- 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
Back home, the nation had feared that the Marines would be destroyed by the endless manpower of the Chinese. Had the 1st Marine Division been shattered or forced to surrender, it would have been a military catastrophe unparalleled in American history. Even without that, the campaign was called “America’s worst military licking since Pearl Harbor” in Newsweek, and Chesty Puller, who had earned his fifth Navy Cross—the only Marine ever awarded that many—wrote his wife on December 4: “The leadership, especially that of the higher command during this operation, has not been of top grade…”
The saving grace was the truly heroic effort of disciplined, determined United States Marines and soldiers against a tough, able enemy and brutal cold. General MacArthur painted the withdrawal rose. He later wrote in a letter: “This was undoubtedly one of the most successful strategic retreats in history.…” Incredibly, he called the action “the most successful and satisfying I have ever commanded.”
What he took satisfaction from is not easy to understand. Between October 26 and December 15, the 1st Marine Division alone had suffered 4,395 battle casualties—718 dead, 192 missing, and 3,485 wounded in action—and 7,143 nonbattle casualties.
The United States had fought its first war with the one year-old People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations forces had been ignominiously thrown out of North Korea. That Friday evening, December 15, President Truman went on the air to tell the American people that he would issue a proclamation the following morning declaring that a national emergency existed. He called on Americans to mobilize their military and industrial strength and not yield to aggression or appease evil in the world. The war would continue for more than three years; there would be heavy fighting, but never again anything like the bitter epic of Chosin.