- 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
It had been a terrible night. From Yudam-ni to Toktong Pass, the Marines counted their dead. They still held strongpoints, but the Chinese had cut their link to the sea.
It was cold at Yudam-ni. By midnight that Sunday the temperature was 25 below zero as the Siberian wind whipped over the bare hills and the frozen arm of the reservoir. Early Monday morning, the freezing riflemen of Lt. Col. Harold S. Roise’s 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, gathered around small fires to thaw their rations and weapons and then moved out on the road leading west from Yudam-ni. The 3d Battalion, 7th Marines, advanced along the ridges on both sides. Both battalions received heavy fire.
The mass of Sakkat Mountain rose directly in front of Roise’s Marines. The Chinese, dug into the mountain’s eastern face, stopped them cold. At midafternoon, Roise called off the attack. On the left flank, G Company, 7th Marines, fought until after dark, when the Chinese machine guns drove them back. This would be the high-water mark of the Marines’ march to the Yalu.
That Monday night, the Marines at Yudam-ni fought a major battle when Sung Shin-lun, one of China’s best field commanders, sent two divisions to destroy them there. After hiking silently over mountain trails under a full moon, with temperatures at 20 degrees below zero, his men threw themselves en masse against the Marines’ firepower and doggedness. The Marines piled up dead Chinese in front of their positions, but the attackers kept coming, and by dawn they held the commanding ground at Yudam-ni.
While two of Sung’s divisions fought the Marines in the hills at Yudam-ni, elements of a third swung around to the south and struck C Company, 7th Marines, outposted on a hill a little less than five miles south of the village. The seesaw battle there lasted until dawn, when artillery fire from Yudam-ni drove the Chinese back. Surrounded and outnumbered, the C Company Marines could only wait for help. Two mountain-road-miles farther south, the Chinese hit the 240 Marines and corpsmen of reinforced F Company, 7th Marines, holding Fox Hill in the middle of Toktong Pass. Capt. William E. Barber, F Company’s commander, who had won the Silver Star on Iwo Jima, was ordered to keep the pass open. If Sung seized Toktong Pass, he could cut off the two regiments of Marines to the north. Thus began at Fox Hill a siege of five nights and days that is one of the U.S. Marine Corps epics.
The Chinese quickly overwhelmed Barber’s two forward squads and, attacking repeatedly, seized the hill’s crest. At that point, three Marines—Pfc. Robert F. Benson. Pvt. Hector A. Cafferata, Jr., and Pfc. Gerald J. Smith—made a stand, wiped out two enemy platoons, and prevented a breakthrough. So far, F Company had 20 dead and 54 wounded, but the Marines had killed some 400 of the enemy. The Chinese attack petered out.
It had been a terrible night. From Yudam-ni to Toktong Pass, the Americans counted their dead and wounded. The Chinese had cut their link to the sea: the Marines were isolated and embattled. That same night, east of the reservoir. the Chinese swooped down on the U.S. Army. The GIs took heavy losses until at dawn four gull-winged Marine Corsair fighter-bombers roared in and dropped napalm.
At Yudam-ni, before dawn on November 28, weary Marines counterattacked to drive the Chinese from the high ground above the village; they took on 50 Chinese in hand-to-hand battle and then destroyed an entire Chinese company attacking up the far slope. The battle for that hill had already cost more than 200 Marine casualties, and carrying them down took the whole morning. Yet they were the lucky ones; seriously wounded men did not survive long out in the intense cold.
Now the Marines once again held that essential hill. At the same time, the wounded were piling up at Yudam-ni, stretching the medical delivery system. Doctors and corpsmen were overwhelmed. The dead were carried out and placed in frozen stacks. Meanwhile, thousands more Chinese infantrymen were moving into position in the hills around the reservoir. Colonel Litzenberg of the 7th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Murray of the 5th Marines met at dawn and agreed that their men were paying too high a price; the killing in the wilderness could not go on. Murray canceled the 5th Marines’ advance westward from Yudam-ni, and the two regimental commanders worked together to organize a defensive line and fill their rifle companies’ depleted ranks with Marines from the artillery battalions. The Corps tenet “Every Marine a rifleman” paid off.
At 4:30 P.M., Major General Smith officially ordered the 7th Marines, followed by the 5th Marines, to attack to the south and reopen the road back to Hagaru-ri. The drive to the Yalu was dead.