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During the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, the First Marine division itself was under the command Major General Oliver P. Smith. In his magisterial work (and unfortunately his last book) The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, author David Halberstam writes:
General Smith unquestionably saved the First Marine Division from complete destruction by the Chinese. With his Marines holding scattered positions, each one mutually supporting the other, Smith had to slowly withdraw just the right units from the front lines at just the right times, leap frogging one over another. The remaining units had to both cover the withdrawal of the previous Marine units then move backwards and occupy a new defensive position.
Military analyst Drew Middleton of the New York Times, is quoted in Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea, 1950 as saying that what General Smith did in withdrawing his many scattered units and consolidating them back into the division, “must be considered one of the most masterly withdrawal operations in the history of war.”
What General Smith did is thought to be the most difficult of all the military arts: disengaging units under fire or units who are in close proximity to their enemies. Smith had to repeat this over and over again, all the while ensuring that none of the Marine units were overrun.
This is easy to describe as I sit here writing in my apartment in Washington, DC in the heat of August so reading of the conditions in which Smith had to maneuver his men is even more shocking. First, the cold, a dreadful cold no one could ever remember fighting in. Indeed, Chosin is the coldest part of Korea. If a man got hit, it appeared as if bloody steam were coming out of his wound as his warm blood hit the freezing air. Badly wounded Marines, weakened by loss of blood and going into shock, often died from the bitter cold before they could be taken to a medical station.
Marines during the Chosin Reservoir campaign were frostbitten, hungry, filthy, unshaven. Spit and snot froze in a disgusting icicle on each man’s face. Performing necessary bodily functions subjected the most sensitive parts of a man’s anatomy to frostbite. Hot food was often impossible to come by. Because their canned rations had frozen solid, Marines used their knives to break up the food. Only when they had chopped it into smaller pieces could they slowly crunch the frozen food with their teeth and draw some nourishment.
Yet, incredibly, the continued to hold on.
[Sources: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam and Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea, 1950 by Martin Russ. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]