- 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
Lt. Col. John H. Partridge, commander of the Marines’ 1st Engineer Battalion, studied the break from the air and figured it would require four 2,500-pound sections of an M-2 steel Treadway bridge. He requested that eight sections be dropped in case any were damaged. As it happened, one section broke and one fell into Chinese hands. The planes also dropped plywood panels to cover a gap running down the center of the bridge and make a roadway for the narrower vehicles.
Six miles to the south, Lt. Col. Donald Schmuck’s 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, started hiking up from Chinhung-ni to clear the road of the enemy before the breakout. The Chinese 60th Division waited on the high ground commanding Funchilin Pass. Capt. Robert H. Barrow, the tall, lean Louisianian who commanded A Company, 1st Marines, and a future commandant of the Marine Corps, said much later: “They were clearly in a position to control, dominate, and absolutely stop the 1st Marine Division from moving south. They had to be dislodged.”
B Company, 1st Marines, climbed the wooded western slope of a peak known as Hill 1081 and, trudging through the snow, seized an enemy bunker complex in a brief, savage fight. At the same time, Captain Barrow led A Company up an ice-covered, almost sheer cliff in the windswept blizzard, advanced along the icy, narrow razorback ridge, and enveloped an enemy strongpoint on one crest of Hill 1081. The two Marine companies very quickly lost 13 killed and 17 wounded. It took litter bearers hours to carry the wounded only 700 yards downhill.
December 9 broke cold and clear with still another blanket of new snow, and American planes went to work, first strafing and then crushing two bunkers with 265-pound bombs. Lieutenant Colonel Schmuck’s A and B Companies, 1st Marines, attacked the final peak of Hill 1081 and fin- ished off two last stubborn bunkers with a grenade barrage covered with rifles and automatics. No Chinese surrendered; none got away. The Marines counted 530 Chinese bodies on the crucial, desperately defended ridge. Chinese troops, whose frozen fingers had to be broken from their rifles, were now frequently surrendering to the Marines.
The Marines held the height that dominated Funchilin Pass. The fight for Hill 1081 had been the last large-scale Chinese effort to stop the Marines. Barrow’s A Company had only 111 able-bodied men left of the 223 he had led into battle. Around noon, the Treadway bridge sections arrived in place, and even Chinese prisoners were put to work constructing the abutments and laying the Treadways and the four-inch-thick plywood panels. By threethirty, the job was done, and by six the first vehicles had begun to inch across.
Suddenly, an accident threatened every hope of escape. A tractor broke through the center plywood panel; the bridge became impassable. An expert tractor driver, Tech. Sgt. Wilfred H. Prosser, gingerly backed the machine off the wrecked bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Partridge calculated that if the Treadways were placed to make the gap just right, M-26 tanks could pass with two inches to spare and Jeeps with barely half an inch. Once the adjustments were made, engineers began guiding the vehicles over the bridge with flashlights. The column crossed the fragile span all night long. Marines, Korean refugees, and even cattle crunched southward on the crisp snow. By the next afternoon, the last elements had left Koto-ri. The Marine and Army tanks brought up the rear. Chesty Puller stayed until they started. His Jeep carried out several wounded and three dead Marines; Puller himself walked.
After the last tanks crossed the bridge, the Chief Warrant Officer, Willie Harrison of the engineers, dropped the precious structure into the 2,000-foot-deep chasm.
As the men reached Chinhung-ni, at the end of the mountains, the forward units immediately boarded trucks or narrow-gauge freight cars at Majon-dong to head for the coast. But with the shortage of vehicles, many men had to keep walking—and fighting. A Chinese explosive charge blew Pfc. Robert D. DeMott over the cliff beside the road. He was thought dead, but he landed unconscious on a ledge and later managed to climb up and walk among the Korean refugees to Chinhung-ni. He is believed to have been the final Marine out from the reservoir.
By midnight on December 11, the Marine divisions’ last elements were at Hungnam. Since leaving Koto-ri, the division had yielded 75 more dead, 16 missing, and 256 wounded. But the breakout was finally complete. The remaining job of leaving North Korea was enormous: More than 105,000 troops, 91,000 Korean refugees, 17,500 vehicles, and mountains of supplies were sea-lifted out. By December 14, the 22,215 Marines were on board ships, and the next day the last of the vessels set sail for Pusan, in southern South Korea. On the eighteenth, Marine Air Group 12's command post flew to Itami, Japan.