by Ben Phocas
Five short years after the Second World War, the U.S. Army was ill-prepared when the forces of Kim Il-Sung stormed south across the 38th Parallel on the Korean Peninsula. The head of the recently formed Department of Defense, Louis Johnson, had set out to win American hearts and minds by lowering taxes and slashing military spending. The result of this was that Army divisions on occupation duty in Asia lost entire battalions due to downsizing, and 62% of their overall firepower. This left units entirely unmanned and under equipped to engage in its primary function. The lack of foresight and preparation for war by both military and civilian leaders after WWII left a serious gap between the US Army and its foes. As a result, Army forces in Korea were beaten to the edge of annihilation, writing a history that cannot be allowed to repeat itself in future conflicts.
The forces that responded to the call of war on 25 June, 1950 were in as poor shape as the equipment they operated. Most combat veterans from the intense fighting of the Pacific campaign in the early 1940s had retired from service and returned home to reap the rewards of their victory. What remained of the vaunted 8th Army – the 24th ID, 25th ID, and 1st Cav – was a collection of unmotivated and poorly trained soldiers who’s service had been characterized by leisurely occupation duties in the utterly defeated remains of the Japanese Empire. The Army had been made into a nine-to-five job, mimicking the cush post-war existence enjoyed by the majority of Americans.
There was a deep distaste for physical hardship, discipline, and duty. To quote T.R. Fehrenbach from his book This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness, “no one had told them [the soldiers] that the real function of an army is to fight.” The garrison cult mentality had become pervasive in the post-war triumph. Soldiers were entirely unfamiliar with basic infantry tactics and weaponry and had spent little time at ranges or in the field. They spent “a lot of time listening to lectures on the difference between communism and Americanism” according to Colonel John Michaelis in an interview to the Saturday Evening Post.
When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) stormed across the 38th Parallel and began their blitzkrieg through South Korea, the US response was utterly lethargic. The 24th Infantry Division was in such a shambles that they were entirely incapable of deploying to the Korean Peninsula from Japan in a timely manner. Their leadership had to resort to sending a 400 man advance force on July 1st, 1950, titled “Task Force Smith” in a foolhardy attempt to stop the over 100,000 strong enemy force.
American military leadership were convinced that when the NKPA heard that the vaunted US Army had arrived, they would cease hostilities. This was ideal for the unmotivated rabble of American soldiers whose only real concern was getting the whole ordeal over with as quickly as possible so they could go back to their occupational duties in Japan. It is almost needless to say that when Task Force Smith first encountered the combat tested, fiercely motivated assault elements of the NKPA at the Battle of Osan on July 5th, they were slaughtered. The Task Force was so poorly equipped that their outdated bazookas were completely incapable of penetrating the armor of Russian made T-34s. The American 105mm artillery had exactly 6 rounds of HEAT ammunition…for the entire Task Force.
In their first battle, the Task Force was soundly routed by the NKPA, and individual heroics could not save the unit from dissolving into a fleeing horde of newly humbled American GIs. This lackluster performance would continue in engagement after engagement, where American forces were consistently outmaneuvered and outgunned by the enemy. As more American forces trickled in, they continued to steadily retreat as defensive line after defensive line was either overrun or abandoned.
The tactical lessons learned from the wholesale slaughter of Task Force Smith have serious ramifications for today’s Army. The young men who were hurled capriciously into the path of the rampaging NKPA were killed just as much by complacency as they were by the enemy. The greatest failing of Task Force Smith, the 24th Infantry Division, and the entire 8th Army, was the gross negligence by leadership at all levels to properly prepare their soldiers for the realities of combat. They earnestly believed they were caring for their post-war followers; in reality, they had allowed them to become complacent and docile. Their permission of complacency had the opposite effect and resulted in the deaths of thousands.
From the instant many of the soldiers in the Korean theater had joined the Army, they had been given zero pressure to develop as soldiers. They had rested on the laurels of their forebears, soaking up the rewards of a victory won by others. Their duty as occupiers was an easy one, and they spent little to no time training for their primary duties as infantrymen. These soldiers never trained like they would fight. When they arrived in Korea and were first exposed to hunger, exhaustion, and the friction of war, they were wholly unprepared to handle it. All of that crippled them before they even reached the fight. Their lack of resiliency, discipline, and physical toughness only compounded their lack of tactical knowledge and horrendous equipment situation. This combination created lethal results for the soldiers of Task Force Smith when they finally made contact with the enemy.
As seen by Task Force Smith, battles are won or lost long before they begin. They are won at the small unit level, when individual soldiers are taught to adapt and fight under realistic combat conditions, where their leaders push them hard physically and mentally to make them stronger and better. The greatest lesson that can be taken away from the brave sacrifice of these young men, is that as leaders, we owe it to our soldiers to push them to their limits. We owe it to the men and women under our leadership to drive them to be excellent in everything they do.
In 2022, the Army cannot make the same mistakes it made in 1949 and 1950. We cannot allow our perceived preeminence as the world’s premier military to cloud our ability to see the enemy. After 20 years of counterinsurgency operations, there is no question of American superiority in firepower, tactics, and equipment designed to dominate an irregular force often wielding little more than AKs. This by no means translates to large scale combat operations (LSCO) against a well trained, technologically advanced enemy military with artillery, drones, and ever increasing cyber capabilities.
Our soldiers will be pushed to their absolute limits physically and mentally. This tough training must not be limited to the infantry. The divide of responsibility between combat arms and support roles as to who carries the load must be lessened. A recent article titled “Mental Health and Psychological Resiliency: Preparing Enablers for Large Scale Combat Operations” succinctly makes this point. It states, in no small terms, that the US Army has to better prepare its combat support elements for the psychological stress of LSCO. Gone are the days of city sized bases with Starbucks and Pizza Hut. The enemy will be targeting all elements of the force. Our soldiers must be trained to handle the stress of combat, regardless of MOS.
Only by training hard now and pushing soldiers to their limits under peacetime conditions can the lessons taught by Task Force Smith be properly implemented.
Everyone has heard someone use the cliche about sweating in peace and bleeding in war. For a moment, put aside the universal hate for cheesy catchphrases, and acknowledge that this quote is true. Task Force Smith was proof of that. The US Army is on the brink of engaging in a new era of great power conflict, and it cannot afford to be as ill-prepared for that conflict as it was in 1950. Now is the time to train for that future conflict. Before it starts, not after.
The Army needs to realistically prepare for the wartime conditions it will face in a future conflict. Tough, realistic training can, will, and must better prepare our soldiers for war. Their lives depend on it.
Ben Phocas is a Cadet at the United States Military Academy where he studies Defense and Strategic Studies. He is an intern at the Modern War Institute and Urban Warfare Project.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the United States Military Academy, US Army, or the Department of Defense.