The Legacy of Task Force Smith
The mission at hand was daunting. A light infantry task force faced a larger conventional force bearing down on their positions in a foreign land. The division leaders were combat veterans of past years of global conflict, while the soldiers were mostly young and new troops yet to be hardened by combat.
The U.S. infantry force had been training the host nation security force for several years as advisers, but the local force was ill equipped and melted away after meeting an overwhelming enemy force.
After the end of major combat operations five years previously, the U.S. military focused on developing its high technology forces and capabilities. The choice to grow air force systems, global strike forces, and expand high technology naval forces came at the expense of readiness and quality of equipment for ground forces. The most pressing existential threat to the United States and its allies in 1950 was the U.S.S.R. and other communist countries. Protection of vital strategic interests and strategic allies in Europe, unfortunately, necessitated that the bulk of combat power must reside there.
As an economy of force in the Pacific, the U.S. infantry units there trained a host nation security force for several years as advisers, but this local force was ill equipped and melted away after meeting an overwhelming enemy. This tale sounds familiar if you are following the current events in Iraq with the poor performance of Iraqi units against IS, however on June 25th, 1950 the advance U.S. military forces of the 24th Infantry Division, later known as Task Force (TF) Smith, had a tough fight ahead not helped by the misapplication of resources and a lack of a coherent operational strategy in the region.
How did an Army that operated globally with great capacity and tenacity suffer a near catastrophic defeat from a large but low-technology enemy?
Task Force Smith at Osan, 5 July 1950 (via The Korean War Project)
TF Smith was a regimental combat team developed from the 21st Infantry Regiment with supporting artillery and logistics deployed from Japan to the newly established front in Korea. US and Republic of Korea (ROK) Forces were quickly overwhelmed by the combined arms might of the DPRK offensive. Unprepared for the invasion, the goal of TF Smith was to prevent a tactical defeat turning into a strategic defeat with communist forces taking over the Korean Peninsula. After a mobile retrograde from the Seoul area by advanced elements of the 24th Infantry Division, the team established a defensive line first at Osan and then later along the Busan Perimeter. The allied and U.S. command structure was baffled: How did an army that previously operated globally with both great capacity and tenacity suffer a near catastrophic defeat from a sizable but technologically inferior enemy?
Requirements and Scope Creep
Global politics and realities of advanced warfare were bad news for the average infantryman in 1950. Between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War, the U.S. military received a complete overhaul to face the threat of the U.S.S.R. and prevent the takeover of Europe by communist forces. Investments in nuclear forces, the newly minted United States Air Force, and various other technology programs left little money and resources for infantry, armor, and artillery. While the equipment available to U.S. forces was still fully capable, the majority of advanced weaponry from tanks, artillery, and anti-tank systems were not focused on the Pacific area of operations. While the structure of units still existed on paper, the important enabling functions were not readily apparent within TF Smith. It lacked the integrated forward air controllers, command and control elements, and heavy artillery necessary for combined arms operations.  These capacities are very difficult to train in peacetime without the budget for large scale combined arms maneuvers. Long before U.S. units entered combat operations in World War II, there were numerous division and above exercises both within the United States and in other locations as preparation for these combined arms maneuvers.
In times of reduced operational readiness, individual and small team proficiency was regularly trained, but combined arms operation skills had atrophied.
Task Force Smith arrives at a train station in Daejeon, South Korea (Wikimedia Commons)
In times of reduced operational readiness, individual and small team proficiency was regularly trained but combined arms operational skills had atrophied. While the U.S. focused on development of advanced war fighting functions globally, the North Korean adversary, with training and mentoring from other communist elements, developed a mobile blitzkrieg force of heavy armor with mutually supporting infantry and artillery support. Lean, fit, and easy to resupply, these ground forces were able to quickly move forward and sustain themselves by foraging on the southern Korean peninsula. (Later, the lack of a real logistics and maintenance pipeline doomed North Korean armored forces.) The U.S. soldiers that entered the fight had largely been on garrison duty in Japan, underfunded with limited combined arms training; these forces were clearly not preparing for a fight. One oversight at the operational level was the elimination of medium tanks in Japan prior to the war due to limited training areas and road network. Once eliminated, the U.S. Army never replaced this crucial armor capacity.  Looking back it seems foolish, but from a logistics and maintenance stand point, why would the U.S. leave valuable equipment in a location that was unable to be utilized just in case “something” happened?
There are many excellent books and articles on the actions of June 1950; some focus on poor leadership, some credit excellent leadership. It is hard to judge the actions of tactical leaders under the stresses of combat. The combat experience and painful lessons learned of World War II were likely a deciding factor in the ability to prevent a complete defeat. Thus, the saving grace of TF Smith was twofold: operational leaders with combat experience who knew how to select terrain and could overcome the initial surprise and setbacks of a poor tactical start to the campaign. The terrain selected for the fight at Osan and later Busan were excellent and by themselves provide a significant natural barrier. As learned in the atrophy of combined arms operations, there was a lack in the necessary skills of defensive operations due to limited obstacle integration and engineer support.
Utilizing simple command and control through the ubiquitous five paragraph operations order, the leadership of the task force developed a simple defense. Due to limitations in command and control capacity, operational leaders were often forced to fight at the squad level. T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War has some excellent vignettes on Major General Dean fighting with bazookas on the retrograde from Seoul, and some heart crushing passages on having to blow bridges with Korean civilians on the spans to slow the North Korean advance. This is an important lesson for operational leaders, heroics aside, being in the right place to influence a campaign smoothing battlefield frictions. While ultimately captured, his personal leadership, and no doubt his staff, supported the ability to fight a defensive battle at the Busan Perimeter. General Officers should be cautioned from interjecting themselves into the tactical fight and not draw from this historical example a need to personally direct the fire of their unit’s tanks as Major General Dean was cited for in his Medal of Honor. Tactical leaders must be developed to exercise maximum initiative within the commander’s intent for mission command to be successful.
Lessons We Still Must Learn
Sixty-five years after the opening of the Korean War, the peninsula remains divided, and while the U.S. presence is getting smaller every year, we still have a large number of forces and budget invested in Korea. The Republic of Korea has a very talented and advanced military, capable of defeating the forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in a conventional fight. Unfortunately, even with the relative stability of the Korean peninsula, there are a few lessons we have not yet learned.
The most important lesson that we have not learned as a military is that we cannot simply fix all problems by throwing combat power (guns, money, men) at a problem. Much of the investment in advanced war-fighting capacity and technology went largely unused during the Korean conflict. The development of those forces and capacities certainly aided in the allied effort, especially fighter aircraft, a powerful naval fleet, and unmatched global logistics. Additional ancillary functions of a the growth in high technology platforms included technology such as radio systems, helicopters, and jet aircraft which were heavily utilized, while in spite of MacArthur’s grand desires, nuclear forces sat safely idle. As military planners develop courses of action, we look at preparing for the most likely enemy course of action and the most dangerous enemy course of action. During the Cold War, the focus of military preparedness was on mitigating the most dangerous of enemy actions a full invasion of Europe by Soviet Forces coupled with a nuclear strike. What history shows us as the most likely course of action were several smaller conventional wars and multiple proxy wars, all framed around an on-going espionage and geo-strategic engagement.
Our enemies fully understand the limitations of American strategic thought and operational history. We often learn bloody and painful lessons before an institutional awakening. The good news is that the military is a learning organization, just look at the lessons learned by Joint Special Operations Command in their operations against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and fighting decentralized enemies. Conventional forces, when empowered by leadership, are also capable of extraordinary learning and growth in competence and capacity. Ironically, to the fight by TF Smith, last year at the time of a U.S. strategic pivot to the Pacific area, events in Europe have drawn our military attention and efforts back to an area deemed an economy of force in the 21st century. Lastly, Korea taught the lessons of being a hegemon, regional conflict cannot draw a nation away from global engagement and responsibilities to allies. During the three years of war in Korea, capacity and readiness in strategically deterrent forces were maintained as to prevent a loss in other vital areas. It may be a painful 21st century for the United States unless we can honestly reflect on our capacity, weaknesses, and history to prepare for our current and future fights.
Mike Denny is an Army National Guard aviation officer and company commander. Formerly, he served as a Field Artillery officer while on active duty. As a civilian, he is an executive management professional and occasional contributor to Task and Purpose, The Bridge, and Red Team Journal. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.