North Koreans Stream Toward Pusan
As President Truman, Secretary of State Acheson, United Nations forces and the rest of the western world came to terms with the North Korean invasion, ninety thousand North Koreans overwhelmed South Korean troops as they stormed southward down the peninsula, quickly capturing the capital city of Seoul and devastating villages in their path. American and UN commanders scrambled to contend with the relentless invasion. On June 29, five days after the invasion began, American commanders including General MacArthur departed Japan for Korea.
The South Korean army was desperate and in shambles. Caught unprepared, they were no match for North Korean troops who streamed in single file toward the southern port city of Busan. Troops on the ground quickly realized that their rifle shells, bazookas and other artillery were no match for state of the art Soviet-made North Korean T-34 tanks. They also well knew that if the North Koreans captured Busan, the entire peninsula would fall to the communists.
American troops scrambled to action. On June 30, thousands of them assembled at Itazuke Air Base in Japan. Lieutenant Colonel Brad Smith screamed out to the men, “The lid has blown off! Get on your clothes and report to the [command post]!” Division commander Bill Dean greeted them with grim news. They were headed across the sea to Pusan. Dean directed Smith, “When you get to Busan, head for Daejeon. We want to stop the North Koreans as far [north of] Busan as we can. Block the main road as far north as possible… go beyond [the city of Daejeon] if you can. Sorry I can’t give you more information, but that’s all I’ve got. Good luck to you and God bless you and your men.” With that, the troops shuffled into Air Force C-54 Skymasters, which ferried them to Korea. Those who pressed on toward Daejeon became known as “Task Force Smith.”
Bill Dean and the rest of Task Force Smith made it to Daejeon as Smith had urged them. There, they ran into a hornet’s nest. On the morning of July 20, North Korean troops attacked the city, fighting their way through the city’s narrow lanes. It was mayhem.
Robert Gray remembers leaving Japan for Korea around July 4. Like many others, he arrived in Busan, got on a train, then immediately traveled north to Daejeon, Grey’s job was to prevent the North Koreans from crossing the Geum River and invading the city. Vincent Bentz, one of the men in Bill Dean’s unit, recalled, “everybody was messed up, we didn’t know what was going on anymore.” [Video: Vincent Bentz – Everybody Was Messed Up] Herman Naville and the soldiers in his company knew trouble was ahead as they approached Daejeon. South of the city, they encountered other American soldiers who were beating a hasty retreat. They warned Naville and his company that it was “suicide” ahead. [Video: Herman Naville – Suicide Ahead] Following orders, they pressed on anyway.
On July 16, Robert Gray’s regiment, the 19th, was virtually wiped out and forced to retreat along with Smith’s task force. The North Koreans then streamed across the Geum River, taking the city of Daejeon by July 20. Grey was lucky. He recalled that he had a birthday coming up that he didn’t think he would ever see. [Video: Robert Gray – Birthday]
Task Force Smith and those supporting them were forced back toward Busan in tatters. The North Koreans were too well organized and overwhelmed the ill-equipped Americans. Bill Dean himself was captured at Daejeon and spent the next four years of his life in a POW camp.
The North Koreans then turned toward Busan in earnest, massacring the American 29th infantry near the city of Jinju and capturing that city on July 26. 300 to 400 Americans, some who had only arrived in Korea the day before, perished in the battle. Next up was Daegu, then Masan. If Masan fell, North Koreans would be able to march directly into Busan, succeeding in their quest to control the entire Korean peninsula.
By July 31st, the United Nations mobilization was in full force. American troops continued to land at Busan. General Walton Walker knew how dire the situation was. He declared, “A retreat to Busan would be one of the greatest bloodbaths in American history. We must fight until the end…. If some of us must die, we will die fighting together. Any man who gives ground may be personally responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of his comrades. I want everybody to understand that we are going to hold this line. We are going to win.”
In order to protect Busan, General Walker decided to set up a perimeter around the city. Using the Nakdong River, called Nakdong Perimeter or Busan Perimeter,as a natural barricade, he directed American and UN troops to amass on its eastern bank. Then, UN forces established a line extending eastward from the river, about 100 miles north of the port city, effectively sealing off the southern tip of the peninsula. Would it work?