The armies of North Korea burst into South Korea in June 1950 and quickly overwhelmed its forces, confining them to a perimeter around the city of Pusan. Douglas MacArthur, in what can only be called a brilliant counterstroke, hit back with an amphibious landing at the city of Inchon.
Soon the North’s communist forces were in full retreat. The US and its allies took the northern capital (the only communist capital ever to fall in combat with the West), and pressed ever further northward to the Yalu River. To nearly everyone, the war seemed as good as done. It seemed that the entire peninsula would be unified under a non-communist regime.
Everyone ignored the warnings of the Chinese. They had clearly stated, through intermediaries, that they would not permit their ally to collapse. If UN forces approached their borders, they warned, they would enter the war. MacArthur thought they were bluffing, and so did nearly everyone else.
Worse still, MacArthur had divided his armies into two halves which were advancing northward on a parallel axis, with the Taebaek Mountain range (running down the middle of the Korean peninsula like a spine) between them. The Eighth Army moved up the western coast, while the X Corps advanced on the eastern coast. Thus the stage was set for one of the great disasters in twentieth century US military history. Seeing that the US was not listening to its warnings, the Chinese began to infiltrate huge numbers of men (always at night) into north Korea. They knew of the gaps in the US lines. And when the time would come to spring their trap, they would spring it. It was an ambush on a massive scale.
The 1st Marine Division was part of X Corps. Its commander, O.P. Smith, believed that large numbers of Chinese were already in Korea, but since this contradicted MacArthur’s beliefs, no one in Tokyo was listening. Slowly, and after landing at Wonsan, the Marines advanced towards a large body of water called the Chosin (Chongjin) Reservoir. On November 27, 1950, the Chinese struck. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of attackers, the 5th, 7th, and 11th Marine Regiments were soon completely surrounded. The Chinese goal was to cut off and annihilate them. Affecting both belligerents was the brutally cold weather. Only someone who has endured a Korean winter will truly understand what this means.
When the magnitude of the disaster eventually became known, all hell broke loose, to put it colloquially. The US Army was in full retreat back down the peninsula, abandoning equipment and the dead. In fact, it was more of a rout than a retreat.
But the Marine Corps was different. Very different, in fact. By early December, a plan to break out of the encirclement was put into action: they would make for the port of Hungnam, through the icy mountains, constantly under attack, and along a narrow road. It was an incredible anabasis, of which Xenophon himself would have been proud. What distinguished the fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir was the maintenance of unit cohesion in the face of disaster, the preservation of fighting capability, and perhaps most impressive, the bringing out of all equipment and dead. No one and nothing was left behind. The Marine Corps’s tradition of initiative at the small unit level was here proven as the decisive factor.
Martin Russ, in his excellent account of the campaign, Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, bears witness to this fighting spirit. It is one of the great stories of heroism under extreme duress. How the Marines outmaneuvered and outfought tens of thousands of Chinese is simply an incredible story. There was no rest period. There was no recuperation period. You either moved forward–by putting one frozen foot in front of the other–or you died. That was all there was to it. They had been given up for lost by the top brass in Tokyo, and by nearly everyone else.
But when your back is up against a wall, you have to fight back. Even if you’re surrounded by hundreds of thousands of men, you have to engage. The retreat turned into a brutal slogging match between the Marines and the Chinese, with both sides fighting the unrelenting cold. It was so cold that men would go to sleep at night and never wake up. Marines captured Chinese whose limbs had simply become frozen blobs of flesh. To those who were not there, the suffering was unimaginable. Both forces were locked in an embrace of death with each other, while the cold sought the destruction of them both. Historian Martin Russ tells us one of thousands of stories:
PFC Ray Walker’s BAR [Browning automatic rifle] had stopped working; he couldn’t get the bolt to slide forward. A group of enemy soldiers went by on his left; they saw the young Marine but didn’t do anything about it. Walker was busy dismantling his weapon: he removed the trigger group, threw it one way, took out the firing pin, threw that another way. There were weapons all around, and he picked up an M-1 and fired one round with it before it malfunctioned too. Down the hill he saw a Chinese soldier walk up behind a Marine gunner (“very casually, as if he were a barber about to give a customer a haircut”), put a pistol to his head, pull the trigger, and walk on down the slope. Walker: “By this time I was frantically trying to find a weapon that worked and feeling nakeder and nakeder. Then a small Marine with curly black hair appeared and said, “I know where we can get some grenades.” We dragged a whole case back to the spot, opened it with a K-Bar, and began tossing grenades down the slope. There was so much lead flying that there was no sense trying to find a safe place to throw from. By this time it looked like the whole hill was crawling with white worms…
As one survivor later recounted:
Sleep isn’t the word for it; we sort of passed out. Same for the prisoners. There was a trio of prisoners who traveled with us who more or less shared the same blanket. Every time there was a holdup [on the road] they would squat with their backs to the wind, the blanket partially covering all three, and go into a kind of trance. One time, after we started up again, I noticed that one of them had frozen to death. The remaining two got up and moved on without even looking at him…I wondered if by the time we got to Hungnam the only thing left would be the blanket itself.
But they did make it, eventually. They fought through night attacks, infiltrations, suicide charges, and constant artillery fire. And in a final act of defiance, after evacuating from the port at Hungnam, the Marines blew up the port. Nothing–absolutely nothing–would be left for the Chinese and North Koreans. Yes, it was a retreat; but rarely has history witnessed one so disciplined and formidable. As one veteran, Joseph Owen, said:
We kicked the shit out of the Chinese the first time that we met them, which was at Sudong, and we were still kicking the shit out of them when we crossed the treadway bridge. They were surrendering to us, not the other way around. Retreat, you say?
The entire campaign, in fact, was “a series of tactical victories.” They escaped with their equipment, honor, and unit integrity intact, leaving no man behind.
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