The Forgotten Task Force of the Forgotten War
By Mad Medic
The Korean War has often been referred to as the forgotten war. Sandwiched between WWII and Vietnam the Korean War is often lost in our histories and remembrances. There is very little in this war that is “sexy” for historians. In the end the final lines end pretty much where they started and nothing was really resolved. There was no defeat, no victory, and because of that people just don’t study the Korean War.
There are a few notable exceptions to this. Among these is what has been called the Chosin campaign. It’s a story the United States Marine Corps is rightly proud of. After being encircled, and attacked relentlessly, the 1st Marine Division managed a fighting retreat 80 miles to the port of Hungnam, where they were they were successfully evacuated. Lost in the pride that the Marines rightly take in their efforts, is what happened to a small Army task force sent into the area to guard the Marines’ eastern flank. Its battles and subsequent destruction have largely been forgotten by history.
Task force Faith as it became to be known was a composite group from RCT 31, made up of 1/32 Infantry, 3/31 Infantry, two batteries of 57th FA and a single company from the 15th AAA. It was hastily assembled from the understrength 7th Infantry Division by the X Corps commander, who was worried about the Marine’s eastern flank. Colonel MacLean, the 31st RCT commander, would command the task force, and support the Marines as they moved north and west to support the expected 8th army drive to the Yalu river, ending the war. That is not what happened.
What happened was that on the night of 27th of November 1950, in -30 degree weather, the 80th division of the Chinese army attacked the eastern positions, and all along the reservoir nearly every position held was attacked and isolated.
1/32 managed to hold their own the first night, at the forward position. However, 3/31 and A and B batteries 57th FA at what became known as the inlet perimeter, were very nearly overrun. In the first night the 3/31 CP, and 57th FA CP were both destroyed, injuring or killing a majority of the command staff for the inlet perimeter. The only saving grace were the AAA weapons, the quad .50 halftrack M-16 and dual 40 MM M-19. When the morning broke, as many as 200 enemy in front of one of the M-19’s. As if to add to the calamity, just north of the 31st RCT rear CP, the medical company attached to the 31st RCT was ambushed and completely destroyed.
The fighting continued throughout the day. 1/32 had the benefit of Captain Stamford, USMC and his tactical air control party, which eased the pressure on the beleaguered battalion. The inlet perimeter, unfortunately, lost their TACP the first night when the 3/31 CP was overrun.
After the second night, LTC Don C Faith Jr, the battalion commander of 1/32, began a fighting withdrawal from the forward positions, to the inlet perimeter. During the move Col MacLean, mistook Chinese troops for Americans, and attempted desperately to get two formations to stop shooting at each other. He was wounded, and captured, and though his exact fate isn’t known its highly likely he died in captivity.
This is when things became desperate for the task force. The aid stations quickly ran out of morphine and bandages. Ammunition supplies became critically low, most notably for the M-19. In the confusion of the battle, the 40 MM that they so desperately needed was dropped to the 31st rear CP, not the inlet perimeter.
On the night of 30 November, LTC Faith, who had become the de facto commander of the force, realized that he couldn’t hold out another day. There was no reserve to speak of at all. Cooks, and headquarters personnel were holding the line. There would be no help coming from the Marines, who had problems of their own. Ammunition was in critically short supply, many troops with only one magazine left. He ordered a breakout attempt to begin at noon on the next day 1 December.
Almost immediately the formation began to fall apart. Nobody had even told company M, heavy mortars, that the break out was happening, they just saw the trucks lining up and joined them. There was almost no communication between the various elements almost all the company and platoon radios had long ago stopped working. Worse, the troops were difficult to handle owing to the extreme cold, and a vast majority of officers and NCOs being killed or wounded.
Almost immediately when the break out started, things started going horribly wrong. Napalm was dropped on advancing elements of 1/32 which lead the formation, stalling the progress, and demoralizing many of the troops. Road blocks halted the column, as well as blown bridges. Trucks died, wounded were being shoved in ever more crowded trucks. Then the Chinese began firing on the trucks killing and wounding many.
By the time the convoy made it to hill 1221, where the medical company had been destroyed, darkness had fallen. 3/31 had essentially dissolved as a fighting formation leaving the truck column open to attack. Majors were now leading squads. Many riflemen didn’t have any ammunition, or their weapons wouldn’t fire in the -30 degree weather. With the darkness another problem arose, the air cover, which had been so essential, was gone. Hill 1221 was held by the Chinese and had to be taken if the convoy was to continue. It was attacked several times by groups with almost no coordination.
Now, try to imagine it at this point, if you’re one of the troops in this formation. You’ve been fighting for 5 nights and 4 days almost non-stop. You have almost no ammunition, almost everyone is wounded. All the officers and NCOs who you recognized as part of your chain of command are either wounded or dead. You’ve probably got frostbite, very little actual training, and you’re probably scared as hell. You’ve still got several miles to go to get to Hararu-ri where the Marine perimeter is, and officers are trying to organize units to attack this Chinese held hill in the dark.
That is the situation that faced the task force in the early morning hours of 2nd December. Majors were leading squads in desperate, uncoordinated attacks on the Chinese positions. Many of the troops, completely leaderless just kept going after they took the hill, wandering on the ice until they got to the Marine positions.
During the chaos, LTC Faith was wounded by a grenade sending shrapnel into his chest, and leaving the truck column leaderless. They managed to make it another 2 miles, before the column was finally over run and destroyed by the Chinese. Perhaps the most tragic part of this, is that the columns final destruction came within spitting distance of the 31st rear CP positions which had been pulled out just one day before. For his courage, LTC Faith, who didn’t survive the battle, was awarded the Medal of Honor, as well as 10 other Soldiers receiving the Distinguished Service Cross.
We’ll never know exactly how many troops were attached to RCT 31. Any unit rosters that might have existed are gone, but some have guessed anywhere from 2,000-3,000 troops were on the east side of Chosin. About 1,500 of these troops made it to friendly lines. Most with wounds so severe that they had to be evacuated. Only 385 able bodied troops remained, who were formed into the informal 31/7, and assigned to 7th Marines for the fighting retreat to Hungnam harbor.
Task force Faith has gone down in history, unfairly, as a group of cowards that did poorly and their fate was the ultimate result of poor leadership and soldiering. It is only now, 65 years later, that we’ve begun to reexamine this doomed force.
It is one of those haunting “what if’s” that refuse to go away. There are so many things that could have been done to save the formation. Had serious effort been made to evacuate the wounded at the inlet perimeter, instead of the 4 that were removed, the truck column might not have been needed. Had the task force been properly supplied with ammo, or had 2/31 ever actually arrived maybe they would have fared better. Finally, had the 31st rear CP and 31st tank company not been pulled out the day before the breakout, it is almost certain the formation might’ve been saved, the final destruction coming within eyesight of the village the CP had been.
Every Marine has a right to take pride in the accomplishments of the 1st Marine Division during the Chosin campaign. RCT 31, by comparison, is often lost, over looked or dismissed because of its eventual fate. It’s important to note, that for 4 days and 5 nights, task force Faith managed to tie down the better part of two Chinese divisions (the 80th and 81st), and kill as many as 4,000 Chinese troops. This may have been the key to the Marines holding Hagaru-ri long enough to consolidate and construct the airstrip.
When all hope was lost, these soldiers pushed themselves to the limit of their endurance and fought on against the inevitable. We should remember such bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. We should honor the courage these men showed, and finally, we should make every effort to return them home, once and for all.