In the summer of 1950, the United States entered the Korean conflict undermanned and unprepared. Just north of the town of Osan, a cobbled-together force encountered the invading North Korean forces for the first time. Today, that battlefield has changed significantly from the farmland of the 1950s.
By Seth Marshall
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea. Some 135,000 KPA troops supported by hundreds of ex-Soviet T-34/85 tanks quickly overwhelmed the South Korean army, which was not trained or equipped to counter so many armored vehicles. After North Koreans ignored the call from the UN to pull back across the 38th Parallel, the United States began to organize a military response in order to push the communist forces back to the north.
Since the last American occupying forces had left South Korea some time before, the first American units that were sent to Korea were taken from occupying forces in Japan. The first group of occupation forces to be sent over were taken from the 24th Infantry Division. The coalition was commanded by LTC Charles B. Smith, who was previously the commander of 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. Task Force Smith, as the force became known, was composed of B & C companies, two understrength infantry companies from 1st Battalion. Additionally, half of HHC (the Battalion Headquarters Company), a communications section, a recoilless rifle section, and two mortar platoons accompanied the infantry forces. Task Force Smith’s heavy weaponry included two 75mm recoilless rifles taken from the Heavy Weapons Company of 2nd Battalion, two 4.2” mortars, six 2.36” bazookas, and four 60mm mortars. In total Task Force Smith was composed of 406 enlisted men and officers, only 1/6 of whom had previously seen combat.
On July 1st, TF Smith departed Japan with orders from the commanding officer of the 24th Infantry Division, Major General William Dean to block the road Pusan as far north as possible. After landing at Pusan, the task force traveled north until reaching Taejon. At Taejon, the American units disembarked. LTC Dean moved ahead with other staff personnel to scout terrain that would be most suitable to defending against the North Koreans. Three miles north of Osan, he found a series of hills through which ran the only road capable of supporting tanks. Smith returned to the task force and continued to move north. Meanwhile, as TF Smith continued to move north, it was mistakenly attacked by six Royal Australian Air Force P-51s. On July 4th, TF Smith was joined at Pyeongtaek by A Battery of the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion. Composed of 6 x 105mm howitzers, A Battery was as unprepared for combating the North Koreans as were the infantry- the artillerymen had only 13 HEAT (High Explosive Anti Tank) rounds to use against the T-34s. After the addition of the artillery battery, TF Smith now numbered 540 enlisted men and officers.
During the night of July 4th, TF Smith moved north towards the chosen defensive positions north of Osan. During the night, one of the trucks towing a howitzer became lost and separated from the rest of the task force- it did not join back up in time for the battle. After arriving at the chosen position at 0300 on July 5th, Smith began having his forces prepare their positions. Most of B & C Companies were positioned on the larger hill to the east of the road, while one platoon was emplaced on the hill on the opposite hill. Bazooka teams and recoilless rifles were placed within range of the road to fire on advancing communist armor. Smith placed his mortars on the opposite slope, with light mortars closer towards the crest of the ridgeline and heavier mortars further down the slope. Meanwhile, the commander of the artillery battery placed his four of his remaining howitzers 2,000 yards to the south of the ridge for indirect fire, while the fifth gun was placed 1,000 yards to the south and sighted on the saddle between the two hills where the road ran. All of the HEAT rounds were sent with this gun, as it was tasked with direct fire on tanks. The task force’s trucks were concealed further to the south to preserve them should retreat become necessary.
As dawn rose on the 5th, rain that had begun earlier continued to fall, defeating any hope of friendly air support. Smith ordered registration fires to be carried out to prepare his artillery and mortars for indirect support. Finally, at 0700, movement was detected on the opposite end of the valley. Not long after, eight T-34/85s of the 107th Tank Regiment of the 105th Armor Division began to approach the American positions from the north. At 0816, the first US shots of the war were fired when the tanks had reached 2000 yards distance from the American positions. The artillery, using High Explosive (HE) rounds, had no effect on the tanks. At 700 yards distance, the 75mm recoilless rifles opened fire, scoring several direct hits, but not stopping the tanks in the slightest. The bazookas opened fire soon after, again having no appreciable effect on the T-34s. It wasn’t until the direct fire howitzer opened fire on the first group of tanks with HEAT rounds that two tanks were knocked out. However, the single gun was unable to stop the tide of armor- only one other tank was knocked out. By 1015, thirty-three tanks, equivalent to over a battalion of armor, had passed through the hills that the Americans were defending, killing or wounding twenty US personnel. At 1100, three more tanks appeared supported by infantry from the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments, 4th Infantry Division. It took an hour for the infantry to make its approach. US forces opened fire at a range of 1000 yards, though they did so without the benefit of the artillery, since communication lines with the artillery battery had been lost. The North Koreans moved to 300 yards from the American positions before opening fire. Despite the American fire, the North Koreans pressed their attack and began to roll up the US flank and inflict more casualties on the defenders.
At 1630, Smith decided that his position was becoming untenable. He had wanted his troops to retrograde in a leapfrogging motion, with one platoon covering the retreat of another with covering fire. Unfortunately, the poorly-trained troops began to panic and retreat in disorder. It was at this point that TF Smith had most of its casualties inflicted. His force in disarray, Smith linked up with the artillery battery, whose gunners then spiked their weapons before retreating with the rest of the task force. Only 185 men made it back to where the trucks had been concealed. Captain Richard Dashmer later brought another 65 men in. Stragglers continued to make their way back to friendly positions for days afterwards. In the end, the battle, which had been a disastrous encounter for the overly-confident and ill-prepared Americans, cost US forces over 150 killed, wounded or missing. The North Koreans suffered an estimated 42 killed, 84 wounded, and three or four tanks destroyed. 
The Battle of Osan was indicative of the state of US forces at the time. Gutted following the end of the Second World War, the US military had been reduced to a shell of its former self, both in terms of the equipment available and in terms of the quality of personnel that composed its ranks. Consequently, the first month of combat in Korea did not go well for UN forces. Pushed down the length of the peninsula, US forces were unable to halt the advance of the North Koreans until falling back to the Nakdong River.
Today, the site of the battle has changed considerably. I visited the site in February of this year. At the time of the battle, the hills where the Americans took up defensive positions were surrounded by rural farmland. At that time, Osan was a relatively small town. Today, Osan and the surrounding area have become considerably built up. Now a city of over 200,000, Osan’s downtown area is located to the south of the battlefield. To the north, numerous high-rise apartment buildings have occupied the valley. The road through Osan remains in roughly the same position that it was six decades ago, though it has been extensively modernized since then. Today, two memorials stand at the site of the battle. The first, positioned on the west side of the ride on the smaller hill was erected by the 24th Infantry Division in 1959. The second, positioned directly across the road at the base of the larger hill, was unveiled in 1982. Additionally, in 2013, the city of Osan opened a $33M memorial hall next to the monument, featuring videos, displays and pictures from the battle. The battlefield has changed so much that at times it is difficult to believe that there was a time when the valley was still farmlands and tanks rolled through the saddle between the hills. The monument stands as a reminder of that time, encouraging passer-bys to remember those trying first months of the Korean War.
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