Battle of Unsan

Unsan is located in the eastern section of North P’yŏngan province, roughly 60 km northeast of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Between October 25 and November 4, 1950, Unsan was the site of one of the most devastating battles for U.S. forces in the Korean War. Unsan marked the surprise entry of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) of China, also known as the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), and the beginning of their First Phase Campaign to support the fleeing North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) forces that were retreating toward the Yalu River. On October 25, the Republic of Korea (ROK) 1st Infantry Division attacked what they thought were remnants of the NKPA at Unsan. Very soon after, captured Chinese soldiers alerted the ROK soldiers to a 10,000 strong Chinese force waiting north of Unsan to join the fight. ROK forces fought for positions in the hills around Unsan, but by the following morning, found themselves surrounded by enemy forces to the north and the west, on the road between Unsan and Yongsan-dong.

The U.S. 6th Medium Tank Battalion and the U.S. 10th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group were ordered to provide support to ROK troops trying to break through Chinese lines to little avail. General Walton Walker of the U.S. Eighth Army ordered the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division to fight with the ROK 15th Regiment in a northward attack. The 8th Cavalry Regiment had taken up positions around the town, with its 1st Battalion defending the north of Unsan by the Samtan River, while its 2nd and 3rd Battalions defended the areas west of the Unsan by the Nammyon River. Lack of UN manpower, however, created a 1-mile gap between the 1st and 2nd Battalions, which Chinese forces exploited on November 1. By later that night, the ROK 15th Infantry Regiment had been decimated and the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 8th Cavalry were severely low on ammunition. UN forces were ordered to withdraw by Major General Frank W. Milburn, commander of the U.S. I Corps.

The UN withdrawal from Unsan proved extremely difficult, as Chinese forces continued to pour into the gap between the 8th Cavalry’s 1st and 2nd Battalions. Surrounded by the 347th and 348th Regiments of the PVA 116th Division, these units had to mount an escape by infiltrating the Chinese lines and abandoning most of their vehicles and heavy weapons along the way. They managed to reach UN lines the following day. Their brethren in the 3rd Battalion, however, were not so fortunate. They were initially left alone during the night while Chinese forces were attacking the 1st and 2nd Battalions, but a company of Chinese commandos from the 116th Division, disguised as ROK soldiers, infiltrated the 3rd Battalion command post and caught them in a surprise attack that killed many while they slept. After being pinned down, the U.S. 5th Cavalry Regiment was ordered to mount a rescue attempt. The 5th Cavalry lost 350 soldiers in attacks against the PVA 343rd Regiment in their attempts to help and were eventually ordered to retreat. Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion (8th Cavalry) continued to endure attacks from Chinese forces until less than 200 were able to make it to UN lines on November 4.

More than 1,000 men from the 8th Cavalry Regiment were initially listed as missing in action from the Battle of Unsan. As the days passed, about 400 men managed to return to friendly lines. Enemy sources later indicated the Chinese captured between 200 and 300 men at Unsan. From 1990 to 1994, the DPRK returned 208 containers of remains to U.S. control, sixteen of them reportedly from Unsan. They returned six more caskets of remains in 2007. In addition, DoD teams from Central Identification Lab-Hawaii (CILHI) and later the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) conducted operations in the Unsan area in 1996 and 1997 and from 2000 to 2005. Identification of remains from those recovery initiatives has resolved over 55 of the unaccounted-for service members from this battle.

Content sourced from: Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

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