General Ridgway's Description of Chosin

 

To the right of Walker [Eighth Army], the lst Marine Division, under General Oliver Smith, had been ordered to advance up on to the roof of Korea north and northwest to Kanggye and Manpojin on the Yalu.  The only road over which the Marines could advance was a single-track dirt-and-gravel path, narrow, winding, crawling through forbidding cliffs and ridges and climbing up over terrain as wild and inhospitable as any in all of Korea.  One section, known as the Funchilin Pass, was a ten-mile stretch that climbed 2500 feet along a narrow, frightening shelf with an impassable cliff on one side and a chasm on the other.  This road ended at the woebegone village of Yudam-ni on the southwest corner of the Changjin Reservoir, that bleak and wind-blown stretch of ice that nearly marked a major disaster to our forces.  But before it reached Yudam-ni, the road wound agonizingly up over 4000-foot Toktong Pass, where temperatures resembled those in Alaska.   General Smith was as alive as Walker was to the dangers that lay before him and he started this advance with the conviction that he had neither the supplies nor the forces he needed to accomplish his mission.  So he moved ahead with constant concern for the safety of his forces, regardless of the urging from the X Corps headquarters that he speed up his forward movement.   Before jump-off, while not knowing the full measure of the disaster, Smith had learned of the collapse of the ROK II Corps, on Walker's right wing, near Tokchon, some seventy miles southwest of Smith's forward elements, which was the 5th and 7th Regimental Combat Teams at Yudam-ni, itself some fifty-five miles short of the division's first objective, the village of Mupyong-ni.  All the terrain in between, from Yudam-ni to Tokchon and from Yudam-ni to Mupyong-ni, was wild, rugged, and nearly trackless.  Now Smith's wide open left flank was in a more perilous fix than before. 

Nevertheless, Smith dauntlessly set forth toward his objective,  despite all the misgivings occasioned by his judgment of the  enemy's capabilities and his knowledge of the distances to be  covered over almost impassable terrain.  With some bitterness, he  reported to the Commandant of his Corps that he had "concentrated his Division into a reasonable sector"; that he had "taken  every feasible measure to develop and guard the Main Supply  Road" (there was only one!); that he had prepared an airstrip  at the south end of the Changjin Reservoir for air supply of critical  items and for the evacuation of wounded; and that he had "ensured that at all times he had possession of the high ground along  the route of his division's advance. " As it turned out these text- book precautions were all that enabled this magnificent fighting  force to battle its way out of entrapment in one of the most  successful retrograde movements in American military history.  

The 1st Marine Division and two battalions of the 7th Division  endured a far more bitter experience.  But again, thanks to courageous leadership and the extreme forethought of General Smith,  complete disaster was averted.  Smith, as I have explained, despite  the pressure from the X Corps, took the time to keep his line  of retreat open and secure, as he moved his forces up into the  barren plateaus near the Changjin Reservoir.  He stockpiled ammunition, gasoline, and other supplies along the way, held what  high ground it could, prepared an airstrip for evacuation of  wounded and pushed ahead only when he felt reasonably certain  of what lay beyond.  There was intermittent hit-and-run resistance  all the way and it was all Chinese, to judge from the prisoners  taken.  According to the doctors at the sickbays, the sudden, intense cold, more than enemy fire, was the shocker.  Smith felt  certain now that a strong force of the enemy lay somewhere  in his path and he suspected he was being drawn into a trap.    The X Corps headquarters, however, under the whiplash of MacArthur's known wishes, urged him on toward his objectives  group of mud-thatched huts on the western edge of the Changjin  Reservoir.  When he reached there, it was late November, the bitter  Korean winter had already moved in, and the Chinese Communists,  as their radio broadcasts had long been threatening, were ready to  strike their mightiest blow. 

 In the west, along the Yellow Sea, the Eighth Army had  advanced once more north of the Chongchon River, for the first  two days against moderate resistance.  GHQ's optimism seemed  justified.  But Walker was still opposed to any reckless advance  to the border, and his fears were quickly realized.  On November  26 the Chinese Communist Forces fell upon the Eighth Army again  with fire power and ferocity.  Attacking first on the right, against  the ROK II Corps, they practically destroyed Walker's flank,  sweeping aside the remnants of the ROK forces in a matter of  hours.  Howling American profanity, and blowing endlessly on  their bugles, the Chinese troops then struck the U.  S.   2nd Division  and in subsequent action this gallant division lost over 4,000  men and much of its artillery, signal, and engineer equipment.    Only Colonel Paul Freeman's 23rd Regimental Combat Team,  withdrawing with his division commander's permission westward  toward the sea, escaped intact.  There were, Walker reported to  Tokyo, an estimated 200,000 Chinese attacking, and the situation  was close to desperate.  This was not a counterattack, Walker  warned, but a major offensive, and he knew it would be necessary  for UN forces to pull in their necks. 

 Across the granite cliffs and dismal gorges to the east, the lst  Marine Division, stretched out along the twisting road from  Yudam-ni, through Hagaru and Koto-ri, forty miles to Chinhung-ni on the south, heard the news of the collapse of the  Eighth Army=s right wing.  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Murray's  5th Marines, followed by Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Homer B. Litzenberg's 7th  Marines, which had led the advance from Koto-ri, were ordered to attack to the west in a futile attempt to  take pressure off Walker.  Smith ordered them to proceed with  caution and to watch out for ambush.  As these two regiments  moved out, they were rapped hard by the long-concealed Chinese.    It was then that Murray and Litzenberg decided on their own,  without consulting Smith, to call off the attack and go on the  defensive, disregarding Almond's orders, as they figured the show  was hopeless. 

The Marines had been looking for such a blow and despite it  they managed to hold on to the high ground near the village.  An  attack by two assault battalions from the CCF 79th and 89th  Divisions, supported by mortar fire, developed in the night into an  all-out drive by three Chinese divisions attempting to overwhelm  the two Marine regiments, Raymond Murray's 5th and Litzenberg's 7th.  By advancing in the dark, the Chinese avoided our air  power, and were able to send overwhelming numbers against the  Marines.  They attacked along a narrow front, in column formation, then deployed widely once they were within hand-grenade  range.  Resourcefulness, fighting spirit and superior fire power of  the Marines helped balance the scales, but the fighting was bitter  in the extreme.  The 18-below-zero cold made many of the carbines and BARs unusable, although most of the M-1s and  Browning machine guns resisted the freeze-up and stayed in action.    At half-past two in the morning, one Marine platoon set fire to a  native hut and lighted all the nearby ground, so they were able to  wreak terrible slaughter upon the attacking Chinese.  But with one  formation cut to pieces, there would be a fresh one to clamber on  up over the corpses and continue the assault. 

This, and the subsequent attacks upon Marine units stretched  out through the villages to the south, were among the bloodiest  battles of the war.  They cost the Division dearly.  But there was no  rout and no disaster.  At Hagaru, at the foot of the reservoir, their  commander had arranged to stockpile six days' supplies and these  were supplemented by air-drops of small-arms ammunition, weapons, medical supplies, food and even drinking water.  But the  embattled Marines were most grateful of all for the doughty men  of Company D of the lst Engineer Battalion, who labored all  night under floodlights to hack an airstrip out of the frozen earth  from which the wounded could be evacuated.  They completed  the job in twelve hours, stopping sometimes to take up rifles in  support of the ground troops out in front of them.  The fighting  grew more intense, but the bulldozers roared and banged along  until the job was done. 

 So desperate was the situation, with nine Chinese divisions  available for an assault upon the Marines, that General Almond  urged General Smith to speed his withdrawal, just as he had a  few days earlier been pressing him to hasten his advance.  Almond  authorized Smith to abandon any equipment that might slow him  down.  But Smith was not going to abandon anything he might  need.  The speed of his withdrawal, he said, would be governed  entirely by the dispatch with which he was able to take out his  wounded.  As he intended to fight his way free, he would need all  his equipment and he intended to bring most of it back.  He did  too, and carried out in trucks all the men who were wounded  along the way.  He left behind only those who had been killed in  the fighting at Yudam-ni.  For the eighty-five officers and men who  lost their lives there, a field burial service was conducted before  the withdrawal began. 

The Marines pulled back in order, followed by a number of  refugees.  An apron across a hydroelectric plant spillway, hanging  on a cliffside above a chasm, had been destroyed by the Chinese,  but General Smith had foreseen this danger and had a Treadway  bridge air-dropped in sections in time to get his forces across, bulldozers and all.  Two companies of the 1st Marines coming from Chinhung-ni seized and held the high ground commanding the  crossing and fought off all attempts to cut the column off.   It was a long and tortuous retreat, seeming to move inch by  inch with fighting all the way.  When the advance elements were  entering Chinhung-ni, the southernmost village on the route,  the last units were still in Koto-ri, ten miles to the north.   Actually the retirement was more of an attack then a retreat, for  it was necessary for each unit to battle its way back against  superior force to join the Marines in the village to the rear.  This  meant attacking often to take commanding heights, so that enemy  artillery could not zero in on the retreating columns along the  road.  The force at Yudam-ni slugged its way back to Hagaru at  the lower end of the Changjin Reservoir.  Here the Marines had to  fight out on the ice of the reservoir to rescue the remnants of  Task Force MacLean from the 7th Division, a force that had  been split in two and nearly demolished by a sudden Chinese  attack.  Here, Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith, Jr., 32nd Infantry Regiment, won the Congressional Medal of Honor while  gallantly trying to extricate his truck convoy filled with more than  five hundred wounded, but losing his life in the attempt.  

 Back through Koto-ri and Chinhung-ni the Marines, with some  infantrymen and a few British Commandos, crept, clawed and  fought their way, smashing roadblocks, beating off attacks from  either side of the road, attacking and seizing hills along the  route.  Marine Aviation and the Fifth Air Force gave them constant  close support and dropped needed supplies.  The airstrip at Hagaru  saw more than 4000 wounded or severely frostbitten men flown out to safety. 

 By December 11, the ordeal was over and General Smith bad  brought his tough, battle-tried, and half-frozen troops, still in  possession of most of their equipment and all of their fighting  spirit, clear of the final defile into the beachhead area near  Hungnam, and into a defense perimeter they could have held, with  help from the Navy and Air Force, for as long as they had been  ordered to stay. 

The Navy, at Hungnam, performed with spectacular skill, although they received no banner headlines for their evacuation by sea of the entire X Corps and itsí equipment.  But to take out from unfriendly territory, 105,000 troops, 91,000 Korean refugees more than 17,000 vehicles and several hundred thousand tons of cargo was in itself a military triumph of no small dimensions. Equipment and supplies that could not be outloaded were destroyed on the beach, so nothing was left for the enemy.  

The 1st Marine Division, which received severe punishment from a force of at least six Chinese divisions as it fought its way down off the Korean roof, was back in action in less than thirty days. 

Summary

General Ridgway wrote that thirty-three years ago.  History has discovered information since then that make the breakout even more remarkable.  The opposing Chinese force totaled 150,000 men in twelve divisions.  The fighting at Chosin put all twelve Chinese divisions out of action until early April of the following year.  To replace his losses the Chinese commander was forced to ask for more men 45,000 men, nearly one third of his strength.

 

Seven of the twelve Chinese divisions were put out of action by the 1st Marine Division.  Two of them were put out of action when task force MacLean (later Task Force Faith) fought to near total destruction. Two more were put out of action primarily by Navy and Marine Corps air, but perhaps finished off by the weather and the first Marine Division.  The fate of the last CCF division is unknown. In all of the fighting the Marines and the army forces, owe, and recognize, a huge debt to their Navy comrades flying from the fast carriers of Task Force 77, as well as their own Marine aviators.

 

Casualties were heavy.  The 1st Marine Division suffered 548 killed in action, 179 missing in action and 2,834 wounded.  But casualties from the cold were also terrible, a total of 3,561 evacuated with frozen hands and limbs and exposure, total losses costing the 1st Marine Division nearly one third of its own strength.  At Chosin the Army task force of 3,200 men had 1,500 evacuated with wounds or frostbite.  Nearly 1,300 were killed or captured.  Only 385 survived to fight their way out with the Marines.

 

The results of the fight at Chosin were spectacular.  Not, until recently have historians recognized the decisive role that Chosin played in the Korean War.  While the battles at Chosin raged the Eighth Army, in the west, was withdrawing southward in the face of what was believed to be overwhelming numbers of Chinese.  In Washington, and in Tokyo, plans were being made to withdraw entirely from Korea in the face of this Chinese offensive.

 

But, unknown to the higher level planners, the Chinese, at that time, had only thirty divisions immediately available for commitment in Korea.  The successful fight at Chosin cut the Chinese strength by forty percent..  At the same time, the 1st Marine Divisionís success enabled the other two US and two Korean divisions to withdraw intact.  With the Chinese losing forty percent of their strength and the Eighth Army reinforced by the three US and two Korean divisions of X Corps, the line in south Korea held.  Korea did not have to be evacuated.

 

Those are decisive results which changed the course of the Korean War.