Passing the Test uses contemporaneous interviews and reports to conduct a retrospective on Korean War ground combat in April–May 1951. The focus is on the Eighth U.S. Army except for two battles that involved Australian and British troops. The strategic context is the Fifth Offensive of the Chinese People's Volunteers Force (CPVF), its last “win the war” effort, which failed. A limited Eighth Army offensive then drove the Communist coalition forces well above the 38th parallel. The book is the final segment of a trilogy on 1951 operations.
Most of the readers of the JCWS will find this book too operational and too technical. The book is based on interviews conducted by active-duty officers with combat arms officers and non-commissioned officers about recent actions, most of which were successful. The principal editor and compiler, the late Colonel William T. Bowers of the U.S. Army, was a combat veteran turned historian who wanted to tell the story of the Eighth Army's eventual battlefield effectiveness. For someone unfamiliar with the U.S. Army of 1951, this book may be difficult reading.
At the heart of the testimony are explanations of the Eighth Army's better performance. The commanding officers, from generals to lieutenants, improved with experience. By 1951, no one underestimated the CPVF's ability to create roadblocks and ambushes for night actions with machine guns, mortars, and clever infantry assaults aimed at road-bound infantry, incautious artillery batteries, and isolated tanks. CPVF commander Peng Dehuai told Mao Zedong an unpalatable truth that U.S. forces had corrected their operational errors in the field and that the Chinese army would require years of modernization to match U.S. firepower and mobility.
For those of us weaned on S. L. A. Marshall's books, The River and the Gauntlet (1953) and Pork Chop Hill (1956), the case studies in Passing the Test are short on drama because the interviewers and interviewees are being professionally dispassionate. For example, on the morning of 23 April 1951, the chief of staff of the U.S. Seventh Infantry Division met with the commander of the 29th British Independent Brigade (29 BIB), Thomas Brodie. The Chinese had placed three of Brodie's four infantry battalions in peril along the Imjin River. The Seventh Infantry Division had one battalion available to save some but not all of the British forces. The chief of staff's account and the operations journal tell the tale in restrained language. The U.S. battalion rescued two 29 BIB battalions, but a late, awkward attack by the attached 10th Philippine Battalion Combat Team did not open an escape route for a third British battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment, which went down fighting in the finest tradition of the British army. Brodie, the G-3 journal says, did not believe the Glosters were in the greatest peril. An after-action report compiled by the Gloster survivors, fewer than 50, provides a stoic account of their battalion's ordeal. The whole chapter, “Gloster Hill,” is a model of professional military analysis.
The ordeal of the Glosters is only one of the several accounts of tactical crises the Eighth Army faced at the height of its effectiveness in 1951. In aggregate, the case studies show what perils the Eighth Army might have faced if General Matthew Ridgway had approved General James Van Fleet's plans to mount a general offensive before the Truman administration sought a negotiated armistice. The Eighth Army had improved, but its advantages did not ensure victory at a reasonable cost.
Passing the Test has a unique aspect. The interviewers were experienced Army historians, and the subjects were fresh from the action and thus had had no time to adjust their accounts to reputations and others’ stories. Most published Korean War oral history interviews were made long after the action with subjects too young in 1950–1953 to know more than the horrors of their personal experiences. Moreover, what the subjects in these later interviews had read since the war perpetuated the fable of Chinese “hordes” and incompetent U.S. Army officers. The actions reconstructed in Passing the Test had an immediate utility that defined the investigation, for personal and unit awards and operational “lessons learned.” These are organizational issues, not necessarily those that now interest even Korean War military specialists. Nevertheless, they had special validity.
The editors deserve a literary award for their annotations and for the bibliographical essay that completes the book. The entire trilogy deserves attention as a welcome alternative to the flood of veterans’ memoirs that have dominated the most recent accounts of the war.
Passing the Test describes how the Korean War was fought on the ground during three months of 1951. It does not answer the question of whether the Eighth Army could have fought even more effectively and achieved a limited victory rather than accepting a negotiated armistice two years later.