A Frozen Nightmare: The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir
For 30,000 American and United Nations troops at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea during the winter of 1950, the subzero temperatures they faced were the least of their troubles. Lured into a trap and surrounded by approximately 120,000 communist Chinese soldiers, those who found themselves here were cast into a frigid nightmare where the very limits of human endurance were pushed beyond comprehension. The hour was dark, but through the fighting spirit of the First Marine Division, the Army's 31st Regimental Combat Team (7th Infantry Division), and other U.N. forces, including the Republic of Korea I Corps, the Americans and their allies escaped annihilation, breaking out of Chosin after two agonizing weeks of relentless combat. For the Marines, Chosin earned the distinction as “The Corps’ Finest Hour.” For all of those who experienced the greatest battle of the Korean War, they would forever be remembered as the “Chosin Few."
Five years after the conclusion of the bloodiest conflict in human history, the world held its breath once again as the rapidly intensifying Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a flashpoint. Following the Second World War, the Korean Peninsula had been divided along the 38th Parallel, with the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Korea to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south, which was supported by the U.S. With the ultimate goal of uniting all of Korea under his government, the communist leader of the north, Kim Il Sung, sent his Soviet-equipped army across the 38th Parallel in an invasion of the south on Sunday, June 25, 1950. Woefully unprepared to handle the North Korean People’s Army, South Korean forces and the few American troops on the ground were overwhelmed, leading to the rapid fall of the capital of Seoul.
South Korean soldiers at the 38th Parallel in 1950. (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense/Encyclopædia Britannica)
The outbreak of the Korean War was a reflection of the global wide struggle between democracy and communism. Recognizing that if Korea fell, those under the influence of the Soviet Union would “keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another,” U.S. President Harry Truman knew that a statement had to be made and that North Korea’s invasion must be met with force. As he told his secretary of state, “we’ve got to stop those son’s-of-bitches no matter what.” General Douglas MacArthur was thus placed in command of American and United Nations forces. It was up to the legendary World War II hero to save South Korea.
South Korea’s chances of survival looked very grim at the beginning of the war. Driven all the way down to the southernmost tip of the country at Pusan, historian Volker Janssen records that by early August, “U.S. forces held no more than 10 percent of the Korean peninsula.” The situation was desperate, but General MacArthur completely turned the war around by launching an amphibious invasion at Inchon, Seoul’s port city, on Friday, September 15, 1950. This move put MacArthur’s forces behind the North Koreans, allowing his troops to cutoff the invaders, retake Seoul, and begin driving the enemy back across the 38th Parallel.
General MacArthur directing the amphibious invasion at Inchon on September 15, 1950. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With momentum on his side and the North Koreans on the run, historian Winston Groom writes that MacArthur was determined “not to simply drive the North Koreans beyond the 38th parallel but to destroy their army and reunite the two Koreas as a democracy.” Although Communist China warned that they would enter the war if the United States crossed the 38th parallel, MacArthur pressed forward, crossing into North Korea in early October and capturing its capital of Pyongyang on the 19th. With his forces advancing toward the Yalu River and the border of China by the end of November, it seemed to many that the war was all but won. MacArthur even told the press that “the boys will be home by Christmas.” High up in the snow-covered mountains of North Korea, American troops ate their frigid Thanksgiving meals and clung to their commander’s words about returning home soon. Victory was in sight … or so they thought.
General MacArthur had been confident that Communist China would not intervene in Korea, but he was proven horribly wrong. With Americans pressing upon his border, Communist China’s leader Mao Tse-Tung sent 300,000 soldiers of the People’s Volunteer Army into North Korea. Around 120,000 of those troops were sent toward the Chosin River Valley. According to Janssen, “With highly disciplined nighttime-only marches, these forces evaded detection….” As historian Hampton Sides adds, the Chinese “would literally strap themselves to trees and nap during the day so that they couldn’t be seen.” As MacArthur’s forces traveled along a single mountainous road that led up to the Chosin Reservoir, they were being lured right into the clutches of the enemy. As U.S. Marine Robert Whited recalled, “When we were aboard trucks going up there, things were looking a little strange. You…could see these freshly dug bunkers along the sides of the hills… Turns out, the Chinese were there all along.”
American tanks moving along the perilous mountainous road leading up to the Chosin Reservoir. (Photo Credit: PBS/National Archives)
On Monday, November 27, 1950, the Chinese sprang their trap at Chosin, attacking with all of their might. Warren Weidhahn was one of the young Marines who found himself caught in the middle of the mayhem and recalled, “We heard bugles and whistles, and the Chinese came pouring over the mountains in front of us – thousands firing and shooting, coming down the valley towards us.” As Whited remembered, “They came rushing up over the hills, they ran right through us. The first [Chinese soldier] that I hit, I hit him six times with my carbine, and the guy ran right past me.” Put simply, “Their job was to annihilate us,” said Weidhahn.
The Chinese were indeed bent on completely destroying the enemy and nearly succeeded. U.S. Marines, Army infantrymen, and their U.N. allies were quickly surrounded and forced to fight for their lives in unimaginably harsh terrain while enduring bone-chilling cold. “People can’t imagine 40, 50 below zero. Everything froze. Vehicles froze, rifles froze, people froze. If you got wounded, you couldn’t walk, you froze to death.” To offset the American advantage in airpower, the Chinese took cover in the hills by day and launched their fiercest efforts by night. According to Weidhahn, “as soon as it got dark, they attacked, and en masse right into the lines - hand-to-hand fighting.”
U.S. Marines in combat during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. (Photo Credit: Marine Corps History Division)
Despite the intensity of the Chinese onslaught, the Marines on the west side of Chosin and the soldiers of Regimental Combat Team 31 on the eastern side of the reservoir valiantly stood tall and fought on. “Survival is probably the strongest of our instincts,” said Weidhahn, “and we all just did what we had to do to survive.” In order to avoid annihilation, it was clear that the forces at Chosin must withdraw and break out to the sea. Retreat, however, is not a word that is easily found within the vocabulary of men like Oliver P. Smith, who was the commanding general of the First Marine Division. When asked if he was retreating, Smith replied, “Retreat? Hell, we’re just advancing in another direction.”
With elements of the First Marine Division and Regimental Combat Team 31 leading the way and helping to bear the brunt of the enemy’s attacks, U.S. and U.N. troops ultimately broke out of Chosin. To reach the rescue point at the Port of Hamhung, North Korea, they had to march 70 harrowing miles, passing down a winding, icy mountain road, where some points were so narrow that only a single vehicle could pass at a time. During the daring escape, the Americans and their allies were constantly fired upon by the enemy. The Chinese even managed to destroy a vital bridge over a mountain gorge that cutoff the evacuation route. Thanks to friendly airpower, however, two portable bridges were airdropped to the men on the ground, who put the pieces in place, allowing the withdrawal to continue. “Had it not been for that,” said Whited, “well, I can only say that we would have been guests of the Chinese for a long time.”
The escape from Chosin. On top of all of the difficulties described above, many of the wounded had to be carried during the long march. As casualties continued to mount, it became necessary to bury some of the dead on the spot in order to make room on vehicles for those most recently injured. (Photo Credit: Sgt. Frank C. Kerr/U.S. Marine Corps)
In addition to fighting for their own lives throughout the exodus to the sea, American and U.N. forces also protected thousands of desperate North Korean refugees making their way to Hamhung. As Marines, soldiers, civilians, and others streamed into the port, a 193-ship armada was waiting to extract them, making it the largest evacuation by sea in U.S. military history. By Monday, December 11, 1950, General MacArthur felt confident enough to pronounce the evacuation a success. Over the ensuing days, the men who had fought, suffered, and survived their ordeal at the Chosin Reservoir were sailed to Pusan in South Korea. Escaping with them were nearly 98,000 Korean refugees.
The forceful entry of Communist China into the Korean War changed the dynamic of the conflict, driving MacArthur’s forces back toward the 38th Parallel. Although Mao regarded the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir as a great victory, his forces had suffered enormously, losing an estimated 30,000 killed and more than 12,500 wounded. Outnumbered four to one by the Chinese, the Americans and their allies had shown tremendous resilience and escaped to fight another day. Far from destroying the Marines “to the last man” as Mao had ordered, the Devil Dogs refused to break, spearheading one of the most miraculous fighting efforts in military history. As the commander of the First Marine Division Oliver Smith wrote, “We have emerged from a supreme test with our spirit unbroken.” Against all the odds, the Marines lost around 750 dead, 3,000 wounded, and under 200 missing. In all, U.S. and U.N. forces suffered nearly 18,000 casualties at Chosin, nearly 8,000 of whom suffered from frostbite.
Marines paying their respects to those who gave the last full measure of devotion at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. (Photo Credit: History.com)
“At Chosin,” explained Army veteran John Gray, “there was no rest for the weary, no place for the frozen.” In this frigid nightmare, the perseverance of the American and United Nations troops who stared the dangers down was legendary. All who served in the greatest battle of the Korean War proudly deserve the immortal title of the “Chosin Few.”
Business Insider: Chosin Reservoir Campaign Marine Corps.
History.com: The Most Harrowing Battle of the Korean War.
National Medal of Honor Museum: The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir and the Medal of Honor.
Osprey Publishing: The U.S. Marine Corps' Finest Hour - Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
PBS: Chosin Few.
U.S. Marines: Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.