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Posted on Jul 17, 2007 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Interactive Combat Story: Korea: The Next War

By John Antal

Today, 10:30 a.m.
Just South of Korea’s DMZ

A cold rain falls over the Korean countryside, the remnants of a typhoon that ravaged South Korea and Japan this month. The rumble of distant fire can be heard all across the front, echoing through the mist-shrouded valleys. The glare of exploding artillery shells a few miles north slices through the thick fog that has cut visibility on the ground to a few hundred meters.

Second Lieutenant Robert Stone of the U.S. Army and his platoon sergeant, Anthony Buckner, lie on their bellies on the muddy southern slope of Hill 575, one of Korea’s countless elevations. Shivering in the chilly air, they peer north into the gathering inferno lighting up the dreary, late-morning sky.

Stone pushes back his Kevlar helmet and stares ahead. Practically his entire body is swathed in green Nomex. Each tanker wears a similar outfit composed of a fire-retardant one-piece suit, gloves and balaclava (headgear that leaves only the mouth, nose and eyes uncovered). The protective clothing is carefully designed to prevent flash burns since the ammunition for the 120 mm main gun of the M-1A1 Abrams tank is encased in combustible cartridges whose powder ignites instantly if it comes into contact with a spark. Stone was told the Nomex clothing is heat resistant up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, but he hopes he will never have the opportunity to test those specifications.

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With all the calmness he can muster, he turns to Buckner and says, “Get the men ready and button up. The shelling is getting closer. All hell is about to break loose and I want every tank ready to move on my order.”

“What are we going to do?” Buckner asks, straining to be heard over the racket.

“Our current position at the foot of this hill will hopefully protect us from the North Korean artillery. Once the barrage passes us by, we’ll figure out our next step.”

“Wilco!” Buckner shouts and runs off to alert the platoon.

Stone takes a long, deep breath to steady his racing heart. As much as he has trained for this moment, he feels completely unprepared. He joined the unit in July, while the rest of his classmates in the Armor Officer Basic Course went to assignments in Iraq or Afghanistan. He never thought his platoon would actually go to war in Korea – especially while deployed on a training exercise! Moreover, his men are alone since the rest of his tank company is in a training area 10 kilometers and at least an hour away.

However, thanks to modern communications, Stone is not out of radio contact. A Humvee-mounted squad from the scout platoon occupies an observation post on Hill 555. The scouts just relayed a message to him from Captain Braddock, the commander of his unit, C Company, 1st Battalion, 72d Armor: “North Korean People’s Army advancing south all along the DMZ. East-west routes linking enemy north-south main avenues of approach are vital to NKPA’s continued advance. Armored force estimated at company to battalion size is heading your way. Your mission is to stop it from moving west of Hills 575 and 555. Hang in there – I’ll get to you with the rest of the company as soon as I can.”

Stone knows that since his platoon is located on one of the enemy’s main routes, the captain’s orders make good tactical sense. Korea’s rugged terrain offers numerous north-south corridors but very few easily accessible east-west routes to connect them. By blocking the vital east-west links, a defender can fragment and compartmentalize an enemy force attempting to rapidly advance southward.

Stone’s four M-1A1 tanks are combat-loaded – standard operation procedure for units in Korea – and due to recent tensions, they have a full complement of tank and small arms ammunition. Fuel, however, is another matter. The vehicles only have enough for about nine hours of operation. He might be able to stretch that to 15 if he restricts movement.

As the enemy artillery fire moves closer, it sounds like a huge hammer heading toward the platoon. Stone quickly runs back to his tank, climbs inside the turret and closes the hatch. Just as he buttons up, the earth erupts nearby. Rocks and debris fly in every direction and shrapnel slices through the tree branches above.

The ground trembles from the impact of the shells, shaking the 70-ton Abrams tank. Stone and his crewmen involuntarily duck as the bombardment continues. The noise inside the vehicle reminds him of a bad Texas hailstorm – only this one consists of swirling, hot steel. The gunner, Sergeant Joe Koslowsky, mumbles a prayer, while the loader, a South Korean Augmentee to the United States Army (KATUSA), Corporal Park Kyehyong, sits silently, his face white as a ghost.

After what seems like an eternity, the volleys of fire shift to the west. Stone carefully opens the hatch, noting that the rain has slackened and the fog seems to be lifting a little. His four tanks, protected by the side of Hill 575, appear to have weathered the firestorm unscathed.

A few minutes later, a scout from Hill 555 relays another message from Captain Braddock. “Well, fellas,” Stone says to his tank crew, “the good news is that the bombardment was apparently “unobserved fire” – no forward observer adjusted the rounds’ impact onto any specific targets – that’s how we got lucky and did not get hit. The bad news is that the North Koreans appear to be blasting a path in the valley to race their armor through, and a brigade will be bearing down on our four tanks any moment.

“As far as we can tell, the enemy brigade consists of 93 T-62 tanks, 46 M-1985 light tanks, 59 VTT-323 Armored Personnel Carriers with infantry, a dozen and a half each of 152 mm and 122 mm self-propelled howitzers, and four BLG-60 Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges. … Long odds, indeed.”

In spite of the numbers, Stone is confident in the ability of his M-1A1s. They are the finest tanks in Korea and more than a match for the outdated Soviet-era tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs). His biggest worry is that the North Koreans have upgraded their anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) arsenal. In particular, they now have the Russian-made Kornet AT-14 ATGM, a highly efficient tank killer.

Stone knows his platoon can fight effectively – for a while. The question is how long. However, he sets that issue aside for the moment. The enemy’s lead tank company will soon cross the bridge to the east, leaving him only minutes to decide how his small force will block the NKPA from using the valley as a vital east-west corridor.

Pushing the transmit lever on his Combat Vehicle Crew helmet, he radios Buckner. “Status report!”

“All four tanks REDCON One, Sir. A few scratches on the paint jobs but no casualties. … I heard the mission from the company commander. What do you want us to do?”

“Stand by,” Stone replies. He pulls a map from the cargo pocket of his uniform and quickly reviews the terrain. He immediately sees two ways to defend against the attacking North Korean armored column.

[continued on next page]

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