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Troops during the Korean War.
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The Korean War Memorial in Springfield.
SPRINGFIELD – The most dangerous place in the world on Aug. 15, 1950, was the Pusan Perimeter. On that day, Second Lt. Bob Evans arrived in-country, part of the under-strength, poorly equipped and ill-prepared 2nd Infantry Division, shipped directly from Fort Lewis, Wash.
North Koreans had launched a massive surprise attack on June 25, and quickly overwhelmed the outgunned and outmanned South Korean Army, bottling up the remnants in the southeast corner of the country. The North Koreans’ goal? The bustling port city of Pusan, and complete dominance of the entire Korean peninsula.
Evans had taken a circuitous route to earn his lieutenant bars. Born in Springfield, Ill., in 1930 to a Welsh coal-mining executive, he returned to Wales with his family and grew up in the port city of Swansea. When the Nazis bombed the city in the early days of World War II, his parents made the momentous decision to ship Bob and his older sister to Canada for the duration of the war, where they came of age.
Bob returned to Wales in 1946, but a restless spirit led him to return to America in 1948 — Chicago, to be exact, where he enrolled in the John Marshall Law School. He soon joined the Army, in part to avoid the draft, and also to take advantage of the G.I. Bill.
So it was that Evans (a green infantry lieutenant) found himself in the Pusan Perimeter, discovering that “someone’s trying to kill me.” He did nothing to distinguish himself in that first firefight, but by November 1950, when his platoon was deep inside North Korea, they were seasoned combat veterans.
MacArthur was promising that the troops would be “home by Christmas,” ignoring the signs of a massive Chinese buildup. The day after Thanksgiving that illusion was smashed as hundreds of thousands of Chinese slammed into the UN lines. It sent Evans’ platoon reeling, along with the entire Eighth Army.
“I was thinking why, why!” recalled Evans during a recent oral history interview. “How could we have been so ignorant? How could we have been led into this?”
During their flight south, most of the 2nd Division ran a deadly Chinese gauntlet at Kunu-Ri. Evans’s unit was spared that disaster only because his regimental commander refused to comply and found a safer route south. Thus started what the GIs derisively referred to as the “Big Bugout,” during a bitter winter when Siberian winds were almost as deadly as the relentless Chinese foe.
By the time the UN line stabilized south of Seoul two months later, Evans’s regiment, the 23rd Infantry Regiment, was bloodied and depleted, but in much better shape than the rest of the division.
By February 1951, the 23rd had replaced its losses and was occupying the crucial crossroads at the Twin Tunnels and Chipyong-Ni, in the center of the UN line. This time, when the Chinese renewed their massive offensive, the 23rd, aided by a French battalion, allowed themselves to be surrounded. As far as Gen. Matthew Ridgway was concerned, this was the battle that he sought.
In a valiant defense, first at the Twin Tunnels, then at Chipyong-Ni, the Chinese attacked in waves, but Evans and his fellow defenders blunted every assault. Resupplied by airdrop, the task force hung on tenaciously while the Chinese hammered their positions, slowly exhausting themselves. Evans vividly remembers an event near the climax of the battle when Navy Corsair fighters, equipped with napalm belly tanks, dropped their payload on advancing Chinese troops, then watched as the Chinese were engulfed in flame.
“They were coming up the side and we were on the ridge above waiting for them,” Evans recalled. “I didn’t like it then (using napalm on the Chinese), but I was grateful because we needed it. We were constantly in danger of being overrun because of the numbers, just sheer numbers.”
That event is one of the images Evans, now 84, would be happy to forget, but cannot.
Historian David Halberstam wrote in his book “The Coldest Winter” (2007) that Chipyong-Ni “was one of the decisive battles of the war, because it was where the American forces finally learned to fight the Chinese.” Indeed, historians today refer to that battle as the Gettysburg of the Korean War.
Evans, despite his lingering memories of the battle, was proud to have been there.
Mark DePue is the director of oral history at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. You can listen to Bob Evans’ entire story and many others in the “Veterans Remember” section of the program’s website, www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.