North Korea invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950. The first few months of the war almost saw defeat for South Korean until September when allied forces, led by the United States, staged an amphibious assault at Inchon behind the North Korean lines and turned the tide. Although warned not to do anything to provoke North Korea’s sponsor, China, the Allied Supreme Commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, from his palatial offices in Japan, saw no reason he could not march the army to the border of China and end the war before Christmas. The Marines were given their orders and sent north on a single, steep sided mountain road, across a high bridge and into the Korean mountains as winter set in. Credible reports began circulating that 200,000 Chinese soldiers were massing at the border but were ignored by MacArthur (one starts to get a whiff of his megalomania – he would later claim the battle was part of his plan and sending 6,000 Marines to fight 200,000 Chinese was simply a “reconnaissance in force”). On the night of November 27th China entered the war and at the Chosin Reservoir sprang a trap that cut off the road behind the Marines and destroyed the only bridge. Unable to retreat and unable to be resupplied, Marine General Oliver Smith knew their only chance was to build a runway on the one flat piece of ground available. But in order to buy time for the engineers the Marines would have to hold the hills around it, the desperate ground, where there is no retreat.
Author Hampton Sides writes great history, as evidenced by his earlier books Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West and In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette. I think we could apply the subtitle of In the Kingdom of Ice here. The Chosin Reservoir is a grand story of heroism and survival against the odds, and terrible in the suffering and death entailed. Throughout the story is the weather, with temperatures dropping to and staying at minus 20 Fahrenheit. Wounds froze shut and did not bleed. Mortar tubes contracted in the cold so much that the shells would no longer fit. During the daylight hours carrier based fighters could supply air cover but at night when they could no longer fly and the temperature started to drop the Chinese would attack in mass. One unit of Marines was cut off and the first Chinese-American officer in the Marine Corp, Lt. Chew-Een Lee, led a relief force, each man carrying an eighty pound pack, over mountain ridges at night in the bitter cold through waist deep snow to save them. How does someone will themselves to do that?
And there is black humor. The Marines' code name for mortar rounds was “tootsie rolls” but an inexperienced supply clerk did not know that and the men at the Chosin, expecting to find ammunition in an air drop, were instead supplied with chocolate candy. It became a lifesaver. If the Tootsie Roll was chewed enough to make it flexible it could be stuffed in bullet holes in gas tanks and it would freeze so quickly it became a solid patch. Lt. John Yancey, who had survived a month behind Japanese lines during the Battle of Guadalcanal, led the defense of Hill 1282. Cut off, and suffering 90% casualties, his command was about to be overrun. Yancey stood to lead a counter attack. He was shot in the face at close range with numerous rounds from a Thompson submachine gun which destroyed his jaw and popped his eye out the socket. Yancey drew his pistol, shot his attacker, pushed his eye back in the socket, and continued the attack. He would be awarded the Navy Cross and the Silver Star. During the Vietnam War he tried to reenlist in the Marines, but was rejected because he did not have enough remaining teeth. Yancey replied “I wasn’t going to bite the sons of bitches.”
The engineers completely the runway. Supplies entered and the wounded were evacuated. They repaired the bridge and two weeks after the battle began the last Marines marched out of the Korean mountains. Over nine hundred of their comrades did not. The war did not end by Christmas.--Todd