Notwithstanding enemy warnings, in addition to disregarding significant intel of large-scale Chinese troops advancing toward the borders of North Korea, famed General Douglas MacArthur insisted on pushing through the reunification agenda of the Korean peninsula five months into the war.
Extremely confident of a decisive victory, MacArthur sent thousands of coalition forces composed of the Republic of Korea (ROK), the United States, and various United Nations units to press on deep into the snowcapped mountains of Pyongyang and into the Yalu river. This decision will soon blow up into one of the worst military intelligence blunders in military history, with thousands of combat and non-combat casualties as part of the repercussions.
Here’s a rundown of what happened during that harrowing 17-day action at Chosin Reservoir.
Three months in, the tide of the Korean war shifted in favor of the ROK and its UN allies following the arrival of the US X Corps at Incheon and the successful breakout of the Eighth Army from Pusan. At this point, the time of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) was trickling down into an obvious defeat, and MacArthur saw this as an opportunity to rapidly advance in hopes of entirely terminating the enemies, reunifying Korea, and ending the war by Thanksgiving.
Blinded by supreme confidence, MacArthur underestimated the strength and capabilities of the impending participation of the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), as well as the latter’s hints of dispatching a large number of its “volunteer” troops to infiltrate the northeastern side of the peninsula.
Nevertheless, MacArthur and the rest of the American forces had a reason for confidence. After all, at this point, they all believed they had won the war.
24 November 1950
Ignoring the concerning reports from the front, MacArthur ordered both the Eight Army and X Corps to push on to the Yalu on the 24th. Besides the mounting evidence that an increasing number of Chinese forces was on its way, US forces have also been struggling to combat the region’s biting Siberian cold, with temperatures dropping as low as -36° Fahrenheit.
Due to the extreme cold, weapons began to jam as tanks encountered various mechanical issues, while medical supplies gradually depleted to treat frostbite, which plagued the ranks—foreshadowing the looming tragedy.
25 November 1950
Recognizing the extraordinary competence of the US forces, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong summoned roughly 120,000 soldiers from the 20th and 27th Corps of the Chinese Army to become part of its North Korean armed expeditionary troops, hoping that the large quantity force could exhaust and outdo the Marines at the cold front. Unfortunately, most of these Chinese soldiers failed to grab their winter gear, while others chose to leave their heavy coats along the way to reach the front lines as quickly as possible.
Fortunately for the UNC forces, the colossal number of the CCF were unequipped for one of the harshest weather conditions in combat history. Something the former had an advantage over due to air superiority. Still, the arrival of the enormous number of Chinese soldiers took the First Marine Divison by surprise.
27 November 1950
As the clock struck midnight on the 27th, the Marines began hearing strange noises from the woods below as they kept their bodies warm inside their foxholes. The sound grew louder and louder until they could clearly hear the broadcasts of curses and commands from the enemies. Chinese soldiers from the 59th, 79th, and 89th Divisions have arrived at the Chosin and are moving up the slopes in waves.
Despite the initial shock, the Marines soon left the comforts of their sleeping bags, grabbed their weapons, and braved the incoming enemies in a waist-deep snow-covered battlezone. Not only did the ground freeze, making digging new foxholes impossible, but the 12,000 Marines and a few thousand Army soldiers were surrounded and outnumbered by as many as ten-to-one.
“We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now, we’ve finally found them. We’re surrounded.” —Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, a decorated Korean War hero.
As the Marines struggled to defend the front, American forces in nearby positions began fighting the Chinese assault tooth and nail. Charlie and Fox Companies of the Seventh Marines, on the other hand, were barely managing the downpour of enemies in their narrow lines near Toktong Pass. The situation for the American forces quickly deteriorated from ease to desperation.
28 November 1950
Exhausted, freezing, and running low on ammo, the first 24 hours of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir had turned the favor away from the UNC forces. After intense battles, it dawned on MacArthur that a withdrawal was necessary lest he risk the lives of the clearly outnumbered Marines. Nonetheless, the situation for the assaulting Chinese Army wasn’t favorable either, as body after body of freezing men dropped faster than those fatally shot.
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Because foxholes were impossible to dig at this point, some Marines used the frozen dead as cover from the communist troops’ seemingly never-ending bullets. By the end of the 28th, a stalemate has ensued between the American and Chinese forces surrounding the Yudami-ni perimeter front. Meanwhile, the Charlie Company managed to retreat back and rejoin the others at the front, leaving the Fox Company under the leadership of Captain William E. Barber to fend off for themselves in the isolated part up on a critical hill overlooking the narrow Toktong Pass.
For the next five days, the Company will solo defend this vital road allowing a safe withdrawal of the rest of the First Marine Division away from the sub-zero region of Chosin Reservoir.
“Retreat Hell! We’re just attacking in another direction.” —Major General Oliver P. Smith, CG of the 1st Marine Division, ordered the Marines to move southeast to the Hamhung area as the CCF continued to surround the Hagaru-ri perimeter.
The Regimental Combat Team 31 (RCT-31), led by Colonel Allan D. MacLean (“Task Force MacLean”), faced off against the Chinese soldiers at the east side of the reservoir, and like the rest of the First Marine Division, they were outrageously outnumbered. As the fighting continues, MacLean recognizes the growing desperation of the situation and orders a withdrawal southward. This task proved difficult to complete, with the majority of the Task Force either severely wounded or killed and MacLean himself captured by the Chinese Army.
Under the new leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith (now known as “Task Force Faith”), following the disappearance of MacLean, the remaining soldiers of the combat team managed to regroup and attempted to break out toward the Marines at Hagaru-ri, all while under incessant machine gun fire. Left with no choice, Faith steered his men to counter the assault of the surrounding Chinese forces. These efforts, amid the struggle, came out as a success, but not without casualties—including the commander himself, who obtained fatal wounds caused by enemy grenades.
In the end, out of the 2,500 men of the RCT-31, nearly half were either killed, wounded, or captured. But these sacrifices weren’t in vain, as they were able to avert much more disastrous losses and preserved the lives of over 15,000 Marines on the western side.
The Chosin Few
The intrepidity of Fox Company, led by Captain Ray Davis, and their efforts to secure the crucial Toktong Pass paved a safe path for the remaining Marines to continue marching south, escaping both the biting cold and the colossal troops of the Chinese Army.
As their tanks could barely cope with the freezing cold, American fighter jets were easing the struggles below, providing airstrikes, close air support, and airdrops amid the blinding blizzard.
Throughout the first two cold nights of December, rescue missions were launched, and dozens of jeeps were deployed across the ice to pick up survivors who mostly suffered from wounds, frostbite, and shock. Of the 1,000 men who were able to reach the Marine lines, only 385 could be considered able-bodied.
Recovery continued until the 11th, when the last remaining UN forces safely left Funchilin Pass, and by the 13th, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir had come to a bitter end.
According to official records, the coalition force of the US and ROK reported more than 10,400 casualties during the battle of the “Frozen Chosin,” with about 7,388 Marines dying due to the extreme cold. It later bestowed the Medal of Honor on 13 US servicemen, including ten Marines, two Army soldiers, and one Navy officer, as well as dozens of other military medals on dozens of brave men who went above and beyond the call of duty. Those who survived became known as the “Chosin Few.”
On the side of the Chinese Army, the estimated number of casualties reported varies, but many historians believe there were about 19,202 combat casualties plus a whopping 28,954 non-combat losses, which were usually caused by the brutal Siberian winter that wrapped the Chosin Reservoir. The loss was so extreme that it “reduced China’s People’s Volunteer Army by one-third and remained out of action for another three months.”
Check out Marine veteran Eddie Rios below as he recounts his experience as one of “The Chosin Few.”
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