The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 29

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The photography of David Douglas Duncan

Two US Marines of Co. B, 1st Brigade, 5th Regiment grimly advancing along a ditch past an enemy corpse during the fighting in the Naktong River area in August 1950.

Writes Time-Life in their retrospective on the photographer:

Capturing the troops’ terror — and their will to live — remains a hallmark of his work. One of his most haunting images comes from September 1950. Two US marines are seen running through a ditch past an enemy corpse near the Naktong River in South Korea. “The North Koreans were firing machine guns at them from a couple of hundred meters behind me,” Duncan says. “They both died shortly after the photograph was taken.”

US Marine crouching down next to his jeep while leading a convoy of vehicles during the 1st Marine Division’s retreat down canyon road they called “Nightmare Alley,” after being cut off by the Red Chinese and under fire from nearby hills in December 1950.

Duncan was trapped at Chosin like the Marines he was photographing although once they had pulled back to their assembly point for the breakout he could have gone out by air yet he chose not to. In an interview with Time-Life he said:

It was 40 degrees below zero, and the wind was coming down out of Mongolia. I was freezing.

[Images courtesy of Time Magazine.]

The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 27

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The photography of David Douglas Duncan

David Douglas Duncan in 1950

Marine Capt. Francis Ike Fenton looking grim after learning his first sergeant was killed and his unit is out of ammunition during a heavy North Korean counterattack along the Naktong River in August 1950.

LIFE photographers Carl Mydans (L) and David Douglas Duncan (R) relaxing during a lull in the Korean war.

As I wrote in my previous post about the US Marines at the Chosin Reservoir: One of the most important advantages the Marines possessed over the Chinese was an intangible moral strength common to elite units.

Combat photographer David Douglas Duncan seems to have captured this essence in many of his photographs of Marines at war. There is an authenticity to his photographs which comes from the natural bond of trust he had with Marines, having been a Marine himself.

A weary, exhausted Marine wrapping himself in a sleeping bag against the cold and clutching a can of food during a retreat from fierce fighting around the Changjin Reservoir in December 1950.

[Images courtesy of Life Magazine and Time Magazine.]

The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 26

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Dead US marines loaded in a truck, leading a column of survivors during their grim retreat from the Changjin Reservoir after being cut off by the Red Chinese in December of 1950. (David Douglas Duncan / TIME & LIFE Pictures)

In the photograph above, US Marines of the First Marine Division withdraw from the Chosin Reservoir in December of 1950. Even in the daytime, temperatures were as low as five and ten degrees below zero. The men in the truck seem the lucky ones who have managed to hitch a ride and don’t have to walk. In reality, all of the men in the truck are dead. Their bodies are frozen. US Marines will not leave their dead upon the battlefield except in the most unusual circumstances.

One of the most important advantages the Marines possessed over the Chinese was an intangible moral strength common to elite units. They had a true esprit d’ corps. Part of that was a willingness to die for their men, or comrades in arms, or for their pride in being a Marine. On the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, each Marine needed all his esprit d’ corps to keep moving.

Although the division brought out over a thousand vehicles, some filled with dead or wounded, many could have taken live and able-bodied Marines aboard. But the Marines had been ordered to march next to the vehicles and not ride on them. Part of the reason was to be able to easily defend the column if it came under attack and it did, many times. The other reason was to keep the men moving and their blood flowing. Had they just climbed aboard the unheated trucks, they would have frozen to death.

December 8, 1950 – Marines breakout of Koto-ri.

[Images courtesy of Time Magazine and Chosin Reservoir Photos.]

The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 25

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Closeup of a hooded US Marine holding a can of food during his outfit’s grim retreat from the Chosin Reservoir after being cut off by the Red Chinese in Dec. 1950. (Original caption in Life Magazine)

This photograph by acclaimed Life Magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan, is perhaps the most iconic photo of the entire Korean War. In this one picture, Duncan captured the vulnerability and despair of this cold and hungry young Marine along with his grim determination to stay the course in the epic withdrawal of the First Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir.

Duncan himself served as an officer in the US Marine Corps during World War Two and invented the profession of combat photographer. Duncan was in so many battles, intent on taking photographs right on the firing line, it is amazing he survived. “Every Marine a rifleman,” applies even to combat photographers and there were several occasions in the Pacific when Duncan dropped his camera and picked up his M-1 to help stop a Japanese banzai charge. He is alive and well at age 94.

[Source: Time Magazine. Image courtesy of Time Magazine.]