Friday, May 11, 2018

Task Force Smith: "An Arrogant Display of Strength"

Elements of Task Force Smith arrive at the Taejon Train station after an overnight journey from Pusan.
SOURCE:  U.S. Army Military History Institute
Morning, July 2, 1950.  Taejon, South Korea. Spearheading the U.S. Army's initial ground force committment to Korea was “Task Force Smith,” so named for its commander, 34-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Charles “Brad” Smith, a West Pointer and a veteran of World War II’s Pacific theater. The task force predated Pvt. Philip Hughes's arrival with the 34th Infantry Regiment by only a day. Under Smith's command was a reinforced company of about 540 men detailed from the 21st Infantry Regiment with a partial complement of artillery. 

The composition of this force reflected the need to move quickly – by air – which in turn was restricted by Korea’s rough airfields, which quickly deteriorated under the weight of heavily-loaded aircraft. For practical purposes, then, Task Force Smith was lightly equipped. Over half the troops were under the age of 20 – soldiers, yes, but generally undertrained and unprepared.

As long as their opponents lacked superior troop numbers and armament, Task Force Smith was expected to provide an effective roadblock to the North Korean incursion. A formation under an American flag would, in MacArthur’s words, pose “an arrogant display of strength” from which North Korean troops would supposedly recoil in fear. MacArthur’s tacit hope was that the enemy would perceive the few Americans initially deployed in Korea as the vanguard of the vast military juggernaut that had won World War II. 

The North Koreans were neither fooled nor intimidated by the meager force of Americans they  encountered. 

Having already taken Seoul, the capital of South Korea, the North Korean People’s Army advanced southward toward Osan on July 5. Just north of there, Task Force Smith, the front line of American resistance, was dug-in on a couple of rain-soaked hilltops. Almost 5,000 NKPA troops advanced on this position behind a spearhead of over 30 top-notch Russian-built T-34 tanks. The few American weapons that could effectively stop tanks were quickly neutralized. The experienced and battle hardened NKPA forces poured around and through the Americans, killing some, capturing others, and causing a panicked rout of the remainder. The dazed survivors fled south, leaving behind equipment and wounded men that they could not carry. 

Some 40 percent of the task force was lost – either killed, captured, or wounded. In return for their efforts, Task Force Smith delayed the NKPA advance for approximately seven hours. Their roadblock gave Philip Hughes and the 34th Regiment time to set up a line of defense to the south at P’yongt’aek. 

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