2nd ID unit waged bitter battle, emerged with first U.N. victory over Chinese
Thick green forests blanket the once-barren hills around this small farming valley, and the quiet landscape yields few signs that one of the most desperate battles of the Korean War raged in the ice and snow here five decades ago.
By the time the Battle of Chipyong-ni ended Feb. 15, 1951, soldiers of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, badly outnumbered and fighting at close-quarters in the dark, had given the United Nations its first victory against the Chinese Communist forces.
Since entering the war on the side of Communist North Korea months earlier, the Chinese had scored victory after humiliating victory over the Americans and allies. They’d driven the U.N. forces out of North Korea, had recaptured the South Korean capital of Seoul, and had opened yet another drive south.
“Since the Chinese have been involved in the war, they have not been stopped or slowed down by anything,” said Robert “Kim” Combs, recounting the days of the war. “They’re considered unstoppable.”
Combs is the 2nd Infantry Division Museum’s director at Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu, South Korea.
“The Chinese have already taken Seoul in the west, they’re pushing south, just as the North Koreans had done the summer before. There’s great discussion about evacuating Korea,” Combs said.
But 8th U.S. Army commander, Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, was determined to end the phase of retreat and demoralization, and put U.N. forces on the offensive.
Early in February, Ridgway ordered the 2nd Infantry Division’s 23rd Regimental Combat Team to take and hold the village of Chipyong-ni, a road-and-rail junction about 32 miles southwest of Seoul.
The village lay in an oval-shaped valley about 3 miles wide and 6 miles long, surrounded by low-lying, mostly treeless hills.
Commanded by Col. Paul Freeman, the 23rd RCT was a 5,000-man force made up of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Ranger Company, a French battalion, and supporting U.S. artillery and engineer units.
Freeman positioned his forces in a mile-long perimeter encircling the village.
Around 10 p.m. on Feb. 13, the Chinese began attacks on the perimeter and by midnight nearly all Freeman’s units were engaged.
At about 2 a.m. Feb. 14, the French heard bugles and whistles outside their sector of the perimeter. The Chinese were attacking with fixed bayonets.
The French answered the attack with noise of their own — a siren that wailed a steady scream to “unnerve” the Chinese, drown out their bugle signals, and “fire up the French — ‘OK boys, we’re going to take ’em,’” said Combs.
A single French squad fixed bayonets, took up grenades, scrambled from their holes and charged. They came within 20 yards of one another when the Chinese turned and ran, said Maj. Curtis Roberts, a current division spokesman. The French withstood repeated Chinese attacks that night.
With daylight, the Air Force flew combat sorties in the area and made crucial ammunition drops. Air drops would play a vital role in supplying the defenders during the battle.
The day otherwise saw no major action, but by darkness on the 14th, the bugles sounded again and flares lit the night.
The Chinese were attacking at various points, but they threw their main effort against the hillside positions of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, on the perimeter’s southern sector.
They swarmed the hill, some armed with pole charges and satchel charges. They dropped explosives into American foxholes, killing many.
By midnight things were bleak.
“The fighting was so intense that they saw … shoulders and silhouettes yards away and assumed it was their comrades, but in reality it was the Chinese — they had overrun their position,” said Combs of Company G’s infantrymen.
“In the morning,” he said, “it’s discovered that G Company’s positions are half-filled with Chinese in the foxholes and half-filled with the American soldiers. G Company’s still there but not intact.”
Through the night, the Chinese kept up the pressure.
Soon, what was left of Company G pulled off the hill, and the Chinese had an open back door into the regiment.
But elsewhere along the perimeter, the defenders held intact.
In the ensuing hours, the Americans made several attempts to retake the Company G hill but were repulsed.
The Chinese were nevertheless unable to exploit their capture of the hill. Yet they held onto it through the day despite continued pounding by U.S. tanks, artillery and airstrikes.
But then came the blow that would turn the tide. Twice, at 2:50 p.m. and again at 3:15 p.m., air strikes hit the hill that Company G had held. At times the napalm was brought in as close as 75 yards in front of U.S. troops.
The hill was so thick with Chinese that a single napalm bomb killed at least 60 Chinese in one position alone.
The Chinese at last withdrew.
And in the late afternoon, 20 U.S. tanks of the 5th Cavalry Regiment’s Task Force Crombez rumbled in from the southwest.
The battle of Chipyong-ni was over.
Years later, in his 1967 memoir “The Korean War,” Ridgway wrote that of the many engagements the 2nd Infantry Division fought in the first three weeks of February 1951, “none was conducted with greater skill, gallantry, and tenacity than that fought by the 23rd Regimental Combat Team (with the intrepid … French battalion attached) … It smashed all attacks, inflicting extremely heavy losses, with 2,000 enemy dead reported to have been counted in front of its position.”
“For the first time in the Korean War, the Chinese attack was blunted,” Combs said.
“And the morale of the United Nations forces was beginning to be rebuilt. The thought was, ‘Perhaps we can save Korea.’
“That was the furthest south we were pushed after the Chinese initiative. We took the offensive then.”