In the rainy predawn darkness of July 5, 1950, two US Army rifles companies reinforced by six howitzers—about four hundred men in all—dug in on a saddle-shaped hill straddling a highway just north of Osan, South Korea. The hill was an outstanding north-facing defensive position: to this day, a soldier on that hill can see eight miles of the crucial strategic road that bends northwest, towards the city of Suwon, today known as the home of Samsung, but in 1950 famous for the ancient walls of Hwaesong Fortress that surround it. Two weeks before, communist North Korea, with Soviet support, had crossed the 38th parallel and invaded America’s partner South Korea. The American soldiers entrenched on the hill, called Task Force Smith after their commander, Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith, were about to become the first American soldiers to see ground combat in the Korean War.
The US Army remembers Task Force Smith vividly. “No more Task Force Smiths” has been a mantra since the 1990s. T.R. Fehrenbach’s 1963 book This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness, which includes a detailed account of the battle, is a perennial feature of military reading lists that was recently recommended by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Fehrenbach writes that Task Force Smith had “neither arms nor training” and that due to stingy defense spending and poor leadership, its defeat was inevitable. The Army constantly invokes the legacy of Task Force Smith as a justification for “readiness,” its catch-all term for preparedness for any war, which of course requires big budgets.
Ironically, on paper, Task Force Smith was “ready.” Smith’s outfit—1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment—had received the highest score of any unit in Japan on its battalion tactical test in March 1950. Nonetheless, few of them had expected that readiness to be tested. They had been occupying Japan when they received urgent orders to fly across the Sea of Japan and help stop the rout of South Korean forces, which were in full retreat after abandoning Seoul. The task force’s higher commander, Brig. Gen. John H. Church, told them their mission was to provide “moral support” to the Koreans, casually telling Smith: “All we need is some men up there who won’t run when they see tanks.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of American forces in the Far East, would later say he intended the task force to deliver “an arrogant display of strength.”
Around 0730 local time, a column of thirty-three North Korean tanks moving south became visible on the highway. They were Soviet-made T-34s, the same tanks used to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. When the lead enemy tanks were four thousand yards away, the American howitzers opened fire. To their surprise, most of their artillery shells ricocheted off the tanks’ angular steel armor. A heroic second lieutenant, Ollie Connor, was even more shocked when he fired twenty-two rockets with a bazooka at the lightly armored back of a T-34 that was only fifteen yards away, and they bounced off. By 1000, the harassed North Korean tank column had rumbled down the highway that bisected Smith’s defensive position and disappeared to the south. The artillerymen had destroyed two tanks and disabled two more, but in the process the forward howitzer’s crew had expended all six of the task force’s precious antitank rounds, their only weapon that could penetrate the armor of a T-34. Task Force Smith had seen tanks and not run, but it had also learned it was impotent against armor. The tanks had cut the communications wire connecting the infantry and artillery, overrun the artillery positions, and inflicted an unknown number of casualties, leaving the task force battered.
At about 1115, another North Korean column appeared. It stretched six miles to the horizon and included tanks and thousands of infantry. Task Force Smith opened fire again, but within half an hour, they were surrounded, and North Korean tanks were raking their positions with machine-gun and cannon fire. Any of the arrogance that MacArthur had hoped for and that the soldiers still had evaporated, and many began to “bug out,” a polite term for desertion. Outnumbered and outgunned, Smith ordered a retreat, abandoning the dead, the wounded who couldn’t walk, and the howitzers. By the end of the day, 150 American soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing, and the North Koreans’ advance continued for weeks more.
Fehrenbach’s assertion that Task Force Smith was materially unready for war is certainly true. Its weapons were simply inadequate: its howitzers had been salvaged from scrap after being condemned, and there had been only eighteen antitank rounds available at nearby depots in Japan when the war started, so Task Force Smith was lucky to receive six of them. The unit’s ammunition, most of which had been in storage since World War II, proved unreliable. And perhaps most significantly, Task Force Smith’s bazookas were no match for Russian-built tanks, because the Army had not yet fielded an advanced bazooka that could defeat them. The issue of Army readiness soon became political, and shortly after the battle, LIFE magazine ran a photo of an American soldier’s corpse and blamed President Harry Truman for not spending enough on defense. Everyone agreed that, as Gen. Matthew Ridgway put it at the time, Army readiness before the Korean War was “shameful.”
Nonetheless, Task Force Smith had met the Army’s abstract standard for “readiness” before the war. While the actual training reports do not survive, according to Bill Wyrick, who served as a platoon leader in Task Force Smith, on paper the unit had completed all “individual and collective training program tasks,” and as mentioned above, the battalion had achieved the highest score in Japan on its tactical evaluation.
So, was Task Force Smith “ready” or not? Lt. Col. Smith himself would later say that his training regime “was almost non-existent” and that claims that he conducted useful live fire training were “hogwash,” seemingly contradicting Wyrick. If you tell this to modern soldiers while conducting a staff ride at Osan, they suspect they know the game the unit was playing. The late-1940s Army was beginning to adopt mandatory training regimes to ensure readiness that survive in other forms to this day. In all probability, the soldiers of Task Force Smith were among the first representatives of the Army’s enduring tradition of achieving impossibly ambitious training objectives by recording training that never occurred, thus achieving “paper readiness.” Indeed, the veterans of Task Force Smith seemed certain that the higher echelons of their chain of command were blissfully unaware of their low readiness. As a group of them wrote to President Reagan in 1985: “We are sure President Truman did not know how badly we were equipped when we were committed.”
None of this should undermine the legacy of Task Force Smith. It was an understrength battalion that faced the nearly impossible mission of stopping an enemy division. Many of its members performed exceptionally valorously in combat. Moreover, no matter how “ready” Task Force Smith was, abstract readiness does not win battles. It is based on an idea, enshrined in law since 1999, that a force can be quantifiably “ready” for a broad set of possible contingencies. War is often not that abstract, however: today, a war in Korea would require radically different equipment than a war in Poland, because of the radically different terrain and enemy equipment involved. The real lesson of Task Force Smith is that striving to achieve abstract readiness creates perverse bureaucratic incentives that make readiness harder to measure, and no amount of arrogance—or spending—can make up for that.
Capt. T.S. Allen is a military intelligence officer who has served in Korea and Afghanistan.
Sgt. Maj. Jackson Perry is an infantryman who has spent over thirty-three months in combat in Afghanistan.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Let's not forget that MacArthur totally neglected forces in South Korea despite the Communist insurgency in the South and ignored CIA warnings of North Korean mobilization (he disliked the agency going back to his OSS days, largely due to his jealousy of William Donovan's WW1 Medal of Honor), KMAG commander General William Lynn Roberts bragged that any North Korean invasion would merely provide "target practice" despite the ROK forces he was training being equipped with only light infantry weapons, no tanks, and an Air Force with only liason and trainer aircraft, and the State Department had signaled that South Korea was of no interest. In addition, MacArthur had allowed his Japan-based divisions to lay back on their laurels, allowing training to be ignored and equipment to deteriorate. The problem was not just TF Smith – the 24 ID was essentially shattered in the Punsan defense at Taejon and its commander captured by the North Koreans. In fact, it took the First Provisional Marine Brigade to stop the Northern offensive after it was hastily assembled at Camp Pendleton and shipped to Punsan. It was better equipped and trained than any of the Army formations that MacArthur had available – in part because Commandant Archie Vandegrift had the foresight, remembering how the Marines had been second fiddle in allocations of equipment in the World War, to acquire the most modern equipment the Army was disposing of as surplus after 1945 to maintain and store at Camp Pendleton. The result was the Marine Provisional Brigade went into action with well maintained M26 Pershing and M4A3E8/76mm tanks as well as the newer M20 3.5 inch "Super bazooka" (Task Force Smith still had obsolete M1 and M9 2.75" bazookas – as their primary AT weapon!, and most functioning Army tanks in Japan were older 75mm equipped Shermans). The T-34s that were rolling past Task Force Smith and follow-on Army formations became smoldering wrecks once they encountered the better-equipped and trained Marines.
The story of Task Force Smith, and the pitiful attempts of the other Army formations MacArthur tried to rush to Punsan is a cautionary tale of what happens when units are allowed to sit back with inadequate training, inadequate maintenance, and failure to replace obsolete equipment – all failures of leadership at both the theater commander's level AND the Department of the Army. Unfortunately, such leadership failures would continue to plague the Army in Korea – MacArthur's focus on Japanese politics in the war, the inept and already well-known lack of leadership by his sycophant Ned Almond, MacArthur's lack of support and undercutting of LTG Walton Walker (a "European General" who had fought in the ETO in the World War rather than one who had served in the Pacific under MacArthur). MacArthur's refusal to accept reality or political control, of course, led to his overextension and the disaster that occurred after intervention by the Chinese People's Liberation Army. The situation was truly only rectified when MacArthur was relieved and operational control assumed by Matthew Ridgeway and James Van Fleet. MacArthur SHOULD have been relieved and cashiered for incompetence after the Philippines disaster, but instead was allowed to wreak havoc for yet another decade.
Most of the tanks the Army had in Japan were M-24's with a few M-4's. The reason they did not have any M-26's was the roads and bridges in Japan could not handle their weight. So they were shipped back to the US.
McArthur wanted Task Force Smith to get their quickly, so he ordered the infantry to fly in to Pusan (now called Busan). Due to weight, they left behind their anti-tank mines. But then they had to wait for the LST's from Japan to bring the artillery. Think if they had been allowed to board the LST's, they could have brought all three infantry companies, the weapons company and the artillery, along with lots of mines, ammunition, etc.
The men fought hard and only started retreating when they were being surrounded by thousands of enemy infantry. But they had to retreat across open ground with no fire support.
In the end, this battle was lost because of poor leadership and planning.
Of course Task Force Smith was woefully unprepared for combat. They had not passed the Army Combat Fitness Test, which only became available more than 70 years in the future.
I couldn’t let this go with only the ACFT quip. But other than the ACFT, what will we have for the next conflict? Let’s take an inventory:
1. Armor that’s been around longer than the 75mm Shermans of 1950. Who believes that’s a good sign? Does anyone think a near-peer adversary doesn’t have an answer to the Abrams by now? The USMC is ditching them; there’s a hint.
2. A hopelessly bloated, mindless bureaucracy that yields ideas like the Universal Camouflage Pattern. Also, replacement of green dress uniforms with blue dress uniforms because blue is the traditional color. Then replacement of the blue dress uniforms with greens because green is the traditional color. Rinse and repeat. So expect nothing but nonsense from the Pentagon from now on. And bureaucracy, LOTS more bureaucracy.
3. We’ve had three failed programs to replace the Bradley and the fourth (as described above) makes no sense. It was known by the end of 1973 that light-skinned personnel carriers are death traps. So until someone has a better idea, the only practical solution—i.e. saves both money and lives—is a well-considered mix of open trucks and something like a Namer. The perfect compromise between them simply does not exist, and that applies to ‘optionally-manned’ vehicles also. Even the JLTV has already been declared a relic of a (soon to be) past conflict. And at $433,000 per two- to five-seat truck, with protection from nothing but small arms or hand-carried explosives, that can only be a good thing.
4. It should have been known by the end of August, 1942 that raids don’t win wars. The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan should have served as reminders. Yet the focus of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program seems to be faster, longer-range versions of the Air Cavalry’s OH-6s and UH-1s of 1965. Quicker, deeper, aerial Dieppe raids will NEVER work against near-peer adversaries. Even large air-assault operations such as to FOB Cobra (of the Gulf War) seem hopelessly outdated. Yet if something like that was attempted again, are non-stealthy aircraft which carry 8-12 troops and no heavy weapons the right tools for the job? Of course not.
5. There seems to be no preparation for mass mobilization, which certainly would be required at the beginning of the next war. The popular consensus is that 99% of draftees won’t be usable. How will we deal with that? And don’t expect to have years to implement such fundamental programs, say as in December 1941. Heads are buried deep in the sand to avoid issues such as drafting females, or even realistic standards for their employment in the armed forces. As long as we pretend the average woman can carry an infantryman’s/paratrooper’s field pack, this charade is continuing. Realistic physical standards for both males and females, across all MOSs, is really the right answer. Entry-level military training which addresses emerging technologies will also be needed. Why aren’t such things being developed and implemented, instead of fixating on politically-based nonsense?
6. Expect an adversary not to wage war against the US unless and until they have masses of remotely-operated or autonomous combat vehicles which can dominate the battlefield. The US seems totally incapable of that kind of innovation prior to the next war. Even if the technologies were developed, how could such systems be fielded when no new weapons systems have been fielded for decades? Even if a new weapons system could be fielded—which seems questionable, at best—could such a thing happen in less than a decade?
7. Even worse, at the end of the post-9/11 era, we seem to be looking to the more-distant past than the future. That’s even worse than preparing for the last war.
This will not end well.
Here is the future of our infantry "readiness" as described in the Army's Infantry School's own words:
I didn't feel like Boot was as tough for me as what my grandfather described his experience to be like. I thought they had lightened up in BCT compared to my experience when my son went, but at least they were still allowed to put recruits under stress.
Now imagine how a generation of recruits who were not even forced to handle the stress of being yelled at would react when faced with a similar situation as those faced by Tall Force Smith.
I weep for the future of our soldiers when faced with a truly hardened force if we don't quit worrying about their feelings and stay preparing them to be warriors.
Back during the Clinton years they started to issue "stress cards" that way a PATHETIC recruit could take a "time out"
A sign of things to come….
I was at a "training" camp as a opfor (I LOVED AND ENJOYED TORTURING OG SORRY TRAINING YOUNG RECRUITS" LOL I AM ONLY MILDLY SADISTIC I SWEAR….. LOL
LONG STORY SHORT….
I had a promising recruit pull a :stress card" liitle Johnny all american linebacker was having a rough day…… tears welling up in BOTH OUR EYES….
I had never heard of a :stress card"
18 consecutive months of living with drill sergeants for 2 mos's and another 12 months with Cadre and airborne, air assault and a little tier 1 influence as well as 13 years training for the Olympics in freestyle wrestling under my fathers tutelage ALLL CONCURRENTLY flooded my mind body and soul IMMEDIATELY AND ALL AT ONCE!!!!!!
junior all American AND HIS 3 SQUAD MATES…..
BETWEEN, PUKING, CRYING, MOANING, GROANING AND JUST PLAIN TRYING TO SURVIVE THE MADMAN HELL I CREATED INSTANTLY…..
I am pretty sure Johnny never ever even considered pulling a "stress card" out again….
I know if I was his squad mate i would have fed it to him….
Ending the "shark attack" is a mistake just like stress cards….
I see a future like the last battle in "saving private ryan" where we see more and more "Emotional Breakdowns" like Ryan and Oppum where men curl up in the fetal position and just "Give up"!!!
Your story reminds me of my first come across with a blue card. For those of us who went to basic training prior to the mid 80s. The only blue ever saw saw was the rage of a combat tested (mine Vietnam) drill staff.
To get on with the story, my first occurances with the blue card was as an AIT instructor at the Intelligence School in Arizona. Since we were more concerned with they minds in this particular career field, discipline was not the top concern, but still important. On that particular day after nine hours of analysis training two trainees were assigned to straighten up the straighten up the classroom. This was la common task and only required picking up the trash and checking for any unsecured classify materials.
That is when one of the privates reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the blue card, yelling "time out". The only thing I could do was say, "what",. He explained that the card was standard issue and had been given to him in basic training. I said, "Wow can I see that", and with a broad smile he handed it to me. At that time I promptly tore it up into little pieces and deposited them on the floor. I also explained to the private that he was in the Army now and if he didn't like it McDonalds was always hiring.
That was over twenty-five years ago and most of those have been war years. I feel for the drill sergeants and drill instructors who constantly fight the battle of will my trainees survive because the discipline was toned down. Knowing that you are sending a fellow service member of to fight without fully learning discipline, and I don't mean hazing, creates a special type of PTSD much like the parent who loses a child over someone else's negligence.
Maybe the answer is to require all officer selections have a prior minimal enlisted service of two years; including the academy, ROTC, etc. With the rare exception being medical doctors who would be required to attend some type of basic training and extended training. This may sound cruel as the saying goes,"Don't expect your soldiers to do anything that couldn't or wouldn't do yourself. For those that have actually done this you know what I mean.
No service member should want their names to memorialized for the same reason as (Task Force) Smith or Custer
I keep hearing about these mythical "Stress cards," but I've never actually seen a pic of one, a legitimate article about one, or any bona fide cadre document the existence of one, and I was in service from 1986-2010.
It seems to be up there with the mythical Mattel contract M16s that everyone knows about but no one can document because they never existed.
So, they don't exist, and you're probably none of what you claim.
http s://ww w.wearethemighty. com/articles/truth-behind-basic-training-stress-cards/
went to boot camp in 1990 at Ft. Sill, 1/31 FA. We had Mattel made M16A1s. The joke was that our weapon was just a toy.
I spent 22 years in the US Army and retired over 24 years ago. I have seen a lot of changes since. I continued to work as a DA Civilian and spent time in Iraq with a short stint in Afghanistan. Talking with troops I saw a lot of morale issues and most had to do with the Military insistence of being politically correct, which was not evident in my Infantry days (74-78, most leadership being Vietnam Veterans). I fear we will see our youth tested severely in the not too distant future.
Yeah, I don't think the chinese will care how inclusive our military is next time we face them, either.
I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which defend my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
This mantra was drilled into me when I was in basic training. When I stood guard on the front line of democracy in West Germany, the difference between the two systems of government was stark.
But to stand in the front line with a rifle against four to one odds with no air support…the soldiers of Task Force Smith stood longer than they should have.
Great article but I hate how the guys who left comments just completely missed the point. I fear that their collective opinions are representative of why we continue to see the problems we have. The problem is simple, but everyone wants avoid the truth and insert personal issues or topics that have nothing to do with anything. “You know why we will lose the next war? Well I’ll tell you it’s because women are allowed to wear pony tails now”
No. It’s because everything we do reinforces a lie that perpetually motivate goobers in charge to fluff capabilities so that they can then create arbitrary tasks that prevent anyone from actually becoming effective at their specialization all in the name of career advancement. It has nothing to do with discipline, PT, uniformity, or generation. It’s because this bureaucratic institution is fueled by dishonesty and ego.
My grandfather was a part of Task Force Smith. He didn't talk about it very much because it was painful for him. He did receive a Special Certificate of Valor and medals.