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O. C. “Buddy” Clark, Jr.: PFC, U.S. Army, Korea




On July 5, 1950, the first ground engagement between the armed forces of the United States and North Korea took place near the small village of Osan, Republic of Korea. A small unit called “Task Force Smith,” consisting of 540 men, faced the advance of 5,000 combat-hardened North Korean troops supported by 36 Russian-made T-34 tanks. Private First Class O. C. Clark, Jr. of Straughn, a rifleman with Company C, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, fought in this battle. Sadly, he would also become one of the first American casualties of the Korean War.


Oliver Columbus Clark, Jr., born in 1929, was the son of Oliver Clark, Sr. and Mary Elizabeth Wright. The Clarks lived and farmed on Bracewell Road in the Straughn Community. Before enlisting in the U.S. Army and being sent to Japan, he attended Straughn School. He was also known by his nickname, “Buddy.” 


On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor to unify the country under communist control. This aggression shocked the free world and prompted the newly formed United Nations to come to the aid of South Korea. President Harry Truman granted the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, the authority to deploy American combat troops to confront the attackers. The nearest units available to be sent to Korea were from the U.S. occupation forces in Japan.


During the years since the end of World War II, the U.S. had allowed its conventional forces to degrade as it shifted emphasis to its nuclear deterrence arsenal. The United States occupation forces were under-trained and equipped with worn WWII weaponry. Most had grown accustomed to the peaceful life of an occupation army. Only about 25% of the unit has seen any combat action in World War II. 


Loading the troops and equipment of a large fighting force onto ships for deployment to Korea would require several days. Therefore, it was decided to send a small unit ahead to delay the communist advance until the entire 24th Infantry Division could be deployed from Japan. Its primary purpose was to signal the U.S. resolve and warn the communists that its aggression would be met with force.


Two under-strength companies from the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 24th Division, were flown from Itsuki, Japan, to Pusan on C-54 transports. A small detachment of engineers and communication specialists supported the infantry. Also attached was an element of the 52d Artillery Battalion consisting of six 105mm light howitzers. This unit was dubbed Task Force Smith after its commander, Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith, a respected veteran of WWII. General William Dean, Commander of the 24th Infantry Division, ordered Smith to move his forces as far north as possible and set up a defensive position to block the advancing North Korean troops. 


The deployment of U.S. combat troops to Korea was guised under the term “police action. “ Many early arriving soldiers thought they would only be there a few days and that the North Koreans would rethink their actions at the first site of American troops. Sadly, this would not be the case. The North Korean army was battle-hardened, well-trained, and populated with veterans who had fought with Mao Tse-Tung during the Chinese Civil War.


Elements of Task Force Smith entering Tajeon, Republic of Korea on July 2, 1950. (U.S. Army Photo)


Arriving in Korea, the rifleman carried only 120 rounds of ammunition and two days of rations. They were equipped with a few outdated bazookas and only a few anti-armor munitions for their recoilless rifles and artillery pieces. One officer observing the unit move out remarked that “they looked like a bunch of Boy Scouts.” 


In drizzling rain on the night of July 4, a few miles north of the village of Osan, the task force set up on a small series of hills overlooking the roadway. They dug in the best they could and waited for the attacking Koreans. At 8 a.m. the following day, an advance column of 8 T-34s advanced toward the Americans. The U.S. soldiers opened fire with artillery, recoilless rockets, and bazookas and damaged two tanks. The other tanks ignored the Americans and pushed down the road past them. Soon, another enemy column of tanks and infantry stretching six miles appeared and began an enveloping assault on the American positions. 


The Americans were able to hold until early afternoon. Still, the overwhelming number of attackers and dwindling ammunition forced them to begin their withdrawal to the south, which soon turned into a complete rout. Unit cohesion quickly dissolved as the men retreated away from the withering fire of the North Koreans. Those wounded and unable to walk had to be left behind. Of the approximately 540 soldiers in the task force, less than 200 could be accounted for the next morning. Over the next several days, stragglers made their way back to the lines of the newly arrived elements of The U.S. 24th Infantry Division.


According to the Department of Defense, Pvt. Clark was wounded and captured by the North Koreans. He would then endure the infamous “Tiger Death March” toward the North Korean prison camps on the Yalu River.


The Battle of Osan resulted in 60 U.S. killed, with 21 individuals wounded and 82 taken prisoner. Among those captured, 32 died in captivity, 40% of Task Force Smith’s overall strength. North Korean casualties were approximately 42 dead and 85 wounded, with four tanks destroyed or immobilized. Task Force Smith delayed the North Korean advance by seven hours, allowing U.S. units further south to set up the next delaying action. The U.S. Army was pushed steadily southward in the coming days until they could eventually form and  hold the “Pusan Perimeter.”


Soon, the unofficial mantra of “no more Task Force Smiths” became well known in the U.S. military to emphasize the importance of combat preparedness.


North Korean Forces captured O.C. Clark, Jr. at the Battle of Osan and 81 others of the 585 men of Task Force Smith on on July 5, 1950. U.S. casualties in their first action of the war stood at 40%. Clark had been in Korea for a total of six days.


According to the Andalusia Star-News, O.C. Clark’s parents received word that their son was missing in action about a week later. On July 17, national news outlets reported that the communists had compelled a U.S. prisoner to make a radio broadcast in the captured city Of Seoul, saying he was one of 115 U.S. prisoners of war. His captors also coerced him to say they were being treated humanely. The Red Cross representative in Peking then transmitted these names to the U.S. State Department. O. C. Clark’s name was on the list; this was the only news the Clarks learned about their son during the war. 


Sovofoto image of Task Force Smith prisoners in Seoul shortly after their capture.


If the Korean War is known as the “Forgotten War,” the death march of the prisoners in Task Force Smith’s group could aptly be called “The Forgotten Death March.” It constituted some of the worst abuses of captured American servicemen in our nation’s history but is not widely known as the Bataan Death March of WWII.


In the opening days of the Korean War, as the North Korean forces rapidly pushed U.S. and South Korean forces south towards the sea, hundreds of Americans fell into enemy hands. The North Koreans killed hundreds of captured Americans shortly after their surrender. U.N. forces found prisoners with hands bound and shot or bayoneted. Almost all these atrocities occurred in the first few months of the war. The most infamous of these incidents is known as the Hill 303 Massacre. On August 17, 1950, North Korean captors murdered 41 Americans. 

The North Koreans moved those from Clark’s unit and other U.S. prisoners captured in the war’s first months to Seoul and then to Pyongyang. During this time, they were subjected to beating and interrogations by their captors; some were killed or wounded in air strikes by friendly forces. Given very little food, they were soon malnourished and most quickly developed dysentery and other parasitic diseases. They also relieved little or no medical treatment. Many had to march barefoot for long distances.


With the landings at Inchon in September and the advance of U.N. forces into North Korea, the POWs were moved ever northward toward the Chinese border, away from the advancing U.N. troops. 


The prisoners of Task Force Smith were eventually amongst a group of over 800 that included 81 civilian foreign nationals taken prisoner. The youngest civilian was only one, the oldest in her eighties. Some entire families were amongst the group. These civilians were journalists, missionaries, nuns, and foreign businessmen arrested by North Korean forces. The group was eventually moved to Manpo, where they came under the control of a North Korean security police major who became known as “The Tiger’, the moniker given to him by the prisoners because of his ruthless actions. His assignment was to lead the captives to permanent prison camps set up on the border with Red China. 


Through an interpreter, the Tiger told the group that they would be making a long march to be conducted in a military fashion. When the senior civilian, British Commissioner Herbert A. Lord of the Salvation Army, pleaded with the Tiger that the group that already contained many seriously ill and wounded could not make such an effort, The response was, “Then let them march till they die. That is a military order.”


The route was to cover 100 miles over the nine days. It set out on October 31, 1950. The Tiger set a grueling pace that quickly exhausted the already weakened captives. Guards constantly prodded the prisoners with rifle butts and bayonets. The small children of the group had to run to keep up with their families. Food was small amounts of corn and weak cabbage stew, if at all.


When the Tiger felt that too many Americans were slowing down, he ordered an Army Lieutenant to come forward, ordered him to kneel, and executed him to set an example to the others. Inevitably, many could go no further and were killed by the North Koreans where they lay. By this time, it was reaching freezing temperatures, and the prisoners were still wearing only their summer fatigues and many without shoes. 


When they reached Andong on the snowy Yalu River, nearly 100 of the captives were dead from exhaustion, disease, cold, or execution. Upon their arrival, the prisoners were forced to do calisthenics in the snow.


Hope that their ordeal was over quickly vanished. The group was moved from Andong then to Hanjang-Ni, and then to Chunggang. These camps, situated on the Tumen River at the highest point of North Korea, are known as the Apex Camps. They contained only the Tiger Death March prisoners. They were held at Chunggang-jin from 9 to November 16, 1950, and Hanjang-ni from November 17, 1950, through March 27, 1951. and Andong from March 27 to October 10, 1951.


Map showing the route of the "Tiger Death March" and location of communist POW camps


At the first two camps, the death rate was horrendous. Many of those not directly killed by the long march would soon die from the lingering effects of exhaustion, malnutrition, inhumane treatment, and a lack of medical attention. Food consisted of about a glass full of boiled millet a day. 


During the brutal winter of 1950-51, other more permanent camps further south on the Yalu were established to hold U.N. forces; these likewise proved highly deadly for captives.


Almost all U.S. POWs would eventually come under Communist Chinese control. Conditions improved as the communists realized the propaganda and bargaining value of the U.N. prisoners. Most Americans who died in captivity did so in the first few months of the war while under North Korean control.


Nearly half of those 700 soldiers in O.C. Clark’s group who endured the death march and the Apex camps would be dead the following spring. Only 292 would return home alive.


When the cease-fire was finally signed in August 1953, it provided for the release of all prisoners. Families who had not heard from their loved ones hoped they might eventually discover their fate. The released U.S. prisoners were debriefed and asked about the fate of the missing captives. Of the 7,140 U.S. servicemen captured during the war, 40% (2700) died in captivity.


It was then learned that O. C. Clark had died of untreated wounds, exposure, and pneumonia in February of 1951 at the Hanjanj-Ni prison camp and was buried on the outskirts of the camp. One of the survivors, Wayne “Johnnie” Johnson, kept a list of all deaths in the Apex Camps, which proved invaluable to determining the date and cause of death of many prisoners. Risking severe punishment, he was able to keep the list secret and smuggled it out with him upon his repatriation. At first, his U.S. debriefers had little interest in the list. In 1989, he brought the list to a reunion of the Tiger Death March survivors and, eventually, to the attention of the Department of Defense. It contained the names of 496 POWs who died in the prison camp. Now known as “Johnnie’s List,” it gave closure to many surviving family members. In 1996, Johnson was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in compiling the list. 


Over 7,000 US servicemen remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, and most remain in North Korea. O. C. Clark’s body has still not been recovered. Private First Class Clark is memorialized on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. A headstone for Clark stands in Good Hope Cemetery in the northern part of Covington County, stating, “Died in North Korean prison camp. Gone but not forgotten.”


Memorial for PFC O.C. Clark, Jr. in Good Hope Cemetary.


Note: The author’s knowledge about O.C. Clark, Jr. is derived from his military involvement in the Battle of Osan and the U.S. Department of Defense archives. No known local surviving relatives have been identified at the time of this writing. If you have information on PFC Clark or other veterans of the Korean War, please contact the author at covvets@gmail.com



Sources: 

Carlson, Lewis H. - Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War: an Oral History of the Korean War POWs


The Andalusia Star News, July 29, 1950


United States Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency


Memorial for PFC O.C. Clark, Jr. in Good Hope Cemetary.


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