Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tall Texan...Tall Courage

On September 1, 1950, Texas native Corporal Leon Flake wrote a single letter to both his young wife and mother.  Tomorrow’s assault would be no cakewalk.  The North Koreans held a crucial hill northwest of Pohang Dong, a port city on South Korea’s east coast.  Flake’s unit, K Company, 21st Infantry Regiment, was assigned to retake it.  “I doubt I’ll survive the attack,” he wrote.  “This letter maybe my last.
 During the summer of 1950, the People’s Army of North Korea had pushed the U.S. 8th Army and its South Korean allies back to the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula.  The city of Pusan was the only accessible port left to supply a desperate stand against a North Korean juggernaut.  A 150 mile jagged defense perimeter, dubbed the Pusan Perimeter, separated North Korea from final victory.  On the perimeter’s northeast corner, the South Koreans held off their Communist neighbors near Pohang Dong.  Their line was like a concrete dam riddled with cracks.  Any of which could burst at the slightest pressure.  On August 27th, a sudden attack by the North Korean 12th Division forced the 17th ROK (Republic of Korea) Division back on its heels.  The nearby 18th Division also fell back because its left flank was exposed by the 17th’s sudden withdrawal.  The entire ROK I Corps was in danger of collapse.  If the South Koreans kept falling back, Pohang Dong would fall and leave the backdoor open for an attack on the U.S. 8th Army headquarters at Taegu, just southwest of the South Korean positions. General Walton Walker, Commander of the U.S. 8th Army, recognized their dilemma.  The South Koreans were low on moral and resolve.  An American task force was needed to shore up their crumbling front.  Walker turned to an aged World War II officer, Major General John B. Coulter.  “I can’t get reliable reports,” Walker told Coulter. “I want you to go to the eastern front and represent me. I am sending a regiment from the 24th Division to help.”
At the time of his enlistment, Leon Flake was the tallest recruit in the U.S. Army.  The six foot nine Texan endured basic training at Ft. Riley, Kansas before being shipped off to Japan.  Because of the shortage of available ships, World War II vintage troopships, once used by the Japanese, ferried U.S. troops to South Korea. “The weirdest thing I remember was a Japanese band playing the Star Spangled Banner as we left port,” recalled Flake.  Like most of his fellow infantrymen, he was not fully prepared for what awaited him.
  South Korea was a rustic backwater of a country where peasant farmers used sewage for fertilizer and dogs were part of their diet.  The climate was extremely harsh with artic winters and triple digit summers.  The terrain was dotted with steep hills and narrow valleys, making it difficult to travel by foot.  Pusan itself was a crowded mass of ships, military equipment, troops, and frightened refugees all looking for an exit. Upon landing, U.S. troops were marched directly to the fighting on the perimeter.
The 21st regiment marched to Taegu on foot and entrenched along the Naktong River.  Two series of foxholes were dug.  One series was placed up front to listen for and repel any North Korean attacks during the night.  The second was placed further back, away from enemy gun sights during the day.  “Every once in a while they would make a run at us,” recalled Flake. “They’d get crazy blowing whistles and horns.”  Shouting “Manzai !,” the North Koreans assaulted in suicidal waves only to be slaughtered in heaps.  Sometimes they dressed as farmers to infiltrate the rear areas and attack from behind. 
On August 27, the 21st regiment’s commander, Colonel Richard Stephens, was ordered to march east to the ancient city of Kyongju.  Stephen’s regiment was now part of Task Force Jackson, a scratch force assembled to help shore up the Pusan Perimeter’s northeast corner.   Under the command of General Coulter, the 21st assembled for an attack on the North Korea’s 5th Division near Pohang Dong.  The South Koreans were less than enthused about attacking.  “Too many enemy, too many casualties, troops tired,” explained the commander of the ROK I Corps.  Airpower and naval gunfire tried to drive back the North Koreans.  The results were minimal as reinforcements beefed up the North Korean 5th Division in the hills north of Pohang Dong.  One hill in particular was crucial in the defense of the city.  On the morning of Sept. 2, 1950, the 265 men of Company K assembled at the base of Hill 99. 
The South Koreans had attacked Hill 99 but were bloodily repulsed.  It was the Americans’ turn now.  Company K ascended the hill under a hail of machine gun fire, mortar shells and grenades.  Flake charged a machine gun nest.  While the North Koreans attention was focused on him, three of his comrades got further up the hill.  They never made it to the top. 
Only 35 men survived.  Even fewer walked down on two legs.  Corporal Flake was seriously wounded by gunfire in both thighs and forced to crawl down the hill into a creek bed.  He feigned death to prevent being bayonetted by any roving North Koreans.  One of them was not quite convinced.  “I think he just didn’t want to get his shoes wet,” recalled Flake. “That’s what kept from walking into the creek and finishing me off.”  The following day, he was placed on a stretcher by South Korean laborers and carried to a MASH unit.  Miraculously, neither leg was amputated, but years of rehab awaited.  “I remember hearing a speech by General Douglas MacArthur,” recalled Flake.  “He said we were fighting a just cause and he expected us to be home by Christmas.  Looks like I made it.”  That letter to his wife and mother came home at the same time he did.  Corporal Leon Flake was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on Hill 99.
After getting his legs back, Leon Flake settled down in Wichita Falls, Texas.  He went on to become highly successful in the linen business.  Today he enjoys spending time at his home at Possum Kingdom Lake.

Suggested Reading:

South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu by Roy E. Appleman

Photos Courtesy of Leon Flake

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