- Historic Sites
Fifty years ago in the frozen mountains of Korea, the Marines endured a campaign as grueling and heroic as any in history
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
The deeds of our heroes are based, all too often, on the arrogance of higher authority. The list is long: Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, the Light brigade at Balaklava, Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, the British infantrymen at the Somme in 1916. Fifty years ago, the United States Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea joined this list. • Marines tell this story alongside those of Belleau Wood, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. The scene is quickly set. On June 25, 1950, the armies of the People’s Republic of [North] Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations supported South Korea and gave its command to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He requested a regimental combat team, and the 1st Marine Division spearheaded his brilliant amphibious assault behind enemy lines at Inchon on September 15. • On Sunday, October 15, MacArthur met with President Truman on Wake Island and assured him that he did not expect China to enter the war. The very next day a regiment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was spotted crossing the Yalu River, China’s border with North Korea, and marching toward the Chosin and Fusen Dams. The Chinese 4th Field Army, under the command of Peng Dehuai, a tough and courageous revolutionary, was already in North Korea. Undismayed, MacArthur ordered his forces in Korea to advance north. He told the reporters the war was almost over.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington had ordered MacArthur to advance north of the thirty-eighth parallel but to keep all non-Korean troops away from the border with China. MacArthur disobeyed this order. On October 24, he sent Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s U.S. 8th Army and Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond’s X Corps to the Yalu.
Fatally dividing his forces, MacArthur sent the 8th Army north to the west of the mountains that form the towering spine of North Korea and the X Corps to the east of them. Almond ordered Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith to take his part of the 1st Marine Division north to relieve Republic of Korea troops near the Chosin and Fusen Reservoirs, manmade mountain lakes a hundred air miles to the north, a key part of North Korea’s hydroelectric system.
O. P. Smith, a tall, pipe-smoking Texan, had led the Marines into battle often in World War II. Almond had commanded the 92d Infantry Division, a black division, in Italy in that war and had been part of MacArthur’s headquarters staff in Tokyo since 1946, becoming chief of staff in 1949. Although Almond was less than a year older than Smith, the Army general had an annoying habit of calling the Marine general “son.” They’d had more serious differences during the recent battles for Inchon and Seoul. Almond soon became the object of almost universal Marine dislike and disdain. Army generals might depend on him for their careers, but O. P. Smith was not shy about facing up to the X Corps commander.
On Sunday, November 26, the People’s Liberation Army struck along a 300-mile front, throwing the entire 8th Army into retreat. The Marines kept marching to their fate.
Following MacArthur’s orders, a regiment of the Republic of Korea’s 6th Division reached the Yalu on October 26. By the next day, the Chinese 4th Field Army, in vicious righting, had nearly destroyed two of the division’s regiments. The New York Times reported that 200,000 Chinese soldiers were now in Korea. Mao Tse-tung insisted they were only volunteers, and MacArthur felt they were nothing to worry about. The Chinese, blowing bugles and whistles, attacked the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division on November 1 and badly mauled its 8th regiment. The next day, east of the mountains, the Chinese struck the Marines.
The 1st Marine Division consisted of 23,608 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, supported by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. The division was organized in three infantry regiments, the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines, and an artillery regiment, the llth Marines. After being issued parkas and other cold-weather gear, the 7th Marines, followed by the 5th Marines, started north toward the Chosin Reservoir. The 1st Marines remained behind to deal with the North Korean army on the coast.
Many of the Marines, especially the officers and noncoms, were veterans of the war against Japan. All of them had been taught that killing was what war was about. They were persuaded that the Marine Corps was an elite service, that they were better at their job than the other services were at theirs. And their ethos was built about the simple idea that they would risk their lives for their fellow Marines. They would bring out their wounded; they would bring out their dead. It was a powerful creed.
The Marines had to follow a rutted, gravel and dirt two-lane road north 78 miles through the mountains to the desolate little village of Yudam-ni at the western tip of the Chosin Reservoir. For the first 43 miles, the road rose gently through rather level terrain. Then it narrowed to one lane and, twisting and snow-covered, climbed through Funchilin Pass among mile-high peaks. Here the road was nothing but a narrow shelf hacked into the mountainside.