Korean War: Counter Attack
The United States Army, Part One
In terms of organization, the United States Army that took the field against North Korean aggression in June 1950 was little different than that which ended the Second World War slightly more than five years earlier. In terms of effectiveness there was little comparison; just five years of peacetime had taken away the Army’s hard-won combat competence.
It’s that army that bears the brunt of the fighting in our Panzer Grenadier game, Korean War: Counter Attack. Here’s the start of a look at the game’s U.S. Army pieces:
Postwar American doctrine had discarded the tank destroyer concept – enemy tanks would now be countered by friendly tanks, a direct contradiction of earlier practice. By the end of the Second World War, a U.S. Army infantry division in practice included its own tank battalion. Officially these were independent units attached to the division, but the April 1950 tables of organization not only gave each division its own organic tank battalion, it assigned an additional tank company to each infantry regiment. This was a very large company, with four tank platoons and 22 tanks in all. On paper, this gave an American infantry division the tank strength of a late-war German panzer division.
That strength only existed on paper. Eighth Army’s peacetime divisions did not field their allotted tank battalions or companies, and only a handful of tanks could be found in Japan. When a tank battalion was finally scraped together, it had to be fleshed out with a draft from the Army’s lone remaining active-duty armored division (the 2nd, then located at Fort Hood) plus additional men including some whose previous duty had been sacking groceries at a PX in Japan.
The tanks themselves came from equally scattered sources. While the Marines fielded only M26 Pershings in their tank companies, the Army battalions had mostly M4A3E8 “Easy Eight” Shermans with 76mm guns. Many of these had been in use as training vehicles and so had accumulated heavy wear since the end of the Second World War; others had been sitting in the Rock Island Arsenal awaiting various repairs. They had neither the armor nor the armament to stand up to the North Korean T-34/85, but were more capable in this regard than the only other tank available in Japan, the M24 Chaffee light tank.
The M24 had been introduced to American tank units at the end of World War II, and been popular with its crews – while it lacked the fighting qualities needed to stand up to German tanks, it was a vast improvement over the M5 Stuart light tanks that had previously equipped American light tank companies. In place of the useless 37mm gun carried by the M5 it had a lightweight 75mm gun derived from an aircraft cannon. The M24 remained in use throughout the Korean War, but after the first disastrous encounters with the T-34/85 it served in its intended reconnaissance role and not as a main battle tank.
The M26 Pershing, on the other hand, was very capable – but also hard to come by. While the Marines had shiny new Pershings in storage, the first examples to appear in Korea under Army command totaled three rejects abandoned in depots in Japan, a company scraped together from tanks mounted on concrete pedestals at Fort Knox, and another company’s worth appropriated from the Hawaii National Guard.
While able to defeat the T-34/85, the Pershing had serious defects related to its engine and drive train, the same as those in the much lighter M4 Sherman. To remedy that, Rock Island had already begun rebuilding 800 M26 Pershing tanks into the upgraded M46 Patton in November 1949, though only a few had been completed. The “new” tank had a much more powerful engine with a better transmission, and the main gun was fitted with a bore evacuator that kept toxic gases from leaking out of the breach into the tank’s fighting compartment.
While the M46 performed better than its progenitor, the rush order placed on the conversion created its own problems. For example, the engine oil cooler fan had not been tested before it was fitted on the converted tanks. During a single road march in February 1951, 35 of the 64th Tank Battalion’s 58 M46 Pattons broke down, all due to the defective fans.
The M24 chassis was also used to create a very useful vehicle: the M19 Multiple Gun Motor Carriage, which had a pair of 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns in a twin mounting at the very rear of the vehicle. While seldom called upon to battle enemy aircraft, its enormous firepower proved devastating against Chinese human-wave assaults later in the Korean War.
As had been the case during the latter part of the Second World War, a U.S. Army infantry battalion included a platoon of six 81mm medium mortars in its heavy weapons company. The M1 mortar was a licensed version of the French Brandt Mle27 mortar, a design copied by many nations (some with a license, some without). The M2 60mm mortar, also a licensed Brandt weapon, remained in use as part of the weapons platoon in each infantry company; its firepower is reflected in that of the HMG units.
One of the changes to U.S. Army organization after the Second World War added more 4.2-inch (107mm) heavy mortars to the order of battle, having seen the effectiveness of the German 120mm mortar in action. The M2 “Goon Gun” had been designed to throw chemical and smoke rounds, and during World War II it served in Chemical Mortar battalions and companies. An effective high-explosive round appeared during the war, and the chemical units came into high demand or infantry support.
The new tables of organization issued in April 1950 gave each infantry regiment its own heavy mortar company with at first eight and later twelve 4.2-inch mortars. These took the place of the Cannon Company with short-barreled 105mm howitzers included in American infantry regiments during World War II but commonly integrated into divisional artillery fire plans rather than used for direct fire support; the mortar seemed better suited to the original concept.
The big mortar was in heavy demand in Korea, but its relatively short range (a maximum of 4,400 yards, an effective range of much less than that) was seen as a handicap and in 1951 a new M30 mortar with a maximum range of 7,500 yards and an effective range actually approaching that figure began to replace the Goon Gun. The M30 also weighed just over twice as much as the M2, and though it remains in service more than six decades later it is usually moved within its own dedicated tracked carrier.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.