On Feb. 12 and 13, 1951, at Hoengsong,
elements of the 2nd Infantry Division
suffered severe, tragic losses

by Gary Turbak

Reprinted with permission.
VFW Magazine - February 2001

The grisly scene, horrible almost beyond belief, shocked even the toughest men of the 7th Marine Regiment. Some averted their eyes. Others broke off their macho banter to talk in hushed, church-like tones.
    It was death that spooked them -- death that hung like an eerie cloud over the narrow valley north of Hoengsong, Korea, that cold, quiet day in 1951.
    In early February, with the Chinese offensive stalled, U.N. commanders prepared a counter assault across the center of the Korean peninsula. This time, however, Republic of Korea (ROK) troops were to do the bulk of the fighting -- with elements of various U.S. infantry, artillery and other units supporting them. The notion of Americans supporting ROK troops was very much an experiment -- one U.S. military leaders later regretted.
    What U.N. commanders didn't know was that Communist forces also were launching a major offensive and had moved four Chinese and two North Korean divisions into the area north of the village of Hoengsong. On Feb. 11, ROKs tangled with Communist forces, quickly disintegrating the planned South Korean offensive.
    At one point, GIs of the supporting 15th Field Artillery (FA) Battalion (2nd Division) encamped for the night, relying on ROK infantry for protection. When the Chinese attacked in the dark, the South Koreans fled. The enemy swarmed over the U.S. position. Some 204 artillerymen ultimately died, resulting in one of the most concentrated losses of American lives in the entire war, according to Joseph Gould in "Korea: The Untold Story."
    Retreating ROKs streamed south past U.S. support forces, allowing the Chinese to flank American positions. Soon, the Chinese owned the narrow, twisting valley north of Hoengsong and the road that ran through it -- the only escape route.
    Steep hills rose up on both sides of the road, turning the valley into a shooting gallery. The Chinese relentlessly rained mortar fire down on the withdrawing and vastly outnumbered GIs. Later came the hand-to-hand fighting.
    "At times," said one battalion commander, "U.N. troops lined up on one side of the road and tossed grenades at the enemy attacking from the other side of the road."


38th Inf. Regt...........462 KIA
15th FA Bn..............208 KIA
503rd FA Bn.............56 KIA

During one withdrawal, forward observer (for the mortar platoon) Sgt. Charles Long of M Co., 38th Inf. Regt., 2nd Div., chose to remain at his position atop Hill 300. It was rapidly being overrun, so he wanted to better direct mortar fire on the Chinese. For a while, he held off the enemy with rifle fire and grenades, but his last radio message reported that he was out of ammo. He used his last words to call for 40 rounds of high explosive fire on his own position, by that time swarming with enemy soldiers. For his bravery, Long posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
    American rescue forces fought their way north from Hoengsong to the besieged units only to find that a river of Chinese soldiers poured in behind them. Points secured just an hour or so earlier reverted quickly to enemy hands.
    U.S. infantrymen tried to clear an escape route for the howitzers, supply trucks and other vehicles, but Chinese soldiers were everywhere. U.S. artillery fired point blank into ranks of attacking enemy, but it did little good.
    As soon as the withdrawing GIs pushed through one Chinese strongpoint, they would run smack into another -- while enemy forces reformed behind them. Some 2,000 Chinese troops manned one enormous roadblock. But the route south was the only way out. So the Americans continued to run this meat grinder of a gauntlet toward Hoengsong, taking heavy losses all the way.
    Finally, the column of weary survivors reached Hoengsong. GIs who made it to the village joined a more general and less hazardous retreat farther south and lived to fight another day. Yet in the little valley to the north there was only death.

On March 7th, the 7th Marines re-entered the area north of Hoengsong for the first time since the rout three weeks earlier. Frozen in time -- and frozen literally -- the battle scene remained eerily preserved.
"Everyone looked into the valley and saw the smoke twisting toward the sky," wrote Marine Bill Merrick in his book Tan Vat. "The smoke came from overturned trucks and jeeps. They had burned so long only the frames remained. The area looked like an enormous graveyard with the bodies buried. The troops lay in the road, in the rice paddies, and in the cabs of the trucks that had not caught on fire."
    Hundreds of GI bodies remained where they had fallen. "We had to push arms, legs, and heads to the side of the road so vehicles behind us would not run over dead soldiers," wrote Marine Rod Bennett. Some GIs had been stripped naked by enemy soldiers. One naked, dead soldier lay across the barrel of an anti-tank gun. In many trucks, dead Americans lay behind the wheel or hung out the doors. One truck contained two lifeless GIs and two dead Chinese soldiers.
    "The road was blocked by a Sherman tank with one set of tracks blown off," wrote Merrick. "The hatch was open and the tank commander was hanging out of it. His jacket was full of holes, and blood made a big design on his back. Two GIs with their hands tied behind them had been shot in the back of the head. There were powder burns on the back of the caps they wore."
    Marines, sickened by the sight, erected a sign along the body-strewn road. It read: "Massacre Valley, Scene of Harry S Truman's Police Action. Nice Going, Harry!"
    U.S. units suffering losses in the Hoengsong debacle included elements of the 38th and 17th Infantry; 15th, 503rd, 49th, 96th and674th FA battalions; 82nd Anti-aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Bn.; and the 187th Airborne RCT.
    Several outfits incurred severe battle deaths. Korean War vet Dick Ecker, using the Army's Adjutant General's Korean War Casualty File, determined the following breakdown by unit:
* 15th FA Bn. -- 208 (106 KIA & 102 in captivity)
* 503rd FA Bn. -- 56 (27 KIA & 29 in captivity
* 38th Inf. Regt. -- 462 (328 KIA & 134 perished in captivity).
    Among the 15th's dead was its commander, Lt. Col. John Keith, and Master Sgt. Jimmie Holloway, both of whom died after being taken prisoner. "Holloway was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but it was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross," according to the 15th's historian, Dan Gillotti.
    Ecker summed it up succinctly: "It was, of course, the nature of the fatalities in this action that was the real tragedy -- many of them MIA, never found and declared dead or captured and died in captivity."
    Because military authorities tried to hide the extent of the disaster, casualty figures regarding the Hoengsong massacre are extremely jumbled. But according to a Time war correspondent, "It was part of the most horribly concentrated display of American dead since the Korean War began."


Gary Turbak writes from Missoula, Mont. He is a Vietnam veteran.

Map of the battle for Hoengsong
Map credit: US Army Center of Military History


Battle for Hoengsong  11-13 February 1951

(click thumbnail to enlarge map)

Also see:

The book "Ebb and Flow"

Wonju and Twin Tunnels article





Korea Home

LT Hartell

Time Line

Scroll of Honor


Korean War History [1] [2] [3]