By 1953, the Korean War’s front lines had stagnated roughly half way down the Korean peninsula just north of Seoul. 800,000 dug in Chinese and North Korean troops looked across miles of heavily fortified hills at 650,000 dug in American, South Korean and United Nations’ troops to the south. At this point, the Korean War had more in common with World War I than the recent fight with Germany and Japan, and neither side could launch a major offensive without unacceptable losses. Constant patrolling and artillery duels were the norm, with the occasional attack on isolated outposts to draw media attention. These small scale battles over hilltops reminded the people at home that the war in Korea was still being waged. These company and battalion-sized actions had dramatically out sized propaganda significance compared to any meager military value the hills conferred from changing hands.
In April 1953, Easy Company, 1/31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Inf Division held Hill 255 opposite a battalion of 141st Chinese Infantry Division. The hill was previously garrisoned by a Thai battalion who had nicknamed it “Pork Chop” because of its shape on the topographical maps. The name stuck. Pork Chop Hill was exposed to attack from three sides because of the loss of “Old Baldy”, a hill to the north, to a Chinese attack on its Colombian defenders several weeks before. However, Pork Chop couldn’t be abandoned without appearing weak at the peace talks in Pannmujom. The Chinese waited for a stall in these talks before launching any attack in order to make the most use of its propaganda effect. The stall came on 16 April. That night the Chinese launched a massive artillery bombardment and attacked Pork Chop Hill with two infantry battalions.
The Chinese surprised and quickly overran the trenches of Easy’s forward positions and methodically cleared the Americans from the remaining bunkers with grenades, flamethrowers and sheer numbers. In a desperate last stand, First Lieutenant Thomas Harold rallied about a dozen men at the Command Post bunker on the reverse slope, thus preventing the Chinese from capturing Pork Chop Hill outright.
Alerted by LT Harold, Love Company and King Company of the 1/31st Inf, led by 1LT Joseph Clemons (K Co’s Commander), prepared to retake Pork Chop. (A young first lieutenant was the senior officer on the ground for a two company assault. Think about that for a second.) At 0430 on 17 April they began their assault up the hill. Love Company was destroyed by Chinese artillery, but King managed to recapture the southern third of Pork Chop and relieve Easy, who numbered exactly eight men at this point. However the Chinese sent another battalion into the fight. For the rest of the day, King Co and the remnant of Easy fought to retain their toehold on the back slope of Pork Chop, without any reinforcements or resupply except for the 12 remaining men of Love Co who staggered in later in the morning. Fortunately, the Chinese were having their own difficulties penetrating the ring of fire that American artillery rained down around Pork Chop preventing them from attacking King Co en masse.
In the late afternoon, George Co 1/31st Inf was sent to “mop up” and was surprised to find the fight raging, supplies low and casualties high. Due to a misunderstanding, George was pulled off the hill almost immediately, much to LT Clemons’ dismay. He was now down to 25 men, including the remnants of Easy and Love. He pulled them all to the top of the hill and waited for the inevitable final Chinese attack just after dusk. They had been in close contact, including hand to hand combat, for almost 20 hours. Most of the men were using captured Chinese weapons.
At 0100, 18 April 1953, the Chinese finally attacked. They forced Clemons’ and his remaining die hards into the Chow Bunker, where the Chinese prepared to use satchel charges and flamethrowers to finish them off. Luckily for the defenders, George Co’s commander convinced his and Clemons’ superiors of the gravity of the situation on Pork Chop and they finally authorized more reinforcements. Just as the Chinese nighttime attack started, Easy Company 17th Inf Regt, sprinted up the rear slope of Pork Chop without consideration of Chinese artillery fire and struck the Chinese attack head on. Although they took casualties, their bold move was probably all that saved Clemons and the remaining defenders from an inevitable death in the confines of the Chow Bunker.
The battle raged for another two days and consumed five more American companies and ten Communist battalions before the Chinese conceded. Of the 500 men in Easy, King and Love Companies of the 1st Battalion 31st Infantry, who fought on Pork Chop Hill between 16 and 18 April 1953, only 12 would walk off the hill, including LT Clemons.