February 13, 1951 - The Battle of Chipyong-Ni
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
February 13, 1951. One American infantry regiment and a French battalion stand in the way of the Chinese 39th Army sweeping south down the Korean Peninsula. The time has come for the decisive battle, the "Gettysburg of the Korean War": the Battle of Chipyong-Ni.
Several months after the North Koreans attacked the South in June 1950, US and South Korean forces led by General MacArthur - United Nations (UN) Commander - had retaken almost the whole Korean peninsula and pushed north towards the Chinese border. The Chinese Communist government of Mao Zedong, viewing Western forces closing in from the south as an existential threat, had deployed to counterattack and drive back the UN.
They struck just before Thanksgiving - November 25, 1950. Widely dispersed and unable to support each other, the separated American and Allied forces were hit by enormous Chinese armies and driven back through North Korea. Outnumbered by as much as 10 to 1, Army and Marine forces had to hack their way out of total encirclement. The favorite Chinese tactic was to surround an enemy force and then attack from all sides. Bitter fighting throughout the Korean winter and narrow escapes saved the UN Forces, but they retreated south, barely staying ahead of the pursuing Chinese.
On January 4, the Chinese and North Koreans retook Seoul, the capital of South Korea. It was a crisis. MacArthur and Washington were blaming each other for the disaster, American troops were demoralized and exhausted, and it looked like the UN Forces might have to withdraw from Korea altogether.
In came a new leader: Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway. He had led the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II in Sicily and on D-Day, taking part in the jumps along with his men, and led 18th Airborne Corps in Holland and the Battle of the Bulge. Ridgway was a striking figure, bald-headed, eagle-nosed, always with a Colt .45 on his chest and grenades on his belt. He fired leaders who didn't perform, put the fighting spirit back into soldiers, stalked the front lines showing no fear. He was one of those generals who turns a war around.
Ridgway's instincts told him the Chinese were about to reach their limit. The next attack would come in February 1951 and it would try and push the UN Forces completely out of Korea. He decided the time to retreat was over. Let the Communists come; the GIs would hold. While the Chinese concentrated against one point, Ridgway would prepare the rest of the army for an attack. The place was a little town called Chipyong-Ni - a vital crossroads Ridgway knew the Chinese would have to take to advance.
Colonel Paul Freeman's 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division was stationed at Chipyong-ni on February 1 and ordered to dig in like they were going to stay. Attached to them was Colonel Monclar's French battalion, soldiers the equal of any American, and a company of Rangers. Until February 13, the 23rd dug in, building a tiny fortress around Chipyong-Ni.
On February 13, the Chinese came. They pushed past the forces on either side and quickly encircled the UN Force. The general on the scene, panicked, ordered the 23rd to withdraw, but Ridgway countermanded the order. Chipyong-Ni could be held, and would be held. The battalions of the 23rd took the north, south, and east, and the French took the west. They were less than 5,000, surrounded by over 25,000 Chinese.
Day 1, February 13. Day and night, the Chinese forces pounded the isolated soldiers. Attack after attack broke on machine gun and mortar fire. The cold was nearly paralyzing; men loading rounds into their weapons left bloody fingerprints on their guns as their flesh froze to the cartridges. A handful of tanks skittered back and forth down the lines, trying to stem the tide. Bugles and war cries sounded as brave Chinese soldiers crashed into the perimeter time and again.
Day 2. Artillery was raining down on the isolated men. Ammunition was running low. American planes dropped flares to reveal enemy positions. That night, the Chinese broke through the perimeter on the south; ragged counterattacks failed to restore the line and Freeman had to pull his men back. They were almost out of ammunition.
Day 3. Freeman ordered his men to be ready for one final assault. As B Company attacked, losing half their number, they spotted a column of tanks coming from the south. They were American: the 1st Cavalry Division's relief force. The Chinese, defeated and harried by air strikes, were forced to withdraw. Chipyong-Ni had been held.
The Chinese came no farther south in Korea than the outskirts of Chipyong-Ni. It was the high water mark of their battle; from then on, Matthew Ridgway and his 8th Army would drive them north, retaking Seoul and pursuing them back to a line along the central mountains of Korea. There, to this day, the DMZ marks the boundary between the two nations.
One small regiment - and our French allies - had saved the American Army at that windy, cold village in South Korea. And it's because of them - and the many other troops that fought with them - that there remains a place for democracy in Korea today.
The classic Korean War history is T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2000) originally published in 1963. It is a bit outdated, though, and focuses almost entirely on the small-unit level – which makes it great reading but not exactly a scholarly work. For a more detailed look at the conflict, check Allan R. Millett’s The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came From the North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010) though it IS a bit large.