BATTLE OF CHOSIN RESERVOIR, KOREA
during the Korean War; 1950-1953
November 27-December 13, 1950
On June 25, 1950 the North Korean Peoples Army (NKPA) rumbled across the 38th parallel into South Korea. To avoid the spread of communism, US forces were ordered into Korea to assist the South Koreans and push the North Koreans back. Initially the US 24th Army Infantry Division (ID) was assigned the task to halt the advancement of the North Koreans. The North Korean’s march southward was eventually stopped by the 24th ID, at Pusan, the tip of the Korean peninsula. Having little room to maneuver, General Douglas MacArthur, commanding general in Korea, ordered the Marines into the battle to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, north of Pusan. They were to move inland and cut the NKPA’s supply line.
Due to the military being cut ninety percent after World War II, the 1st Marine Division had to re-outfit, re-strengthen and re-train. By late August the division was loaded into transports and sailed to Japan, then onto Korea. On September 15th, the Marines landed on ‘Blue Beach’ at Inchon and by the evening of D+1, the beachhead was secure and the Marines prepared for the 18 mile march to meet up with the Army at Seoul. By September 25th, Seoul was secured and command of the city was returned to the South Korean government.
The shattered NKPA were on the run back north after the spectacular success of the Inchon landing, recapturing of Seoul and with the breakout of the Pusan perimeter. Sensing the NKPA was mortally wounded, General MacArthur set off for North Korea with plans to reach the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China and crush the enemy. President Truman, wanting to avoid World War III, decided to lay out some ground rules of engagement and on September 27th issued the following order:
“Your military objective is the destruction of the North Korean armed forces. In obtaining this objective, you are authorized to conduct military operations, including amphibious landings or ground operations north of the 38th parallel in Korea, provided at the time of such operations there has been no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese communist forces, no announcement of intended entry, nor a threat to counter our operations in North Korea. Under no circumstances, however, will your forces cross the Manchurian or USSR borders with Korea, and, as a matter of policy, no non-Korean ground forces will be used in the northwest providences bordering the Soviet Union or in the area along the Manchurian border. Furthermore, support of your operations north or south of the 38th parallel will not include air or naval actions against Manchuria or USSR territories”.
Little did Truman or MacArthur know that on October 8th, 1950, Chinese Leader, Chairman Mao Zedong wired North Korean Prime Minister Kim Il Sung, in response to his request for help and advised him Chinese troops would be sent south to aid the North Koreans. China would supply the manpower, while Russia supplied tanks and weapons, although Stalin at the last moment reneged on supplying aircraft, a point that would tip the balance between survival and complete annihilation for US troops.
As part of the plan to enter North Korea, the Marines marched back to Inchon, loaded a LST (Landing Ship Tank- a large ship which opens to land men and tanks) and traveled around the southern end of the peninsula to land again on the west side of Korea at Wonsan. On October 26 they would meet up with Army units to begin the march north. US troops moved north along the MSR (Main Supply Route) approximately seventy eight miles and reached as north as the Chosin Reservoir with units of the 8th Army and the 5th & 7th Marine Regiments taking up positions around the reservoir. The 1st Marine Regiment was strung out along the MSR with a HQ unit staying in Koto-Ri and units in Hagaru-Ri where there they guarded a field hospital and Army engineers constructing an air strip.
Reports started to come in, that the units around Chosin were being attacked by Chinese Infantry. Initially not believing it, General MacArthur then estimated that only 50-60,000 Chinese troops could have passed the Yalu River, when in reality, it was closer to 300-400,000 troops. The Chinese troops had traveled by night to evade detection from air reconnaissance and instead of traveling on roads, marched over the mountains to further hide their true strength. Now 200,000 Chinese troops were ready to face the units of the 8th Army while another 125,000 positioned themselves around the 5th and 7th Marines. American forces were outnumbered 10-1, and the trap was ready to be sprung.
Battle of Chosin Reservoir
Army X Corps:
7th Infantry Division
31st Infantry Regiment
32nd Infantry Regiment
Marines 1st Division
1st – 5th – 7th Marine Regiments
General Peng, the Chinese commander in North Korea had a sand model of the Chosin Reservoir, or as the Chinese called it Changjin Reservoir to study the area and plan his attack. Chairman Mao’s order was; “Don’t try to win a quick victory; the enemy will not leave Korea without being eliminated in great mass”. On November 25th the Chinese struck and hit the bulk of the 8th Army on the east coast of Chosin and two days later hit the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments on the west coast. MacArthur ordered the Marines to head east to link up with the Army and head south again. The temperature dipped to -20 degrees and the US Troops were in full retreat, fighting for their lives. The Chinese had them surrounded.
The plan was to get as many troops to Hagaru-Ri. This town, with its supply dump, hospital facilities and partially constructed air strip, was the one base offering the 1st Marine Division a reasonable hope of uniting its separated elements. Hagaru-Ri had to be held at all costs, yet only a reinforced infantry battalion (less one rifle company) and two battalions of artillery were available for the main burden of defense, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese Infantry were about to arrive. On November 28th, the Chinese attacked Hagaru-Ri and anyone who could be assembled was quickly rushed to protect the perimeter.
The 1st Marine Regiment, including G Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine regiment was still traveling north on the MSR towards Hagaru-Ri when it arrived in Koto-Ri, just eleven miles south of Hagaru-Ri. Orders came to put together a task force to rush to Hagaru-Ri and strengthen its position. Unfortunately, there was a lack of transportation to get the troops there. A seasoned British Commando, Lt. Colonel Douglas Drysdale presented himself and offered to use his men and their trucks and a company of tanks to transport George Company to Hagaru-Ri. He would head up Task Force Drysdale, a total of nine hundred men.
As they assembled and set out north they were almost immediately attacked by Chinese soldiers along the high sides of the road, the task force was outnumbered by 10-1 with eleven miles to drive. During the day, the task force would receive assistance from Marine Corsairs flying close ground support, including napalm bombs. The Corsairs were coming from the air craft carriers, including the USS Essex sailing in the Sea of Japan.
During the night, safe from US air attacks, the Chinese would set up numerous road blocks to slow their progress and when men would get out of their vehicles to clear the obstacles, the Chinese would ambush them. The Chinese were also throwing hand grenades into the trucks killing many and forcing Marines who were not killed out into the open to be further attacked. So many men were being wiped out that in communication with General O.P. Smith, 1st Marine Division commander, Colonel Drysdale asked if they should push on or retreat back to Koto-Ri. General Smith’s reply was to push on, at all costs! He knew without reinforcements Hagaru-Ri would fall and holding that town was the key to the entire campaign and reuniting the division.
During one of the night attacks, a segment of the Task Force Drysdale was cut off from the main body and was severely shot up. Colonel Drysdale argued with the tank commander to spread out his tanks to offer fire support and ground cover all along the unit, but was denied and all the tanks were out front. Without tank support and not having air support the segment was demolished, and was lost. During this time, Colonel Drysdale was shot, already wounded with shrapnel, he passed on command of the task force to Captain Carl Sitter, commander of G Company.
As Task Force Drysdale approached the southern end of Hagaru-Ri, they spotted US Military tents and believed they were inside the defensive compound. Thinking they were Marines coming out of the tents, they were suddenly fired upon. It was another Chinese ambush. Fighting their way through, the task force finally made it to Hagaru-Ri and was able to add a tank company with 100 men along with approximately 300 Marines to help fend off the enemy to strengthen the perimeter. Colonel Drysdale would later call the eleven mile section of the MSR, Hell Fire Valley.
The next morning, G-Company along with the British Marine Commandos, received their first assignment, to hold East Hill. East Hill was important, for whoever held the hill held the high ground over the Marine base. Like Little Round Top in the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, the hill would profoundly affect the entire campaign. If the Chinese held it, they could use it as an artillery base firing on the supply dump and disrupting the efforts to build the airfield.
As the Marines marched to the top of the hill, they had a very difficult time staying on their feet. East hill had been attacked the previous night, turning the ground into an icy sheet. Reaching the top, the men found they could not dig in and create fox holes as the ground was frozen solid. Many had no other choice than to pile up dead Chinese soldiers for protection.
As night fell, a green Chinese illumination grenade went off and the Marines for a moment could see thousands of Chinese soldiers surging towards their positions. Fending off attack after attack with men dropping fast, Captain Sitter called in his reinforcements, the British Commandos. Marine machines guns with the help of a nearby tank trapped hundreds of Chinese soldiers in a cross fire. The fighting increased with the snow running red with blood, but waves of Chinese kept coming. The Americans had better positions, cover and constant fire, but the enormous quantities of Chinese soldiers were threatening their position. In some areas along the American line, the Chinese broke through and the line was filled with cooks, bakers, engineers, anyone who was still on their feet at camp. In addition to the hard fighting; the men also had to deal with the cold temperatures. The temperature dipped to double digits below zero, and many weapons were malfunctioning. It was so cold that some wounds were being cauterized by freezing blood flow.
By daybreak, the surge of enemy soldiers slowed and Marine Air Units arrived to help destroy surviving units. Vastly outnumbered, the Marines held the high ground and denied the Chinese from crushing Hagaru-Ri. Captain Ritter, commander of G Company would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in Task Force Drysdale and for his command of G-Company on East Hill.
On December 1, the airstrip became functional allowing C-47s to land in order to evacuate the wounded from the overflowing hospital and also bring in supplies. Moving south, under heavy fire, the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments planned to link up with the 1st Marine Regiment and bring the division together at Hagaru-Ri. The 5th Marines moved south along the MSR while the 7th Marines traveled along the pass. As they approach Hagaru-Ri, the commanding officer told them they were going in as Marines, with backs straight and marching in formation. They arrived singing the Marine Corps hymn and the 1st Marines joined in, bolstering morale.
Segments of the Army were also arriving in Hagaru-Ri, some of them from another task force, Task Force Faith. This was headed by Lt. Colonel Don Carlos Faith. These troops were holding the perimeter on the eastern edge of Chosin, about 15 miles north of Hagaru-Ri. After being overrun by the Chinese, they headed south under ferocious fire. Lt. Colonel Faith was killed and the unit cohesion disintegrated. Most of the soldiers were killed, some fled out onto the ice of the Chosin, while some made it successfully to Hagaru-Ri.
On December 5th, with the 1st Marine Division reunited and along with the survivors of Task Force Faith, the units began a different plan, “attacking in a different direction”. The plan was to march south to Koto-Ri and onto Hungnam approximately 64 miles south to board ships. With the introduction of Chinese troops in the war, the campaign of charging to the Yalu was no longer a viable plan. Getting as many men out to re-organize for the next battle was what was important now. US Troops knew there were still many Chinese to the south of them, and the battle to reach their objective and safety would be no easy task. They would be coming up against two divisions of Chinese soldiers and back through Hell Fire Valley.
One major obstacle they faced was at Funchilin Pass, where the Chinese blew a twenty four foot gap in the bridge over the twenty nine hundred foot chasm. The Army’s 58th Treadway Bridge Company, located in South Korea, built pre-fabricated bridge spans and had them dropped by parachute to the engineers at the pass. They were fitted over the gap so that man and machine were able to cross over. By the night of December 7th, the men reached Koto-Ri. As the men poured in, troop strength swelled to 14,000 including 2300 GI’s, 125 British Royal Marines and the remaining members of the 1st Marine Division.
Heading further south, the plan was for the units to leap frogged each other while the 1st Marines acted as rear guard. During this faze, the temperature was at its lowest of the campaign, dipping to minus 65 degrees. As part of a last ditch attempt to destroy the US Troops, Chinese soldiers grabbed North Korean civilians, who were fleeing south and began using them as shields as they attacked US Forces. Leaving no choice but to fire, the US Troops annihilated the bulk of the last two Chinese divisions.
Arriving in Hungnam on December 10, thousands of troops along with thousands of North Korean civilians piled onto the ships, with most of their supplies and equipment and sailed back to South Korea. Any supplies left behind, along with the piers, were rigged with explosives and destroyed.
Although this battle was not a victory, the spirit and determination of the combined force under horrendous conditions did allow these men to fight another day. For the ones who did not make it back, and made the ultimate sacrifice; may we never forget them.
Medal of Honor Recipients for the Battle of Chosin Reservoir
Walter E. Barber: Captain USMC Commander of F Company, 7th Marines
*William B. Baugh: PFC, USMC G Company 1st Marines
Hector A. Cafferata Jr.: Private, USMC F Company 7th Marines
Raymond G Davis: Lt. Colonel USMC 1st Battalion 7th Marines
*Don C Faith: Lt. Colonel, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry
Thomas J Hudner, Jr.: Lieutenant Junior Grade US Navy Fighter Squadron
*James E Johnson: Sergeant USMC J Company 7th Marines
Robert S Kennemore: Staff Sergeant USMC E Company 7th Marines
*Frank N Mitchell: First Lieutenant A Company 7th Marines
Reginald R. Myers: Major USMC Executive Officer 3rd Battalion 1st Marines
*John U. D. Page: Lt Colonel 1st Marines
Carl L Sitter: Captain, USMC G Company 1st Marines
*Williams G Windrich: Staff Sergeant USMC I Company 5th Marines
*Killed or Missing in Action
Battle of Chosin Reservoir