As we sit down to feast with our families this holiday, the blessing might well include a word of thanks to the men and women of our armed forces. While we celebrate our national holiday in the warmth and comfort of homes, they serve at grave peril in faraway places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of our troops are in Korea. There an unprovoked attack from the North killed four South Koreans on Tuesday. That outrage reminds us of the continuing danger posed by the murderous thugs in Pyongyang. But it should also spur us to remember those Americans who, 60 years ago, spent Thanksgiving fighting at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. It was a vicious, brutal battle and one of the Marine Corps’ finest hours.
By Thanksgiving of 1950, X Corps (a joint force composed of American Army and UN troops), had advanced along with the 1st Marine Division deep into North Korea, almost to the Yalu River. But in an attack that caught the Americans by surprise, Chinese troops poured across the border and attacked in almost overwhelming waves.
Many units of X Corps disintegrated under the relentless attacks. The Marines, under the command of General Oliver Smith and Marine Corps legend Colonel Chesty Puller, along with elements of the 7th Infantry Division and the British Royal Marines, fought a rear guard action throughout a slow retreat from Chosin. Of course, Smith famously declared, “Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are merely attacking in another direction.” And he was correct. As a military historian later observed, you can’t retreat when you are completely surrounded.
The Marines and their brethren fought against almost overwhelming odds. They were outnumbered five to one. The conditions were atrocious. Temperatures plunged to 30-, then 40- degrees below zero. Snow and ice coated them and their weapons. Sometimes the blizzard conditions made it impossible to see more than a few yards. Weapons and blood plasma froze. Medics carried morphine ampoules in their mouths to keep them warm. Trucks and jeeps had to be kept running constantly because it was almost impossible to get them started again.
From the hills and mountains surrounding the narrow roads, the Chinese rained machine gun fire and mortar shells on the Marines. Leatherneck battalions had to leapfrog each other as they moved south, fighting“yard by bitterly contested yard” to clear the heights commanding the road in front of them. Dedicated pilots from Marine Air Wings and Navy and Air Force units flew interdiction missions when the weather allowed. But for the most part, it was constant close quarter fighting--grenades, small arms and blades. The Marines won those fights.