A Commander's Reflections

by Benjamin G. Moore, Col, USA (ret)

As a former commander of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Bn in the Korean War from 7 Sep 1951 to 25 Jun 1952, it is a great honor for me to have this opportunity to be able to send greetings to the veterans of the unit in that conflict, and to offer a few personal reflections. I have always considered the privilege of serving as CO of the battalion in combat something that I greatly treasure and am more proud of than anything in my entire military career as a Regular Army officer.

Although, like many of you, I am also a veteran of World War II, and although I take pride in that fact, I am even prouder of being a veteran of the Korean War. That is because, unlike WW II where the whole population was mobilized and involved in some way, we veterans of the Korean War were, relatively speaking, a select few who with our families bore the burden while most of the country carried on business as usual and made no sacrifices and suffered no deprivation or hardship.

All of who fought in Korea, I am sure, would like to feel that in risking our lives there for our cause and country we accomplished something worthwhile, and I strongly believe that we did. Not only were we there but we can also take pride in the contribution we made to preserve freedom in the world at a time when the communists were on the move to stamp it out wherever they could.

Although we did not disarm and destroy the oppressive communist regime in North Korea, as I believe they fully deserved, we did decisively defeat their unjustified, unprovoked and aggressive effort to take over and permanently occupy South Korea. That aggression is of course what started the war in the first place.

Moreover, we did this without the war degenerating into World War III, which would have been a general war involving China and the Soviet Union against the United States and its UN allies. Max Hastings, the noted military historian and author of a book on the Korean War, characterized the war as "an unprovoked act of aggression by the North Koreans," and as " a struggle the West was utterly right to fight." Thirty years after the war, Sir Oliver Franks, the British Ambassador to Washington at the time of the conflict, declared that it was "a just war, the use of force to put down a wrongful action."

Before I served in Korea, I had experience in two other mortar battalions. First in the 95th Chemical Mortar Bn in Germany during WWII, and after the war in the 91st Chemical Mortar Bn at Fort Lewis, Washington. In both cases, the battalion was attached to or in support of the infantry. On the basis of this experience, I considered that to be the best troop duty an officer could possibly have.

I did not know what to expect in Korea and, as things turned out, the situation was different. During my tour as CO, we were attached first to IX Corps artillery and later to X Corps artillery. In each case, the artillery put us in direct support of various U.S. and Korean divisions in the corps.

Although a Chemical Corps officer, I am very partial to the infantry and am a graduate of the Infantry School at Fort Benning. But I much preferred being placed in direct support of the infantry rather than being attached to them. The reason is that direct support implies that the supported unit says what it wants done but not how to do it, while an attachment may result in the infantry unit specifying how a mission is to be accomplished.

We had many problems in common with the artillery that they could and did help us with. Some examples: furnishing us BC scopes for better observation and conduct of fire from our observation posts (OP), helping us get better radios for our OPs and fire direction centers (FDC), and tieing us into the artillery communications network so that, when our OPs acquired targets more suitable for artillery than mortar fire, they could assign us artillery with which to conduct the fire mission.

I am happy to say that we had excellent relations with both IX and X Corps artillery as well as with the infantry divisions that we supported. I am very grateful to all of our officers and men whose outstanding performance of duty made this possible.

My tour of duty in Korea was during the second year of the war there. The following recalls the character of the war's first year and contrasts it with the second.

The first year of the war was one of movement and maneuver similar in some respects to the situation in Europe during WWII. Especially in the latter stages of that war, the situation and scenery changed constantly from day to day and frequently from hour to hour, as we moved forward and the enemy backward. Because it was a war of movement, one of our principal challenges was to rapidly move our mortar positions forward to keep within effective supporting distance of the advancing infantry. This was often difficult because of the relatively short range of the 4.2" mortar.

Like WWII in Europe, the first year in Korea involved rapidly changing tactical situations and forward movement. However, unlike Europe, it more frequently required retrograde movements. In many instances, these are more difficult to execute effectively than are forward movements, especially when in close contact with the enemy. Some writers have characterized the ebb and flow, the backward and forward movements of the opposing forces in the first year of the Korean War as "accordion movements."

In my opinion, those of us who fought in the second and third years of the war in Korea owe a great debt of admiration and gratitude to those who served during the first year. In many cases, they had come to Korea in under-strength and inadequately equipped units, because we had let our Army fall into such a state of woeful unpreparedness after WWII. Yet, despite this and the Chinese intervention, and after suffering great hardship, they had by the beginning of the second year evicted the enemy from South Korea and stabilized the military situation to the point that we late-comers could face the enemy on more equal terms.

When I took over the Battalion in September 1951, the war was entering its second year and its nature was changing rather drastically. In the second and third years, it was a static war of position rather than one of mobility and maneuver. It has even been described by some observers and writers as a stalemate, but to me this seems to imply a state of inactivity which it surely was not.

The scale of fighting, in terms of movement and distance covered along the line of contact by large scale military operations at any one time, was not nearly as great as in the first year. There was no moving of all the engaged forces back and forth, up and down the Korean peninsula.

Peace talks began on 10 July 1951, early in the second year of the war, without a cease-fire agreement. Hostilities continued until an armistice was signed on 27 July 1953. Along the line where the contesting forces faced each other when the peace negotiations began, each side began to fortify its position with barbed wire, mines, deep trenches and heavy bunkers reminiscent of World War I.

Most of the time there was an almost constant duel between the weapons on each side: artillery, mortars and small arms day and night. The pitched battles that occurred were mostly over terrain features that one side or the other wanted to take to improve its position. These were mainly hills that dominated and offered superior observation over the line of contact, and which were given such names as the Punch Bowl, Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, Pork Chop Hill and Old Baldy. Many smaller ones were nameless, given only a number. In this fighting, some of the most intense, savage and bitter fighting of the war took place. These battles were frequently very costly in terms of casualties suffered for ground gained. In the last two years of the war, while peace talks continued, the United States alone had 63,200 casualties, of which 12,300 were soldiers killed in action.

Having been in the WWII war of mobility and then the static war of position during the last two years of the Korean War, I found that the problems and concerns of those involved were quite different in each case. When I arrived at the Battalion in September 1951, my impression was that the Army in Korea, having recovered from its earlier reverses, was a very self-confident fighting force. Many people felt that, if turned loose, it could really punish the enemy and again drive the North Koreans and the Chinese all the way back to the Yalu River.

That made me wonder why we did not at least drive the enemy far enough in the second year of the war to punish them more for their unprovoked aggression, and decisively cripple their war-making capability, giving them a lesson that might deter similar trouble from them in the future.

However, like most low-level commanders in the field at that time, I was not well-informed about how large a part political considerations and constraints played in what we could do there militarily. Now I know that our national leaders had concluded by the beginning of the second year of the conflict that we should keep the war within its existing bounds and wind it down as soon as possible, to the extent consistent with ensuring South Korea's continued existence as a free and independent country. The decision was based on our world-wide commitments and vital interests elsewhere. Historians have also concluded that, by the beginning of the second year of the war, few Americans were in favor of an extended war in Korea to drive the communists completely out of that country.

I felt that, while we talked peace and continued to wage a war that consumed the lives of many soldiers, there seemed to be too little movement toward a successful conclusion. I feared that this would ultimately have an adverse effect on the morale of our troops because of what I had learned from my study of military history and my service in WWII. I had observed that, when things seemed to be advancing the war on the battlefield toward a successful conclusion, everyone felt that their personal sacrifices were justified and worth the effort, and they did not so much risking their lives on these terms. But the opposite seemed to be true if soldiers could not see some tangible progress toward the end of the war.

As things turned out, my fears were not justified. In our Battalion, if there was any significant lowering of morale, I did not detect it. The reason may have been that, unlike WWII where a soldier stayed in combat until he was killed, disabled from wounds, or the war ended, in Korea we had a rotation policy. For the individual, this rotation policy meant that every passing day brought him closer to rotation and the end of the war for him, although there was no such ending for everybody all at once.

However, the rotation policy did give me some concern since we were constantly losing our experienced "Old Timers" and bringing in new men. Unless the new men performed well from the start and made no major mistakes, we could be in real trouble. Failure to fix the correct charge to the base of a round, or the calculation of incorrect firing data, could bring a short round or an entire concentration on our own troops. Failure to notice that a defective fuze had prematurely armed itself before a round was fired could cause it to explode in the barrel. Our fire missions in support of the infantry could be ineffective because of errors in an OP or FDC, or errors in the laying, aiming and servicing of one or more mortars.

My fears that our combat capabilities might be dangerously weakened, or that some major shortfall in our performance would ruin the Battalion's reputation and get the commander relieved, did not come true. The replacements who came in during my time as CO did a great job and earned my utmost respect, as did the men who were there when I arrived. I attribute this outstanding performance not only to the high quality of the men who came in as replacements, but also to the help they received from the officers and men they found in their companies.

One of the proudest moments I had in the days after I returned to the U.S. after my tour in Korea occurred at a meeting of National Guard and Reserve officers who had not yet been called to active duty. When I spoke to this audience, one of the main questions they asked me was how well our soldiers in the Korean War were doing compared with those of WWII. I assured them without any hesitancy whatsoever that our men in Korea measured up to those in WWII in every way. Some of the adjectives I used in describing them were: highly motivated, dedicated, hard working, resourceful, competent and courageous.

Now that the years have passed, I still cannot say enough in praise of the post-war conduct of the Korean veterans. In spite of the fact that they have received far less recognition than I feel they truly deserve, they have conducted themselves with great dignity and self respect, with never a hint of any whining or self-pity at the lack of public recognition or appreciation for the hardships they suffered and the sacrifices they made in serving their country.

Speaking of recognition, I have a regret that I want to mention, but not in a self-seeking or disgruntled way. It is simply my view of a problem peculiar to 4.2" chemical mortar units. In WWII and the Korean War, these units served in a front line combat role identical to that of infantry mortar units. For this service, infantrymen received the Combat Infantry Badge (CIB)  that special mark of distinction for a combat soldier  in addition to any personal decorations they may have earned. Those in 4.2" chemical mortar units received no such special mark of distinction.

Of course, it must be mentioned that the last soldiers who served in the 2nd Chemical Mortar Bn are an exception and did gain the recognition they deserved. This came about because the Battalion, by a simple change of designation but no change of mission, was converted into an infantry mortar battalion (heavy). As a result, those men can proudly display the CIB. We who served earlier in the Battalion congratulate them on this distinction and simply wish that the same had been granted to those before them.

In every war, there are some people who, although of the right age and physically able to serve, are willing to stand by and live off the accumulated legacies which others have won for them in the past, never making any sacrifices themselves. I do not say this self-righteously but I am thankful that we, as Korean War veterans, are not in that company. In responding to the call of public duty in that conflict, I believe that the Korean War generation has enriched our nation's heritage and left an example to uplift and inspire all who may be called to serve in the future.

This article was first published in the May 1997 issue of The Red Dragon, the newsletter of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion Association. The author, Benjamin Moore, enlisted in the Army 2-27-42 and was commissioned from OCS 12-22-42. He was a platoon leader and forward observer with the 95th Cml Mortar Bn in Germany, company commander in the 91st Cml Mortar Bn, and CO of the 2nd Cml Mortar Bn in Korea 7-9-51 to 25-6-52. He has had many other distinguished and varied assignments in the Regular Army, and retired in 1968. He now lives in Atlanta where he exercises his hobby of Civil War research and helps people track down their ancestors who served in that conflict.

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