As you bump into and brush elbows with people on the street, at work, or while seeing a professional, one thing to keep in mind is that you don't always know that you might be bumping into an American hero, often an ordinary person who has done the extraordinary. Edwin Overholt played some basketball and acted in a play in high school, became a doctor, was sent to the front lines of the Korean War just days after the invasion began and only two years after becoming a MD, part of a task force of 500 against over 30 world-class tanks and thousands of infantry, and saved lives without regard for himself. He was only a captain then. He would give the US Army a career, and then another career to Gundersen Lutheran Health System in La Crosse. Throughout his civilian career, they affectionately called him "Colonel." You'll see why.
By Ed Marek
March 6, 2008
As you bump into and brush elbows with people on the street, at work, or while seeing a professional, one thing to keep in mind is that you don't always know that you might be bumping into an American hero, a world-class medical doctor and teacher, and a great American.
Perhaps over the past years, you had cause, for example, to go to the Gundersen Lutheran Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin. You might have been a newly hatched doctor, or attending the nursing school, or a patient, and, quite by chance, or perhaps by intent, you came into contact with the late Dr. Edwin L. Overholt. He passed in 2006 at the age of 83 after having lived one helluva life of service and sacrifice.
Dr. Overholt joined Gundersen Lutheran in 1968, the first full-time director of medical education and research. He also served as a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in Madison. He took this job based on the urging of a childhood chum, Robert Rasmus, who grew up with Overholt as a child in Decorah, Iowa. To take this job, he turned down a promotion from the US Army to the rank of brigadier general. By the time he was finished at Gundersen, we think in the mid 1990s, after 25 years, he had succeeded in building a nationally recognized medical education program at a time when many other hospitals couldn’t make such a program work.
Most who knew him, including medical residents and physicians, saw him as a first-class teacher and mentor, and they affectionately called him “Colonel.” But one wonders whether they knew from where this kindly and capable doctor and teacher earned that award of being called “Colonel.”
Here’s a fellow who earned his spurs fast and early, and the hard way.
Born in Chicago in 1923, Edwin Overholt moved to Decorah, Iowa at the age of 8 and completed his primary education at Decorah High School. In the gee whiz column, he was the lead in a one-act play at the high school, “Humming Bird Hiccups” put on at the high school in March 1942. This play was directed by Vivian Bancroft, the school’s speech instructor. The year previous, young Overholt was part of a Decorah High School Declaratory Team that competed against two other schools. His school team won first place, Overholt winning the “oratorical” contest in one of three contests. His capacity to speak would hold up well for him in later life, when he took a deep interest in medical education and training. He was also a high school basketball player, which helped him learn "teamsmanship."
Luther College reading room of old. Presented by Luther College.
Overholt received his undergraduate schooling at Luther College, a liberal arts school in Decorah. He received his medical degree from the University of Iowa School of Medicine in 1948, and later served as clinical professor in the school’s Department of Internal Medicine.
He did his internship there for one year and was chose to continue a three year residency there in Internal Medicine. This hospital, largely as the result of WWII, was one of the Army's premier medical training centers.
In a 1966 letter to the History Unit of the Army’s Medical Department, then US Army Colonel (Dr.) Overholt, commenting on "the day" in 1950, said that most of the doctors who owed the Army service time for aid provided in their schooling were finishing their commitments in the spring 1950. The doctor draft law was discontinued. In January 1950, before the Korean War started, there was a serious shortage of physicians for dispensaries in Japan where US military forces and their families were part of the US Occupation Force following WWII.
So the Surgeon General of the US went to his teaching hospitals and snatched up as many young residents in various stages of training as he could. Edwin Overholt was among 40 sent to Japan. Suddenly, in the spring of 1950, less than two years out of medical school, young Dr. Overholt found himself taken away from his residency at Fitzsimmons and assigned to the US Army at the rank of captain, the 24th Medical Battalion of the 24th Infantry “Victory” Division.
Overholt would later write:
“Having been reared in rural Iowa and never out of the country, I looked upon this as a great opportunity.”
21st Infantry Regimental Headquarters building, Camp Wood, Japan.
Once in Japan, he and two other doctors drew straws for assignments. One was a surgeon, the other two internists. Overholt drew the position of dispensary physician at the 21st Infantry Regiment's headquarters at Camp Wood near Kumamoto city center on Japan’s southern home island, Kyushu. The 21st Infantry "Gimlets" of the 24th Infantry Division had been here since October 1945, part of the occupation force in Japan following WWII. That Edwin Overholt drew Camp Wood, the location of the 21st Infantry, would be a major turning point in his life.
For many reasons, US Army forces in Japan during the occupation were not combat ready. The three divisions assigned there were understrength, under-equipped, and had forsaken needed training and doctrinal updating. Some reports say the 24th Division, of the three divisions in Japan, was the best prepared; others say it was among the worst. The point turned out to be moot, as you will soon see.
Most of what we have seen says that the 21st Infantry Gimlets, Col. Richard W. "Big Six" Stephens in command, was in pretty good readiness shape. Stephens had a distinguished combat record and was a pretty tough cookie. The troops called him "Big Six."
Well, it’s now June 25, 1950, some 90,000 North Korean People’s Army troops (KPA) led by the best combat tanks of WWII, the Soviet-made T-34, invaded the ROK across the 38th parallel and within three days had taken the capital, Seoul.
The US political and military leadership was surprised and unprepared. Incredibly, the prevailing feeling among the US military and civilian leadership from the embassy in Seoul all the way through General MacArthur in Japan to General Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), was that the South Korean military could handle this job with no problem. It quickly became obvious that the ROK Army (ROKA) could not handle the job, the US leadership was in a bind for having placed Korea outside the US defense perimeter, there was no plan to defend the ROK, and there were no US combat forces on the Korean peninsula.
With knee-jerk reaction, a stream of decisions was made in Washington and Tokyo, General MacArthur's headquarters, to send US ground combat troops to the peninsula to stem the tide and turn back the invasion. The US military leadership felt certain that the KPA would fold at the mere sight of US combat forces on the ground.
The US had withdrawn all its combat forces from the Korean peninsula in 1948. The initial US forces would have to come from Japan, because of its proximity to the Korean peninsula. Even so, the three divisions in Japan were spread out, they were in various states of low readiness, and it was going to take a bit of time to get them mobilized and ready to fight.
Capt. Overholt was sent from to the Port of Sasebo to set up an aid station for evacuees from Korea. He was responsible for the care of some 700 Americans, military advisers and their families evacuated from Korea to Japan by Norwegian freighter and then US Air Force transports. He would comment this way about that experience:
“At the conclusion of their relatively short trip, amongst the women and children there was much hysteria and bickering.”
Events for Capt. Overholt would now proceed in rapid fashion.
The division had three regiments, the 19th, 21st and 34th Infantries.
The 21st Infantry commanded by Col. Stephens was pretty well together and was among the very few to have a solid training and preparedness record. Col. Stephens selected the 21st to be the first to go.
Walker also decided he had to assemble a small “delaying force” that could be flown to Korea quickly, get in position as far north as possible, and fight as well as it could. The rest of the division would be gathered together and sent to the ROK’s southern port, Pusan, by ship to reinforce. So the call went to Col. Stephens to get this "delaying force" organized and moving.
Stephens assembled a makeshift force drawn from two companies of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, the 1-21 Infantry, a medical platoon from the 21st Infantry’s medical company, and Alpha Battery of the 52nd Field Artillery (FA) Battalion, about 540 soldiers in all.
Lt. Colonel Miller O. Perry commanded the 52nd FA Battalion, while Lt. Darwin L. Scott was the Alpha Battery commander. Only Alpha Battery would go, but Perry was not going to miss this fight, and went along.
Capt. Edwin L. Overholt, of course, was in charge of the 21st Infantry’s medical company at Camp Wood. First Lt. Raymond E. “Bodie” Adams was his assistant battalion surgeon and his platoon was selected to go. Overholt would go as well since the rest of the medical company was on tap to follow later.
Captain Edwin Overholt
1st Lt. Raymond E. "Bodie" Adams
Capt. Overholt and Lt. Adams were notified separately. That was because Overholt was at Sasebo Port to the southwest of Adams, who was at Kokura.
Overholt described his notification this way:
“I had been sent to the Port of Sasebo to establish an aid station (for the evacuees). After three days of serving this frazzled group, I was sitting in the officer's club about 10 o'clock in the evening (June 30, 1950) and received a phone call from division headquarters. They ordered me to report to Itazuke Air Base (AB) by 0600 hours the following morning (July 1, 1950). I was instructed to be in full field attire.”
Well, he had no “full field equipment,” in part because he was in Japan only for 90 days temporary duty, and no one expected a war in Korea. So he spent the rest of the night at Sasebo, a port facility completely new to him, searching for gear. Captain (Douglas R.) Anderson, a MSC officer, helped him.
While at Sasebo, he also had no medical platoon. Adams was in charge of that up at Kokura.
Col. Stephens put Adams' medical platoon on alert for deployment at 11 pm, June 30. At an officers meeting that would follow, Adams was told to get his platoon packed up and ready to go out of Itazuke at once. Overholt was told to meet him at Itazuke.
Overholt would say this:
“I inherited my aid station (Adams’ platoon) on the plane. I knew none of the corpsmen and received no briefing whatsoever in regard to the medical problems. In this regard, my background was that of the usual medical student who took an Army internship and then immediately went into a residency. I had no prior field experience or any type of course at Fort Sam Houston.”
This was a huge problem for the Army in those days. Not only were the medical doctors not combat trained, they barely had any Army training at all. Many were lucky they knew how to wear the uniform.
Fortunately, Adams knew the men in his platoon well, and knew Overholt. The platoon was in a high state of readiness as the result of good discipline in the regiment and participation in many field exercises in Japan. They had aidmen, litter bearers, aid station personnel, 3-4 litter jeeps, and two officers, Overholt and Adams. Their medical supplies were limited, with no plasma, but overall they felt they had adequate supplies with them to rush into combat so quickly. After all, most expected the enemy to faint when they saw the Americans and reinforcements would be right behind them. Adams and his men packed up and left immediately.
The infantry and medical elements of Task Force Smith convened, boarded trucks, and headed through pouring rain to Itazuke. The 52 FA force had planned to fly as well, but was later instructed to go by Landing Ship Tank (LST). It would not be able to leave until July 2. That said, Lt. Col. Perry flew over with the task force.
It was monsoon season, in Japan and Korea. It was a 75 mile truck ride to Itazuke. The task force arrived at 8:05 am.
Task Force Smith troops boarding C-54 transport, July 1, 1950. Presented by KoreanWar21stInf-24Inf-Div.
Six C-54s were available to move the force. Troops loaded up on the first aircraft and it departed Itazuke for Pusan at 8:45 am. The first and second aircraft out could not land at Pusan because of fog. They returned to Japan. Colonel Smith was on the second plane. He did not get to go back to Korea until the 10th flight, between 2 and 3 pm. The first elements of the task force arrived at Pusan field at 11 am, July 1, 1950.
Routing of Task Force Smith from Pusan to its combat positions between Osan and Suwon, ROK.
About 100 Korean trucks and vehicles were at Pusan waiting for the main body of the task force. The weather was terrible, very rainy, hindering aircraft and other transport movement because of the intense mud. The task force was driven about 17 miles to the train station. The train was fully loaded by the Task Force and left the station at 8 pm. It arrived at Taejon at 8 am on July 2.
The 52 FA left Fukuoka, Japan by LSTs on July 2, disembarked at Pusan port, and headed north behind the rest of the task force by train.
“We have a little action up here (pointing to a location on the map). All we need is some men up there who won’t run when they see tanks. We’re going to move you up to support the ROKs.’”
The tone of this order reflected how little the US leadership understood what was happening on the ground. This lack of understanding extended all the way to MacArthur, General Omar Bradley at the JCS, and President Truman and his civilian secretaries.
Task Force Smith of the 24th Infantry Division arrives at Taejon railroad station on July 2, 1950. Photo: U.S. Army. Source: D.M. Giangreco, War in Korea: 1950-1953 (Presidio Press). Presented by the Truman Library & Museum.
Task Force Smith convened in its bivouac area in the Taejon area. Lt. Col. Smith and a few of his officers went up to Osan by jeep to assess what to do. This was an 80 mile ride over lousy roads. About three miles north of Osan, Smith found a nice place that commanded a view over the highway and the railroad, the highest point about 300 feet above. He decided they would deploy there and set up shop.
"When you get to Pusan, head for Taejon. We want to stop the North Koreans as far from Pusan as we can. Block the main road as far north as possible."
And that's precisely what Smith was going to do. He had chosen to block the Suwon-Osan Road, about 30 miles south of Seoul.
During the evening of July 2, Smith and his men, including the medical platoon and Overholt, moved by train north to Pyongtaek and Ansong, about 15-20 miles south of Osan. The train ride was during the night. One company dug in at Pyongtaek, another at Ansong. Smith set up his CP at Pyongtaek, and while there, observed an Australian air attack against a friendly ammunition train pulling into the Pyongtaek station, destroying the train, the ammo and the train station. It was a mistake.
This was a terrible time for USAF air. USAF air attacked the ROK air base at Suwon and a South Korean truck column. The ROK replied with fire and damaged one aircraft, forcing the American pilot to land at Suwon. Suwon was attacked by friendly air five times on July 3. USAF air also attacked the Suwon railroad station, and thirty South Korean trucks, killing 200 ROKA soldiers. New rules were set out limiting air attacks to the region around Seoul and north.
While Task Force Smith was on its way to Korea, the 34th Infantry loaded up at Sasebo, Japan during the evening of July 1 and arrived at Pusan by boat the evening of July 2. The rest of the 21st Infantry (Alpha and Delta Companies) left Sasebo by boat on July 3 and arrived at Pusan on July 4. None of these forces would be engaged in Task Force Smith's ultimate first fight in Korea.
Let’s return to the site selected to stand and fight.
This is a photo of the position selected for Task Force Smith to dig in. Note the road. It goes to Suwon, visible for eight miles from the Task Force Smith position on the ridgeline above. Extracted from South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, by Roy E. Appleman, Col, USA (Ret.), presented by Bert Kortegaard.
Task Force Smith map. Presented by ROK Drop blog.
This map is tough to read, but it's a good one nonetheless. In your mind, try to join the map with the photo above it. Note the town of Osan in the lower right quadrant, and then the road heading to the north. That is the road you see on the photo going to Suwon. Those blue lines with marks attached reflect the positions taken by Task Force Smith, four in all, one to the west of the road, three to the right, described as a road running through a "saddle of hills."
One platoon of Bravo Co. was placed on the west side of the road, the other two platoons on the east side. In the next line to the east were two platoons from Charlie Co. Its third platoon was to the side to protect the right flank. A very small group of men was positioned to the rear.
The blue arrow on the above map points to where the 52nd FA set up, about 2,000 yards behind the infantry. Perry's men pulled up four howitzers by jeep, and kept the jeeps there, near a cluster of homes, in battery position. The fifth howitzer was positioned so it could engage the enemy with direct fire. We think this one was about 1,000 yards behind the infantry. A sixth howitzer had to be left behind in Pyongtaek.
Once the task force arrived at the selected location, the medical people set about to position their aid station. The concept went something like this. When a trooper was wounded or injured on the front line, a frontline corpsman would respond and do what he could do.
Wounded soldiers are given medical treatment at a first aid station, somewhere in Korea. 25 July 1950. Presented by US Army.
The next step was to get the wounded soldier to the aid station, which was the first organized medical field unit the soldier would visit.
As we said, the frontline fighting force was positioned on a ridgeline overlooking the Suwon-Osan highway, and was divided on both sides of the highway. The war fighters were on the top of the forward slope of the ridge. Capt. Overholt, with no combat training, decided to position his aid station just behind the front line on the back slope side of the ridge. In short, he placed his aid station very close to the frontline soldier, protected only by the ridge a few yards uphill.
Overholt would comment on this decision, and similar ones he would make throughout his stay in Korea, later in life. He felt that getting the wounded from the fight to the aid station was the toughest problem; having the doctors and the aid station as far forward as was humanly possibly was the way to go. The corpsmen could get the wounded to the aid station faster, and placing the aid station so close to the fighting positions was a huge morale booster for the fighting soldier just yards away. Doing so did, of course, make the aid station more vulnerable and at risk.
Lt. Adams described the aid station this way:
“Our medical supply chests had everything needed. We had an all round perimeter at Osan. We dug a hole in the ground. Put aid station element there in the best defiladed area we could find. This enabled us to get Capt. Overholt and the rest of the aid station below the firing level.
“The hole in the middle of the perimeter was Capt. Overholt's aid station. He did resuscitative surgery, and did his best to keep the men alive. Wounded were placed in hole, and at least kept out of line of enemy fire.
“The hole in the ground was 12 feet square and about 5 feet deep. The men kept on digging it deeper during lulls in action. Started using it as soon as the fighting started. Otherwise would have been out in the open.”
Capt. Overholt made these comments:
“Prior to the 5th of July (attack on Task Force Smith), there were very few medical casualties, a few fractures, etc., and the traffic of South Koreans going south was intense. I would put the appropriate identification on a GI and stick him on a South Korean truck, knowing full well that he would get as far south as a South Korean could go, probably Pusan. The paradox, I must emphasize, at this stage was overwhelming. A few hundred American troops, poorly equipped without organic transportation going north and literally thousands of much better equipped South Koreans going south. Of great fear to the South Koreans were the tanks which they had little capability to stop. I found out that we didn't either ...
“I chose to put the aid station on the back slope of the same hilly area where the troops would be on the forward slope. I carefully marked out where to put the aid station and discussed it in some detail with the Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Smith, who agreed with its position. It was not placed on the roadside because it would have been at least two to three miles from the forward position of the (fighting) companies. This is too far to litter carry a man who needs help, also too far to carry a man even if one had plenty of men which we did not. It was known that the North Koreans had tanks and, should they get through the road blocks, the aid station would be in direct view and be rendered ineffective if it were near the road. Also at this point, we had no organic transportation to get wounded men down the road. It was for these reasons that the aid station was close to the front lines and off the only available road. In lieu of this, I took two old South Korean trucks that we had commandeered and put them at the closest point on the road to the aid station. They were to be used for evacuation to Pyongtaek and to the ‘doodle-bug’ which should be waiting for casualties to take them to Taejon.”
The task force first gathered to the southeast of Osan, at Pyongtaek, and moved out on July 4 to the fighting positions selected by Col. Smith. Overholt described the convoy ride and setup this way:
“We moved out under blackout the late hours of 4 July. As is customary, the medical component was the last vehicle in the convoy. We had great difficulty in keeping our vehicle running because of a very poor radiator and had to frequently fill the radiator from the ever present water which was abundantly available by virtue of drenching rain. The muddy roads were nearly impassable. Ultimately we did arrive at the bend in the road where I placed the two trucks to be used for evacuation. It was pitch-black and I was indeed glad that I had left markers indicating how to get into the position. The troops had already moved out and into position. However, my medics were reluctant to move into position because of a fear of walking into a North Korean trap. In spite of direct command, they refused. I went forward alone turning around occasionally and indicating that I was still intact by using the appropriate language well recognized by GI's. It took me something like two and one-half hours to get the medics into position at the aid station. The rain was a real downpour and everybody was soaking wet. While still dark, the medical kits were placed under a lean-to with canvas cover, and the medics were directed to dig foxholes.”
Frankly, Overholt's thinking and leadership are something to behold for a medical doctor not schooled in the art and science of warfare.
Overholt was concerned because he did not know the medics at all, and Lt. Adams was for the moment with the other of two infantry companies that had come.
The task force managed to set up shop by the morning of July 5, 1950, it was confident that it could delay the approaching enemy, and the men rested for their breakfast of C-rations.
Back home it was July 4, Independence Day, and most Americans were celebrating, not even knowing that 540 from their ranks were about to face off against thousands and thousands of North Korean enemy forces and their Soviet-made armor.
As the men were finishing breakfast, Col. Smith spotted the enemy, several miles north, near Suwon, heading in his direction, as expected. The great surprise was to see so many columns of Soviet T-34 tanks, thought by most to be the very best tank of WWII. Behind the tanks were thousands and thousands of infantry.
Army records say that the first American artillery fired at the KPA was fired at 8:16 am, July 5, 1950, all howitzer rounds, with Major Ambrose Nugent of Merrill, Wisconsin working as forward observer helping to adjust fire. Perry’s men laid down the first rounds about 4,000 yards out, which was about 2,000 yards in front of Task Force Smith. Adjustments were quickly made and rounds began falling among the enemy tanks, on top of them, with no effect, except that they killed the few infantry riding on the tanks and in trucks.
The task force fought with great courage, but everything it threw at the tanks simply bounced off, the mortars, the 105 mm howitzer shells, their bazookas, even when firing at point blank range. The tanks simply kept rolling by, with the infantry behind them and on their way. The fight would endure for about seven hours.
Capt. Overholt talk about his actions this way:
“During the period of intense combat, I don't know the number of hours that transpired because I was extremely busy. I know that Lt. Adams carefully checked the medical support; that is, the medical aid men and litter-bearers behind the companies and made certain that they knew exactly where the aid station was. I also know that the closeness of the aid station under the trying situation without adequate litter-bearers was absolutely essential and a wise move. All the casualties readily found the aid station. I was occupied by the usual types of battle wounds. First aid was rendered, that is, splint the part, stop the bleeding, and give the patient reassurance, morphine if indicated, appropriate tags, etc. These simple procedures were difficult because of three factors: (1) We were out in the rain. Tape would not stick so all bandages had to be tied on. Our modest supply of such bandages rapidly became exhausted. We had the standard, well equipped kits for aid stations. (2) Several rounds landed in our area and often scattered the corpsmen into their foxholes. (3) General confusion. This was their first combat!
“Nevertheless, we were able to take care of all the casualties in a satisfactory fashion as far as first aid is concerned. I did anticipate that we would not be able to hold the North Koreans so I directed all walking cases to take off south through rice paddies and off the main road in the hope of getting to medical care. For example, all individuals with fractured arms and hands from bullet wounds whose bleeding was stopped and arm splinted and individuals who had relatively deep soft tissue wounds who were not in shock and had the use of all four extremities. Perhaps 25 or 30 such individuals were so directed south. There rained an additional 25-30 men who were litter cases. After several hours of battle, usual medical supplies were exhausted and we improvised with T-shirts, etc. It didn't really matter what you put on the wounds, etc., because they rapidly became soaking wet and muddy anyway.
“Lt. Colonel Adams indicates that he was informed of the withdrawal and a decision by Lt. Colonel Smith that Max Myers and ‘Frenchy" Fortuna’, two medics, volunteered to remain behind. Both of these decisions were not made known to me. The chaplain, who was of great assistance, and several medics with me continued to be occupied in the care of the wounded when a 2nd Lt. came running over the hill, stopped dead in his tracks, and asked, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”
The tanks, over 30 of them, just kept rolling, in fact, rolling right down the road straddled by Task Force Smith. Troopers fired the heaviest stuff they had at point blank range. Everything simply bounced off. Then, with the tanks passing by headed toward the south and toward the 52 FA howitzer positions, came the KPA infantry, by the thousands. As all these forces, some two regiments of the KPA's 4th Division, approached, Task Force Smith was being surrounded.
By early afternoon, Smith ordered his men to withdraw. There was a corridor of escape available to the south. Sgt. First Class Billy R. Smith recalled:
"When we finally got the word to move out, the enemy was sitting on all sides of us and behind us and they had their automatic weapons zeroed in. When we got up to evacuate the position, they chopped us up."
The withdrawal was disorganized.
Capt. Overholt said this:
“It was at this point that we found out that the two companies had withdrawn. I directed the medics to put the wounded men on their backs and try to carry the more seriously ill by litter. At this moment, there was a great deal of firing into our position with some of the wounded and medics becoming casualties. The cause for this was the appearance of North Koreans less than three to four blocks from us. Although we were well marked with Red Cross arm bands and helmets, obviously carrying casualties, and medics also do not have any weapons, they opened fire on the group. Prior to this event, the chaplain and I had decided to remain but, at this point, it seemed to be a hopeless gesture. I remember a man with a belly wound looking up and telling me to get the hell out of there. The action of the North Koreans indicated that they were not interested in respecting medics or casualties. The situation seemed hopeless, so the chaplain and I did just what the wounded man urged us to do--get the hell out of there. It turned out that I did end up in the group with Lt. Adams and, during the long forced march, rendered first aid and, equally important, encouragement to those who wanted to give up because of their extreme fatigue. A remarkable number of men made it back under most trying circumstances.”
The Guardian, in an article, “Goodbye, farewell and Amen to the Last US MASH Unit,” published on February 2, 2006, quoted Colonel Overholt commenting on conditions in Korea during that war:
"The climate in itself produced considerable problems, from the extreme heat of 110 degrees to the sub-zero weather. In the summer heat, (there was) exhaustion, salt depletion, the maceration of skin, dermatitis, to the frostbite in winter ... The adversary was ruthless, outnumbered, outgunned, outflanked, and overran us, necessitating innumerable withdrawals with the ever relentless loss of men. Our greatest problem was instilling minimal morale."
We have not been able to reconstruct completely what Capt. Overholt did following this battle, though his comments about winter frostbite would indicate he remained on the peninsula through the winter.
With that said, withdrawal in the face of an aggressive enemy attack is a most difficult military maneuver. This GoogleEarth annotated image traces the initial withdrawal steps.
Task Force Smith reassembled at Chonan, about 26 miles south-southeast of Osan. Very shortly after convening the task force, Col. Smith was notified that the town was being overrun. They went to the railroad station, “secured” some trucks, “borrowed” more, and headed south.
It then moved to Chochiwon, another 16 miles south-southeast of Chonan. The 3-21 Infantry had arrived and was located there. It had already been warned that the enemy thrust was massive, far more massive than anyone thought. The 3-21's aid station was located at Chochiwon, and would be overrun by the enemy on July 8, 1950. Capt. Alexander Boysen, MC, and Capt. Douglas Anderson, MSC, were both captured there. Interestingly, Anderson had helped Overholt acquire field gear while they were still at Sasebo, Japan. Anderson died in captivity; Boysen was repatriated.
In the meantime, Col. Stephens had also arrived and had formed a composite force that included some engineers, light tanks, and those in the 1-21 Infantry that had not gone with Task Force Smith. Stephens was ordered to hold a line just north of Chochiwon for at least four days. Smith’s men were moving in that direction and met up with Stephens and were reunited with the rest of the 1-21 Infantry, folded back in, losing its identity, for the moment, as Task Force Smith. All together, these forces under Stephen's command took yet another stand against two KPA elite divisions, the 3rd and 4th. Unbelievably, they held them off for three days before having to head south across the Kum River. We assume Overholt was with them.
An operation is performed on a wounded soldier at the 8209th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, twenty miles from the front lines. August 4, 1952. Feldman. (Army) Presented by The Roots Web Store. The earlier MASH outfits were not this elaborate.
At about this time, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) 8055, hastily put together about a week earlier in Japan, arrived at Pusan, took the train to Taejon, and set up to support the 24th Infantry Division, Colonel George Rumer in command. Initially, they set up shop in barns, schoolhouses, rice mills and churches. By early August, MASH 8055 had moved about 70 miles to the southeast, to Taegu, at the northern edge of what became known as the Pusan Perimeter. It set up at Taegu Teachers College.
Sometime during July, following this initial fighting, a decision was made to cover up the red crosses on ambulances and arm the corpsmen because the North Koreans persistently attacked unarmed ambulances, medical corpsmen and chaplains. The medics began smearing mud over the red crosses. The above photo is from the Logansport Press, Logansport, Indiana, its July 30, 1950 edition, showing Chaplain John Gilmans, left, of Staten Island, New York, and Capt. Overholt pausing for a smoke as they leave the front with a casualty-laden ambulance, red crosses covered with mud.
Some examples of why such action had to be taken. The events listed here happened on or before July 11, so we assumed some or many of these involved men from Task Force Smith:
- Capt. Donald Duerk, MD, MC, the 1-21 surgeon who arrived with the 3-21 Infantry, on or before July 11, 1950, reported seeing three bound bodies of US soldiers at the aid station. He reported at least one of these had been shot behind the ear. This corroborated reports received to that point that 18 American GIs had been bound and murdered by North Korean soldiers, very shortly after their capture. We must assume some or many of those were from Task Force Smith.
- Lt. D.C. Gates reported some seven GIs slain after having surrendered. Their hands were bound behind them. They were shot in the face multiple times.
- AP correspondent William R. Moore found two dead GIs with markings of bindings on their bodies shot in the forehead.
- Pfc. jack Hogdom reported seeing three soldiers' bodies bound with ropes and with bullet holes in their faces.
- Pvt. Donald Odle said he saw four Americans surrender. One was shot immediately.
- Pvt. Arthur Allyn said he had seen the bodies of two soldiers at an aid station, their hands bound behind their backs with belts. They had been shot in the throat.
One final example. On July 16, 1950, Pfc. Don V. Bailey, assigned to the ambulance company of the 24th Medical Battalion, was wounded at Yongi, ROK, while part of a group the enemy had surrounded. His group was under extremely heavy enemy fire. Bailey continued nonetheless to try to evacuate the wounded. His ambulance was destroyed by enemy fire and he then transferred the wounded to an armored vehicle. He was wounded again. The armored vehicle was rendered inoperative. He then grabbed a jeep and loaded it with the wounded and, during this activity, was wounded six more times, rendering him helpless. He was then evacuated. He received the nation's second highest honor for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross.
Two other newly formed Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units, 8063 and 8076, arrived in later July, the former to support the 1st Cavalry Division and the latter to support the overall retreat line of communication in the Taegu-Taejon corridor. A fourth MASH would arrive in September. These were all 60-bed hospital facilities promptly reorganized to hold 200 beds. The MASH units were always on the move.
Otto F. Apel and Pat Apple wrote a book, MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea, provides some interesting insights into the state of mind of the young doctors called to go to Korea in the initial days. Overholt had commented himself that he was taken out of the beginning of his residency, drew straws for an assignment at a dispensary in Japan, had no full field equipment for war, didn’t know any of the medical platoon with which he would serve, and boom, there he was selecting a location for an aid station to support 540 men in a fight against tens of thousands of enemy. Not only that, he would treat wounded soldiers just yards from the front line, and would withdraw with them under fire.
Apel described some of these same sensations in his book:
“We left the antiseptic while buildings and the manicured lawns and the American sandwiches and beer and the nurses by the pool of Osaka (Japan) and headed to the hot, brown tents and the muddy roads and the K-rations and the mess hall food of Korea.
“Dr. Sam Seeley (later in life as chief of Surgery, Walter Reed) reflected on the predicament of the draft doctors’ lack of military medical training and experience. He contended that it was essential for new doctors to ‘unlearn the very excellent and beautiful principles necessary in civil practice and learn the rapid and adequate sort of care of massive wounds, massive trauma.’”
Apel talks a great deal about how unprepared the doctors were for Army life, and medicine in an intense combat environment.
Apel went on to say this:
“We all knew that the army method for training was ‘on-the-job-training.’ Sam Seeley ... looked at this philosophically when he was interviewed some thirty years later. ‘There’s only one way to learn good surgery ... And that’s to get bloody wet.’”
We do not know when, but Capt. Overholt finally was able to return to his residency at Fitzsimmons. We do know the 24th Infantry Division was relieved in Korea by the 40th Infantry Division and returned to Japan on January 23, 1952.
“(Major Overholt) working in rugged, mountainous terrain with improvised facilities and hampered by rain and constant fire from the enemy, saved the lives of many wounded soldiers. His care of battlefield casualties was characterized by exceptional skill, calmness and deep personal concern without regard for his personal safety.”
Upon completion of his residency at Fitzsimmons, he was assigned to the Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany, a hospital that to this day receives our wounded and injured military people from many places throughout Europe, Africa, the Mideast and Southwest Asia, including from Iraq and Afghanistan. When he went there, his task was to help develop the staff of the new 1,000 bed hospital. The hospital was built in 1951. Its first commander was Major Charles J. McGee. It was originally used as a German and then French barracks. Today, it is the largest US military hospital outside the continental US.
In the late 1950s, he was sent to Ft. Dietrick, Frederick, Maryland to investigate biological warfare, which included work on the diagnosis and treatment of anthrax, plaque and development of a vaccine against respiratory tulatemia. Our understanding is he was part of an Army Medical Unit from Walter Reed Medical Center, Colonel William D. Tigerett in command. When Overholt served at Ft. Dietrick, he has already been promoted to as a lieutenant colonel.
Overholt received the military Legion of Merit (shown above) and was promoted to colonel. He then became the chief of medicine at Fitzsimmons.
The Army was about to promote him to brigadier general when he decided to take a position at Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the first full-time director of medical education in 1968. Robert Rasmus, a Gundersen Lutheran doctor, and Overholt’s best friend from childhood in Decorah, Iowa, convinced him to take the job.
Gundersen Lutheran is a healthcare system located in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and, at present, has a teaching hospital with 325 beds and a Level II Trauma and Emergency Center. It is also the Western Clinical Campus for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School and School of Nursing. He also served as a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in Madison.
In 2007, the ACP formally named its Associates’ Clinical Vignettes program in honor of Dr. Overholt.
Terry Rindfleisch, reporting for the La Crosse Tribune on September 26, 2006, informed the community that Dr. Overholt had passed on September 24, 2006, at the age of 83. She added:
“Medical residents and physicians considered him a great teacher and mentor, and affectionately called him ‘The Colonel.’ "
Surgeon Dr. Sig Gundersen III probably has the explanation for why that nickname stuck. Following Overholt’s death, Gundersen said:
"If you had a patient of his in surgery and didn't get in touch with him, he would read you the riot act."
Dr. Mark Connelly, chairman of the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation and a former resident under Overholt, said this about him:
“He had a passion for learning and instilling that in people. He dedicated his life to his profession and his patients ... He was a world-class diagnostician who stressed listening carefully to the patient.”
Overholt had succeeded in setting up a nationally recognized medical education program at Gundersen Lutheran when other hospitals throughout the country were shutting them down.
Overholt retired in 1993 and was awarded the second Founders Award in Medical Leadership by the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation and the Founders Society.
Dr. Erik Gundersen recently transferred a portion of his pension assets to an IRA account that was then given to the endowment for medical education at Gundersen Lutheran. He did so in honor of Dr. Overholt, and said this:
“I’ve spent my whole life here and owe a lot to this place. Growing our endowment for education is a big priority right now, so I thought it would be a good place to give back. Sophia and I made this gift in honor of the late Edwin L. Overholt, MD, our director of medical education for 25 years. He was a strong leader with boundless energy—an inspiration for many of us who follow him.”
Edwin L. Overholt was married for 60 years to his wife, Thelma, and the two raised four children, Steven, Ed, Stephanie, and Kris.
Dr. Steven L. Overholt, MD
Dr. Edwin M. Overholt
Two sons, Stephen L. and Edwin M. are medical doctors at Gundersen. Both are Otolaryngologists, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment if ear, nose, throat and head and neck disorders. Both are surgeons in the field.
So, the next time you bump into someone, ponder what that person may have seen and done during his or her life. The person might look "ordinary," but it's ordinary people that make our world go 'round, doing extraordinary things.
Men of Task Force Smith, I report we completed our assigned task with honor
Captain Joseph Darrigo, US Army, was the only American on the 38th parallel separating the Koreas on the morning of June 25, 1950. He was the first American to observe the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Why was Darrigo there? What happened after he spotted the enemy coming down the pike? We explore both those questions in some detail. That leads you to the men of Task Force Smith, the heart of this story. But their story must be framed by the context of the history that put Darrigo at Kaesong on the day the North Koreans invaded. The Korean War is not a forgotten war here. The men and women who fought in it are not forgotten here. Lt. Bill Wyrick, the "Chief," paid tribute to this task force in 1988. He said, "When you explain the meaning of freedom to your children - tell them about Task Force Smith." That's exactly what we'll do. By Ed Marek. February 9, 2008.