By 1st Lt. John Brannon
2nd Engineer Battalion
Amid gunfire, explosions, and the whistles of the charging Chinese divisions, the Soldiers of the 2nd Engineer Battalion stood at attention as flames engulfed the Battalion Colors, one last act of defiance before being overwhelmed by the enemy. This moment, perhaps the defining moment of the battalion’s history, occurred on November 30th, 1950, near the small village of Kunu Ri. The battalion fought virtually to destruction, and only 265 Soldiers and one officer answered roll call after the battle. The rest were killed in action or captured as prisoners of war.
On Nov. 22, the Soldiers of the 2nd Engineer Battalion gathered with veterans of the battle to commemorate the bravery and sacrifice shown on that fateful night, by reenacting the last desperate moments before the battalion was overrun. The ten veterans joining the battalion traveled from across the country to stand with their successors. All served in the 2nd Engineer Battalion during the Korean War.
The ceremony marked the culmination of events over two days, all connecting the Soldiers of the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion of 1950 to the Soldiers of 2E today. On Thursday, the senior leaders of the battalion hosted a potluck dinner to welcome the veterans and their families to White Sands.
The following morning, the veterans toured the battalion’s motor pool to see the tools of today’s combat engineers, including the Huskies and Buffalos used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to detect and clear improvised explosive devices. Also present were vehicles from the Korean War era, including an old Jeep that would have been as commonplace 63 years ago, as our HMMWV is today.
On Friday afternoon, the veterans stopped by the White Sands School to speak to several classes of students and share their stories. As the pool of surviving veterans of the Korean War grows ever smaller, the chance to connect to the youngest generations of Americans becomes more and more crucial. The veterans told of their experiences, from time in prisoner of war camps, to the memories of coming home from war, passing on a part of our nation’s history not often covered.
As darkness fell on Friday, the battalion gathered on the parade field once more for the Burning of the Colors. This year, however, provided a unique opportunity to connect today’s Soldiers with their predecessors as Col.(Ret.) Lawrence Farnum, who assumed command of the battalion after the battle, and Lt. Col. Robert Nehrling, who served as battalion S1 and was captured at Kunu Ri, helped Lt. Col James Koeppen, current 2d Engineer Battalion commander, present the Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal with Valor to Soldiers of the 595th Sapper Company, for actions and wounds suffered during their service in Afghanistan this year.
As the ceremony began, Koeppen spoke briefly of the courage shown that night in 1950. “Very few commanders order the burning of their colors. Doing so is an acknowledgement that they are in a desperate and all-but-hopeless situation. Not many know that feeling.”
Maj. (Ret.) Arden Rowley spoke on behalf of the veterans, saying “If those who suffered in combat could see what the Republic of Korea is today, I’m certain they would all say, ‘Yes our sacrifice was worth it.’”
As the ceremony continued, machine gun fire and explosions from all sides recreated the atmosphere of Nov. 30, 1950. While a quartet from the 1st Armored Division Band played “Nearer My God to Thee,” the 2d Engineer Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Devardy Arnold held the battalion colors and a hundred years of campaign streamers, as they burned to ashes before the assembled Soldiers. As he read the final roll call, the veterans called out in response to their names, and current Soldiers answered for the fallen and captured. The battalion stood and rendered honors to all those claimed by the battle, before posting the Colors for the battalion’s continued service.
The night concluded as all ceremonies should, with drinks, and storytelling amongst Soldiers old and new. As time marches on, it is traditions like this that form the bonds between Soldiers that allow us to overcome any odds and meet any foe. This ceremony is held yearly, at home and abroad, in peace and in war. No matter what the future holds for the 2nd Engineer Battalion, its legacy of bravery and sacrifice will never be forgotten.