Under the Colors
NOTES FROM U.S. MILITARY HISTORY
BLOOD BATH AT THE BATTLE OF “FROZEN” CHOSIN KOREA
When dawn broke on December 1, 1950, on the barren hillsides on the eastern shore of the frozen Chosin Reservoir in northeastern North Korea, the ragged, tenuously held perimeter of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Faith was a scene of utter desolation. The task force’s surviving members were on the verge of annihilation. The perimeter was little more than groups of starving, exhausted, and frostbitten American and South Korean soldiers, in varying numbers, huddled around campfires near the remaining artillery pieces and heavy weapons, trying to find warmth. Thousands of frozen American, Chinese, and Korean frozen corpses lay strewn about the terrain, the results of sustained, vicious, close-in fighting. Frozen hands and feet were common. Some wounded men, who were unable to move, had frozen to death. The blood bath was exhibited on all sides of the fight.
The American dead were from the previous night’s attack. The Chinese commander had exhorted his troops to wipe out the task force before dawn. The dead bodies were gathered in central collecting points. Survivors searched the bodies for ammunition, weapons, and clothing. Nearly 600 wounded Americans and South Koreans awaited evacuation at the overwhelmed aid station. The men of the beleaguered regimental combat team had been under attack against overwhelming odds for 80 hours in the harshest, sub-zero weather conditions ever faced by American troops.
Space will not allow for the full recounting of this battle, considered the worst in modern history. What we will do here is give you some of the facts documented in history. The main thrust is to acknowledge the remarkable break out of the Marines, the heroic efforts of the U.S Army holding off the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) for days. And the unflinching bravery of the pilots who flew so close to the ground that Marines said they could see their faces.
This map shows the positions of the principal units involved in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The Chinese attacking forces in red and the retreat routes of U.S. forces in blue. Easy to see the U.S. forces were surrounded making the breakout the extraordinary event it was.
Caught by surprise on the night of November 27, the understrength Army task force had suffered through four consecutive nights of repeated ground attacks. The Chinese had massed their troops in human waves and swarmed over American foxholes into the perimeter, fighting hand to hand, firing burp guns, and throwing hand grenades. The Chinese fought ruthlessly. As a numerically superior force (9 to 1) they sent the first wave of attack in a frenzy against American positions. A second wave followed, but not carrying arms. They would pick up weapons from fallen soldiers as the charged forward. The third wave was an elite force with burp guns who would shoot down their own troops if they tried to retreat.
The depleted Army task force now was going to launch a last-ditch breakout attempt, their goal the U.S. Marine Corps perimeter at Hagaru-ru village near the reservoir’s southern edge, eight miles away to the southwest. Cut off by tens of thousands of enemy foot soldiers, perilously low on ammunition for their heavy weapons, and burdened by 600 wounded they would bring out with them, the task force’s chances seemed hopeless. Command, however, and many of its men were convinced they could not survive another night of enemy mortar, machine-gun, and ground attacks. They believed the breakout attempt was their only hope for survival. Unfortunately, the weather appeared to be getting worse threatening the ability to get air supply and cover. Temperatures were 30 degrees below zero.
The U.S. troops were given no stockpiles of ammunition, fuel, or rations. Nor had any effort been made to issue winter clothing to the troops; the men were outfitted in field jackets with flimsy pile liners and thin cotton trousers. The item most sorely lacking was the long, hooded, fur-lined parka. To make matters worse, the gross lack of preparation was evident in the virtually nonexistent radio communication equipment. When the order for the task force’s scattered units to converge at the reservoir came, they were isolated not only from the rest of the 7th Division and the 1st Marine Division, but also from each other.
Nevertheless, the column pushed forward with fits and starts. The strategy remained the same – march south. There remain many heroic stories. And some horrific ones.
Chinese soldiers stood boldly in the open not far from the perimeter, watching the exhausted Americans prepare for the move south. As the vehicle column formed up on the road, the Chinese began moving down from the slopes, taking up positions along the breakout route. The Chinese poured in fire from the high ground, taking a dreadful toll upon the task force’s drivers and wounded. Wounded men in the trucks were now being wounded again or killed outright, and truck drivers were heavily targeted as well. Under heavy fire, many members of the rear guard sought shelter in a ditch below the road rather than protect the trucks. The Chinese intensified their attacks, throwing white phosphorous grenades into stalled vehicles loaded with wounded, setting some of them on fire.
By the time the column reached the south for evacuation ships, the death toll was staggering. The CCF claimed victory. But was it?
The CCF’s “victory” came at a staggering cost. Chairman Mao’s mission of annihilating X Corps, and especially the 1st Marine Division, never materialized. The effects of combat, severe cold, and poor logistical support wreaked havoc within the divisions that attacked X Corps. The Chinese soldiers also suffered from the lack of winter clothing due to Mao’s haste to get them deployed to the reservoir area. The 80th Division that attacked Task Force Faith was virtually destroyed. Not until March 1951 did the CCF Ninth Army Group return to its normal strength and become combat effective once more. With the absence of nearly 40 percent of CCF forces in North Korea in early 1951, U.N. forces were able to maintain their foothold on the Korean peninsula.
Detailed information can be found at the Warfare History Network and numerous YouTube postings.