Holding the Busan Perimeter
As July 1950 faded into August, more American forces arrived in Busan. Near Masan, Commander Maj. Gen. William B. Kean directed soldiers, fresh off boats from Japan and Hawaii, to move west from to Jinju. Their job was to defend the newly-established perimeter. As American forces marched between the two cities, North Korean troops who had been positioned in the hills above the road ambushed them and started firing heavily. When all was said and done, 300 American troops were killed, injured or imprisoned. Kean’s men were forced to retreat back to Masan.
Though Kean and his men couldn’t secure Chinju, they inflicted thousands of North Korean casualties and stopped the North Korean 6th division from moving further toward Busan. By early August, the United States Air Force had begun providing air cover for the UN forces. American planes began destroying bridges and roads that the North Koreans were using in their advance. U.S. medium tanks and other military hardware were also streaming into Busan’s port, giving perimeter soldiers more of what they needed to hold back the invading troops.
Just one-and-a-half months after the initial invasion, a massive mobilization was underway in Busan. United Nations troops committed to stopping North Korea from conquering South Korea’s second largest city and crucial port, located at the Korean Peninsula’s far southeast.
But the North Koreans were not about to give up. On August 8, the North Korean 4th division broke through the perimeter and attempted to cross the Nakdong River into Pusan. The battle became known as the First Battle of Nakdong Bulge. UN commanders sent every available man to the front lines. Even the non-combat engineers who would normally be building bridges and manning radios ended up in trenches with guns in their hands.
The battle went on for ten bloody days. Eventually, the American 24th Infantry Division and other crucial units were able to push back the North Korean army and destroy the entire 4th division. The battle inflicted heavy losses. 1200 North Korean and 600 American troops were killed.
The bloodbath continued throughout the month of August as UN troops held their positions along the perimeter. Heavy fighting took place all along the Nakdong River and west of Taegu along a road that became known as the “Bowling Alley.” On August 31, shrouded in a thick blanket of fog, the American 9th Infantry Division prepared to sneak across the Nakdong River. Their mission was to destroy a North Korean command post. As they were setting up guns and bombs along the river’s edge, North Korean troops surprised and ambushed them.
1st Lt. Raymond J. McDaniel recalled, “All hell broke loose. Without warning the enemy attacked.” Joseph Gibson described his experience, “All of a sudden, bullets started flying all over. I looked up, I found myself in a ditch, looking up… They ordered us down this road right alongside the river… it was all sandy. [Then], everybody screamed, ‘hit the dirt!’ I looked up and I could see little holes going into the sand right in front of me.” [Video: Joseph Gibson – Hit the Dirt!] Nakdong was Joseph’s first experience in combat.
The battle raged for days. Pfc. Edward Gregory Jr. remembered, “The enemy surrounded our position. Thousands more crossed the Nakdong River. The company was cut off… We fought hard, hoping to hold our position until relief arrived. The situation became more and more critical… We were being fired on from all sides.” North Korean soldiers rained grenades into UN foxholes. American troops scrambled to avoid the rain of fire. By September 4, half of them had been killed. The rest eventually evacuated from the area.
Chauncey E. Van Hatten believed part of the problem was that the United States government did not provide its troops with the equipment they needed to combat such a ferocious assault. [Video: Chauncey Van Hatte – The Fire Brigade at the Pusan Perimeter] Philip Davis agreed that the Americans were woefully prepared for Busan, “We didn’t have big bazookas, we didn’t have flame throwers, we didn’t have good ammunition… most all [of it] was duds.” [Video: Philip Davis – We Didn’t Have Big Bazookas]
UN losses were very heavy. In the case of the American 34th Infantry Regiment, only 184 men remained out of 2000 that had come from Japan. Andrew Freeman Dunlap recalled his experience fighting along the perimeter between Masan and Taegu. [Video: Andrew Freeman Dunlap – Masan and Taegu] On September 1, he got shot five times. Miraculously, he survived after experiencing hell on earth for many hours. As he lay wounded in a field between two hills, he thought he was going to die. Eventually, his fellow soldiers were able to evacuate him. Medics gave him eight units of blood that saved his life. For many years, he could not talk about his experience with anyone.
Charles Gebhardt remembered being in a foxhole on a hillside overlooking the Nakdong River, watching North Korean troops and waiting for them to move. It was a frightening experience being so close to the enemy. [Video: Charles Gebhardt – Frightening Experience] After arriving in Busan, Jesse Englehart directed air strikes along the perimeter. When he heard strong machine gun fire the very night he arrived, he remembered thinking, “What [am] I doing [here]?” He knew immediately that he would have to kill or be killed. [Video: Jesse Englehart – What [am] I doing [here]?]
Through all of the unimaginable bloodshed, the tide of the war seemed to be shifting. The North Koreans had made a major error⎯instead of concentrating their forces in one place and overwhelming their adversaries, they spread their forces too thin along the perimeter and were beaten back by an ever-strengthening UN force. By the middle of September, it was becoming clear that the North Koreans would not be able to move beyond the Busan Perimeter.
Roy Aldridge later reflected on the significance of Busan: “If we hadn’t held the lines at Busan, there would be no South Korea today. None. We were outnumbered something like twenty to one… We drew a line in the sand that said [to the communists], ‘no, you’re not going any further.’” Video: Roy Aldridge – We Drew a Line in the Sand]