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South Korean museum includes Duluth native's war story

DULUTH -- The story of a young Duluth native killed in the opening days of the Korean War will be part of a memorial museum opening next month in South Korea.

Duluth native Paul Larson (left) and Joe Langone
Duluth native Paul Larson (left) and Joe Langone. Submitted photo

DULUTH -- The story of a young Duluth native killed in the opening days of the Korean War will be part of a memorial museum opening next month in South Korea.

U.S. Army Cpl. Paul Larson, 19, died on July 5, 1950, during the Battle of Osan -- the first engagement between United Nations and North Korean forces. Larson was one of the first of more than 36,500 Americans killed in the war.

"It was a very tragic loss for me, and to this day I still remember old Paul," said Joe Langone, 83, who was with Larson when he died on a hill near the city of Osan.

Langone wrote about Larson in the 85-line poem "The Death of a Friend" in 1995. The U.N. Forces First Battle Memorial is using part of the poem in its exhibit.

"I've always thought of him and wanted to pay tribute to him," Langone said.


Larson attended Washington Junior and Central High School before joining the Army. He and Langone met in 1949, and were both assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, stationed in occupied Japan. The two quickly became friends.

"He was a gentleman, a good Christian boy, a good guy all the way around," Langone said. "I never saw him get mad, never saw him cuss or swear. He was a good companion, a good guy to be stationed with. We traveled around together whenever we got a pass."

The Korean War began June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea. The North Koreans quickly captured the South Korean capital of Seoul. To stem the Communist tide, the United States rushed Task Force Smith -- 406 soldiers of the 24th Division supported by an artillery battery -- to Korea.

"The 24th Division was rushed in (piecemeal, due to a typhoon) to try to delay the North Koreans," said Merry Helm, historian at 24th Infantry Division Association, who is writing a book on the Korean War. "They were the nearest troops, being on occupation duty in nearby Japan. It would take a lot of time and effort to prepare and ship more men to Korea, so these delaying battles were bloody and very costly, beginning with Task Force Smith at Osan.

"It was there that the brass finally understood how well the North Koreans were trained and how amply they were supplied by Stalin and the USSR."

In the early hours of July 5, Task Force Smith dug in along a mile-long front near Osan, south of Seoul. Larson and Langone were in different platoons and started the battle on separate hills. In the rain, the troops waited.

"As soon as dawn broke we looked up, and here comes the North Koreans," Langone said. "We never really had a chance; they had so many tanks and artillery and troops against us."

A column of Russian-made T-34 tanks led the North Koreans. With no effective anti-tank weapons, the infantrymen were unable to stop the tanks from passing through their line, past the artillery positions and on toward Osan.


"I actually stood up and was firing at a tank with my M1" .30-caliber rifle, he said. "Now, you try to figure that out. You just get so frustrated."

'What could we do?'

Associated Press correspondent Tom Lambert was in Korea and covered the battle.

"At one time during the breakthrough fight American artillerymen threw open their gun sights and fired point-blank at the Red tanks sighting down the gun barrels, so close was the fighting," he reported in a story that appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.

After the tanks passed, Task Force Smith engaged an oncoming force of some 5,000 North Korean troops. During the battle, Langone's platoon was driven eastward from its hill, onto the hill where Larson was fighting.

"I bumped into Paul sitting in a fox hole, so I jumped in with him," Langone said. "It was still raining. I still had one cigarette. I broke the cigarette in half and gave him half."

Sharing the foxhole, the friends watched as mortar bombs exploded closer and closer to their position. When the explosions got too close, the pair ran to higher ground, got behind a mound of dirt and fired on North Koreans coming up the hill.

Then Langone heard a sound like a hand slapping against another hand.


"I looked at Paul and he had been hit in the face with two shots and in the chest," he said. "He didn't last long."

The Americans delayed the Communists for several hours before being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Nearly surrounded -- with a fourth of his force killed or wounded, nearly out of ammo, without transportation or air support -- Lt. Col. Charles Bradley Smith ordered a withdrawal about 2:30 p.m.

"What could we do?" Pvt. John Easterling, a 19-year-old machine gunner who covered the withdrawal, told Lambert. "One machine gun and 50 riflemen against a regiment. They just kept coming out of the hills, that's all."

What began as an orderly withdrawal degenerated into a confused retreat, with some American wounded left behind.

'Ghastly' mission accomplished

Lambert wrote about one lieutenant sobbing after the battle.

"Ten to one is good odds," the lieutenant said. "But we can't take 100-to-one odds -- without ammunition."

About a third of Task Force Smith's members were killed, wounded or captured that day. Among those captured was Sgt. 1st Class Floyd A. Roy, 43, of Cloquet. He died in captivity, and his remains were never recovered.


"To outsiders, especially World War II vets, these early battles appeared to be routs," Helm said. "It is true that the men had to keep falling back, but that was always part of the plan. Those first months were ghastly, but these men accomplished their mission -- to delay the enemy until more help could arrive.

"There was no such thing as a front line until several months later," she said. "It was all about putting up the best fight possible, and then as the enemy began their flanking/surrounding movements, quickly falling back to the next staging area, where they would once again fight like hell to survive. And it all began at Osan."

A monument to the battle and its U.N. dead was built in Osan in 1982, and a memorial service is held every July 5 on the battlefield. Now, final touches are being completed on a $3.4 million, 10,043-square-foot memorial museum. An opening ceremony is scheduled for April 23.

Last April, a South Korean film team interviewed six veterans of Task Force Smith for a video that will play at the museum. Langone was one of the six. In addition to the interview, the museum got Langone's poem recounting his friendship with Larson, the battle and Larson's death, and the grief that caused. The museum incorporated nearly half of the poem -- in English and Korean -- into one of its displays.

Langone -- who fought in Korea for a year and served in the Army and Air Force for 25 (including service in Vietnam) -- is honored that the museum is using his poem about Larson.

"I would like people to read about him," he said.

Langone once visited Larson's grave in Minnesota and met some of his family. All of Larson's immediate family has since passed, Langone said.

Langone would also like people to remember the Korean War and the sacrifices Americans made. The conflict is often called the Forgotten War, although more than 1.2 million people died during the war. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, 36,574 Americans were killed in the Korean theater. Another 103,284 were wounded.


The arrival of Task Force Smith at a train station near the battlefield is depicted
The arrival of Task Force Smith at a train station near the battlefield is depicted with models and a photograph at a memorial museum scheduled to open April 23, 2013, in Osan, South Korea. Submitted photo

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