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John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard
On this date, December 22, 1951, the 623rd Armored Field Artillery arrived at Pusan, South Korea, for its tour of duty in the Korean War.
known as the Land of the Morning Calm, was anything but calm in the early
morning hours of June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces invaded the Republic of
Korea. The U.S. military responded with
the largest mobilization to date in American military history of the so-called
“minor” affair or “police action” as it was referred to at the time.
On July 29,
1950, the Commonwealth’s 718th Transportation Truck Company was
ordered into Federal Service for a period of 21 months, effective August 19,
1950, becoming the first Army unit of the recently reorganized Kentucky
National Guard to receive Federal orders.
In Kentucky, 47.22% of all units assigned to the Kentucky Army and Air
National Guard entered federal duty, which included, four battalions, five
separate companies, and the entire Kentucky Air National Guard, as the nation
fighting forces massed and prepared for war.
On September 8,
1950, the entire Kentucky Air National Guard was ordered into federal service
effective October 10, 1950. After
activation, elements of the Kentucky Air Guard were ordered to Manston Royal
Air Force Base, near Margate, England, with the remainder of the organization ordered
to Godman Field, Fort Knox, Kentucky.
The 123rd furnished replacement pilots for units in Korea, by
the end of the war, five Kentucky Air National Guard pilots had made the
ultimate sacrifice: Captain George C.
Conder, Captain Merlin R. Kehrer, Captain John W. Shewmaker, First Lieutenant
Lawrence B. Kelly and First Lieutenant Eugene L. Ruiz
Field Artillery Battalion, headquartered in Glasgow, Kentucky, with firing
batteries in Tompkinsville, Campbellsville, Monticello, and service battery at Springfield,
was alerted on December 23, 1950. The
battalion entered active service commencing January 23, 1951. At the time of activation, the 623rd
had more men than any unit in the State, 32 officers, 6 warrant officers and
355 non-commissioned and enlisted men, however it was relatively inexperienced due
to the fact that it had recently been reorganized as a Field Artillery
battalion. The unit would be the only
Kentucky National Guard battalion-sized element sent to the Korean War front. Adjutant General Roscoe Lee Murray described
the organization as a “full-strength battalion with a strong record and
activation at home station, on February 2, 1951, the Battalion boarded a troop
train for Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The
155mm howitzers and prime mover tractors were shipped ahead of the men and had
reached Fort Bragg before the advance party arrived. The advance party consisted primarily of
administrative personnel who lacked training in operating the prime movers had
to unload the flat cars because Fort
declined to do so.
On March 5,
1951, the battalion was redesignated from a 155mm tractor-drawn howitzer
battalion to an armored field artillery battalion. This designation remained for six months. The battalion never received the
self-propelled weapon, but did received half-tracks and other armored
While at Fort
Bragg the battalion qualified to carry out its duties in Korea. On November 19, 1951, the unit was shipped by
two troop trains to Camp Stoneman, California, the battalion was processed at the
camp for one week prior to embarking for South Korea. It departed for Korea on December 4, 1951,
arriving at Pusan on December 22, 1951, where the men lived in a tent city for
two weeks, maintaining and loading equipment in preparation for movement to the
front. The battalion was assigned to X
Corps Artillery. The battalion was transported
up the eastern coast of Korea, aboard two Navy LST's and put ashore at Sachari,
about 40 miles south of the 38th Parallel.
The battalion’s first movement was a 90-mile road march
to its position area in the Mung Dung Nee Valley, north of the 38th Parallel,
approximately 35 miles from the east coast of Korea. Mung Dung Nee is situated in the mountainous
area of Korea with valley floors ranging from 400 yards to one mile wide, this
narrow valley, at the foot of the famous Heartbreak Ridge, near the Soyong
River, was known by the men as “Artillery Valley,” the artillery being parked hub-to-hub.
Enroute to its initial position, one particularly
hazardous mountainous area was named “Kansas Pass,” which was similar in
features to the Smoky Mountains. The
track vehicles were helpless on snow and ice, they would merely spin in an
attempt to climb the mountains. The
problem was solved by having 2½ and ¾ -ton trucks tow the prime movers enough
so that the tracks would catch. Once on
the top of the mountain, the problem was not completely solved. When the prime
mover would descend it would slide and control of the vehicle was lost. While enroute, near “Kansas Pass” C Battery
had a howitzer and its prime mover lost when it went out of control on the
slick and snow-covered roads. The equipment
tumbled down the side of a 700-foot steep mountain.
The mission of
the 623rd Field Artillery was general support of the Tenth Corps Artillery,
it occasionally reinforced the fires of the Seventh Korean Division and, later,
the First Korean Division. B Battery
fired the first round down range on January 1, 1952, in support of the Seventh
Division, against enemy bunkers. Lt.
Col. Frederick R. Ganter, battalion commander, served as section chief and
Major Edward H. Milburn, battalion executive officer, pulled the lanyard that
sent the shell on its way.
During this time
the peace talks at Panmunjom had started and fighting was at a stalemate. Life in the hilly region and the frigid
Korean winter created supply problems and a good deal of physical discomfort. Because of the monotonously hilly region, the
artillery observation post was located on the peak of a mountain, which it took
a Soldier 45 minutes to an hour to climb.
The frozen ground made routine tasks such as digging latrines, gun
positions and garbage disposals extremely difficult. Logistical problems stemmed from inconvenient
supply installations, located over a mountain and reachable only by primitive,
treacherous roads. To complicate matters,
artillery was so thick in the valley that the battalion could not find an area
where all firing batteries could be placed together, which made command and
control difficult. An artillery budget
of 1500 rounds per day was authorized for the battalion. By the time the 623rd arrived in Korea, fighting
had become a formality; either side, fixed in position, traded long-distance
and impersonal hostilities. This did not
affect the per-day expenditures of the battalion, several days the battalion
expended a thousand or more rounds at the North Koreans.
Over time, the
sedentary nature of the battalion’s mission raised questions about its ability
to pull up and move quickly, should it become necessary. To prepare for such an event, a battery was
pulled out of position each day for “rapid occupation” of a practice test area,
firing their shells into enemy territory instead of a selected impact
area. When tests were later administered
by higher command, the 623rd took three of the top four scores. C Battery of Monticello took the top score in
the X Corps area. A Battery of
Tompkinsville came in third and Campbellsville’s B Battery fourth. Approximately fifty batteries took the tests.
On June 19, 1952, Major General Raymond H. Fleming,
Chief of the National Guard Bureau, stated in a news release that approximately
1700 Army Guard units, with about 120,000 officers and men, had been called to
active military service during the Korean emergency. Many units had already been returned to state
control. He said that at least 50% of
Army Guard officers would choose to remain on active duty, while the majority
of enlisted men would elect to come home for discharge or to serve out their
enlistment terms with their state National Guard. He said that:
With the experience and
training received in combat in Korea, on active military service, and in
training at home, the National Guard today is at the highest state of readiness
for any contingency in its peacetime history.
In July 1952, the battalion was moved to its second
position, the eastern side of the “Punch Bowl” at a site called Smoke Valley. Here the 623rd found itself
located in a valley while the Chinese and North Koreans occupied the
surrounding high ground. To evade enemy
detection a chemical smoke-generating company was attached to and supported by
the 623rd. The batteries would
fire “several” missions from within the fog generated by the company. Batteries in the “Punch Bowl” were even
closer together than they had been in “Artillery Valley.” The battalion command lived in an underground
bunker located less than 100 feet from the closest artillery piece. The howitzers were well dug in. The units had inherited positions formerly
occupied by the 155mm artillery battalion of the 1st U.S. Marine
Division. The 623rd were
located in positions, with their observation post only 1000 meters from the
enemy front lines. The Forward Observers
were able to observe the enemy infantry working in their communication trenches
and bunkers. While at this location, A Battery of Tompkinsville had the distinction
of being the northernmost allied unit in Korea.
In August 1952,
the 623rd Kentucky Guardsmen began rotation back home to the
Commonwealth. In September, Major Edward
H. Milburn departed Korea, the last Kentucky Guard officer to leave the
battalion. Upon his return to Kentucky
he began the process of establishing the “new” 623rd, while the
battalion was still officially stationed in Korea. By
October, Regular Army replacements had been assigned and most of the
Kentuckians had returned home.
On October 13,
1952, the 623rd moved to the First U.S. Marine Division Area, firing
in support of the 11th Regiment, 1st Marine
Division. They were attached to I Corps
and 159th Field Artillery Battalion for operational control.
On January 23,
1953, the 623rd Field Artillery Battalion [NGUS] with Headquarters
in Glasgow, was organized and federally recognized. In February, Colonel Edward H. Milburn began
organizing the Kentucky National Guard’s “new” 623rd Field Artillery
in Korea was assigned to provide fire support of the 7th Division
until cease-fire, which occurred on July 27, 1953.
Field Artillery was finally released from active Federal service in Korea and
reverted to state control on March 18, 1955.
Following the disbanding of the battalion in Korea, the Colors of the
623rd were returned to the Kentucky National Guard.
Although the 623rd
had none of her Kentucky soldiers killed during the war, there were four
non-Kentuckians serving in the battalion who made the ultimate sacrifice:
Lieutenant M. L. Davis of Pierce, Washington, October 26, 1952.
Class Willie Gaither, Jr. of Cuyahoga, Ohio, July 9, 1953.
Class William Gerhart Schiller of Hillsboro Wisconsin, December 4, 1952.
Class John Robert Stankovic of Butte, Montana, June 6, 1952.
In 1954, South
Korean President Syngman Rhee ordered that the Korean War Service Medal be
awarded to United Nations troops who fought in the Korean War between the dates
of June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953. At
the time, the United States military declined to award the medal to U.S.
soldiers based on uniform regulations at the time.
By Act of the
United States Congress in September 1999, the Korean Conflict was officially
changed to the Korean War. On August 20,
1999, the Korean War Service Medal was authorized for distribution and wear by
service members of the United States military.
On June 27,
2003, during the opening of a 50th anniversary exhibit telling the
story of the 623rd Field Artillery’s service in the Korean War, at
the Kentucky Military History Museum in Frankfort, Kentucky, the Republic of
Korea War Service Medal was awarded to surviving members and families of
deceased members of the battalion.