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 24

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Fighting with the 2nd Inf. Div. north of the Chongchon River, Sfc. Major Cleveland, weapons squad leader, points out Communist-led North Korean position to his machine gun crew. November 20,1950. (Pfc. James Cox. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

At a critical point, a storm with heavy clouds moved in over the battlefield and the planes had to stop attacking for fear of hitting their own troops. Army lines began to bend inward. The Chinese were about to break through. The forward air control officer turned to the commanding general and asked what was going to happen. The general calmly replied, “in about twenty minutes we will all be dead.”

As if heard by Divine Providence, a hole appeared in the clouds and the US ground attack aircraft stacked up over the battlefield now descended and destroyed the massive number of Chinese troops now in the open.

A marine air-observer team guides a marine Corsair in for a strike on an enemy-held hill. The “black Corsairs” were highly praised by army and marines alike for their precision strikes on targets and their extremely close support of forward units. (US Marine Corps photo.)

[Source: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam. Images courtesy of the US National Archives and the Bevin Alexander.]

The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 23

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Air Artillery, Italy. American Piper Cub observation plane flying over Allied territory in the Cassino corridor of battle as it searches for German gun emplacements & enemy troops so that the Allies can adjust their gun fire on them. Location: Italy, Date taken: February 1944 (Photographer: Margaret Bourke-White)

Planes such as the one above were used in World War Two and Korea to correct artillery fires. It was a highly effective system. No less effective was the ground to air system with forward air control officers controlling US fighter bombers.

In a battle with the Chinese in the Korean War, recounted in David Halberstan’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, a well-trained US Army regiment with re-enforced with combat units of the French Foreign Legion, were surrounded by tens of thousands of Chinese troops. During a massive human wave attack the Chinese were held off by machine gun fire but more critically by a large number of US ground attack aircraft vectored onto the Chinese by US forward air control officers.

Vought F4U-4B “Corsair” Fighter (Bureau # 62924) Landing on USS Philippine Sea (CV-47) after attacking targets in Korea, circa 7 December 1950. This plane belongs to Fighter Squadron 113 (VF-113). (Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

[Source: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam. Image courtesy of Life Magazine and the US Naval History & Heritage Command.]

The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 17

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American artillery spotter checking range of his units shells during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, World War I. Location: France. Date taken: October 5, 1918. Photo courtesy of Life Magazine.

In addition to their highly experienced officers and NCOs both commanding their Marines and fighting with them, effective command and control was achieved by having functioning equipment, such as radios and other means of communications. This was especially critical for the forward artillery spotters and air control officers who called in the fire missions.

Prior to fighting the Americans, the Chinese Communist troops had not required this type of comprehensive command and control and they never learned how to do it during their fighting in Korea. US military experience with artillery spotters controlling fire missions went back to the First World War.

Harassing fire directed towards Japanese positions in Southern Okinawa begins during the early morning hours of May 11, 1945 as an all out offensive gets underway.

[Source: The Chinese Failure at Chosin By Patrick C. Roe, Major, USMC (Ret) Chairman, Chosin Few Historical Committee. Images courtesy of Life Magazine and the US National Archives.]