A bloody seesaw struggle for Hill 255 -- a minor territorial chip at the negotiating table -- came to be remembered as a symbol for the entire Korean War.
By James I. Marino
Officially it was designated Hill 255, but its contour lines on a map of Korea and a 1959 film made it world famous as Pork Chop Hill. Based on a book by military historian S.L.A. Marshall, the movie dealt only with the penultimate, two-day battle for Pork Chop Hill in April 1953. In actuality, that hill claimed the lives of soldiers from the United States, Thailand, Colombia, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and China in an ongoing struggle that lasted longer than on any other single battlefield in Korea.
After Communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the war raged up and down the peninsula several times as the United States, the United Nations (U.N.) and finally Communist China sent ground forces there. By July 1952, however, both sides had constructed such strong defensive lines that neither could undertake a major offensive without suffering unacceptable losses. In 1952, North Korea and China had 290,000 men on the front lines and another 600,000 in reserve. The U.N. countered with 250,000 troops on the line, backed by 450,000 reserves.
While the two sides engaged in tedious, often exasperating truce negotiations at Panmunjom, their soldiers huddled in trench systems resembling those of World War I. The constant patrolling and artillery duels seldom made headlines at home. But occasionally battles for outposts such as Heartbreak Ridge, the Punchbowl, Capitol Hill and the Hook drew media attention, giving them propaganda value at the talks.
Much of the focus on Pork Chop Hill was a result of Communist political structure. At that time, Marshal Peng Dehuai commanded the Chinese People's Volunteer Forces in Korea, taking his orders from the Central Military Commission (CMC), of which Mao Tse-tung was chairman, and Mao's foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, vice chairman. Peng's lieutenants often had multiple responsibilities. For example, Peng's deputy, General Deng Hua, was also commander of the 13th Field Army and a delegate at the peace talks. Li Kenong, chief of military intelligence for the CMC, was also vice minister of foreign affairs, chief of the Military Intelligence Department of the People's Liberation Army, and headed the Chinese delegation at Panmunjom. Because of Li's ministry and intelligence positions, he had his government's authority to coordinate armistice talks and battlefield strategy. Consequently, whenever negotiations reached critical stages, the Chinese military was used to test the U.N.'s will on the battlefield. As the action raged around relatively unimportant outposts, the battles themselves took on political and propaganda significance far beyond their military value.
In May 1952, Maj. Gen. David Ruffner took command of the 45th Infantry Division, holding the right flank of the I Corps' line in west-central Korea, facing the 39th Army of the Chinese 13th Field Army. Wishing to take the high ground in front of his division's main line of resistance (MLR), Ruffner and his staff developed a plan to seize a dozen forward hills, stretching from northeast to southwest. The last two in the southwest, Pork Chop and Old Baldy (Hill 266), were held by the Chinese 116th Division.
On June 6 and 7, the 279th Infantry Regiment seized the six northern hills, while the 180th Infantry advanced on the six southern ones. Company I of the 180th took Pork Chop after a one-hour firefight and immediately fortified the position. The Chinese 346th, 347th and 348th regiments counterattacked over the next several days, but I Company, with artillery support, held them off. Ruffner had extended the 45th Division's line to provide a breakwater for his MLR, with Port Chop Hill, partially protected from Old Baldy, providing a vital part of the buffer.
The 2nd Infantry Division replaced the 45th in the fall of 1952, and its 9th Regiment was assigned to Pork Chop and Old Baldy. In October the Thai 21st Infantry Regiment occupied Pork Chop and managed to beat back assaults by elements of the Chinese 39th Army in November. When the 7th Infantry Division replaced the 2nd, troops of its 31st Regiment occupying Hill 255 found words written on the bunker walls by the departing Thais: "Take good care of our Pork Chop."
In the late winter of 1953, General Deng argued that Chinese forces should adopt a retaliatory (zhenfeng xiangdui) strategy rather than remain on the defensive. The CMC endorsed his idea, and Marshal Peng moved the 23rd and 47th armies into line near Pork Chop Hill. On March 1, 1953, Chinese artillery opened an 8,000-round artillery barrage. Then, on the night of March 23, elements of the Chinese 67th Division of the 23rd Army and the 47th Army's 141st Division launched simultaneous ground assaults on Old Baldy, Pork Chop and Hill 191.
"On March 23rd, we ran a 50-man patrol along the perimeter of Pork Chop," recalled Corporal Joe Scheuber of I Company, 31st Infantry. "We just got into our foxholes on the finger of Pork Chop when enemy mortar and artillery hit us. To our right, more incoming rounds. Then we saw Chinese behind us and realized we were surrounded. We fell back to the trench line at the top of the hill, but the Chinese had reached it first. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out. There was a tremendous amount of noise. I got nicked in the arm and my helmet got shot off. I worked my way down the hill, killing a Chinese soldier with a grenade. I ended up in a shell hole the remainder of the night, as the enemy artillery lasted most of the night. When dawn broke, I was found by another unit from I Company as they pushed the Chinese off the hill." The Chinese drove the defenders back 800 yards. Just after midnight, however, two companies from the 7th Division reserve counterattacked and recovered Pork Chop by morning.
The 1st Battalion of the Chinese 141st Division, commanded by Hou Yung-chun, was selected to assault Old Baldy. The unit's political officer hand picked the 3rd Company to lead the attack and plant the "Victory Flag" on the hill. Facing the Chinese was the recently arrived and inexperienced Colombian 3rd Battalion. Supported by heavy artillery fire, the Chinese penetrated the U.N. position at about 2100 hours. Although the Colombians were reinforced by an American company, it was not enough to prevent them from having to fall back. Kao Yung-ho, a young soldier in the 3rd Company, declared, "This victory is to our company commander's credit."
"When the Chinese seized Old Baldy there was good military logic to abandon Pork Chop," S.L.A. Marshall wrote. "That concession would have been in the interest of line-straightening without sacrifice of a dependable anchor. But national pride, bruised by the loss of Old Baldy, asserted itself, and Pork Chop was held."
A lull fell over the area while the Chinese 47th Army was resupplied for its next objective -- Pork Chop. Back in the United States, the press lambasted the 7th Division for the loss of Old Baldy and described the division as weary, slipshod and demoralized. Unwittingly, the American press supplied the Chinese with a propaganda tool -- during the April and July fighting, 7th Division troops would hear those same caustic criticisms loosed at them from Chinese loudspeakers.
In April 1953, two platoons of E Company, 31st Regiment of the 7th Division, both under the command of 1st Lt. Thomas V. Harrold, garrisoned Pork Chop. The total strength within the perimeter came to 96 men, including attached artillery, engineer and medical personnel. The 1st and 3rd platoons mustered only 76 riflemen, and 20 of them were stationed at listening points outside the perimeter. Easy Company normally had twice that many, but it had begun its rotation out of the sector.
The bunkers and trenches had been engineered according to the then-conventional pattern of the Eighth Army. As Marshall described it: "A solidly revetted rifle trench encircled it at the military crest, providing wall and some roof cover, which served for defense in any direction. Sandbagged and heavily timbered, fire-slotted bunkers were tied into the trench line at approximately 30-yard intervals. They gave troops protection while affording observation and command of the slope." The natural terrain, however, divided the two platoons, because Pork Chop was pushed in like the dent in a hat.
General Deng's plan to assault Pork Chop had been endorsed by the CMC on April 3, but Mao intervened, delaying the operation until the peace talks stalled. In that same month, the negotiators at Panmunjom agreed to exchange their sickest POWs, an operation called Little Switch. At that point, however, the Chinese political leadership wanted to show the U.N. that its cooperation did not reflect an unwillingness to fight. Deng was therefore authorized to attack Pork Chop Hill before April 20, when Little Switch was slated to begin.
At 2000 hours on April 16 a patrol from the 31st Infantry, consisting of 10 soldiers from Fox Company and five from Easy, advanced to within 100 yards of the shallow stream at the valley bottom and set up an ambush. At about 2300, some 50 Chinese soldiers approached from Hasakkol. Sergeant Henry W. Pidgeon of Fox Company flung grenades at them, thereby striking the first blow in the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. He then ordered the patrol back, but Easy Company's mortars, firing at the advancing Chinese, cut off the American patrol. A few individuals filtered back into the trenches at 0445, but most of the patrol remained on the slope until 1900 the next evening.
The advance patrol's encounter failed to raise alarm among Pork Chop's defenders, and two full companies of Chinese infantry reached the ramparts before anyone knew of their presence. Slipping past the listening posts, the Chinese assaulted the 1st Platoon's sector on the Pork Chop's left flank. Sergeant 1st Class Carl Pratt and his 1st Platoon troops could hear the enemy but remained in their bunkers because of Chinese shelling. The 3rd Platoon, separated from it by terrain, was unaware of the 1st Platoon's situation or of the growing danger it was in.
At his command post (CP) at the far end of the perimeter, Lieutenant Harrold evaluated the situation. There had been increased Chinese shelling, contact had been lost with the outposts and 1st Platoon, and the volume of submachine gun fire had increased in the 1st Platoon's sector. Sensing that Easy Company was in big trouble, he fired a red star rocket, signifying "We are under full attack," and a red star cluster, signaling "Give us flash Pork Chop." At 2305, the lights came on all over the hill, and two minutes later American artillery opened fire, to be answered by the Chinese batteries. Twenty minutes later, the firing ceased and members of Easy Company emerged from their bunkers. They found the Chinese in the trenches, and firefights broke out throughout the perimeter.
Although the Chinese had infiltrated the defensive works, the command post, then held by Harrold, two other officers and two NCOs, prevented them from securing the rear slope or barring reinforcements from coming up. Other than the CP blocking Pork Chop's back door, the hill's defense was without a linchpin. The 3rd Platoon was pinned in the bunkers, while only six wounded soldiers remained of the 1st Platoon. By systematically killing the occupants and capturing the bunkers, the Chinese, aided by additional reinforcements, secured most of the hill by two hours after midnight.
Harrold relayed what he knew through his battalion command to the 31st Infantry's commander, Colonel William B. Kern. One hour after the fighting began, three rifle platoons of L Company had been trucked forward, in case the Chinese overran Pork Chop. Shortly after 0200, Kern ordered one platoon from Fox Company and one from Love Company to reinforce Easy Company. The Fox platoon became lost and never arrived. Second Lieutenant Earle L. Denton was leading Love's 3rd Platoon from Hill 200 to Pork Chop when, about 50 yards from the chow bunker, two machine guns opened fire and brought down six of his men. After a second burst of Chinese gunfire, Denton decided to pull back.
Returning to Love's CP with only 12 men, Denton reported to the company commander, 1st Lt. Forrest James Crittendon, that the 3rd Platoon's attack had failed. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. John N. Davis, ordered King and Love companies to counterattack at dawn. Love would launch its second assault with only two platoons and, incredibly, never learned that it was to be part of a joint operation with King.
King Company's 135 troops were stationed behind Hill 347. At 0330, they were ordered into an attack position behind Hill 200. Minus the weapons platoon, each soldier carried a full belt, extra bandolier and three more grenades than usual. The six Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) men in each platoon carried 12 magazines, and each light machine-gun team carried five boxes of ammunition. Each platoon also carried a flame-thrower and a heavy rocket launcher. Colonel Davis suggested that King attack Pork Chop's rear slope with two platoons abreast and hold one in reserve. King Company's commander, 1st Lt. Joseph G. Clemons, Jr., understood that King would receive support from Love, which would attack up the ridge finger on Pork Chop's right. "Hit the hill hard and get to the top as fast as the men can go," Clemons told his platoons' leaders. "Success depends on speed; we must close before daylight."
With the 2nd Platoon deployed on the right, the 1st on the left and the 3rd in reserve, King Company reached the assault line. At 0430 the artillery barrage lifted and King stepped off. Although they were not fired on, it took King's men 29 minutes to travel the 170 yards to the nearest bunker. "We managed to get over the first line of barbed wire through holes cut by shellfire and by walking on bodies of men lying on the wire to hold it down," said Sergeant Samuel K. Maxwell, a K Company medic who had been on the hill back on March 23. "Pork Chop was steep. We were heavily loaded with ammo for our weapons and the MGs, as well as the boxes of grenades. The steep climb had us pooped. We got within grenade range in small groups to begin grenading our way down the main trench, clearing out the Chinese." Just as the first man entered the defensive works at 0500, the Chinese artillery struck.
As the battle entered its second round, Love Company had launched its second attack about the same time as King, but met a Chinese barrage more intense than the earlier one. Both of its platoons were crushed and sent tumbling back to Hill 200, leaving King Company on its own.
Sergeant 1st Class Walter Kuzmick's squad of King Company's 2nd Platoon encountered its first fire at the chow bunker just below the main trench. Kuzmick reached the main trench at 0520 and pushed his men along it toward the CP. Second Lieutenant Robert S. Cook, the 2nd Platoon's commander, reached the CP first and called Kuzmick forward. As Kuzmick rushed the bunker, grenade in hand, a lieutenant of Easy Company sprang out the door, also brandishing a grenade. Both men froze. Just then, Clemons appeared, stunned to find any Easy Company men left on the hill. Before anyone could move, three shells of undetermined origin hit the bunker. Cook, the Easy Company officer and several King Company men were wounded, but the Easy Company survivors inside were unharmed.
While weary King Company settled into the trenches and Love regrouped on Hill 200, fresh forces from the Chinese 141st Division moved toward Pork Chop. "Pork Chop was a maze, a rat's nest of bunkers, line and commo trenches, shell holes and rock clumps," Sergeant Maxwell said. "The Chinese kept feeding fresh troops into their counterattacks. The survivors of the previous attacks would then come out of cover and join them. We fought with the men we had. Every hour, we numbered less."
Clemons did not have enough men to take the hill by storm, so he and his executive officer, 1st Lt. Tsugi O'Hashi, returned to the chow bunker to sort things out. Clemons, guessing that he had lost half of his men and that the rest were low on ammunition, decided to bring up the 3rd Platoon.
By 0745, King Company had not advanced more than 200 yards in two hours, and the Chinese still held bunkers along two-thirds of the trench line. Feeling that his men were stretched to the breaking point, Clemons waited for help. It came in the form of 12 men from Love Company.
Crittendon had pushed 62 men of the regrouped Love Company back up the right-hand finger. On the way up, Crittendon was hit, along with the next company commander, 2nd Lt. Homer F. Bechtel. Command fell to 2nd Lt. Arthur Marshall, who led Love on through a buzz saw of artillery and machine-gun fire. By the time Marshall reached Clemons' position, he had 12 men left, including Lieutenant Denton.
The total of 65 Americans on Pork Chop -- survivors of Easy, King and Love companies -- was about the same number as Easy Company had had at the start of the battle. At 0814, more reinforcements arrived in the form of G Company, 17th Infantry, commanded by Clemons' brother-in-law, 1st Lt. Walter B. Russell. At the same time, however, a fresh Chinese company arrived at the other side of the hill's ridge and fighting blazed anew. At 1100 Clemons radioed his battalion, "I must have water, plasma, more medical assistance, flamethrowers, litter, ammunition, several radios." Only a little water and C rations arrived.
At noon, 1st Lt. James Blake, the battalion intelligence officer, entered Clemons' CP with a message from Colonel Davis, ordering him to send survivors of Easy and Fox to the rear, and for George Company to withdraw at 1500. "When they go out," Clemons told Blake, "it is not reasonable to expect that we can hold the hill." Battalion did not respond to his message. Clemons' and Russell's men held on for the next few hours, but at 1445 Clemons sent another message to Battalion: "We must have help or we can't hold the hill." This time Colonel Kern responded by calling division headquarters and urging either relief or reinforcements for Pork Chop.
The 7th Division faced a more complex issue regarding the hill. If it fell, the Chinese could strike next at Hill 347, which could turn into a bloody, battalion-per-day meat grinder like Triangle Hill, an objective that had ended up in Chinese hands by the end of October 1952. The division asked for a decision from I Corps, which asked the Eighth Army, which asked Far East Command. The Eighth Army wanted to weigh how many men it was prepared to lose against the importance of preventing the Chinese from flaunting a victory at Panmunjom. While the high command debated the issue, the 7th Division commander, Maj. Gen. Arthur G. Trudeau, and his aide-de-camp, Brig. Gen. Derrill M. Daniel, helicoptered to Davis' regimental CP to get a clearer view of King. They arrived at 1500, just as George Company withdrew from the hill.
By then, King Company had suffered 18 men killed and 71 wounded. "We were down to 25 men, including a few men from Love Company," Sergeant Maxwell recalled. "With no reinforcements in sight, Lt. Clemons grouped us onto a high hill knob on Pork Chop where we might hold out. Somehow we held the rest of the day into the night." Troops also manned two bunkers at the top of the crest, and Clemons remained in the CP with the radio while O'Hashi and Kuzmick directed the troops. In preparation for a night attack, the Chinese shelled the American positions for four hours.
At 1640, Clemons reported to the regiment: "We have about 20 men left still unhurt. If we can't be relieved, we should be withdrawn." General Trudeau, who was present when the message came in, decided to hold the hill. He got official backing from the Eighth Army, because of its linkage to the talks at Panmunjom. Trudeau attached the 17th Infantry Regiment's 2nd Battalion to the 31st Infantry and moved the 17th's 1st Battalion into the support area of Pork Chop Hill.
Colonel Kern immediately ordered Captain King of Fox Company to move onto Pork Chop and relieve Clemons' force as soon as possible. Fox's troops arrived at 2130 and deployed into the trenches with the remnants of King and Love companies. At the same time, a Chinese force attacked from Hasakkol. American artillery scattered the Chinese, but they responded with a barrage of their own, killing 19 men of Fox Company.
With Fox Company bloodied and exhausted, Kern committed Easy Company of the 17th Infantry, while Trudeau released that regiment's 1st Battalion to Kern, just in case. Easy's commander, 1st Lt. Gorman Smith, moved his company around the right finger of Pork Chop and marched directly up its face -- the Chinese side -- hoping to catch them off guard.
Inside the American CP on the hill were Clemons, Denton, King and 14 enlisted men. At midnight, when Chinese fire let up, Clemons pulled his survivors off the hill. "About 2200, Fox Company of the 31st counterattacked and reached us," Maxwell said. "'King' was relieved at 2400. We made our way one by one in the gaps between Chinese artillery salvos to the foot of Pork Chop. Here, 20 hours earlier were 135 men in nine 6-by-6 trucks. Now, the seven of us sat in a one-ton weapons carrier. On leaving Fox Company, one of their medics had asked me to leave my med kit with him. I showed him it was empty. I had used every item I had carried up that hill. King Company would need 150 replacements before it could fight again as a full-strength rifle company." Denton remained at the CP, because Captain King requested further help.
About 0130, the Chinese attacked again, swarming around the CP and lobbing grenades into the bunkers. The Americans were wounded, but held on. Denton called for fire directly onto the bunker's roof. Fire from quadruple .50-caliber machine gun mounts swept the roof of Chinese. As the enemy launched another assault, Denton and his men knew that this time they would be overwhelmed. Chinese fire intensified. Then, suddenly, there was silence, followed by the crack of rifle fire as Easy Company of the 17th Infantry arrived. Driven from the crest, some Chinese scampered back across the valley, while others took refuge in the outline trench works. Evaluating Gorman Smith's risky maneuver in retrospect, S.L.A. Marshall wrote that "For the embattled group within the Pork Chop CP, the minutes thus saved by one man's intuition and hard work were as decisive as a last-minute reprieve to the condemned."
Easy Company's assault was the pivotal event in the battle for Pork Chop, but it did not end the fighting. By 0230, Easy was deployed over the trench works, and the Chinese launched company-size assaults at 0320 and 0429. At dawn, Kern committed A Company of the 17th to the struggle, and throughout April 17 the three American companies reoccupied the trench system, using small arms, grenades and bayonets, finally crisscrossing the peak and taking control of the hill. Denton and a few diehards of Love Company remained on the hill until midafternoon.
In the early morning of April 18, more troops from the Chinese 141st Division assaulted the hill again, but after a bloody close-quarters fight they were driven back by an arriving company of American reinforcements. At dusk, the Chinese finally conceded the fight and withdrew to their side of the valley.
Marshall called Pork Chop Hill "an artillery duel," noting that the nine artillery battalions of the 2nd and 7th divisions had fired 37,655 rounds on the first day and 77,349 rounds on the second. "Never at Verdun were guns worked at any such rate as this," he wrote. "The battle of Kwajalein, our most intense shoot during World War II, was still a lesser thing when measured in terms of artillery expenditure per hour, weight of metal against yards of earth and the grand output of the guns. For this at least the operation deserves a place in history. It set the all-time mark for artillery effort."
Pork Chop became a well-publicized battle and therefore an important bargaining chip at the peace table. In June 1953, Marshal Peng provided General Deng with a fresh unit, the First Army, consisting of the 1st, 2nd and 7th divisions, to relieve the 47th Army. On July 6, the Chinese command decided to make another attempt to take Hill 255. A few days earlier, the Communist and U.N. delegates had reached a tentative ceasefire agreement, but South Korean leader Syngman Rhee had balked at the settlement. The Chinese meant the attack on Pork Chop to chastise the Americans for failing to keep Rhee reined in.
"The Chinese were on their loudspeakers telling us to surrender," recalled Angelo Palermo, a 21-year-old private in Able Company, 17th Infantry. "If we did not, they said, we were all going to die. They announced that they were going to take Porkchop and that they would take no prisoners. On the night of July 6, as it started to get dark, the Chinese attacked in force. I was on a .50-caliber machine gun when they started to swarm up the hill. I could have sworn that all of China was on that slope. With enough firepower, we could have killed a thousand gooks, but we hadn't nearly enough ammunition to turn back this kind of attack. We fired the .50 until we ran out of ammo, and by that time the Chinese were in our trenchline, so we fought them with rifle butts, bayonets, and even fists and helmets. They were pushing us back, but before we were driven off the hill, Baker Company came up to help us. However, the sheer numbers of Chinese drove us off the top of Porkchop."
The Americans sent in successive companies of reinforcements, and the Chinese matched each one with an additional battalion. The 17th Infantry gained and lost Pork Chop twice in four days.
"General Trudeau came up on an inspection and told us that Porkchop had to be held at all costs," wrote Private Palermo. "I thought generals only talked like that in movies, but apparently I was mistaken."
Trudeau organized a counterattack force from the reconnaissance battalion and personally led it up the hill. For that exemplary action, he was awarded the Silver Star. S.L.A. Marshall also noted that the much-maligned 7th, the only U.S. Army division to fight a major battle in 1953, "acquitted itself with the highest credit."
By July 11, five American battalions held a company-size outpost against a full Chinese division. On that same day, however, General Taylor, I Corps and the 7th Division ordered the hill abandoned. Taylor wrote in his book Swords and Plowshares, "The cost of continuing to defend Pork Chop became so prohibitive under the massed Chinese attacks that I authorized its evacuation."
Korea and Vietnam War veteran Colonel Harry G. Summers wrote more critically of his rationale: "Ever the politician (as he would prove to be again in the Vietnam War), General Taylor had made his decision based on his perception of American public and political reactions to the high number of U.S. casualties." Marshal Peng praised the outcome as "an example of how Chinese forces effectively employed the 'new tactic' of active defense in positional warfare.
The British, who fought a similar battle at the Hook, thought the struggle for Pork Chop was foolish. Asked what he would have done to recapture Hill 255, Maj. Gen. Mike West, commander of the Commonwealth Division, answered: "Nothing. It was only an outpost."
With the final signing of the armistice agreement at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, Pork Chop Hill became part of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It has since become a symbol, both positive and negative, of a controversial war. In his book The Korean War, Max Hastings summed up both by writing: "The struggle for Pork Chop became part of the legend of the U.S. Army in Korea, reflecting the courage of the defenders and the tactical futility of so many small-unit actions of the kind that dominated the last two years of the war."
This article was written by James I. Marino and originally published in the April 2003 issue of Military History magazine. >