Remembering the Battle of Osan: An Enduring Alliance

2014-04-16 by Ed Timperlake

In the United States, the Korean War is sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten War,”   sandwiched as it was between World War II and the Vietnam War.

In South Korea, however, that conflict remains top-of-mind, as evidenced by the City of Osan’s announcement on Wednesday that it is acquiring the site of the first battle of that war in which U.S. Troops fought and died to build a Memorial Park on that site in their honor.

On June 25, 1950 North Korea invaded its neighbor, with ten divisions rolling south and meeting little resistance.  The United States, with few assets in the region as the military downsizing post-WW II was well underway, turned to the 21st Infantry Regiment, then serving in occupied Japan.  The regiment sent a small advance force to Korea by air.

An American soldier (Robert L. Witzig) with a 2.36-inch bazooka prepares to take aim at a North Korean tank during the Battle of Osan. On his right is Kenneth R. Shadrick, who would later be reported as the first American killed in the Korean War.

An American soldier (Robert L. Witzig) with a 2.36-inch bazooka prepares to take aim at a North Korean tank during the Battle of Osan. On his right is Kenneth R. Shadrick, who would later be reported as the first American killed in the Korean War. Credit: US Army

Major General William F. Dean ordered Lt. Col. Charles Bradford Smith to “block the road as far north as possible” with a hastily thrown together unit including Company B and C of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry.  They were joined with A Battery of the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion for a combined force of 406 infantrymen and 134 artillerymen, now known as Task Force Smith.

Smith established a defensive position in the low hills surrounding the main road headed south from Seoul to Osan.  On July 5, 1950 they met the invading force spearheaded by 33 Soviet-made T34 tanks, considered the best in the world at that time.  The WW II era anti-tank weapons used by U.S. troops failed to stop the advancing armor.  Next, 5,000 North Korean soldiers joined the assault.  The outcome was predictable – heavy U.S. casualties and a forced withdrawal.

The story doesn’t end there. 

Their bravery slowed the North Korean advance by eight hours, buying valuable time for organizing an effective defensive stand that included the balance of the 21st Infantry Regiment, which arrived in Korea by ship.

And today, the memory of that battle is very much alive in South Korea. 

Last summer, the City of Osan opened the UN Forces First Battle Memorial Museum to honor the men of Task Force Smith.

The museum’s website, , is itself a great tribute to Task Force Smith.

In addition to a history of the battle, it includes the names of the 540 U.S. soldiers who fought there and the pictures of many of these men prior to the battle.  The just announced Memorial Park will have a grove of 540 pine trees in their honor.

The greatest memorial to Task Force Smith, and to the U.S. and international soldiers who followed in their footsteps, is South Korea itself. 

Today that nation is home to the world’s 12th largest economy.  Its Gross Domestic Product per Capita is $33,000.  Compare this to North Korea, where the Gross Domestic Product per Capita is just $1,800.

South Korea is not just an economic success; it is a geopolitical success – a stable democracy in a strategic part of the world and a loyal U.S. ally.

More than 300,000 South Korean troops fought alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam.   Its military backed the U.S. in Operation Desert Storm.  During the Second Gulf War, 18,000 South Korean soldiers volunteered to serve in Iraq and more than 3,000 did serve.  And in Afghanistan, 5,000 South Korean troops were part of the international coalition to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

It’s notable that Mayor Kwak Sang-Wook of Osan said recently that one of the primary reasons for building the memorial park is so that generations of Korean school children can have the opportunity to learn about the war, and especially about the incredible sacrifice made on their behalf by soldiers from a distant land.

The Battle of Osan lasted just eight hours, but its impact continues to be felt today, more than 60 years after the last shot was fired.

Editor’s Note: The combat  history narrated above is combined from several contemporary accounts of true courage in the Korean War.

The author recommends reading what he considers one of the best books every written about the American way of war which is based on the Korean War experience: T.R Fehrenbach’s, This Kind of War.

Because of the sinking on Wednesday morning of a South Koren ferry carrying 470 passengers, the City postponed the official announcement until next Wednesday.



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