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The Brotherhood of Soldiers At War

In November, 1950 eight thousand fighters, most of them United States Marines, struggled to survive the coldest winter in 100 years in North Korea.  Surrounded by 120,000 Chinese soldiers, their only lifeline was a 15'-wide, steep mountain road they called the M.S.R. (Main Supply Route) that led to the port city of Hungnam.  From Yudam-ni at the north west corner of the Chanjin Reservoir, the MSR was a dangerous, 78-mile journey to the Sea of Japan. The trip was made far more difficult by the massive enemy force surrounding it.  The withdrawal, the longest in American military history, would take 13 days and cost many lives.  Those who didn't understand what was happening called it a "retreat", while one American general simply said, "We're attacking in a different direction."  How you access what happened over those two freezing weeks in North Korea depends on your perspective.

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It is adversity that demands valor, trial that demonstrates the highest levels of brotherhood.  The Marines at the Chanjin Reservoir, identified on Japanese maps as the CHOSIN Reservoir, pulled together to insure the success of the withdrawal.  What many people might have considered to be the darkest two weeks in Marine Corps history, may have in fact, become the Marine Corp's DEFINING MOMENT.   With their backs to the wall, the men of the 1st Marine Division pulled together to accomplish the impossible.  Their teamwork cemented a band of brothers who came to call themselves:

"The Frozen Chosin"

 

Theirs Not To Reason Why

The war in Korea began early on the morning of Sunday, June 25, 1950 when nearly one hundred thousand soldiers from the North crossed the 38th parallel that divided South Korea from the Communist North Korea.  Unprepared and overwhelmed, the Army of the Republic of Korea was almost destroyed and the South's capitol city of Seoul fell to the invaders within days.  Six days later soldiers of the American 24th Infantry arrived to assist the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army in the defense of  their homeland, but it was too little, too late.  By early fall the future of South Korea was uncertain. 

On September 15th United Nations forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur and consisting primarily of United States soldiers and Marines, made the daring landing at Inchon and the tide of battle began to turn.  Within weeks it was the North Korean army that was almost destroyed, giving up the cities they had taken earlier and falling back in full retreat behind the 38th parallel.  The victory had been swift and decisive, returning control of South Korea to its rightful owners.  General MacArthur wanted to follow with steps to insure their future as well.


The divided peninsula of Korea rests between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea.  It's only neighbor sits along the north-east boundary of North Korea.  That border is the Yalu River, and that neighbor is the Chinese Manchuria.  Fearful of an American sweep into the North following the successful landing at Inchon, the Chinese government issued a warning that if General MacArthur sent his troops north of the 38th parallel, they would be met by soldiers of the Chinese Army.  Military planners doubted that the threat was real, and sent the Allied forces north to "neutralize" the forces of North Korea and insure that a repeat of the June 25th invasion would not occur.  On October 9, 1950 the first elements of American military units crossed the 38th parallel to take the battle home to the North Koreans.  Five days later two Chinese Armies consisting of 12 Divisions (120,000 soldiers) crossed the Yalu River undetected. 

For weeks the Chinese soldiers moved into the rugged mountains of North Korea, traveling only under cover of night and camouflaging their positions during the day.  As MacArthur's forces moved north in a two-prong front, the 8th Army moving toward the Yalu River from the western side of the peninsula and the 10th Army on the eastern coast, the Americans didn't realize a well hidden, massive force was waiting to pounce on them.  On October 25th the hidden enemy attacked, surprising forces of the ROK army.  In three days they destroyed four ROK regiments.  Still, American war planners were hesitant to believe the Chinese Force was more than just a few scattered units of North Korean soldiers, and committed the men of the 8th and 10th Armies to an offensive campaign to end the war and, as General MacArthur promised, get American soldiers "Home by Christmas".

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While the 8th Army was moving up the western edge of North Korea, on the east coast. the port city of Wonsan was taken, followed by the city of Hungman.  From there, members of the 1st Marine Division would move northwest on the MSR to the vital Chosin Reservoir.  The village of Koto-ri was almost mid-way from Hungnam to the north edge of the reservoir, and the 4,200 Marines of the 1st Marine Regiment set up there.  The 1st Marine Division Headquarters was established at Hagaru-ri, a small village at the southern tip of the reservoir.  By November 27th 3,000 Americans inhabited Hagaru-ri, most of them engineers, clerks, and supply personnel.  

The combat troops, warriors of the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments moved 12 miles northwest to the village of Yudam-ni.  From here they were to travel west, crossing the rugged mountains to link up with the 8th Army.   That was the plan, but the plan hadn't factored in two unexpected obstacles:

  • Between 120,000 and 150,000 well hidden Chinese Communist soldiers, and
  • The worst winter weather conditions in 100 years.

One can only guess how cold it became in the high Taebaek mountains around the Chosin Reservoir during the winter of 1950.  At one regimental headquarters the thermometer fell to minus 54 degrees.  American Marines shivered in their foxholes, while vehicle drivers were forced to run their engines 24-hour a day.  If the engine were shut down, chances were high that it couldn't be restarted.  A rare hot meal could quickly freeze in the time it took a Marine to move from the serving line to a place where he could sit down to eat it.  Then, to add to the misery, the Chinese launched their surprise attack.

The "Home by Christmas" offensive officially began on November 24th, the day after Thanksgiving.  In the west the 8th Army began their push to the Yalu, only to be surprised by an unbelievable swarm of hidden Communist soldiers.  Within days the CCF (Chinese Communist Forces) destroyed the ROK II Corps, leaving the 8th without flanking cover or general support.  The badly battered 8th Army was ordered to fall back on November 19th, a 275 mile withdrawal that in six weeks cost 10,000 casualties.

On the eastern slope of the Taebaek Mountains most of the Marines were unaware of what was happening in the west, or just how badly outnumbered and surrounded they were.  The first indication came on the morning of November 27th as two companies of the 5th Marines began the push from Yudam-ni westward.  Before noon they ran into an enemy roadblock.  Unaware of the numbers of enemy around them, the Marines engaged the Chinese, destroying the road block.  Then enemy fire began to rain on them from all directions.  The Marines knew they were in for a fight, one that lasted for nearly four hours.  Then, when the firing subsided, the Marines attempted to dig in.  The intensity of the battle convinced them that they were facing more than straggling units of North Korean soldiers.  They knew the enemy would attack again, in force, under the cover of darkness.  They did!

"The American Marine First Division has the highest combat effectiveness in the American armed forces.  It seems not enough for our four divisions to surround and annihilate its two regiments.  (You) should have one or two more divisions as a reserve force."

MAO ZEDONG's orders to Chinese General Song Shilun

As night fell on November 27, tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers came out of hiding, attacking American soldiers and Marines at all points around the Chosin Reservoir.  The two companies dug in to the west of Yudam-ni were shivering from the cold in make-shift foxholes when the overwhelming force attacked.  In the darkness the Chinese swarmed the hill, coming within yards of the embattled Marines to toss grenades among them with deadly effectiveness.  In one sector of the American perimeter, protected by two machine-guns, the horde quickly over ran one of the key defensive positions.  When a grenade landed near the only remaining machine-gun, Staff Sergeant Robert Kennemore recognized the danger to nearby soldiers, as well as the gun emplacement.  Quickly he stomped his foot on the grenade to push it into the snow, the subsequent blast throwing his body into the air. 

The Marines somehow held through the night, but their heavy losses were quickly visible in the breaking daylight.   For S/Sgt Kennemore the cold may have been a lifesaver.  He was found, the stumps of his legs frozen in blood-caked snow, still alive.  Others were not so fortunate.  And it was only the beginning.

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From November 27th to December 10th, American soldiers and Marines would find themselves in a battle unlike any other in history.  Survival would call for leadership, teamwork, and immense courage.  From it was born a brotherhood perhaps unmatched by veterans of any other battle.  During the horrible 14 days that followed "LIFE" magazine photographer David Duncan, himself a Marine Corps veteran of World War II, captured many heart-rending images.  None, perhaps, was quite as poignant as the one at left.  Even more telling was the three simple words spoken by this soldier.

Upon capturing the image with his camera, David Duncan couldn't help asking this soldier, "What would you like for Christmas?"  His simple answer echoed the hope of so many young Marines facing a hopeless situation at the Chosin Reservoir.  He replied:

 

"Give Me Tomorrow."

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hope for any tomorrows lay in the Marines' ability to support each other.  Eight thousand troops from the 5th and 7th Marines were at the northwest corner of the Chosin Reservoir at Yudam-ni.  Their only hope of support was provided by the 3,000 clerks and supply personnel 14 miles south at Hagaru-ri.  The lifeline was the MSR, winding its way through the snow covered mountains.  If the MSR fell to the Chinese, the 5th and 7th Marines would be cut off....trapped.  To prevent this, Company F (Fox), 2d Battalion, 1st Marine Division was sent to the high mountains of the 3-mile long Toktong Pass, almost mid-way between Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri.

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Monday, November 27th

Captain Bill Barber had only been in Korea for a month, but he was no "rookie company commander".   He had proved his leadership abilities and courage five years earlier at Iwo Jima, where he was awarded the Silver Star.  On November 27th Captain Barber and his 240 Marines were moved by truck to the Toktong Pass, where Barber found a high ridge overlooking the MSR.  As night fell his Marines tried desperately to break through the frozen ground to dig foxholes.  Their position, dubbed "Fox Hill", was going to be home for a while.

At 2:30 in the morning on November 28th, while Staff Sergeant Kennemore lay bleeding in the snow miles north of Barber's company, the Chinese swarmed Fox Hill.  Swooping in from their hidden positions in the mountains, the Communist soldiers surrounded Barber's Marines.   Wave after wave came at Barber throughout the early morning, threatening to over run  Fox Hill, but the Marines held.  Many had been roused from their sleeping bags by the surprise onslaught, and fought for hours in their bare feet.  Wounded Marines ignored serious injuries to continue the fight.  One of them, Private Hector Cafferata, fought a lone battle to keep the fanatical Communists from over-running his position.  As daylight dawned, an enemy grenade landed in a shallow trench where the more seriously wounded had been moved.  Cafferata rushed forward and grabbed the grenade, lobbing it away to save the wounded Marines.  The heroic action cost him serious wounds to his hand and arms, but even those wounds weren't enough to stop Cafferata.  He continued to resist, to battle the enemy, until wounded by a sniper bullet. 

Daylight signaled the potential for the Marines to receive air support, and the Chinese pulled back.  In the first night on Fox Hill, Barber's company had lost 20 men killed, one out of five wounded.  The withdrawing Chinese left 450 dead on the rocky slopes of Fox Hill.   But they would return.


As the Chinese soldiers were simultaneously attacking Yudam-ni and Fox Hill near the Toktong Pass, other CCF elements unleashed early morning assaults throughout the entire region.  On the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir, Army Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith watched as his 3,000-man force crawled into their sleeping bags to escape the sub-zero Korean night.  Most of Faith's force, dubbed "Taskforce Faith", consisted of soldiers from the Army's 2st Battalion, 32d Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.   As they settled in for the night, they had no idea they were surrounded by an overwhelming number of enemy.  As they slept, the enemy slipped quietly across the snow and into their midst.  By the time the sleeping soldiers were awakened to the attacking horde, many of their comrades had been quietly overcome and killed and the Chinese were inside the perimeter.  A fierce battle, often hand-to-hand, raged on until the sun began to rise.

Lieutenant Colonel Faith's leadership that first night was essential to maintaining order and organizing the resistance that allowed his task force to survive.  The following day Faith reported that his soldiers had been attacked by two Chinese divisions.  His task force had been ordered to advance to the Yalu River, but now Faith was concerned that his troops might not survive the force mustered around him at the Chosin Reservoir.  General Almond flew in during the day to review the situation with Ltc Faith and quickly dispelled any mention of Chinese soldiers in the area, much less two divisions.  He ordered Faith to continue his mission, pinned a Silver Star to Faith's jacket, and then flew back out.  As the general's helicopter disappeared in the distance leaving Lieutenant Colonel Faith with a sense of impending disaster, the disgusted leader took the medal from his jacket and threw it into the snow. 

 


Wednesday, November 29th

Lieutenant Colonel Faith expected the worst as night fell on November 28th, but his force was spared that night.  Captain Bill Barber's wasn't.  The Chinese wanted to control the Toktong Pass, isolating the Marines at Yudam-ni for annihilation.  To do that they had to dislodge what remained of Barber's company.  A mortar barrage softened up the defenses at Fox Hill.   Then the CCF attacked at 2 o'clock in the morning, breaking into the small perimeter and engaging Barber's valiant Marines in desperate, personal combat.   Barber rallied his men, shouting orders in the darkness and moving from position to position encouraging his men and engage the enemy.  When enemy fire ripped into Captain Barber's leg he quickly stuffed a handkerchief into the wound to stem the flow of blood.   Then he continued to hobble from position to position, alternating between encouraging his Marines to resist, and continuing to rain devastating fire on the encroaching enemy.

Meanwhile, back at Hagaru-ri, engineers, clerks, and other support personnel suddenly found themselves operating as infantry.   The CCF had begun a series of nightly probes and attacks on the small headquarters garrison, and survival demanded that every man, even the wounded, fight for their lives.   Shortly after midnight signaled the beginning of the new day, the CCF had taken control of much of East Hill just outside Hagaru-ri.  The high hill was critical to the defense of Hagaru-ri, but defense of the hill had fallen to soldiers more accustomed to building things or moving material, than firing rifles and throwing grenades.   Many had fought bravely, dying on the slopes of East Hill.  Others fled back down the hill in terror.  Somehow, East Hill had to be wrested back from the CCF.   At Hagaru-ri Major Reginald Myers was dispatched to organize the broken remnants of Americans that were falling back in panic. 

Myers wasn't polite about forcing reluctant clerks back towards the hill they had abandoned in panic.  He gathered the rag-tag force around him with threats and sheer command leadership, finally managing to put together a force of 300 men.  At their head he led the way back to East Hill, urging his force forward through the early morning darkness and falling snow.  As enemy fire raked into his force, Myers watched man after man fall at his side.  So thin was his force, he couldn't spare stretcher-bearers to carry the wounded back down the hill.   They had to lay where they fell.

As morning broke the winter skies, Myers and his force had almost reached the crest of East Hill.  Though down to less than a hundred men, Myers urged them to attack, leading the way himself.  The enemy was too well entrenched.  Finally Major Myers pulled his few survivors back into a defensive line and used the dawn of the new day to call air strikes in on the CCF holding the hill's summit.  He had been promised that reinforcements were coming from Koto-ri, if he could just hold on through the day.  Myers wasn't sure his meager force could repel another enemy attack, but had little choice.  He and his men dug in to wait for "the cavalry" to arrive and save the day.

 


The "Cavalry" was Task Force Drysdale, a 250 man element of the 41st Royal Marine Commandos under British Lieutenant Colonel Donald Drysdale based back at Koto-ri.   Task Force Drysdale, supported by Company G, 3 Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division planned to leave Koto-ri on the morning of the 29th to fight their way into Hagaru-ri to reinforce the headquarters there.  What the task force hadn't anticipated was that first, they would have to fight their way OUT OF Koto-ri.   Leaving shortly after morning broke the skies, by noon they had only advanced two miles.  It had been a bitterly fought advance that had cost many lives and gained little ground.

Company G's commanding officer, Captain Carl L. Sitter finally fought his way to link up with Ltc Drysdale, where the two held council.  They decided the ridge-by-ridge battle to reach Hagaru-ri would only result in meaningless slaughter of their men.  More than 150 vehicles had left Koto-ri with the task force, supported by more than two dozen tanks.   Drysdale and Sitter loaded their Marines on the vehicles and, with the tanks leading the way, proceeded forward on the MSR while the CCF lined the ridges on both sides to rain deadly fire on them.  The task force pushed ahead gaining a mile an hour, Marines dying with every yard.  Captain Sitter's jeep was destroyed, the driver killed, but the company commander managed to survive.  It was fortunate for the column, for as the afternoon wore on Lieutenant Colonel Drysdale was seriously wounded and command of the column fell to Sitter. 

Sitter did his best to organize the task force, fighting each road block that arose and skirmishing with enemy soldiers on all sides.  At one roadblock the enemy was close enough to throw a grenade into a truck filled with American Marines.  Marine Private First Class William Baugh recognized the danger, knew that in seconds the grenade would explode to kill or seriously wound every man aboard.  He also realized his shouted warning wouldn't be enough, and did what had to be done, throwing his own body on the grenade to absorb the full blast and spare his comrades.  Seriously wounded, he died during the night.

The twelve mile trip to Hagaru-ri took 12 hours.  When finally the column had fought their way in to reinforce the battered command post a few hours before midnight, only 160 of Sitter's 270-man Company G remained to crawl exhausted into their sleeping bags.  A few hours after midnight the wounded Drysdale arrived with the remainder of his Royal Marines.   His unit had been cut in half by the desperate attempt to break through the Chinese and reach Koto-ri.


At Fox Hill, Captain Barber's beleaguered Marines faced a third straight night of horror as the enemy came again.  Captain Barber ignored the pain from the bullet wound in his leg to hobble from position to position to encourage his warriors.  Less than 90 men remained of his 240-man company, but Barber wouldn't let them go down without a fight.   As the Communists swarmed Fox Hill that night he shouted orders, urged his men to resist, and continued to fight the waves of enemy soldiers.  When an enemy bullet shattered his remaining good leg, Barber called for a stretcher.  Unable to walk among his men any longer, he ordered the stretcher bearers to carry him to the most tenuous positions in the battle, where he continued to lead his men.... prostrate on the stretcher.  There was no "QUIT" in Captain Bill Barber, and his own tenacity and courage gave his embattled Marines new hope.  Against overwhelming odds, for the third night in a row, they held Fox Hill.

 


East of the Chosin Reservoir, Task Force Faith was hit again.  The day before Lieutenant Colonel Faith had learned how serious the battle had become at Hagaru-ri and knew that there would be no relief for his battered force.  Task Force Faith was on its own.  After four hours of battle, shortly after 2 A.M. on November 30th, Lieutenant Colonel Faith ordered a withdrawal to the south.  More than one hundred wounded were loaded on the remaining vehicles as he assembled what remained of his 3,000 man force in a ragged column attempting to break through to safety in the darkness while surrounded and taking fire from all directions.

 

In just three days the battle at the Chosin Reservoir had turned into a massacre.  Like the infamous "Charge of the Light Brigade", American soldiers and Marines had found themselves  in "the jaws of death" because someone (in military planning) had blundered...refused to believe that the Chinese could have secretly moved so vast a force into North Korea.

For the soldiers and Marines at the Chosin, it didn't matter who was at fault.  They had been ordered in, and they had followed their orders.  Now, it was time to pull together to make the best of their bad situation.  The Chinese had attacked with one mission, not to just defeat the Americans or send them out of North Korea in retreat...but to completely annihilate the FIRST MARINE DIVISION.   

 

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