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By Sebastien Roblin,War Is Boring
In April 1951 the African-American soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 999th Armored Field Artillery charged their ungainly self-propelled howitzers past a hundred Chinese infantry waiting in ambush.
This piece originally appeared in 2016.
Thanks to the interviews of Army historian Edward Williamson, we can share their story.
Dating back to the 19th century, the U.S. military had a policy of placing African-American soldiers in segregated units led by mostly white officers, a reflection of the racist social order of those times. Most these black units were given supporting roles away from the front, as white commanders doubted their fighting ability.
Exceptions to this policy grew over time, such as the 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War, and the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I. By World War II, there were black artillery, tank, anti-aircraft and anti-tank units in the Army, and black fighter squadrons in the Army Air Force.
When the Army suffered manpower shortages during the Battle of the Bulge, it began temporarily admitting black soldiers into white frontline formations.
The 999th Field Artillery was a black unit equipped with enormous eight-inch towed howitzers specialized in demolishing heavily fortified targets with 200-pound shells.
Landing in France a month after D-Day, the unit performed with such distinction that it received commendations from both French and American commanders and was accorded the right to include the arms of the French city of Colmar, which the 999th had helped to liberate, into its insignia.
The unit’s motto was “Never Die.”
In 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9881, mandating that all branches of the U.S. military desegregate. The military was to abolish racial distinctions, even if they persisted in civilian society. But integration was slow to begin — all-black units remained in the Army’s order of battle until 1954.
The all-black 24th Infantry Regiment was one of the first American units to deploy to South Korea in 1950 as part of the United Nations’ response to a devastating North Korean invasion. Unfortunately, it was made a scapegoat for the calamitous U.S. retreat at the beginning of the war.
The 999th therefore remained a predominately black unit with some white officers at the beginning of the Korean War — though it would integrate more and more white soldiers over time.
In Korea, the unit was re-designated an armored field artillery battalion, equipped with M41 Howitzer Motor Carriages, also known as Gorillas. These were basically Chaffee light tanks with the turrets replaced by heavy 155-millimeter howitzers.
The crew of five operated the howitzer from an open-top compartment at the back of the vehicle, lobbing 95-pound shells at targets more than 14 kilometers away. Only lightly armored to protect against small arms, and lacking defensive weapons, the M41s were intended to shoot from the rear, out of sight of the enemy.
The mechanization of warfare in World War II resulted in armored artillery that could move and deploy for battle a lot faster than could towed guns that took hours to set up. Mobile, armored vehicles also had a better chance of evading enemy counter-battery fire, and surviving any unplanned firefights.
Some self-propelled artillery, such as the ubiquitous M7 Priest, were flexible enough to serve as thin-skinned tanks in a pinch, but the M41 still required time to deploy before firing and was intended to stay well away from direct combat.
The Battle of Imjin River
Starting in October 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a massive counter offensive to prevent the conquest of North Korea by U.N. forces.
The 999th was immediately in the thick of the fighting during the freezing Korean winter, supporting the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment as it covered U.S. forces desperately falling back to avoid encirclement in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
The South Korean capital, Seoul, was recaptured for a second time by U.N. forces in March 1951 and a new defensive line was established along the Imjin River, including the elite 1st Republic of Korea Division.
The American 999th Field Artillery was attached to provide fire support for the Korean infantrymen — just at the moment that the Chinese army launched its spring opffensive in a new attempt to seize Seoul.
On the afternoon of April 22, Warrant Officer David Reed and three fellow soldiers departed from B Battery’s bivouac in the village of Taech’on and climbed up Hill 128, which afforded a good view of the Imjin River. He was joined by a squad of South Korean soldiers. His job was to keep the river under observation, and call down artillery fire from the big guns of the 999th in the event of an attack.
At 8:00 that evening, a heavy artillery bombardment began. Nearly 200 shells rained down to Reed’s east. Then near midnight, two enemy machine guns began spitting fire from across the river. Reed called B Battery and requested a single spotting round using a glowing white phosphorous shell.
“On the way,” the operator said. A white phosphorous round dropped about 400 yards short of the target. “Add 400, fire for effect,” Reed commanded. “Battery gave me six rounds, one volley, all at one time,” Reed told Williamson. “It was a target hit, and the shells fell squarely on top of the machine gun.”
Enemy infantry, however, were already sweeping across the river, and by 1:30 Reed was told he should abandon his position. The next bombardment was targeted on top of his position.
Instead, Reed dispatched the South Korean detachment to drive off attackers on the western flank while friendly shells rained on the eastern slope.
A corporal named McCall potted away with his carbine. Enemy rifles and “four or five” machine guns were soon rattling away at Hill 128.
Reed finally fell back at 2:30 in the morning and set up a new observation post at the 1st Korean Division’s main defensive line. A mass of Chinese infantry assaulted at dawn. As sniper fire ricocheted around his jeep, Reed tried calling down another bombardment — but was told that B Battery was on the move and unable to provide fire support.
Battery B is forgotten
The six M41 howitzers of the 999th’s B Battery had been firing continuously from the start of the Chinese attack when it commander, Capt. James Welden, received orders to fall back to a new position at 2:00 in the morning.
The unit continued firing as it stowed its gear into M41s, trucks, jeeps and M39 armored utility vehicles. The M39s were tracked Hellcat anti-tank vehicles that had had their turrets removed in order to serve as utility transports, retaining .50-caliber machine guns on pintle mounts.
B Battery redeployed to the village of Kumgong-Ni by 8:00 in the morning and fired volleys of air-burst shells for the rest of the day as the Chinese attack drove back the South Korean defenders.
By evening, the guns were lobbing direct fire at enemy machine guns and infantry visible on hills just 4,000 yards away — and successfully cleared an escape route for the trucks of the South Korean 17th Field Artillery Battalion as it retreated through a mountain pass.
Alarming reports multiplied that night. Another observation post was overrun. The communication wires stopped working. A repair team sent to investigate discovered they had been crushed by retreating friendly tanks, which were seen streaming away from the front line.
“I don’t like it,” a private named Lewis remarked. “They’re leaving us stranded.”
By midnight, headquarters told Reed and his men that there should be a battalion of South Korean infantry 1,000 yards to their west. A lieutenant named Buonocore reconnoitered 2,000 yards in that direction, finding only a single South Korean soldier … and enemy infantry approaching in the distance.
Battalion ordered B Battery to pull back again to the village of Pobwon-Ni just as a volley of enemy mortar shells landed around the battery. The artillerymen quickly set off down the road. Passing the position of Battery A of the 999th, they approached Pobwon-Ni but could see the flashes from a firefight ongoing in the village.
Welden ordered the convoy to stop and checked in with battalion headquarters— which insisted it was actually a skirmish happening further down the road. Bursts of automatic fire from a village to their west began arcing towards them, pattering short of their position.
Weary of the danger ahead, Welden had two M39s, armed with .50-caliber machine guns, to lead column. He climbed into the lead vehicle. Then the drivers hit their accelerators … and rode straight into Hell.
All at once, green tracers raked the convoy from six machine guns and the small arms of more than a hundred Chinese infantry hiding in rice patties on either side of the road. Mortar shells began exploding down the line of vehicles.
Welden ordered the column to stop and dismount to repel the attack. B Battery blazed back with .50-caliber machine guns and carbines, some of them modified to use .30-caliber machine gun belts.
The second M39 in the column exploded, blocking the vehicles behind it. Sgt. Eldrich Henley jumped out into a nearby ditch and was hit by submachine gun fire in the legs. Sgt. Bell, commander of one of the M41s, was shot and his vehicle careered into an M39 from behind. The rest of the crew dismounted and clambered on board a nearby M39 — but not before Pvt. Maurice Henry was killed trying to pull Bell’s body out of the hatch.
Though the heavy howitzers mounted on the M41s were among the deadliest weapons on the Korean battlefield, they could not be fired without minutes of set-up — and they lacked defensive weapons of their own. They were useless in a close firefight.
Incendiary grenades sailed through air, setting another M39 and a maintenance jeep alight. Some of members of the column crawled away toward the positions of Battery A. But Welden decided B Battery should mount back up and charge through the ambush.
B Battery charges through
“We received orders to mount on vehicles, that we were going through the ambush,” reported Cpl. Oscar Spraglin, a gunner.
“This Korean truck blew up in front of us,” Spraglin continued. “A mortar hit it. To avoid running into the Korean truck, we went into the rice field. While going through the rice field, Chinese were jumping up. The driver ran over about four Chinese. We were somewhat crowded on the vehicles. Bullets were hitting close.”
An ammunition trailer exploded “like Harlem, New York.” A mortar shell flipped a jeep over into a ditch. Pvt. Anthony Jackson abandoned his own jeep as it came under fire, and barely escaped by grabbing on to the legs of a crewman on a passing M41. Another M39 was knocked out, so a sergeant named Scow drove his vehicle up to rescue the crew.
“My M39 ran up in back of the knocked-out one and switched to the right,” Scow said. “In it one was man wounded. Three others, not. The knocked-out M39 blocked the bullets … I grabbed him [a wounded man] by the seat of his pants put him up on the right front of the M39. Then the three other men crawled up themselves.
Inside the compartment it was now full, so I started for the back. I went to step up on the trailer tongue to get on the back of the M39 and looked on the other side of the road, seeing two enemy close enough to get up on the trailer tongue. I got off and hit the ground down on my stomach right in the gully. I lit those two up.
The driver took off. Myself, I got up beside the ammunition trailer in a crouch. I stayed alongside the ammunition trailer until I could run up to the coupling and lie across the tongue. That is where I rode until the first position we went in.
As fighting died down at roadblock, Sgt. Henry Laws, a mechanic, dragged a wounded soldier missing half his foot into an abandoned M41 with the help of a South Korean soldier and they drove off toward Battery A’s position.
The four remaining M41s of Battery B reassembled at the headquarters of the 999th. Welden organized a roll-call and then got back in touch with battalion to arrange a new assembly point.
South Korean troops succeeded in securing Pobwon-Ni and drove out the Chinese ambush force, capturing some, while the remainder withdrew carrying their dead. At 6:00 in the morning, Welden returned to the site of the ambush with some M39s and towed away any vehicles in recoverable condition.
The column had lost two M39s and five trucks and jeeps. Another six vehicles were damaged but usable. Seven soldiers had been killed by grenades and small arms fire and another 31 were wounded. The captain estimated they had inflicted 100 casualties on the ambushers.
Morale was low after the incident. Support staff — cooks and ammo carriers — had to replace many of the gunners in the battery. The men of B Battery had not slept for 72 hours.
But B Battery’s guns remained at full strength and were able to resume providing artillery support for the remainder of the battle, helping the Korean troops to withstand the Chinese assault.
U.N. forces ultimately held the line in the Battle of Imjin River — the line that roughly defines the border of the two Koreas today.
Without the armored hulls and tracked mobility of their M41s, the artillerymen of the 999th might have fared considerably worse in the ambush. But the exposed open tops of the vehicles and their deficit in defensive weapons, were vulnerabilities that resulted in many casualties.
Based on its experience in the Korean War, the Army would eventually decide to replace almost all of its towed artillery units with self-propelled howitzers, culminating in the M109, which situated the cannon in a fully enclosed turret. Introduced in 1963, it remains in service today in heavily upgraded form.
Not all Army M41s escaped unscathed. At least two M41s from another unit were captured by the Chinese and used in battle. Reports of heavy Chinese self-propelled guns at the battle of Maryang San correspond to their description. Of the three remaining M41s, one of them can be found today at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing.
The 999th went on to serve in many of the major battles of the Korean War, including at Pork Chop Hill, working with French, Turkish, Philippine and South Korean units until the end of the war. The unit endured a disastrous friendly fire bombing that killed a dozen personnel.
The 999th began to integrate more white soldiers starting in 1951. In an interview, Charles Day of the 999th recalled that he was “probably the second white man in A-battery.”
“I said, ‘My Lord, what have I got into?’” Day told Williamson. “But after I learned some of their key words, everything smoothed out. But it was rough there for two or three months.”
Samuel King, a black veteran of the 999th, recalled that when the first white soldier, Lucas, joined their unit, black soldiers would borrow his girlfriend’s picture. “So Lucas looked at us and it might have been because he was the only white in the outfit with 20-some other guys — black — so maybe he didn’t say anything. You know, so then the others started coming in and Lucas was kind of old hat.”
When African-American soldiers returned from Korea, they found a country which had yet to make significant progress toward racial equality. Having experienced combat, worked alongside soldiers of other countries and, in Korea, worked in racially integrated units, black veterans would go on to play a major role in the civil rights movement that would transform the United States.