By mid-July 1950, the war in Korea was less than three weeks old, and was going very badly for the Republic of Korea (ROK) and American forces. The North Korean People’s Army (KPA) had been able to sustain battlefield artillery and armor, the KPA overwhelmed every defensive position that the allies had hastily erected. The allies, lacking heavy artillery and anti-armor weaponry, had little chance of stopping the advancing KPA armored columns. Instead, the ROK and the American soldiers did what they could to slow the KPA advance, to buy the time needed for allied ships to bring US and UN reinforcements from around the world.
Each of the American formations in the field had to hold great widths of the ever-changing “defensive line”. From 5 to 13 July 1950, SGT Charles’ 21st Infantry Regiment fought a series of battles as it fell back from Pyongt’aek to Choch’iwon. There was especially heavy fighting above Choch’iwon on 10 and 11 July 1950, as friendly forces attempted to gather on and hold defensible positions. Some strong-points held, if only for a few hours. There were very limited counter-attacks, which confused the advancing enemy. But North Korean forces also regathered and pressed southward from Chonui to Choch’iwon. SGT Charles was captured during the course of this moving battle. At 0630 on the morning of 11 July, KPA tanks bypassed the last defenders around Chonui to press their attack through fog and smoke into Choch’iwon. Moments later, an accurate KPA mortar barrage hit the remaining American defenders. Just before 0700, four enemy tanks broke through the defensive line into the center of the position. Over one thousand KPA troops, with additional tanks, soon flanked the besieged units. American forces could no longer call in even the limited artillery support that they had, so fell back as well as the could, breaking into small parties to pass through the now-concentrating North Korean lines.
But SGT Charles was already in enemy hands. He became part of “Tiger Group”, the first large gathering of American soldiers captured by the North Koreans in the war. SGT Charles worked his way north on foot to temporary holding points at Scoul then Pyongyang. From there, in a movement that had grown to 750 POWs and civilian internees, he took train for Manpo on the south bank of the Yalu River.
At the end of October 1950, SGT Charles began the infamous Tiger March to the remote Apex camps, farther up the Yalu River. Many men were already mortally ill from the effects of exposure and malnutrition, and pneumonia began to claim lives, even as they continued their march. Companions recall the SGT Charles was shot by a North Korean guard as he fell exhausted by the wayside, on or about 4 November. (The Army, uncertain of the exact date, later set 30 November 1950 for record purposes.) The group was not allowed to stop, but we believe that nearby villagers did an expedient burial, for this was what local authorities usually directed. We have not yet been allowed to work in the area, but have some hopes of locating the remains of several men who died in similar circumstances, if ever allowed to interview local villagers. Generations have passed, but events like this would still be a matter of local memory. Efforts at resolution, including preparations for future work in North Korea, continue.
We honor you, Madison Charles.