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The Marines fought in temperatures as low as German troops encountered on the Russian front: twenty-five degrees below zero, with a wind chill factor off the chart. Making it more difficult was the location itself, perhaps the worst terrain for ground fighting in the world. Everywhere the Marines turned all that could be seen were mountains. Rocky. Steep. No trees. Ice and snow to the far horizon.
Because the ground was frozen the men had to use picks, hammers and chisels, and heavy shovels to dig foxholes and trenches. And besides the brutal cold, there was another enemy, almost physical in form, something mentioned in every account: a constant, numbing, freezing wind. Sentries on both sides were often found frozen to death.
Simply the defense of their position at the Chosin Reservoir ranks with the US Marine defense of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, the 101st Airborne’s defense of Bastogne, and the defense of the supply and troopship anchorage in the Battle of Samar by the US Navy Task Force, Taffy 3.
Yet in many ways, the task of the 1st Marines was even more difficult than the aforementioned. The division was spread out and split up into its component commands: regiments, battalions, companies. Each one of them defending a key point in the line of defense. While the unruffled, highly competent Marine General O.P. Smith slowly leapfrogged his troops southwards, to consolidate the division for the breakout, small unit battles went on involving thousands of Chinese attacking far smaller numbers of US Marines. Incredibly, the Marines held on.
Many of these smaller engagements went on for a number of days and involved thousands of Chinese soldiers attacking small units of Marines. These small engagements rank with such famous epics as the Defense of Rourke’s Drift, where 150 British soldiers from the 24th Regiment of Foot held off a series of attacks by 4,000 Zulu warriors; or the stand of the 20th Maine at the extreme left of the Union line on Little Round Top on 2 July 1863 at Gettysburg. There, ordered to hold at all costs, the 350 men of the regiment held off ferocious attacks by the Confederates and prevented the entire Union Army from being flanked.
US Marines in the Chosin pocket routinely held off uncounted numbers of Chinese assaults, their machine guns mowing down Chairman Mao’s soldiers by the thousands. The Marines were so desperate for cover, that when they could not dig in the frozen ground, they used the frozen bodies of Chinese soldiers to form barricades.
[Source: Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea, 1950 by Martin Russ. Image courtesy of the US Department of Defense Website.]