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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

The general decline of the US armed forces after World War II also had its effect on the armored branch of the services. The development and maintenance of armor, which had spearheaded the drives across France and into Germany, were largely neglected. Little research and development was done. Many thousands of Sherman tanks alone had been built for the great conflict, but in the immediate years following, almost nothing was done to upgrade or even maintain this vital part of the military.

Along with thousands of tons of other war surplus, most of these tanks had been scrapped. Sadly, the same was true in every branch of the military. With the mighty atomic bomb in the arsenal, conventional weaponry and equipment seemed to be of less and less value. America was seeking ways to survive in a post-war economy with the additional burden of helping in the rebuilding of other nations ravaged by World War II.

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By the end of 1948, however, with the growing Communist threat, efforts were made to change that situation. It was recognized that the Soviet Union had kept up its armored strength and outnumbered the American tank force by more than 20 to 1.

In 1949, it was decided to revamp the structure of the US Army. One of the new requirements was that each infantry division was to have as an integral part of its composition a heavy tank battalion at divisional level and in addition, a tank company attached to each infantry regiment.

korea1.jpg
A Sherman tank opens fire in Korea

Late that same year, for example, the four infantry divisions in Japan were each authorized a heavy tank battalion. The 71st Heavy Tank battalion would go to the First Cavalry Division, the 77th to the Seventh Division, the 78th to the 24th Division, and the 79th to the 25th Division. These changes at that time, however, as most of the modifications toward modernization, were only on paper.

In reality only one company of each of these battalions were actually formed; and they, along with the tank element of their reconnaissance units were not the heavy tanks called for, but the lighter M-24 Chaffee tanks, which had earlier been built as replacements for the earlier M-3 and M-5 Stuart tanks.

When hostilities broke out in Korea at the end of June 1950, this, plus some antiquated M-15 and M-16 halftracks, were the only armor readily available to stop the enemy. South Korea had no armored units whatsoever. North Korea, on the other hand, began the war with over 120 Russian made T-34 tanks, over half of which were the newer version T-34/85, an upgraded version of the T-34 with a much more effective antitank gun.

These tanks formed the 105th NKPA Armored Brigade (which would eventually become the 105th Armored Division). There were another 50 tanks scattered among other North Korean units. As is known to most armor enthusiasts, the T-34 was one of the finest tanks ever produced during the Second World War, and still packed a serious punch. The initial encounter of US versus North Korean tanks was a disaster. Outnumbered and outgunned, the US tankers never had a chance.

But then the first months of the conflict were a rude awakening for America and her armed forces in general. The most powerful army in the world at the end of the Second World War had degenerated into a shadow of its former mighty self. Harsh lessons were learned in the first three months of the war, paid for with the lives and blood of many young Americans and South Koreans.

Once the seriousness of the situation was realized, frantic efforts were made to correct this disparity in the Far East. Tankers and tanks were scrounged from every available source to meet the urgent need in Korea. By the middle of August, 3 tank battalions had been formed and were sent to Korea.

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