“Korean Gettysburg:” A Chinese High-Water Mark at the Battle of Chipyong-ni (1951)

After the surprise Chinese incursion into North Korea in November 1950, most UN Forces fell back behind the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea to solidify their defense and assess the situation. The commander of the US Force – LTG Matthew Ridgway – chose to make a stand in both Chipyong-ni and Wonju. Despite the furious assault of the Chinese earlier that winter, Ridgway saw the weaknesses of the Chinese position. Down along the 38th parallel, Chinese forces had long supply lines back to the border, a weak logistical capacity, and issues with inter-unit coordination.

At the town of Chipyong-ni, Colonel Paul Freeman’s 23rd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) set up a dug-in, perimeter defense from 3 February. LTG Ridgway sought to blunt the expected Chinese attack with the 23rd and then pivot into a UN counterattack on the overstretched Chinese. One strength of the 23rd was its RCT task organization. COL Freeman had organic artillery, engineer, ranger, and signal elements under his direct command. He also conducted multinational coordination with French elements positioned on his western flank.

From 11-13 February, furious Chinese assaults on Wonju and Hoengsoeng forced two allied divisions to fall back and left the 23rd RCT encircled. Though Freeman’s corps commander initially ordered a withdrawal to the south, Ridgway’s superior – Douglas MacArthur – decided to hold Chipyong-ni.

On the 13th, Chinese probing attacks were halted by combined arms integration of artillery fire. Fierce night attacks were also pushed back and as dawn broke the Chinese withdrew – fearing daylight US Air Force strikes. However, by midday on the 14th the RCT was running short on ammunition. As Chinese attacks resumed that night, the Air Force dropped ammo supplies and illumination flares over the American positions. Despite a Chinese breakthrough of the southern perimeter, Freeman regained momentum by ordering a counterattack by a combined infantry/Ranger team. Though the counterattack stalled after hand-to-hand fighting and under withering machinegun fire, support arrived from the 5th Cavalry Regiment further south. This forced the Chinese out of the perimeter and exposed them to Air Force napalm strikes. These devastated the attackers’ ranks.

By the late afternoon of 15 February, 20 tanks from Task Force Crombez arrived, broke the siege, and forced a final Chinese withdrawal. The courageous stand not only inflicted heavy enemy casualties but broke the unbeatable mystique of the Chinese attackers. The morale boost for the UN forces was significant and contributed to successful allied counterattacks in the coming weeks. One sergeant earned a posthumous Medal of Honor and the 23rd RCT received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its heroic defense.

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