Leading: When Lives Still Mattered

Every line-of-duty death calls for a serious examination, especially when aggressive tactics are employed. It is imperative that we closely monitor the length of time firefighters operate in hostile and rapidly deteriorating interior environments in order to create a healthy margin for firefighter safety and survival.

The American Fire Service is expert in at least one area: discovering ever more creative ways to kill and injure firefighters, often under pointless circumstances. They are sent to their deaths by the dozens in big-box stores, warehouses and other obviously unoccupied buildings. A few have gone to their deaths in abandoned buildings; in at least one case the fire building was under active demolition. Today, no scenario is too ridiculous to sacrifice, as we virtuously say, a few of "our own." In this fire service, everybody, most assuredly, does not come home though we like to profess otherwise.

Many of these obviously avoidable deaths and injuries are the direct result of chiefs and company officers blindly and rotely employing standardized strategies, tactics and procedures that are completely unsuitable to the actual situations they face. The one thing they all have in common is that they needlessly and recklessly place firefighters in forward positions where they are hopelessly overexposed and unable to retreat safely when fast escape is the only hope.

Divisions, Battalions, Companies
Our fire service, in terms of its perspective, structure and behavioral norms is based on military doctrine. Indeed, few would disagree that we are a para-military organization with a core mission very similar, where companies and whole battalions are deployed systematically to win a fight.

A key tool of a successful military force is the ability to be aggressive, to deploy in such a fashion that you create and sustain a relentless momentum that will carry you to and then through your objective. The fire service has now religiously and fanatically adopted this theory and doctrine of tactical aggression with little regard to its negative effect, especially when it is applied without intelligence. (That's intelligence as in information, not smarts, though a little smarts is a good thing, too.)

Our brothers and sisters in the military know that applying naked aggression is a fool's errand if you don't know what you are up against. It's ironic that, in this "age of information," firefighters ignorantly barge into burning structures with virtually no information about civilian life risk, the make-up of the structure or the intensity of the fire they face. Even George Patton would be appalled. We are aggressive because it's the only accepted leadership style, the only tool in the toolbox, the only game in town. It wasn't always so.

The 38th Parallel
On June 25, 1950, 90,000 North Korean troops stormed across the 38th parallel and struck the Republic of Korea (ROK), South Korea's defense force, with a shocking blow. The In Min Gun, (IMG) as the North Korean troops were called, were agile, tough and battled hardened. Many had served on the communist side during China's civil war. The IMG were fast and ruthless, capturing Seoul and relentlessly driving the ROK southward. The civilian population fled in terror, blocking roads and bridges, making a coherent defense virtually impossible.

Help was painfully slow in coming. The closest U.S. troops were on occupation duty in war scarred Japan and by most accounts they were under trained and seriously lacking in equipment. For the next two months troops and supplies poured in from Japan and then eventually directly from the west coast of the U.S.. The best these early forces could achieve against the North Korean juggernaut was a series of delaying actions and retrograde movements that threatened to result in U.S. forces being driven completely off the Korean peninsula.

After months of a fighting retreat, General Walton Walker's Eighth Army was jammed into the southeast corner of South Korea with the Sea of Japan at their back. It was literally time to sink or swim. But there was some good news in the fall back: the U.S. retreat had the dual effect of so concentrating Walker's forces that he could now meet North Korean attacks with a stiff response while maintaining a hefty reserve.

At the same time, just like an engine company supply line that is too long, the North Korean supply chain had lengthened to the point that they were unable to adequately refit their exhausted and starving troops. What had been a steady torrent of men and material from the north had slowed to a mere trickle. Change was in the wind.

Douglas MacArthur, manic-depressive five-star general and de-facto emperor of post-war Japan was the mastermind behind the brilliant plan to conduct an amphibious landing at Inchon, cutting off the North Korean army while placing them in a position to be crushed between Walker's Eighth Army and the Tenth Corps forces that would comprise the Inchon landing group. Code named Bluehearts, it required Tenth Corps, made up of the Seventh Infantry Division and the First Marine Division to negotiate the significant challenges at Inchon and reverse the tide of the war. That they did and North Korean troops were either trapped or forced on the defensive as they disengaged from Walker's forces and, in turn, retreated to the north, back across the 38th parallel from whence they came.

Going North
UN forces, with the U.S. in the vanguard were at a perilous crossroads. Their opening gambit was a controlled retreat to a defensible position. The Inchon invasion so thoroughly reversed the course of the war that they were able to redefine their goals and strategy. American political reality won over the reality of the battleground and the new objective was defined, not as the liberation of South Korea, but rather the unification of North and South Korea into a single democratic entity. This would entail following the fleeing North Koreans across the 38th parallel.

Major General Oliver Prince Smith, once described as "a man whom older ladies would call nice looking if only he would put on a little weight" was commander of the First Marines, Tenth Corps, now deployed on the high, bitterly cold mountains within range of the Yalu River and mainland China. Prince's assignment was to lead part of the final drive north over the frozen wasteland to trap and destroy a fleeing North Korean Army. Prince would be operating with the U.S. Eighth Army on his left flank as together they engaged in a giant pincer move that would annihilate Kim Il Sung's forces once and for all.

It had taken five bloody and tortuous months to reach the spot where Prince now stood. Ned Almond, commander of Tenth Corps and Smith's boss was adamant that the Marines move forward to keep the pressure up on the fleeing North Koreans in order to set the final trap. The strategy was clear: be aggressive and relentless in the pursuit.

Oliver Smith, decorated Marine and veteran of Peleliu, deemed by some as the worst campaign in the history of warfare, was deeply unhappy; many thought he deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor for what he was about to do.

To Chosin
The First Marines made an amphibious landing at Hungnam and started an arduous journey northwest into the mountainous terrain. They were enroute to the area of the Chosin Reservoir, some 60 miles from their start point. Smith, though a consummate warrior, was blatantly dragging his feet, "just poking along," in the words of his operations officer. He viewed the high and frigid North Korean terrain as completely unsuited for warfare.

More importantly, he was convinced that the Communist Chinese, just across the river in Mainland China, had already joined the fight in significant numbers and were about to rapidly increase the size of their force. Smith's regiments were strung out on narrow roads with almost no room to maneuver. In addition, Eighth Army forces, located on their left flank, were 80 miles away. Tenth Corps was operating on their own, in a totally isolated sphere with no back-up available.

Smith had slowed to barely a crawl and was creating a series of supply dumps and ammunition depots in virtually every village he passed through. In addition to the consternation of Almond, Tenth Corps Commander, he insisted on creating an airstrip along the way in order to evacuate casualties. Almond thought it all a waste of time and resources. Smith would not be bullied or sped up. He was most worried about the constant demands to continually fragment his forces with conflicting orders and assignments. He felt that he would be unable to adequately forestall an attack if (when) it occurred because his troops were split up in the unfriendly terrain.

The Eighth Army: Six Eternal Minutes
Some 80 miles to the west, Eighth Army forces had heeded MacArthur's orders to close up on the Yalu. The terrain was murderous-high and hilly and the weather had turned brutally cold. Regiments, battalions, companies and platoons were separated from one another making a coherent advance (or defense) almost impossible. Where the Marines were making a determined effort to stay connected and to place supplies for any eventuality, Eighth Army forces were dangerously exposed and many were deeply worried.

Their worry was justified. Despite Ned Almond's consistently racist view of the Communist Forces (CCF) as nothing more than "Chinese Laundrymen," they were, in fact, seasoned, fearless warriors who traveled light but packed a deadly punch. And they were most definitely in the neighborhood, and in a very big way. By mid-November, 180,000 CCF soldiers had crossed the Yalu and were waiting in front of Eighth Army. They didn't wait long.

Eighth Army Second Division was deployed on both sides of the Ch'ongch'on river near the village of Kunu-ri. T.R. Fehrenbach, noted Korean War Historian, describes their situation as "...in almost complete isolation, in a tormented vacuum..." The Second Division would take the brunt of the coming CCF tsunami.

Beginning on the night of November 25, the CCF viciously attacked all along the Second Division front by the thousands using their proven tactics of probing to find dug-in platoons and companies, then rushing those troops while simultaneously finding routes around the strong points so that they could surround and cut-off the U.S./UN forces. The Second Division fought valiantly but they were constantly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of attackers and repeatedly forced to retreat in order to avoid complete annihilation. Finally, General Laurence "Dutch" Kieser, Second Division Commander, received permission to pull back to the area of Sunch'on, south of their position, in order to regroup and consolidate his forces. The evacuation route would be via the Sunch'on-Kunu-ri road: the Second Division was poised for disaster.

The Gauntlet
The Sunch'on-Kunu-ri road was narrow, two lanes at best, and ran through a series of defiles. The road was often surrounded on both sides by cliffs, ravines, and sheer drop-offs. The CCF had slipped around the Second Division, and enveloped the escape route with 10,000 troops employing multiple machine gun emplacements and ranged mortars with interlocking fields of fire. The closest help, British forces 20 miles down the road, had themselves been brought to a halt by the communists.

The Second Division, including artillery, engineers, and a tank battalion formed up for the withdrawal not as a fighting force but as a motor convoy where troops found a ride where they could. Unit cohesion and command and control completely dissolved as they started down the road. Keiser was under pressure to move as CCF forces were bearing down on his rear guard troops from the north. He was literally between a rock and a hard place. He gave the order to move out believing that any CCF roadblocks could be cleared.

The huge and lengthy convoy started off down the road, literally "hauling ass." A short while later the lead vehicles rounded a corner to find a tank and a personnel carrier, facing north, knocked out and blocking the road. The convoy ground to a halt and the CCF opened up on the largely defenseless U.S. forces from the cliffs on both sides of the road. It took six interminable minutes to release the brakes on the personnel carrier while under concentrated enemy fire and then to push it clear. The Second Division never recovered and the pattern was set for the remainder of that day and part of the next. For six miles, the winding and narrow road was a series of clever traps set by the CCF that ground the Division to pieces. It was literally every man for himself and hundreds were killed and thousands more wounded in the desperate attempt to push through what would forever be known as the "gauntlet."

The Second Division was destroyed as a fighting force. They lost virtually all of their equipment. Perhaps the low point of the debacle was when U.S. medics, untrained in infantry combat, abandoned trucks with 180 wounded soldiers near the rear of the column. These trucks and the soldiers in them were napalmed by U.S. fighter jets trained to destroy supplies to keep them from the enemy.

A Masterpiece Of Leadership: OP Smith Delivers
Two days later, on November 27, some 120,000 CCF troops attacked the Marines on the west side of the Chosin reservoir. The Chinese would attack in waves, often with successive soldiers picking up the rifles of those killed in front, as they were initially unarmed. The assaults were relentless and terrifying as they began with CCF forces sounding bugles and horns as a means of communication. But the overwhelming Chinese forces were not the only enemy at Chosin -- the temperature sank to as low as 48 degrees below zero, making crucial tasks such as digging foxholes or trenches all but impossible. Wounds froze immediately and thousands suffered from frostbite as no respite was possible.

Because of OP Smith's cautious approach the Marines were deployed to withstand the onslaught though the fighting was savage. During the evening of the 26th the order was given to begin a fighting withdrawal back down the treacherous road south. Once again, Smith's methodical preparation saved the day. At Hagaru, east of Chosin he had positioned a battalion from the First Marine Regiment. Another battalion was 11 miles further south at Kotori. Still another positioned 10 miles south at Chinhungni.

David Halberstam, in his 2007 Korean War history, The Coldest Winter, reports that Smith carefully prepared his officers for what lay ahead:

  • Fight from the high ground
  • Use paths and stay off the roads
  • Move during the day and button up at night

His clear direction, steely resolve and initial conservative approach paid off. Over the next 14 days the Marines fought their way some 70 miles over high, torturous, often one-lane mountain roads to eventual safety. They were repeatedly and masterfully re-supplied from the air and were able to use the airstrip Smith had built to fly out casualties and fly in replacements. The Air Force even air dropped a bridge to replace the one blown by the Chinese in a vain attempt to trap the Marines at Funchilin Pass.

Though 561 were killed and thousands more suffered wounds and frostbite, they emerged intact as a fighting force having held off some 100,000 Chinese combat troops. The First Marine Division was awarded fourteen Congressional Medals of Honor during those two weeks.

Four Leaders
North Korea in late 1950 is about four different leaders and the decisions they made. MacArthur was vain, egotistical and wholly out-of-touch with the real threat to U.S./UN troops. He constantly dismissed the CCF menace until his own forces were being crushed by them. He surrounded himself with people who were likely to tell him only what he wanted to hear and then he listened carefully-and only to them.

Ned Almond was smart, capable and relentlessly, remorselessly aggressive. It was said that he was aggressive when it paid to be aggressive and when it didn't. He had no other tools in his toolbox and he was highly unlikely to do anything other than exactly what MacArthur wanted. And in the latter part of 1950 MacArthur still believed that Korea could be unified and the CCF could be destroyed. Perhaps we can think of them as hidebound chief officers determined to put out every fire even when the results are mayhem and disaster.

On the battleground were Dutch Keiser and OP Smith. Both were determined, valiant and unquestionably brave. One led a division to safety and the other to destruction. Why? The simple answer could be that Smith was actually willing to take the larger risk-to be doggedly cautious and conservative when the "big dogs" were trying to push him on towards a hollow victory and a fool's errand.

Our fire service today largely rewards those who risk recklessly and seldom those who take the risk of being cautious. We praise (and promote) fools behind the wheel and at the command post. It's time we learned the lessons (and the ways) of OP Smith and the First Marine division and put them to work in each and every firehouse in the land. We would be much better off if we did.

ERIC LAMAR lives and works in Washington, D.C. He has been involved in the fire service for 30 years. To read Eric's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Eric by e-mail at ericslamar@gmail.com..