Every year, the Soldiers of the 2nd Engineer Battalion burn their unit colors.
To military people, this is shocking. A unit’s colors, or flag, is part of the unit’s soul. During a change of command the colors pass from the previous commander to the new commander; battle streamers record the unit’s history in combat. The colors lead the unit on parade.
To damage, or even just drop the colors is unthinkable. But every year, the 2nd Engineer Bn. burns its colors in a unique ceremony honoring the battalion’s actions in the battle of Kunu-ri during the Korean War. During that battle, the battalion commander ordered the colors burned to prevent it from falling into enemy hands as they were overrun by the Chinese army.
The commemoration is a tradition retired Lt. Col. Robert Nerhling is proud of. It began in the mid-1990s according to Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Andre P. Balyoz. Originally held in Korea, the ceremony was discontinued when the battalion was inactivated in 2005. It resumed when the battalion was reactivated in 2008 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
Nerhling spoke briefly during the ceremony at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Nov. 30, 2011, noting that he may be the last survivor of those who witnessed the original colors burning. What Nerhling witnessed 51 years ago was every Soldier’s worst nightmare.
In late fall of 1950 Chinese forces surprised and overran U.S. and U.N. troops, including the Eighth Army and the 2nd Infantry Division. By the last week of November, U.S. and U.N. troops were forced to withdraw south.
The 2nd Engineer Bn., attached to the 2nd Inf. Div., was ordered to hold the town of Kunu-Ri protecting the rear and right flank of the Eighth Army as it retreated. Companies from the battalion were attached to two infantry regiments, the 9th and 38th, to fill gaps in the defending lines.
The lines eventually gave way to brutal assaults by three Chinese divisions. By Nov. 26, after three days of heavy fighting, the number of enemy divisions had grown to five, with more on the way.
On Nov. 29, the battalion received orders to relocate south to Sunchon. But, the Chinese had blocked the road, and the only other escape route was south through a mountain pass. The 2nd Engineer Bn. moved forward to clear a path through the obstacle and open the road. Once the road was cleared, the battalion was told to hold the line with the 23rd Infantry Regiment and Battery A, 503rd Field Artillery.
Early Nov. 30, the massive 2nd Inf. Div. convoy began to slowly make its way across the mountain pass through a six-mile gauntlet of Chinese sniper and mortar fire. Within hours, the situation turned from bad to worse as swarms of Chinese troops engulfed the retreating column.
The battalion was the only unit left to oppose the massive Chinese assault. The engineers successfully held off the enemy long enough for the remainder of the 2nd Inf. Div. to evacuate through the pass.
Unfortunately, by that time the engineers’ window of opportunity to escape had closed. At 7:30 p.m., Nov. 30, Col. Alarich Zacherle, battalion commander, ordered all equipment destroyed. Magnesium grenades were dropped on heavy equipment tracks and engines. Tires were filled with gasoline, thrown inside vehicles and set ablaze.
Zacherle then ordered the battalion colors, its custom-made box, and the 25 combat streamers that adorned it soaked in gasoline and set on fire; he wanted to prevent the Chinese from capturing it as a war trophy.
About 30 minutes after Zacherle gave that order, the Chinese forces overran the engineers. Nerhling said that “burning the colors and getting the hell out of there” were the only two things on their minds, but very few escaped. When the battalion regrouped after the battle, just 266 of the original 977 Soldiers remained. Just one officer, Capt. Lawrence B. Farnum, was present; all the others had been killed or captured.
Every year since the mid-1990s, the battalion has held a solemn nighttime ceremony where those actions are remembered and the unit’s colors burned. After Nerhling spoke, Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Geddings, the battalion sergeant major, held the colors while Maj. Christian Thomas, the battalion executive officer, set them on fire. Then a partial roll was called, highlighting the immense casualties the battalion suffered.
“No one does what we do. The burning of the colors is a unique event that is known throughout the Army, especially to those who have served in Korea or the 2nd Infantry Division,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Benson, former battalion commander. “Our battalion played a significant role in saving an entire division from annihilation. We do it to honor the courage and sacrifice of our veterans, to commemorate their actions and acknowledge the role they played in shaping the history of the 2nd Infantry Division and of Korea. We must never forget our history, or the legacy our veterans left for us to maintain.”