In the heart of the Korean Peninsula 200 miles north of Seoul lies the Chosin Reservoir — surrounded by mountains, and forever remembered as the deadliest battle of the Korean War — the “Forgotten War” — when 30-below temperatures froze guns, machines and men.
Roads were so icy that even tanks skidded, blood plasma froze, medics thawed morphine vials in their mouths, Jeep and radio batteries quickly ran out of juice, and men died.
Nightfall meant sleeping bags on the snow, and enemy patrols lurking all around.
For the U.S. Marines and Army, and supporting military from South Korea and other allies, it was a nightmare.
USMC Sgt. Ray W. Garland of Coeur d’Alene was there. Now 95, he was also at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and received Purple Hearts for both.
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir began on Nov. 27, 1950, — just over four months after the start of the Korean War.
The war began when North Korean Communist forces suddenly invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, quickly capturing Seoul before racing down the Korean Peninsula. They were winning until American troops stopped them at the Pusan Perimeter near the southern tip and began fighting back.
Six weeks later, Gen.Douglas MacArthur brilliantly executed an invasion at Inchon on the Korean west coast and quickly liberated Seoul, while also cutting off the communist supply lines from the north.
MacArthur authorized U.S. Army X Corps commander Maj. Gen. Edward M. “Ned” Almond to chase the North Koreans all the way to the Yalu River on the border with China, and annihilate them. Almond sent three task force columns north to do the job.
Based on advice from Maj. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, his old pal from World War II days, MacArthur was confident that the move would not draw China into the fray.
The Chinese had sneaked 200,000 troops across the Yalu into North Korea, infiltrating mostly at night. Soldiers out in the open during the day were told to “freeze” if a plane was flying overhead.
Then on Nov. 27, 1950, the direction of the war changed dramatically at the Chosin Reservoir — nestled in a remote mountainous area in the heart of North Korea
That night, American units around the reservoir were suddenly attacked by an entire Chinese Army Group that had quietly surrounded them.
Weeks before, the American generals were warned that the war was about to change, but they ignored the limited intelligence that they had about the Chinese.
Even the Marines laughed at reports of “hordes of Chinese” attacking, derisively saying, “How many hordes are there in a Chinese platoon?”
MacArthur was sure that the conflict would be over by Christmas. He was wrong.
Max Hastings in his book “The Korean War” wrote, “Peking delivered a ferocious warning by fire: we are here, said the Chinese, in the unmistakable language of rifle and grenade, in the mountains of Korea that you cannot penetrate.
“We can strike at will against your forces, and they are ill-equipped in mind and body — above all, in mind — to meet us. We are willing to accept heavy casualties to achieve tactical success.”
And willing, they were — sacrificing between 149,000 and 400,000 Chinese soldiers during the war.
Then came the ambush at Chosin Reservoir.
Marine Sgt. Garland and his unit arrived at Yudam-ni, a strategic village west of the reservoir on the 27th — which happened to be his birthday.
Night after night, the Chinese attacked American units all around the reservoir, inflicting heavy casualties — and sustaining even heavier casualties themselves.
MacArthur quickly called his commanders to his headquarters in Tokyo to assess the situation. They returned to the field with revised orders because the Chinese were involved — stop the advance and return to the 38th parallel.
Gen. Oliver P. Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating; we’re just advancing in a different direction.”
Within days, Garland’s unit was ordered out of Yudam-ni and headed for Hagaru-ri 14 miles south where the Americans were building an airstrip.
With one tank for protection, the 3rd Battalion moved down the road and was soon peppered with gunfire from the Chinese in the adjacent hills. During the day, Navy Corsair F4U fighters flew protection for the escaping units.
At one point on the route, a bridge was out and had to be repaired for the convoy to continue. Historical reports laud the engineers for their work making those repairs.
“That’s not how it happened,” says Garland. “An engineer driving a bulldozer had his carbine shot off his back by a sniper, and jumped off and hid in a ditch. He refused to return to his job.
Garland recruited a young marine named Kinsey who knew how to drive the bulldozer, and despite ongoing sniper fire, finished repairing the bridge, under Garland’s supervision.
“I got a Bronze Star for fixing the bridge,” he said, “but the sergeant in charge of the engineers who didn’t got a Navy Medal.”
It took two weeks for the Americans to break out of the Chinese trap at the Chosin Reservoir and reach the coast to be evacuated. During that time there were heavy casualties on both sides — especially the Chinese.
Ingloriously, some American troops at Hagaru-ri were so anxious to be evacuated that they faked injury, laid on a stretcher near other real casualties awaiting airlift out, and covered themselves with blankets and groaned, feigning pain.
Hardest hit was Task Force Maclean or “Polar Bear Regiment,” officially called Regimental Combat Team 31 (RCT-31), led by Col. Allan D. MacLean, and later by Lt. Col. Don C. Faith, Jr.
For half a century, Task Force MacLean (or Faith) has been labeled as “cowardly” because so many of the unit’s survivors turned up safe without their weapons. Later it was discovered that the Chinese let them go, having little interest in taking prisoners or dealing with the wounded trying to escape the battlefield.
One Marine that they did take prisoner was Col. MacLean, who rushed out to meet what he believed were American troops coming to the rescue. They were Chinese.
MacLean was shot and seriously wounded. He died four days later in captivity.
The Chinese methodically continued their attack on RTC-31, destroying truck after truck as the convoy trundled southward.
Just four and a half miles from the safety of Hagaru-ri, a grenade fragment hit Don Faith just above the heart and killed him.
Posthumously, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Recent scholarship has concluded that the MacLean/Faith men “had fought bravely and performed well given the circumstances.”
In 2001, the government agreed and the Navy awarded the RTC-31 unit the Navy Presidential Unit Citation.
Ray Garland does have some lighter memories of those days:
He remembers how happy they were when C-119 Flying Boxcar transport planes dropped Tootsie Roll candy to the beleaguered troops.
The popular candy has been part of military rations since World War I, according to one report because they are a source of quick energy.
“Weather-friendly” Tootsie Rolls were the only food they could thaw during temperatures of 30 degrees below zero at Chosin, when all other foods froze solid. Forty years later, Tootsies could also withstand the desert heat in Operation Desert Storm.
During the Korean War, “Tootsie Roll” was the secret radio code word for 60-millimeter mortar ammunition. After one such call for ammo, the Tootsie Roll request was taken literally and soon a planeload of the candy was parachuted in.
By July 1953 when the war stopped, three million Chinese civilian and military personnel had crossed the Yalu to fight in Korea.
The U.S. lost 36,568 during the Korean conflict; the Chinese and North Koreans more than a million. Both Koreas also suffered a combined 1.6 million civilians killed or missing.
Seventeen American men received the Medal of Honor fighting at the Chosin Reservoir.
It was a costly war — a conflict that President Truman called “a police action.”
Technically, it still isn’t over.
After all these years, the “peace talks” at Panmunjom demilitarized zone north of Seoul continue with no results, as tourists come and go, while uniformed military from both sides peer at each through binoculars.
The talks may outlast the last veteran of America’s “Forgotten War.”
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Chinese vet looks back…
The Chinese Government still won’t explain why they rushed to help the North Koreans in 1950 that cost them the deaths of between 149,000 and 400,000 Chinese soldiers.
“All the cruel and bloody images I witnessed during the war are still vividly emblazoned in my mind,” said Zhang Zeshi, a veteran of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) who joined the fighting at 21 and was taken prisoner. “I regretted joining the war when I found out the U.S. had no plan to invade China at that time.”
They were there…
“When that sun went down or when it got dark, we knew what was coming. They were coming to get us.”
— Frank Torres
“And they came right through us and they came in four waves.”
— Al Devito
“You could hear the screams in the night. You knew that somebody was getting bayoneted. You couldn’t tell whether it was them or us.”
— Clyde Queen
Truman’s ‘Police Action’…
The entire Korean War was a series of cold, bloody, and forgotten events and battles that claimed more than 33,000 American lives. To this day, not all of our war dead and missing have been returned to the United States.
— Korean War Educator
Hill 1282 …
“Soon Lieutenant John Yancey emerged from the dead. He was bleeding from untreated shrapnel wounds across the bridge of his nose and in the roof of his mouth. His jaw had been shattered by a .45-caliber bullet, and one eye was whirling crazily in its socket.
“The former Marine Raider formally requested relief from the first Charlie/1/5 officer he could find. Then, quitting his last battle, Yancey led 35 walking wounded Marines slowly down the defile toward the valley of Yudam-ni.
“Yancey recovered from his wounds and received his second Navy Cross. He returned to Little Rock to run his liquor store.”
— Eric Hammel, “Hills of Hell: The Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir”
The Chinese soldier…
“The individual Chinese soldier was physically tough, uncomplaining, and used to long marches with few if any creature comforts. Politically he had been thoroughly indoctrinated, but once taken prisoner that indoctrination would tend to crack.”
— Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons (ret.), USMC, “Frozen Chosin”