Frozen Chosin

The Big Picture

The Korean War was not only significant because it was the opening conflict of the Cold War, nor even because of the numbers of American and allied forces who were killed or wounded during the conflict (1950-1953); it was also significant because it was largely the result of two factors: aggressive Soviet policies under Joseph Stalin, and incompetent leadership in the administration of Harry S. Truman, beginning with the heavy handed policies of the United States Army Military Government in Korea, and the incomprehensible stupidity of Secretary of State Dean Acheson—who not only gave us the Korean War, but the Vietnam War as well.

By April 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung had lost his patience with the US-USSR Joint Commission on the Korean peninsula. He flew to Moscow to ask for Joseph Stalin’s permission to unify Korea by military force. Stalin not only granted his permission, he also provided the war plans to accomplish it.

Thus, on 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army launched an overwhelming invasion of the Republic of South Korea, forcing President Syngman Rhee to evacuate the South Korean capital. The onslaught of North Korean forces surprised everyone on our side of this equation, from the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, Douglas MacArthur, and President Harry Truman, to Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his inept counterpart, Defense Secretary Louis A. Johnson.

By September 1950, the North Korean Army successfully pushed remnants of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army (numbering 60,000 combat troops) and the 8th U. S. Army, which was poorly led, under strength, and under equipped, into what we today refer to as the Pusan perimeter. Louis Johnson cut the personnel strength of the armed services and reduced equipment strength to the point where our military was only marginally effective. As an example, the 1st Marine Division located at Camp Pendleton, California only consisted of two regiments, rather than three. Infantry regiments consisted of only two battalions, each battalion had only two rifle companies, and rifle companies consisted on only two rifle platoons and a weapons platoon. What the Marine Corps did have, however, was an abundance of company and field grade officers and NCOs who were members of the Old Breed … veterans of World War II.

General MacArthur formed X Corps around the 1st Marine Division, 7th Infantry Division, and various other Army support units. After landing the 1st Marine Division at Inchon, MacArthur used X Corps to deny resupply of the North Korean Army (NKA) operating south of Inchon. MacArthur then directed a campaign designed to destroy the NKA, who rapidly withdrew back across the 38th parallel. He employed the 8th US Army to pursue the NKA on the western side of the peninsula, but split X Corps away from the 8th Army to pursue NKA forces along the eastern area of operations under the command of Major General Ned Almond, who answered directly to MacArthur.

The Snapshot

By November 1950, American Marines were moving north from Wonsan toward the Chosen Reservoir. The 7th Infantry Division moved northward, to the right of the Marines albeit separated by mountainous terrain. MajGen Almond was nothing if not demonstrably incompetent and always at loggerheads with Major General O. P. Smith and Major General David G. Barr, who respectively commanded the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division. MacArthur ordered X Corps to pursue the retreating North Korean Army northward to the Yalu River.

Barber 001The primary route to the Yalu River was a narrow dirt road cut into the base of steep mountainous terrain located in a harsh and frigid land; it was the only road from Hungnam to Yudam-ni, the main supply route (MSR) for both the Marines and the 7th Infantry Division. It was up to the Marines to secure that road. The company charged with securing the MSR near the Toktong Pass was Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. The officer commanding Fox Company was Captain William E. Barber.

Arctic conditions worsened daily. By Thanksgiving, the mercury averaged twenty below zero at night and the temperatures dropped even lower thanks to the unceasing sharp winds. No amount of clothing protected the Marines from bone-chilling cold. Climate conditions made the Marines lethargic; the mind-numbing cold neutralized as many Marines as enemy bullets.

After performing a reconnaissance of the area with his battalion commander, Captain Barber selected a small, flat-topped rise near the road on the southern shoulder of Toktong-san (highest mountain) between Hagaru to the south, and Yudam-ni to the north. Afterwards, Barber and his battalion commander encountered a Marine Corps warrant officer who remarked how odd it was that ever-present civilian refugees had suddenly disappeared. Worse, the wildlife also seemed to evaporate. This information did not give Captain Barber a warm and fuzzy feeling.

At about this time, the commander of the Ninth Chinese Army (Chinese People’s Volunteers) decided to launch major counterattack against the X Corps from the Chosen Reservoir to Wonsan. His plan called for the destruction of the 1st Marine Division’s two regiments along a line from Yudam-ni to Sinhung-ni (Toktong Pass) and Hagaru-ri. Once this was accomplished, the Ninth Army would destroy the U.S. Army elements (31st Regimental Combat Team of the 7th Infantry Division) and the remainder of the 1st Marine Division on the eastern side of the reservoir. The task of closing the MSR and isolating the Marines along the Yudam-ni road, and preventing the Marines from escape fell to the Chinese 59th Division. Whoever controlled the Toktong pass would control the MSR in both directions.

Facing the Chinese 59th Infantry Division was one company of 240 Marines. Upon arrival at the selected defense site, Captain Barber behaved as if he expected an attack at any moment. He quickly conducted an area orientation with his platoon leaders, issued his operations order while NCOs distributed munitions throughout the company and the weapons platoon registered their mortars. Friendly vehicle traffic along the MSR prevented registering the regiment’s artillery.

Marines developed a defensive perimeter; entrenching activity went on into the night as Marines hacked and chipped at the frozen earth to prepare fighting positions. By 9 PM (2100), half of Fox Company’s Marines settled into sleeping bags; the other half remained on watch.

The Chinese assault came at 0230 the next morning. In its initial assault, the Chinese split the Marines in the mountains, cutting the MSR in numerous places between Hagaru and Yudam-ni. There was only one cork in the bottle: Fox Company’s position overlooking the Toktong Pass.

The first assault was a battalion sized thrust intending to overwhelm Marines manning outposts and forward positions. The Chinese killed fifteen of these thirty-five Marines outright, wounding another nine Marines within the first few minutes. Showers of grenades and all sorts of small arms crashed down among the Marine positions.

In addition, both company mortar positions received a great deal of attention from the Chinese. Within a matter of minutes, enemy fire decimated the 60-mm Mortar section, leaving a private first class in charge. The 81-mm section was likewise fighting for its life; savage hand-to-hand fighting raged all along the company’s 270-degree northward arc.

Barber rallied his Marines. He first brought his mortars in on the attacking Chinese. Then, continuously exposing himself to small arms fire, he consolidated and led his troops in several counterattacks, restoring the company perimeter. Eventually, the Chinese attacks subsided and the attackers withdrew with approaching dawn. Daylight revealed the cost of the night’s battle: Fox Company had twenty dead, fifty-four wounded, three missing; the Chinese left 450 bodies within and in front of the Marine perimeter.

Barber’s post-assault assessment was that his company was critically short of ammunition. Grenades and mortar ammunition were almost nonexistent. He directed his Marines to collect weapons and ammunition from Chinese and Marine dead to supplement their meager supply and requested a supply airdrop. Many Chinese weapons were of American manufacture, supplied to China as part of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program during World War II.

Captain Barber next requested an air strike on key terrain northwest of Fox Hill where the Chinese had placed snipers to harass the company. Barber’s attached forward artillery observer then managed to register the regiment’s howitzer battery from Hagaru. Meanwhile, Barber organized combat patrols in order to get a better picture of what the company was facing and to predict where the enemy might attack in the coming night. Later in the afternoon, an airdrop resupplied the Marines with ammunition, rations, and medical supplies.

Caring for the wounded was a major problem. Evacuation helicopters were inviting targets for Chinese snipers, so U. S. Navy hospital corpsmen performed miracles with only morphine and field dressings. Working day and night, they tended the wounded at the center of the company position, warming morphine secretes in their mouths. They also kept men from freezing and provided all-important moral support to their patients. Captain Barber constantly reassured his wounded Marines: he would leave no one behind.

As night approached, Marines piled Chinese forward of their fighting positions, using them as sandbags for protection from enemy fire. Again, at 0215, the Chinese began round two. This time, they preceded their assault with a mortar barrage, but the Marines were ready. Marines killed over 100 Chinese during the initial assault alone, but in spite of this, Chinese troops broke through the Marine perimeter. In response, Barber zeroed in his mortars and long-range artillery with deadly effect. He then rushed forward with his reserves, killing or ejecting fifty Chinese. Barber’s Marines confused the enemy by blowing captured Chinese whistles and bugles. Two Chinese companies pressed hard against Barber’s center platoon. Barber rushed to stabilize the line; during this counter-assault, Barber received a bullet wound to the groin. He plugged his wound with a handkerchief, but unable to stand he continued to direct his Marines on hands and knees, encouraging his men to keep the Chinese at bay.

Fox Company held their position for a second night. Several hundred more Chinese died trying to force the Marines from what everyone was calling Fox Hill. But Barber now had five more dead Marines and another twenty-nine wounded to care for. Elsewhere, the two forward regiments of the 1st Marine Division were also in trouble; twelve Chinese divisions were attacking the 5th and 7th Infantry Regiments around Yudam-ni and the division headquarters at Hagaru-ri. The situation for the Marines was critical: the only way out was to attack south along the MSR to reunite the division at Hagaru. Further, someone had to rescue Barber’s company. On the other side of the mountain, ten more Chinese divisions assaulted the 7th Infantry Division.

The final horror was yet to come.

The Marine withdrawal plan hinged on one critical factor: how long Fox Company could hold out in Toktong Pass. At around 0900 on 29 November, Barber was contacted by radio; initially instructed to fight his way back to Hagaru, Barber argued that if he didn’t retain possession, the Marines would have to retake it in order to secure the road below Toktong Pass. “We can do a good job,” he told the battalion commander.

Barber’s decision to stay the course determined the fate of more than 10,000 Marines trapped on the west side of the Chosen Reservoir. With Fox Company holding Toktong Pass, the Marines decided to move overland to Fox Hill, link up with Barber’s men, clear the dominating terrain astride the MSR, and then move to Hagaru. From there, they would push south to the port of Hungnam for evacuation.

Later that evening, Barber gathered his platoon leaders and confided with them. He told them that higher headquarters planned on relief, but when it would happen was anybody’s guess. He described the situation facing both the 5th and 7th Regiments at Yudam-ni and the division main body. “They’re completely surrounded,” he said. “They’re going to have to fight their way out.” Pointing at the MSR, he flatly stated, “That’s the only way out. If we don’t hold the hill, they haven’t got a chance.”

Fox Company’s third night was going to be crucial. Sensing this, Barber paired up the wounded who could shoot with those still in one piece and then issued as much ammunition as each team could store in their fighting positions. Fully armed and more determined than ever, Barber’s Marines huddled in their holes and waited.

Like clockwork, the Chinese attacked at 0200. Marine outposts reported movement and requested mortar illumination. Flares revealed hundreds of Chinese infantry, bayonets fixed and resembling a cattle stampede, surged toward the perimeter. Fox Company responded with a chorus of red-hot steel. Mortars, artillery from Hagaru (seven miles away), concentrated small arms fire, and hand grenades were directed against wave after wave of Chinese infantry.

That night, Fox Company slaughtered a Chinese regiment. Captain Barber, limping and crawling due to his wounds, continued to inspire his men. Whenever the Chinese seemed about to break through his position, Captain Barber appeared from out of nowhere with a reinforcing squad of Marines. Just before dawn, Barber was wounded a second time, in the leg, and forced to command from a stretcher. For the third straight night, Barber’s Marines withstood Chinese assaults.

At first light, three complete Chinese companies lay dead on the south perimeter. Incredibly, only one Marine beside Barber received a wound and he refused medical treatment. Air strikes and airdrops continued to reinforce Fox Company throughout the day on 30 November. Aside from occasional sniper fire, the Chinese were content to lick their wounds. An entire division had spent itself against a mere 240 Marines.

The following night on Fox Hill was relatively quiet; daylight on 1 December brought good news: the breakout from Yudam-ni was under way. Barber was now more determined than ever to stay in his position until relieved. The relief attack, led by First Lieutenant Kurt Lee and LtCol Raymond G. Davis, was itself a story of profound courage. Attacking throughout that day and through the night in twenty-five below zero weather, 1/7’s relief column reached Fox Company’s perimeter shortly after 1000 on 2 December. After Barber called in a final air strike Davis’ 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, fought its way into the perimeter, crossing through the outposts at 1130. Fox Company remained “King of the Hill.”

Medal of Honor“Captain William E. Barber, United States Marine Corps, is awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Company F, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea from 28 November to 2 December 1950. Assigned to defend a three-mile mountain pass along the division’s main supply line and commanding the only route of approach in the march from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri, Captain Barber took position with his battle weary troops and , before nightfall, had dug in and set up a defense along the frozen snow-covered hillside. When a force of estimated regimental strength savagely attacked during the night, inflicting heavy casualties and finally surrounding his position following a bitterly fought seven-hour conflict, Captain Barber, after repulsing the enemy, gave assurance that he could hold if supplied by air drops and requested permission to stand fast when orders were received by radio to fight his way back to a relieving force after two reinforcing units had been driven back under fierce resistance in their attempts to reach the isolated troops. Aware that leaving the position would sever contact with the 8,000 Marines trapped at Yudam-ni and jeopardize their chances of joining the 3,000 more awaiting their arrival in Hagaru-ri for the continued drive to the sea, he chose to risk loss of his command rather than sacrifice more men if the enemy seized control and forced a renewed battle to regain the position, or abandon his many wounded who were unable to walk. Although severely wounded in the leg the early morning of the 29th, Captain Barber continued to maintain personal control, often moving up and down the lines on a stretcher to direct the defense and consistently encouraging and inspiring his men to supreme efforts despite the staggering opposition. Waging desperate battle throughout five days and six nights of repeated onslaughts launched by the fanatical aggressors, he and his heroic command accounted for approximately 1,000 enemy dead in this epic stand in bitter sub-zero weather, and when the company was relieved, only 82 of his original 220 men were able to walk away from the position so valiantly defended against insuperable odds. His profound faith and courage, great personal valor and unwavering fortitude were decisive factors in the successful withdrawal of the division from the deathtrap in the Chosen Reservoir sector and reflect the highest credit upon Captain Barber, his intrepid officers and men and the United States Naval Service.”

/s/ Harry S. Truman
President of the United States

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.