- 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
At the Chosin Reservoir’s southern tip, the road divided. The Marines would follow the branch up the western side of the reservoir, climb through Toktong Pass, and then drop again through gorges into the broad valley of Yudam-ni. From there they would wheel west and try to close the enormous gap to the 8th Army on the other side of the mountain range. The primitive road up to the reservoir would become the Marines’ main supply route (MSR)—and the center of the attention of the world.
In the mountains, when the wind was up and blew away any new snow, the road turned into a ribbon of glass. The Marines sparred with the North Korean army as they trucked north. Then, at 11:00 P.M. on November 2, two Chinese battalions, moving swiftly and silently, attacked Lt. Col. Raymond G. Davis’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, in an expert double envelopment. After two hours, the Marines bent under the assault. The Chinese swarmed into the valley, seized a sharp turn in the road, and cut the MSR.
At dawn, Col. Homer L. Litzenberg, a burly, stubborn middle-aged man, called in supporting arms for his 7th Marines. Howitzers, mortars, machine guns, and aircraft went to work. They killed hundreds of Chinese in the valley and on the hillsides, but it took another full day’s fighting to force the persistent enemy back off the road. The Marines evacuated a hundred of their own casualties.
Maj. Maurice E. Roach’s 3d Battalion, 7th Marines, battled the entrenched Chinese guarding the entrance to the eight-mile-long Funchilin Pass on November 6. Then, the next morning, amazingly, the Chinese were gone. They simply vanished throughout Korea.
The disappearance of the Chinese army gave the American commanders a dangerous illusion of victory. Early on November 10, the Marines climbed through Funchilin Pass and occupied Koto-ri. That day was the 175th birthday of the Corps. Back on the coast, Col. Lewis B. (“Chesty”) Puller solemnly sliced a 100-pound cake with a North Korean sword.
The same day, winter struck. Suddenly the temperature at Koto-ri plunged below zero, and vicious winds from Siberia sent many Marines into shock. The cold numbed both flesh and spirit. It would dominate the rest of the campaign. To survive, the men piled on layers of clothing; they carried their canteens and extra socks inside their clothes. Still they paid the penalty of frostbite and frozen feet, hands, and faces. Oil congealed in weapons, and entrenching tools could not break the earth. Jeep ambulances were useless; the wounded they carried would freeze to death.
Major General Smith worried that his men were out on a limb. He wrote the Marine Corps commandant: “I believe a winter campaign in the mountains of North Korea is too much to ask of the American soldier or marine, and I doubt the feasibility of supplying troops in this area during the winter or providing for the evacuation of sick and wounded.” On November 15, the 7th Marines occupied the abandoned town of Hagaru-ri at the southern end of the Chosin Reservoir. This would become their forward base. In temperatures below zero, the 1st Engineer Battalion began building an airstrip.
After Hagaru-ri, the plans now called for the two Marine regiments to split. Litzenberg’s 7th Marines would go up the west side of the reservoir to Yudam-ni; the 5th Marines would go up the eastern side. The 5th was led by six-footfour-inch Lt. Col. Raymond L. Murray, who had commanded a battalion at Guadalcanal and Tarawa and won the Navy Cross and two Silver Stars in World War II. On Thanksgiving, most Marines were fed a hot turkey dinner. For many, it would be the last real meal for nearly three weeks.
MacArthur was not troubled by intelligence reports of large Chinese forces building up on both sides of the Yalu. He ordered the 8th Army north on a climactic general offensive on the twenty-fourth. The civilian leadership and Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington did nothing to stop him. To MacArthur it was the beginning of the end of this war. The general who was the chief of staff of X Corps later called its role in the offensive—to travel west over the freezing, treacherous mountains of North Korea to link up with the 8th Army—“insane.”
Then the 5th Marines, now advancing east of the reservoir, were ordered to return and join the 7th Marines at Yudam-ni. The 5th Marines were replaced in their forward position by the Army’s 1st Battalion, 32d Infantry Regiment. Its commander, Lt. Col. Don C. Faith, Jr., had been Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway’s aide in the 82d Airborne Division during World War II.
On Sunday, November 26, the People’s Liberation Army reappeared, striking along a 300-mile front. In western North Korea, the Chinese threw the entire 8th Army into retreat. Word of this disaster filtered through to the Marines slowly. Their mission was not changed. They kept marching to their fate. MacArthur, worried at last, radioed the Pentagon and the United Nations: “We face an entirely new war.”