Battles for Seoul
The Patton Tank, Part Three:
Task Force Crombez
By Arrigo Velicogna, Ph.D.
Rearguard and breakout actions continued through the winter. Often the 6th Tank Battalion was used to lead relief columns to rescue units cut off by Chinese enveloping attacks. While in the summer the M26 Pershings had been the premium tanks of the UN forces command due to their armor and firepower, now Pattons and even M4A3E8 Shermans were at the forefront due to their mobility. For the former the new engine and the new transmission coupled with the new steering controls allowed the M46 to negotiate mountain roads denied to the older Pershings. This was to prove extremely useful.
In mid-January 1951 a reinvigorated 8th Army under Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgeway did something no one from Mao Zedong in Beijing, to Peng Dehuai, his commander in Korea, expected. While the Chinese were preparing for their own final offensive, designed to eject the 8th Army from Korea, Ridgeway started a series of tactical counteroffensives to inflict damage to the Chinese forces and push them back. There was no talk of marching again to Pyongyang, at least in the immediate future.
The tiger pattern of this M46 supposedly terrified superstitious Chinese troops.
Ridgeway’s Operation Thunderbolt was aimed to push forward the lines by a smattering of kilometers for each push. While it was unglamorous, it worked. Steadily Thunderbolt expanded from regimental reconnaissances-in-force to a concerted push along the whole front. In turn Chairman Mao demanded a new offensive to kill Americans and force them out of Korea.
By February Peng’s final Winter Offensive was in full swing. The main Chinese effort was in the center, in the Wonju area. Their opponent was Edward N. Almond’s X Corps of Chosin fame. In “Ned” Almond they again bit off more than they could chew. The Chinese forces were able to scatter two South Korean divisions and inflict losses on supporting US elements, but the effort faltered on the Chinese right at Chipyong-ni. There the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, supported by the French Battalion dé Corée, artillery, self-propelled AA, and Sherman tanks, stopped the uncoordinated efforts of elements of six Chinese divisions.
At several times during the multi-day battle the 23rd appeared to be crumbling. Its controversial commander, Colonel Paul Freeman, who had a role in the previous debacle of the 2nd Infantry Division at Kunu-Ri, was also wounded. Ridgeway and Almond decided to mount a relief with elements of the 5th Cavalry Regiment and the 6th Tank Battalion. Under the direct command of Colonel Marcel G. Crombez a task force was assembled by X Corps and sent to relieve Freeman’s regiment (now officially commanded by Colonel Chiles).
While the whole action had been criticized, as Alan Millet points, neither Freeman or Chiles his replacement needed more infantry or tanks, but more artillery. It was a reasonable course of action; one of the main reasons was to open a ground link to evacuate wounded as only extreme cases could be flown out from Chipyong-ni by helicopters. It was also an action that showcased the virtue of the M46 more than any other.
During the night of 14-15 February Colonel Crombez, a competent, courageous, but unimaginative officer, according to Millet, assembled his regiment and two artillery battalions (one self-propelled), one engineer company, one medical company, two platoons of Shermans from A Company 70th Tank Battalion, and D Company, 6th Medium Tank Battalion. It crossed the Han river and then halted at dawn at a destroyed bridge about halfway to Chipyong-Ni.
Chinese resistance started at this point. First Battalion of the 5th Cavalry assaulted along the road, while the 2nd Battalion hooked north. Soon a full-fledged regimental assault was in full swing. The Chinese were slowly pushed back but progress was minimal. Air reconnaissance also indicated more enemy positions north of the attacking force. Colonel Crombez took the opportunity to make a helicopter reconnaissance of the road between his starting point and the 23rd Regiment’s positions. Crombez determined that only an armored force would be able to push through the countless roadblocks, ambush positions, and fire sacks.
Crombez grouped D Company and the two platoons from A company, 70th Tank together. He attached Company L, 3-5 Cavalry to the force. The infantrymen were to ride on the tanks and dismount if engaged, and re-mount immediately after. The M46s would lead the column. Crombez also took a seat on the fifth M46 of the column: he led from the front. The Pattons were to lead because of their armor and their 90mm guns, and because their powerpack and transmission allowed them to turn in place. No other U.S. tank could do that, not even the M4A3E8. If the Task Force was able to open the road, a supply train with trucks and ambulances was to follow. Originally the train was supposed to follow the tank column, but Crombez decided that was too risky. Only a single truck would follow the tank column to pick up wounded infantrymen. The commander of the 3-5 Cavalry also hopped on a Patton, the sixth in the column.
The mud was not impressed by the tiger paint pattern.
Crombez started his run at 15:45 pm on 15 February. The tanks moved in a mile-long column, each vehicle separated from the others by 50 yards. Artillery was on call and liaison planes were circling overhead. Two miles later the force approached the village of Koksu-ni. The lead tank had to stop to negotiate a bypass bridge, and the whole column halted. Mortar shells and small arms fire rained down on them. Several troopers from L Company were wounded and fell from the tank decks. Other jumped on the ground. Crombez calmly directed fire, with 90mm and 76mm rounds ripping up the ambushers. The noise of gunfire was so loud that it was heard by the rest of the 5th Cavalry at the point of departure.
After a few minutes, possibly five, Colonel Crombez decided that the column could not linger any longer and instead had to fight a moving battle. He ordered the tanks forward. Several dismounted infantrymen never received the order and were left behind as well as several wounded. For the whole action, the lone truck at the end of the column would collect wounded, until it was disabled. Separated infantrymen would at first try to follow, then break out toward the departure point.
Crombez’s column pressed forward oblivious of enemy fire, literally firing its way across six miles of Chinese ambush positions. Infantrymen of L Company paid the price, with the company losing more than 70 men between killed, wounded, and missing in action, including the battalion commander. Still the Chinese could not stop the Pattons. For the whole action Crombez calmly led the column and directed fire, earning a Distinguished Service Cross for it.
Two Pattons were hit at a road cut just south of Chipyong-ni. The first Patton was hit and several crew members wounded, but it continued forward, albeit without a radio. D Company’s command tank, fourth in the column, was hit when passing the cut. An American 3.5” bazooka round hit the turret, penetrated the armor, and detonated the ready ammunition killing the entire turret crew. The driver, Corporal John A. Calhoun, gunned the engine and coaxed the tank out of the cut and then swerved it out of the road.
Task Force Crombez had come one tank short of disaster, but the driver’s prompt action, and the Patton’s ability to turn in place, saved it. Task Force Crombez pushed forward, the last casualty at the cut being the lone truck. It was disabled by enemy fire and abandoned. Then the ordeal ended. The force came in sight of a group of Shermans that where counterattacking Chinese infantry on the south edge of the 23rd’s perimeter. Possibly Crombez’s appearance broke the back of the Chinese attack, or the Chinese were already throwing in the towel, but Chinese troops were seen everywhere retreating. For a brief moment it was a tanker’s dream, plenty of targets and no return fire. The siege of Chipyong-ni had ended.
The ordeal took one hour and a half. One hour and a half to cover approximately six miles of mountain road. That was tank combat in Korea. On the following day Crombez took his tanks back to departure point and then escorted the supply column to Chipyong-ni.
The battle showcased the nature of combat in Korea, but also the advantages that the M46 was bringing to the fore. Tankers appreciated it for its combination of maneuverability, firepower, and protection. Sometimes those were not enough. Even Pattons could be trapped on a mountain road, as happened to a platoon of tanks from D company in April. While acting as rearguards during the Chinese April/May offensive, a platoon was trapped when a burning ammunition truck blocked the only withdrawal road. Several attempts by a tank dozer to push the truck away failed, and in the end the whole platoon was lost along other vehicles.
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