The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 3

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Because of poorly researched histories of the breakout of the First Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir, there is confusion over who held command of the division.

Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, commanding the 1st Regiment of the First Marine Division in the Korean War, is photographed on Nov. 22, 1950. (AP Photo/US Marine Corps)

Several books and websites list the very famous Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in the history of the USMC, as being in command of the division. However, in 1950, then Colonel Puller did not command the First Marine Division during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. He commanded the 1st Regiment of the First Marine Division during the breakout. You can see why the confusion occurs. The First Marine Division was commanded by Major General Oliver Smith — who I will discuss in a subsequent post. Comprising the division were the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marine Regiments, all of which were infantry units. These three infantry regiments were supported by the 11th Marine, an artillery regiment, and by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, as well as US Navy ground support aircraft operating from US carriers offshore.

A Marine infantry regiment at full strength totaled 3500 hundred men divided into three battalions of 1,000 men, which battalions were divided into companies and so forth. The other 500 Marines were in the regiment’s support units such as vehicle transport, military police, Graves Registration, and the logistic units responsible for supplying everything from food to ammunition to soap. Many times during the fighting around Chosin when the Chinese were about to break through in a certain area, these troops were put into the line since one of the axioms of the Marine Corps is, “every Marine a rifleman (or woman).”

Others were organized into a headquarters company which provided security for regimental headquarters and contained the communications specialists, intelligence, administrative units, and staff officers.

The Marines were part of the US Navy until made a separate service after World War Two. They continue to be integrated into the US Navy and while they are a separate service they come under the authority of the US Secretary of the Navy. A portion of the cadets at the US Naval Academy graduate as officers in the US Marines instead of the Navy. Large US Navy ships normally carry a contingent of Marines as a security detail.

This assignment goes back to the 1755 with formation of the British Royal Marines who were placed aboard all British warships. Their function was to protect the officers from the crew in the event of a mutiny since it was thought the Marines would always remain loyal which they always did. The Royal Marines were far more disciplined than sailors and trained more extensively. Friendships between the Royal Marines and the sailors were not encouraged and the Marines were always berthed between the crew spaces and the officer cabins.

The corpsmen (medics) and physicians and chaplains with the Marines in Chosin (and everywhere else) were US Navy personnel assigned to the Marine Corps, a system still used today. If you saw the movie, Flags of Our Fathers and wondered why Ryan Phillippe, who plays a corpsman, wears a US Navy uniform when back in the states, this is the reason.

Still of Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, and Jesse Bradford in Flags of Our Fathers.

[Source: Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea, 1950 by Martin Russ. Images courtesy of the Marine Corps Gazette and the IMDB.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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