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  • Passing the Test: Combat in Korea, April–June 1951 Edited by William T. Bowers and John T. Greenwood
  • Brandon K. Gauthier
Passing the Test: Combat in Korea, April–June 1951. Edited by William T. Bowers and John T. Greenwood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. 488 pp. Hardbound, $40.00.

The unforgiving reality of war looms large in this edited collection of postcombat interviews that US Army historians conducted in the wake of the People’s Republic of China’s 1951 spring offensive in the Korean War. Passing the Test is the third volume in a trilogy focusing on the firsthand experiences of United Nations soldiers in the aftermath of that war; the work is a collaborative effort of the members of the US Army Center of Military History. The sole editor of the first volume, Col. William T. Bowers, US Army (retired), passed away as his book—The Line: Combat in Korea, January–February 1951 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008)—went to press. Thereafter, John T. Greenwood of the Center of Military History, with the help of Roger Cirillo (Lt. Col., U.S. Army, retired), utilized Col. Bowers’s extensive research and completed the two subsequent volumes, Striking Back: Combat in Korea, March–April 1951 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010) and Passing the Test.

Organized into thirteen microcosmic chapters, the final volume consists of edited testimonies about frontline battalions, platoons, and squads from the perspective of individual soldiers recorded immediately after battle. The first seven chapters focus on the beginning of the Chinese-led spring offensive, often termed the Fifth Phase Offensive, from April 19th – 25th, and the preparations of United Nations forces to blunt movement across a forty-mile front. The next four chapters examine stories from units in the US 8th Army’s IX Corps, whose sector of defense absorbed the brunt of the enemy attack in central Korea over the duration of May 1951. The last two chapters detail the resolute efforts of the US 8th Army, led on the ground by General James Van Fleet, to counterattack at the end of May and drive Chinese and North Korean forces back across the 38th parallel.

Educational institutions in the US Armed Forces will find Passing the Test immensely valuable as a resource for preparing service members for the diverse circumstances they may encounter in combat. The informative testimonies of hardened soldiers contain countless tactical lessons, including the best way to defend an artillery unit in a perimeter defense against an infantry assault [End Page 370] (Chapter 5); logistical challenges to launching a counteroffensive in hilly terrain with poor roads (Chapter 11); and the effectiveness of tank warfare against enemy bazooka teams in open terrain (Chapter 4). In this regard, the book is also an excellent reference for enthusiasts of military history who want to know more about the play-by-play experiences of seasoned units like the famed, and ill fated, Gloucestershire Regiment (Chapter 7).

For the general reader, however, the benefit of this book has little to do with its often dry tactical teachings. Amid endless acronyms and ubiquitous military jargon—which the editors do quite well at translating for lay readers—the volume’s most important contribution to the field of oral history emerges as the editors reveal the humanity of all of the war’s combatants. While the interviews are, unfortunately, only with United Nations servicemen, their stories encourage the reader to appreciate the courage and carnage—and occasionally the comicality—of war experienced by all soldiers. For example, if you are not necessarily interested in the best way to launch a coordinated tank and infantry assault, you will surely find yourself engrossed in the story of an artilleryman who went to use the bathroom in the morning—without a weapon—and found himself surrounded by Chinese soldiers; he escaped after throwing toilet paper and running like hell.

There are also accounts of unflinching bravery that captivate the reader. Take, for instance, the story of an Army lieutenant who “nonchalantly” tosses a live grenade off his back, like “‘a horse flicking off a fly,’” as a fellow soldier described it, and shoots his attacker...