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Korean Nightmare: The Battle Of The Chosin Reservoir: Introduction

Just outside Quantico, Virginia the National Museum of the Marine Corps sits amid rolling hills off Route 95. Among its many exhibits tracing the history of the Corps is a depiction of several Marines hunkered down in the snows of North Korea overlooking the 4,000-foot high Toktong Pass near the Chosin Reservoir. The thermostat is kept at a meat locker temperature. The curators of the museum try to convey to the visitor something of what it was like to fight a determined enemy that outnumbered you ten-to-one while struggling just to survive the cruel sub-zero colds of the Asian mountains.

In late November through December 1950, 12,000 Marines of the First U.S. Marine Division and 2,500 G.I.s in a regimental combat team of the Army’s 7th Division faced just such a challenge as over 70,000 Chinese infantrymen mercilessly attacked them in the hills and gullies around the frozen man-made lake. As the Winter Olympics have concluded in PyeongChang, the chatter in the media has been the joining of North and South Korea for at least a symbolic re-unification that merely belies the deep division of the country between the prosperous South and starving slave-state North. One looks at the portly Kim Jong Un, poised to possibly meet with President Trump in May, and wonders how such a cruel despot could hold the lives of 23 million tortured, malnourished, terrorized souls in his hands.

It’s a tragic tale of the 20th Century that didn’t have to be. By late autumn 1950, it seemed as if communism’s murderous grasp over the suffering people of North Korea had been broken. The United Nations forces deployed to beat back the North’s June 25, 1950 surprise attack into the South, launched by Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, had cleared out the southern half of the peninsula, sent Kim’s army reeling in headlong retreat, and moved north across the border at the 38th parallel. By November they were approaching the Yalu River which marked the frontier with communist China. Had they been allowed to unify the peninsula under democratic, Western-style rule, millions of those now languishing in the butcher of Pyonyang’s prison state today would be living under the sunlight of prosperity and freedom.

But China’s premier, Mao Zedong, had other plans.

Watching with growing concern as U.N. columns marched northward and ever closer to the Yalu, the Chinese dictator sent his elements of his own People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) across the river from Manchuria into the North Korean hinterland to blunt their unsuspecting enemy’s approach. In the bitter cold of late November, massed waves of as many as 300,000 Chinese “volunteers” poured out of the mountains to hit the U.N. forces with devastating force, intent on hurling them back into the south from whence they’d so confidently advanced. The fighting was fierce across the entire Korean peninsula . . . but perhaps nowhere more so than in the rugged, barren mountains in the northeast that ran along the Chosin Reservoir. This section was occupied by the vanguard of the UN X Corps, whose primary fighting force in this section of the front was the 12,000-strong First Marine Division, the Corps’ oldest and most decorated unit. Mao had specially targeted these Americans as they were his foe’s most elite fighting unit. As for these veterans of Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Okinawa in the Second World War barely a half-decade before, he wanted to make a statement to the U.N. and the world; he didn’t just want the First Division pushed back, rather he gave explicit instructions that his army should “encircle and exterminate the Marines.” As such, Mao hit this single division with over 70,000 infantrymen, seven PVA divisions in all.

The struggle of the First Marine Division and its accompanying Army unit to extricate themselves from Mao’s clutches and pull out of what would be forever remembered as the “Frozen Chosin” is one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of warfare. It also serves as a grim reminder that the pageantry, the pomp, the friendly competition of the Olympics that could only happen in a free and prosperous South Korea took place today because, as the old saying goes, rough men — including some very rough Marines — stood ready to do violence on their behalf. They would endure two weeks of intense combat and exhausting marches in the excruciating arctic cold, gale force winds, and ripping snows, out in the open, without sleep and little food, while suffering frostbite and horrible wounds, even death itself, so that those in the south could live the lives we saw displayed before us in PyeongChang. At this time, especially considering the gullible media’s sugary treatment re: the despot of the North — a free press whose wrath seems more reserved for President Trump than the mass murderers who oppose him — it is worth remembering those who fought to keep the south free of the Kim family’s despotism. Some military historians argue that the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir was in many ways the most desperate and horrific battle in which United States armed forces have ever fought, given the overwhelming odds and unimaginable cold. It is also one of the least famous; the Marines and G.I.s who fought there deserve to be remembered.

This is their story.

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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