- 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 first job was to rescue C and F Companies, 7th Marines, which were encircled on hills down the MSR. Lieutenant Colonel Davis’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, marched and climbed and fought for more than five hours and after dark brought back C Company and its 46 wounded. Farther south, their second night at the top of Toktong Pass cost Captain Barber’s F Company 5 more men killed and 29 wounded, some of them dying because the blood plasma supply was frozen. Navy corpsmen had to melt the morphine Syrettes in their mouths before giving injections.
A composite rescue battalion set out from Yudam-ni for Fox Hill but was forced to turn back. The F Company Marines spent a third night without much sleep or a hot meal. Then at 2:00 A.M. on the thirtieth the Chinese hit again. Fighting in a heavy snowstorm, the Marines repelled three companies at a cost of one wounded. By dawn, the Marines on Fox Hill had begun to believe the Chinese might never take their hill.
At Hagaru-ri, 14 miles south of Yudam-ni, the Marines had by now established the forward base for their abortive advance, with divisional headquarters, supply dumps, hospital facilities, and a partly finished airstrip. It reminded one officer of old photographs of a gold-rush mining camp in the Klondike. Lt. Col. Thomas L. Ridge, who had the responsibility of defending this base with his 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, knew the enemy had cut the road both north to Yudam-ni and south to Koto-ri. Hagaru-ri was isolated.
At 11:00 A.M. on November 28, Major General Smith arrived by helicopter and opened his forward headquarters. An hour later, Major General Almond flew in with his 25-year-old aide, 1st Lt. Alexander M. Haig, Jr. Almond conferred with Smith and promptly flew out in a helicopter to visit the Army’s 31st Infantry Regiment and 1st Battalion, 32d Infantry, which had been badly hurt east of the reservoir. There Almond told an incredulous Lieutenant Colonel Faith that the Chinese he had been fighting were only stragglers fleeing north. Almond pinned a Silver Star on Faith’s parka. As soon as Almond departed, Faith ripped off his medal and, cursing, threw it into the snow.
General MacArthur summoned Almond to Tokyo for a conference that night. At this past-midnight meeting of the chief field commanders, MacArthur asked Almond what he thought of the situation on his front, and Almond euphorically said he expected the 1st Marine and 7th Infantry divisions to continue their attacks and to reach the 8th Army. That, of course, was impossible. A mere four days after initiating his general offensive to the Yalu, MacArthur ordered Almond to end all offensive action and bring X Corps back to the coast.
That night of November 28–29, Lieutenant Colonel Ridge expected the enemy to attack Hagaru-ri from the south. The men were in their foxholes and it had begun to snow again when, at 10:30 P.M. , the Chinese sent up three red flares and, as predicted, attacked H and I Companies. The enemy’s losses were frightful, but shortly after midnight, in a pandemonium of trumpets and whistles, they broke through to H Company’s command post. A few Chinese got close enough to fire on engineers operating under floodlights on the airstrip. A group of engineers counterattacked, cleared the airstrip, and then went back to work.
On the east side of the reservoir, lieutenant Colonel Faith’s U.S. Army battalion was also in a pitched battle. After the fight, Allan D. MacLean, commander of the 31st Infantry Regiment and Faith’s superior, disappeared. Much later it was determined that the Chinese had captured him, and he had died of his wounds. Lieutenant Colonel Faith was now in command east of the reservoir; the remnant of the Army battalions came to be called “Task Force Faith.” Task Force Faith waited for a relief force from Hagaru-ri to rescue them, but Major General Smith had no one to spare. The soldiers would receive Marine air support, but otherwise they would have to get out on their own.
Also on the twenty-eighth, G Company, 1st Marines, B Company, 31st Infantry, and the 41st Commando, British Royal Marines, arrived from the south at Koto-ri, 11 miles back down the MSR from Hagaru-ri. Colonel Puller gave Lt. Col. Douglas B. Drysdale, the Royal Marine unit’s commander, a task force to fight through to Hagaru-ri, where they were needed. Describing the Chinese positions to Drysdale, Puller memorably said, “They’ve got us surrounded. The bastards won’t get away this time.”
So began one of the ugliest episodes in Marine Corps history. Drysdale headed north the next morning. By late afternoon, after being joined by more platoons, he led a seemingly strong task force of 922 men and 141 vehicles, with 29 tanks. But in a snow-covered valley about five miles north of Koto-ri, enemy fire forced the convoy to halt. Drysdale later called the spot “Hell Fire Valley.”