These days I have been reading The Coldest Winter – America and the Korean War by the late David Halberstam that looks not only at America’s involvement in the Korean War during the first six months of the war, but also what took place in and around the Chosin or Changjin Reservoir in North Korea. It was back in October-November 1950 when U.S., South Korean, and UN forces had the North Koreans on the run. It looked as though the war would soon be over; in fact some were so optimistic that winter clothing and gear was not ordered. Then the Chinese entered the conflict and the tide of the war changed within days.
I was interested in this book for a number of reasons not the least of which are that Halberstam was one of my favorite authors and that back in 2000 I had the chance to meet some Korean War veterans who fought in that campaign and who are collectively known as the Chosin Few. I also had the chance to meet Medal of Honor recipient Gen. Raymond Davis who led his men across the frozen mountains at night with the Chinese attacking them from all sides.
Back then when I was covering these Korean War Commemorative Events for the Korea Times, I was fortunate that the Public Affairs Office (PAO) that dealt with the media appreciated what I was doing and always tried to help me whenever possible. For that I will always be most grateful.
This commemorative event was held on November 11, Veteran’s Day, which made it all the more solemn and evocative, especially when I had the chance to talk to some of veterans who proudly call themselves the Chosin Few. And then later, one of the PAO staff members helped me arrange for a very quick interview with Gen. Raymond Davis. He was most gracious to sit down with me for a few minutes and share some of his most harrowing reminiscences of the fighting around the Chosin Reservoir.
You can’t help but look upon someone like Davis with awe knowing that this man personally saved the lives of hundreds of men in the heat of battle and temperatures so cold that men had to warm up morphine syrettes underneath their armpits before administering the painkiller to the wounded.
Once again it was no accident that I had the chance to meet Davis and other veterans and then write my articles for the newspaper. I was just doing my own small part to remember this “forgotten war.”
This article originally appeared in the Korea Times on November 12, 2000.
“Chosin Few” Remembered
—The Fiercest Battle in the Forgotten War—
Recently, Korean War veterans gathered in the Yongsan Garrison to commemorate the Northern Campaigns in the early phase of the 1950-53 Korea War. In a solemn ceremony, the battles fought north of the 38th Parallel were remembered.
It was 50 years ago when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, following his brilliant Inchon masterstroke and liberation of Seoul, pursued a “demoralized enemy” across the 38th Parallel and North to the Yalu. However, the pursuit of the enemy beyond the 38th Parallel was a sensitive, precarious undertaking because it carried the threat of Chinese retaliation.
In less than a month, U.S. – ROK and U.N. Forces had turned the tide of the Korean War. In October, Pyongyang fell to U.N. Forces. Many thought, “the boys would be home by Christmas.”
It seemed that there was no stopping of U.N. forces as they crossed the 38th Parallel and pushed north toward the Yalu River. That is, until the Chinese entered the war. This Chinese intervention would change the complexity of the war and prompt MacArthur’s statement of an “entirely different war.”
MacArthur’s push north has always been the subject of much debate and scrutiny. Invariably, scrutiny lays with his decision to cross the 38th Parallel and the threat of Chinese entry into the war.
“MacArthur was a brilliant tactician,” explained retired USMC Colonel Warren H. Wiedhahn, now Executive Director of U.S.-Korea 2000 Foundation, Inc. “However, he extended his forces too far.”
It was ironic, Wiedhahn suggested, MacArthur had turned the tide of the war in part due to the North Koreans having extended themselves down the peninsula. Now, the complexity of the war was about to change again because MacArthur had extended his troops up the peninsula. Wiedhahn believed that MacArthur “whipped the 8th Army into moving too fast.”
On the other hand, the X Corps advance seemed more methodical and by the book.
Wiedhahn was critical of those historians and pundits who have savaged the Army’s performance. “The leadership made mistakes,” he said, “but those soldiers [in the 8th Army] fought just as hard as the Marines did.”
Nonetheless, there was little resistance in the beginning. “It was like a cakewalk up the peninsula,” Wiedhahn said. “We expected to be home by Christmas. Then the Chinese hit.”
After an initial offensive by Chinese forces in early November, the Chinese disappeared back into the mountains. Before U.S. – ROK and U.N. forces could launch their own offensive, the Chinese struck again. In the West, the 8th Army would suffer staggering losses around Kunu-ri, especially in an area known as the “Gauntlet,” where the 2nd Infantry Division lost over 4,000 men.
In the East, X Corps would find themselves in a fight for survival around the Changjin Reservoir, better known as, the “Chosin” Reservoir. Against great odds and hardships, the men of X Corps waged a fierce battle against the Chinese and the elements, especially the cold.
“More men were evacuated because of frostbite than the enemy,” explained LCDR William Mitchell, a doctor during the war. Mitchell, who had landed with the Marines at Wolmi-do, Inchon, and later set up a civilian hospital in Yongdung-po, before ending up at the reservoir, pointed out that “most Marines would fight you over a pair of dry socks.”
Don Geddes who saw action in and around Yudam-ni was one of those Marines who suffered from frostbite. “Frostbite and other wounds put me back to the States.”
Soon, places like Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, Koto-ri, and Toktong Pass would pass into Marine vernacular and history.
Wiedhahn recalled being out on one of the listening posts in the freezing cold. “I heard these bugles and whistles,” Wiedhahn said. “What the hell is that, I asked one of my buddies? Suddenly this whole ridge erupted. The Chinese came in hordes. They overwhelmed our firepower. Machine barrels burned up. The Chinese were all around us.”
Marines would be up against innumerable odds. Many would die on those far-off forsaken hills in the freezing cold. Others, when thrust into harms’ way against such great odds, would become heroes.
One such hero was Lt. Colonel Raymond Davis who would end up receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions around Yudam-ni and the Toktong Pass. Against overwhelming odds, Davis rescued a rifle company that had nearly been annihilated at the Toktong Pass.
“Colonel Homer Litzenberg came up to me and said that I had to get to Fox Company,” explained Davis. “I had 20 minutes to come up with a plan.”
Before they set out, Davis noticed a star in the sky that seemed to be brighter than usual.
“Seeing that star…doubled in brightness,” Davis recalled, “I knew the Good Lord was with us.”
Davis would lead his men nearly eight miles along slippery paths in a daring attempt to relieve the beleaguered rifle company and hold the pass so other Marine units would not be cut off.
“We were freezing to death,” Davis said. “We walked single file through the deep snow. After awhile the path turned to ice and the men started slipping.”
He led his men over a series of ridges in continuous attacks against the enemy.
Despite being opposed by numerically superior forces, Davis brought his men within 1500 yards away from Fox Company before daybreak.
“We used a hand crank radio to alert Fox Company,” Davis said. “I didn’t want to end up in a firefight with them. We still had to fight our way in, though.”
Davis also recalled being shocked when he noticed that many of the Marines had used the dead, frozen bodies of the Chinese as barricades. “That was a pretty shocking sight.”
Pfc. Henry Danilowski was one of those survivors of the beleaguered Fox Company at Toktong Pass, one of those brave Marines who now belongs to that proud fraternal association, “The Chosin Few.” He turned 22 while fighting around the Chosin Reservoir. Like many Marines, Danilowski felt he’d be home by Christmas. “Didn’t expect this to happen.”
Danilowski had great respect for the Marine General O.P. Smith. “Smith made sure to stockpile supplies,” recalled Danilowski. Later in the campaign, he remembered overhearing some Marine report to Colonel Lewis Puller and inform the colonel that they were surrounded by the Chinese. “Good,” Puller was reported to have said, “then they can’t get away.”
Later, Davis would organize two task forces to open the pass. Despite repeated attacks by the enemy, Davis and his men would hold the pass until two regiments had been deployed through the area and then moved onto Hagaru-ri with his battalion intact.
At Hagaru-ri, the Marines could consolidate and continue their orderly withdrawal to the coast, first to Koto-ri and then to Hungnam. When asked about this “withdrawal under pressure,” General Smith is reported to have replied that they were not withdrawing, but “attacking in a different direction.”
Back in Korea for the commemoration of the Northern Campaigns, Davis has a deep feeling of appreciation to be back here and to take part in these commemorative events. Wiedhahn has been back here four times this year.
Still, there is some unfinished business.
Davis and Wiedhahn have been fortunate to visit North Korea on two occasions, as part of a group helping North Korean children, once in 1991 and again in 1998. On one such visit, they flew over the reservoir, but, according to Davis, were unable to go there due to “security reasons.” Nonetheless, Davis is confident that he will get back there some day and make it to the reservoir. “I still have men up there,” Davis said sadly.
Likewise, Wiedhahn is also optimistic. Both he and Davis have been lobbying hard and keeping the pressure on. “We’re hoping to get back there next year,” he said.
Perhaps one day, all those men will finally come home.