Into the Valley of Death Rode The Four Hundred.
By William Burson, (United Press Staff Writer)
With U. S. 24th Division, Korea, May 26 —This is the story
of “Death Valley” and of the 405 brave Americans who died or were
captured there in a Chinese ambush (where Tom was wounded and
It is the story of a company commander who was hit nine times by machine-gun fire while leading futile counter-attacks, but who never faltered.
It is the story of medics who fired machine guns when the men at the triggers fell dead.
Trapped Men Stayed to Help
It is the story of infantrymen who never had fired an artillery piece in their lives, but took their places at the lanyard under fire.
And it might never have happened if the trapped men hadn’t stayed behind to rescue 65 surrounded American rangers.
The ambush occurred April 25 in a deep mountain defile north of the Chongpyong Reservoir on the west-central front during the first stage of the Chinese spring offensive.
Lt. Col. Harry S. Wilson of Brownsville, Tex., commander of the Fifth Regimental Combat Team, had been holding a rear-guard perimeter to screen the withdrawal of other 24th Division elements.
With him were two of the combat team’s battalions, the 555th Field Artillery Battalion with 155-millimeter howitzers, and Baker Co. of the Sixth (Patton) Tank Battalion.
Wilson was about to order the men out when he learned that a company of rangers had been surrounded farther north by a Chinese regiment while trying to hold a wide-open flank.
The commander decided to hold on a little longer and sent five Patton tanks to the rescue. Two hours later, they returned with 65 survivors, most of them wounded.
Wilson gave the order to withdraw. The first of the convoy, led by Maj. Gen. Claude Baker of Saranac, Mich., commander of the Sixth Battalion, passed safely through the defile.
But as the first truck of “Charlie” battery neared the south exit, a figure in white jumped a ditch whirled and fired a hip-supported heavy machine gun into the cab.
The vehicle careened back-ward and the big gun it was pulling crashed into the truck behind knocking it out of control.
Chinese Appear Everywhere
As if on signal, Chinese appeared on the ridgeline along the slopes and in the road-side rice paddies. From somewhere, mortars coughed and laid their explosive eggs along the length of the column.
Automatic weapons opened up killing many GIs in the crossfire.
A regimental operations officer ran down the road to order the men off the trucks and into the hills. A machine-gun burst stopped him in his tracks.
Wilson, firing back with his .45, gave the order himself to the remaining units.
Infantrymen Man Guns
Lt. Col. Clarence E. Stuart of Freeland, Mich., commander of the 555th, ran—shooting as he went—half a mile back to his battery and personally directed setting up howitzers to counterfire on the enemy.
Artillerymen of “Charlie” battery unhitched their guns at the head of the column and fired pointblank at the Reds around them. And when artillerymen fell, infantrymen like Cpl. Berrand Combs of Elwood, W. Va., who had never fired an artillery piece in his life, took their places.
One battalion rallied around the bellowing leadership at beefy Capt Horace W. (Captain Combat) West of Nazareth, Pa., commander of “Able” Company.
West’s company made three futile counterattacks down the road. “Baker” company attacked up the hill to the west and “Charlie” company assaulted the ridge on the east. All were repulsed.
West was hit nine times by machine-gun fire, but never stopped.
A young Air Force tactical officer, Second Lt. Walter Fay, who had arrived in Korea only three days earlier, stayed with his radio jeep and called in air strikes which were within 100 yards of the beleaguered Americans. He was wounded, but stayed at his post.
The Chinese swarmed off the hills and attacked at close range. Many got within 10 yards of the GIs before they were downed. Infantrymen fought from trucks, behind rocks, in ditches– some counterattacked.
Chinese Didn’t Fire on Medic
Medics worked feverishly to aid the wounded and load them on trucks. The Chinese did not fire on the medics, according to Maj. William Hedberg of Honolulu, who treated wounds for four hours.
Some medics, like Sgt. James L. Harrison of Riverside, Calif., jumped on half-tracks and fired their quadruple .50-caliber machine guns when the gunners were killed.
Sgt. Kenneth Bunting of Erie, Pa., a radio operator, got off an SOS. It was intercepted by First Lt. Sidney Blum of New York, who assembled a tank task force to break the road block.
The Chinese knocked out two tanks and killed the riding infantry before the column reached the trap area. It was forced to pull back.
Destroy Abandoned Equipment
After four hours, Wilson ordered his men to make a run for a lateral road to the west. Abandoned equipment was destroyed.
All night long and all next day, the survivors trickled back through the 24th new defensive line.
When a final count was made, 405 men were dead or missing, and eight 155-millimeter howitzers, six Patton tanks and an undetermined number of jeeps, trucks and supplies lost or destroyed.
“Every man who got out alive can thank God,” First Lt Leon Banashak of Chicago said. ###
Burson, William, AP, 2008, The Taro Leaf, Vol 62(2) Spring, pp. 22-23.