TAEGU, South Korea — Forty-seven years after leading his company on one of the only fixed-bayonet charges in modern U.S, warfare, retired Army Col. Lewis Millett returned to Korea this week to revisit old battlefields and remember his fallen comrades.
Near Waegwan, the Medal of Honor recipient's eyes glistened as elderly former South Korean soldiers gathered around him at a memorial site where U.S. and South Korean troops broke the North Korean advance in the summer of 1950.
Retired South Korean Army Col. Kim Myong-jung grasped the hand of Millett, 77, thanking him for the U.S. soldiers' brave fighting, "so our nation could be saved." Chilgok County governor Choe Jae-Yong presented him with a necklace of flowers.
Two of the South Korean veterans had fought alongside Millett's unit near Waegwan. Now retired lieutenant colonels, Hong Kyong-pyo |nd Yi Dok-bin were first lieutenants at the time.
"I was a first lieutenant, too," Millett said. "We're the guys that do all the fighting."
During the Korean War's early days, the valley near Waegwan, known as the "Bowling Alley," was home to one of the war's most peculiar battles. High mountains line the mile-long valley, 125 miles southeast of Seoul.
In August 1950, North Korean soldiers were advancing on nearby Taegu, South Korea's third-largest city. To get there, they had to drive through the Bowling Alley. The U.S. 37th Regiment blocked it, with South Korea's 1st division holding the hills.
For seven consecutive nights in mid-August, North Korean artillery opened fire, followed quickly by a rush of T34 tanks, trucks and troops. Each time, the allied defenders drove them back with tank and close-in bazooka fire.
The thunderous explosions and the sight of the glowing orange armor-piercing rounds being hurled down the narrow valley gave the battlefield its Bowling Alley nickname.
"It was hot and heavy for a while," Millett said Thursday. "Balls of fire were going over our heads and hitting the mountain."
Although the North Koreans eventually outflanked the defenders, they were subsequently halted by allied bombing. The North Koreans struck nearby Taegu with a few artillery shells, but never seized it, Today, a highway runs through the former battlefield.
It was six months afterward — and 110 miles to the northwest — that Millett led the bayonet charge that put him in the history books.
His latest visit to Korea was sponsored by Post 10216 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, in Songtan, a city near the bayonet battle that made Millett and his company famous.
On Feb. 7,1951, Millett was a company commander. When 200 Chinese soldiers pinned down one of his platoons, he ordered the rest of his troops to attach bayonets to their rifles. Then he led a bayonet charge uphill into enemy fire. He bayoneted two Chinese soldiers and kept going, hurling grenades and clubbing and bayoneting the enemy.
"Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill," reads Millett's Medal of Honor citation. Army historian S.L.A. Marshall later described Millett's attack as the greatest bayonet charge by U.S. soldiers since the Civil War.
Millett said Thursday he had ordered the charge to unnerve the enemy. The Chinese thought Americans were afraid to use their bayonets. History books say many U.S. soldiers threw theirs away during the war. Millett had his troops find new ones, sharpen them, and train with them.
"I wanted to prove a point," he said. "The point of a bayonet."
The strategy was helped by the fact that the Chinese were using weak grenades, he said. They'd lob clusters of grenades, then duck down. Millett said his strategy hinged on dashing into the Chinese foxholes and attacking them while they were still hunkered down.
It worked — 47 Chinese soldiers were killed in the charge, and the pinned-down American platoon was freed — although Army officials ordered Millett not to use the tactic again, he said.
Any honor from that charge, he said, belongs to his men.
"When someone says 'Fix bayonets and charge,' most people would say ('forget it')," Millett chuckled. "I wouldn't be here today if 100 men hadn't followed me."