Today we have another guest article from SOFREP friend Yankee Papa who served in the Marine Infantry in Vietnam before going on to other adventures in Rhodesia. Today, he has a special story to share with us. -Jack
In the Fall of 1951, Captain (later Lt. Colonel) Harold Myers, U.S. Army…was attending his farewell party at the headquarters of the Kagnew (“Conqueror”) battalion along the front facing the Communist Chinese in Korea.
The commanding officer Colonel (later Lt. General) Teshome Irgetu presented him the Star of Ethiopia… the highest Ethiopian decoration awarded at that point in the Korean War.
As I type this, it is 60 years to the day since the Armistice in Korea. Many Americans under 40 know little or nothing about it. Far fewer know about the three battalions of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard who fought in Korea. I was only two years old in 1951…but I know… not just because I started studying military history at the age of nine… but because Captain Myers was my father.
Few Americans know anything about Ethiopia…they picture it as a small country “somewhere” in Africa… Ethiopia is not small in size or population. It has the second highest population (after Nigeria) of any African country. It is the largest “land locked” country in the world. It is not a “jungle” country… It has some of the hottest lowlands on the planet… But it has large areas of cooler highlands… the capital, Addis Ababa is at 7,874 feet… The mountains have bred tough warriors.
Ethiopia’s people can be very light skinned… or extremely dark. But as a rule, their features are not Negroid, but rather Semitic/Arabic. Their diet is far more varied than that of the interior of Africa… tending towards spicy to hot foods.
During the time of the Roman (and early Byzantine) Empire, Ethiopia was a major regional power, with its own empire… It was not landlocked in those days and had great trading fleets and a powerful navy. Ethiopia became the first empire in the world to officially adopt Christianity (324 AD… Rome 380 AD). To this day the majority is Christian… about 70%… 20% Moslem near the edges (not a major problem) and 10% “Animist” in the far back country.
Ethiopia managed (along with Liberia) to avoid becoming a victim of the “Scramble for Africa…” keeping its independence against not only Europeans, but Moslem fanatics from the Sudan in the last half of the 19th Century.
Italy was late in seizing colonies. After taking Eritrea it invaded Ethiopia in 1895. By late 1895 their forces were deep into the country. Emperor Menelik gathered a large army, but it was soon close to running out of supplies… a few more days and Italy could run Menelik to ground. But political pressure from Italy caused the Italians to immediately push forward into bad country.
The Italians had some 15,000 men in the field of whom 800 were askaris rebelling against Menelik. The Italians had a couple of battalions of elite troops… the rest, disgruntled conscripts. Menelik’s forces attacked at Adwa on March 1, 1896… those with firearms were careful to advance in open order from cover to cover.
The Italians suffered about 7,000 KIA and about 1500 wounded in the battle and the retreat. The Italians left behind all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles, as well as most of their transport.
This was a defeat of a modern army by a militarily inferior country that dwarfed Isandlwana. About 3,000 Italians were taken prisoner. They were correctly treated and ultimately repatriated to Italy (which made the humiliation even worse…) The 800 Askaris were dealt with “harshly…”
Ethiopia became a member of the League of Nations after WWI. In 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie was in front of that body delivering an eloquent plea for help. Benito Mussolini had launched a massive invasion of Ethiopia. The League was impressed… but most nations did little more than lodge weak protests (which were ignored). Britain did at least close the Suez canal to Italian troopships.
Read Next: ETHIOPIA AGAINST THE WORLD: Twelve Years Under The Bus
The Ethiopians resisted heroically… but this time they faced machine guns, tanks, aircraft… and poison gas. They died in great numbers. Survivors headed into the hills to fight a guerrilla war. The occupying troops were severe in their treatment of the population. It would be 1941 before the British drove them out.
When the North Koreans boiled over the border into South Korea in June of 1950, the Ethiopians watched the U.N. to see if they would do anything… The Russians (and their veto) being absent… member nations were requested to provide support to South Korea. Ethiopia immediately provided $100,000 for medical supplies.
In August of 1950 the Emperor decided to send a battalion of his Imperial Bodyguard to Korea. Except for a few officers, all were over six feet tall. Volunteers from the Guard were organized into the Kagnew (“Conqueror”) Battalion and sent into the high country for training and conditioning.
The U.S. President and State Department were eager to accept the Ethiopians. The political significance of a victim of the failure of the League of Nations assisting the new United Nations was a powerful image. The U.S. Army had massive reservations but were told that it was going to happen.
The chaos of the Chinese intervention and the retreat south consumed the efforts of the American command and it would not be until May 7th of 1951 that the ship bearing the Kagnew Battalion (and reinforcements for other foreign contingents) arrived in Korea.
The first impression on the American command was not positive. The Ethiopians arrived wearing 1946 wool British battle dress uniforms with American leggings. They all wore pith helmets.
There were mutterings among some American staff officers that the Ethiopians should not be sent to the line… they should be used to guard rear area depots or even as a labor battalion. But the Emperor had wrung a guarantee out of the State Department that they would be used as front line combat troops.
The battalion had landed the scheduled combat troops… some supporting troops… some nurses and a German doctor. Like many of the foreign contingents, they had shown up with a superfluous (and most unwelcome) force headquarters. The Americans drew the line at tripping over Generals and Field Marshals… They were welcome on inspection tours… but not underfoot other times. The force HQ was stripped of anything useful and the rest “returned to sender…”
The Emperor insisted that Kagnew be equipped and armed by the Americans. On *that* note the U.S. command was happy to go along…The Commonwealth Brigade caused enough logistical problems insisting on their own (inferior) weapons and equipment…
The battalion was issued American Army combat fatigues and traded in their pith helmets for steel pots. Weapons issued were comparable to an American battalion. While intelligent, motivated and disciplined, many of the enlisted troops were very slow learners when it came to the American equipment and weapons…outside their experience. Ultimately they all became very competent.
American Officers weren’t exactly lining up to be a liaison officer to the battalion. Many figured that the unit would be a “weak reed” and used in relatively safe areas. Not much of a career enhancer.
My father volunteered. He was a good choice. Son of a half-breed Cherokee on a dirt ranch near Shoshone, Idaho… left home after the 9th grade and joined the CCC and later the Army. A Corporal at the time of Pearl Harbor, he served with the Third Infantry Division through pre-deployment training… then North Africa to Germany…along the way picking up a battlefield commission.
Sent to Korea shortly after the invasion, he was with Task Force Faith on the East side of the Chosin Reservoir… medevac to Japan… and now the Kagnew Battalion. The tall American Captain and the tall dark men of the Ethiopian highlands would soon forge an unbreakable bond… His time with them was probably the happiest in his life.
After weeks of field training they were moved up to the line. They would be attached to… and part of… the U.S. 7th Infantry Division. The 7th Division would also soon come to highly value the Kagnew Battalion.
Three days after the battalion was sent to the front they fought a four hour battle with Chinese forces at Bongdandeokri in the Hwachon area and won. Their confidence in themselves and in their new weapons and equipment rose and they went on to play a part in blocking the Chinese attacks in the central forward area.
The unit never looked back. During the Korean War they were involved in 238 actions… attack and defense… and won every last one. (Some historians translate it as “battles”, but “actions” is the correct term… all battles are actions… but not all actions merit being written up as battles…) The unit never surrendered an inch of ground without direct orders from the higher echelons of command. The unit (alone of the U.N. forces) never had a man taken prisoner. They never left one of their dead behind.
The battalion did have some unique challenges. Except for most of the officers… few of the men spoke English… and American soldiers who spoke Amharic were not to be found. From day one crash courses in basic English phrases, military terminology and commands were constantly applied.
The battalion came equipped with a German doctor who spoke English, a contingent of Ethiopian medical aides, stretcher-bearers and nurses. An English speaking liaison proved necessary at rear area hospitals. Italian teams posing as medical units back in the day had done some pretty gruesome things to Ethiopian villagers… The wounded soldiers feared the American doctors and gave signs that they would not take any medicine until the doctors tasted it in front of them. Eventually this was sorted out.
Ethiopian enlisted men had to be able to call in fire support, but could not read map grid coordinates. It was decided to “color code” blocks on the map. The system worked fine in practice.
When I was in combat training I was taught that if possible, combat or recon patrols should be rehearsed… and if possible the actual terrain should be spied out as far in advance as possible. This was seldom done. The Ethiopians did it almost every time.
The Ethiopian officers and NCOs had an eye for terrain and during the “trench warfare” phase of the war where most of the action involved patrols, they knew every inch of ground by day or night. The Ethiopians had the best night patrol record of any force in Korea. Junior officers usually went on every patrol… and if there was a man dead or wounded, they usually were the one to carry them back.
In the last couple of years of the war… during the static phase… most American casualties were caused either by patrols gone wrong… or bad patrols missing the enemy massing right on the edge of American positions. Kagnew did not have that problem.
One thing that can really mess up a patrol is when somebody hesitates… then moves… and leads the rest of the column in the dark up a separate path from the lead elements. In extreme darkness the Kagnew held hands in column… viewing the risk of being bunched up as better than the risk of being divided. In later years I have heard of that being done by special units… but regular European and American forces in 1951 would never have thought of it.
The Chinese began to fear the Ethiopians. It wasn’t just that they could never defeat them. They never took a single Kagnew soldier prisoner… they never even recovered a dead one. In actions that involved hand-to-hand combat the Ethiopians seemed enthusiastic.
Rumors began to spread among the Chinese that the Ethiopians were cannibals… Hilarious… almost all of the men in the Kagnew Battalion were Coptic Christians… Their faith has dietary restrictions not too far from that of Orthodox Jews. “Long-pig” was definitely not on the menu. Prior to departing for Korea, the top Coptic religious honchos had to give the Kagnew a special dispensation to allow them to consume American rations.
The Chinese command offered their troops rewards for a prisoner… or even an Ethiopian body. In the end they got a massive loss of face. In what might well be the biggest “stunt” of the Korean war, the Ethiopians decided to show the Chinese just who was “king of the hill…” Maybe it was that in the last months of the war nobody did anything in daylight very often but eight Kagnew soldiers proved that they had brass cohones…
Unfortunately all the reporters covering a Communist propaganda exercise at Panmunjun… but retired General and famous historian S.L.A. Marshall was at one of the on-again, off-again battles at Pork Chop Hill in 1953 when, “…under full observation from enemy country, eight Ethiopians walked 800 yards across no-man’s land and up the slope of T-Bone Hill right into the enemy trenches.
When next we looked, the eight had become ten. The patrol was dragging back two Chinese prisoners, having snatched them from the embrace of the Communist battalion…” Doubtless some Chinese officers were “re-educated…”
On May 19, 1953 one platoon of #3 Company earned a R.O.K. Presidential Unit Citation for its defense of outposts Yoke and Uncle, the platoon commander, 2nd Lt. Zeneke Asfaw was highly decorated for his actions.
There is a chapter in Jerry Pournelle’s book ‘The Mercenary’ dedicated to Lt. Asfaw, and the battle fictionalized there is based on the memories of this Ethiopian officer of the Korean War.
Following major battles in September of 1951, my father’s time in Korea was up. He tried to extend his tour with the Kagnew, but he had already extended once. Also, Kagnew was no longer a “red-headed step-child” but a prestige unit and there was a long line of American officers looking to become a liaison officer to one of the hottest units in Korea.
The 1st Kagnew Battalion itself would leave Korea in July of 1952. They were replaced by the 2nd Kagnew Battalion that served from July 1952 ’til April 1953. The Third Kagnew Battalion served from April 1953 to April 1954… almost nine months after the July 1953 Armistice. A token Ethiopian force remained in Korea until 1965. Each new battalion went out of its way to show that it was the equal of the first… All measured up.
There were, including replacements and support, 6037 Ethiopians who served in the Korean theater 1951-53. At any given time the number on the front line was usually something over 1000.
In spite of their daring, esprit and having won every engagement in which they took part… the three Kagnew battalions only suffered 121 of their men killed… and 536 wounded. Part of the reason may be that unlike many American units that suffered many of their losses in patrol actions, the Kagnew made very few mistakes on the far side of the wire.
Time has not been good to the Kagnew veterans. My father was medically retired in 1967 as a Lt. Colonel and died the following year. His close friend and comrade in arms, Lt. General Teshome Irgetu, who commanded the first Kagnew Battalion was killed by Eritrean terrorists in 1970.
In the mid 1970s a Marxist coup overthrew the Emperor. He and his family were murdered. Kagnew veterans, who had stuck it to the Communists in Korea were not popular… their home units disbanded. Some vets arrested… others caught up in the decades of chaos to come.
Marxist Somalia wasn’t pleasing the Soviets, so they had Marxist Ethiopia invade. A long war took place. Entire Cuban battalions took part along with East German and Soviet advisors. When the Soviet Union started to fall apart they pretty much pulled out of Ethiopia… triggering a long and bloody civil war. At the end, the Marxist dictator Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe… the only country that would have him.
Ethiopia was in ruins… its people in poverty. The remaining Kagnew veterans were old men now… and many were begging on the streets. It seemed that this would be the end of their story… gallant men who had won a distant glory… that was long vanished, “like tears in rain…” but…
It has been noted by many Americans that the generation of Koreans that survived the war has always been grateful for our efforts…but later generations of South Koreans not so much. Part of it is time… part of it is the unending presence of American troops. Part of it is that there is a perception that if Korea had not been so close to Japan, that the Americans would not have committed troops… and hatred for Japan in Korea has a half-life of maybe 300 years.
But the South Koreans have never forgotten the men of the Kagnew Battalions. Ethiopia had no motive for sending troops beyond helping a weak country stop aggression. So Korean government and private efforts have taken place in the last couple of years to help the Kagnew veterans and their families specifically… and the country of Ethiopia in general. Monthly pensions come from Korea to the veterans… schools and libraries built. Korean businesses are investing in Ethiopia.
It would seem that the men of the Kagnew Battalions have won one last victory for their homeland.
1. Newsreel from 1951… First bit about Ethiopia at peace treaty signing in Japan… then treaty with U.S., but then the reel goes into the arrival, equipping, training and deployment of the Kagnew Battalion. The reel is hokey, even by newsreel standards… but the images well worth watching.
2. English language Korean video about aid to Kagnew and Ethiopia…
3. A book written many years ago by a Greek about Kagnew… now available in Korean… doesn’t help you any, but attached article worth the read.
4. Ethiopian English language article about South Korea paying Kagnew pensions.
5. The author of the Korean language translation of the Kagnew book… English comments on gratitude owed Kagnew.
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