The Story Behind the Story
This is actually a “story behind the story” of another story.
In addition to attending some of the major Korean War Commemorative Events in the summer and autumn of 2000, I was still writing weekly book reviews on books about the Korean War.
And once again it was a book that had me on another journey. This time I was on a journey that took me from Korea to Indiana and then back to Korea.
I was surprised that in 2000, the 50th anniversary of the start of this conflict why the Kyobo Bookstore, the largest bookstore in Korea (with the widest selection of English-language books) had very few books on the Korean War. As such, I spent a lot of time ordering books from Amazon and building up quite the collection of books on the Korean conflict—including many new releases that I quickly read and reviewed.
One of the books that I ordered, read and later wrote on review on that autumn was Unexpected Journey, A Marine Corps Reserve Company in the Korean War by Randy and Roxanne Mills. The book told the story about some Marine Reservists who were called up during the Korean War and who would see action around the Chosin Reservoir in November 1950.
What was most interesting about this book was how it came to be written—the story behind the story. According to a telephone interview that I had with the authors—both of who were university professors in November 2000 for the book review I was writing—they were cleaning out the attic of an old house they had bought when they came across this old photo of some young men in Marine uniforms. They were curious as to who these young men were, and after doing some research and a little investigative work they found out that all of these men had served in the Marines and had been called up to join regular forces in the autumn of 1950. Even more interesting they later discovered was that many of these men were still alive and living in the community. They contacted these veterans, arranged for some interviews and from them wrote this book.
And that’s where I came in. After I read the book, I thought it would be interesting to contact the authors and see if they would be willing to do an interview as well as ask them how I could contact some of the veterans they had interviewed. I thought it would be nice to include a few quotes in my book review. So, on Thanksgiving Day in Korea, I am having a telephone interview with Randy and Roxanne Mills. They were very kind and gracious and helped me contact some of the veterans they had interviewed. It was one of the nicest interviews I had, and it seemed ironic that I was having this interview 50 years to the day that the events they had written about in their book had taken place.
The veterans they put me in contact with were equally gracious and kind. You know, one of the things that I learned early on—when I started interviewing all these Korean War veterans was how kind, gracious, and humble they were. They really wanted to talk about the war and talk about what it was like for them. They had stories to tell and just wanted an audience. Time and time again I would discover that these were just ordinary men who had been called upon to fight in extraordinary circumstances. All they wanted, at least the veterans I talked to when I was writing all these stories was not to be forgotten for what they had been through.
Many did forget about the war themselves when they returned home and carried on with their lives; it was only in later years when they felt compelled to seek out other veterans and if given their chance to talk about their experiences.
At first I was going to have this interview accompany the book review; however, after I looked at all my notes I realized that I had enough material to write a feature article. The managing editor at the Korea Times agreed and the interviews that I had with the veterans would become part two of a two-part story on the Chosin Reservoir and the Chosin Few.
As for my writing, it was a lot of on-the-job-training as it were figuring out what I wanted to say and then, how to say it. I hoped that with each story I would get better and that I would do all these veterans a great justice and honor by remembering them and telling their stories.
Chosin Few” Remembered, Part 2
Marine Reservists Recall Horrors
This past week marked the 50th Anniversary of the Chinese offensive against U.S. – ROK and U.N. Forces in North Korea—an intervention that abruptly turned the tide of the war.
What had been MacArthur’s brilliant and grandiose plan—to push all the way to the Yalu—would become the subject of much debate and scrutiny over the years when these U.S.-ROK and UN forces were smashed, battered and pounded on the hills and in the valleys in North Korea.
Many of the Marines who ended up around an area known as the Chosin Reservoir were reservists who had been called up just weeks before. They would soon be fighting for survival in places like Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, and Koto-ri. Some were shipped over to Korea—with no more than two weeks of training—in time for the liberation of Seoul and a trip north to Wonsan. Others, who arrived later—after a month of training—went directly to the reservoir.
The story of some of these reservists as documented in Unexpected Journey, A Marine Corps Reserve Company in the Korean War by Randy and Roxanne Mills is a remarkable one of heroic proportions. Their story is just as much dramatic, as it is heartwarming and inspiring. Although many of these men had seen action during WWII, most of the reservists who were shipped to Korea were either recent high school graduates or still in high school.
Fighting alongside their “regular” Marine brethren, they would prove themselves countless times in the valleys, hills, and mountain tops in North Korea during those fateful, bitterly cold days and nights in November-December 1950.
Paul McDaniel, a veteran of the 3rd Marine Division during WWII, was one of those reservists who became a member of the local Marine Reserve in Evansville, Indiana in 1947. The twenty-five dollars he made each month came in handy. When his unit was activated in 1950, he was one of the first reservists sent to Korea.
“Three hundred of us went from Camp Pendleton to Travis AFB by train,” recalled McDaniel. “Some Pan Am planes had been commandeered to fly us over.”
After stops along the way—Honolulu, Wake Island, and Tokyo—they finally arrived at Kimpo in a C-47.
“The North Koreans were firing at our plane. We had to circle around and around for awhile before we could land,” said McDaniel.
McDaniel had arrived in Korea in time for the liberation of Seoul.
Once in Seoul, he became a member of the 1st Marine Division. It wasn’t easy being a reservist, though. “The regulars resented us at first because we had more rank and more experience,” said McDaniel, but in the end, “they finally accepted us. Everybody becomes a brother when things get rough.”
David Graham, another reservist from Evansville arrived in September 1950. He had joined the reserves “because they [the Marines] came to my high school, Bosse High School, and recruited students.
“Some of my friends joined and at that time it sounded exciting. We got a uniform and we got paid for our training. It was probably the macho thing at the time,” recalled Graham.
His first impressions of Korea were being, scared to death, having no idea what to expect or what may lie ahead The second day he was in Korea one of our group from Evansville, was killed, Corp. John Elliott, whom we were looking to be our leader, recalled Graham.
Soon after Seoul had been liberated, McDaniel, Graham and others would board a troop ship and head toward Wonsan as part of X Corps. MacArthur had crossed the 38th Parallel. The push to the Yalu was on. After MacArthur’s Inchon masterstroke, liberation of Seoul, and the fall of Pyongyang, many believed that the war would soon be over. Indeed, MacArthur even went as far as to declare that the “boys would be home by Christmas.”
“We were told we would be home by Christmas, but I didn’t believe it,” said McDaniel who eventually ended up near the tiny village of Yudam-ni. “A lot of troops were moving in.”
Fellow Evansville reservist and WWII Marine veteran William Wright landed at Wonsan on Nov. 10, the Marine Corps’ birthday. “We saw a lot of North Korean prisoners,” recalled Wright, “but we took it lightly. However, when we saw our first dead Korean, it shook us.”
Wright, who would eventually see action around Hagaru-ri, was impressed with the gorgeous mountain ranges and how peaceful it was there. “The war would soon end the serenity,” recalled Wright sadly. “Something beautiful would turn into something horrible.”
McDaniel recalled it being “terribly cold.” Although they had winter clothing, it wasn’t enough.
“We were issued these shoepacs which were supposed to keep our feet warm. Trouble was your feet would sweat,” said McDaniel. “Then, when you stopped moving around and sat down, ice crystals would form between your toes.”
Warming tents were made available for the Marines who came off the line for 10-15 minutes. McDaniel and another Marine had just come off this hill, but they would not have time to warm up.
“All at once bullets started flying in through the tent. The Chinese had climbed up the hill where we had just been at,” recalled McDaniel who had to crawl out of the tent with the other Marine. “It was one of the most hellacious nights I’d ever spent.”
Although the Marines managed to get through the night, they soon found themselves surrounded. It would be an occurrence up and down the MSR (Main Supply Road).
“The only way out was to fight our way out,” said McDaniel, “so we tied the wounded and the dead to the hoods of our trucks and started out. We made it about two to three city blocks when the hill erupted with fire and brought us to a stop. Colonel Taplett came up to us and said ‘boys, we’re not getting out of here unless we can get rid of those troops.’”
McDaniel and others fought their way up that mountain to clear off the Chinese. McDaniel recalled the “bullets splattering all around us” as they went up the mountain. They started at 10:00 in the morning; by 7:00 at night, they had only made it three-fourths up the snow and ice-covered mountain.
“Then it got dark, real dark,” remembered McDaniel.
The 157 Marines who made it up that mountain formed a tight perimeter and prayed that it would hold through the night.
“We made a big circle and waited for the Chinese. They came running through us. A lot of hand-to-hand fighting. A lot of mayhem going on.”
The battle raged all night and McDaniel was wounded at some point. (A bullet entered his left ankle and came out his right.) In the morning, there were “dead Marines and dead Chinese all over the place.”
Once off the mountain, McDaniel was loaded on a truck along with other wounded and dead Marines. It took them three days to travel 15 miles from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri.
“The Chinese were shooting down at us; swarming over the hills,” recalled McDaniel. “Every so often the convoy would stop. Then the Colonel would say, ‘boys, I hate to tell you this, but they’ve got us hemmed in again.’
“Then these men, no food for two days and all frozen would go trudging off in the deep snow to clear the roadblock. They would come back with some wounded, load them in the back of the truck with the rest of us, and we’d continue on our way.”
(Paul McDaniel would eventually be flown out of Hagaru-ri. Interestingly, one of the Marines who worked around the clock to scrape a runway out of the frozen ground was a reservist from Indiana.)
Further down the road in Hagaru-ri, Wright was stringing some communications wire when he spotted the Chinese. “I was on a telephone pole when I saw the Chinese coming. From then on, I was a rifleman.”
Wright’s most vivid memories of those days and nights in November-December were the cold and the “multitudes of Chinese.” However, it would be the “brutality of war” which would have a lasting effect on his life.
“Everything went so fast,” recalled Wright.
Like McDaniel, Wright was also part of an effort to clear a mountain of Chinese.
“We fought day and night,” said Wright. “We lost a lot of men.”
In one of Wright’s most terrifying moments of the battle, he and six other Marines had to lie on their stomachs all night and hold their position on the hill.
“We could not fire our weapons. Then the Chinese would know how many of us were there. We could see the Chinese coming down. They would come down two or three at a time. They could see us, but they didn’t know how many of us were lying there. In the morning we were relieved by another company and we went on to the next hill.”
Wright, like countless other Marines and soldiers would suffer one of the battle-casualties common to the fighting around the Chosin: frostbite. It has been reported that more casualties were caused by frostbite than from being wounded in action.
Other terrifying and vivid moments experienced by the men up and down the hills and valleys were the cacophony of sounds and noise the Chinese made when they launched an attack.
“The noises the Chinese made before they attacked, the bells, whistles, and bugles still raises the hair on the back of my neck when I think about it,” recalled McDaniel. “Of course, once the firing started you couldn’t hear anything else.”
Raleigh McGary, who was at Chinhung-ni, also vividly remembered the cold and the noise among other things.
“My most frightening time was the breaking of the trap to allow the 1st Marine Division to exit the Chosin Reservoir area,” recollected McGary “We suffered many casualties and I not only feared for my well-being but that of all those around me. The horrible conditions may have worked in our favor in that we didn’t have time to be afraid because we were battling the elements all the time.
“My most vivid memories concern the cold and how miserable we were. This is fairly common with Chosin Survivors. Remembering the bodies and body parts of young men littering the road as we advanced still haunts me.”
The plight of the refugees was another vivid memory the men had of the Chosin Reservoir. McGary remembers “thousands of refugees streaming down the MSR with no place to get out of the cold.”
Wright was also deeply touched by the human tragedy caused by the Korean War. Even today, 50 years later, he is still torn by the brutality of the war and its effect on the Korean people.
“I had such compassion for the people,” said Wright. “The kids were crying all the time. They were involved, too. They were scared and would come to us. There’s so much of that in war. People don’t always realize that.
“The Korean people are such good people. I felt deeply sorry for them and what little some people had. They suffered so much from that war. It’s one thing that you never forget. I did as much as I could. It really hurt me to see how brutal the war was to the Korean people.”
Looking back on the Korean War, most veterans agree that it was worth it. Even though the war was not “won” as it were, many believed that it stopped, or at least slowed down the spread of communism.
“It was well worth it,” said McDaniel. “It was too bad the Chinese had entered, though.”
McDaniel felt that if the Chinese hadn’t entered the war, perhaps Korea could have been unified then.
Wright concurred. “Absolutely it was worth it. We did not win in Korea, but we didn’t allow Communism to take over, either.”
McGary, looked at the bigger picture, too. “The Korean War was the first challenge to the spread of Communism.”
On the other hand, Graham looked at things differently. “I was able to do what I did, but knowing now the way things are today, I would not do it again. This generation would not do what we had done,” said Graham.
Although the Korean War has often been referred to as the “Forgotten War,” McGary believed that it was natural, at least for the veterans to forget about it initially.
“There was no time to dwell on it when I got home. Most men went about their jobs. I returned to college for my senior year, graduated in June 1952 and began my career as an elementary teacher.”
McDaniel, after months of hospitalization, went back to work for the Whirlpool Corporation. He would become a chief illustrator for the Whirlpool catalog. He retired in 1984. Wright, who rotated back to the States in August 1951, ended up working for a telephone company for 41 years.
Even though the men were rotated back to the States—either from wounds or having completed their tour of duty—many would have gone back.
“Almost all of us would have gone back,” said McGary, who went home in May 1951, “if we had been needed.”