November 27, 1950 - The Battle of Chosin Reservoir
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
November 27, 1950. The United States 1st Marine Division’s advance up the west side of Chosin Reservoir suddenly runs into a wall of 120,000 Chinese Communist troops. Within hours, every element of the Marine unit is surrounded and threatened with destruction. 78 miles from safety, stranded in the mountains of North Korea in below-freezing temperatures, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir is possibly the U.S. Marine Corps’ finest hour.
In yesterday’s post, I talked extensively about how MacArthur’s attempt to end the war by Christmas 1950 led the Allied forces to the brink of disaster when the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) launched an unexpected counterattack in November. All across the frontlines, deep into the bleak, frozen terrain of North Korea, American units were thrown into disarray and retreat. If you want the details of the buildup to the Chinese attack, and the near-disaster that most of the American units suffered on the Ch’ongch’on River, that’s the post to check out.
Today’s story, instead, is of one of the few American units that did NOT panic. The 1st Marine Division’s epic fighting retreat from Chosin Reservoir is one of the great feats of American military history, and deserves as much of a laser focus as I can give it. So we’re going to narrow in on the “Frozen Chosen” for this post and ignore much of the wider Korean War context whenever necessary. If you want it, you know where to find it!
If you’ll recall from yesterday, MacArthur’s reckless push to the Yalu River late in 1950 separated his UN force into two parts. The Eighth Army advanced up the western coast, where they would be surprised by the sudden Chinese onslaught on November 26. To the east, Army General Edward N. Almond’s X Corps landed at the North Korean port of Wonson on the east coast. The X Corps consisted of three divisions – the Army’s 3rd and 7th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 1st Marine Division. (It had been the 1st Marine and 7th Infantry that had made the famous, dangerous landing at Inchon in September 1950). Between the Eighth Army and X Corps was a large gap of mountainous, impenetrable terrain. What the UN forces didn’t know was that this gap concealed a large and growing number of Chinese PVA divisions preparing for a major counterstrike against the invaders of their North Korean ally.
Almond ordered his divisions to advance north in four columns across the barren, deserted wastes of northeastern Korea. As they moved deeper into the country, temperatures began to drop and snow began to fall. For every mile they moved from the port of Wonsan, the Americans began to grow more and more uneasy. They were heading deep into hostile territory, and it was quiet. FAR too quiet.
The territory that Almond’s X Corps crunched warily into was all mountainous, dense terrain. Deep and jagged corridors sliced through the high, rigid mountains, traversed only by dirt road and mountainside paths. Because of this terrain, the various units of X Corps soon lost communication with one another. Rather than a continuous battle line, these isolated divisions resembled four separate arrow points on diverging paths into the snowy, dismal peaks.
The 3rd Infantry Division, on the far left, was struggling to link up with Eighth Army’s distant right flank. The Korean I Corps on the right was moving along the coast. In the center, the advancing columns of the 1st Marines and 7th Infantry were split by the great wedge of the Chosin Reservoir. In Korean it is more rightly called the Changjin Reservoir, but most American maps still listed it by its old Japanese name – Chosin. This name would forever be attached to the upcoming engagement. The 1st Marines advanced west of the reservoir, the 7th Infantry to the east; the two units would be utterly separated in the ensuing engagement.
By November 21, the 7th Division had reached the small village of Hyesanjin on the Yalu River, the river that divides North Korea from China. Hyesanjin was a ghost town, with unmilked cows groaning in the fields. There was no sign of Korean civilians or of Chinese soldiers. The barren mountains lay still, solitary, forbidding. The Marines, west of Chosin, had met brief resistance during Peng Dehuai’s First Phase Offensive in the first week of November. These Chinese had, like their brethren to the west, quickly vanished back into the white wilderness of the mountains. By November 8, the 1st Marine Division had lost all contact with the enemy – but their hackles were raised. Something was seriously wrong here.
While many narratives of Chosin focus on the Marines’ favorite hero, Colonel William B. “Chesty” Puller of the 1st Marine Regiment, Major General Oliver P. Smith was the real lion of Chosin. This might be because Smith, unlike Puller, was the antithesis of the archetypal Marine. He disliked romanticism or gung-ho attitudes, and had more of a quiet, stoic attitude about him. A pipe-smoking Christian Scientist and something of an eccentric intellectual, he had nevertheless led Marines throughout the Pacific in World War II. As assistant division commander of the 1st Division, he had passed the time before the Battle of Peleliu by reading a biography of literary figure Oliver Wendell Holmes. Not your typical marine.
Smith had led the 1st Marine Division in the Inchon landing and through all its subsequent combat operations, further burnishing his reputation as someone with the fighting guts to match his brains. He had also gained a poor opinion of his superior, the Army General Edward N. Almond – a MacArthur fanboy and favorite. Almond’s military reputation in recent years has grown quite dim, especially due to his service as commander of the only African-American infantry division to see service in World War II. Almond had been notably contemptuous and outright racist towards his own troops, blaming them for the poor performance of the division in the Battle of the Serchio River in February 1945 – a battle that was marked by his own incompetence. Almond and Smith had a strained relationship during the Inchon Landings, with Almond – who had never carried out an amphibious assault – trying to dictate tactics to Smith, who had served in the Pacific for the whole war and had performed several. Some said of Almond that “when it pays to be aggressive, Ned’s cautious, and when it pays to be cautious, Ned’s aggressive.”
Almond was anxious to push the 1st Marine Division to the Yalu as fast as possible, and was constantly harping on Smith to pick up the pace. The official line coming from MacArthur’s headquarters was that the Chinese were retreating and that the current priority was to advance quickly and end the war by Christmas. Smith and his Marines were skeptical of this take. The Chinese had suddenly vanished, but they were obviously still out there. While Almond dismissed the possibility of a Chinese attack and urged Smith to move north with speed, Smith slowed his movements so much that he verged on outright insubordination.
Smith’s decisions before the Battle of Chosin Reservoir ended up saving his division from outright destruction. First, he kept his units consolidated, never putting small units far out where a sudden strike could isolate them and taking his time moving up the road to the Yalu. Second, he used this additional time to construct interim airstrips along his route of advance – just in case. Finally, he placed his own headquarters at the key point of the battle. The American forces near the Reservoir were roughly in the shape of a tuning fork, with the Marines on the west, a regimental task force of the 7th Infantry on the east, and their supply lines diverging where the two prongs met at Hagaru-ri. Smith understood that this was the critical point that had to be held at all hazards, and not only placed himself there but ordered an airstrip built at the site. He also established fortified camps all along the route of advance.
To Almond, all this looked like foot-dragging and waffling. To Smith, the X Corps was dangerously exposed. The five divisions – three American and two Korean – were strung out over 500 miles of terrain. The 1st Marine Division had a gap of 80 miles on its left and 120 miles on its right, and god knew what was out there. As the Marines climbed and climbed into the bleak mountains, the silence was deafening. The Marines saw disquieting things as they slowly advanced: Korean civilians had vanished, deer were displaced from the high ground, and the Chinese had left several bridges intact during their retreat – as if inviting the Marines northward.
Smith became increasingly worried about not only his Marines west of Chosin, but the exposed Army task force east of the reservoir. Regimental Combat Team 31, (RCT 31) aka “Task Force MacLean,” consisted of only about 3,200 men of the 7th Infantry Division, including 700 KATUSAs (South Korean auxiliaries). Colonel William MacLean led the small detachment, which alone guarded the eastern prong of the Chosin fork. This was far too small a force to hold this exposed position, and Smith said so, but Almond informed him that it would be fine – he just needed to push to the Yalu.
As the temperatures dropped in late November, the environment grew increasingly hostile. The winter of 1950 was possibly the worst environment the American serviceman has ever fought in. Without shelter, fires, or warm food, the arctic winds blowing down from Siberia dropped the temperatures to nearly -36 Fahrenheit. No amount of clothing could stop the cold. Water froze in the canteens, vehicles would not start, even the oil in rifles and guns froze solid. Feet and hands turned stiff and pale with frostbite. Bazooka rounds froze and cracked open. The Marine Division Chief of Staff took his glove off for four minutes to take a radio call, and this brief exposure caused his fingers to turn blue.
One terrible reality of Chosin was that blood froze on wounds before it could coagulate, though the weather proved to be a small boon here because wounds would freeze shut rather than continue to bleed. One Marine sniper recalled loading .30-06 rounds into his Springfield rifle, and not even feeling the pain as each cartridge he loaded tore off a strip of flesh from his hand. The brutality of the winter turned the high mountains, icy roads, and deep snowdrifts of Chosin into a frozen hell on earth.
Though they didn’t know it, the 25,000 men of the 1st Marine Division and the 3,200 men of Task Force MacLean were being shadowed by the 150,000 men of General Song Shilun’s 9th Army Group. Though Song’s forces were mainly composed of light infantry – they had machine guns and mortars, but little artillery or motorized vehicles – Mao Zedong had seen X Corps’ dispersed positions on the map. He found these fragmented units to be a tempting target, and dispatched Song’s nine - soon twelve - divisions to encircle and annihilate the Americans around Chosin. Much as Smith had feared, they would strike at the base of the fork – Hagaru-ri.
On November 27, 1950, the frozen silence of Chosin was suddenly broken. The 5th and 7th Marines, at the head of Smith’s column, were suddenly met with stiff Chinese resistance as they attempted to push north up the road. The two units suffered heavy casualties, and Smith – despite Almond’s orders – called a halt to all further advances. There was a storm coming, and his division was strung out along the road. He ordered his Marines to dig in as best they could into the broken ground and prepare for what was coming.
That night, in zero-degree weather, the full weight of the Chinese attack came like a thunderstorm. With a brief bugle call to announce the attack, they came like a wave in the moonlight. One Marine described it as if “the snow came to life.” Shouting, screaming, blaring whistles and with their officers shouting through megaphones, the Chinese mounted mass frontal assaults against the Marine positions. They cut off the 5th and 7th Marines at Yudam-ni and surrounded Chesty Puller’s 1st Marines at Hagaru and Koto-ri. Every Marine – the cooks, the mechanics, drivers, clerks – grabbed rifles to take part in the fighting along the frozen wastes of the Korean mountains. The Chinese were everywhere, drastically outnumbering their foes and skilled at night attacks.
The 1st Marine Division was probably the best formation in the UN force. It was made up of volunteers, rather than the draftee-filled ranks of the Army. Almost all of its officers, including Smith and Puller, had seen action in the Pacific War, and this experience proved vital. Despite the fact that the frozen mountain terrain of Korea was the polar opposite of the tropical islands of the Pacific, the mental fortitude and physical toughness required to endure the hardships were much the same. The Marines, reduced to a set of perimeters within a mass of Chinese infantry, displayed their superior unit cohesion when it mattered most. They would not be drowned.
The same could not be said for the unfortunate Task Force MacLean. The PVA’s 80th and 81st Divisions encircled the unsuspecting, hapless units of RCT 31. At around 2200, the Chinese came bursting out of the darkness, screaming wildly and blowing bugles, on the isolated American units. They fought for their lives, but many units were quickly overwhelmed and forced to fall back into tighter perimeters. Many senior officers were killed or wounded, the medical company was wiped out, tanks skidded out of control on the ice and even air support could not staunch the tide. While the Army troops and KATUSAs fought bravely, they had not taken the preventative measures that the Marines had – and would pay for it.
On November 28, Almond flew into the perimeter of 1/32 Infantry to confer with Colonel MacLean. He reassured them that they were only facing the retreating remnants of Chinese units and ordered them to resume the attack, saying “We’re going all the way to the Yalu. Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.” Almond’s passe response to the critical situation of RCT 31 would play a critical role in the ensuing disaster. In his 1970s book “East of Chosin,” Army historian Roy E. Appleman excoriated Almond and restored the reputation of RCT 31 – placed in a bad situation by a bad general, they did what they could.
It wasn’t enough. Throughout the next few days, the battalions of RCT 31 were slowly pushed together and began to disintegrate. Desperate attempts to run Chinese gauntlets were ripped apart by sudden ambushes, and MacLean was wounded and captured by Chinese troops. His place was taken by Colonel Don Faith. Faith did his best to pull together the scattered units, but eventually had to settle for a breakout to the south after losing all communication with the Marines or General Almond.
The column of trucks and ambulances was beset on all sides. Faith was killed by a grenade while leading an assault on a Chinese roadblock on December 1, and the rest of the Task Force was quickly overwhelmed. Of the original 3,200 soldiers, only about 350 reached the Hagaru-ri unharmed. RCT 31 had been almost wiped out. With their brief and flawed stand, though, they had diverted major Chinese forces from Hagaru-ri and possibly saved the 1st Marine Division. Had they folded on Day 1, Smith’s division could have died at Chosin.
The Marines were scarcely in less danger. The Chinese had cut the road linking the Marine units at multiple points, and were beginning to focus their attacks on Smith’s headquarters at the linchpin of Hagaru-ri. By November 30, the four-day battle was stiffening into a stalemate, but American supplies were running low. Finally, blessedly, Smith got the order that he had been waiting for: the Chinese attack had forced MacArthur to call off his advance to the Yalu, and Almond had been ordered to withdraw the X Corps to the port of Hungnam for evacuation. It was time to break out from Chosin.
The 5th and 7th Marines, in their advanced position up the road, had to cut their way south to Hagaru-ri. They formed a single convoy with a Sherman tank in the lead, and on December 1 they began to slice their way through heavy Chinese resistance. Pressed by the Chinese on the west against the reservoir to the east, the fighting was ferocious and lasted into the night and the early dawn of December 2. One battalion of the 7th Marines, cut off and isolated for five days by an entire Chinese division, was able to launch a night breakout and rejoin the evacuating column. Everywhere the Marines fought off the Chinese and the cold as their regiments pushed through roadblock after roadblock. Finally, on the afternoon of December 3, the convoy reached Hagaru-ri.
As the 5th and 7th Marines were bludgeoning their way south, Smith was evacuating wounded Marines from the airstrip he had built at Hagaru-ri. This fortified camp was nearly overwhelmed by a night attack on November 28, with the perimeter being broken at several points before the Marines counterattacked and retook the ridges. Only the intervention of Chesty Puller’s 1st Marine Regiment managed to reopen the road to the south. The Chinese continued to hammer at Hagaru-ri, but the fierce defense of Marine riflemen and tanks somehow stopped the tide. M26 Pershing heavy tanks fired canister into the faces of charging Chinese troops, or even ran them over since the tank’s ammunition stocks were bursting open from the cold.
By December 4, the 1st Marine Division had consolidated at Hagaru-ri, with Puller holding the road south and the other two regiments having evacuated the west Chosin corridor. Now the challenge was to break out to the south. The Marines, along with the remnants of RCT 31, were totally cut off from their escape routes to the coast. It would be a trek of 70 miles, and many battalions were already at half strength. Frostbite, frozen ammunition, frozen food…could they make it home?
With planes flying overhead day and night to break up Chinese attacks, Smith and his “Frozen Chosen” began their breakout south on December 6. "Retreat, Hell," Smith famously growled, "we're advancing in another direction." 7th Marines took point, battering their way through the PVA’s 76th Division south of Hagaru-ri. The 5th Marines held the rear, keeping Hagaru-ri itself safe from Chinese attack as long as they could manage. The Chinese brought in more and more reinforcements, placing pressure on the head of the retreating column as well as its flanks. The PVA’s high command ordered two entire corps to destroy the UN force, and soon the entirety of the 150,000-man 9th Army Group was converging on Smith’s 25,000 survivors. Smith’s men savaged and ruined many PVA units, making General Song more and more desperate.
From village to village, the Marines and Army and KATUSA soldiers conducted their fighting retreat down from the mountains, with every day and night heralding a new attack. At times the battles were fought in whiteout blizzards, with the only sign of the enemy being the orange tracers emerging from the clouds. The Chinese fought to the last man, and suffered just as badly from the cold as the Marines – many were found frozen dead in their foxholes. Every mountain pass posed a new struggle. At some points the retreat was slowed to a crawl as the Marines muscled through Chinese resistance.
The final, most hair-raising moment of the whole battle came on December 9, as the Marines reached a chasm north of the Funchilin Pass that had once been spanned by a bridge. No longer: the Chinese had already destroyed it, hoping to halt the Marine column. The Marines could work their way across by foot, but the 1400 vehicles in the column – most of them carrying the wounded – would have to be left behind. This was unacceptable and unthinkable to the Marines; they would all come out together.
Lieutenant Colonel John Partridge, the division engineer, came up with a brilliant but simple solution: drop bridge sections by air. As the Marines held their positions for one last terrible fight, and as the Chinese surged forth once again, eight C-119 transport planes dropped 18-foot portable bridge sections using 48-foot parachutes. Within hours, these sections were formed into a replacement bridge by the Marine engineers and dropped across the chasm. The Frozen Chosen crossed the gap within hours, leaving their Chinese pursuers in the dust; by December 11, they had joined hands with the 3rd Infantry Division at Funchilin Pass. The 1st Marine Division and its attached units had escaped, and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir was over. Only a few small skirmishes stood between them and the port of Hungnam.
Amidst the scenes of chaos and confusion that accompanied the UN retreat from Korea, only the 1st Marine Division proved the exception. Many Marines remembered sobbing when they reached the sea, but onlookers were surprised that they came marching down as a unit, singing marching songs. Smith reported to the Marine Corps Commandant that his troops “came down off the mountain bearded, footsore, and physically exhausted, but their spirits were still high. They were still a fighting division.” One Marine recalled landing at Inchon in September weighing 170 pounds, but leaving Chosin weighing 120. But he left Chosin alive.
The 1st Marine Division, with a force of 25,000 men all together, suffered almost 18,000 casualties during the Chosin battle – with 7,300 of them non-battle losses from the weather. But it had come out with its vehicles, weapons, and supplies intact, along with its wounded and frostbitten casualties, and it had saved not just itself but the whole X Corps from destruction. Fourteen Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor. They had fought off twelve Chinese divisions and inflicted 25,000 dead, 12,000 wounded – without counting the many frostbite cases. The Chinese regarded the attack on the Marines as a disaster, a blunder and an opportunity lost.
Many gave plaudits to Smith for his leadership, with General Matthew Ridgway noting that the 1st Marine Division would have been lost if not for him. Had Smith blindly followed Almond’s orders, it may have been the greatest military disaster in American history. He did not, and the result was perhaps the Marine Corps’ finest hour. Yet Oliver P. Smith’s name is barely remembered today.
There were more battles, more tragedies, and more triumphs for the United States forces in Korea. The war had three more years to go. But never would things be so critical, never would things be so close, and never would the valor of American servicemen shine brighter than at Chosin Reservoir.