Marines At The Chosin Reservoir

BY Herschel Smith
4 months, 1 week ago

Shooting Illustrated:

On top of the freezing temperatures, the Marines faced tens of thousands of mostly Chinese soldiers around the Chosin Reservoir. This battle took place in November and December of 1950, and there were many reservoir veterans still on active duty when I became a Marine in 1957. Most of them agreed that the main effect of the sub-zero weather was to grind you down physically. Every physical act was much more difficult to perform, and the difficulty was magnified by a lack of sleep and cold food. This was the nature of what I call the Cold Fight—at the Chosin Reservoir—where it was the deadliest kind of infantry fighting under the worst kind of circumstances. In my view, the men who did these things were giants.

Not long after I entered the Marine Corps, I was at Quantico’s Basic School with several hundred other second lieutenants. I had transgressed in some way, and the Marine Corps thought it necessary for me to go explain my deficient behavior to the Executive Officer of the school. This was not the most-comfortable position for a newbie to be in, but I had no say in the matter. I’ll never forget the cold, unblinking eyes of LtCol Reginald Myers. He got it over quickly, making sure I understood that all rules and regulations were to be obeyed. Throughout the session, I was mesmerized by the top ribbon on his uniform blouse—light blue with a sprinkling of white stars. I had never seen one. As a major, he had been the XO of a battalion in the 1st Regiment at the reservoir. Given a scraped-together force of truck drivers, cooks and personnel from other services, he led them on an attack that kept the main road open for the division to pass. This involved setting an example for his troops and that meant getting out in front. Situations like this (leading unfamiliar troops under deadly conditions) are challenging.

Myers was not the only recipient of the Medal of Honor out of the Cold Fight. Over in the 7th Marines, F-company was commanded by William Barber, and he had his company controlling Toktong pass. This narrow place was essential for the 5th and 7th regiments to get out of the valley of Yudam-Ni. He fought, wounded, for several days and kept the pass open. It also happens that a private in one of his platoons put up a fight that defies easy description. Hector Cafferata fought all night with his M1 and hand grenades, several times stopping to bat Chinese grenades back with an entrenching tool. His feat of arms was all the more impressive in that he was caught with his boots off when it started. He was never able to get enough of a break to go find his boots and get them on. Capt Barber and Pfc Cafferata both received the Medal of Honor. Barber later said Cafferata may have killed as many as 100 Chinese soldiers. That puts him in the same class as one Daniel Daly atop the Tartar Wall in the Boxer Rebellion. Everywhere you look in the several histories of the battle, you run into more examples of incredible bravery.

I believe this campaign was the most-severe test ever of Marines and their fightin’ iron.

Today, women would be in the infantry Battalions, perhaps leading them, and there may be transgenders and gays along with them.

Do you think we could win a war like that today?


Comments

  1. On April 18, 2019 at 7:21 am, Bram said:

    I was entering the Marines just as the last Korean War Vets were retiring out. They were a hard-core bunch. And any Marine who was among the “Chosen” was treated with reverence.

  2. On April 18, 2019 at 7:25 am, Andy said:

    In answer to your question: No.

  3. On April 18, 2019 at 7:46 am, Fred said:

    If you’ve never been to Korea in winter you don’t understand the cold. It’s not that the temperatures are much lower than similar mountain areas of the same general latitude. It’s the air, constantly flowing out of Siberia, never ceasing. It’s not necessarily the wind, it’s just a steady sinking frozen air flow that washes over everything 24/7. Have you ever been in a valley as the sun goes down and you feel the sinking cold air coming down the mountains? It’s that, never ceasing. It permeates everything. I imagine it’s a tough place to survive in those mountains let alone fight.

    The city folks and westerners alike make fun of the country and mountain people but I have great respect for them. I’ve been all along the mountains and valleys at the DMZ (no particular reason) and the further east you get the more remote it becomes. You look at the faces of the people in the tiny mountain villages and you have to wonder. They survived the war, numerous Chinese and Japanese invasions, and the relentless cold without central heat and although many think that they aren’t bright, it’s only that they don’t organize like whites do so we think that they’re dumb, yet there they are, century after century scratching out an existence. Like the folks in Appalachia, government programs and 5 year plans to bring them into the next century have had varying success. Many of them just aren’t interested.

  4. On April 18, 2019 at 7:51 am, Longbow said:

    The Battle of the Bulge comes to mind also.

  5. On April 18, 2019 at 8:06 am, JoeFour said:

    Here’s a link to a great presentation about Oliver P. Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir…highly recommended:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rf-KpVgus8&t=19s

  6. On April 18, 2019 at 8:52 am, Ned said:

    My dad was a Chosin Marine Staff Sergeant. FAC calling in air strikes. Almost died of an infection. Had to call an artillery strike on the hill he was on an evacuate while ordinance was on the way.

  7. On April 18, 2019 at 8:56 am, Ned said:

    Meanwhile, some General staff feels that diversity is our strength, and are proceeding accordingly. We will likely get our asses kicked in an actual peer to peer military action. Can’t ever manage to keep our ships from being run over by container ships. Sad.

  8. On April 18, 2019 at 3:05 pm, H said:

    Barber also did the “leading unfamiliar troops under deadly conditions” thing, he was appointed company commander just before they took that position, which was just before the anvil fell. He went ahead with 1-2 men and figured out how to position his company, made them dig in as soon as they arrived, which saved the company, then lead the mentioned historic defense. As I recall he had some ability to call in 105mm fire from further to the northeast at the outskirts of the furthered town the Marines had taken, but it was otherwise entirely the company’s fight.

  9. On April 18, 2019 at 3:19 pm, scott s. said:

    While the Marines are justly remembered for their ordeal at Chosun, we shouldn’t loose sight that the US Army wasn’t sitting back enjoying life there either. It’s worth taking a look at LCOL Don Faith’s bio on wiki
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_C._Faith_Jr.

    To me, Chosun was a result of MacArthur’s insistence that X Corps be employed as a unit separate from 8 USA and as a result the two forces could not support each other. I guess Almond (X Corps CG) was MacArthur’s “fair-haired boy” and MacArthur didn’t want him subordinated to Walker.

    The US Army divisions garrisoning Japan after WWII were poorly equipped, undersized, and lacked training. When DPRK troops crossed the DMZ on 26 June it was a “come as you are war” with the first units arriving within a week. America’s strategic view was to defend Europe against Soviet offensive so the forces there had the priority. The war in Korea was more of an “economy of force” mission.

  10. On April 18, 2019 at 4:57 pm, VanArtsdalen said:

    I’ve been to South Korea in the Winter. 1976-77 with the 2nd Infantry Division, and I can second everything Fred had to say about the cold.

    I’ve never felt anything like that anywhere else that I have lived.

  11. On April 19, 2019 at 7:22 pm, Chris Mallory said:

    Back in the 1990’s, I was working security at a Nat Guard base. One of the men I worked with lost half a foot to frostbite in Belgium in Dec 1944. He was a quiet old guy who didn’t talk a lot. Another had been a Marine at Chosin, he got a Purple Heart. He never said much about the Chinese, but he never missed a chance to cuss the Army for “letting the Chinks have their artillery that ended up shelling me, damn army is the reason I have this steel in my legs.”

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This article is filed under the category(s) Marine Corps and was published April 17th, 2019 by Herschel Smith.

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