“We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now, we’ve finally found them. We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them.” – Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller USMC describing the situation facing his Marines at Chosin Reservoir November 1950.
25 November 1950
With victory seemingly within their grasp, the North Korean People’s Army on the run, and within striking distance of the Yalu River, the United Nations Command (UNC) with General MacArthur at the helm thought the war was almost over. Since the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel back in the beginning of October, the Communist Chinese forces had been sending thousands of men into North Korea, hiding out during the day in the rough mountainous terrain and only moving at night. All during this drive north, intelligence from captured Communist Chinese prisoners indicated that Communist Chinese Forces (CCF) were in North Korea. Unfortunately, UNC high command seemingly brushed off these reports. However, on 25 November 1950, six CCF Divisions launched a holding attack against the center of the 8th Army, while eight CCF Divisions struck the right flank of the Republic of Korea (ROK) II Corps. Even with this full on attack, and with Chinese speaking prisoners and dead uniformed Chinese bodies as evidence, the UNC still considered it “Just another Marine Corps lie.” Soon however, under intense pressure from the Chinese, the reality was about to hit the commanders head on.
27 November 1950
On the evening of 27 November the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) 20th and 27th Corps of the 9th Army launched multiple attacks along the road between the Chosin Reservoir and the village of Koto-ri. Additionally, the PVA 89th, 59th and 79th Divisions surrounded the 5th, 7th, and 11th Marines at Yudam-ni. Also, RCT-31 was ambushed by the PVA 80th and 81st Division at Sinhung-ni. Finally the PVA 60th Division surrounded elements of the 1st Marines at Koto-ri in the north.
The 30,000 UN troops were cut off and surrounded by 67,000 PVA troops in one of the most historic battles fought during the Korean conflict. At Yudam-ni the 5th and 7th Marines fought to a standstill the PVA 79th division whose mission was to wipe out the Marine garrison there. Instead, during some close quarters fighting the Marines held the high ground while inflicting severe casualties on the attackers.
The 59th Division attempted to drive off Charlie and Fox companies of the 7th Marines holding the high ground in the area of Hagaru-ri. Charlie company was routed, while Fox Company held open the vital Toktong Pass during five days of brutal combat. In what would be later called Fox Hill, veterans reported that in the -35 degree temperature, bazooka rockets failed to fire, and men shooting M-1 Carbines watched their targets get up after being shot and continue on. This was due to the amount of padding the Chinese were wearing for warmth. Wave after wave of Chinese charged forward under bugle calls, and the command came for men with carbines to aim for the head. Men who had serious wounds that in normal temperatures would have bled to death, survived due to the almost instant freezing of the blood. On the east side of the Reservoir Task Force 31 was attacked and almost completely overrun. Believing the Americans were destroyed the Chinese began to loot the left behind American supplies and food, allowing 3rd Battalion 31st infantry to counterattack and drive them off.
Veterans (I dare not call them survivors, because they fought tooth and nail to escape the encirclement and inflicted massive casualties on the PVA) from this battle are often referred to as the “Chosin Few”. This battle has become another battle streamer in the history of the United States Marine Corps, and is legendary to this day. The goal of the Chinese high command was to destroy the entire 1st Marine Division. Instead what happened was a fighting withdraw of the X Corps to the port city of Hungnam. Under relentless Chinese attacks, the X Corps fought their way south. The Chinese would attack en masse during the night, trying to avoid the Allies’ air superiority that reigned during the day.
The men who made up the People’s Volunteer Army were mostly former Nationalist Chinese from the Chinese Civil War. After the Communists won the Civil War, thousands of captured Nationalists were sent to “re-education” camps and pressed into service. Sending them to Korea to fight the imperialist Americans served two purposes; it provided manpower to make good on the threat by Mao in October that if the Allies crossed the 38th Parallel China would get involved, and it also provided the outlet to “rid” the People’s Republic of China of non-communist Nationalists.
By the end of October 1950, it appeared that the war was soon to be over. The North Koreans were broken, the Allies were driving ever northward, and no one took serious the threat from the “Chinese Laundry Men”. Barely a month later, with a bitter cold Manchurian wind, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army stopped the Allies dead in their tracks, and threatened to surround and destroy them. MacArthur’s promise to his troops to have them home by Christmas gave way to the harsh reality of a massive fighting withdraw in the mountains of North Korea.