The 623rd Field Artillery in the Land of the Morning Calm

Road sign located in 623rd Field Artillery area in “Artillery Valley” (courtesy photo from the Joe Layne Travis collection)

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.

Korea, 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

The 623rd 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 excellent morale.”

Following 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 Bragg authorities 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 inventory.

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 Battalion.

The 623rd in Korea was assigned to provide fire support of the 7th Division until cease-fire, which occurred on July 27, 1953.

The 623rd 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:

1st Lieutenant M. L. Davis of Pierce, Washington, October 26, 1952.

Private First Class Willie Gaither, Jr. of Cuyahoga, Ohio, July 9, 1953.

Private First Class William Gerhart Schiller of Hillsboro Wisconsin, December 4, 1952.

Private First 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. 

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