When Dave Hughes arrived in the 7th Cavalry in November, war greeted him with a scene out of Dante's Inferno. In the daytime a pall of smoke drifted through company areas. The night sky glowed reddish orange from the light of forest fires raging in the mountains near Unsan, North Korea. It seemed as though all of far North Korea was aflame. Talk was of the 8th Cavalry Regiment's defeat near Unsan. The 8th, one of the 7th's sister regiments in the 1st Cavalry Division, had been overrun and virtually destroyed by two full Chinese divisions of 20,000 men who had fallen on the First and Second Battalions of the 8th, and the ROK 15th Regiment.
The attack came at dusk on November 1, simultaneously from the north, northwest, and west of Unsan.
Blowing bugles, horns, and whistles and firing signal flares, the Chinese infantrymen, supported solely by light mortars, swarmed skillfully - and bravely - over the hills. To the ROKs and Americans, the oncoming waves of massed manpower were astonishing, terrifying, and, to those Americans who believed the war was over, utterly demoralizing.
Most of the Chinese troops were veterans of the victorious campaigns against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces. Since they had no close air support, no tanks, very little artillery, but were experienced in the tactics of guerrilla warfare, they specialized in fighting under cover of darkness.
The whistles, bugles, and horns were not only signaling devices (in place of radios) but also psychological tools, designed to frighten the enemy in the dark and cause him to shoot, thereby revealing the position of men and weapons. The fighting tactics were relatively simple: frontal assaults on the revealed positions, infiltration and ambush to cut the enemy's rear, and massed manpower attacks on the open flanks of his main elements. War correspondents were to describe the attacking waves of the CCF as a 'human sea' or 'swarm of locusts.'
The UN forces at Unsan caved in under the massive weight of the CCF. Within about two hours the ROK 15th Regiment collapsed. Attached American tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft elements began a hurried and disorderly withdrawal through Unsan to the south.
At the same time the CCF drove a wedge between the loosely tied 1st and 2d Battalions the 8th Cavalry. Both battalions gave ground, forced back on to Unsan. By 10:00 pm, both units were out of ammunition, cut off from the rear, and desperate.
Survivors took to the hills in small bands, abandoning their equipment. There was no se mblance of organization, though the commander had received orders to withdraw the remenants of the two battalions through the 3d Battalion. By this time, at about 3:00 am on November 2, the CCF was swarming into the Third Battalion, blowing bugles and horns. In the wild melee and hand-to-hand fighting the battalion commander was mortally wounded, and his executive officer took command. Many men bugged out, but others heroically banded together into tight perimeters to fight to the death.
Fortunately, the majority of the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 8th Cav eventually found their way out of the hills, including the three commanders. But the 1st Battalion took heavy casualties: 265 killed or captured out of about 800 men.
By daylight on November 2, it was clear to the Division commander, Major General 'Hap' Gay, that heroic measures were necessary. He committed all three battalions of the 5th Cavalry, plus the 1st and 2d Battalions from the 7th, in a desperate effort to break through to Unsan. Without sufficient artillery and close air support the rescue couldn't succeed. The casualties suffered in the 5th Calvary were 350, 250 of them in one battalion.
Alarmed by the heavy casualties, the Corps Commander ordered General Gay to cease the rescue attempt. The 1st Cavalry and the remaining units of I Corps were to pull back south of the Chongchon River.
Gay, with heavy heart, ordered his battered division to withdraw, abandoning the remainder of the 8th Cavalry Regiment to its fate.
Enclaves of men fought on for several more days, inflicting 500 or more casualties on the CCF. When it was all over, about 600 of the Third Battalion's 800 men were dead or captured.
This was to be one of several gut wrenching defeats as the Chinese Communist intervention altered the course of the war. Another long trek south was beginning.
Go on to Part 7 - The Making of a Warrior
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