U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Dean was the commander of the 24th Infantry Division, which had been on occupational duty in Japan at the start of the Korean War in late June of 1950. Because the 24th was the closest to Korea at the time, it was the first U.S. unit to be sent into the conflict, which was led by United Nations forces.
Dean and his division were tasked with delaying the many North Koreans troops that were moving into South Korea until more U.S. and UN troops could arrive on the peninsula. But they were outnumbered and unprepared for the might of the North Korean forces. They were repeatedly defeated for weeks until they were pushed back to the city of Taejon.
The Battle of Taejon began on July 12, 1950. The 24th was ordered to delay the enemy from crossing Taejon to reach the not-yet-complete Pusan Perimeter, an area in southeast South Korea that Gen. Walton Walker and the Eighth Army were still trying to secure.
Dean had been ordered to hold Taejon, where the 24th was headquartered, until July 20. He personally led many attacks on the front lines, even destroying an enemy tank while armed only with a hand grenade. He also directed the fire of his own tanks while he was exposed to enemy fire.
July 7, 1950 - U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, right, greets Army Gen. Walton H. Walker upon his arrival in Taejon, South Korea. (Photo provided National Archives)
Dean’s soldiers gave U.S. troops the time needed to secure the Pusan Perimeter, but his small unit was no match for the huge number of North Korean fighters, and it eventually had to withdraw. Dean could have left with the retreating convoy, but instead he chose to stay behind to direct those fleeing the city and help wounded troops trying to escape.
In the scuffle, Dean was separated from the American forces and managed to escape into nearby mountains, where he survived for 36 days before being ambushed and taken prisoner.
Dean was presumed dead until he was interviewed by a journalist in December 1951. He spent nearly three years in captivity before being returned to UN forces in September 1953, after an armistice was worked out between all countries involved in the conflict.
Dean was the highest-ranking American officer to be held by the enemy during the Korean War. His actions during Taejon showed he felt it necessary to give his troops the courage they needed by leading by example, despite the clear and present danger in front of him. That’s what earned him the Medal of Honor ... becoming the first service member to earn the Medal of Honor in the Korean War.
Dean wrote extensively about his time during the war and as a POW in his autobiography, “General Dean’s Story.” He died in 1981 at the age of 82.
By Katie Lange
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