It was Thanksgiving 1950 at North
Korea's Chosin Reservoir, and nighttime
temperatures plunged to 30 degrees below zero. The
ground was frozen solid. Night fell at 4:30 p.m., and
light did not return for nearly 16 hours. This was an
inhospitable place, even for the battle-tested men of
the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 7th Infantry
Division, some of whom had fought through the worst of
World War II.
Five months earlier, on June 25, the
North Korean People's Army (NKPA) invaded South
Korea, shattering the five-year-old peace. President
Truman's response was swift and decisive, as was
that of the newly formed United Nations. U.S. air and
sea assets were committed immediately, and ground
troops were committed June 30. Army Gen. Douglas
MacArthur was put in charge of the U.N. Command, which
included combat and medical units from 22
At first, the NKPA moved down the
Korean Peninsula with relative ease. But on Sept. 15,
MacArthur launched his brilliant amphibious landing of
X Corps at Inch'on, deep behind enemy lines. The
landing of the 1st Marine Division opened the door for
an allied victory. The Army's 7th Infantry Division
came ashore and fought beside the Marines to recapture
Seoul. Within weeks, the North Koreans were pushed back
across the 38th parallel.
American and U.N. leadership, civilian and military
alike, decided to keep fighting all the way to the Yalu
River, North Korea's border with China, intending
to destroy the NKPA and unify the two Koreas under
South Korean President Syngman Rhee. The allies were on
the offensive, and most believed they would be home by
Christmas. But Chinese leaders, with a large standing
army, warned more than once they would intervene if
U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel.
The U.S. military was not ready for a ground war. After
World War II and the debut of the atomic bomb, the Army
and Marine Corps were rapidly demobilized. Equipment
budgets were slashed. In its new role as a peacekeeping
force, the Army of June 1950 was ill-equipped,
understrength, and poorly trained. The Marine Corps,
suffering a similar lack of resources, had continued to
train for combat.
As the Marine
Corps and Army prepared to cross the 38th parallel,
MacArthur ordered Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker's
Eighth U.S. Army up the west side of the peninsula.
MacArthur divided X Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen.
Edward M. Almond, landing the 1st Marine Division
(under Maj. Gen. O.P. Smith) at Wonsan on Oct. 26 and
the Army's 7th Infantry Division (commanded by Maj.
Gen. David G. Barr) at Iwon on Oct. 29. The Army's
7th Infantry Division was least prepared for war. It
had been stripped of many experienced officers and NCOS
to fill the three divisions that first deployed to
changed many times, the plan was for the Marines to
attack from Yudam-ni at the Chosin Reservoir, moving
north and west, and ultimately meet the Eighth U.S.
Army and cut off the NKPA in a pincer movement. The
31st Regimental Combat Team (RCT), composed of elements
of the 7th Division, would attack northward along the
east side of the Chosin. The 3rd Infantry Division
(under Maj. Gen. Robert H. Soule) would hold the areas
of Wonson and Hungnam and keep the roads
would not have communication with one another — X
Corps and Eighth U.S. Army had a mountain range between
them, while the reservoir separated the Marines from
the 31st RCT. MacArthur's commanders were outraged
that the forces were divided — and therefore
vulnerable — but their protests accomplished
As the allied forces moved north, the Chinese first hit
them in early November. Aerial reconnaissance pilots
reported Chinese forces massing on the Yalu, and by
mid-November, Chinese strength at the Yalu was
estimated at 300,000, but MacArthur discounted these
battles were intense but brief; the Chinese retreated
into the hills as quickly as they appeared. The Chinese
Communist Forces' (CCF's) first offensive
tested allied capability and put the Eighth U.S. Army
and X Corps in check until the Chinese were ready for a
more massive engagement. This tactic of pulling back
lured the Americans deeper into enemy territory. Time
was on China's side: While American units moved
through North Korea, a pleasant October autumn became
an early, bitterly cold winter.
Uneasy about the
Chinese threat, Smith moved the 1st Marine Division
north carefully, keeping his units close together to
avoid being separated. He stockpiled supplies and
ammunition and stationed units along the division's
main supply route (MSR) to keep it open. In all but
ignoring MacArthur's order for speed, Smith
Col. Lewis B.
"Chesty" Puller, commander of the 1st
Marines, would hold the MSR. His 1st Battalion held
Chinhung-ni at the base of the Fuchilin Pass; the 2nd
Battalion was with Puller at Koto-ri, 11 miles up the
road; the 3rd Battalion would support Smith's
headquarters at Hagaru-ri, at the base of the
RCT, East of Chosin
On the east side of the reservoir, the 5th Marines
(under Lt. Col. Raymond L. Murray) protected the
Marines' right flank until they were relieved by
Army Lt. Col. Don Faith's 1st Battalion, 32nd
Infantry. Before moving toward Yudam-ni to join the 7th
Marines, Murray warned Faith about the enemy presence
and advised him to keep his forces tight.
By Nov. 27, more
elements of the 31st RCT, commanded by Army Col. Alan
D. MacLean, arrived east of the reservoir. The 31st RCT
was hastily thrown together — composed of
whichever units could move to replace the 5th Marines
soonest. These included the 1st Battalion of the 32nd
Infantry, the 3rd Battalion of the 31st Infantry, the
57th Field Artillery Battalion, and the 31st Tank
Company. The 2nd Battalion, 31st Infantry never made it
to the reservoir.
Faith moved his
men far forward to occupy the area left by the 5th
Marines — an area too large for one battalion.
The remainder of the 31st RCT set up a second perimeter
to the south. Again, forces were divided with an enemy
threat present. The perimeters were loose, but MacLean
planned to attack first thing in the morning. Few
seemed worried about the dangerous situation for one
night; men of the 31st RCT later said they didn't
believe the warnings about the Chinese.
continued north from Koto-ri and established his
command post at Hagaru-ri. He ordered airstrips
scratched from the frozen earth there and at Koto-ri.
His solid protection of the MSR and the airstrips would
prove crucial to the breakout of the Marines and
Over in the west,
unknown to X Corps, a massive force of 18 Chinese
divisions had attacked the Eighth U.S. Army on Nov. 25
and nearly destroyed it. Within two days it was in full
retreat, but for the moment, MacArthur kept his
commanders in the east in the dark.
by the Chinese
On Nov. 27, the reunited 5th and 7th Marine Regiments
began their attack north from Yudam-ni. They quickly
ran into enemy resistance. The 7th Marines commander,
Col. Homer L. Litzenburg Jr., sent Fox 2/7 to hold the
high ground at Toktong Pass. The subsequent success of
the fighting withdrawal depended on the tenacity of the
young company commander, Marine Capt. William Barber,
and his men holding this crucial piece of
That night, as
temperatures plunged well below zero in the rugged
mountains of North Korea, three Chinese divisions
sounded horns, whistles, and bugles and attacked the
5th and 7th Marine regiments at the reservoir.
Smith's worst fears became reality. That same
night, MacLean's men were jarred awake by more
noisemakers as two Chinese divisions breached their
perimeter. With all other officers in the area dead or
wounded, Marine Capt. Ed Stamford, a World War II
veteran and pilot attached to Faith with a team of four
Marines as his tactical air control party, took command
of A Company. Though not an infantryman, he rallied the
company to repel the attack.
got reports of the ferocious Chinese assault, he
decided on Nov. 29 that X Corps would withdraw to
Hungnam while the weakened Eighth U.S. Army would try
to hold P'yongyang. His late call proved fatal, and
during the next two weeks, Marines and soldiers fought
day and night to break out of the trap the Chinese had
surrounded everybody — the 11th Marines, the
division's artillery, and the 5th and 7th Marines
at Yudam-ni; Fox Company at Toktong Pass; Smith and his
men at Hagaru-ri; Puller at Koto-ri; and the 31st RCT
east of Chosin. They attacked late at night and
retreated to the mountains during the day when deadly
American close-air support was on the scene. Forward
air controllers like Stamford would direct these
attacks with barely functioning radios. X Corps might
have been lost but for Navy, Marine Corps, and Air
Force pilots performing bombing runs, close-air
support, supply and ammunition drops, and the
evacuation of thousands of wounded.
The 31st RCT
continued to take heavy fire, and casualties mounted.
The unbearable cold and frostbite took its toll.
MacLean was injured, captured, and later reported dead;
Faith was in charge. Though he was a World War II
veteran with no combat experience, his men describe him
today as a charismatic leader who worked hard to get
everyone out alive.
After four nights and five days of mounting casualties
with no relief or rescue in sight, Faith decided the
31st RCT would fight its way out. He radioed Smith at
Hagaru-ri and asked for support. MacArthur and Barr
also had talked to Smith about sending a team to rescue
the 31st RCT (which had become known as Task Force
Faith). But Smith's situation was not much better.
Under constant enemy attack, he had everyone —
including cooks and engineers — on the line
holding the perimeter. Diverting support to the east
would probably spell the loss of Hagaru-ri, which in
turn would mean the end of the 5th and 7th Marines.
Faith was on his own.
was to move out as soon as air support was available
Dec. 1. Clouds kept the unit in place until around 1
p.m., leaving less than four hours of daylight. The
breakout moved quickly at first, then came under heavy
fire and hit enemy roadblocks. Young officers pulled
even younger soldiers together to continue the fight.
NCOs like Cpl. George Pryor (the units were so jumbled
up, the men thought he was a captain) rallied soldiers
looking for leaders. It was the only way they would get
control were lost, and Task Force Faith was fighting
its way out in small pieces. Lending to the confusion,
communication was by voice only — Stamford had
the only working radio, and his was feverishly calling
for air strikes and support. Ammo was low. Pilots tried
to resupply the column, but some air drops drifted over
to the enemy. Bullets rained down on the column.
Soldiers took cover and returned fire as best they
could, but they were surrounded. Stamford continued to
call in air strikes, with the enemy so close that some
Americans were hit by napalm.
After about 4
miles, the column halted. The lead drivers were dead.
Faith lay in a jeep dying, and his task force died with
him. Organization broke down, and it was every man for
himself. The enemy continued to close and kept firing.
Officers and soldiers grabbed what wounded they could
and fought their way out of what had become a death
trap. Some played dead and escaped later. Those who did
not get out were killed or captured.
Many who made it out headed across the frozen,
unprotected Chosin Reservoir. Over the next several
days, hundreds walked, crawled, or were dragged across
the ice to the Marines' perimeter 4 1/2 miles away
at Hagaru-ri. A group of Marine volunteers and a Navy
hospital corpsman led by Marine 1st Motor Transport
Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Olin Beall spent several
days out on the ice; they brought in about 320 soldiers
in two days.
Some members of Task Force Faith made it to Hagaru-ri
on their own. One survivor, 1st Lt. John Gray,
remembers a vigilant and suspicious Marine at the
perimeter asking him for the password. After days of
combat on the other side of the reservoir, who knew?
The sergeant then asked Gray the location of several
cities such as Dubuque, Des Moines, and Sioux City.
Luckily, Gray knew his geography, and he and his men
were welcomed into the perimeter.
A total of about
1,050 of 31st RCT's 2,500 had survived. About 385
were considered able-bodied and fought at Hagaru-ri and
all the way to the sea. Barr, devastated by the loss of
his men, was relieved of command shortly after Chosin.
Many Army veterans believe that if the 31st RCT had not
held and engaged two Chinese divisions for nearly five
days, those fresh enemy units could have been deployed
against the Marines at Hagaru-ri — potentially
disastrous for the 1st Marine Division. This is
disputed by Marines.
Meanwhile, Smith had heard about MacArthur's order
to withdraw on Nov. 30 and reportedly huffed, "It
took them two days to decide this." He ordered his
5th and 7th Marines to pull back to Hagaru-ri. This
would not be easy: They were still surrounded at
Yudam-ni, and the MSR was interrupted and full of enemy
A reporter with
Smith in Hagaru-ri labeled the Marine operation a
retreat. Smith patiently explained that because they
were surrounded and there was no rear,
"retreat" was inaccurate: They would have to
fight their way out. People back home read,
"Retreat, hell, we're just attacking in
another direction." Though not in Smith's
style, this was the perfect description of the
Marines' problem and their solution, and he never
denied the quote.
also wanted time with the legendary Puller, who obliged
with a highly quotable assessment of the situation:
"We've been looking for the enemy for several
days now. We finally found them. We're surrounded.
That simplifies our problem of finding these people and
Back at Yudam-ni,
Murray and Litzenburg decided to move by road during
the day. Daylight gave them the advantage of air and
artillery support. During the days and nights of
battle, Barber and his company were alone (except for
the enemy) at Toktong Pass. For the movement south, the
pass had to be held, and Marine Lt. Col. Raymond G.
Davis' 1st Battalion, 7th Marines was going to
relieve Barber and secure it.
Davis and his men
were the first unit out of Yudam-ni. They traveled over
the rough, steep terrain in dark, bitter cold —
something the Chinese would not expect — and made
it undetected by the enemy. Davis found that Barber and
his men had held for five days despite relentless
attacks. Casualties were high: Of 200 men, 26 had been
killed, 89 wounded, and three were missing. Air drops
of ammo proved invaluable.
men secured Toktong Pass, the 5th and 7th fought their
way to Hagaru-ri. It took them 79 hours to travel 14
miles carrying the wounded and most of their equipment,
but on Dec. 3, they entered the Hagaru-ri perimeter.
Prisoner-of-war (POW) interrogations — extremely
reliable at this point in the war — indicated at
least seven CCF divisions near Hagaru-ri. The Chinese
knew its strategic location was key to Marine Corps
success breaking out.
Hagaru-ri, the 5th, 7th, and other units rested,
regrouped, and prepared for their next move, south to
Koto-ri. Air Force C-46s and C-47s and other U.N.
aircraft began evacuation of about 4,300 wounded and
frostbite victims. Smith gave the dead priority, which
again outraged Almond, though Smith was adamant that
fallen Marines held a special place and would be flown
out first. About 140 were flown to Japan, while more
than 500 replacement combat Marines were flown
On Dec. 6, the men at Hagaru-ri began their 9-mile,
38-hour fight to Koto-ri. Despite CCF control of the
road and many roadblocks, the lead units moved through
and kept the road open for Hagaru-ri's rear guard.
About 10,000 men and 1,000 vehicles reached the
relative safety of Koto-ri. Once within the Koto-ri
perimeter, most of the 1st Marine Division again was
reunited. More wounded were evacuated from the Koto-ri
airstrip, and X Corps prepared for the 43-mile fight to
revealed that Fuchilin Pass would be the site of a
major enemy attack. A CCF division lay in wait, three
other CCF divisions were in the area, and another two
were held in reserve. Lt. Col. Donald M. Schmuck's
1st Battalion, 1st Marines holding Chinhung-ni was
rested and ready to go. On the snowy night of Dec. 8,
they surprised the Chinese.
Fuchilin Pass was
the enemy's last major offensive during the Chosin
campaign. The CCF had overextended its supply lines,
and its soldiers were suffering from the cold and lack
of food. The enemy would continue to launch minor
assaults, but they were minimal compared to the force
with which the CCF struck at the reservoir.
Smith and his men
reached Hungnam on Dec. 11, and by Dec. 15, Navy ships
transported them south. Smith's insight and
careful, deliberate style made him the ideal commanding
general for Chosin. He was fortunate to have talented,
experienced leadership from Puller, Murray, Litzenburg,
Davis, and others. While his men fought together like a
machine, it was his uncommon understanding of the
situation — and a certain amount of luck —
that ensured the story of Chosin Reservoir would become
part of American military
Gina DiNicolo is
a retired Marine Corps officer and a 1984 graduate of
the U.S. Naval Academy. Currently, she writes and edits
for the 50th Anniversary of the Korean War
Commemoration Committee. For additional information
about events related to the Korean War anniversary,
visit TROA's links page, www.troa.org/magazine/links.asp.