Fifty years ago in the frozen mountains of Korea, the Marines endured a campaign as grueling and heroic as any in history
The deeds of our heroes are based, all too often, on the arrogance of higher authority. The list is long: Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, the Light brigade at Balaklava, Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, the British infantrymen at the Somme in 1916. Fifty years ago, the United States Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea joined this list. • Marines tell this story alongside those of Belleau Wood, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. The scene is quickly set. On June 25, 1950, the armies of the People’s Republic of [North] Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations supported South Korea and gave its command to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He requested a regimental combat team, and the 1st Marine Division spearheaded his brilliant amphibious assault behind enemy lines at Inchon on September 15. • On Sunday, October 15, MacArthur met with President Truman on Wake Island and assured him that he did not expect China to enter the war. The very next day a regiment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was spotted crossing the Yalu River, China’s border with North Korea, and marching toward the Chosin and Fusen Dams. The Chinese 4th Field Army, under the command of Peng Dehuai, a tough and courageous revolutionary, was already in North Korea. Undismayed, MacArthur ordered his forces in Korea to advance north. He told the reporters the war was almost over.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington had ordered MacArthur to advance north of the thirty-eighth parallel but to keep all non-Korean troops away from the border with China. MacArthur disobeyed this order. On October 24, he sent Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s U.S. 8th Army and Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond’s X Corps to the Yalu.
Fatally dividing his forces, MacArthur sent the 8th Army north to the west of the mountains that form the towering spine of North Korea and the X Corps to the east of them. Almond ordered Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith to take his part of the 1st Marine Division north to relieve Republic of Korea troops near the Chosin and Fusen Reservoirs, manmade mountain lakes a hundred air miles to the north, a key part of North Korea’s hydroelectric system.
O. P. Smith, a tall, pipe-smoking Texan, had led the Marines into battle often in World War II. Almond had commanded the 92d Infantry Division, a black division, in Italy in that war and had been part of MacArthur’s headquarters staff in Tokyo since 1946, becoming chief of staff in 1949. Although Almond was less than a year older than Smith, the Army general had an annoying habit of calling the Marine general “son.” They’d had more serious differences during the recent battles for Inchon and Seoul. Almond soon became the object of almost universal Marine dislike and disdain. Army generals might depend on him for their careers, but O. P. Smith was not shy about facing up to the X Corps commander.
Following MacArthur’s orders, a regiment of the Republic of Korea’s 6th Division reached the Yalu on October 26. By the next day, the Chinese 4th Field Army, in vicious righting, had nearly destroyed two of the division’s regiments. The New York Times reported that 200,000 Chinese soldiers were now in Korea. Mao Tse-tung insisted they were only volunteers, and MacArthur felt they were nothing to worry about. The Chinese, blowing bugles and whistles, attacked the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division on November 1 and badly mauled its 8th regiment. The next day, east of the mountains, the Chinese struck the Marines.
The 1st Marine Division consisted of 23,608 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, supported by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. The division was organized in three infantry regiments, the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines, and an artillery regiment, the llth Marines. After being issued parkas and other cold-weather gear, the 7th Marines, followed by the 5th Marines, started north toward the Chosin Reservoir. The 1st Marines remained behind to deal with the North Korean army on the coast.
Many of the Marines, especially the officers and noncoms, were veterans of the war against Japan. All of them had been taught that killing was what war was about. They were persuaded that the Marine Corps was an elite service, that they were better at their job than the other services were at theirs. And their ethos was built about the simple idea that they would risk their lives for their fellow Marines. They would bring out their wounded; they would bring out their dead. It was a powerful creed.
The Marines had to follow a rutted, gravel and dirt two-lane road north 78 miles through the mountains to the desolate little village of Yudam-ni at the western tip of the Chosin Reservoir. For the first 43 miles, the road rose gently through rather level terrain. Then it narrowed to one lane and, twisting and snow-covered, climbed through Funchilin Pass among mile-high peaks. Here the road was nothing but a narrow shelf hacked into the mountainside.
At the Chosin Reservoir’s southern tip, the road divided. The Marines would follow the branch up the western side of the reservoir, climb through Toktong Pass, and then drop again through gorges into the broad valley of Yudam-ni. From there they would wheel west and try to close the enormous gap to the 8th Army on the other side of the mountain range. The primitive road up to the reservoir would become the Marines’ main supply route (MSR)—and the center of the attention of the world.
In the mountains, when the wind was up and blew away any new snow, the road turned into a ribbon of glass. The Marines sparred with the North Korean army as they trucked north. Then, at 11:00 P.M. on November 2, two Chinese battalions, moving swiftly and silently, attacked Lt. Col. Raymond G. Davis’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, in an expert double envelopment. After two hours, the Marines bent under the assault. The Chinese swarmed into the valley, seized a sharp turn in the road, and cut the MSR.
At dawn, Col. Homer L. Litzenberg, a burly, stubborn middle-aged man, called in supporting arms for his 7th Marines. Howitzers, mortars, machine guns, and aircraft went to work. They killed hundreds of Chinese in the valley and on the hillsides, but it took another full day’s fighting to force the persistent enemy back off the road. The Marines evacuated a hundred of their own casualties.
Maj. Maurice E. Roach’s 3d Battalion, 7th Marines, battled the entrenched Chinese guarding the entrance to the eight-mile-long Funchilin Pass on November 6. Then, the next morning, amazingly, the Chinese were gone. They simply vanished throughout Korea.
The disappearance of the Chinese army gave the American commanders a dangerous illusion of victory. Early on November 10, the Marines climbed through Funchilin Pass and occupied Koto-ri. That day was the 175th birthday of the Corps. Back on the coast, Col. Lewis B. (“Chesty”) Puller solemnly sliced a 100-pound cake with a North Korean sword.
The same day, winter struck. Suddenly the temperature at Koto-ri plunged below zero, and vicious winds from Siberia sent many Marines into shock. The cold numbed both flesh and spirit. It would dominate the rest of the campaign. To survive, the men piled on layers of clothing; they carried their canteens and extra socks inside their clothes. Still they paid the penalty of frostbite and frozen feet, hands, and faces. Oil congealed in weapons, and entrenching tools could not break the earth. Jeep ambulances were useless; the wounded they carried would freeze to death.
Major General Smith worried that his men were out on a limb. He wrote the Marine Corps commandant: “I believe a winter campaign in the mountains of North Korea is too much to ask of the American soldier or marine, and I doubt the feasibility of supplying troops in this area during the winter or providing for the evacuation of sick and wounded.” On November 15, the 7th Marines occupied the abandoned town of Hagaru-ri at the southern end of the Chosin Reservoir. This would become their forward base. In temperatures below zero, the 1st Engineer Battalion began building an airstrip.
After Hagaru-ri, the plans now called for the two Marine regiments to split. Litzenberg’s 7th Marines would go up the west side of the reservoir to Yudam-ni; the 5th Marines would go up the eastern side. The 5th was led by six-footfour-inch Lt. Col. Raymond L. Murray, who had commanded a battalion at Guadalcanal and Tarawa and won the Navy Cross and two Silver Stars in World War II. On Thanksgiving, most Marines were fed a hot turkey dinner. For many, it would be the last real meal for nearly three weeks.
MacArthur was not troubled by intelligence reports of large Chinese forces building up on both sides of the Yalu. He ordered the 8th Army north on a climactic general offensive on the twenty-fourth. The civilian leadership and Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington did nothing to stop him. To MacArthur it was the beginning of the end of this war. The general who was the chief of staff of X Corps later called its role in the offensive—to travel west over the freezing, treacherous mountains of North Korea to link up with the 8th Army—“insane.”
Then the 5th Marines, now advancing east of the reservoir, were ordered to return and join the 7th Marines at Yudam-ni. The 5th Marines were replaced in their forward position by the Army’s 1st Battalion, 32d Infantry Regiment. Its commander, Lt. Col. Don C. Faith, Jr., had been Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway’s aide in the 82d Airborne Division during World War II.
On Sunday, November 26, the People’s Liberation Army reappeared, striking along a 300-mile front. In western North Korea, the Chinese threw the entire 8th Army into retreat. Word of this disaster filtered through to the Marines slowly. Their mission was not changed. They kept marching to their fate. MacArthur, worried at last, radioed the Pentagon and the United Nations: “We face an entirely new war.”
It was cold at Yudam-ni. By midnight that Sunday the temperature was 25 below zero as the Siberian wind whipped over the bare hills and the frozen arm of the reservoir. Early Monday morning, the freezing riflemen of Lt. Col. Harold S. Roise’s 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, gathered around small fires to thaw their rations and weapons and then moved out on the road leading west from Yudam-ni. The 3d Battalion, 7th Marines, advanced along the ridges on both sides. Both battalions received heavy fire.
The mass of Sakkat Mountain rose directly in front of Roise’s Marines. The Chinese, dug into the mountain’s eastern face, stopped them cold. At midafternoon, Roise called off the attack. On the left flank, G Company, 7th Marines, fought until after dark, when the Chinese machine guns drove them back. This would be the high-water mark of the Marines’ march to the Yalu.
That Monday night, the Marines at Yudam-ni fought a major battle when Sung Shin-lun, one of China’s best field commanders, sent two divisions to destroy them there. After hiking silently over mountain trails under a full moon, with temperatures at 20 degrees below zero, his men threw themselves en masse against the Marines’ firepower and doggedness. The Marines piled up dead Chinese in front of their positions, but the attackers kept coming, and by dawn they held the commanding ground at Yudam-ni.
While two of Sung’s divisions fought the Marines in the hills at Yudam-ni, elements of a third swung around to the south and struck C Company, 7th Marines, outposted on a hill a little less than five miles south of the village. The seesaw battle there lasted until dawn, when artillery fire from Yudam-ni drove the Chinese back. Surrounded and outnumbered, the C Company Marines could only wait for help. Two mountain-road-miles farther south, the Chinese hit the 240 Marines and corpsmen of reinforced F Company, 7th Marines, holding Fox Hill in the middle of Toktong Pass. Capt. William E. Barber, F Company’s commander, who had won the Silver Star on Iwo Jima, was ordered to keep the pass open. If Sung seized Toktong Pass, he could cut off the two regiments of Marines to the north. Thus began at Fox Hill a siege of five nights and days that is one of the U.S. Marine Corps epics.
The Chinese quickly overwhelmed Barber’s two forward squads and, attacking repeatedly, seized the hill’s crest. At that point, three Marines—Pfc. Robert F. Benson. Pvt. Hector A. Cafferata, Jr., and Pfc. Gerald J. Smith—made a stand, wiped out two enemy platoons, and prevented a breakthrough. So far, F Company had 20 dead and 54 wounded, but the Marines had killed some 400 of the enemy. The Chinese attack petered out.
It had been a terrible night. From Yudam-ni to Toktong Pass, the Americans counted their dead and wounded. The Chinese had cut their link to the sea: the Marines were isolated and embattled. That same night, east of the reservoir. the Chinese swooped down on the U.S. Army. The GIs took heavy losses until at dawn four gull-winged Marine Corsair fighter-bombers roared in and dropped napalm.
At Yudam-ni, before dawn on November 28, weary Marines counterattacked to drive the Chinese from the high ground above the village; they took on 50 Chinese in hand-to-hand battle and then destroyed an entire Chinese company attacking up the far slope. The battle for that hill had already cost more than 200 Marine casualties, and carrying them down took the whole morning. Yet they were the lucky ones; seriously wounded men did not survive long out in the intense cold.
Now the Marines once again held that essential hill. At the same time, the wounded were piling up at Yudam-ni, stretching the medical delivery system. Doctors and corpsmen were overwhelmed. The dead were carried out and placed in frozen stacks. Meanwhile, thousands more Chinese infantrymen were moving into position in the hills around the reservoir. Colonel Litzenberg of the 7th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Murray of the 5th Marines met at dawn and agreed that their men were paying too high a price; the killing in the wilderness could not go on. Murray canceled the 5th Marines’ advance westward from Yudam-ni, and the two regimental commanders worked together to organize a defensive line and fill their rifle companies’ depleted ranks with Marines from the artillery battalions. The Corps tenet “Every Marine a rifleman” paid off.
At 4:30 P.M., Major General Smith officially ordered the 7th Marines, followed by the 5th Marines, to attack to the south and reopen the road back to Hagaru-ri. The drive to the Yalu was dead.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.