Tank Action at Chongju


On the morning of 29 October 1950, the British 27th Infantry Brigade was advancing north towards Chongju, North Korea.  The 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and D Company, US 89th Medium Tank Battalion led the column with the infantry riding on tanks and in trucks.  The infantry frequently dismounted to probe suspected high ground on the flanks, and the tank battalion’s liaison plane patrolled the area well ahead of the column.  The liaison pilot (Lt. James T. Dickson) stopped the column several times during the morning while UN fighter planes made strikes against North Korean T-34 tanks and other targets.  Around noon, as the head of the column neared the top of a high hill,  Lt. Dickson sent a radio message to the tankers warning them of camouflaged T-34s dug in on each side of a narrow pass where the road cut through a low hill.  This position was at the top of the ridge ahead, beyond a narrow strip of paddy fields and about two and a half miles away over a winding and narrow road.  Proceeding slowly, the leading platoon of tanks went down to the bottom of the hill to the east edge of the valley.  There Lt. Dickson dropped a message advising them to hold up temporarily due to the dug in T-34s ahead.

The tank battalion commander (Lt. Col. Welborn G. Dolvin) and the Australian infantry battalion commander arrived at the head of the column.  While they were planning their next move, Lt. Dickson spotted what he believed to be a camouflaged tank position on the reverse slope of a low hill just beyond the next ridge ahead.  Because the UN fighter planes were busy with other targets, he radioed the tankers and requested them to place indirect fire in the area.  The platoon of tanks that was second in line (1st Platoon), led by Lt. Francis G. Nordstrom, opened fire from their position on top of the hill.  Lt. Nordstrom did not expect to hit anything but, after firing about ten rounds, with Lt. Dickson adjusting the fire, smoke started to rise from the camouflaged position.  It was heavy, black smoke such as that made by burning gasoline.  Lt. Dickson called off the firing.

Meanwhile, the battalion commanders had worked out their plan of attack.  Since Lt. Nordstrom liked the point position where he could open the action and control it, they decided to let his platoon lead the attack.  No infantry accompanied his tanks.  The other two tank platoons, mounting infantry, followed in column.  This attack force consisted of thirteen tanks and about two companies of infantry.

Lt. Nordstrom’s platoon was to head at full speed for the point where the road went through the narrow pass, a distance of about two miles.  This seemed to be the most important ground since there was no apparent way to bypass it.  The next platoon of tanks, under Lt. Gerald L. Van Der Leest, would follow at a 500 yard interval until it came within approximately a thousand yards of the pass, where the infantry dismounted and move to seize the high ground paralleling the road on the right side.  The third platoon of tanks, under Lt. Alonzo Cook, with a similar force seized the high ground left of the road.  After discharging the infantry, the tank platoon leaders maneuvered to the left and right of the road and supported the advance of their respective infantry units.

The attack started with Lt. Nordstrom’s tank in the lead.  Within a hundred yards of the pass, Lt. Nordstrom noticed North Korean soldiers hurriedly climbing the hill on the left of the road.  He ordered his machine gunner to open fire on them.  At about the same time he spotted a North Korean machine gun crew moving its gun toward the pass, and he fired at these soldiers with the 76mm gun.  The first shell struck the ground next to the enemy crew, and the burst blew away some foliage that was camouflaging a T-34 dug in on the approach side of the pass on the right side of the road.  As soon as the camouflage was disturbed, the T-34 fired one round.  The tracer passed between Lt. Nordstrom’s head and the open hatch cover.  In these circumstances, he did not take time to give fire orders; he just called for armor piercing (AP) shells and the gunner fired, hitting the front of the T-34 from a distance of less than a hundred yards.  The gunner continued firing AP shells and the third round caused an explosion where ammunition and gasoline began to burn simultaneously.  Black smoke drifted east and north across the high ground on the right side of the pass, effectively screening that area.  Lt. Nordstrom ordered the commander of the last tank in his platoon column (Sgt. William J. Morrison, Jr.) to fire into the smoke with both machine guns and cannon.  At the same time, the other tank crews observed more North Koreans left of the pass and directed their guns against them.

Lt. Nordstrom did not move on into the pass itself because by this time it seemed to him that the enemy would have at least one antitank (AT)  gun zeroed in to fire there and could thus block the pass.  He remained where he was about seventy yards from the pass with the other tanks lined up behind his.  Gun fire on the enemy to the left of the road tore camouflage from a second T-34 dug in a position similar to that of the T-34 already destroyed.  Lt. Nordstrom’s gunner, firing without orders, destroyed this tank with the second round.  There was another violent explosion, which blew part of the T-34’s turret fifty feet into the air.

While this fire fight was going on at the head of the column, the Australian infantry were attacking along the ridges on each side of the road.  There was considerable firing in both areas.  Lt. Cook’s tanks, on the left side of the road, had been able to follow the infantry onto the hill and provide close support.  In the midst of the fighting at the head of the column, the guns in the two leading tanks jammed because of faulty rounds.  At that time a shell came towards Lt. Nordstrom’s tank from the left front.  Lt. Nordstrom instructed his platoon sergeant (MSgt. Jasper W. Lee) to fire in the general direction of the enemy gun until he and the tank behind him could clear their guns. This was done within a few minutes, and Lt. Nordstrom, having the best field of fire, started placing AP rounds at five-yard intervals along the top of the ridge to his left, firing on only the logical positions in that area, since he could see no enemy vehicles.  Following the sixth round there was another flash and explosion that set fire to nearby bushes and trees.

The next enemy fire came a few minutes later which was a round from a SU-76 (76mm Self Propelled Gun).  It appeared to have come from the right-front.  It cut across Lt. Nordstrom’s tank between the .50 caliber machine gun and the radio antenna about a foot above the turret, and then hit one of the tanks in Lt. Cook’s platoon, seriously injuring four men.  Because of the smoke it was impossible to pinpoint the enemy, so Lt. Nordstrom commenced firing AP shells into the smoke, aiming along the top of the ridge on the right side of the road.  He hoped that the enemy gunners would believe that their position had been detected, and move so that he could locate their position. Another green tracer passed his tank, this time a little farther to the right.  Lt. Nordstrom increased his own rate of fire and ordered three other tank crews to fire into the same area.  There was no further response from the enemy gun and, to conserve ammunition which was then running low, Lt. Nordstrom soon stopped firing. It was suddenly quiet again except along the ridge lines paralleling the road where the Australian infantry and the other two tank platoons were pressing their attack.  No action was apparent to their direct front.

At the rear of the column, Lt. Cook had gone to his damaged tank, climbed in and, sighting with a pencil along the bottom of the penetration, determined the approximate position of the enemy gun.  He radioed this information back to Lt. Nordstrom, who resumed firing with three tanks along the top of the ridge on the right side of the road.  Again he failed to hit anything.  For lack of a better target he then decided to put a few rounds through the smoke near the first destroyed T-34.  He thought the two rounds might possibly have come from this tank even though the fire and explosions made this very improbable.  The third round caused another explosion and gasoline fire.  With this explosion most of the enemy action ended and only the sound of occasional small-arms fire remained.

Shortly thereafter, both Australian units reported their objectives secured.  Since it was late in the afternoon, the British infantry commander ordered the force to form a defensive position for the night.  It was a U-shaped perimeter with a platoon of tanks and an infantry company along the ridge line on each side of the road, and Lt. Nordstrom’s tanks was between them guarding the road.

When the smoke cleared from the pass there was one SU-76 that had not been there when the action began. It appeared that it had been left to guard the opposite end of the pass and its crew, becoming impatient when no tanks came through the pass, had moved up beside the burning T-34 on the right side of the road, using the smoke from it and the other burning T-34s as a screen.  (It is not clear if the crew abandoned this SU-76 sometime during the fighting or if it was destroyed by random US tank fire.)

At 2100 hours that night, North Korean infantry launched an attack aimed at destroying the US tanks.  Lt. Nordstrom’s tanks which were positioned near the road about a hundred yards east of the pass, were under attack for an hour with so many North Koreans scattered throughout the area that the tankers had to turn on their headlights in order to see the enemy.  The tankers used grenades and pistols as well as the tanks’ machine guns.  Gradually the fighting subsided, and then it was quiet for the rest of the night.  The next morning there were 25 to 30 bodies around the 1st Platoon’s tanks, some within a few feet of the vehicles.  At 1000 hours, the brigade began to advance again and entered Chongju that afternoon unopposed.