Alan W. Dowd
In June 1951, after 11 months of blitzkriegs and three surprise invasions (one each by the North Koreans, Americans, and Chinese), the character of the Korean War drastically–and suddenly–changed. What started as a war of speed and territorial conquest would end in stalemate. It’s no coincidence that Operation Piledriver began on June 3, 1951. In ten days, it would change the course of the war and open a pathway to peace.
The Final Push
Given the fluid nature of the Korean War, it is difficult to discuss a single battle or operation without recapping others. Suffice it to say that Operation Piledriver occurred on the heels of two major Communist offensives–the First Spring Offensive, running from April 22- April 29, 1951, and the Second Spring Offensive, which lasted from May 17-May 22. Smashing across the U.N. front with some 250,000 men and 30 divisions, the twin offensives would comprise the largest battles of the war.
The assault drove the allies behind the so-called Kansas Line, which had grown increasingly important to the U.N. command in the previous weeks. Running six to ten miles north of the 38th Parallel, the Kansas Line was designated as a possible postwar border, or at worst as the northern edge of a future demilitarized zone. As such, it was an important psychological and territorial marker for the allies. Holding on to that line–and the real estate south of it–was critical.
While U.N. forces recaptured most of the Kansas Line as the Second Spring Offensive collapsed, the Kansas front was anything but secure. And that’s where Operation Piledriver came into play. To secure the Kansas Line, the allies would send four divisions–the 1st Cavalry, 3rd Infantry, 7th Infantry, and 25th Infantry–into the Iron Triangle, which historian Michael Hickey called “the ganglion of the enemy’s strategic power.”
The villages of Chorwon and Kumhwa formed the base of the Iron Triangle, with Pyonggang at the top. Given its foreboding name by American journalists, the region included rail lines running all the way to Manchuria and a vital network of highways, which had supplied and reinforced the major Communist offensives of the war. As long as the Iron Triangle remained under Chinese control, the Kansas Line and for that matter all of South Korea would be at risk.
Piledriver’s objectives were clear–form a new defensive line at least 12 miles north of Kansas and knock out the sides of the Iron Triangle. The 1st Cav and 3rd Infantry Divisions were to seize Chorwon (on the left side of the Triangle), while the 25th and 7th swung toward Kumhwa on the right. What the troops may not have known was that Piledriver would be the final allied push in the war–the last in an endless series of attacks and counterattacks. Just days before Piledriver began, the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed Gen. Ridgway in a secret cable to “inflict maximum personnel and materiel losses on the forces of North Korea and Communist China...to create conditions favorable to a settlement of the Korean conflict.”
However, attaining those objectives would be no easy task.
As usual in Korea, the elements didn’t cooperate much with U.S. plans. Monsoonal rainstorms had transformed rivers into lakes and highways into quicksand. As a consequence, Piledriver would be no blitzkrieg. As Time magazine described the assault, the Americans would plow toward the Iron Triangle “yard by weary yard, ridge by bloody ridge.”
When planning the counterattack into the Iron Triangle, Gen. VanFleet had grossly over-estimated Communist losses at over 100,000. Had his estimates been accurate, his troops would have made quick work of the 12 miles and two cities he ordered them to seize. But according to historian Clay Blair, Communist losses were much closer to 30,000.
Not only were the four American divisions facing a much stouter enemy than initially thought, they were exhausted. By June 3, when Piledriver began to edge toward the base of the Iron Triangle, the operation’s participants had already weathered two major Communist assaults and launched several counterstrikes of their own. Indeed, four members of the 7th and 3rd Infantry Divisions were awarded Medals of Honor during the first Spring Offensive.And as Blair observes in his weighty history of the war, Piledriver’s divisions “had been engaged in heavy movement since May 21.” The 25th had raced 37 miles in ten days; the 7th had taken Hwachon, which lay some 20 miles southeast of the Triangle; and the 3rd had literally marched halfway across the 125-mile peninsula to plug the holes punched open during the Communists’ twin offensives.
Even so, as one soldier from the 7th Infantry put it, “Morale was not bad at this point, but it was slipping since ‘Mac’ left.”
Starting from the western town of Uijongbu, the 1st Cav crept more than 30 miles to its objective, squaring off against the still-powerful remnants of the Chinese army during the march. Muddy roads and wooden box-mines conspired to make the attack anything but quick. U.S. bombers helped on those rare occasions when the weather let up. But low clouds, heavy rains, and dense fog prevented the Air Force from exploiting the skies, which hampered the Army from recapturing Korea’s muddy middle.
Opposite the 1st Cav, moving north and west from Hwachon along Route 17, was the 7th Division. Veterans of the first battle to retake Kansas and dozens of unnamed firefights, the 7th slogged its way toward the base of the Iron Triangle, crossing rivers and marshy plains on the way. Bob Steck, a sergeant in the division’s 17th Regiment, was part of that advance.
In recalling what happened during Piledriver, Steck brings up one of the many ironies of war--the fact that those who have the most to do with a battle’s outcome often know the least about what is happening during the battle. “When you’re a dogface, on most scenarios you don’t know where you are or what someone has named the operation,” Steck observes, admitting that he didn’t know he was a part of Operation Piledriver until after it was over.
Armed with 30-caliber machine guns and fragmentary grenades, Steck and his regiment moved just as slowly as the 1st Cav. “We attacked at dawn,” Steck recalls of that first day of Operation Piledriver. “Half of our unit was allowed to cross the bridge into a valley before the bridge was blown by the enemy. Our outfit on the other side was decimated.”
Steck credits long-range artillery and air support for giving the 17th Regiment time and space to save its surviving troops. “The artillery was superb, and the air support was great,” he remembers. In fact, in Steck’s view, air power played a more pivotal role than armor during Operation Piledriver. “We had some support from halftracks carrying quad-50 synchronized machine guns,” Steck explains. But the halftracks and tanks were ill-suited for Korea’s rainy season, often bogging down in the mud.
With F-100s and Corsairs suppressing enemy fire, Steck’s battered 17th Regiment used makeshift life preservers to rescue the injured. “We floated our wounded down south on wooden rafts and went back over the mountains to a reserve area to be brought back up to strength.” In the typical understatement of an infantryman, Steck concludes, “It was not a good day.”
Piledriver gave us at least two Medal of Honor recipients. One of them–Benjamin Wilson–was a lieutenant in the 7th Infantry. He earned his Medal of Honor outside Hwachon, when he launched a one-man bayonet charge that eliminated an enemy machine-gun nest. During the inevitable Communist counterattack, he led his platoon across 15 yards of open ground. And as the fierce battle crescendoed in the mud of central Korea, he protected his troops with nothing more than a shovel, killing 14 Chinese during the assault.
Piledriver’s other two divisions did their damage--and took their lumps--in between the 7th and 1st Cav. While the 7th relied on heavy machine guns and artillery, the 3rd and 25th used flame throwers to clear out Chinese bunkers and pillboxes. Marching headlong into what its historian would later call “a hornet’s nest,” the 3rd Division encountered layers of antitank defenses. Blair describes the Chinese response as “the first serious [Communist] antitank action of the war.” Chinese gunners disabled five Patton tanks in rapid succession; two others would succumb to land mines.
Like Steck’s unit to their east, infantrymen from the 3rd Division faced some of their stiffest resistance from central Korea’s swollen rivers. Were it not for the lightning-fast work of pontoon builders and engineers, the Hantan River might have achieved what the Chinese could not.
Even further east, the 1st Marine Division made a simultaneous push on the Punchbowl. According to Korean War chronicler Billy Mossman, “The Marines and ROK 5th Division took a week longer to gain full possession of their objectives.” Facing a tenacious North Korean army and a treacherous mix of cliffs, ridges, and steep descents, the Marines measured their progress in yards rather than miles. They would reach the southern lip of the Punchbowl only after a brutal pre-dawn attack caught the North Koreans sleeping on June 11.
Charles Abrell was a corporal in the 1st Marine Division. Like Wilson, Abrell earned his Medal of Honor by eliminating an enemy machine-gun position. With his squad pinned down by automatic-weapons fire, Abrell ran through a shower of bullets and shrapnel with a live grenade in his hand. But when he reached the mouth of the bunker, he didn’t toss the grenade–he carried it inside. The resulting explosion neutralized the North Korean machine-gun nest and killed Abrell.
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
Living up to its name, Piledriver methodically pounded the over-extended and exhausted Communist troops in its path. By June 9, the Americans were closing in on the Iron Triangle’s base. By June 10, the 3rd Division had clawed its way to the outskirts of Chorwon. The 25th was just three miles south of Kumhwa. By lunchtime the next day, Chorwon was under American control; within two hours, so was Kumhwa. Both towns were deserted.
On June 14, with advance elements of Piledriver probing Pyonggang, all four Army divisions had reached their objectives. They had even moved beyond the new defense line known as “Wyoming.” But as Piledriver’s tank-infantry task forces rolled into Pyonggang, now a deserted ghost town, they noticed that the Chinese had taken up positions in the rugged mountain ranges surrounding the tip of the Iron Triangle. The Chinese would retake Pyonggang on June 17. But they never recaptured the base of the Iron Triangle. The plodding American advance had secured South Korea’s precarious border for the first time in months and driven the Communists well beyond the Kansas Line. Operation Piledriver was a resounding success.
But those 12 miles or so of Korean soil came at a high price. In just 10 days of fighting, more than 1,700 Americans were wounded, and 231 were killed. Over the next four months, another 624 Americans would die holding that tenuous line north of Kansas. In the grisly calculus of war, on a deaths-per-day basis, Piledriver ranks among Korea’s bloodiest and costliest operations.
From the beginning of the Second Spring Offensive on May 19 until the end of Operation Piledriver in mid-June, U.S.-ROK forces had pushed the front 20 miles in the west, 35 miles on Korea’s eastern coast, and 50 miles in the heart of Piledriver’s area of operations--where Communist forces were most numerous and arguably strongest.
It’s little wonder why on June 23, just over a week after Piledriver, Moscow’s U.N. ambassador called for a cease-fire in Korea. Peace talks were underway in a matter of days. The end was still months away, but the Communists had finally gotten the picture--the United States was not going to lose Korea.
Piledriver was a pivot point in the Korean War: It blunted the Communist forces’ momentum and ended the so-called “yo-yo war” once and for all. After Piledriver, there would be no more large-scale offensives, no more talk in Beijing or Moscow of liberating the peninsula, and for that matter, no more illusions in Washington of pushing the frontiers of communism back to the Yalu.
By consolidating the Kansas Line and occupying a large swath of real estate to the north, U.N. forces were able to act from a position of strength for the balance of the war. Indeed, it could be argued that Operation Piledriver laid the foundation for America’s victory in Korea. This is not to downplay the bitter stalemate or brutal pitched battles that marked the war’s final 25 months. But the reality is before Piledriver, the two armies swept up and down the peninsula like gridiron juggernauts. After Piledriver, the U.N. lines held, and the peace talks began.
Nine years before Piledriver rolled across central Korea, Winston Churchill called the Allied victory in Egypt, “not the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning.” The same could be said of Piledriver, which assured that the war would end where it started and in doing so, marked the end of the beginning in Korea.
Michael Hickey, The Korean War, The Overlook Press, 2000, p.236.
Clay Blair, The Forgotten War, Clay Blair, 1987, p.908.
John McGrath, “The Korean War: Restoring the Balance,” U.S. Army Center of Military History, Feb. 16, 2001, p.13.
Blair, p.913; see also John Miller, Jr., et. al., Korea 1951-1953, Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, (date not available), p.108.
Personal reflections of Piledriver veteran Bob Steck, Feb. 15, 2001.
See Medal of Honor section, Center of Military History, Feb. 16, 2001, p.13.
Billy Mossman, Ebb and Flow, Center for Military History, 1990, pp.491-492.
See Medal of Honor section, Center of Military History, Feb. 16, 2001, p.13.
Figures from the U.S. Army, “U.S. Army Experiences in the Korean War: Effects of Type of Operation and Tactical Action,” www.armymedicine.army.mil, Feb. 12, 2001, pp.5-8.
John Miller, Jr., et. al., Korea 1951-1953, Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, (date not available), p.108.