- 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
Officers and noncoms had to shake and cuff the men to keep them awake after they collapsed in the snow during a pause for reorganization. They got up and pushed on. At 3:00 A.M. , Davis called a halt and organized a perimeter. The men took turns sleeping in the empty silence of the bleak, icy wasteland.
The Marines on Fox Hill finally came through on the radio. Captain Barber, now commanding from a stretcher, wanted to send out a patrol to guide Davis in; the offer was declined. At 11:25 A.M. on December 2, B Company’s Marines picked their way over a sea of frozen Chinese bodies and entered F Company’s lines.
Davis’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines—known thereafter as the Ridgerunners of Toktong Pass—dug in on high ground around Fox Hill. Barber’s Marines stayed in their foxholes. Over five nights and days of fighting, they had given up 26 killed, 3 missing, and 89 wounded—just about half their strength. Of Barber’s 7 officers, 6 were wounded, and almost everyone suffered from frostbite. Only 82 of his original 240 men could still walk. Theirs was a stand that Marines would compare to Wake Island and Edson’s Ridge on Guadalcanal. Both Barber and Davis were awarded the Medal of Honor.
As Davis was relieving Fox Hill, Lt. Col. Robert D. Taplett’s 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, was leading the main body down the MSR, fighting for every frozen yard. The hills looked deceptively peaceful under six inches of new snow on the afternoon of December 3, when the head of Taplett’s column came into Toktong Pass and met Davis’s battalion. Taplett’s three rifle companies were reduced in three days from 437 combat-able men to 194.
As the first battle-weary, frozen men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, neared Hagaru-ri that evening, they paused and closed ranks; the wounded who were able climbed down from the trucks. Reaching deep for some vestige of stamina and pride, they straightened their shoulders, dressed ranks, and marched into the perimeter.
At 2:00 P.M. on December 4, the last of the rear guard entered Hagaru-ri. It had taken the head of the column 59 brutal hours to fight through the 14 miles; the rear units needed 79 hours. They brought out with them some 1,500 casualties, nearly a third of them victims of frostbite. After the campaign, Major General Smith said that no members of the division had died as a result of exposure, but he attributed 62 amputations to the cold.
Now Major General Smith had all three of his regiments at one place for the first time, 14,000 survivors. By nightfall on the fifth of December, 4,312 wounded and badly frostbitten men had been flown out. And 537 replacements had been flown in, many of them Marines wounded in the earlier Inchon and Seoul battles.
The price the 1st marine division alone had paid from November 30 through December 4 was 164 killed, 55 missing in action, and 921 wounded. This totaled 1,140 battle casualties—plus another 1,194 nonbattle casualties. The need for reorganization was so compelling that the move south to Koto-ri did not begin until December 6. When a British correspondent suggested to Major General 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. So much for rhetoric.
At 9:00 A.M., Roise’s 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, went after the Chinese nearby on East Hill, from which they controlled the road south. This turned into the toughest battle of the entire breakout. The Marines’ firepower was devastating, and daylight revealed a carnage that exceeded anything they had witnessed in this campaign. The veteran Lieutenant Colonel Murray came up and said he saw more enemy dead there on East Hill than he had ever seen in one place before.
At 6:30 A.M. on December 6, the 7th marines started down the road to Koto-ri through a silvery fog. They fought most of that day and kept moving all night, fighting past a succession of strongpoints, roadblocks, and blown bridges. Between the cold and the enemy, staying alive was a full-time job. By the evening of December 7, Koto-ri was bursting with 11,700 Marines, 2,300 U.S. Army soldiers, 40 South Korean police, and 150 British Marines. During the previous two frantic days, the division had sustained another 616 casualties.
Although the enemy remained quiet around Koto-ri, a frightening problem had to be solved before the force there could escape. The Chinese had blown up a bridge three and a half miles south of the town, and there was neither the time nor the equipment to replace it. With a cliff on one side and a sheer drop on the other, there was no space for a bypass. The gap of 16 feet (24 feet with the abutments) had to be spanned.