In late November 1950, units of the First Marine Division were moving cautiously through the frozen hills of North Korea. Temperatures were subzero, every single day. It was so cold that spit would freeze in mid-air before hitting the ground.
And little did the Marines know that out there, waiting for them in the frozen wastes, was the largest ambush in modern military history. At least 80,000 Chinese who had infiltrated into Korea from Manchuria.
They were some of the toughest infantrymen in the world.
And when they were ready, they would spring their trap. They would launch massive attacks against the Marine units, and ultimately surround them all.
Martin Russ’s book Breakout contains these harrowing first-hand accounts from Marines who lived through the fighting to tell their stories.
PFC (Private, first class) Robert Cameron, a machine gunner, related this story. In the dark of night, his unit was attacked by waves of Chinese infantrymen:
“There was substantial fireworks going on nearby, but not on [Hill] 1403…I started crawling in that direction, looking for friends, and I am across a gun tripod with no gun. The voices turned out to be Chinese, so I stopped.
“I had come to Korea three weeks earlier convinced that we were invincible and that I was immortal; now my outfit was disintegrating before my eyes and I wasn’t sure I’d live to see another dawn. I picked up the tripod and collapsed its legs and, moving on my knees, made my way over to a rock where I pulled myself erect. I couldn’t stop shivering, and I was afraid the gooks were going to hear my bones rattling.
“Then I saw a sight right out of a nightmare. Right smack in front of me was a gook facing the other way, kneeling. There was just enough light in the east now to see that he was trying to take the parka off a dead Marine, trying to work the corpse’s arms out of the sleeves.
“The scariest thing of all was that he had heard my approach a second before I saw him. He turned his head to say something, obviously thinking I was a fellow gook. My response was to scramble up behind him, haul off with the nine-pound tripod, and swing it full force against his head. I hit him in the right temple and I only had to hit him once; his skull cracked like an eggshell.
“I couldn’t bring myself to look at the dead Marine. To me a dead Marine was a shocking and hideous sight. For one thing, I was afraid I might recognize him, might know his name. So when I turned away and started down the path and–Jesus!–when I came around the bend I saw several gooks hunched over a fire. It was a blessing that their attention was on the flames and that the wind and the fire were noisy. They didn’t see me, and they didn’t hear me. It was a miracle.
“I was responsible for snuffing out so many lives with my machine gun that night, but the only killing that still haunts me was that last one. I slaughtered that man as one would a common thug. Sneaking up behind this poor fellow who was trying to acquire a warm garment for himself! Bludgeoning him to death! When I had time to think about it I was overwhelmed with shame.
“Up to this moment I’ve never mentioned it to a soul, nor have I told anyone about the dead Marine I left up there on Hill 1403. I can still feel it in my stomach whenever I read about how proud the Marines were about bringing out most of their dead–and here I couldn’t even bear to look at one dead Marine’s face.”
PFC Frank LaCentra had this tale to tell about what happened when his position was overrun:
“Then a gook with a burp gun stepped around the side of the tent. We both raised our weapons and pulled the triggers, and both weapons failed to fire. Then a couple of other gooks jumped on me and down I went.
“This one gook gestured that I should unzip my parka and the two others crouched down and removed the grenades clipped to my cartridge belt. What surprised me the most was how lackadaisical they were, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. One of them removed my wristwatch.
“Then they stood up and stepped back, and the gook with the burp gun shot me, the bullet hitting me in the thigh.
“After they left, I crawled to a bunker that was open at both ends. Later I heard people talking Chinese close by and realized that the gooks had set up a machine gun on top of the bunker. I could see their feet dangling down as they sat there.
“Looking back, it seems to me I was deliberately spared. That gook who shot me, why didn’t he fire at my head, or give it to me in the chest? He must have aimed at my thigh just to keep me out of the action. Those gooks on top of the bunker, they would ordinarily have chucked a grenade into any bunker before approaching it, but they didn’t this time. Why was I spared, and so many others were not?”
PFC Al Bradshaw related this account of his last memories of the desperate fighting on Hill 1240:
“At daybreak an explosion blew my helmet off and tossed me in the air again. I was sure I had been blown in half. When I landed a few yards downhill, all I could see was white. After a minute or two my eyesight cleared and I started crawling around looking for something to shoot with.
“I found a wounded gook holding a Thompson sub-machine gun and snatched it out of his hands. He just lay there looking at me, and I went ahead and yanked the magazine belt from around his waist.
“Things weren’t looking so good at this time. It seemed like every Marine on the slope was dead or wounded and the next charge by the gooks was going to take us all and we would be nothing but memories. There was no wind that morning, and gun smoke from all the shooting and grenades hung in the air above us, like an overcast of clouds.
“And here’s my last memory of the fight on [Hill] 1240. Over to my right and downhill a ways I saw two gooks dragging a Marine by his heels while a third walked alongside him, sticking him with a bayonet. The Marine was either dead or on the way to being dead, so I aimed the Thompson and gave them the whole magazine, Marine and all.”
These tales speak for themselves, and need no comment.
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