Skip to comments.CHOSIN RESERVOIR - Saga of Epic Heroism
Posted on 11/29/2002 5:36:59 AM PST by SAMWolf
Between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, 1950, the 1st Marine and 7th Infantry divisions took on 100,000 Chinese (25,000 of whom died) during a 70-mile fighting withdrawal in bitterly cold North Korea.
Thanksgiving Day, 1950, began relatively well for Marine Cpl. Harley Trueblood. Cooks were dishing out roast turkey with all the trimmingsthe first food except cold C rations that he and the other leathernecks in Co. B, 1st Tank Bn. of Col. Lewis B. "Chesty" Pullers 1st Marine Division had eaten since they had stormed Blue Beach at Inchon two months earlier.
The enemy was on the run. Trueblood and the other Marines who had been advancing steadily along a narrow, twisting mountain road onto the 4,000-foot-high Chosin Reservoir were too savvy to buy Gen. Douglas MacArthurs declaration that U.S. troops would be heading home by Christmas.
But it did seem that American fighting men once again had demonstrated what firepower, rugged training, combat experience and incomparable courage could accomplish.
Everything quickly proved too good to be true. Bitter winds sweeping down from Siberia dropped temperatures so far below zero that steaming slices of turkey froze between mess kit and mouth. "What you had was kind of a turkey popsicle," Trueblood recalls.
Hours later, the 20-year-old Marine found himself crouched in an icy ditch outside the town of Yudam-ni, fighting for his life. Waves of Communist Chinese Forces (CCF)divisions that Eighth Army intelligence officers, under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, had insisted were not there or were present in numbers so small as to be inconsequentialhad struck the most decisive blow of the Korean War.
To achieve his goal of ending the war quickly, MacArthur ordered an offensive as daring and unorthodox as his bold amphibious landing at Inchon. "Two major field forces, the Eighth Army and the X Corps, with the 1st Marine Division as one of its major components, would drive north on opposite sides of the Korean peninsula," said Lt. Gen. Alpha L. Bowser, division operations officer.
"The North Korean army would be pushed across the Yalu River. Korea would be unified under a non-Communist government in Seoul. Then everybody except a few military advisors for South Koreas new army could go home."
At first, the offensive went like clockwork. "Some U.S. Army battalions [elements of the 7th Infantry Divisons 32nd Regiment] and South Koreas 7th Inf. Regt. [its recon platoon] actually reached the ice-rimmed Yalu," said Bowser, who was then a colonel.
But farther south, below the Chosin Reservoir, Bowser and other U.S. officers, including Brig. Gen. Bankson Holcomb, 1st Marine Division intelligence officer, were worried about the dangers of staging a major offensive through forbidding terrain during the coldest winter of the decade.
Bowser, who had fought at Bougainville and in a dozen other WWII battles, and had perfected plans for the tricky Inchon landing, was skeptical of MacArthurs winter offensive. "We should have let the enemy impale himself on our lines all winter, instead of moving forward," Bowser believes. So he deliberately slowed the divisions advance toward Chosin.
"I decided my tactic would be to build up supply points and drag my feet long enough to get them set up along the main supply route," Bowser relates. "I think Smith [the division commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith] was aware of what I was doing, and he let me get away with it up to a point.
"But then X Corps called me and said, Weve seen you move a division across Korea on 15 minutes notice. I got the message and started moving north."
"In the first big attack, the enemy came at us in a huge mass at night," said Frank Kerr, 2nd Bn., 5th Regt., 1st Marine Div., combat photographer.
Initially, there seemed no way for U.S. forces to avoid being overrun. "Our machine gunners took such a fearful toll that enemy bodies had to be pushed out of the way, during lulls in the fighting, to open up fields of fire," Trueblood recalls. "Then another wave would come, charging over bodies already freezing."
Despite the subzero temperatures, the barrels of automatic weapons glowed red hot from constant use. There was no front or rearand no safe havenbecause the enemy had penetrated almost every American position.
Army units faced an equally grim situation. "I figured out later we had 32 GIs trying to hold a ridge against two whole enemy regiments," said Edward Reeves, a member of the ill-fated 31st Inf. Regt., 7th Inf. Div. "The first troops that hit us were wearing white camouflage uniforms, and so were we. They were carrying Thompson submachine guns and M-1 rifles they had captured from the Nationalists [Chinese]. You couldnt rely on the sound of the weapons to tell where the enemy was at night."
For the soldiers battling their way back down the roads beside the reservoir, the battered town of Hagaru was like a citadel. There was even an airstrip where pilots risked constant enemy fire to bring in ammo and take out the wounded.
Some 5,381 of the most critically wounded were flown out. The remainder came out strapped to M-26 tanks, truck fenders, piled onto sleds or carried by GIs in only slightly better shape.
"At Chosin, we didnt consider ourselves wounded until we could no longer fire a rifle," said Pfc. Jack Erickson, a Marine reservist called up and assigned to C Co., 2nd Bn., 5th Marinesjust in time for the battle. "I got hit on the second night. At first I was taken down to a MASH unit, but the enemy was really hitting all around so they loaded us on a truck like cordwood. The road was like an ice cube, and the truck tipped over. Some of us took off on foot and made it to Hagaru."
But Hagaru was only the first stop in a running battle that made a formula for survival out of Gen. Smiths assertion: "We are simply attacking in another direction" (hyped to "Retreat, hell" by correspondents).
"Ill never forget when we were encircled and Ned Almond (X Corps commander) flew in to discuss how we could get out," said Holcomb.
"He told Smith, I suggest that you destroy all your artillery, burn your supplies and let every man go out on foot by himself. I have no doubt that a lot will get through to the south. There was a stunned silence.
"Then Smith said very quietly but firmly, General, I dont accept that suggestion at all. The 1st Marine Division is going to fight its way out, were going to take all our equipment and wounded and as many dead as we can. If we cant get out that way, this division will never fight as a unit again. Almond just said, All right, general, then left and we never saw him again."
It took 22 hours of fierce fightingand 600 more American casualtiesto get from Hagaru to the next way point, Koto-ri. "Enemy units fought savagely," Erickson recalls, "mounting attacks from ridges towering above the road, setting ambushes and executing the wounded when hospital trucks could be isolated from the rest of the column."
Below Koto-ri, the biggest challenge was a 1,500-foot-deep chasm where the enemy had dynamited the lone bridge. "Crossing the chasm became a classic of engineering improvisation under fire," Trueblood said.
Eight 2-ton Treadway bridge sections, secured to the biggest parachutes that could be found, were dropped from C-119 Flying Boxcars flying at only 800 feet. "Marine patrols recovered six of the sections, but still came up short by seven feet," the leatherneck recalled.
The solution of engineers with the 1st Amphibious Tractor Bn. was grisly. They built a timber frame at one end of the bridge and filled it to road level.
"There wasnt enough loose rock for the bulldozers to scrape up, but there were enough dead enemy soldiers frozen hard as rocks stacked up alongside the road, so they bulldozed them in and covered them up with dirt and we started to move," said the tank crewman, who by then was among the walking-but-still-fighting wounded.
On Dec. 9, on a bitterly cold ridge just north of Chinhung-ni, the 12,000-strong 1st Marine Division did come out intact. It had battled its way 35 blood-stained miles from its point of farthest advance, above Yudam-ni, south to Chinhung-ni, where it linked up with a relief force moving north.
Was "Retreat, hell!" truly hype?
"Based on the fundamental measure of war as an extension of political struggle, Chosin was a defeat," said former Ohio senator John Glenn, who as a Marine combat pilot in Korea shot down three MiGs near the wars end.
"But for the courageous men of Chosin, and in the proud history of the U.S. Marine Corps, it is remembered, rightfully so, as a victorya saga of heroism and suffering written by an extraordinarily tenacious, superbly disciplined combat division."
Chosin vets echo those sentiments. Says Trueblood: "South Korea wouldnt have lived in freedom for 50 years if we hadnt gone there." Reeves, a quadruple amputee from his wounds sustained at Chosin, believes every battle in Korea was a significant victory.
"When I was over there for the Olympics  and saw how far they had come, and had people come out onto the street to thank an American vet in a wheelchair, it was worth it," he says. "If I had to do it all over again, yes, I would."
7th Infantry Division
Killed in Action 2,657
Wounded in Action 354
1st Marine Division
Killed in Action 718
Missing in Action 192
Wounded in Action 3,508
Note: The Marines also suffered 7,313 losses to frostbite and indigestion ailments.
Thirteen Americans earned the Medal of Honor in and around Chosin (Toktong Pass, Koto-Ri, Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri):
Marine Capt. William E. Barber
Marine Pfc. William B. Baugh*
Marine Pvt. Hector A. Cafferata, Jr.
Marine Lt. Col. Raymond G. Davis
Army Lt. Col. Don C. Faith, Jr.*
Navy Lt. Thomas J. Hudner
Marine Sgt. James E. Johnson*
Marine Staff Sgt. Robert S. Kennemore
Marine 1st Lt. Frank N. Mitchell*
Marine Maj. Reginald R. Myers
Army Lt. Col. John U.D. Page*
Marine Capt. Carl L. Sitter
Marine Staff Sgt. William G. Windrich*
Bump! Thank you.
Chosin vets echo those sentiments. Says Trueblood: "South Korea wouldnt have lived in freedom for 50 years if we hadnt gone there." Reeves, a quadruple amputee from his wounds sustained at Chosin, believes every battle in Korea was a significant victory. "When I was over there for the Olympics  and saw how far they had come, and had people come out onto the street to thank an American vet in a wheelchair, it was worth it," he says. "If I had to do it all over again, yes, I would."
Hopefully all Americans will remember these men...and what they did there... And not let the VA be defunded or medical care for combat vets be cut or allowed to wither away to substandard levels...By any President regardless of his political party affiliations.
Held a hilltop for a extended period of time so that the Marines could continue their fighting retreat.
Task-force Drysdale comes to mind... cut to shreds.
MacArthur made only 2 major blunders in his career. His lack of education about airpower in 1941 and his underestimation of the Chinee in Korea.
The Marines did not panic and stayed a cohesive, fighting force. God bless them!