Streetwise Professor

November 27, 2022

An American Anabasis in a Different Direction

Filed under: China,History,Military — cpirrong @ 4:01 pm

While working for an FCM in 1987 my main job was to assist S&L and mortgage banker clients manage their interest rate risk. Along with several colleagues I attended a banker’s conference in San Francisco where the firm had a booth and hosted a reception. One of the reception attendees was an S&L president, who happened to be a big bear of a man. During the cocktail chitchat somehow military backgrounds came up, and the S&L guy mentioned he had been a Marine in the Korean War. I asked him: “Were you at Chosin?” His eyes grew wide, and he threw his arms around me in an almost suffocating hug: he was surprised, and deeply grateful, that there was anyone my age who knew of that battle. For even then Korea was known as “the Forgotten War” (indeed Clay Blair’s book by that title came out in that very year).

He then started to talk about his experience. It was sobering listening. But it was evidently cathartic for him.

I write about this today because the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir began on 27 November 1950. On that day, the First Marine Division, along with a combat team of the 31st Infantry (US Army), were attacked by swarms of Chinese infantry who had infiltrated south of the Yalu River in the previous weeks. The Americans had moved far north into North Korea after the smashing US victory over the Norks at Inchon, and the subsequent routing of the North Korean Army. The US commander, Douglas MacArthur, had “victory disease”: he believed that the war was all but over, and promised his troops that they would be home by Christmas.

Giddy with success, MacArthur dismissed numerous intelligence reports of Chinese troops massing north of the Yalu, and infiltrating to the south of it. His soldiers and Marines around the Chosin Reservoir paid a huge price for his arrogant indifference when hordes of Chinese attacked in the dark on the night of the 27th, blowing horns and whistles, and beating gongs. The fighting was often at close range, and very often hand to hand.

The UN forces to the west were routed by the Chinese. Their “bugout” was probably the most humiliating experience in American military history. But the troops at Chosin grimly hung on.

The Marines and soldiers straddling the Chosin Reservoir in the east of NK barely withstood the assaults, outnumbered as they were by about 6-to-1. During the day the Chinese would melt into the forests to avoid US airpower, but at night, and for many nights, they resumed their attacks. For the Americans, it was a close run thing.

The Chinese had effectively surrounded the 1st Marines and 31st RCT, and attacked the division headquarters around Hagaru-ri. In the tradition of “every Marine a rifleman,” division commander O.P. Smith armed engineers, cooks, and clerks (“titless WACs,” in the slang of the time) and sent them to the hills overlooking Hagaru-ri to beat off the Chinese attacks. It was a close run thing, but they did.

American airpower was probably the difference. Navy and Marine F4U Corsairs and AD1 Skyraiders provided close air support, napalming, strafing, and rocketing the Chinese whenever the weather allowed.

Smith realized he could not hold out forever, and had to withdraw to the coast. Hence began an anabasis in a different direction, with the Marines and the few soldiers who survived beginning an epic march from the reservoir to Hangnam. An “anabasis” is a march from the coast to the interior, and the Americans did the reverse. Apropos this, when asked about how he felt about retreating, Smith said: “Retreat hell. We’re just attacking in a different direction.”

And indeed they were. Surrounded, they had to fight their way out against a Chinese enemy bent on their utter destruction. Every mile was contested, although as a result of exhaustion and casualties the Chinese resistance ebbed as the Americans trudged south.

But the Chinese were not the American’s only enemy: the weather was too. It was bitter cold, allegedly reaching -50F when the Americans consolidated for a few days around Kot’o-ri. Even when it wasn’t that cold, it was damned cold, with periodic blizzard conditions. So cold that wounds typically froze, which sometimes saved lives.

Even though enemy resistance had devolved mainly to sniping and ambushing, rather than screaming human wave assaults, the survival of the retreating Americans remained in doubt because the Chinese had blown a bridge at Funchilin Pass. Miraculously, Air Force C-119 “Flying Boxcar” transport aircraft dropped pieces of an M-2 “Treadway” mobile bridge which the Marine and Army engineers painstakingly assembled in the brutal weather to permit the breakout to continue. It took two days for the entire column to pass the chokepoint, but they all did.

Soon afterwards, the Americans descended into the plain near the coast where they took off their coats to bask in the 32F warmth. They arrived to the safety of UN lines around Hangnam exactly 2 weeks after their ordeal had begun.

About 30,000 Americans, British, and South Koreans were involved in the battle. 18,000 were casualties, including around 2,500 dead, 5,000 wounded, 5,000 missing (disproportionately among the 31st RCT) and 7,400 non-battle casualties, mainly from frostbite. Chinese losses are unknown, but are widely estimated to number around 60,000–including Mao’s eldest son. Several Chinese corps were effectively destroyed.

The Americans brought off most of their wounded (although many wounded from the 31st RCT became POWs), and many of their dead, following the tradition of the United States Marines.

The survivors of the attack in the other direction were evacuated by sea–along with more than 10,000 North Korean refugees. Thus ended one of the most amazing feats in American military history, a true seizing of a sort of victory from the jaws of devastating defeat.

Those who survived were known as the Chosin Few. Almost all are gone now–the youngest would be around 90. I was fortunate to have met, albeit briefly, one of them. He was gratified by my remembering what he and what his comrades suffered, and what they achieved, and I write this to do what I can to keep that memory alive even though almost all of them have passed.

Semper Fi.

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  1. Thank you very much for writing this – it’s the first I’ve heard about Chosin and I am glad I learned more about it.

    Comment by Carey Ryan — November 28, 2022 @ 6:21 am

  2. How different everything might have been had the US used its nuclear monopoly after The War to attack, defeat, and dismantle the USSR.

    Oddly, the US seems to have been keener on unprovoked aggression after it lost its nuclear monopoly. Why?

    Comment by dearieme — November 28, 2022 @ 9:33 am

  3. Brutal war. Forgotten war is right. My father in law (RIP) was in it. He never ever ever talked about it. One time at a bar we met a fellow Korean War vet. My FIT asked, where were you? Vet said, Air Force. Vet asked, Where were you? FIT grumbled, “Infantry”. Vet said, Whoa, we dropped you guys off. Never wanted to stay there.

    MY FIT was at this battle. One of the first troopers into it. I found out from my brother in law at his funeral. He accompanied him on an Honor Flight and he talked a little about it then. But, my brother in law had done a lot of research to figure out what happened to his unit after he learned a bunch on the flight. Father in law didn’t want to think about it.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — November 28, 2022 @ 11:18 am

  4. @Jeff Carter. Yes, Bloody Hill was another horrible battle. Also Pork Chop Hill. It was one long, bloody mess.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 28, 2022 @ 11:35 am

  5. @Carey. You’re welcome. Responses like yours are exactly why I write these kinds of post.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 28, 2022 @ 11:36 am

  6. I’ll pile on with Carey. Thanks for the writing.

    Comment by Donald Wolfe — November 28, 2022 @ 12:58 pm

  7. On summer jobs in ’63 and’64 I was on a shift with three Marines. One had been at Chosin and still suffered from the frostbite on his feet. He didn’t mention this to me; the other two did.

    Comment by Dr. Dave — November 28, 2022 @ 3:43 pm

  8. @Dr Dave. My dad was in the Army in 1954-5, and several of the senior noncoms had served in Korea. He recalled one whose face had essentially been frozen. It was brutal.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 28, 2022 @ 4:00 pm

  9. Not to forget that Korea was a United Nations war with a Soviet General as head of the military secretariat.

    Comment by Henry Barth — December 2, 2022 @ 4:25 pm

  10. Thalassa! Thalassa!

    Comment by philip — December 3, 2022 @ 10:50 am

  11. While I agree with you that the Chosin ‘anabasis’ was an extraordinary feat, reading Xenophon’s account of the long march from the depths of Mesopotamia to the Black Sea in his ‘Anabasis’ was even more extraordinary – no air support and cover, no rations or equipment dropped as from the heavens, constant harassment.

    It’s a great, exciting read and highly recommended

    Comment by Simple Simon — December 4, 2022 @ 11:48 am

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