The Role of the Forward Observer and Artillery during the Korean War
By Anthony J. Sobieski
To understand the role and importance that the artillery Forward Observer
played during the Korean War, you must first understand a few basic facts and
figures about the overall strategy and use of artillery during the war. With
its rolling hills and valleys, high-peaked mountains, large irrigated farming
areas, brutal winters and boiling summers, Korea presented all the worst
for the U.S. to deal with in the United Nations' first effort dealing with the
attempted expansion of communism. And, after it was all said and done, even
after fifty-plus years of analyzing the conflict, Korea was, is, and will
forever be known as 'The Artillery War'. Much has been written over the years
about the infantry and Marines who served there, and of the battles they
fought. No one is suggesting or attempting to take any credit away from their
accomplishments, because when it comes down to it, the foot soldier was the one
who re-took and defended what is now the country of the Republic of Korea,
commonly referred to as South Korea. Many a book and article has documented
their valiant efforts, but too many times, the role of artillery in these
battles, skirmishes, and trying times is summed up in a few sentences.
'Artillery was called in', 'artillery was used' and 'overwhelming artillery
thwarted the attack' are the most common phrases that are used in a large
majority of books. These are very easy and simplistic statements which have
become over-used and commonplace when talking about 'artillery' and 'The Korean
War'. Unfortunately they simply do not tell the real story of what 'artillery
was called in' meant, and who, what, when, and how it happened. Infantrymen
simply did not snap their fingers and artillery shells suddenly appeared and
blew up the enemy. Reality was, there were artillerymen loading and firing the
guns, handling the communications, tracking the enemy, serving with the
infantry, and sometimes giving their lives for their service.
At one time or another, over sixty different United States artillery battalions
served on the Korean Peninsula. Regular Army, Marine Corps, Reserve, and
National Guard battalions all played a part and served with distinction.
Republic of Korea (South Korea), or ROK, artillery battalions and also a few
United Nation artillery battalions also were extensively employed.
Additionally, naval vessels - from destroyers to cruisers to battleships
- added their heavy 'punch' of 5-inch up to 16-inch might to the mix of
available firepower at the fingertips of the Forward Observer and his team in
their bunker or foxhole. All this might was concentrated on a small
peninsula land mass no bigger than the state of Wyoming and eventually more
concentrated into a jagged uneven 155-mile front line called the 'Main Line of
Resistance'. The eventual intent of the U.S. 8th Army, who had overall
responsibility for the combatant zone, was to have a breakdown of artillery
units roughly divided evenly between the three U.S. Corps, I, IX, and X, and
the ROK I and II Corps. By 1953, there were seventeen infantry divisions across
the front (ten ROK, six U.S., and one combined UN), with two divisions in
reserve (two U.S.). All of the U.S. divisions were assigned four artillery
battalions each, usually consisting of three 105mm units for direct support of
each regiment, and a 155mm unit for heavier general divisional support. Also,
four of the U.S. divisions had an additional 155mm artillery battalion attached
to their chain of command, and there were two U.S. Regimental Combat Teams
(RCT) with one 105mm artillery battalion each. The ROK Army artillery was a
less sizable force, with seven Field Artillery 'Groups', each with two
battalions assigned, and eight independent battalions for a total force of
twenty-two battalions, which roughly worked out to two artillery battalions per
ROK division. Outside of this divisional firepower, were the U.S. Corps
artillery battalions, which were for general support of each Corps front and
were readily moved if needed to support whatever combat actions were or would
be about to take place. Each U.S. Corps had six artillery battalions assigned,
usually consisting of a 105mm self-propelled (SP), four 155mm (some being SP),
an 8-inch howitzer battalion, and additionally a artillery 'observation'
battalion that did not have any howitzers, but tracked enemy artillery by
various means including radar and 'flash and sound' observation posts, and then
would proceed to call for fire on them. Late in the war, two units were
converted to handle the 240mm howitzer, and these battalions were also added to
IX and X Corps.
When the sheer numbers are looked at, some eighty-two plus artillery
battalions, with roughly 400-plus men in each battalion (32,800 men total),
five-hundred and twenty-two (522) 155mm howitzers, eight-hundred and ten (810)
105mm howitzers, thirty-six (36) 8-inch and twelve (12) 240mm howitzers, were
utilized in Korea by 1953. All for a 155-mile front…simply incredible. Who
dared to think that artillery was anything other than “The King of Battle” in
The Korean War, and artillery, was before the time of computers and satellites
and high speed electronics. Today, the U.S. military is researching mobile
artillery mechanisms that can plan, calculate, load, and fire ten rounds of
155mm ammunition in less than one minute at a target ten miles away with deadly
accuracy, all with a crew of two, done simply by pushing a few buttons. During
the Korean War, all of this was done by the human brain and physical strength.
Each artillery battalion was divided up into five 'batteries', three 'firing'
batteries, which actually had the howitzers and fired them. There were
six guns per battery for the 105mm and 155mm, four per battery with the
8-inchers, and two per battery with the 240mm. As the size of the weapon went
up, so did the manpower required to fire it. There also were a 'service'
battery, and a 'headquarters' battery. The service battery consisted of
troops who made sure the battalion had everything it needed to fight a war
with, from the artillery shells to the food rations, and the headquarters
battery was just that, the headquarters section that ran the battalion.
Sometimes these batteries served next to each other, but many times the
batteries were separated by miles. Each battery operated a Fire Direction
Center, or FDC, which was in direct communication with each howitzer section
and with any Forward Observer team that they might have on the front lines. The
FDC was the brains behind the brawn. Each battery's FDC was linked into the
battalion FDC, which had overall control of the combat situation for the
unit, and directed the battalion where it was needed the most. The Battalion
Commander ran his unit through the FDC, and the Aerial Observers and the
Forward Observer teams worked with both the battery and the battalion FDC's.
Each FDC was manned by approximately eight men and two or three officers.
Tracking the tactical situation was the life blood of the artillery battalion,
and the effectiveness of the Forward Observers was directly related to the
ability of the FDC to do its job well. Connecting the FDC to the individual
howitzer sections, Observation Posts, and other FDC's with the other batteries
were the wire section crews, using thousands of yards of phone lines to get the
job done, sometimes even navigating enemy held ground to do their jobs.
Early on in Korea, it was clear that there was need for the services of someone
who knew and understood the use of and employment of artillery in a fluid
tactical situation. Later in the war, this expertise changed to a requirement
of knowing the battlefield on intimate terms, to be ready to
call fire missions on multiple actions and areas at the same time. This
stemmed down from 8th Army, to the three U.S. Corps and two ROK Corps, to the
divisions, regiments, battalions, companies, and individual leaders of patrols
and small units throughout the front lines of Korea. The Korean War had both
the outright brutality of fighting that WWII had in the Pacific, while drawling
from the battlefields of Europe in it's etiquette on fighting. The brutality of
the Pacific war, short battles of pure intensity, there was no falling back and
regrouping, thousands of men, trained to slaughter their enemy, collocated on a
small area of land. And then the war in Europe, with its huge armies thrusting
and counter thrusting, moving over large areas of land, sometimes encompassing
an entire country in a particular battle. In the beginning stages of the war
from 1950 to 1951, movement of artillery in Korea was very similar to that of
WWII, firing and movement, firing and movement. The mobility of artillery units
was invaluable to the successes of the infantry and movements of the UN forces
in general. By the beginning of 1952, when the war entered what is generally
considered the 'stalemate' phase (although there are plenty of combat veterans
from that time that would strongly disagree with that statement) and on into
1953, the Korean front began to resemble the trench warfare of WWI, with shells
raining down on both sides of the front lines (hence the term that WWI veterans
Through all of this, all artillery units used some form of artillery spotters,
or Forward Observers. These ranged from FO's that served with the infantry
units directly, sometimes never even knowing or seeing anyone in their firing
unit for months, to FO's who were positioned in bunkers (either on or in front
of the MLR) to Aerial Observers flying in an un-armed, un-protected scout
plane. Also, many an infantrymen doubled as FO's in their duties when artillery
battalion FO's were killed, wounded or not available. The U.S. Navy also had
it's version of a Forward Observer. Naval Fire Control Officers and Liaison
Officers who worked on the front lines were utilized as far inland as the guns
of a particular ship could fire, and also acted as just that, liaisons for the
artillery battalions and units to use the firepower of the Navy. For direct
support artillery units, established OP's were not generally used, the FO
parties serving directly with the assigned infantry unit they were supporting.
These OP's were fluid according to the situation. Each infantry division
maintained a number of divisional Observation Posts, which tended to be located
and numbered across the front from 'one' to whatever number of OP's were
required by Divisional Artillery (DIVARTY) or by the battalions or tactical
situation, and were for the heavier divisional artillery units in general
support. Corps artillery units used their own OP's which they established in
their support roles of divisional artillery. These OP's were not numbered with
the divisional artillery OP's and, depending on what units they were
supporting, they were frequently located with UN or ROK forces. These OP's also
sometimes overlapped divisional artillery OP's in their respective Corps area.
Aerial Observers have a long history going back to WWI of pilots and ground
troops or artillery working together to suppress the enemy. In Korea, artillery
units used 'spotters', Air Observers who were flown over the battlefield by
brave pilots usually in a small single engine airplane called an L-19. They
were no more than flying targets, and had provided little protection and had no
armament, except flares they would sometimes use to mark targets. These crewmen
were U.S. Army personnel attached to the artillery units, and they sometimes
rarely even knew the men of the firing batteries, flying out of airstrips miles
from their units.
In the beginning, the Korean War was fought with antiquated equipment, mostly
'leftover' items from WWII. Not many improvements were added to the US Army
from 1945 to 1950. The attention was on demobilization, return to civilian
life, down sizing, crating up, and putting away in storage the items of war.
The US participation in WWII, the last 'good war' left a distinctive taste in
the mouths of those who fought it and suffered from it. No one wanted that kind
sacrifice, but it was done, hence the term 'The Greatest Generation'. When the
fighting in Korea splashed across the headlines of American newspapers, most
said 'Where?' The fact that our forces were going into combat again caught some
by surprise, but the thought process was that we had the best army in the world
and that we would take care of business. The U.S. military became woefully
depleted by 1950, not just with men, but with supplies and equipment. The
service members who were on duty, and those that were called up reservists and
National Guardsmen, certainly were the best. But times had started to change,
and their equipment wasn't ready for it. Not until later in the war did our
fighting men see improvements, such as 'Mickey Mouse' boots, Flak vests, and
bazookas that could knock out a tank. These new assets did not make the
fighting any easier on our troops, but it gave them the advantage of
preparedness. U.S. artillery was no different. Loading, aiming, and firing
artillery had not changed much, and the weapons not at all, since WWII. Most if
not all artillery shells were of WWII vintage as well. Korea was a very
different type of war indeed. By 1953, trench warfare reminiscent of WWI was
the standard, but the use of more accurate artillery, with better knowledge in
fire direction planning, shell trajectories, types of shells, and overall
destructive power were incredible. Not before or since Korea can it be said
that artillery ruled the battlefield. It truly was 'The Artillery War', and one
of the major factors in making all of this possible was the men and teams who
performed the role of artillery Forward Observer.
For the men assigned to Forward Observer duty, this meant being literally on
the front lines, close enough to see and observe enemy actions, for the purpose
of giving fire support when ever and where ever needed. These men regularly
became the focus of unwanted attention by the enemy, sometimes even being
caught right in the middle of a raging firefight. Artillery battalion
Observation Posts (OP's) were almost daily shelled by enemy artillery and
mortar fire, and at times took small arms fire. Sometimes a simple entry in a
unit's daily morning reports, such as a statement like 'OP #2 received rounds'
was a very polite way of saying that that position was being targeted and fired
on. The communists realized that knocking out these OP's meant eliminating some
of the allies' ability to fire at them. Also, the need to have the FO team
either right with the infantry or in close proximity to them endangered their
lives even more. The fact that so many FO's have called fire onto their own
positions brings to light a startling realization of what Winston Churchill
said 'Uncommon valor was a common virtue'. These men KNEW what they were doing.
They had a choice: be killed or captured, or fight it out and possibly lose
their life and the lives of their FO team also. This was not a decision made
lightly. There are numerous documented cases where the FO called artillery fire
onto his own position because they were being overrun. What FO does not readily
know or understand what they are asking their firing battery to do? And at the
same time, what FDC and firing battery does not understand what they are
hearing on the radio or field phone? A man that they more than likely knew,
yelling to them to shoot high explosives at them, knowing that this might be
the last time their voice is ever heard on this earth? The 'cause and effect'
rule is in full swing, and they, the FO and his team, know it. Fire a 37 or 100
pound shell filled with high explosive at a specific coordinate and destroy
(kill) whatever is at that coordinate.
The following information was compiled with the grateful assistance of 1st Lt
Joseph Reynolds, who served as an artillery Forward Observer with the 936th
Field Artillery Battalion in 1952. This provides an excellent overview of what
goes through an FO's mind, and what has to be thought about and calculated to
call a fire mission on the enemy. Most, if not all, of the following happens in
minutes and seconds, where inaction and delays could cost American or UN lives.
As with any career field, there is 'technical jargon' that must be understood
and applied by those that work in that career field. For an artillery battalion
FO, the following would apply 'in a nutshell': The Army prescribes a set method
of making fire request information to the Fire Direction Center in order to
minimize confusion and to facilitate rapid fire as much as possible. These
commands are designed to be logical and in an easily used manner. Fire requests
must contain certain information to enable the Fire Direction Center to compute
the firing data. In divisional artillery battalions, each firing battery
usually used the standard method of having two Forward Observers and crew on
the Main Line of Resistance (MLR). The use of two Observation Posts usually
covered the complete arch of trajectory of the firing battery. In Corps support
units, any number of OP's was used to support the tactical situation, sometimes
one, sometimes three OP's per battalion. The 'tools of the trade', the
binoculars and BC scopes, included a graduated reticule that enabled the
Observer to measure lateral distances with some degree of accuracy. The value
of the 'mill method' of measuring angles was effective in that with the mill
method, there was an arc of 1 unit in 1,000. When an Observer, with the use of
the reticule, measures a lateral distance of 20 mills and the estimated range
to the target is 3,000 yards, then the lateral adjustment would be 60 yards.
Vertical graduations are 5 mills each, and vertical scale would be used for
such positions as machine gun emplacements. Horizontal graduations are 10 mills
each. Military maps, when available, show contour lines that enable the
Observer to better identify the target location coordinates. In layman's terms,
the BC scope was to a Forward Observer as an M-1 rifle was to an infantryman.
Some Fire Request types are as follows:
• Identification of the Observer. The fire direction center must know who is
requesting fire. This can be a code name or any other method acceptable to the
• Azimuth. Direction which the observer is looking at the target. This is very
important especially if the observer is at an angle to the direction of fire
from the guns.
• Target location. This location can be in many different forms. It can be
identified as coordinates, range and azimuth from a known location, and range
and direction from the observer to the target, or shift from a previously fired
upon target and others. Circumstances determine what method the observer will
use in identifying the location of the target.
• Substance of the target. The fire request should identify the type of target
for the fire direction to order the proper shell and fuse type.
These are examples of fire requests made by Forward Observers. They will vary
in content but notice that they generally follow a set procedure in
transmission. Not all fire missions were done in this format, taking into
account the expediency of the mission being called. If a position or OP were
about to be overrun, or were already overrun, as was the case numerous times in
Korea when faced with the Chinese 'human wave' attack style, some missions
tended to be called in somewhat 'colorful' ways. As 1st Lt Joe Adams (213th
Field Artillery Battalion) recollected when talking about the Battle of White
Horse Mountain, Hill 395, in October 1952, he remembers when the Chinese
stormed over his OP and surrounding positions, his call to the FDC went
something like "The Chinese are all over the fucking place start shooting at my
bunker!". Sometimes units set up a 'Final Protective Line' where pre-registered
final protective fire coordinates would be given so as to, again, deal with an
assaulting force that was about to overrun a position. These were at times
referred to as 'Flash Fires' such as were used during the defense of Pork Chop
Hill in April of 1953, when the order was given by 2nd Lt Richard Jaffe (57th
Field Artillery Battalion) "Give me Flash Pork Chop!", which in essence meant
for all available artillery to fire directly onto the hill with variable time
(VT) fuse shells.
FIRE MISSION #1.
Observer is from Able Battery, and is their second Observer. Target is small
group of enemy setting up a mortar. The target is in an area easily identified
on a map and the coordinates of the target can be determined with some degree
of accuracy but adjustment will be necessary.
Request #1: "Fox Oboe Able No. 2, Fire Mission! Azimuth 2300, coordinates
236-421, enemy mortar digging in. Will adjust!" The Fire Direction Center
transmits confirmation to the firing battery and will repeat the information,
adding such information as "Battery one round in effect". This means the
eventual fire for effect will be six rounds, one round per tube.
The initial fire would be two rounds fired simultaneously which the observer
would adjust from the center of the burst of the two rounds. The classic
adjustment would be a left or right adjustment to get the rounds on line with
his line of sight and the target. From there he would give add or drop with the
first adjustment of 400 yards; then 200 yards followed by 100 yards and then an
add or drop of 50 yards, then the command "Fire for effect" is given. This
method was generally used but after becoming familiar with the target area a
Forward Observer would quite often make adjustments for line of sight along
with the initial add or drop and many times the initial rounds would be within
100 to 200 yards of the target.
FIRE MISSION #2.
Observer is from Baker Battery and is the Observer number 1. Target is near
Check Point 210. The target is enemy squad in open.
Request #2: "Fox Oboe Baker No. 1, Fire Mission! Azimuth 3200, from Check Point
#210, right 300 add 500, Enemy squad in open, will adjust!" The Fire Direction
Center transmits confirmation adding such information as "Battery one round
fuse VT in effect".
FIRE MISSION #3.
Observer is from Charlie Battery and is the Observer number 1. Target is 1000
yards from the observer. The target is an enemy bunker.
Request #3: "Fox Oboe Charley No. 1 Fire Mission! Azimuth 0400, Coordinates
234-146, Range 1500, enemy bunker, request precision fire, will adjust!" Fire
direction transmits confirmation and adds such information as "Precision fire,
fuse delay in effect".
The battery will fire one round on adjustment and then when fire for effect is
called for, the guns will fire fuse delay and a succession of rounds will be
fired with the Observer reporting the landing point of each round in regards to
the target. Fire Direction Center will average 'overs', 'shorts', 'lefts', and
'rights' to make corrections until the target is destroyed.
FIRE MISSION #4.
Observer is from Charlie Battery and is the Observer number 2. Enemy is in
attack on a front of some 500 yards. The Observer sends estimated target center
and calls for additional fire.
Request #4: "Fox Oboe Charley No. 2, Azimuth 2800, coordinates 354-456. Spread
sheaf 500 yards, enemy infantry in attack. Request all available fire!"
Fire direction responds by repeating the request to the Observer and adds: "One
battalion in initial fire, requesting support from Corps. Report observation!"
Artillery Forward Observers surely did not 'win the war'. But the power and
responsibility that was placed into a twenty-two or twenty-three year-old
lieutenant's hands was amazing to say the least. One call on a field radio or
EE8 field phone could bring in more destructive power than an entire company
(and sometimes battalion) of infantry. For those FO's that had the distinction
of calling in a DIVARTY or Corps 'shoot' where all available artillery within
reach of the target was at their disposal, the terms most used to describe the
experience was 'awesome' and 'unbelievable' when the destructive power is
witnessed. Many a Chinese and North Korean soldier lost their lives, and many
U.S., ROK, and UN lives were saved, by a man who did not even pull a trigger.
He simply and professionally said 'Fire for Effect!'
Fire For Effect! Artillery Forward Observers in Korea
By Anthony J. Sobieski ISBN: 1-4208-3836-9
About the author:
Mark Bennett is an Army Major and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior pilot. He attended the United States Military Academy for his undergraduate studies and completed a master’s degree in military history through Norwich University. Mark has lived around the globe, most recently living in France, but still calls North Carolina home. He is married to a former Army Officer and is the proud father of one daughter. He is the son and grandson of United States Marines.
Written by Anthony J. Sobieski. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Anthony J. Sobieski at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author:
Anthony Sobieski is a Department of Defense employee and retired U.S. Air Force reservist. He is
a recognized Korean War historian and author, having published three books on the subject; FIRE
MISSION! (2003), FIRE FOR EFFECT! (2005), and A Hill Called White Horse (2009).
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.