- 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
A mortar shell exploded an ammunition truck, creating a fire that split the column. The front section of the task force, 440 men with Drysdale in command, fought forward and reached Maj. Edwin H. Simmons’s roadblock on the Hagaru-ri perimeter. Of these men, 109 were casualties, including Drysdale. Those remaining in Hell Fire Valley were ordered to turn the vehicles around for a dash back to Koto-ri. The Chinese did not let them escape, and attacks severed the column into four groups.
The Chinese kept the little perimeters pinned down until 4:30 A.M., when they demanded that the trapped men surrender. The Marine Major John McLaughlin and the British Sergeant Patrick D. Murphy went out to parley, hoping to stall until air support returned with daylight. The Chinese gave them 10 minutes to decide. McLaughlin had little choice; none of his 40 remaining able-bodied men had more than eight rounds of rifle ammunition. He said he would surrender if the Chinese allowed the evacuation of the seriously wounded to Koto-ri. The Chinese agreed. All told, Task Force Drysdale had sustained an estimated 162 killed or missing and 159 wounded.
On the afternoon of November 30, Major General Almond flew into Hagaru-ri and told Major General Smith and the Army commanders of the 7th Infantry Division that they should concentrate all their troops right there, and then withdraw to the coast. Almond was nervous and alarmed, clearly realizing that the survival of his command was at stake. He promised to resupply Smith by air and authorized him to destroy all equipment that would delay his withdrawal. Smith stiffly replied that he would fight his way out and bring out his wounded and his equipment.
MacArthur had gambled and lost. He recklessly called for a general war with China, then got a grip on himself and decided he could give up Pyongyang and even Seoul and form a new defensive line—below the thirty-eighth parallel. He had taken 12,975 casualties. Meanwhile, Task Force Faith endured a fourth long night of battle. By now the soldiers were exhausted and short of every kind of ammunition. Many suffered from frozen feet and hands. Medical supplies were used up. The bodies of the dead lay in frozen rows four high.
As the GIs formed their convoy to flee to Hagaru-ri, they could see the Chinese coming down off the hills and gathering along their breakout route. What followed was a nightmare. As soon as the convoy left the perimeter, it came under fire and men began to drop. The GIs, in uncoordinated groups, tried frantically to reach Hagaru-ri. Fragments of a grenade struck Lieutenant Colonel Faith above the heart. He died before he could reach safety.
Hundreds of utterly exhausted survivors of Task Force Faith arrived at Hagaru-ri that first night, and more made it each day. Every one of them had endured the most extreme hardship and pain; only those with a very strong will to live survived.
When a British correspondent suggested to Maj. Gen. Smith that this was a “retreat,” he replied quietly that since the Marines were surrounded, there was no rear and thus could be no retreat.
On December 2, in temperatures that reached minus 24 degrees, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Olin L. Beall, 52 years old and a 30-year veteran, went out on the reservoir ice for 12 hours with Pfc. Ralph Milton and Corpsman Oscar Biebinger (by midday, three more men had joined) and searched for survivors, despite sniper and automatic-weapons fire. They brought 319 men into Hagaru-ri. The next morning, after rescuing four more men on the reservoir, Beali went alone and unarmed to the silent string of trucks. He walked the length of the convoy and saw the wounded now lying frozen in each vehicle. No one was alive.
Of the approximately 3,000 American soldiers east of the Chosin, more than 1,000 had been killed or captured. Of the rest who reached Hagaru-ri, only 385 GIs were still strong enough to fight. They were organized into a provisional battalion attached to the 7th Marines. By now the Chinese had left the area of Task Force Faith and were digging in to meet the Marines on the road.
The “breakout” of the 1st Marine Division began at 8:00 A.M. on Friday, December 1. Lieutenant Colonel Davis’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, broke off from the main body and began a dash eight miles across the ridgetops to relieve Captain Barber’s F Company on Fox Hill, where they were still holding open Toktong Pass. Davis, a soft-spoken Georgian who had fought on Guadalcanal, was about to lead his battalion into Marine Corps history.
They started out at 9:00 P.M. Each man carried an extra bandolier of ammunition and a sleeping bag while climbing the mountains through knee-deep snow at 16 degrees below zero. The Marines in front pounded the path into ice, while behind them men slipped and fell and climbed back up the ridges on hands and knees.