Thousands die in battle at Chosin Reservoir

  • Dec 1, 2004 Updated Jan 24, 2015

In his fine book “The Forgotten War,” author Clay Blair discusses the background of the fighting in North Korea during the early winter of 1950 and calls it “the most ill-advised and unfortunate operation of the Korean War.” Further commentary noted that Xth Army Commander Gen. Edward Almond’s decisions showed “brashness, tactical incompetence, and callous disregard for the welfare of his men.”

Intelligence was so bad that the U.S. high command had no idea that 300,000 Chinese soldiers were arrayed against the two American units, the VIIIth Army and the Xth Corps, ordered to reach the Yalu River “with all deliberate speed.”

The Americans on the ground paid the price for command incompetence when they found out about enemy power on the night of Nov. 25 1950: Massive attacks by bugle- and horn-blowing enemy soldiers screaming at the top of their lungs hit all units simultaneously. Some Americans fled. In the Chosin Reservoir sector, Xth Corps Marines on the west side and Army units on the east side hunkered down to absorb the attacks.

By Nov. 30, the headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur finally realized that the forward positions were untenable and ordered Xth Corps to consolidate forces in the town of Hagaru at the southern end of the Chosin Reservoir. Air power brought in tons of ammunition and supplies along with Marine reinforcements and evacuated the wounded. Then the 64-mile walk to Hungnam and the coast began.

Today in sports history: April 24

It was a deadly walk over terrible terrain in the dead of a Korean winter. One hundred twenty thousand Chinese soldiers controlled the hills on both sides of the single lane road with about 10,000 Marines and U.S. Army soldiers fighting for every yard. In the cold, carbines and rifles locked, mortars cracked and canteens burst. Blood plasma and rations froze solid.

The basic plan was that about 4,200 men from Hungnam would head for Koto-ri and provide a safe haven for the 10,000 coming south from Hagaru. Then the 14,200 would head south and fight their way into Hungnam.

Life magazine was a prime source of information in those days, and it sent photojournalist David Douglas Duncan into Hagaru to provide pictures of the ordeal. The current term is that Duncan was “embedded” with the troops. His photos are some of the most graphic war photos ever seen.

The troops headed south in a long column, under heavy attack from the enemy in the hills. They were frozen and utterly spent, and after some 36 hours on the road, the first men reached Koto-ri. One described their ordeal: “The roads and ditches were littered with burnt-out vehicles and dead Chinese Communist Forces bodies, frozen stiff.”

Heading south from Koto-ri, the column was now 15,000-men strong. They were aided superbly by Navy and Marine air with napalm attacks on Chinese in the hills. They spent one night on the road in a blinding snowstorm — and they made it to safety. From Dec. 11 to Dec. 14, 54 years ago this month, they boarded 28 ships in Hungnam and the entire Xth Corps headed for Pusan.

The Chosin Reservoir

in perspective

  • Casualties. All told, about 20,000 to 25,000 Allied soldiers were involved in the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. They suffered about 15,000 casualties at the reservoir, and during the subsequent “advance-in- another-direction,” 2,500 were killed in action and 5,000 were wounded. There were about 7,500 cases of frostbite.

The 120,000 Chinese deployed against the Xth Corps were in terrible shape. Captured documents showed that Marine ground and air units alone had caused 37,500 casualties: 25,000 were killed and 12,500 wounded. U.S. Army units from the 3rd and 7th Infantry Divisions probably accounted for an added 5,000 enemy casualties from their fighting on the east side of the reservoir.

Add to these numbers about 30,000 frostbite cases for a total of 72,500 Chinese out of combat by American forces. That means that about 60 percent of the Chinese 26th Army was unfit for action, thus destroying the 26th Army as a fighting factor without a massive infusion of new personnel.

  • The cold. David Douglas Duncan of Life magazine wrote later about what the cold and wind did to the troops. He called the wind a bigger threat than the minus-30 degree temperature: “The wind that blew from Manchuria and beyond, down over the Yalu and the mountains all around … down into the gorges with their frozen streams and naked rocks … down along the ice-capped road — now shrieking and wild — that wind was like nothing ever known by the trapped Marines, yet they had to march through it.”
  • Valor. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall was a fine World War II military historian. His evaluation of the fighting at the Chosin Reservoir: It “was the most violent small arms unit fighting in the history of American warfare.”
  • Honor and glory. The Medal of Honor dates from 1862 during our Civil War. During all our wars since that time, 294 Marines have been deemed worthy to receive this award. During the Korean War, 42 Marines were so honored. Of this number, 14 Marines earned the Medal of Honor for actions connected to the Chosin River Campaign. Seven of these awards were posthumous.
  • Meaning. It is difficult to put the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in perspective. It was an epic battle against great odds, yet in raw numbers of soldiers involved, there were bigger battles during the Civil War and World Wars I and II. About 25,000 Marines and Army personnel were fighting, a small number when compared with the 160,000 who fought at Gettysburg.

But numbers mean little when discussing valor and devotion and honor and duty. The 64 miles from Hagaru to Hungnam were miles of horror. If we recall with honored memory the Bataan Death March, then we must pay equal tribute to the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950.

The story of both Bataan and Chosin will be told as long as this nation exists. Pure will propelled those who were on the march to get through. There were times when all seemed lost, and yet they made it. They exemplified the best that is America.

The Marine Corps Hymn starts: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, We shall fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.”

After what the Marines experienced at the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950, this change can certainly be considered: “From the halls of Montezuma to the Chosin Reservoir, we shall fight our country’s battles, no matter where they are.”

  • A summary The Chosin Reservoir is one of those battles which by itself defines a war. In other columns I have mentioned epic battles for the Civil War and for World War I. Those in the World War II generation still recall vividly the land battles in the European and Pacific Theaters as well as the naval Battle of Midway. All were signature battles in the biggest and bloodiest of all our wars. The men and women who fought in Vietnam still talk about their battles.

Those who fought in the Korean War lost friends and comrades at the Pusan Perimeter and the Inchon landings and at Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge and at Pork Chop Hill. But the greatest of these Korean War battles was the fighting that took place over a several-week period at the Chosin Reservoir.

This old veteran salutes all veterans of the Korean War.

Thanks to Joanne (Mrs. Bill) Craft for sending in this explanation of how important veterans have been to our country:

It is the veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the veteran, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the veteran, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to demonstrate.

It is the veteran, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the veteran, who salutes the flag, who serves under the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag. 

Freedom is not free.