On December 1, after four days and nights of fighting, the main body of Marines began their breakout from Yudam-ni south along the winding road to Hagaru. Throughout the battle, the Americans had one clear advantage over the enemy. Said Marine John Parkinson: “If the sun come out, it brought the planes. No sun, no planes. And when there was no planes the Chinese were all over us.” Gull-winged Corsairs and boxy Skyraider fighter-bomber aircraft were quick to answer calls from spotters on the ground. They swooped in at tree-top level to mercilessly strafe, rocket, and napalm the Chinese trying to stop the Marines from reaching Hagaru. “We had multiple missions almost every day,” remembered Marine pilot Lyle Bradley. “You really had to be on your toes; mountain peaks were all over the place. Plus, the fact that we had some very bad weather. We did so much close air support. And close is really close!” They flew non-stop support missions from first light to dusk when the weather permitted, and the Marines on the ground like Martin Overholt marveled at their skill and courage. “Occasionally they were so low that you could actually see the face of the pilot through the cockpit window…Amazing the courage those guys had coming down like that.” Supplies were dropped constantly up and down the line, keeping the Marines supplied while the brave fighter pilots kept the Chinese at bay and kept the escape route to Hagaru open.
The fight south was a rolling action, in which the Marines executed that most difficult of combat maneuvers, a fighting withdrawal. The operation required perfect timing with air and artillery, the movement of the wounded at just the right moment, and unwavering unit discipline, to be carried out successfully and avoid a massacre. Rifle squads would fan up into the hills to beat back the Chinese as the regimental train passed and the combat was continuous. Said Marine Bill Mills: “We were going up hills and down hills because the enemy was all around us and you could hear firefights going on all over the place.” Planes zoomed overhead, tanks and artillery fired their explosive rounds at the Chinese harassing them from the hillsides, and the long line of Marines and their vehicles kept moving south. When a man was hit, he’d be loaded into a truck or, if killed, his body, which quickly froze like cordwood into the gruesome pose in which he’d died, was either tied to a vehicle or dragged like a sled along the snows as the Marine Corps tradition dictated they not leave their dead behind whenever feasible.
To their relief, the moving column found the crucial Toktong Pass still open and in possession of the gallant Fox Company under Captain William Barber. In its five-day ordeal to defend the critical passage through the mountains, Barber himself had been wounded and of his original 240-man detachment only 82 remained fit to fight. But Fox counted over 2,000 Chinese bodies all around them, giving mute evidence of the ferocity of their defense. (The taciturn Barber, an already decorated Iwo Jima veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the pass, dismissed the obvious comparison of the Fox Company at Toktong to the Spartans at Thermopylae, but it was not a far-fetched analogy). In the end, the Marine column managed to maintain unit integrity and fight their way through to Hagaru. By the time they reached Smith’s base of operations, the main body of Marines had blasted through roadblocks thrown up almost every mile along the MSR by the Chinese and engaged several enemy divisions, inflicting crippling losses upon their tormentors. The vanguard of the convoy passed through the lines into Hagaru at about 7:00 p.m. on December 2, six days to the hour of the first Chinese attacks.
In a memorable demonstration of esprit de corps, as the weary Marines approached the first checkpoints into Hagaru someone in the column called out “Count Cadence Count!” The shuffle of exhausted men gelled into the unified crunch-crunch-crunch of boots marching in lockstep on the snow. Then as they moved into the base they began to sing the Marine Corps Hymn. “Will you look at those bastards! Those magnificent bastards!” one observer at Hagaru shouted in greeting. Some of the Yudam-ni veterans were met with warm cups of coffee and graham crackers handed them by their comrades who’d held the key crossroads village and airstrip.
With the First Marine Division and what was left of the Army unit now consolidated at Hagaru, it was time for Smith to plan his breakout to the coast. When pressed by one of the correspondents present that retreating was not a familiar operation for Marines, Smith replied: “Retreat? Hell, we’re just advancing in another direction!” This wasn’t just bravado. There was no front and rear. His men were surrounded on all sides. Thus any movement was an attack. Still, one reporter doubted whether Smith’s steely words were masking a foreboding. “As I looked at the battered men,” she wrote, “I wondered if they could possibly have the strength to make this final punch.” As the Marines prepared to evacuate Hagaru, destroying stores and equipment that couldn’t fit on the trucks, the lead elements were already running the next gauntlet on the road to Kot’o-Ri.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here:
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