Korean War’s ‘Gettysburg’ remembered

Korean War’s ‘Gettysburg’ Remembered

FORT LEWIS, Wash. – Though being activated, deactivated and reactivated several times since its inception into the Army during the War of 1812, the 23rd Infantry Regiment has had a hand in nearly every major U.S. war in the post-Civil War era.

From relieving the cavalry at the Little Big Horn in 1876 to the beach at St. Lauren-Sur-Mer on D-Day 1944, to Haifa Street in Baghdad in 2007, the Tomahawks have earned 58 battle and campaign streamers.

None of those streamers, though, is held in higher regard than the one that reads “Chipyong-Ni.”

Soldiers from 1-23 Inf., 2-23 Inf., 4-23 Inf. and 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery gathered outside 1-23’s headquarters building Feb. 18 for the regiment’s annual memorial ceremony of the battle referred to as the Gettysburg of the Korean War.

On Feb. 13, 1951, the 23rd Regimental Combat Team found itself completely surrounded and cut off from reinforcements by five units of the Communist Chinese Forces in the valley village of Chipyong-Ni, North Korea.

As night fell, the Chinese made their initial attack on the isolated unit using, first, mortars, then human waves numbering upwards of 1,000 communist soldiers. The regiment, along with an attached French battalion, fought off the Chinese throughout the night until the communists fell back as morning came.

The Chinese once again attacked the regiment’s perimeter on the night of the 14th, but this time focused their efforts mainly on the 2nd Bn. sector. The communist tactic worked and forced the battalion to pull back.

Having breeched the perimeter, the Chinese dug in and continued their barrage of mortar and small-arms fire all day. The communist forces continued their attacks throughout the day and into the night, but soon found trouble from above.

American aircraft dropped napalm on enemy positions, scorching mass numbers of Chinese and softening up their defenses for a U.S. counterattack the next morning.

The regimental reserve made three pushes beginning the morning of Feb. 15 to retake the captured positions, all to no avail.

The fourth and final push was a frontal assault with help from four tanks, numerous close air support sorties and Task Force Crombez – a relief column that had fought its way to the regiment.

The assault was successful, and the regiment finally recaptured its lost ground from the Chinese. The assault’s success broke the communists’ will and by nightfall on the 15th, they had completely pulled out of Chipyong-Ni.

Though outnumbered nearly four to one at the battle’s outset, the American-led United Nations forces counted more than 7,000 dead communist after the three-day fight. An additional 10,000 enemy KIA were estimated beyond the initial confirmed dead.

Though the battle was chalked up as a victory for the United Nations forces, the win came at a cost: 52 Americans were killed, 259 wounded, 42 missing and there were 51 non-battle injuries.

The regiment received a Presidential Unit Citation for its performance at Chipyong-Ni. It received an additional unit citation for its battle for Twin Tunnels in which the 23rd defeated the 125th CCF Division Feb. 2, just a few miles from Chipyong-Ni.

For retired Sgt. Major Eliseo Garcia, the ceremony served as an opportunity for him to reflect on the battle during a Bowl Ceremony with both modern-day Soldiers and a few who were on the ground with him those three days in 1951.

February 13, 1951, for more than one reason, is a day Garcia said he will never forget.

“A lot of us were young guys,” said Garcia, who received a Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters, a Bronze Star Medal, two Silver Stars, and a Distinguished Service Cross during his Army career. “In fact, I was in Chipyong-Ni on the 13th of February, which is my birthday. I celebrated my birthday fighting the Chinese. Some of the guys were teasing me that I was getting some unwanted guests for my birthday.”

The 75 year old, who also wrote a book about the battle titled “Youth in War,” said this was his first time attending the ceremony. The “L” Company veteran said he wanted to attend this year because of all the units he served in, the 23rd will always be the unit he identifies with.

“I served with a lot of other units … but this is my regiment,” said the Marysville resident. “(Of) all the units I’ve ever been in, this is the regiment that I belong to because of the closeness. We had a closeness in the 23rd that most units don’t have. There’s a closeness, as it is, in the military. But in the 23rd, especially my platoon, my unit, my squad – I was a squad leader – it was a closeness that is hard to describe. And to me, that’s still my unit. It always will be.”

Lieutenant Col. Chuck Hodges, commander of 1-23 Inf., said the ceremony not only serves as a way to keep the regiment’s veterans involved with the unit, but also to remind current Soldiers that they are part of a continuing, proud tradition.

“For me, it’s always a reminder, truly, of the obligation we have to our veterans and to the regiment and what they’ve established for us,” Hodges said. “They’ve built a reputation for the organization with blood, sweat and tears (at) the battle of Chipyong-Ni, which is a very significant thing. And every day we’re out there, we have an obligation to uphold that reputation that they’ve built for us.”

Hodges said he feels it is important for current Soldiers to hear the stories of past battles to know what it truly means to sacrifice for their country.

“I think it’s important for those guys to hear (what those guys went through and think) ‘Holy crap, 30 below zero surrounded by 30,000 Chinese on a hill with an M-1 Carbine and limited ammunition. Wow. Could I do that this day”” he said.

Hodges said he can only hope that he and his Soldiers will continue the proud tradition of the Tomahawks as their deployment to Iraq looms later this year.

“If we do things right, there will be some guys 50 years from now that will be honoring us for the reputation that we built for the battalion during our deployments to Iraq,” he said. “It’s just a reminder of our heritage … and it just keeps us connected to those guys (who came before us).”

Matt Smith is a reporter with Fort Lewis’ Northwest Guardian.

Matt Smith