By Frank Kerr - Originally Published December 1990
The battle at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950 has since become the stuff of legend and doctrine. Armies, the world over, study it as a classic of warfare, especially small-unit actions. Time magazine termed it "unparalleled in U.S. military history. . .an epic of great suffering and great valor." President Ronald Reagan cited it in his first inaugural address.
Chosin pitted roughly 15,000 allied ground troops-mostly elements of the First Marine Division, along with a regimental combat team of the Army's Seventh Infantry Division, a small unit of British Royal Marine Commandos and South Korean troops-against some 120,000 Chinese. "Annihilate the American Marines to the last man," were their orders, presumably to send psychological shockwaves through other allied forces.
Official records place Marine Corps casualties at more than 11,000. Survivors have since researched and calculated that the combined allied troops suffered roughly 12,000 casualties, including 3,000 killed, 6,000 wounded, plus thousands of severe frostbite cases from the minus-30 degree temperatures. The Chinese had an estimated 43,500 casualties, including 28,000 killed.
Historians label Chosin as the most savage battle of modern warfare in ratio of casualties to men engaged. They compare it to Tarawa, the bloodiest combat of World War II, on a ratio basis, where 15,000 Marines suffered 1,000 killed and 2,300 wounded. Of that island's 5,000 Japanese defenders, 4,500 died.
The Chosin Marines emerged from their ordeal with a Presidential Unit Citation for "decisively defeating seven enemy divisions, together with elements of three others." Another indicator of the ferocity is that 17 Medals of Honor were awarded for the fighting.
As the battle unfolded against seemingly hopeless odds, the armchair experts wrote off the Marines as a "lost legion," doomed for extinction, victims of another heroic but tragic Alamo or Custer's Last Stand. Again, dead wrong. The Marines didn't get the word that their cause was hopeless.
Legendary Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, then a regimental commander, struck a key to the outcome while reflecting after the war. He said that the First Marine Division at Chosin was the finest fighting force ever fielded by the United States.
If the Chosin Marines were not the best, they certainly must rank near the top. They were lean, mean and combat-sharp as they entered those mountains. Their leadership, from NCOs to the highest-ranking officers, was superb. And if the Corps' philosophy of every man a rifleman first and foremost, ever needed validation, the Reservoir surely provided it.
When the Chinese sprung their carefully laid trap, planning to divide, conquer and annihilate, they caught the proverbial tiger by the tail. And they got mauled.
Even before the battle, the Marines captured a sprinkling of Chinese, but their warnings of a new enemy fell on deaf ears at General MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo. Then, on November 1, the Seventh Marine Regiment met and clobbered a Chinese division in the foothills of the mountains. The enemy pulled back and vanished, and we followed slowly.
The hero's hero of the campaign has to be Major General Oliver P. Smith, commander of the First Division. He advanced cautiously, probing the strength of the new enemy, establishing rearguard strongholds of supply and defense, all despite the Army command's exhortations to race blindly into the unknown. And, of course, he led us out under the banner of his immortal battle cry, "Retreat, Hell! We're just attacking in a different direction!" Eyewitnesses confirm he said exactly that, but some Stateside skeptics, never close to the battleground, let alone the general, claim he would never utter such language.
By November 27, the Fifth and Seventh Marine Regiments had advanced to a village named Yudam-ni on the western side of the frozen reservoir. Over the mountains behind us, other units were digging in at Hagaru-ri at the bottom end of the reservoir and farther south at Koto-ri. That night, everything hit the fan, everywhere. From then on, we were either closely engaged with the Chinese, often at bayonet and grenade range, or eyeing each other like killer wolves seeking a lethal edge.
It's an experience to see literal hordes of the enemy rushing toward you or to glare at him so close you can smell him, or have him leap over your head, or to reload before he does. But it was not all fury.
China hands among the Division answered the Chinese curse for curse in their own language and added zingers of their own for good measure. They even captured a former Chinese houseboy, greeting him like the long-lost friend he was. Above all, though, was the deepening of our undying admiration and respect for Navy corpsmen and Marine pilots. They're a special breed, and any ground-type who's heard shots fired in anger places them on a pedestal of honor.
It was at Yudam-ni that I again screwed up in my "secondary" job-but intentionally. The morning after the initial Chinese assaults, I came across a badly wounded platoon sergeant slumped in grief at the loss of friends. His parka was coated with frost, and his haggard face was a mask of ice and coagulated blood. To this day, I know he would have been the greatest picture of the war. To this day, I'm glad I did not intrude on his privacy.
His face said everything about the suffering at Chosin, especially the cold. Reams have been written and movies made about the battle`, but no one has ever captured that savage, mind-numbing, flesh-killing cold. It was minus-30 degrees and below, lashed by Manchurian winds that would burst thermometers by today's wind-chill factors. It's unbelieveable that anyone could survive such temperatures, let alone move and fight. Hell did indeed freeze over once upon a time-and we were there.
The cold froze weapons and men alike. My carbine, which had a nasty habit of jamming at all the wrong times down south, flat-out refused to budge at Chosin. So I tossed it for a trusty M1 rifle. Even it would only fire a round at a time by hand-operated bolt action. My ancient "secondary weapon" performed flawlessly, however, even though I had to conserve what little film I had because the chances of resupply were nil to none.
Several years ago, a news reporter asked a Chosin Marinein fact, the operations officer who planned our fight to the sea-to describe the battle. "We all knew we were going to die," he said, "but we knew the Division would survive." That makes absolutely no sense, of course, for if we all died there would be no Division. Yet it's the best description we have ever heard.
Esprit de corps, discipline, resolve and devotion to the Corps and each other enabled us to prevail at the Reservoir. As hard as it may be to believe, when we were ordered to start back-attack in the opposite direction-I vividly recall Marines openly worried, not about the Chinese everywhere we looked, but about how other Marines would view our withdrawal. It mattered not that the U.S. Eighth Army had collapsed on the far side of the peninsula, leaving us alone in far northern Korea, or that my farther advance would be pointless as well as suicidal. After all, the tradition of the Corps rode on our shoulders then and there, and we were truly concerned that we might tarnish it.
Unabashed pride of Corps was demonstrated repeatedly at Chosin. When the Yudam-ni Marines fought back to Hagaru-ri, they formed ranks, without orders given, and marched into the perimeter to greetings of tears and the exaltation, "Look at those bastards, those magnificent bastards!" The touching moment was repeated at Koto-ri several days later. From Medal of Honor recipients to a future Commandant to everyday infantrymen, all have said or written that their first sight of the battered, but defiant Division misted their eyes and choked their throats.
The final phase of the historic breakout began December 9, with the Marines striking south from Koto-ri and fighting down and out of the mountains of the frozen Chosin. Then, they were sea-lifted to South Korea to be rested and refitted for battles yet to come. And so another glorious chapter was written into the distinguished history of the United States Marine Corps.
But, the book on the epic battle of the Chosin Reservoir will never be closed. The Marines, by decimating and checkmating the Chinese in the mountains, bought time for the Navy to evacuate nearly 100,000 North Korean men, women and children from the beachhead-the last on Christmas Eve. Never in recorded history have combatants rescued so many enemy civilians in the midst of combat. The U.S. government formally described the humanitarian feat as "the greatest rescue operation in the history of mankind." Chosin survivors call it "The Christmas Miracle."
Many of those refugees now live in freedom in America-and they and their generations to come are the living eternal legacy of the men who fought at Chosin.
In the hindsight of 40 years, Chosin stands etched foremost in memory because of the extreme odds against us, both enemy and weather. But I've always felt that the valiant Brigade, also facing impossible odds in the Pusan Defense Perimeter, never received just credit. For if those thin ranks of intrepid Marines had not stemmed the North Korean tide, there would be no gallant chapters of Inchon and Chosin. In fact, there would not be a free South Korea today.
Which, happily, brings me full circle back to Lieutenant Edward T. Emmelman. When I finally rotated Stateside, somehow he found me when our ship docked at San Francisco. We had been out of his life for months, but never out of his thoughts, and he always welcomed "my men" home when and if he could find them. So there he was, still limping from his severe wound, suffered at the Pusan Perimeter, but going out of his way to make sure I was all right.
God, it was like being greeted by my brother. And in a Marine sense, he was and always will be, because the Corps -beneath its hard-nosed exterior, beyond its first-to-fight traditions- is, quite simply, an exclusive brotherhood.