The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 7

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30

The country around Chosin was never intended for military operations. Even Genghis Khan wouldn’t tackle it.

– Major General O.P. Smith, USMC

Aerial view of the Chosin Reservoir.

US Marines referred to the Battle of Chosin Reservoir as “Frozen Chosin.” The temperature often dropped so low that if you spit, it froze by the time it hit the ground. Another example: on the afternoon of 11 November 1950, the temperature dropped forty degrees in three hours. As the evening wore on the thermometer went to eight below zero. Add the wind chill factor was thirty below.

Photo by Captain George Rasula looking north from the Hagaru-ri perimeter. Photo made 4 December, about the time the last Marine unit from Yudam-ni arrived on the west side the Hagaru-ri perimeter. There was little or no enemy action at this time with reasonably fair weather, about 20˚ F. The Chinese on the heights of East Hill and other surrounding high ground no longer had the ability to attack this concentration of marines and soldiers, an ideal target for heavy mortars. By this time they had also learned to respect the air power of their opponents.

Wrote Major General O.P. Smith, First Marine Division commander to the Commandant of the Marine Corps:

I believe a winter campaign in the mountains of Korea is too much to ask of an American soldier or Marine, and I doubt the feasibility of supplying troops in the area during the winter or providing for the evacuation of the sick and the wounded.

Capt. Rasula and Lt. Escue with Marine officers at the CP/FDC of H Battery, 11th Artillery, near the Hagaru-ri north perimeter.

[Sources: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam and Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea, 1950 by Martin Russ. Images courtesy of Chosin Reservoir Photos and The Changjin Journal.]

The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 6

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30

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:

…Smith was in fact one of the great, quiet heroes of the Korean War. …Yet, unlike Chesty Puller, his heroics lacked a certain drama, and few outside the Marine Corps knew his name. Smith was highly professional, wary of hubris, almost deliberately non-charismatic, and most important of all, respectful of his adversaries.
Lieutenant General Oliver P Smith USMC. Smith retired in 1955 and died in 1977.

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.]

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

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30

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.]