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[Lee Kyong-hee] Lessons in crisis leadership from Jipyeong-ri

Jipyeong-ri is a small, quiet village embraced by low mountains. The placid atmosphere of the humble village makes it hard to conceive the hellish combat that occurred there 70 years ago, engraving its name in modern warfare. 

The Battle of Jipyeong-ri (aka Chipyong-ni), along with the Incheon Landing and the Retreat from Chosin Reservoir, is among the most researched topics of military historians who study the Korean War. And anyone taking even a cursory look at the three-day battle around the central inland village on Feb. 13-15, 1951, is captivated by the heroic leadership of two commanders.

Col. Paul L. Freeman Jr. of the US 23rd Infantry Regimental Combat Team and Lt. Col. Ralph Monclar of the French United Nations Infantry Battalion led their men to a seemingly impossible victory. Surrounded and outnumbered by at least 10 to 1, some 5,600 US and French soldiers under their command reversed the tide of war. The victory was so decisive that China began considering peace. Up until then, its troops had won every battle since entering the war in November 1950. 

What makes men isolated in the freezing cold of a faraway land muster the courage to confront waves of attacks from surrounding hills and mountains? 

What makes those men overcome their fear in fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets against allegedly invincible juggernauts assaulting from behind ominous bugle calls, horn blares and drumming in the dark? 

What makes career soldiers and volunteer recruits with a myriad of backgrounds maintain their morale and cohesion through devilish combat to a victory and glory remembered long after the war ended? 

Summing up the achievements of the so-called “23rd Regiment and French Battalion in Korea,” Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, then commander of the US 8th Army, told the US Congress in May 1952: 

“Isolated far in advance of the general battle line, completely surrounded in near-zero weather, they repelled repeated assaults by day and night by vastly superior numbers of Chinese. ... I want to say that these American fighting men, with their French comrades-in-arms, measured up in every way to the battle conduct of the finest troops America and France have produced throughout their national existence.” 

The ferocity of the attackers and the heroism of the defenders both add to the legendary aura of the battle. And this is also the reason the ability of the commanders draws particular attention. 

However, without experiencing the war firsthand, one cannot dare grasp the depth of the difficulties overcome or the amount of brilliance and ability that permeated from the commanders to the lowest ranks. The extremely foggy situation of the war in the winter of 1950 must have forced leadership in foxholes and trenches into a different level of chaos and agony. 

In this regard, American military historian Kenneth E. Hamburger provides a good glimpse of front-line leadership in Jipyeong-ri, through memories of Pvt. Seymour Harris. Harris was one of the men on the last truck carrying replacements into the 1.6-km basin perimeter from division:

“Again it is bitterly cold. The snow creaks loudly underfoot. Even the tree limbs crack and make strange noise. The word is out. Tonight we will have 100 percent alert. Tonight is the night. There is no place to run, no place to pull back to. Our backs are to the wall. Colonel Freeman and Lieutenant Colonel Edwards have checked and rechecked our positions.” 

Harris’ memory after surviving the first night was about Freeman, who had a leg injured but refused to be relieved of command or evacuated:

“I saw this guy coming toward us walking with a limb, and using a staff about five feet tall as an aid. The colonel is alone, not even a radioman is tagging along let alone another officer. That impressed me. He wanted to get in the bunker to see what he could see for himself, but his gimpy leg prevented that. That gives you a good idea of how thorough Colonel Freeman was in making sure everything was just right. He left nothing to chance. 

“As he passed me I’m sure he recognized me as a new man. He looked me hard in the eye and said, ‘Good luck to you, soldier.’ I nodded and said, ‘Same to you, sir.’ Colonel Freeman -- I would have followed him to the deepest part of hell. He was a soldier’s soldier.” (“Leadership in the Crucible: Two Korean War Battles in Twin Tunnels & Chipyongni”: Texas A&M University Press, 2003) 

Col. Freeman, as regimental combat team commander, technically led Lt. Col. Monclar, who led a battalion attached to his regiment. Their comradeship makes one of the most beautiful episodes in military history.
The rank and name of Lt. Col. Ralph Monclar, as is well known, were both fictitious. Born as Raoul Magrin-Vernerey, the son of a French mother and a Hungarian father, he was a French lieutenant general and second inspector of the Foreign Legion. He took the nom de guerre Ralph Monclar during World War II for convenience while serving with the Allied forces. In order to command a battalion in the Korean War, he volunteered to be demoted to lieutenant colonel. 

Monclar was a highly revered veteran of both world wars. He led battles in Morocco, Lebanon, Vietnam, Norway, England and Africa. He was famed as a peerless leader of men in peace and war, as well as a sophisticated yet profoundly human soldier. His legendary leadership is often characterized by fearless bravery, unperturbed confidence and the heart to read his soldiers’ feelings and respond to them. 

Determined to fight for freedom as a member of the first UN forces and for the honor of the Foreign Legion, Lt. Col. Monclar boarded ship in Marseille on Oct. 25, 1950, leading his newly organized French Battalion of 1,017 men. They arrived in Busan on Nov. 29 and headed to Daegu for training and acclimatization. There, they were attached to the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the US 2nd Infantry Division. And the rest became history.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.