle of the Yalu river they were still far from the border. As well the ROK 6th Division would make it to the Yalu in their region as well. A mere six days later would see them reeling back south.
The 7th was not able to move out much from the general area as through out the week in continued to meet small but fierce resistance from North Korean units. They did slowly begin to move eastward along the border. The Chinese Forces were not a mystery and could be seen across the river observing the soldiers. The 1st Marine Division to the west even fought against sizable Chinese units before all this. To add to the uncertainty felt by the soldiers the Yalu at this time was not much of a barrier either. By the time the of the main Chinese offensive the river was completely frozen over. So there was really nothing between the Chinese forces and the men of the 7th Infantry division when the attack began. The cold was also becoming a major factor with 142 men being treated for frostbite.
Here is an easier to interpret map of the situation. The ROK units in the west reached the Yalu but were hit hard and pushed back by the Chinese before the main offensive started. Hence the second line. So at least it can be argued that the 7th Division reached and stayed at the Yalu River for a time before the near headlong retreat to Hungnam.
For a better and deeper account of this the Korean War Online page is a good read of the prelude. The west half of the country was seeing much more action and is covered HERE.
The Army also has a good overview case study of the prelude and aftermath HERE.
I highly recommend reading all three. They are not very long and have valuable lessons to be learned.
Now let’s get Geared Up
The equipment worn by the soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division seems to be a fairly mixed bag. Most equipment is either WWII vintage or a WWII pattern at least. And the gear varies a lot from soldier to soldier. In the picture above we have one soldier with the M1948 boots and the other with over boots. As well one has an M1943 (possible M1950 though unlikely) Jacket and the other a WWII era parka/anorak. The left or foreground soldier looks to have what I assume is a parka or something similar behind his belt at least. Some of the earlier pictures have the reversible parkas in them as well. But it seems like most of the soldiers simply had the M1943 field jackets. The pants on the foreground man are also simple HBT pants and not the thicker M1943. I assume he is wearing them over wool pants or at least hope for his sake he is as the HBTs are a terrible pants for the cold. The gloves worn are either M1949 gloves and liners or USAAF/USAF A-10 gloves. Under his helmet is looks like the field cap that came with the M1943 uniform. It is pretty much the same as the later M1951 cap with the little ear flaps that come down from the inside. It also looks like they both have scarves or something similar. The web gear is also a mix of war time and post war items. Apparently M1937 BAR belts were made in OD3 through out WWII as they are often the only “khaki” item still being worn in 1950. Take note of the handle on the BAR. These were a post war addition and actually proved reasonable popular. As you can see the bipod was ditched but the handle kept.
There isn’t a whole lot going on gear wise in the photo and really the war in general. Which I still think is part of the reason for the lack of popularity of it in collector circles. The web gear is just the basics, first aid kit, and a single canteen. The fighting knifes issued out to all the non bayonet equipped troops in WWII are no longer around and even private purchase don’t show up surprisingly. Part of this could just be an attempt to keep the load as light as possible considering the heft of the BAR and ammunition.
There are a fair bit of moving parts to this and I wasn’t sure where to start. I wanted to keep it brief and just focus on the day as much as possible. I also didn’t want to just parrot or plagiarize what was written else where.
The Korean War experience really needs to be read and research more. It is such a jarringly different experience than WWII a mere five years earlier and it is hard to believe it is the same Army/America involved. I think a major theme of the war is simple hubris or arrogance. There was this pervasive mentality that since e have won the WWII and that was a much larger war again industrial and imperial powers this would be a cake walk. Or the assumption that our forces were still just as strong even though after the war the entire service was hollowed out and few veterans remained. Almost every unit was filled with green recruits with little training on top of being under strength. To make up for it they had the KATUSA program (Korean Augmentation To the United States Army) which just stuffed Korean soldiers into the empty spaces of US units. Not a denigration against the Koreans but that is not helpful at all to unit cohesion. Even the movement of units seemed to have no thought process as to the importance of logistics or strategic situations.
In this same vein of arrogance there has been talk of a European Theater bias in different sources. While MacArthur was a Famous Pacific theater commander, almost all of the promotions and leadership billets went to veteran officers of the ETO. And that seems to have added to the inefficiencies in the war where they are commanding the battle as if it will be some set pieces or battle of maneuver. When really there was little of that in the war, and while the tactics were not the same as what the US had faced against the Japanese there were at least similarities enough that had they not shunned the PTO veterans some of the costly mistakes could have been avoided. Similarities such as night attacks, charges and bunker systems. At the very least, if they were insistent on using ETO veterans they should have prioritized Italian campaign experience as the terrain is at least similar.
There are more aspects to delve into but that seems to be our greatest lesson to be learned (which we still have yet to actually learn), hubris. Just because we did something well in the past is no guarantee of future performance. Feel free to add your thoughts below.