In his later years of service, Oliver Prince Smith commanded the 1st Marine Division in one of its most extraordinary battles: The Chosin Reservoir. Few battles can compare to the intense fighting that took place there. It was a time when the entire body of United Nations forces were stopped in their advance to the Yalu River by an overwhelming number of Chinese Communist infantry.
At the time, the 1st Marine Division and US 7th Infantry Division operated as part of the US 10th Army Corps (X Corps) some 60-70 miles inland, in the mountainous regions of central Korea. Temperature hovered around thirty degrees below zero, but powerful winds from Manchuria plummeted these temperatures even lower. Suddenly isolated from all other UN forces, the only hope these troops had to survive the onslaught was a quality leader with fierce determination. It has been said by those under Smith’s command that he was precisely the right man, at the right place, and at the right time.
The Chinese forces assaulting X Corps included the 20th, 26th, and 27th Chinese field armies —totaling 12 infantry divisions. China’s sudden attack sliced between the two forward elements of X Corps: the 1st Marine Division was operating inland, on the left, and the US 7th Infantry Division was operating nearest the east coast, on the right. 3rd US Infantry Division, with only two regiments, was assigned to X Corps reserve. The 1st Marine Division was the most formidable component of the X Army Corps and General Smith was its most capable general. China’s intent was to destroy the Marine division; were it not for the leadership and combat skill of Major General O. P. Smith, they might have succeeded.
What do we know about General Smith?
General Smith was born in Menard, Texas (1893), but grew up in Northern California. He attended the University of California (Berkley), working his way through college doing odd jobs, but mostly gardening. Gardening became his hobby and one that he pursued his entire life. He graduated from UC in 1916; he applied for and received a commission to Second Lieutenant on 14 May 1917.
The following month, Smith was ordered to duty with the Marine Barracks, Naval Station, Guam, Marianas Islands. Subsequently, Smith served various tours of sea and shore duty, in Haiti with the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, and attended professional schools at Fort Benning, Georgia, Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia, and being fluent in French, he was the first Marine Corps officer to graduate from the Ecole Superieure de Guerre, in Paris, France. Smith also successfully served as the Assistant Regimental Operations Officer, 7th Marines, as Fleet Marine Force Operations Officer in San Diego, and then finally as a lieutenant colonel, he received his first organizational command —1st Battalion, 6th Marines. In May 1941, the 6th Marine Regiment was ordered to Iceland as part of the US Defense Force protecting Iceland from German attack, relieving British forces for duty elsewhere. While in Iceland, Smith was advanced to Colonel.
The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 brought home to Smith the realization that most Marine officers and senior NCOs in his command had no appreciation for the complexities of amphibious warfare, particularly when conducted so far from the United States in the South and Central Pacific Ocean region. Colonel Smith therefore embarked upon a program for officers, NCOs, and enlisted men to educate them about the difficulties of amphibious operations. The program, which he personally taught, was so successful that it was extended to the officers and men of other battalions.
Upon his return to the United States in 1942, Colonel Smith was assigned to the staff at Headquarters Marine Corps where he led the Division of Plans and Policies. Then, in 1944, Smith was ordered to the 1st Marine Division, then serving on New Britain. Assuming command of the 5th Marine Regiment, Smith led his command in the Talasea phase of the Cape Gloucester Operation. Advanced to Brigadier General, Smith then served as the Assistant Division Commander from April 1944 through October 1944 (which included the assault on the Island of Peleliu in the Marianas. In November 1944, Brigadier General Smith was assigned as Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations) for the US X Army; he participated in the Battle of Okinawa from April through June 1945.
In July 1945, Smith assumed the duties of Commandant, Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia and in January 1948, assumed command of the Marine Corps Base, Quantico. In April 1948, Smith was assigned as an assistant commandant and Marine Corps Chief of Staff, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps. While serving in this capacity, he also served as editor-in-chief of the professional journal, Marine Corps Gazette.
Major General Oliver P. Smith was named to replace Major General Graves B. Erskine as Commanding General, 1st Marine Division in early June, 1950. Before the shift in commanders could take effect, however, on 25 June 1950, North Korean forces launched a massive assault on the Republic of (South) Korea.
At that time, the Marine Corps had suffered the same fate as other organizations within the Department of Defense, to wit: President Truman and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson reduced these units in strength and material to the extent that the United States military had no combat-effective units. In the case of the 1st Marine Division, on 25 June 1950, the division’s combat capability was on the order of a reinforced regimental combat team: the division had but one understrength regiment: 5th Marines, then commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray. At this early stage, the 5th Marines had but two battalions (rather than three); each battalion could field two rifle companies (rather than three), and rifle companies had but two infantry platoons (rather than three).
On 26 June 1950, General Erskine and the Marine Corps faced with two immediate herculean undertakings: first, to send Marines to Korea to defend the Pusan Perimeter; second, to reestablish the 1st Marine Division as an effective fighting force. To complete the first task, Marine Corps Headquarters ordered the formation of the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade. The Brigade was formed around the 5th Marines and Marine Aircraft Group 33; leading the Brigade was Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, who previously served as the Erskine’s Assistant Division Commander. Craig was a veteran of two world wars.
The effort to bring the air/ground components up to war-time status and efficiency not only involved massive personnel realignments from the supporting establishment (Marine Barracks, Detachments, Recruiting Duty), but also transferring individual Marines from the 2nd Marine Division (at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (at Cherry Point, North Carolina). Additionally, reservists were called to active duty to fill in the ranks of reactivated regiments (1st Marines and 7th Marines). Lacking funds due to defense cuts, many reservists had yet to attend recruit training, so it fell upon General Erskine and General Smith to provide pre-deployment training as part of their efforts to rebuild a fighting division. This was achieved in record time.
Remarkably, the Brigade departed San Diego, California on 7 July 1950. It would take General Erskine and General Smith a little longer to provision and deploy the remainder of the division. Fortunately, most of the division’s senior company grade officers, field grade officers, and senior NCOs were veterans of World War II; they knew the business of war. This one factor goes a long way in making a distinction between the combat performance of Korean-era Marines and their army counterparts.
General Smith assumed command of the 1st Marine Division on 26 July 1950.
General Smith was a scholar, an intellectual, and well-schooled in the art and science of war. He possessed a calm, pleasant demeanor, and a degree of self-confidence unmatched by any other senior Marine Corps leader at the time. He trusted his officers and NCOs to do their job. Smith was also a devout Christian —important, perhaps, because no matter what crisis he faced in combat, he never took counsel of his fears. His was a calming, professional influence over subordinates —most of whom, as I have said, had themselves experienced the crucible of war.
General Smith loved his Marines; he felt deeply the loss of their lives in combat. The fact that he was a Marine through and through is evidenced by the fact that when he was offered an airlift withdrawal of his division from the Chosin Reservoir, he responded, “No. We are going out as a Marine division, with all of our equipment, and we will fight our way out as an organized Marine division; we are attacking in another direction —as an organized division.” Bring them out he did … with the dead, wounded, and the survivors of the 7th Infantry Division’s 31st Regimental Combat Team, and most of the division’s combat equipment.
For additional information about this courageous, resourceful, and much-loved Marine Corps officer, I highly recommend these two books: For Country and Corps: The Life of General Oliver P. Smith, by Gayle B. Chiseler (Naval Institute Press), 2009 and The Gentle Warrior: Oliver Prince Smith, by Clifton La Brea, Kent State University Press, 2001. Additionally, for a knuckle-biting read of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, I recommend The New Breed: The Story of the U. S. Marines in Korea by Andrew Clare Geer, (Harper Press) 1952. In the case of the last book, it may be somewhat difficult to obtain, but there are pre-owned copies available at Amazon, and I believe Google offers copies through its print on demand system.
 At the beginning of the Korean War, the only maps available to US forces were those obtained from Japanese sources. The Japanese name for this region was Chosin, but in the native Korean language, Changjin. In Marine Corps history, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir is still referred to as such, acknowledging the sacrifices of the Americans who fought there, but according to modern maps, particularly those of Korean origin, no such place exists.
 The US Eighth Army was decisively defeated in the Battle of the Chongchon River; forced to retreat all the way back into South Korea, it was the longest retreat of any military unit in US history. Units retreated helter-skelter, many leaving their dead and much of their equipment to the enemy.
 At the outbreak of the Korean War, the 7th Infantry Division was seriously depleted of trained soldiers due to the incredible short-sightedness of the President and his Secretary of Defense. Ordered to transfer soldiers to the 25th Infantry Division as replacements in late June 1950, the 7th Infantry Division soon became combat-ineffective. In July 1950, the 7th Infantry Division consisted of only 9,000 men. To make up for this deficiency, General Douglas MacArthur assigned 8,000 poorly trained South Korean conscripts. The division did eventually reach its war time strength of 25,000 men, but this number included, in addition to the poorly trained, non-English-speaking Koreans, a regiment of Ethiopians.