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Posted on Oct 16, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Tanks and Tankers in Korea, 1950 – 51

By Wild Bill Wilder

One, the 70th, was composed of the M-26 Pershing, a latecomer to World War II and holder of a dubious reputation as to its reliability and effectiveness. Colonel Rodgers, commander of the 70th, jokingly told how his outfit was thrown together in five days, taking men from all over the country. The tanks themselves after WW II had been placed on concrete pedestals around Fort Knox as monuments. They were the primary source for equipment for the 70th.  Then with no training together and no machine guns for their tanks, they were shipped to Korea. Nevertheless, the sight of these tanks rolling off the landing craft at Pusan brought cheers from the beleaguered GIs on the beach.

korea2.jpg
The M-26 Pershing, holder of a dubious reputation as to its
reliability and effectiveness

This buildup continued throughout the fall and winter. As the war escalated in Korea, the urgent need for more armor was met as best it could. By the middle of January 1951, the Eighth Army had in its inventory a force of 670 tanks. One armor officer of high rank, after visiting Korea, stated in his report, “We have yet to find a situation to which armor, to some degree, could not be profitably employed. The tank has repeatedly exploited the situation in spite of the terrain.”

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625 of these tanks were American and 45 were British. About 400 of the American tanks were usually attached to the six army divisions there. Occasionally they were “detached” for special missions. These assignments were the 6th with the 24th Division; the all black 64th with the 3rd Division; the 70th, with the 1st Cavalry; the 72nd, with the 2nd; the 73rd with the 7th; and the newly formed 89th with the 25th Division.

During the fall of 1950, General MacArthur, who often did little extras to those most loyal to him, gave three extra tank companies to the 7th Division of X Corps, commanded by General Ned Almond. Their tanks had been reclaimed from Pacific battlefields and refurbished by the Japanese. The Department of the Army never officially recognized them.

The tank inventory included 64 of the light, thin-skinned Chaffees, 147 of the heavier Pershings, and 97 of the newest model M-46 and M-47 Patton tanks. The bulk of the US tank force, however was the World War II vintage medium Sherman M4A3E8, with a powerful 76mm cannon. Despite its older technology and smaller gun, this would be the favorite of the tankers throughout the Korean conflict.

Still not satisfied with this number, the new commander of the forces in Korea (and later to take MacArthur’s command in the Far East), General Matthew Ridgeway, attempted to add even more armor to his inventory. It was in vain. The Washington bureaucrats, fearful of accusations of escalation, and a larger defense budget, hamstrung the commander to these six battalions throughout the remainder of the war.

By the end of 1951, all Pershing tanks had been purged from the inventory. Half of the battalions (6th, 64th, 73rd) were equipped with Pattons; the other three (70th, 72nd, 89th), with the M4A3E8 Sherman “Easy Eights.” The number of tanks maintained in the country till the cessation of hostilities remained at about six hundred. Many in Washington still doubted their usefulness.

Tanks nevertheless played a pivotal role throughout the Korean conflict. In the early months of the war, there were a number of significant tank engagements, in which the United States came out second best. North Korean armor spearheaded the Communist drive from the 38th Parallel to the Pusan perimeter.

The Allies on the ground were quite poorly equipped to deal with armor. It was primarily the planes of the UN forces that proved devastating to the armored thrusts of North Korea.  Once lost, the armor initiative held by the communists in Korea was never regained. UN armor would take the preeminence in that aspect of the war.

It was the timely arrival of more American armor that finally brought an end to this deadly menace. By the end of October, 1950, the NK 105th Armored Division had lost over 230 tanks; 39 of them to American tanks, 13 by bazooka kills, 102 by air attack (primarily napalm), and the rest which were abandoned due to mechanical malfunction, or panic by the crews when they came under fire.

China’s main contribution to the war was in manpower. A Chinese tank regiment was assigned to the conflict but throughout the three-year period there it never made an appearance in any strength. There were, according to Allied intelligence estimates, about 500 North Korean and Chinese tanks and SP Guns in Korea at the war’s end. Most likely UN air supremacy kept these vehicles under cover. They did not stand much of a chance against the air might of the free nations.

Sources

The Forgotten War, Blair
The Military History of the Korean War, Marshall
Korean War Almanac, Summers
This Kind of War, Fehrenbach
Korea,The First War We Lost, B Alexander
At War in Korea, Forty

About the Author

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion – wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War, and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"

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