24 April 2014

Historical Article: Triumphant Tankers

"Wild Bill" Wilder tells the story of the 89th Tank Battalion in The Korean War, including a series of critical battles from 1950 - 1951.

Published on 14 SEP 2003 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. korean war, military leadership, armor combat, military training

An Enemy with Tanks

When hostilities broke out in Korea at the end of June 1950, this force-plus some antiquated M-15 and M-16 halftracks-were the only armor readily available to stop the enemy. South Korea had no armored units whatsoever. North Korea, on the other hand, began the war with over 120 Russian made T-34 tanks, over half of which were the newer, up-gunned T-34/85.

These tanks formed the 105th NKPA Armored Brigade (which would eventually become the 105th Armored Division). There were another 50 tanks scattered among other North Korean units. As is known to most armor enthusiasts, the T-34 was one of the finest tanks ever produced during the Second World War, and still packed a serious punch. The initial encounter of U.S. versus North Korean tanks was a disaster. Outnumbered and outgunned, the U.S. tankers never had a chance.

But then, the first months of the conflict were a rude awakening for America and her armed forces in general. The most powerful army in the world at the end of the Second World War had degenerated into a shadow of its former self. Harsh lessons were learned in the first three months of the war, paid for with the lives and blood of many young Americans and South Koreans.

Playing "Catch-up!"

Once the seriousness of the situation was realized, frantic efforts were made to correct this disparity in the Far East. Tankers and tanks were scrounged from every available source to meet the urgent need in Korea. By the middle of August, three tank battalions had been formed and were sent to Korea.

One, the 70th, was composed of the M-26 Pershing, a latecomer to World War II and holder of a dubious reputation as to its reliability and effectiveness. Colonel Rodgers, commander of the 70th, jokingly told how his outfit was thrown together in five days, taking men from all over the country. The tanks themselves after WW II had been placed on concrete pedestals around Fort Knox as monuments. They were the primary source for equipment for the 70th.

Then, with no training together and no machine guns for their tanks, they were shipped to Korea. Nevertheless, the sight of these tanks rolling off the landing craft at Pusan brought cheers from the beleaguered GIs on the beach.

More Tanks for Korea

This buildup continued throughout the fall and winter. As the war escalated in Korea, the urgent need for more armor was met as best it could be. By the middle of January 1951, the Eighth Army had in its inventory a force of 670 tanks. One armor officer of high rank, after visiting Korea, stated in his report, "We have yet to find a situation where armor, to some degree, could not be profitably employed. The tank has repeatedly exploited the situation in spite of the terrain."

About 625 of these tanks were American and 45 were British. About 400 of the American tanks were usually attached to the six army divisions there. Occasionally they were "detached" for special missions. These assignments were the 6th with the 24th Division; the all black 64th with the 3rd Division; the 70th, with the 1st Cavalry; the 72nd, with the 2nd; the 73rd with the 7th; and the newly formed 89th with the 25th Division.

During the fall of 1950, General MacArthur, who often gave little extras to those most loyal to him, gave three extra tank companies to the 7th Division of X Corps, commanded by General Ned Almond. Their tanks had been reclaimed from Pacific battlefields and refurbished by the Japanese. The Department of the Army never officially recognized them.

The tank inventory included 64 of the light, thin-skinned Chaffees, 147 of the heavier Pershings, and 97 of the newest model M-46 and M-47 Patton tanks. The bulk of the U.S. tank force, however was the World War II vintage medium Sherman M4A3E8, with a powerful 76mm cannon. Despite its older technology and smaller gun, this would be the favorite of the tankers throughout the Korean conflict.

Still not satisfied with this number, the new commander of the forces in Korea (and later to take MacArthur's command in the Far East), General Matthew Ridgeway, attempted to add even more armor to his inventory. His efforts were in vain. The Washington bureaucrats, fearful of accusations of escalation, and a larger defense budget, hamstrung the commander to these six battalions throughout the remainder of the war.