Saturday, August 3, 2019

Harold "Red" Ayres and His Battalion's Stand at Taejon, Korea, 1950

The following is adapted from the published book, The Battle of Turkey Thicket, ISBN-13: 978-0999098325

Only two weeks into its deployment in Korea on July 2, the U.S. Army’s 34th Infantry Regiment bore the initial brunt of resistance to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The 34th’s responsibility was not to defeat the enemy, but to delay them, buying time for the U.S. Army to deploy additional regiments arriving from Japan. Like the 34th, the new arrivals were also understrength and underprepared for combat. U.S. forces sustained a humiliating series of defeats during its first two weeks in Korea.  Combat losses depleted their ranks. They steadily fell back in a southerly direction. By July 16, the beleaguered American forces in Korea consolidated a defense on the outskirts of Taejon, a gritty transportation hub featuring a large rail yard. 

The overall commander of U.S. ground forces in Korea, General William Dean, organized a line of resistance at the Kum River before the division’s headquarters in the city of Taejon. Dean had no more than three infantry regiments at his disposal. One of these regiments was the 34th. Within the 34th were two battalions. First Battalion had a new commander, installed only hours after the unit’s arrival in Korea. Thirty-one-year old Lieutenant Colonel Harold “Red” Ayres was a Louisianan decorated for his service in Italy during World War II.

Lt. Col. Harold "Red" Ayres, July 1950.

Taejon’s defense would make strategic use of the Kum River as a natural barrier. The river’s course flowed like an inverted horseshoe, from east to west around the north of the city in a large, curving arc, generally offset some ten to 15 miles from the city. At this time of year, the river’s width varied between 300-400 yards, and water levels were generally low.

On July 16, Red Ayres’s battalion took position on the eastern bank of the Kapch’on River, a tributary that flowed north into the Kum. Behind it, there were no other natural barriers of consequence to aid in the defense of Taejon. Ayres’s new responsibility was directly astride the road that crossed the Kapch’on as it approached Taejon from Yusong, to the northwest. This road provided the most suitable access for the NKPA’s dreaded T-34 tanks, the very weapon that the Americans were least prepared to contain.

Ayres’s position was tenuous at best, and the officers under his command were well aware of this. The battalion’s seven hundred men - half of them were really teenagers - were already in poor shape. They were too few to resist the 2,500-strong enemy division, plus tanks, that bore down on them. But with the collapse of the neighboring 19th Regiment, the assignment was to be shouldered entirely by the 34th.

The portion of the front assigned to Ayres’s battalion was too large to be consistently fortified by the number of men available. Accordingly, Ayres positioned his manpower overlooking the bridge that the NKPA’s tanks were certain to cross. There is nothing in the Korean War histories to indicate that U.S. Army engineers attempted to blow up the bridge over the Kapch’on, thus denying North Korean armor the approach to Taejon through Ayres’s position.

Able and Charlie Companies formed the battalion’s front line along the river to Ayres’s left (west) of the bridge crossing. One platoon of Lieutenant Johnsen’s Baker Company continued the line downstream (north and east) of the bridge. Ayres placed reinforcements south of the road, on slightly higher ground, behind this line. These included First Lieutenant Sam Takahara’s headquarters company, to which the balance of Baker Company was adjacent to the south. Immediately behind these was Ayres’s battalion command post. Beyond the 34th’s position, the road to Taejon skirted the city’s airstrip, then proceeded into the city itself.

Depiction of Red Ayres's Battalion deployed in a defensive position on the Kapch'on River, July 20, 1950. 

Colonel Ayres set up his command post immediately behind the first battalion’s line. He had already lost his artillery support when the 63rd Field Artillery Battalion was overrun five days earlier. His infantry would be pitted against an enemy that was not only more numerous, but also reinforced by tanks. Ayres's leadership experience from World War II won him a front-row seat in this conflict, one that quickly became a humiliating, dirty little scrap on behalf of a country for which he had no affinity whatsoever. 

Ayres must have been deeply troubled, but he dared not show it. Doubt is the contagious nemesis of a combat leader. He was given sacrosanct orders to hold the line, regardless of his unit’s capacity to comply. Ayres had just seen his first regimental commander, Jay Lovless, sacked for withdrawing the battalion too quickly from P’yongt’aek on July 6. Then he found out that Lovless’s successor, Col. Martin, lasted all of 24 hours before he was killed at Ch’onan on July 8. The bar had been set for expectations under General Dean’s command.

Red Ayres had a career to protect. But he was preoccupied with thoughts of fulfilling his mission while minimizing the inevitable loss of the boys under his command. His thoughts must have strayed to his wife Elizabeth. Throughout Wednesday, July 19, he watched enemy forces gather a couple miles in front of him on the opposite river bank.

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