|1st, 2nd and 3rd Kagnew Battalions|
Ethiopian Soldiers, part of the Kagnew Battalion, 7th Inf. Div., Korea, 1953
|Size||6,037 soldiers in total|
|Part of||US 7th Infantry Division|
|Patron||Emperor Haile Selassie I|
|Engagements||Battle of Pork Chop Hill|
|Decorations||US Presidential Unit Citation|
|Col. Kebbede GuebreMajor General Ingida Asrat|
The Ethiopian Kagnew Battalions
The Ethiopian Kagnew Battalions ቃኘው were three successive battalions drawn from the 1st Division Imperial Bodyguard sent by Emperor Haile Selassie I between June 1951 and April 1954 as part of the United Nations forces in theKorean War. Even after the armistice, a token Ethiopian force remained in the country until 1965.
Altogether, 3,158 Ethiopians served in Kagnew Battalions during the war.
“Kagnew” was the name of the warhorse of Ras Makonnen, Menelik II’s General and the father of Haile Selassie during theFirst Italo-Ethiopian War. Military units from Imperial times would often adopt a name of a favored military commander and Ethiopian Warriors were often referred to interchangeably by the names of their war horses.
1st Division Imperial Bodyguard
The regular Armed Forces of the Ethiopian Empire consisted of four Divisions roughly of 10,000 men with support armor and artillery elements and complementary Air and Naval forces. This numbered roughly 50,000 men and women. The 1st Division Imperial Bodyguard had primary responsibility for security in the North of the country including Eritrea. Each Kagnew Battalion was drawn completely from the officers and men of the 1st Division Imperial Body Guard or the Kebur Zabagna, sometimes also referred to as Ethiopia’s “Royal” Guards. The troops selected for Korea were given intensive training in the mountains of Ethiopia for aclimatisation.
Performance in the Korean War
The Kagnews served with great distinction, principally alongside the 7th Infantry Division, and by all accounts (including the enemy’s) acquitted themselves well in battle, suffering 121 killed and 536 wounded during the course of the conflict. At the conclusion of the war the Ethiopians were the only contingent that had no prisoners to collect from the North Koreans since no Kagnew Soldier ever surrendered. They had the additional distinctions of having won each of the 238 times they engaged the enemy be it as aggressors or defenders. They were never bested in battle. The other distinction, and one that made them seemingly super human to their enemies, was there never seemed to be dead bodies of Kagnew soldiers, for the simple reason they never left their dead behind. This earned them the respect of their American colleagues, while fostering the belief among their enemies, who had often never seen black men before, let alone black prisoners or casualties, that they were indeed super-human.
One of the feats S.L.A. Marshall thought worth noting was an Ethiopian patrol at the Battle of Pork Chop Hill in 1953 when “…under full observation from enemy country, eight Ethiopians walked 800 yards across no-man’s land and up the slope of T-Bone Hill right into the enemy trenches. When next we looked, the eight had become ten. The patrol was dragging back two Chinese prisoners, having snatched them from the embrace of the Communist battalion…”
The British military historian John Keegan notes that the Ethiopian units drawn from the Imperial Guard (“an over-privileged and somewhat pampered force”) fought with some distinction in Korea between 1951 and 1954, although performing less competently in the Congo (1960–64).
A Silver Star and eighteen Bronze Stars were also awarded to the Ethiopians. Two members, Colonel Irgetu and 2nd Lt. Haptewold Mamo, were awarded the highest Ethiopian gallantry award, and became “Knights of the Order of Emperor Menelik“.
Kagnew Station and Post War
When the US established a military base in Northern Ethiopia they named it Kagnew Station in honor of the officers and men of the elite Imperial Bodyguards that had earned their admiration. Kagnew’s exploits have been covered in detail in Pork Chop Hill by S.L.A. Marshall. Commenting on the fighting dogma of the Ethiopians Marshall states, “Like Horatius at the bridge or the screaming eagles at Bastogne, it was a classic fight, ending in clean triumph over seemingly impossible odds”. Pointing out that War correspondents who were drawn to the headline values of such operations as Little Switch the 163 war correspondents overlooked the equally interesting and unrivaled Ethiopian feats.
The former members of the Imperial Bodyguard Mahber (society) has existed quietly since the unit was dissolved by the Derg Military Junta and continues to celebrate the accomplishments of the men and officers not only of the Kagnew Battalion but of the Guard at large. It is currently under the leadership of Brigadier General (ret.) Desta Gemeda.
In 2008 the son of a Guardsman that served in Korea wrote the book Kagnew beKoera, Kagnew in Korea which paid tribute to the men and officers of the three battalions, the Emperor who had the foresight to send them and authors S.L.A. Marshall and Komon Skordiles for their efforts in ensuring that the feat of those that had served was not forgotten. This new publication included many pictures and stories from the battalion.
One member of the battalion, Gebre (or Guebre) M. Kassa, was later the commanding officer of future Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.