Eight Heroes stand out as U.S., South Korea honor Korean War vets

by U.S. Army
U.S. Army

"The Battle of Nakdong Perimeter was unique," said retired Army Col. William M. Alexander, the 2nd Infantry/ROK-U.S. Combined Division historian. "In conjunction with Operation Chromite, it was a big victory because previous to that UN forces had been pushed back."

In this chaos, Warriors of the 2nd Infantry Division assisted in the struggle. The total cost for the Warrior Division in "The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter," as many historians named it in later years, was 1,120 men killed, 2,563 wounded, 67 captured and 69 missing in action. Of these numbers, however, eight men stood out.

Eight men assigned to the division were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in battle during September of 1950. In a horrific conflict that pushed all involved to the limit, eight men went beyond theirs to help gain a hard-fought victory that turned the tide of the Korean War.

"For eight men to be awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in such a short time frame is something amazing," said Alexander. "While it is called one battle, it's not. It was a series of battles spread out across a large area. For eight men to be awarded that honor for their actions is something that doesn't happen often."

Alexander notes that it was the heroism of those eight men that allowed the 2nd Infantry Division to be the lead division to break through the weakened North Korean lines and take the fight back to the enemy, a factor that led to a counter-offensive that eventually took 8th Army Forces all the way to the Manchurian border.

Maj. Gen. Scott McKean, commanding general of the 2nd Infantry/ROK-U.S. Combined Division, paid tribute to those eight Medal of Honor recipients and their comrades during a September 22 ceremony commemorating the Battle of Hill 303 with a newly erected monument in Daegu.

"Having had an uncle who served here on this very ground, and was wounded here during the breakout on September 2, 1950, the meaning for me is a personal one," said McKean. "It's the sacrifice that all of these great veterans have made and need to be recognized for."

McKean joined Korean War veteran Mr. Howard Ballard, who traveled back to the peninsula from Chicago, Ill. for the first time since 1953 when he fought under the 2nd Infantry Division as a corporal. Standing tall, Ballard paid tribute as U.S. and Korean partners came together today in Daegu to honor those who fought so hard that fateful September and throughout the war.

All ranks of 2ID Soldiers were represented among the Medal of Honor recipients in the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter. From officers to enlisted Soldiers, from several privates first class to a sergeant first class, from a first lieutenant to several master sergeants, eight men from across the division found ways to help turn the tide of the battle as a relentless enemy attempted to pry them from their positions.

The early days of the battle saw extraordinary actions, as men like Pfc. Joseph R. Ouellette, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2ID, helped in the fight by dodging heavy enemy gunfire to scout the enemy and retrieve water for his comrades despite being severely wounded and Pfc. David M. Smith, 9th Inf. Regt., 2ID, jumping on a grenade and smothering its blast using his own body to save five of his comrades.

"Ouelette was a 19-year-old fighting to free a country he had never been to before, for people he couldn't even talk to," said Alexander. "His actions also led to Operating Outpost Oueltte being named after him. To be 19 years old at the time of his death and leave such an impact says a lot."

Leaders such as Master Sgt. Ernest R. Kouma, 72nd Tank Battalion, 2ID, fought on against all odds. Surrounded by the enemy, Kouma used his lone tank to stop an enemy advance and exposed himself to danger by mounting a .50 caliber machine gun from the back of his vehicle to kill the enemy that had surrounded him and his men. Upon emptying the machine gun, Kouma used his pistol and grenades to keep the enemy from his tank and crew. Kouma finally maneuvered back to friendly lines after nine hours of intense fighting, but immediately resupplied and led his men back out into battle.

As the battle continued, leaders like Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins, 9th Inf. Regt., 2ID, willingly gave the ultimate sacrifice to help their comrades achieve victory. Watkins left cover to attack North Korean troops who had his small unit pinned down with machine gun fire and were attempting to finish them with grenades. As he charged the men attempting to kill his Soldiers, Watkins sustained lethal wounds, but managed to fight through the pain to kill the threat. Paralyzed from the waist down, Watkins ordered his troops to break contact without him; knowing carrying him would be too much of a burden for his exhausted men. It is estimated that Watkins actions led to the destruction of almost 500 enemy soldiers before he was left defending his position.

No less heroic, were the actions of 1st. Lt. Fredrick F. Henry, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2ID, a platoon leader that again chose to sacrifice himself to allow his men to escape. Despite being attacked by a superior numbers earlier that day, Henry managed to help his men hold their position on a strategic ridge. As the fighting grew more and more intense, Henry fought on despite sustaining severe wounds. Henry was last seen ordering his wounded and dead to be evacuated, but not before their weapons and ammunition were brought to him so he could use them to cover the exit of his men. Henry was last seen using the last of that ammo before being overrun, but his gallantry bought his men the precious minutes they needed to escape.

As times passed these sacrifices added up along the front and allowed UN Forces to recollect themselves and launch an offensive at an enemy that was stretched well beyond their supply lines. The battle in total cost U.S. Forces 12,987 lives, 12,508 wounded and 2,701 missing in action and 401 men captured. It is estimated their Korean allies loss of 40,000 lives in defense of the small peninsula they defended.

The cost was heavy, but in victory the tide was turned.

Soon after the final shots of the battle were fired on September 18, UN Forces began to retake territory it had lost weeks prior. The North Korean Army found itself pushed further and further back to its Communist allies in China as a hardened enemy found new life, but it all started with the holding of the Nakdong Perimeter. A fight where eight 2nd Infantry Warriors did the extraordinary for their men, their allies and two countries.

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