The Controversial Task Force Crombez

Article excerpt

His stone cold eyes and, when he spoke, the trace of an accent were his obvious features. Otherwise, he was quite ordinary, of less than medium height, moving slowly and deliberately, neither distinguished nor particularly military in appearance.

Belgian born and in the United States at an early age, Marcel Crombez enlisted in the Army when he was 18. He received an appointment to West Point, graduated in 1925 and had the usual assignments and promotions of the time. In August 1950, two months into the Korean conflict, although he was about 10 years older than most regimental commanders in the theater, Col. Crombez took command of the 5th Cavalry, an organic part of the 1st Cavalry Division, an infantry organization despite its name.

Crombez favorably impressed his superiors in Korea with his competence in combat. He came across to some of his troopers as being overly ambitious for a star and insensitive to them.

His claim to fame started on the morning of February 14, 1951, when the 5th Cavalry, after fighting toward the Han River, was in reserve. Maj. Gen. Bryant Moore, the IX Corps commander, phoned Crombez and said "it looked as if" Crombez would have to rescue the troops in Chipyong-ni. They were surrounded by the enemy and under heavy attack. Crombez was to start planning an operation from Yoju up the road through Koksu-ri. The British Commonwealth Brigade was trying to advance along a better and more direct route to Chipyong-ni, but the Chinese were preventing much if any progress.

At 1600, Moore telephoned again. The units in Chipyong-ni were in dire straits, he said, and needed help quickly. "You'll have to move out tonight to extricate the 23rd Regimental Combat Team," Moore said, "and I know you will do it."

Maj. Gen. Charles Palmer, the lst Cavalry Division commander, arrived at Crombez's command post 55 minutes later and confirmed Moore's order. The IX Corps, he said, had attached a company of Patton tanks and a battalion of 155 mm howitzers to Crombez's operational control. These formations were headed for Yoju.

Crombez got his men under way at nightfall. They went eastward until midnight, when they reached a blown-out bridge near Yoju. They waited while their engineers built a bypass. In the morning they would be at Yoju, where they would turn left and proceed north toward Chipyong-ni.

There, the reinforced 23rd Infantry, a regiment of the 2nd Division, was isolated and exposed in the left corner of the X Corps zone. The Chinese had furiously attacked the X Corps on February 11, destroyed a Republic of Korea division and drove the corps elements, all except those at Chipyong-ni, to withdraw to the Wonju region.

At Chipyong-ni was the 23rd Infantry with the French battalion, a Ranger company, a battery of 155 mm howitzers and a company of engineers attached. In command was Col. Paul Freeman, a charismatic leader who had occupied the village since February 5. Now, although Freeman had a powerful force and had stockpiled an enormous amount of ammunition, he wanted to rejoin the front by retiring at least as far as Yoju.

Freeman made this recommendation when Maj. Gen. Edward Almond, the X Corps commander, flew in by helicopter on February 13. Earlier that day, Maj. Gen. Clark Ruffner, the 2nd Division commander, had suggested to Almond the same course of action. Almond was sympathetic, but Gen. Matthew Ridgway, the Eighth Army commander, had another outlook. He wanted the place, an important rail and road center, to be held. In any case, Freeman was unable to pull out because he was already marooned.

About 18,000 Chinese were in the area, and they launched an attack on Freeman's troops that night. Fierce fighting repulsed them. Freeman had 14 tanks, 10 antiaircraft quad-fifties and twin forties, 18 105 mm howitzers, and six 155 mm howitzers, and he used them well. In the morning, Freeman's men had sustained 200 casualties, but the perimeter was intact. …