Every year, the Soldiers of the 2nd Engineer Battalion burn their unit colors.
To military people, this is shocking. A unit’s colors, its 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 Battalion burns their colors on Nov. 30 in a unique ceremony that honors 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.
Retired Lt. Col Robert Nerhling spoke briefly during this year’s ceremony at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., noting that he may be the last survivor of those who witnessed the original color burning.
What Nerhling witnessed 51 years ago was every Soldier’s worst nightmare.
In late fall of 1950 Chinese forces surprised and overrun U.S. and U.N. troops, including the U.S. 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 Battalion was attached to the 2nd Infantry Division. The battalion 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 three 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, the only escape route south at a mountain pass. The 2nd Engineer Battalion 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 A Battery of the 503rd Field Artillery.
Early on the Nov. 30, the massive 2nd Infantry Division 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 2nd Engineer 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 Infantry Division to evacuate through the pass.
Unfortunately, by this time the engineers’ window of opportunity to escape had closed. At 7:30 p.m. on 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. One officer was present; all 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, battalion commander, during his speech. “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."