The Epic of Chosin
Benis M. Frank
Head, Oral History Section
U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center
Each battle, campaign, or amphibious assault has a personality or aura of its own. For each person who has participated in an individual action--as Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, or the Battle of the Bulge, for instance--even if one of these was the only combat he ever experienced, it has a specialness unlike anything he has encountered during his lifetime, marriage, fatherhood, and the like. This applies especially to "The Chosen Few," those Marines, sailors, and soldiers who went up to the Chosin Reservoir and came back down, under fire and fighting all the way.
In this paper, it is not my intention to discuss the Chosin Reservoir operation, day by day, step by step, unit by unit, but only to hit the hiqhspots and to flesh out the bare combat narrative with appropriate quotes from oral history interviews with the participants, as they tell in their own words of the anabasis in which they participated. The interview excerpts are derived from the interviews I conducted for the Marine Corps Oral History Program. There are also excerpts from interviews Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall conducted with 1st Marine Division personnel in Korea immediately after the Chosin operation for CCF in the Attack, part II, A Study on the Operations of the 1st Marine Division in the Koto-ri. Hagaru-ri. Yudam-ni Area. 20 November-10 December 1950. This was a study he did for the Operations Research Office, Johns Hopkins University, Far Eastern Command.
You will recall that following the amphibious assault of Inchon on 15 September 1950, the primary mission of the invasion forces was to retake Seoul, which they did by the 27th. The next objective of the 1st Marine Division was Wonsan, on the east coast north of the 38th parallel. Because the North Koreans had extensively sewn Wonsan harbor with Russian mines, it took some time to complete minesweeping operations. Meanwhile, the ships holding the 1st Division were making circles in the water off Wonsan, in what was called by the troops, Operation Yo-Yo. On 26 October, when the harbor and the waters leading to it were cleared, the division made an administrative landing. The division found that Republic of Korea (ROK) forces had already taken the city, Marine Fighter Squadron 312 Corsairs were operating from the Wonsan airfield, and Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell and their USO troop had already been there and gone. According to General Oliver P. Smith, the tall, white-haired, ascetic-looking and very professional commander of the 1st Marine Division, Major General Edward M. "Ned" Almond, USA, commander of X Corps, wanted the Marines to land through the minefields. He never wanted to accept 26 October as the date for the landing in view of the fact that the extensive minefield had to be cleared. "October 20th was the date he'd fixed, and he always called this October 26th 'Doyle Day,' because Admiral Doyle refused to (land on that date) and I went along with him." When I asked, "What was the matter with Almond, was he mad?," General Smith replied that he didn't know. He said that Almond was a very energetic man and egotistical. He was a MacArthur man, and anything MacArthur said, nothing could change it. MacArthur was God.
On 26 October, X Corps issued the following order to the 1st Marine Division: "a) Land over the beaches in the vicinity of Wonsan; b) Relieve all elements of the I ROK Corps in Kojo and in the zone; c) Protect the Wonsan-Kojo-Majon-ni area, employing not less than one RCT [regimental combat team], patrolling all routes to the west in zone; d) Advance rapidly in zone to Korean northern border; f) Prepare to land one BLT [battalion landing team] in the Changjin area rapidly on order."
The order to drive north to the northern border--in a zone of action that was 300 miles south to north and 50 miles deep--is interesting in view of the fact that the JCS only authorized MacArthur to destroy the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) as a threat to South Korea and to secure the military victory that would unify the two Koreas under UN supervision. Only if China or Russia intervened in the war would the mission be reconsidered. But flushed by victory, neither the JCS nor MacArthur anticipated such an intervention. The JCS, however, cautioned MacArthur not to violate international borders or send American troops all the way to the Yalu River, which was the border between Korea and Manchuria. Despite these warnings, MacArthur's planners directed the Eighth U.S. Army in Korea (EUSAK) and X Corps--which were separate and independent commands--to launch the ambitious exploitation campaign into North Korea. As General Smith told me in his interview, X Corps did not want to become part of the Eighth Army; it wanted to continue its independence. And General Almond apparently talked General MacArthur into sending x Corps around to the East Coast. This initially resulted in unrealistic planning, for as the 1st Division was mounting out from Inchon, the Eighth Army was coming around from Pusan and trying to enter the port and use the port facilities at the same time. General Smith was also critical of the planning for the upcoming drive north. His division, after landing at Wonsan, was to drive inland 60 miles, over the central mountain chain that was swarming with North Koreans, and meet the Eighth Army to help it capture Pyongyang. Sharing MacArthur's optimistic estimate of the state of the United Nations Command campaign, Almond scattered X Corps for more than 100 miles along the northeast coast of North Korea in November.
To set the stage for X Corps-1st Marine Division relations during the Chosin campaign, I'd like to say a few words about Almond and place his character and personality in perspective, especially as it related to the 1st Marine Division. He was MacArthur's chief of staff in Tokyo, and was given command of X Corps and the Inchon landing because he had asked for it. When Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, USMC, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force Pacific (FMFPac), visited MacArthur in Tokyo, the "Supremo" told him that as the senior Marine in the Pacific and an expert in the art of amphibious assault, he should have led the Inchon landings. However, he had promised the command to Almond and he didn't want to renege on his promise. During the planning phase for Inchon, Almond and his staff generally ignored the 1st Marine Division staff and went blithely along in their ignorance of amphibious matters. The fact that the Inchon landing was a success may be attributed to the professionalism and combat experience of Admiral Jimmy Doyle and the Marines. General Victor Krulak told me that on the morning of the Inchon assault he was standing at the railing of the command ship, Mount McKinley, not too far away from Almond and some of his staff. They all were watching the assault waves head for the beach. As the amphibious tractors floated by on the way to Wolmi-do, Krulak heard Almond say, "I didn't know those things could float!" In my interview with General Smith, we discussed the problems he had with Almond later, and I'll bring them up at the appropriate points.
After landing at Wonsan on the 26th, the 5th and 7th Marines were to go north to Hamhung to prepare for a further advance to the Yalu. The 1st Marines would stay behind in the vicinity of Wonsan and sweep up the supposedly shattered remnants of the NKPA division in the area. In Tokyo, MacArthur, the Commander in Chief, Far East (CINCFE) and his staff were saying that the war would be over by Christmas. Despite the fact that there was hard intelligence that the Chinese had entered the war, including the capture of Chinese soldiers, CINCFE in Tokyo, and particularly Major General Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur's G-2 (intelligence), refused to believe it.
As service units established a base of operations for X Corps in Wonsan, the infantry regiments of the 1st Division fanned out to the west and north and the ROK divisions slid westward through the mountains to maintain contact with the Eighth Army or drove northeastward toward the Yalu. The Marines soon learned that the Korean war had not ended, and the "home by Christmas vision was a cruel delusion. Even though X Corps insisted that the North Korean People's Army was beaten, Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller's 1st Marines fought a series of battalion actions south and west of Wonsan. Colonel Homer E. Litzenberg's 7th Marines moved north to relieve ROK units in the Hungnam-Hamhung area, and under corps orders began to move north along the 78 miles of mountain road that led to the Chosin Reservoir.
Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese troops were marching across the Yalu to blunt the UN offensive. Warned by a Chinese attack on the Eighth Army in early November, the 7th Marines was not completely surprised when it met a Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) division at Sudong on 2 November. The fighting was fiercer than it had been with the North Koreans. Unlike the Koreans, the Chinese did not depend on Russian tanks and heavy artillery. Building upon their own guerrilla warfare experience and respect for American airpower, the Chinese fought largely at night and sought tactical penetrations into the command, logistical, and supporting arms system of the UN forces.
Momentarily rocked by the Chinese onslaught, the 7th Marines regained its balance and mounted its own offensive, supported by the close air support continually afforded by Marine Air Group (MAG) 12. In five days of fighting, the Marines virtually destroyed the enemy division, and continued up the road to Chosin Reservoir, the 5th Marines following in trace.
The battle at Sudong convinced General Smith that the 1st Marine Division had to be concentrated. At one point, his southernmost battalion was 200 miles from the northernmost. He complained of this disposition to Almond, but as he told me, Almond's "idea was that there was nobody out there." He finally persuaded Almond to shift the rest of the division north. The X Corps commander then ordered Smith to push the Marine division rapidly to the northwest for a final drive toward the Chinese border. Smith had no confidence in Almond's strategy or prophetic gift, and moved his regiments cautiously. He hoped that he would not have to send his regiments all the way up the plateau, 4,000 feet above sea level, with winter descending and only one single-lane road going up there. This being the situation, General Smith paid special attention to his logistical arrangements and the security of the Main Supply Route (MSR), which was assigned to Puller's 1st Marines.
On 10 November, Smith received orders to split his forces at the base of Chosin Reservoir, where a road branched off to the northeast, and to send one regiment to seize Fusen Reservoir to the east of Chosin. He was able to talk Almond out of this decision and instead an Army unit was assigned the mission. Again, as General Smith told me: "What I was trying to do was slow down the advance and stall until I could pull up the 1st Marines behind us and get our outfit together. I was unable to complete that until the 27th of November. By that time, the 1st Marines had been broken loose from all its commitments down below and I was able to put a battalion of the 1st at Hagaru-ri, a battalion a Koto-ri, and a battalion at Chinhung-ni. I was told to occupy a blocking position at Yudam-ni with the 7th Marines and to have LtCol Raymond L. Murray's 5th Marines go by the east side of the reservoir and continue on to the Yalu. I told Murray to take it easy, that we'd fix an objective every day. The only objective the Corps gave me was the Yalu River. I told Litzenberg not to go too fast, he didn't want to go over the [Toktong] pass and down into Yudam-ni because we had this tremendous open flank on our left. But the pressure was being put on me to get going. Finally, I had to tell Litzenberg to go on over and occupy Yudam-ni."
X Corps then rushed some troops of the 31st Infantry and 32nd Infantry regiments to relieve the 5th Marines on the east of Chosin, following which the Marines would move over to Yudam-ni to join the 7th Marines. After that, both regiments would attack northwest to relieve the pressure on the Eighth Army. Talking about these Army troops, General Smith recalled "...these poor devils...came to me to get parkas and stuff like that...they didn't have liners to their parkas and there were an awful lot of frostbite casualties. We couldn't help them out...I warned them. Take it easy up there, don't go out on a limb."
The weather on 11 November turned miserable. As recalled by General Ray Davis, then commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, with whom he would earn the Medal of Honor, "I had taken a bath in the river, it was that warm. And two nights later it went down to 16 below with the wind blowing. We got up in the morning. None of the vehicles would start. Troopers had their noses turn white, big spots on them...it was just an absolutely unbelievable change in the temperature in 24 hours." When Litzenberg's regiment reached Yudam-ni, the Marines were 4,000 feet above sea level. That presented a problem for the Marine helicopters at the time in that their ceiling was only 5,000 feet, and in the thin air at that height, the chopper that General Smith was in, for instance, dropped the last 15 feet to the ground.
With its left flank unprotected by the Eighth Army and with only scattered ROK and 7th Infantry Division units to its right, the division slowly and cautiously edged its way up the MSR. Smith and his staff deflected X Corps demands for greater speed and nursed their gnawing suspicion that the 1st Marine Division was facing a new war. Struggling towards each other in the bitter cold, the 1st Marine Division and the CCF Ninth Army Group (a veteran force of 100,000 Chinese in 10 divisions) deployed for four weeks in some of Korea's fiercest fighting as November ended.
China planned to smash the Eighth Army's right flank, isolate X Corps, and defeat both in detail. The CCF mounted determined night attacks to penetrate U.N. lines and set up ambushes. While the CCF had no artillery to speak of, it had enough heavy mortars and machine guns plus a large enough force of infantrymen to mass overwhelming attacks against the Marines. By November 26th, General Smith had the 5th and 7th Marines deployed at Yudam-ni west of Chosin Reservoir, with the rest of the division huddled in enclaves along 45 miles of mountain road.
Along the 14 miles from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri, only one rifle company guarded the MSR at the critical Toktong Pass. F Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines was commanded by Captain William Barber, a former a former parachutist who was commissioned in the field at Iwo Jima, where he was awarded a Silver Star Medal. At Hagaru-ri, at the base of the reservoir, Smith's headquarters and the division's many service and supply elements depended on one battalion of the 1st Marines, some Army troops, and their own weapons for defense. Down the road some 11 miles, at Koto-ri, Puller had his regimental command post with one of his battalions, some supporting arms, and service units. And 10 miles further down the road, Puller had his regimental command post with one of his battalions, some supporting arms, and service units. And 10 miles further down the road, Puller's last battalion garrisoned Chinhung-ni.
When the Ninth Army Group struck Yudam-ni on the cold night of 27 November and threatened Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri the next two days, the Chinese found the Marines well deployed and full of fighting heart. Despite some CCF successes in the these two days, General Smith said that he had the feeling at all times that "we had the upper hand and that we were giving the enemy a beating wherever he chose to fight." According to "Slam" Marshall, "the salient note in the whole record of fighting is found in the promptness and strength with which all supporting weapons were brought to bear in the decisive area of engagement whenever any part of the rifle line came under pressure by Chinese assault." In other words, the successful employment of the Supporting Arms Center was a major factor in the success of the operation.
Although the 1st Marine Division reported that it identified Chinese forces in the enemy order of battle, "nobody in X Corps believed that there were any CCF present and nobody could not be convinced that my open flank was inviting destruction," said General Smith. The former executive officer of the 5th Marines, retired Brigadier General Joseph L. Stewart, USMC, said that "as we advanced up the hill [to Yudam-ni] there were reports that General MacArthur thought the Chinese would not enter the war. However, there were plenty of Chinese on our radios, almost every frequency carried Chinese transmissions and we knew the Chinese were out there, also we were bumping into Chinese patrols almost every day." He also said that when Murray's 5th Marines began attacking about 2,000 yards towards the Yalu, he halted the attack because "it was manifest that we were up against a massive force out there. But we got no orders from the Corps for two days to actually withdraw, so we couldn't do anything but defend, as I couldn't withdraw without permission from higher authorities." When I asked General Smith if the corps commander had any knowledge of or acknowledged his predicament, he said, "Every four hours we sent in a report of what was going on, but apparently they were stunned; they just couldn't make up their minds that the Chinese had attacked in force.... It took them two days before we actually were told to withdraw to Hagaru-ri advance to the coast--that took them two days to figure out." It was later learned that MacArthur had called Almond to Tokyo to tell him that the Eighth Army drive had been blunted and that it and X Corps had to pull back. I find the fact that Almond left Korea and the serious fighting at such a crucial time almost unbelievable and unprecedented in military history.
The 5th and 7th Marines joined forces and their staffs at Yudam-ni, and backed by artillery and constant air support during the daylight hours, the two Marine infantry regiments decisively stopped the Chinese attack and destroyed several enemy units at the same time. General Smith was authorized to fall back along the MSR and extract the 1st Division. The Marine position was precarious but the division remained unbroken, if bloodied.
During the Chosin operation the temperature varied between 20 degrees above zero and 20 degrees below, although with the Siberian winds blowing down from the north, the wind-chill factor brought the temperature down even more. Needless to say, this affected the operation of motor vehicles, weapons, and personnel. General Davis recalled that at one point before the withdrawal to the south: "Among A Company, I found men already completely exhausted and in a state of collapse. I asked them what outfit they were from and they could not even answer. I'd shake them bodily to try and arouse them and I got my command group to do the same thing.
At one point, when he had to orient himself at night, he "would get down in one of these [abandoned Chinese] pits and recheck my map orientation with a compass. I remember twice crawling down, poncho over me, with flashlight, getting my map oriented, to check out the direction; then fixed my hand for a marker, turned the light out and lifted off the poncho and get up to check the direction, and I couldn't remember what had happened down there under that poncho. I'd get up and just stand there in a daze. Two or three people standing around would have a few words to say and by that time I had forgotten what it was I was trying to do. I'd have to go down and do this thing all over again. Everybody had to repeat back to you two or three times to be sure of what was supposed to happen.
On December 1st, the 1st Marine Division began one of history's epic retrograde movements, a fighting withdrawal that eventually ended with the amphibious evacuation of X Corps from Hungnam. General Smith correctly called the operation "an attack in another direction" in tactical terms. But for the United Nations Command, with the Eighth Army reeling back in western North Korea, the campaign was part of a major strategic defeat. For the Marines, the campaign was a victory, for the march out form Chosin saved X Corps and virtually destroyed seven Chinese divisions.
Lieutenant General Alpha L. Bowser, USMC, who had been the division G-3 (operations), told me that when he was interviewed by Slam Marshall immediately after the Chosin withdrawal, he said that he felt that "one of the greatest mistakes the Chinese made was to underestimate the fire power and f~ghting ability of the Marine battalion landing team, particularly if it had an artillery battalion with it or the support of an artillery battalion and air support . . . [and] one of the other keys to the success during that period...was the fact that a Marine commander would frequently forego the best tactical ground in the interest of maintaining tactical unity and fire support...[if he had] in other words good control. And so the Chinese frequently would send one of their regiments against our BLTs and would be defeated like crazy."
The first phase of the withdrawal saw the 5th and the 7th Marines falling back on Hagaru-ri. On the movement south, General Smith has commented, "All along it has seemed strange to me that there has been a tendency to treat the movement from Hagaru-ri south to Koto-ri and from Koto-ri southward down the mountain as if these things were the crisis of the operation. This simply was not the case. The advance of the two regiments [5th and 7th Marines] to Yudam-ni and their subsequent return to Hagaru-rl were the real crisis hours." In this retrograde movement, General Smith directed that every able-bodied man, other than drivers and gunners with vehicles, move on foot and be ready for service as a rifleman as needed. Colonel Litzenberg, the 7th Marines commander, said that once the 5th and 7th Marines got back to Hagaru-ri, he had no doubt that the division was saved. General Smith said that the only time he had cause for great concern was when Litzenberg and Murray were fighting out from Yudam-ni and he received a message from Litzenberg, about midnight on one of the nights in this period, and Litzenberg said, "Situation grave."
In the withdrawal from Yudam-ni, Lieutenant Colonel Davis' 1st Battalion, 7th Marines was detached from the column to make a heroic overland march in incredible cold and over some of the most rugged terrain and over across compartmented ridges in the area to relieve Captain Barber's F Company. This unit had been isolated for five days while holding off the enemy from capturing Toktong Pass, which provided security for the route of the 5th and 7th Marines on their trip south.
The story of F Company at Toktong Pass and the rescue mission of Davis' battalion has been told well in various publications. Suffice it to say that it was just one more heroic effort in a saga of numerous heroic efforts. Barber was wounded twice and was just about able to get around as he directed his company's efforts to thwart the enemy attacks. Davis later recounted: "As we approached F Company's position at Toktong Pass, I first contacted Captain Barber on radio when I was about 600 yards away in the morning and we discussed the situation. He told me that he would send a patrol out to bring me in. I thought this was rather remarkable, because I was coming in to relieve him and here he was offering to come out and save me, though I had a battalion. When I saw him, he was hobbling about and could just barely walk. I think we just shook hands and looked at one another for a few minutes until we got unchoked, and then I told him he had done a wonderful job." For their heroic achievements in this episode, Colonel Davis, Captain Barber, and a member of his company, PFC Hector Cafferata, were awarded Medals of Honor.
Despite persistent Chinese attacks against the motorized column on the road and desperate fighting for the critical hills overlooking the roads, the two Marine regiments began to reach Hagaru-ri on 3 December. When the haggard, crippled, exhausted troops in the vanguard managed to march into the Hagaru-ri perimeter, other Marines burst into tears. At a cost of over 3,000 casualties, the 1st Division survived the first stage of the withdrawal. It had inflicted more than 12,000 casualties on the enemy. Earlier, General Smith and Major General Field Harris, USMC, the Commanding General, 1st Marine Air Wing, whose son, a lieutenant colonel, was captured by the Chinese on the march south and never seen again, had gone up to Hagaru-ri. His objective was to select the site of a landing strip to be used for resupply of men and material and for casualty evacuations. X Corps at that time wasn't interested in any field up there. Harris said, "I told Almond that we ought to have a field that would take transport planes to bring in supplies and take out casualties. He said, 'What casualties. That's the kind of thing you were up against. He wouldn't admit there ever would be any casualties. We took 4,500 casualties out of that field."
While at Hagaru-ri, the 1st Division was faced with rescuing the survivors of Task Force Faith, an Army unit which had gone north on the east side of Chosin Reservoir and had been disastrously ambushed. Lieutenant Colonel Olin Beall, the 1st Marine Division motor transport officer, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic efforts in rescuing the survivors who retreated across the frozen reservoir.
In the march down to Koto-ri, the same governing assumptions that characterized the withdrawal from Yudam-ni would be in effect. The infantry battalions would clear the hills above the MSR supported by artillery, that would displace in echelon, and by heavy air attacks. Most of the casualties were caused by frostbite, despite all the precautions that were taken by the Marines. It is somewhat ironic that MacArthur's headquarters sent a message to Smith stating that there was a lack of leadership, because there shouldn't have been this frostbite if there had been good leadership. The message was received first by Admiral C. Turner Joy, Commander Naval Forces, Far East, who never forwarded it to the Marines. Said Smith, "That made me mad as a hatter. Of course, Adm Joy swept it under the rug, he didn't send the thing on." During several visits to Smith's command post, Almond never referred to the matter.
General Almond flew up to Hagaru-ri after Litzenberg and Murray had fought their regiments down from Yudam-ni and "he came up and gave us all the Distinguished Service Cross, and he was weeping. I don't know what he was weeping about, whether from the cold or from emotion or what it was.... I never did get a citation for that because I suppose I would have had to write my own." I recall that at this part of the interview, it was about 10 or 10:30 at night, and after hearing all that Smith had had to bear with Almond, I had to comment that he had great forbearance and that a lesser man would have reacted differently. At this, General Smith, in his 80s then, quiet and reserved, laughed. I asked whether he had ever been tempted to react to all this. He said, "Very often, but I held it in. I told General Shepherd some of the troubles; I told General Cates [Commandant of the Marine Corps), but I never had any confrontation with Almond. He was trying to get me back in X Corps after we got out of there. He came to me one day and he said, 'I'm going to get you back.' I didn't say anything, but I made up my mind that if I could avoid it, I wasn't going back. Relations were more or less friendly, but I'd lost confidence in him, that's all." Smith never did serve under Almond for the rest of his time in Korea.
General Smith was determined that the division was coming out fighting or would not come out at all. As Allan Millett wrote in his outstanding institutional history of the Marine Corps, Semper Fidelis, "With the 7th Marines leading and the 5th Marines covering, that division fought its way forward at a cost of 1,600 casualties to Koto-ri by the evening of December 7. Oiling their weapons with hair tonic, eating Px candy and rations warmed by body heat, plodding forward on unfeeling feet, pulling triggers with numb fingers, and plagued by dysentery that fouled their clothing, the Marines blasted the PLA [People's Liberation Army] aside and reassembled for the final breakout."
The last phase of the division's breakout was no less dramatic than the earlier stages. The Chinese had destroyed a crucial bridge at Funchilin Pass, so the division engineer officer, Lieutenant Colonel Partridge, arranged for the airdrop of Treadway bridges, which he put in place over the penstocks at Funchilin Pass and permitted the division and its tracked and wheeled vehicles to head for Hungnam. While the division wended its way down to the coast, the battalion of the 1st Marines at Chinhung-ni attacked northward into the hills above the MSR and defeated the last Chinese forces between the division and safety. One additional problem General Smith had to solve was getting rid of Maggie Higgins, the New York Herald Tribune correspondent who had somehow finagled a ride up to Koto-ri and insisted on marching out to Hungnam with the troops. Smith put his foot down and provided her with an armed escort aboard the next plane out. In her zest for getting a Pulitzer prize or at least a scoop, it never entered her mind that in going up by plane, she deprived the division of an equal weight in supplies or another rifleman, and in having to be forced out by plane, she was taking the place of a medical evacuee.
In the midst of the final stage from Koto-ri to the coast, snow fell, giving the Marines a feeling of being in a fairyland, if they could detach themselves for a split second to look at the scenery. General Bowser related that in the midst of this, he and General Smith heard some Marines in a warming tent singing the Marines' Hymn. Bowser looked at General Smith and said, "Our troubles are over. We've got it made." He continued, "the remarkable spirit of the individual at the reservoir impressed me, because if you talked to an individual Marine, he wouldn't give you a plugged nickel for his own chances as an individual to ever see daylight again, but he had no doubt whatever in his mind that the 1st Marine Division, whoever that was, would be successful and would get out.... He was sure his team was going to win. 'I haven't got a chance, but the club will come through."'
When I asked General Stewart what kept the troops' spirits up, aside from their Marine esprit d'corps, he answered, "Well, I think that all of us felt that we were part of destiny. There wasn't anyone there that didn't realize that this was a historic occasion, that we were just an eyelash away from being dismembered--that it was possible.... I've never seen such intestinal fortitude among men, and such willingness and cooperation under such dire circumstances--life was so cheap you could be walking along and a man would be hit in the head with a slug from God knows where, and this was the situation with which you were faced, and yet people buckled down with a sheer quiet determination and decided that the job would be done."
The enemy stopped chasing the division below Koto-ri, once it had passed Funchilin Pass. By the morning of December 12, the division had closed on Hungnam. Here, General Smith learned that X Corps had the idea that the 1st Marine Division, because of its amphibious background, Would be the last outfit out of Hungnam, that it would defend the final beachheads. As he later said, "...somebody saw the light of day. We had taken all the casualties of the X Corps." By December 14, 22,215 Marines were on board ships, which set a course for Pusan the next day. According to General Smith, the withdrawal from Hungnam for X Corps units was pretty orderly, although at first, the corps was "kind of stampeded and they began to burn and destroy, but when they found that we were holding up there and coming out slowly," they settled down.
At Hungnam to meet the division as it came out was the senior Marine in the Pacific, Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and his G-3, Colonel Victor H. Krulak, who would retire from the Marine Corps in 1968 as a lieutenant general himself and commander of FMFPac. Krulak recalled that "the withdrawal from the reservoir was to begin and we stayed there for that, and did what little we could, which wasn't a great deal, and then participated in the planning for the Hungnam evacuation. I will only insert here at this time a comment about Hungnam and the Hungnam evacuation. As General Shepherd will tell you [and he did in his oral history interview] we both opposed this evacuation, for the simple reason that we were not convinced that if there were a million Chinese that they could sustain themselves and chase everybody off the wonderful hill positions around Hungnam and that great port. But MacArthur's headquarters and MacArthur, too, had the wind up. They really did have the wind up. The reverses had apparently traumatized them to the point where they were unable to detach themselves. And, of course, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, too.... It just shocked me to see that there was the 'bug-out' philosophy throughout MacArthur's headquarters, throughout Almond's headquarters. I didn't see any of that in the Marines, I must say, and, in retrospect it makes me so proud. The Marines were so puzzled by the whole thing. Of course, they were exhausted, the fighting that went all the way from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri and southward took an awful lot out of them and the weather took an awful lot out of them. But except for shaking their heads and saying how tired they were there was not any essence of defeatism, and I wasn't alone on commenting that the hills and the artillery and the naval gunfire really looked good and I'd be damned if I thought that the Chinamen could chase our people off the hills. I'm sure there were some soldiers who felt the same way. But the evacuation took place and it was efficient and the sight of our burning piles of our equipment is still etched in my memory. I'll never forget it. General Shepherd and I were vocal--very much so--with MacArthur's staff.
As Millett has written, "Viewed in emotional terms--focusing on the endurance and heroism of the 1st Division's Marines--the Chosin Reservoir withdrawal remains one of those military masterpieces that occur when skill and bravery fuse to defy rational explanation. However, the campaign in retrospect dramatized the soundness of Marine training and doctrine. General Smith and his regimental commanders fought the division with patience and skill; their decisions, however, found inspiration in the battalions, where officers, NCOs, and enlisted men seldom failed to show whatever initiative, courage, and sacrifice the tactical situation demanded. The fortitude of the division's Marines awed even the hardest veterans.
No one who has studied the Chosin campaign cannot have been impressed by David Douglas Duncan's stark and graphic photographs of the Marines trudging their weary way up around the curving road to Yudam-ni, and just as wearily marching back south. One cannot forget the picture of the withdrawing Marines marching alongside a truck from which the frozen limbs of their dead comrades stuck out at awkward angles. Since landing at Wonsan, the Marines had suffered 4,418 battle casualties--718 dead, 192 missing, and 3,508 wounded. There were also 7,313 non-battle casualties, mostly cold-induced, of which a third soon returned to duty. They had fought the 20th, 27th, and 42d Chinese Communist Armies, a total of at least 13 and probably 14 divisions. The Marines estimated Chinese losses at 25,000 dead and 12,500 wounded, but these are only guesses. It is known that the Chinese suffered terribly from the cold and exposure. Their cold weather gear consisted of quilted jackets and trousers, and for footgear they wore something like sneakers. The Marines could not help but pity the poor frozen creatures they lifted like blocks of ice out of their foxholes where they awaited death.
For a period in our Corps and for as long as they lived, there was a tradition that whenever a veteran of Major Tony Waller's historic march across Samar in 1901 entered a room, one of the Marines present would say, "Stand, gentlemen! He served at Samar." Being of a traditional mind myself, I feel that today we should say, "Stand, gentlemen! He served at Chosin."
List of Topic Discussion Papers
- Colloquium on Contemporary History Project
- MacArthur and the Chinese Communist Intervention
- Invation Patrol:The Seventh Fleet in Chinese Waters
- General George E. Stratemeyer and the Air War in Korea: Fall 1950
- General Discussion