In the nine days since the battle began, the temperature during the day rarely rose above zero Fahrenheit even when the sun was out, and at night it plunged to sometimes minus thirty below. Frostbite was just as deadly an enemy for the Marines as the Chinese. In particular the felt inner soles of their rubber boots would soak up perspiration and then freeze, encasing feet in ice. Yet, the one thing about fighting in such brutal weather—arguably the most hostile natural conditions in which U.S. troops have ever fought—was that the cold didn’t choose sides. As Chinese prisoners began to come in, it became apparent to the Marines that as bad as they were suffering, the Chinese had it even worse. Poorly clad with quilted uniforms and canvass sneakers, malnourished, and with little medical care, the PVA lost a significant number of men to the cold and starvation as well as the Americans. Chinese troops would limp into the Marine lines with no ears or noses, their hands and feet like blackened clubs of ice from frostbite, prompting in their captors feelings of pity to replace the antipathy of combat. Said Marine Juan Bezella, “To this day if I were to meet a Chinese soldier who was there I’d hug him like a brother. Because I know he suffered the same thing I did.”
The attack south began on December 7. Though enemy strength had been reduced by the killing efficiency of their Marine adversaries and their ubiquitous close-air support. as well as the cruel elements, they nevertheless made a final effort to destroy the Marines as they made their way from Hagaru to Koto-Ri. A Marine remembered: “There were Chinese all over the side of the mountain.” By this time, it is credibly believed that in their fight with the Marines, Mao’s army had lost half its strength killed or wounded; over three divisions wiped out. Yet the dictator in Beijing insisted his depleted forces continue the attack. But by the time Smith’s command reached Kot’o-Ri, the PVA were unable to mount any serious resistance beyond harassment. Aircraft screamed down to make quick work of any massed Chinese assaults on the road by daylight, and at night the relentless cold made it difficult to even think clearly, let alone launch an effective attack. Still the fighting in the hills took its toll of Marine killed and wounded as they moved through an area they called Hellfire Valley.
And now another potentially fatal obstacle lay before the beleaguered Marines.
Though spent as a coherent fighting force, this did not mean the Chinese were idle. About two miles south of Kot’o-Ri, the PVA had blown a bridge over a deep gorge called Funchilin Pass. There was no getting around the 25-foot-wide cavern without abandoning all their vehicles, armor, and worse, the wounded. To add to their suffering, the most severe weather yet assailed the combatants in the form of a howling blizzard and temperatures some who were there insisted fell to fifty below.
Another complicating factor that had been with the Marines since they first pulled out of Yudam-Ni and only became more of an issue at Kot’o-Ri was a steadily swelling stream of suffering Korean refugees, their homes destroyed by U.S. planes and artillery and their food stores ransacked by starving Chinese, trailing the column. Estimates vary, but it is possible that as many as 90,000 civilians who survived their harrowing ordeal managed to follow the X Corps out of the war zone to be evacuated along with the U.N. troops out of Hungnam and presumably to a better life in the south.
For three days the huddled Marines anxiously held their ground against encroaching Chinese at Kot’o-Ri while in a remarkable stroke of ingenuity the Air Force parachuted down a treadway bridge in eight 2,500-pound sections that were then hauled into place and assembled by engineers. Such a feat had never been attempted before and no one was sure if the bridge would hold. But when the first trucks hobbled safely across the make-shift span, the First Marine Division’s escape was assured. After two days of steady crossing, on December 11, exactly two weeks to the day of Mao’s surprise attack, the last Marine crossed the bridge over the Funchilin Pass as the vanguard was making its way out of the mountains into the flatter coastal terrain and balmy thirty-degree temperatures.
Between December 15-24, 100,000 UN troops, Marines, G.I.s, ROK, and other UN contingents would be evacuated from the port of Hungnam. Many would soon be back in action at the new front lines that would stabilize in January, 50 miles south of Seoul. Under tactical command of the indefatigable General Matthew Ridgeway, the U.N. commenced a grinding counterattack northward, recapturing Seoul for the second time in four months and pushing the weakened Chinese back until a deadly stalemate settled in for the next two years along the line that today that mimics the 38th Parallel to form the DMZ between the two still divided Koreas.
The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir was over. Despite the most dire predictions, the First Marine Division escaped Mao’s clutches and, true to MacArthur’s prophecy, inflicted on their Chinese attackers a great slaughter. Given the cloistered nature of 1950s communist China it is impossible to know an exact count of the dead and wounded, but it is generally accepted that the of the twelve Chinese divisions eventually thrown into the fight against X Corps, they suffered between 20,000 to 35,000 battle casualties and another 20,000 non-battle losses. U.S. sources are more precise, and they paint a picture of incredible bravery and suffering. Some 1,000 X Corps personnel were KIA, roughly 4,500 wounded, 4,800 missing, most becoming POWs, and another 7,300 were non-battle casualties. (4,300 casualties were Marines). The combined 27,000+ combatants who were victims of the elements rather than the enemy offers a stark testament to the severity of the weather conditions in which both sides had to make war.
Looking back, it is remarkable that the Marines were not wiped out to a man, as per Mao’s orders. There are many factors that contributed to their survival: the discipline and fighting skill of the leathernecks, the airstrip that ensured a constant stream of supplies and evacuation of wounded, the weather that laid waste to more of the enemy than themselves, heavier firepower, especially artillery, and, of course, the protective umbrella of aggressive air support. But one other advantage the Marines has not been given its proper due in the history books…that was the striking leadership of O.P. Smith himself, and his willingness to ignore the admonitions of his superior, Almond, the latter of whom got everything wrong in that campaign. Against Almond’s advice, Smith had moved his men slowly north and then south to keep them in contact with each other; he saw reality and immediately went to the defensive when the Chinese attacked, and he’d hacked out the airstrip at Hagaru, and another at Kot’o-Ri, that became a lifeline…when Almond asked him why he was wasting time building airstrips, Smith told him to ferry out the wounded so they wouldn’t have to truck them out and bog down the column. Almond scoffed, saying there wouldn’t be any wounded. When all looked hopeless, Almond had offered to evacuate as many Marines as he could by air and leave the rest to their fate. But Smith insisted: “We’re either coming out of here as Marines or not at all. That means with all our equipment, our wounded, and our dead.” One military historian called Smith’s performance at Chosin “perhaps the most brilliant divisional feat of arms in American history.”
One can only wonder at the course of the Korean War had the First Marines been wiped out. Probably one of two drastic courses would have been set. Either the U.N. would have withdrawn completely from the peninsula, or, even more ominously, the demands of MacArthur, Air Force Commander Curtis LeMay, and others to deploy tactical nuclear weapons against the Chinese would have been seriously considered. Either response would have been disastrous for the region and the world. Thanks to Smith more than any other single military man in the field those crucial days, such options were never on the table.
The Chinese counter-attack in November-December 1950 would have a profound impact on geopolitics going forward. It was, in a way, the coming out of the new and powerful Chinese nation, not as a USSR vassal state, but its own emerging communist power. The effect on U.S. military policy was galvanizing. Before Korea, the U.S. had let its military slip into pre-World War II levels of unpreparedness, believing that, as MacArthur said on the deck of the Missouri after accepting Japan’s surrender, that nuclear weapons made war obsolete and “a better world shall emerge from the blood and carnage of the past.” Clearly the communists showed this to be wishful thinking. The decision to defend Korea, first at Pusan and especially after the Chinese intervention, ushered in a new era of American militarization that would have Eisenhower warn in 1960 about the growing “military-industrial complex.” Also, it imbedded in the minds of foreign policy wonks and anti-communist hawks the embryo of what would become the “domino theory,” offering that if one nation fell to communism, the surrounding nations in a region would likewise succumb. The culmination of this idea would be set in motion when Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam in 1965; as they say, the rest is history.
But for the men of the First Marine Division who fought their way out of what looked like certain annihilation during those desperate weeks in the sub-artic wastes of North Korea, these were matters to be considered in another time and place. As they loaded transports to take them to the waiting U.S. ships in the waters off Hungnam, an operation the shattered Chinese lacked the strength to effectively contest, they could look back to the mountains in the distance and marvel at what they’d endured. It may have been a strategic defeat in the sense that they were forced to cede ground to the enemy and “advance in another direction” before they were destroyed. MacArthur’s “Home-By-Christmas-Offensive” had been stopped cold and Korea tragically remains divided to this day, having come so close to the unity that for all the Olympic posturing is still just wishful thinking. But given the mission of their attackers to surround and wipe out the impertinent Marines, the First Division’s defiant stand and then break-out at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir would go down in Marine Corps lore as perhaps their finest hour.
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