White Sands Missile Range burns colors, re-enacts Korea's 'Battle of Kunu-Ri'
The sound of explosions sporadically rang out amid the rapid succession of gunfire that filled the dark, cold night as soldiers from the 2nd Engineer Battalion re-enacted a tumultuous moment in military history.
On Friday, the White Sands Missile Range 2nd Engineer Battalion commemorated actions performed by their battalion 63 years ago during the Korean War's "Battle of Kunu-Ri" by burning their unit colors.
"The annual Burning of the Colors ceremony re-enacts one of the darkest moments in our battalion history," 2nd Engineer Battalion Commander Lt. Col. James Koeppen said.
Koeppen said that on Nov. 30, 1950, the battalion was guarding the rear of the Army's 2nd Infantry as it retreated while under attack from five Chinese divisions. Koeppen said the engineers held off the enemy long enough for the of the infantry division to evacuate.
He said after successfully assisting the infantry division, the engineer battalion became surrounded and faced overwhelming odds.
The 2nd Engineer Battalion commander at the time Lt. Col. Alarich Zacherle realized the battalion would be overrun. To save the integrity of the unit, Zacherle ordered the battalion colors to be burned to prevent their capture and subsequent use as a Chinese war trophy.
"Very few commanders order the burning of their colors," Koeppen said. "Doing so is an acknowledgement that they are in a desperate and all-but-hopeless situation. Not many know that feeling."
Moments after Zacherle gave the order to burn the colors, Chinese forces overran the engineers and very few were able to escape death or imprisonment.
According to the program for the ceremony, the losses for the engineer battalion were staggering. Of the 977 authorized in the battalion, only 266 soldiers answered roll call in the city of Sunchon on Dec. 1, 1950.
During the re-enactment, a roll call was taken for the names of soldiers who endured the battle. Soldiers of the current 2nd Engineer Battalion answered for their predecessors by calling out the status of each soldier from that fateful event.
"Killed in action, sir," was shouted throughout the roll call, and the audience attending the ceremony stood silent in remorse for the soldiers that never made it home. Koeppen said the roll call is a way to honor those who can no longer answer for themselves.
Retired Maj. Arden A. Rowley, a witness and survivor of the battle of Kunu-Ri, was able to answer for himself during the roll call. Rowley was one of many soldiers during the battle that was captured by the Chinese.
"It is an honor for me to be here on the 63rd anniversary of the burning of the colors of the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion," Rowley said.
Rowley endured two-and-a-half grueling years as a prisoner of war. Rowley, who attends every Burning of the Colors ceremony as possible in order to pay his respects to his fallen comrades, was a guest speaker at the event.
"Many sacrificed their lives and physical well being paying a great price, and thus an appropriate inscription is found on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.," Rowley said.
Rowley read this inscription: "Our nation honors her uniformed sons and daughters who answered their country's call to defend a county they did not know and a people they never met."
Rowley said the call was to stop communistic aggression and to maintain the freedoms of the people of the republic of Korea, and ultimately the freedoms of the people of the United States.
"During the extreme last five days of November 1950, culminating in the burning of the battalion colors, the temperatures plummeted from zero degrees to 40 degrees below zero," Rowley said. "The 2nd Division suffered some 5,000 casualties. Among those were officers and men of the 2nd Engineers. Many wounded -- nearly 200 killed and 330 taken prisoners of war."
Rowley said hundreds of soldiers died in the POW camps due to the extreme cold, malnutrition, disease and from the deplorable abuse at the hands of their captors.
"Perhaps some of the men at that time wondered if all their suffering was worth it," Rowley said. "Perhaps there are still Korean War veterans today who wonder if it was all worth it."
In response to whether the sacrifice and suffering the Korean War veterans endured was worth it, Rowley said his recent visit to South Korea in June validated what the soldier had fought so hard for.
"What I saw in Korea during that visit was a happy, industrious free people who, from the destruction of war, have literally preformed a miracle in the past 60 years," he said. "Seoul, which had been invaded four times during the war -- and at the end of the war was a pile of rubble -- is an ultra modern city with a population of 11 million people."
Rowley said South Korea's success could not have happened if it had there not been great sacrifices made on their behalf.
"If those who suffered in combat and those who gave their lives both in combat and in the POW camps could see what the Republic of Korea is today I'm certain that they would all say, 'Yes, our sacrifice was worth it.'"
Rowley ended his speech by saying, "God bless the Republic of Korea and God bless the United States of America."