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Never Say Retreat

The Chosin Few reunite. MacArthur would not be happy.

Korean war veterans and their spouses at Camp Pendleton, December 2000. The crowd thundered its approval with applause, whistles, and the Devil Dog growl.
  • Korean war veterans and their spouses at Camp Pendleton, December 2000. The crowd thundered its approval with applause, whistles, and the Devil Dog growl.

Harry Truman's so-called "police action" in Korea is lately being remembered as "The Forgotten War" despite casualty figures that rival those of Vietnam. But if you were an Army brat as I was during the '50s, who lived in a place like Fort Benning, Georgia, then Korea loomed large in your teenage mind, never to be forgotten. Benning at the time was garrisoned with veterans of Korea, and my younger brother attended a new elementary school built of brick and glass and named for a doomed hero of the war: Lieutenant Colonel Don Carlos Faith. Faith had died little more than three years before the school opened its doors.

The Chosin Few - some 3500 veterans of the First Mardiv's fighting withdrawal through ten days of sub-arctic weather and 70 miles of death and agony to the port of Hungnam.

The Chosin Few - some 3500 veterans of the First Mardiv's fighting withdrawal through ten days of sub-arctic weather and 70 miles of death and agony to the port of Hungnam.

I still recall standing in front of his photo while I waited in the school reception area to walk my brother home. Don Carlos Faith looked back at me with dark eyes set in a young Hispanic face. The Medal of Honor citation beneath the photo gave only a general notion of how he had died attempting to lead his 600-man battalion out of the mother of all ambushes sprung at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea by 80,000 tommy-gun-toting, bugle-blowing Chinese.

General Ned Almond: "We're going to the Yalu, and you're not going to let a few laundrymen stop you."

General Ned Almond: "We're going to the Yalu, and you're not going to let a few laundrymen stop you."

Thus it was with interest that I read a back-page paragraph in Navy Times last December about a celebratory event to be held at Camp Pendleton in honor of the cleverly named Chosin Few. Faith and his lost battalion have largely faded from national memory, but not the 15,000 Marines of the First Division upon whom the Chinese fell after annihilating Faith's men and most of another Army battalion.

General MacArthur. "Ghengis Khan once wrote: 'No one can win a winter war in the land of the Mongols.' MacArthur must have cut that history class at West Point."

General MacArthur. "Ghengis Khan once wrote: 'No one can win a winter war in the land of the Mongols.' MacArthur must have cut that history class at West Point."

The Chosin Few comprise a robust national organization of some 3500 veterans of the First Mardiv's fighting withdrawal — never call it a retreat — through ten days of sub-arctic weather and 70 miles of death and agony to the port of Hungnam. The Marines suffered 4418 dead and wounded and more than 7000 non-combat injuries — mostly frostbite that devoured toes, feet, fingers, hands, noses, and ears. But during their withdrawal from the "Frozen Chosin," the Marines had slaughtered an estimated 25,000 Chinese.

James Brady:  "Every good story," he began, "has a villain. The story of the Chosin Campaign has three: the Chinese, the weather, and -- General Douglas MacArthur." I reached for my tape recorder.

James Brady: "Every good story," he began, "has a villain. The story of the Chosin Campaign has three: the Chinese, the weather, and -- General Douglas MacArthur." I reached for my tape recorder.

Several books have been written about this heroic effort, and I'd just finished reading one of the best when I learned of the Pendleton celebration. The book, Jim Wilson's Retreat Hell! tells how the Marines had battled down a narrow road of dirt and crushed rock that snaked through mountains to connect three wretched North Korean villages starting with Yudam-ni at the southern tip of the Chosin Reservoir, then moving through Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri. The port city of Hungnam and safety lay 50 miles farther south, but the bulk of the fighting and dying took place on the 25-mile stretch of road linking the three villages.

Don Carlos Faith died attempting to lead his 600-man battalion out of the mother of all ambushes sprung at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea by 80,000 tommy-gun-toting, bugle-blowing Chinese.

Don Carlos Faith died attempting to lead his 600-man battalion out of the mother of all ambushes sprung at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea by 80,000 tommy-gun-toting, bugle-blowing Chinese.

Retreat Hell! is filled with startling images: an exhausted Marine sits on a boulder beside the road only to find he's resting on the hunched, frozen corpse of a comrade; a company fights off a night attack by a thousand Chinese and at daybreak retrieves hundreds of frozen bodies to stack as barricades against further attacks; two Marines warm themselves beneath ponchos on the cover of an idling tank engine and die of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes; Marines stare in wonder at ice statues covering a mountain meadow where wounded Chinese froze upright in grotesque postures; a corpsman tells a Marine with the lower half of his face shot off that nothing can be done: the Marine will die when his wounds thaw.

Occasional moments of humor relieve the horror. My favorite comes from a Marine who likens the situation of his surrounded company to that of Custer's Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. "Where," wonders Lieutenant John Yancey aloud, "did all these fucking Chinese come from?" Fortunately Yancey -- unlike Custer -- had not uttered his last words: he survived the battles and, according to Jim Wilson, lived another four decades.

On this past 7 December, then, I headed for Camp Pendleton to attend the 50th anniversary of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign and mingle with some of the men I'd recently read about. As I passed the 5/805 merge, I realized the remaining distance I would travel to the Pendleton front gate on the northern edge of Oceanside was the same distance the Marines had traveled south from Yudam-ni through Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri. Owing to our vastly different circumstances, I covered the distance in less than an hour while the Marines took ten agonizing days for their journey.

During my relatively short trip I recalled the full story of how Colonel Faith had died in his desperate attempt to guide his shattered battalion 13 miles south to the safety of the First Mardiv perimeter at Hagaru-ri. He took a killing round to his chest a scant four miles from the Marines. (Major General Oliver P. Smith, who commanded the First Mardiv, refused to weaken his defenses by sending a relief force. Would he have made the same choice if Colonel Faith and his desperate men had been Marines?)

My adoptive father — who was from the same generation of West Pointers as Faith — had told most of the story to me more than 40 years ago at Fort Benning. He had been a colonel on MacArthur's staff in Tokyo during the war. He detested MacArthur and his surrogate in Korea, General Ned Almond. Almond had commanded X Corps, made up primarily of two Army divisions and the First Mardiv. Faith's battalion had been the northernmost element of Almond's force when the Chinese attacked in their overwhelming numbers. On the morning of 28 November, 1950, during a lull in the Chinese attack, Almond dropped from the sky by helicopter onto Faith's beleaguered command post. He strode from the helo in clean, carefully pressed fatigues and extended an envelope to the exhausted Faith. Faith opened the envelope to discover three Silver Star medals. "One of those is for you, Don," said the general. "Give the others to anyone you choose."

Colonel Faith selected the two nearest men: a wounded lieutenant, who was patiently filling his canteen with a trickle from a mostly frozen water can, and a mess sergeant. General Almond pinned the medals on the bewildered men, turned to Faith, and said, "You don't have anything to worry about, Don. You're just fighting a bunch of Chinese laundrymen fleeing north. I want you to regroup and pursue them to the Yalu." Then the general boarded his helo and flew away. Three days later Colonel Faith was dead at the hands of these laundrymen, and his battalion had ceased to exist.

While the Chinese massed on the Yalu for their attack against X Corps, General MacArthur was living in splendid isolation 700 miles away in Tokyo. His inner circle shielded the great man from increasingly bad news, and he realized too late that he and those close to him had committed an astounding military blunder. Although he demonstrated exceptional personal courage as a young officer during WWI, MacArthur had later come to lead from far behind the lines in pipe-smoking, brandy-sniffing comfort, if not luxury. This practice had become so well-known and resented among his troops in WWII that they named him "Dugout Doug." Korea had been more of the same.

As the sentry waved me through the gate at Pendleton, I wondered what the Marines thought of MacArthur. Retreat Hell! notes that MacArthur and Almond ordered the First Mardiv north into the lurking, massed Chinese, but the only strongly worded criticism in the book is a brief quote from a Marine staff officer who had been at Hagaru-ri: "We didn't believe anything we heard from MacArthur's headquarters. The information from there was a bunch of baloney."

Pretty mild stuff when you think of all those soldiers and Marines who paid such an awful price for MacArthur's bizarre plan and Almond's folly. Would I be able to find a more biting assessment from someone among the Chosin Few? I would try.

I drove the final miles along Rattlesnake Canyon Road to an enormous parade ground, where bands were already playing and flags waving in a Santa Ana that had scoured the sky of all but a few clouds. On the far side of the parade ground were bleachers filled with perhaps 2000 people, many of whom were elderly men wearing red or blue shirts with matching ball-caps that proclaimed their status as members of the Chosin Few. I parked near the parade ground and stumbled up the bleachers to sit among them. Many laughed and offered their hands to keep me from falling. Perhaps my own ball-cap that identified me as an aging Navy SEAL provoked their mirth.

The event began shortly after I took my seat. Jerry Coleman was the master of ceremonies who would introduce each speaker. I was delighted. Whatever one might think of him as a play-by-play announcer, no one could doubt his selfless courage. When duty called, Colonel Coleman had stepped forward. He served as a Marine pilot in both WWII and Korea, which was a great deal more than his illustrious Yankee teammate had done. Wherever Joltin' Joe may have gone, Mrs. Robinson, it sure as hell wasn't to war.

The first speaker was one of 14 Marines who had won the Big Blue for action above and beyond the call during the Chosin Campaign. Retired General Ray Davis as a lieutenant colonel had led his battalion cross-country through an ice-shrouded night with temperatures plummeting 20 degrees below zero. His mission: to relieve a 222-man company on the brink of destruction by thousands of Chinese. Despite their overwhelming numbers, the Chinese had retreated in the face of near-maniacal attacks by Davis's men.

The next speaker Coleman introduced was James Brady, who had been a Marine captain in Korea. The name struck a chord, but it was not until Coleman gave a brief bio that I recognized Brady. He was the writer who churned out weekly pieces on Hollywood personalities for Parade magazine. He had also been editor of such publications as Woman's World and Mademoiselle. I was surprised to learn he'd been a combat Marine.

But a greater and more profitable surprise awaited as Brady launched into his speech. "Every good story," he began, "has a villain. The story of the Chosin Campaign has three: the Chinese, the weather, and -- General Douglas MacArthur." I reached for my tape recorder.

"In the United States," Brady said in a New York accent well-suited for the task at hand, "the Chicago Tribune and Hearst newspapers were beating the drums for a MacArthur presidential candidacy. MacArthur had defeated Japan with less men and materiel than his rival, Dwight Eisenhower, had needed to defeat Germany -- a fact MacArthur was fond of pointing out.

"But MacArthur had one last war to win — in a rather nasty, faraway placed called Korea. The general had started well. He'd stabilized the line at Pusan, thanks to a Marine brigade. He'd conjured up a brilliant left hook at Inchon — magnificently carried out by the First Mardiv — and had recaptured Seoul. He had smashed the North Korean Army and was racing north to victory.

"Then, wanting a quick win, MacArthur did a very strange thing: he divided his forces into the Eighth Army as the left wing and Tenth Corps — of which the First Mardiv was a part — as the right. In between were the Taebaek Mountains running north and south at heights up to 9000 feet, and in October the snow was already falling.

"There were no good east-west roads, so the left wing couldn't support the right, and the right couldn't support the left. Winter was now coming on and the Chinese were coming in.

"Ghengis Khan once wrote: 'No one can win a winter war in the land of the Mongols.' MacArthur must have cut that history class at West Point." The crowd laughed.

"On October 8 in Beijing Mao Tse-tung ordered the Chinese Army to secretly infiltrate North Korea in overwhelming force. Every soldier toted a sort of white bedsheet for camouflage — primitive yet effective.

"Just a year earlier Mao had defeated Chiang Kai-shek and chased him to sanctuary on Taiwan. The Chinese Army was good. The men here today can tell you that....

"And Mao was not about to put up with a U.S. Army camped on his frontier at the Yalu River. Mao warned that if the U.S. passed this line or that, 'We will fight you and we will fight you well.'

"MacArthur didn't listen. He said, 'The Chinese are one huge bluff.' In Washington, President Truman didn't trust MacArthur but feared the political consequences if he confronted the general.

"Where were the Joint Chiefs of Staff then chaired by the sainted Omar Bradley? Frankly, they were intimidated by the Hero of Inchon.

"MacArthur was an enormous ego, a man filled with pride, arrogance, and he had his eyes on the White House. He ordered his troops to race north, and the officers around him -- like his intelligence chief, George Willoughby, and Ned Almond -- were hardly the men to stand up to a legend.

"When the Eighth Army began to bring in the first Chinese bodies, they were explained away as having been volunteers fighting with the North Koreans. When the First Mardiv reported Chinese bodies, General Willoughby said, 'That's just another damned Marine lie.'

"MacArthur was like a blind man. His divided force was racing north, the temperatures were falling, and in Tokyo there was talk of having the boys home by Christmas.

"When an Army battalion commander, Don Faith, warned Ned Almond of stiffening Chinese resistance, Almond derided him and said, 'We're going to the Yalu, and you're not going to let a few laundrymen stop you.'

"Almond ordered the Marines north behind Faith to the Chosin Reservoir and then west across the mountains to link up with Eighth Army 80 miles away. Winter had now arrived, and things were getting weirder and weirder -- irrational. It was on November 15 that General Oliver P. Smith wrote the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Cates. He told General Cates he did not believe a 15,000-man Marine division should be strung out over a hundred miles of mountain road in hostile territory in winter....

"Ignoring Almond's orders, Smith slowed his leading regiments, built an airstrip at Hagaru-ri, secured his flanks, and took key positions on the high ground. The U.S. Army plunged blindly ahead as MacArthur ordered. When the Chinese snapped the trap at Thanksgiving, the Marines were ready but the Army was not.

"To the east of the Chosin, Task Force Faith and Task Force McLain -- two very good Army units -- were clobbered. Both colonels were killed one day, one after the other.

"It was during this last week in November and the first two weeks in December that MacArthur nearly lost his entire force out of arrogance, out of a refusal to believe the enemy was truly there, out of blind ambition."

A portly man with liver-spotted hands sitting next to me said to no one in particular, "Captain Brady has got that right. MacArthur was an arrogant sonofabitch and so was his sidekick, Almond."

Brady summed up with a stirring account of how the First Mardiv fought its way through 100,000 Chinese to Hungnam. "The First Mardiv," he said, "smashed the Chinese so badly that entire divisions had to be pulled out to refit. The men who fought at the Chosin and along that mountain road -- the men here today -- saved not only Tenth Corps but Eighth Army as well. They also saved Korea and quite possibly Japan.... Thank you." The crowd thundered its approval with applause, whistles, and the Devil Dog growl.

Coleman introduced other speakers: senior active-duty officers young enough to be sons of the Chosin Few. The speeches were sincere, bland, and freighted with platitude. But what the hell...Captain Brady was a tough act to follow.

A chaplain closed the ceremony with a prayer for the fallen Marines and their comrades who had survived the Frozen Chosin. I added a little prayer for Colonel Don Carlos Faith and his lost battalion.

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