WITH THE U.S. ARMY AT THE KOREAN FRONT, July 8, 1950 (UP) - We lost Chonan, 36 miles north of Taejon, to the Communists today, after a day of panicky retreat and a night of heroic battle.
The rail center was abandoned when the American command decided it wasn't worth the price to hold it.
It was a story of chaos, confusion, Communist tanks and frightened, green American soldiers who finally learned under fire how to take it and dish it out.
It was a story of a U.S. Army major who almost alone stopped the initial American retreat - then dashed north into a Communist ambush and was killed.
"Operation Snafu," as it has become known, began yesterday.
The Americans had withdrawn 30 miles in the two previous days to new positions south of Chonan. But a patrol sent out to make contact with the North Koreans reported them at least 10 miles north of Chonan.
Headquarters decided to take advantage of the Reds' slow advance and move up the American line beyond Chonan.
By noon, the infantry had gone forward, artillery had moved to advance positions above Chonan and everything seemed rosy.
The Yanks were well dug in when the trouble started.
The Red infantry touched it off by infiltrating the American ranks. Many came down from the hills west of Chonan in full view of the troops. But because they were dressed in white, the Americans thought they were civilians.
A hasty order was given the Americans to withdraw, and the panic was on.
Artillery was pulled out without firing a shot. Jeeps raced to the rear loaded with men who had only one ambition in life - to put as many miles between them and the North Koreans as possible.
American casualties were extremely light, but this was the first time these American youngsters had seen blood.
Until then, the war for most of them was a lark. But with rifle fire cracking about their ears and mortar shells bursting in their positions they bolted.
They fled with fear in their eyes and panic in their bellies.
Everything was confusion.
There was inadequate communication.
One officer gave orders to unload from jeeps and set up a defense line. Another would cancel it and order jeeps loaded with men and sent to the rear.
A vital bridge that was supposed to be blown up never was touched.
But the debacle stopped in the middle of Chonan.
A jeep with three officers raced up from the rear and skidded to a halt in the midst of a group of bewildered troops.
The major in the front seat was boiling.
"We stop here," he shouted. "And we go back. From now on, we go north.
"I'm going forward to do a reconnaissance and we are going back into those positions north of here that we evacuated this noon."
He nodded his head to his driver, and the jeep sped off to the north.
That was the last time the major and the driver were seen alive. The jeep was ambushed a few minutes later, and only Capt. Earl Hill, of Salisbury, Md., survived. He returned to town a couple of hours later and plunged into the fight.
But the major had set the example. The troops rallied.
Chonan's defenses were organized hastily, although only a heavy weapons unit was left to hold it.
The unit's commander spread his men out and awaited the attack, it came soon enough.
The North Koreans came down from the western flank and attempted to rush the place.
American heavy mortars took care of them. One was firing at visual range.
The orders were, "Don't let them in."
They didn't get in.
Stars and Stripes Correspondent Corp. Ernest Peeler of San Bernardino, Cal., and I watched the mortar fire blast into the Communist positions less than a quarter mile away.
As fast as Corp. William E. Rhoads of Seattle and Platoon Sgt. Richard Davis of Cumberland, Md., could load and fire, they blasted the northerners.
Then American artillery came in with Sgt. Neil Woolever of Alpena, Minn., and Lieut. Ronald Oakes of Runcefore, W.Va., calling the shots from a railroad observation post.
The main Communist attack came about 8 p.m. The North Koreans attempted to drive a wedge into the town across the railway tracks at the station.
All hell broke loose. Mortar shells burst up and down the streets. Bullets cut through roofs.
But the Yanks held and drove the invaders back with losses.
By now ammunition was running low, however. The second Communist attack at 9 p.m. succeeded in breaking the American front at the railway station.
Again the Americans ran. But not so far this time.
They regrouped on the edge of Chonan, went back in and drove the Communists back across the tracks.
Peller and I pulled out at nightfall, but Sgt. Fritz Mayes of Lorain, O., told how American artillery pinned down the North Koreans all night and heavy weapons held the town.
The 43-year-old Mayes called it "a damned good show."
But he said the North Korean tanks came in this morning and finally forced his unit to evacuate.
Before pulling out, this small American group knocked out one tank with a bazooka and destroyed another with a land mine.
From a forward observation post, I saw the blast of an exploded mine. It practically cracked my eardrums.
Corp. Armand J. Gressens of Ashland, Pa., said the concussions knocked him down although he was a block away from the explosion.