Task Force Smith had neither arms nor training

Saturday, July 25th, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachThe young men of Colonel Smith’s task force lived an easy life in Japan and weren’t prepared for serious trouble in Korea, T. R. Fehrenbach (in This Kind of War) explains:

They were probably as contented a group of American soldiery as had ever existed. They were like American youth everywhere. They believed the things their society had taught them to believe. They were cool, and confident, and figured that the world was no sweat.

It was not their fault that no one had told them that the real function of an army is to fight and that a soldier’s destiny — which few escape — is to suffer, and if need be, to die.


The tanks were now about two thousand yards in front of the infantry holes, and still coming. Bursting HE shells walked into the tank column, spattering the advancing armor with flame and steel and mud. “Jesus Christ, they’re still coming!” an infantryman shouted.

Colonel Smith knew that the 75mm recoilless rifles he had placed covering the highway had very little ammunition; he now ordered them to hold their fire until the tanks got within 700 yards.


Anti-tank mines placed in the road would have stopped them. But there was not a single anti-tank mine in Korea. Air support might have stopped them, but because of the rain the planes could not fly.


At 700 yards, both recoilless rifles slammed at the tanks. Round after round burst against the T-34 turrets, with no apparent effect. But with this opposition, the tanks stopped and turned their 85mm cannon on the ridge. They fired, and their 7.62mm coaxial machine guns clawed the hillsides. Suddenly, American soldiers pulled their heads down.

Lieutenant Ollie Connor, watching, grabbed a bazooka and ran down to the ditch alongside the road. Steadying the 2.36-inch rocket launcher on the nearest tank, only fifteen yards away, Connor let fly. The small shaped charge burned out against the thick Russian armor without penetrating. Angrily, Connor fired again, this time at the rear of the tank where the armor protection was supposed to be thinnest. He fired twenty-two rockets, none of which did any damage. Some of the rounds were so old they did not explode properly. The tankers, thinking they were up against only a small roadblock, made no real attempt to engage Task Force Smith, but continued down the road.


The American Army had developed improved 3.5-inch rocket launchers, which would penetrate the T-34. But happy with having designed them, it hadn’t thought to place them in the hands of the troops, or of its allies. There just hadn’t been enough money for long-range bombers, nuclear bombs, aircraft carriers, and bazookas too. Now, painfully, at the cost of blood, the United States found that while long-range bombers and aircraft carriers are absolutely vital to its security, it had not understood in 1945 the shape of future warfare.

To remain a great power, the United States had to provide the best in nuclear delivery systems. But to properly exercise that power with any effect in the world — short of blowing it up — the United States had also to provide the bread-and-butter weapons that would permit her ground troops to live in battle.


The two lead tanks rumbling down on the howitzer positions were struck head on by HEAT rounds, damaging them. They pulled off the road, so the others could get around them. One of the damaged tanks burst into flames. Two of its crew leaped from the turret with their hands up; the third came out holding a burp gun.

This soldier, seeing an American machine-gun crew dug in beside the road, fired at it, killing an assistant gunner. The Americans immediately shot down all three tankers. But the first American had been killed in Korea.


The howitzer gunners relaid their pieces directly on the tanks, and fired. At ranges from 300 to 450 yards, the 105’s just bounced off. But the tankers had buttoned up, and could not locate the artillery’s firing position. Answering the fire only haphazardly, they continued down the road, past the artillery site and beyond. One more tank was hit in the track and immobilized. But the anti-tank ammunition was now gone, and a badly shaken group of American gunners watched the Communist armor rumble on.


Now it was found that the tanks had cut all the wires leading up to the infantry positions farther north. The radios were wet and old and wouldn’t work, and the gunners had no idea of what was happening up ahead. They knew only that a hell of a lot of tanks had come through, and that wasn’t supposed to happen to them.

Ten minutes later, another long string of tanks poured down the road toward the guns emplaced alongside it. They came singly, in twos, and threes, apparently without any organization, and, like the first, not accompanied by enemy infantry.

To any troops with solid training, armed with the weapons standard to any advanced nation at the middle of the century, they would have been duck soup. But Task Force Smith had neither arms nor training.

As the new wave of tanks burst into view, the artillery battery started to come apart. Officers ordered fire on the tanks, but the crew members began to take off. Some men scuttled off; others simply walked away from the guns. The officers and senior sergeants suddenly found themselves alone.

Cursing, commissioned officers of the battery grabbed ammunition and stuffed it into the tubes. The noncoms laid the guns and pulled the lanyards.


The North Korean column was congested on the narrow road; it was not prepared to fight. Apparently it was not even in communication with the tank columns of the 105th Armored Brigade that had preceded it down the road; and it did not anticipate trouble.

While tough and battle-hardened, with a core of veterans, and psychologically prepared for battle, the NKPA was by no means a scientific military instrument by twentieth century standards. With no body of technical skills to fall back upon, the handling of communications and mechanized equipment, or even of artillery larger than mortars, by its peasant soldiery was inept. When its core of veterans had been exhausted in battle, the newer forced-inductees would be less reliable, and the NKPA would falter.


Either artillery or air could have wreaked havoc on the North Koreans congested on the road in front of him, but he had neither. Smith believed the artillery had been destroyed by the tank column, though actually only one howitzer had been knocked out.

While the infantry fought along the ridge, the artillery sat it out. Twice Perry ordered wire parties to try to get the lines back in, but twice the men came back, complaining that they had been fired on. Wet and old, none of the radios would work.

Smith, a courageous and competent officer, held his ridge as long as he dared.


A withdrawal under fire is one of the most difficult of all military maneuvers. With seasoned troops it is dangerous, but with green men, undisciplined, badly shocked by the new and terrifying experience of battle, it can be fatal.


The withdrawal immediately became ragged and chaotic. Nobody wanted to be last in a game where all advantage obviously lay with being first. The men got out of their holes, leaving their crew-served weapons. They left their machine guns, recoilless rifles, and mortars for the enemy.


Covered with slime, running, these men had tossed aside their steel helmets. Some had dropped their shoes, and many had lost shirts. None of them had weapons other than a few rifles, and two or three clips of ammunition per man.

Task Force Smith, designed to be an arrogant display of strength to bluff the enemy into halting his advance, had delayed the Inmun Gun exactly seven hours.


  1. Kirk says:

    The really amazing thing about Task Force Smith is how the US military has used it as a “lesson learned” event down the years, while simultaneously enabling and even creating the conditions to make it an almost inevitable outcome for the next conflict.

    Circa 1996-ish, my Engineer Group had a MAJ Fehrenbach on the staff in the S3 section. In the course of things, we got to have a dining-in with the actual Fehrenbach of authorial stature. Which was interesting–He took as his speech-subject this exact Task Force Smith “thing”, in an all-encompassing manner.

    Everyone nodded along, agreeing with him, saying how we mustn’t let it happen again. All the while? Out on the ground in our unit? Same kind of crap that led up to the conditions creating Task Force Smith. We weren’t training, there was no money, and the fucking ammo budget was so tight that if I wanted to give any of my guys going to the promotion board a second chance at improving their marksmanship boards, then we had to cut people like me from even doing official qualification fire. Training just didn’t happen, for most of the later Clinton years. No money–All we did was “Post Support”.

    I left the unit for a couple of years, went to the NTC for a tour, and then Korea again in order to get back to Fort Lewis for retirement purposes. When I came back, I went right into my old platoon as a vastly senior Platoon Sergeant, and I have to tell you, it about to broke my fucking heart. The state of training had backslid so far back that it wasn’t even funny, and there was no money to even fix broken trucks. Some of the crap I fell back in on had been broken when I was running that same platoon six years earlier, and had never been fixed. No money.

    Things were so bad that when we got a new Group Commander in, and he had a sensing session with all the Sergeants First Class and up in the Group, we all unanimously told him that there was absolutely no damn way we were ready for war or a deployment, and that getting us ready would take months to do properly. He sagely nodded his head, agreed with us, and said that we were the bill-payers for the Stryker Brigades that were standing up, just then. And, that he’d brought up the same issue with FORSCOM, which they acknowledged, telling him that we were guaranteed a six-month window to train before any real-world deployment.

    In the event, we got alerted in late December of 2002 that we were due to put our shit on the boats for Iraq in mid-January of 2003, and fuck any promises made by anyone. I honestly do not know how the hell we managed to do what we did in the time allotted, but we managed to get our gear on the boats by the required date, with no help from anyone else on Fort Lewis. Stories I could tell about that BS, and the oblivious bureaucracy we had to deal with… To this day, I’d still buy tickets to watch those pricks burn to death in a bonfire.

    In any event, it was a miracle that none of that crap caught up with us in Iraq. Had we done the “Northern Route” through Turkey, as planned, vice eventually going in through Kuwait after the Iraqis collapsed, I’m not at all sanguine about what would have happened. Most of the Observer/Controllers I’d been with in the previous few years, who’d seen 3 ID in action at the NTC? We were all convinced we were gonna watch the invasion crash and burn, as inept and feckless as those guys had been in training. Honest to God, most of us were sitting there exchanging emails and discussing what we thought would happen, which was, we thought, going to be epic failure on a scale not seen since Task Force Smith.

    As it was, apparently being sat out in the deserts of Kuwait for six months to a year had worked wonders to concentrate the minds of those guys, and they got their shit together enough not to screw the pooch entirely. If the division whose brigades we’d seen gone in without that time and training effort, though? I shudder to think. It would have been one big 577th Maintenance Company, writ large.

    They talk a lot of shit about “No more Task Force Smith’s…”, but the reality is, they really don’t grasp that whole thing as anything other than a popular buzzword, and do not recognize the conditions within their organizations as being at all akin to what really made that disastrous showing inevitable. Readiness is an issue that I suspect is going to bite us in the ass, again and again. The system just doesn’t “get it”, and isn’t self-aware enough to really be able to even recognize, let alone fix, these myriad issues.

Leave a Reply