A Damn Fine Pilot

EGA 1868Here is the story of an exceptional Marine who enlisted when he was still very young —17-years of age.  I find it interesting that no matter what part of the country these young men and women come from, they all have similar reasons for “joining up.” If you asked these young people why they decided to enlist, I believe their answers would be remarkably consistent. The number one response, I believe, would be “opportunity.”  Most enlistees come from modest environments.  They probably did well enough in school but are not ready to continue with higher education.  Perhaps they can’t afford to attend college; military service will help with that. Maybe they have a sense of adventure; military service will help with that, too.  Possibly, they sense a need for some discipline in their lives; the military will definitely help with that.  Other reasons might include dismal job prospects after high school, to obtain top-notch training, gain a sense of accomplishment, a desire to travel or more simply, to get out of the house.

No matter what their reasons, they come to us by the thousands.  I do not intend to in any way degrade any of the other services, but the fact is that very few applicants have what it takes to become a United States Marine. Getting into the Marines is difficult —getting through basic training is even more difficult— and intentionally so.

Here we have a young man by the name of Kenneth Walsh. He was born on 24 November 1916. He came from Brooklyn, New York graduating from Dickinson High School, Jersey City, New Jersey in 1933.  He was probably a smart kid, graduating at the age of 17 years —about a year ahead of his peers.  Within a few months of his graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He attended recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina.  Afterwards, he trained to become an aircraft mechanic and a radioman.  He served at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Then, in 1936, he entered naval flight training at NAS Pensacola, Florida.  His rank upon entering flight school was private.  Upon obtaining his gold wings as a naval aviator, he was promoted to corporal.

He was assigned to fly scout-observation aircraft and over the next four years, he served on three aircraft carriers.  He was subsequently assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 121 in North Carolina.  At the time of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Walsh was serving as a master technical sergeant.  He was appointed as a Warrant Officer (designated a Marine Gunner) on 11 May 1942. A year later he was commissioned a First Lieutenant.

What made Walsh unique at this point was that he was among only a handful of Marine Corps officers who were qualified to serve as landing signal officer aboard U. S. Navy aircraft carriers.  He was also one of the most experienced Marine Corps pilots at the time.  Remaining assigned to VMF-124, Walsh flew the Vought F4U Corsair.  This aircraft was distributed to VMF-124 beginning in October 1942.  Marines found that these aircraft needed a few important refinements.  It was also a difficult aircraft to fly, but the refinement/learning curve was short.  The F4U aircraft had the range that the Pacific theater Grumman F4F Wildcats didn’t have.  Only the P-38s and F4U’s had the required combat range.  The fact was that these men and their flying machines were needed in the Pacific theater yesterday.

VMF-124’s Corsairs were sent to Espiritu Santo in the jeep carrier USS Kitty Hawkin January 1943. Upon arrival, VMF-124 was sent immediately to Guadalcanal, arriving on 12 February 1943.  The aircraft landed and while they were being refueled, their pilots were getting their first combat brief.  The mission: to escort a PBY Catalina which was assigned a search and air rescue mission for downed Wildcat pilots in hiding on Vella Lavella. On their first day in combat, the pilots logged 9 flight hours.

What Ken Walsh and his squadron mates wanted most was to familiarize themselves with the air combat area: islands, enemy locations, weather patterns.  They wouldn’t get the time for this.  The next day, Lieutenant Walsh led a four-plane element escorting B-24s to Bougainville —300 miles up the slot.

Another day, another mission.  Walsh had his first exposure to actual combat on 14 February. Again, his section was assigned to escort B-24’s to Bougainville … but this time, Japanese Zeros were waiting for them.  The Japanese had their own coast watchers.  The Americans lost eight aircraft that day; the Japanese lost three.  The incident was dubbed “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

As one of the first Corsair squadrons, VMF-124 was anxious to establish a tactical doctrine that later arriving squadrons could build upon. This is how things are done in Marine aviation.  VMF-124 pilots turned to an experienced Wildcat pilot for his advice.  “What is the best way to approach combat with the Japanese?”  His answer was simple:  “You gotta go after them.”  The Corsair had an advantage over the Zero; it was something Walsh learned early on: altitude.  He also learned to avoid slow speed engagements because the Zero had superior maneuverability at speeds below 260 knots.

On 1 April 1943, Walsh was on patrol over the Russell Islands.  The Corsairs circled their assigned area quietly for two hours and then were relieved by a section of P-38 Lightening’s.  No sooner had the Corsairs departed the pattern, Zeros jumped the P-38’s. Walsh alerted his flight to return to assist the P-38s.  A wild melee was taking place and at first, the Zeros didn’t notice the Corsairs. Walsh lined up one Zero for a deflection shot but missed.  His wingman scored the kill.  They approached a second Zero; Walsh splashed him.

Walsh scored three more kills on 13 May 1943.

On 10 August, Walsh’s aircraft had been badly shot up. The plane was on fire, and Walsh had limited ability to control flight.  A Zero lined up to finish him off, but Walsh’s wingman splashed him, saving Walsh’s life.  Walsh managed to reach an emergency strip at New Georgia, but his landing was shoddy. He crashed into another Corsair on the line, but he survived.

By mid-August, VMF-124 had been moved to Munda, a recently captured Japanese airstrip.  Walsh was flying CAP over the invasion beaches at Vella Lavella when the flight director warned him of inbound bogeys.  Some Zeros and Vals (Aichi D3A Type 99 Carrier Bombers) soon arrived. Walsh shot down two before a Zero clobbered him, hitting his starboard wing tank.  The plane could still fly, and Walsh headed for home and ended up landing safely.  Battered, yes, but the Corsairs had prevented the Vals from reaching their airfield. By this time, Walsh had increased the number of his victories to 10.

WALSH - FDR 001On 30 August, Walsh fought an incredible battled against fifty Japanese aircraft, destroying four enemy fighters before he had to ditch his damaged Corsair.  Next, assigned to escort bombers headed toward Bougainville, Walsh’s plane developed engine problems.  He made an emergency landing at Munda and secured a replacement Corsair and soon went off to rejoin his section —flying alone.  From his vantage point, he saw Zeros attacking the B-24s.  Walsh shot down two of these.  On his return to base, he picked up a message from other B-24’s in trouble over Gizo.  He flew off to help, again downing two Zeros—but not before he was hit himself. He was forced to ditch off Vella Lavella.  It was his third water landing in six months.

Ultimately, Ken Walsh score 21 kills, 17 of which were Zeros —second only to Colonel Greg Boyington in air combat victories.  He lost five aircraft.  He was shot down on three occasions.  He ended his first combat tour in September 1943.  On 8 February 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Captain Walsh with the Medal of Honor.

Citation:

USN MOH 001For extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Marine Fighting Squadron 124 in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands area.  Determined to thwart the enemy’s attempt to bomb Allied ground forces and shipping at Vella Lavella on 15 August 1943, First Lieutenant Walsh repeatedly dived his plane into an enemy formation outnumbering his own division 6 to 1 and, although his plane was hit numerous times, shot down 2 Japanese dive bombers and 1 fighter.  After developing engine trouble on 30 August during a vital escort mission, First Lieutenant Walsh landed his mechanically disabled plane at Munda, quickly replaced it with another, and proceeded to rejoin his flight over Kahili.  Separated from his escort group when he encountered approximately 50 Japanese Zeros, he unhesitatingly attacked, striking with relentless fury in his lone battle against a powerful force.  He destroyed 4 hostile fighters before cannon shellfire forced him to make a dead-stick landing off Vella Lavella where he was later picked up.  His valiant leadership and his daring skill as a flier served as a source of confidence and inspiration to his fellow pilots and reflect the highest credit upon him and the United States Naval Service.

Walsh K A 001Walsh returned for a second combat tour with VMF-222 flying the advanced F4U.  Between 28 April and 12 May 1945, Walsh was awarded seven (7) Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism during service in the Philippine Islands.  He scored his last victory on 22 June 1945 downing a Kamikaze over northern Okinawa.  Following the US victory over Imperial Japanese forces, Walsh was assigned to duty as the MAG-14 Assistant Operations Officer on Okinawa.  He returned to the United States in March 1946.

During the Korean War, Walsh served as a C-54 (transport) pilot with VMR-152 (15 July 1950 to November 1951).  He was promoted to Major in 1955, and to Lieutenant Colonel in 1958.  Having completed thirty years of honorable and faithful service, Colonel Walsh retired from the United States Marine Corps on 1 February 1962.

Colonel Walsh passed away on 30 July 1998, aged 81 years.  He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

 

Teaming up: American and British Marines

Turner-Joy 001In August 1950, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, USN (pictured right), the commander of the United Nations’ naval forces, suggested that a small-scale raiding force should be formed to operate against the Communist lines of communication. The original intention was that this group be composed of volunteers from the British Far Eastern Fleet, but it was subsequently decided to enlarge on the original conception and to send out a small Royal Marines’ Commando unit. The force would be placed under U. S. Navy command and would be equipped and maintained from United States sources. On 16 August, the commanding officer-designate reported to the Admiralty, and the formation of the unit began. Two weeks later, the first party embarked aboard aircraft and left for Japan (See footnote 1).

The unit originally was about 200 strong (subsequently increased to 300), with personnel drawn from two sources. Fifty percent came from the various Royal Marine establishments in the United Kingdom and were assembled at the Commando School at Bickleigh. The remainder came from a draft which was at that time on its way to the 3d Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines in Malaya. This party was diverted at Singapore and flown to Japan (See footnote 1).

The commanding officer 41 Commando was given three weeks in which to train his men and be ready for operations. However, 48 hours later the first party left! This was a small subunit composed almost entirely of volunteers from the fleet. It operated as part of a United States Army raiding company and carried out raids on the west coast of Korea. Subsequently, it landed at Inchon and fought with the Army for three weeks before rejoining the main unit in early October.  These raids were not a great success[1].

Following the successful amphibious assault of the US X Corps at Inchon, South Korea in September 1950, President Harry S. Truman directed General Douglas A. MacArthur, Commanding UN forces, to pursue the remnants of the largely-defeated communist Korean People’s Army into North Korea, whence they came.  The Chinese warned MacArthur not to approach China’s border with North Korea, which was the Yalu River.

Discounting the Chinese warning as bluster, General MacArthur ordered the US Eighth Army across the 38th parallel to advance northward on the western side of the peninsula toward Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Unknown to MacArthur, the Chinese had feared a UN invasion of North Korea since the Inch’on landing in September 1950.   It was then that the Chinese began preparations to enter the war by sending supplies and support troops into North Korea.  Ultimately, China would stage 21 combat divisions in Manchuria (later increased to 33 divisions) to move against UN forces.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered his armies into North Korea on 19 October 1950, under the command of General Peng Dehuai.  Peng promptly moved against the Eighth Army, whose lead elements had advanced beyond Pyongyang and were advancing along two separate routes toward the Yalu River.

The Chinese First Offensive (October 25—November 6) stunned the Eighth Army; one American infantry division and four South Korean infantry divisions were mauled in the battle of Onjŏng-Unsan.

Meanwhile, to the east, two divisions of X Corps landed along the North Korean coast on 26 October.  The South Korean I Corps was moving northward up the coast road toward the Sino-Soviet border.  Widely separated, these units made them a tempting target for overwhelming Chinese forces.  US Marines and South Korean forces fought their first engagement against the Chinese at Sudong, inland from the port city of Hungnam.  At Sudong, a Marine regiment defeated an attacking Chinese division, killing more than 600 communist soldiers … an engagement that provided clear evidence the Chinese were in North Korea, and in large numbers.

The X Corps[2]first objective, the village of Hagaru-ri, rested near the southern tip of the Chosin reservoir, a narrow mountain lake that provided hydroelectric power tothe mining industries of northern Korea.  The area of the reservoir was a cold barren battleground where deep foxholes could be dug into the frozen earth only with the help of explosives and bulldozers.

With its supplies moving by truck, the 1stMarine Division established battalion-sized bases at Chinhŭng-ni and Kot’o-ri, villages along the Main Supply Route (MSR).  The division began its final march to the reservoir on November 13, with the 5thMarine Regiment and 7thMarine Regiment in column and moving cautiously.  Each regiment was reinforced by an artillery battalion, a tank company, combat engineers, and headquarters and service units.  On 15 November, lead elements of the 7thMarines reached Hagaru-ri.  From there the regiment prepared for its next advance, west of the reservoir to Yudam-ni, 14 miles away; the 5thMarines cautiously advanced up the reservoir’s right bank.

Commanding the 1stMarine Division, Major General Oliver. P. Smith was unhappy with this risky deployment[3]and was able to persuade Major General Almond to allow the Marines to concentrate at Hagaru-ri and replace the eastern force with a unit from the 7th Infantry Division.

Almond then ordered Major General David G. Barr, U. S. Army, commanding the 7thInfantry Division, to form a regimental combat team of two infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and other troops. This team was formed out of the 31stInfantry Regiment, officially designated RCT-31.  It was commanded by Colonel Allan D. MacLean and is often referred to by historians as Task Force MacLean.  The task force numbered 3,200 US Army and South Korean troops. RCT-31 replaced the Marines east of the reservoir on November 25.

General Smith used this operational pause to strengthen the defenses of Hagaru-ri and build a rough airfield for emergency resupply and medical evacuations.  A battalion of Marines manned the most vulnerable part of the perimeter, but much of the position had to be manned by non-infantry units and personnel[4]. The Marine Corps’ investment in making “every Marine a rifleman” would soon pay dividends.

Meanwhile, as the Marines advanced, General Peng ordered the uncommitted Ninth Army Group to leave Manchuria and destroy the 1stMarine Division.  Commanded by General Song Shilun, the Ninth Army consisted of twelve infantry divisions in three armies.  In total, the Ninth Army consisted of 150,000 infantry troops.  While armed with machineguns and mortars, the Chinese did not have much artillery.  Still, the Chinese believed that their superiority in numbers, their stealth, night time attacks, ambushes, and surprise would enable them to defeat UN Forces near Chosin Reservoir.

The Ninth Army Group moved into positions on either side of the reservoir with five divisions; it moved three more divisions to cut the road south of Hagaru-ri and attack Kot’o-ri.  General Smith, benefiting from aggressive intelligence operations, knew the Chinese had massed around his division; General Almond did not share Smith’s concerns.

In the last week of November 1950, the Ninth Army Group launched simultaneous division-level attacks on the 1stMarine Division at Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, and Kot’o-ri … and on Task Force MacLean, east of the reservoir.  The 5thMarines and 7thMarines, having met major Chinese forces in a daylight attack on 27 November, quickly prepared a perimeter defense for night action.  The divisional enclaves at Hagaru-ri and Kot’o-ri were better prepared, but there was far more terrain to defend than there were Marines available to defend it.  Halfway between Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri, one Marine rifle company defended Tŏktong Pass, where the Chinese 59th Division had positioned a major roadblock. RCT-31, meanwhile, was strung out along the east shoreline road in seven different locations.

In three days of intense night battles and daylight probes starting on the night of November 27–28, all of the major Marine positions held; RCT-31 did not[5].  By the time the surviving soldiers managed to struggle on foot and in small, disorganized groups around the frozen reservoir or directly across the ice to Hagaru-ri, they numbered only 670; half of them were fit for duty.  Colonel MacLean was not one of the survivors.

The Marine regiments, on the other hand, though suffering losses of one-third to one-half in their rifle company strength, managed to halt or curb Chinese attacks, which were aimed at penetrating the perimeters and overrunning artillery positions, the airfield, and command posts.  Around the clock artillery fire and air strikes by Navy and Marine Corps close air support aircraft during the day severely punished the Chinese.

There was one serious misstep, however: General Smith and the 1stMarine Regiment commander (Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller) decided to send a convoy of tanks and resupply trucks from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri on 29 November without realizing that the entire area was then swarming with General Peng’s Ninth Army Group.

What happened was this: during the night of 27 November 1950, the entire UN line, extending some 35-miles west and south of the Chosin Reservoir, came under attack.  By morning, the 1stMarine Division and RCT-31 were under siege in six separate enclaves.  Two regiments of Marines (and artillery) (or what was left of them) held Yudam-ni. Fourteen miles south at Hagaru-ri, the 1stMarine Division command post, two artillery batteries, the equivalent of a battalion of infantry and headquarters troops were holding out against superior numbers of Chinese.  At Koto-ri, 11-miles further south along the X Corps MSR, a Marine headquarters, rifle battalion, and artillery battery continued to resist.

Both X Corps and 1stMarine Division operational planners could see that securing the one-lane MSR connection to all embattled forces would be the key in preventing a collapse (and the destruction) of UN forces.  The pressure being applied to forward units was unremitting.  Accordingly, all available combat units operating south of Chinhung-ni were ordered to Koto-ri.

By that same afternoon, Koto-ri had become a vast vehicle park of cargo vehicles moving up from the rear —but they were accompanied by a mixed bag of units. Among them, Company G, 1stMarine Regiment, Company B, RCT-31, and 41 Commando, Royal Marines. Involved in the mix were scores of trucks brimming with Army headquarters and service troops, their equipment and baggage —and no one was quite sure how many men there were within the Koto-ri perimeter.  Colonel Puller ordered his headquarters to organize these transients into a convoy that would be able to break through to Hagaru-ri on the following morning.

Drysdale DB 003The task force was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Commanding Officer, 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines (pictured right). Colonel Drysdale was informed of this appointment, but not many of his newly assigned subordinates knew about it.  In fact, Captain Charles Peckham, commanding Company G, RCT-31 later stated that Colonel Puller had personally ordered him to lead the convoy all the way to Hagaru-ri[6].

Included in what became known as Task Force Drysdale were 250 Marines of 41 Independent Commando, USMC Headquarters and Service troops, a Marine Corps infantry company, a US Army infantry company, a company of tanks, and numerous medium-to-light cargo vehicles loaded with supplies.  The task force was ambushed by regimental sized Chinese communists enroute to their objective.  One-third of the force (tanks and infantry) fought through to Hagaru-ri; another third fought its way back to Kot’o-ri. The remainder (162 officers and men) died or became captives.

Nevertheless, on the morning of 29 November, units attached to Task Force Drysdale followed up UN artillery and airstrikes by attacking two Chinese-held areas on the MSR —which opened the way for the attached convoy of vehicles. Captain Bruce Clark, commanding Company D, 1stTank Battalion, later discovered the convoy stalled along the MSR.  After refueling his tanks, Clark ordered First Lieutenant Paul Sanders’ five-tank platoon to support 41 Commando and Company G assaults on the ridgeline overlooking the MSR.  Sanders conferred with Drysdale, who assigned him a common radio frequency.

With airstrikes and tanks in direct support, 41 Commando and Company G delivered up a spirited attack and several Chinese blocking points were destroyed … but this is the point where the action began to fall apart.  Lieutenant Sanders lost radio contact with Drysdale and had to suspend his firing.  Exiting his tank, Sanders saw that the convoy had fallen far behind his position, nor could he spot Peckham’s Company B, which had advanced out of visual range. Sanders, still in contact with Captain Clark, requested instructions.  Clark advised him to proceed slowly along the MSR; another tank platoon would follow in his wake.

41 Commando KoreaAs soon as the Chinese blockade on the ridge overlooking the MSR just north of Koto-ri had been cleared, 41 Commando deployed between the roadway and the ridgeline to protect the long column of vehicles.  It was a cold, miserable day, with snow flurries whipping into the faces of soldiers and Marines.  Marine Corsairs were on station overhead, but the shifting mist and jumbled terrain forced these aircraft to pull up before they could get close enough to their targets.  Progress along the MSR was agonizingly slow.  (Shown left, elements of 41 Independent Commando, 1950).

In the vanguard, Captain Peckham maneuvered his company with great care.  Behind Peckham, Captain Carl Sitter’s Company G maneuvered against numerous Chinese infantrymen who had been driven briefly to ground by Peckham’s infantry.  As Peckham’s vanguard inched forward in the column lead, and given his present circumstances, Drysdale’s natural aggressiveness may have overtaken his judgment.  In Drysdale’s opinion, Peckham was moving too slowly, too methodically along the MSR.

It was well past noon, and as Peckham was focused on re-loading the lead platoon’s trucks, a tank surged past him.  The next vehicle in line was a jeep bearing Drysdale, who yelled above the din, ‘Let’s move forward!’  Peckham demurred; he had wounded men on his hands and refused to advance until they had been sent safely away.  Drysdale responded with a smiling ‘Tally Ho!’ and took off, drawing along with him 41 Commando, all the tanks, and Captain Sitter’s Company of Marines in his wake.

It wasn’t long, however, before the extensive column was slowed by a massive traffic jam where the soft-top vehicles became targets of opportunity for Chinese mortars on the heights.  As a result of this, the convoy was soon fragmented by stalled vehicles and the smoking remains of burning trucks and jeeps.  In the Chinese assault, large numbers of men were killed or wounded.

Peckham’s company, unable to move back into the column, became fragmented —stopped in trace by a burning ammunition truck that blocked the roadway.  American and British marines under Major John McLaughlin, the Marine X Corps liaison officer, were helping to clear the roadway of wounded men and stalled vehicles.  Unable to proceed, Peckham deployed his troops in roadside ditches to return the Chinese fire from the heights.

The eventual destruction of every radio in the column assured the loss of command and control, and this resulted in crumbling discipline. Unable to advance, numerous drivers simply turned their vehicles around in the vain hope of returning to Koto-ri. For a time, ambulances filled to capacity with wounded soldiers and Marines were getting through, but eventually, they were halted in their progress as the roadway was blocked with inoperable vehicles.

Colonel Drysdale’s combat elements, which included most of 41 Commando, Company D tanks, and Marine infantry from Company G, were briefly blocked at Pusong-ni, on a narrow defile about five miles north of Koto-ri.  The choke point was eventually forced open, but the column’s progress was immediately halted again by a demolished bridge.

Lieutenant Sanders, whose tank platoon was Drysdale’s vanguard, was then ordered to move aside and allow the rear tank platoon to bypass the blown bridge.  While the maneuver was accomplished (with difficulty), truck drivers became convinced that although tanks might get through, soft vehicles stood little chance.  Drysdale sent his adjutant forward to evaluate the situation confronting forward elements; that officer was wounded.  At the same time, massive gunfire from the surrounding heights incapacitated the Company G machine gun officer and wounded Colonel Drysdale.  Command of the vanguard group passed to Captain Sitter, who ordered everyone to deploy and return fire.

British and American Marines jumped to the road to join the fight.  Someone shouted “grenade,” which sent many troops ducking for cover.  Private First Class William Baugh threw himself on top of the grenade, smothering it with his body, thereby saving the lives of the men around him[7].

As darkness descended over the MSR, Company D Tanks was feeling its way along the fire-swept roadway toward the Marine roadblocks guarding besieged Hagaru-ri.  One of the tanks was knocked out by an anti-tank grenade and had to be shoved into a ditch to clear the roadway.  Lieutenant Sanders passed the friendly roadblock almost before he realized he was safe.  He had just passed the roadblock when his tank’s engine died —he had run out of fuel.

Company G passed through the roadblock at about 2015 —after more than ten hours on the move through “Indian country.”  Company G was immediately placed along the Hagaru-ri defensive perimeter.  Unhappily, the surge of Company G and Company D tank’s left the bulk of 41 Commando far behind.  Without missing a beat, Chinese communists quickly surrounded the 200-plus Royal Marines and proceeded to reduce their numbers with lethal fire.

Rewinding for just a moment, the last cohesive unit to enter Koto-ri from the south was Company B, 1st Tank Battalion, which arrived at 1500. The bulk of the company, including soft vehicles, then advanced three miles up the MSR through moderate fire to find the tail of the convoy.

As Company B tanks drew close to the main convoy, far after the hour of darkness, they found the MSR blocked by destroyed vehicles.  There was no way for the tanks to bypass the carnage; at that moment, heavy mortar fire began falling perilously close to the tank company’s fuel and ammunition trucks.

Further advance would only accomplish the destruction of these tanks; the company was forced to defend itself through the night against massed Chinese infantry assaults.  Several tankers were killed or injured, and several soft vehicles were lost, but the company was destined to survive.

Of about 1,200 U.S. Army soldiers, Marines, and Royal Marines —plus a few South Koreans, who had started out from Koto-ri on the morning of November 29, only about 250 had arrived at Hagaru-ri by midnight. The rest were scattered along several miles of the road in at least six separate groups, isolated by Chinese strongpoints and impassible snarls of wrecked and burning vehicles of every description.

The northernmost MSR enclave was manned by about 200 Royal Marines under Drysdale, who in spite of his painful wounds, directed a spirited defense, which denied the Chinese their intention to further fragment his bloodied unit.  Royal Marine Casualties were heavy, particularly among the officers, but they nevertheless inched steadily along toward Hagaru-ri.  The bulk of these Marines, including many wounded, passed through the outer U.S. Marine roadblock after midnight.  After taking muster, the Royal Marines found that fully one-half of their original complement of 250 had been killed, wounded, or were missing.

Remaining on the MSR were some 500 Americans, British and South Koreans who were trapped within the five major enclaves extending several hundred yards through the defile south of Pusong-ni—or, about halfway between Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri.  The northernmost group was under the command of the 1st Marine Division’s logistics officer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Chidester.  When he was shot through both legs, he passed command to Major John McLaughlin.  McLaughlin found that he had about 135 men under his command, including Captain Peckham and what remained of Company B, RCT-31.  McLaughlin also counted a U.S. Marine military police section under Warrant Officer Lloyd Dirst, a score of Royal Marines, assorted headquarters personnel, and an ever-growing contingent of wounded.

Two-hundred yards south of McLaughlin’s position were two understrength platoons of Company B, RCT-31 and several Marine stragglers, who had taken cover in a roadside ditch.  Thirty yards further south were about 95 Marine staff officers, clerks and technicians under Captain Michael Capraro, a Marine public information officer.

A short distance south of Capraro’s force was another group of 45 Marines under the 1st Marine Division motor transport officer, Major Henry ‘Pop’ Seeley.  A fifth group of men served under the 1stMarine Division Personnel officer, Colonel Harvey Walseth.  Walseth had turned his group around after dark and slowly fought his way toward Koto-ri.  When Walseth found that his vehicles were completely blocked by Company B Tanks, he and his troops dismounted and walked the rest of the way to Koto-ri.

Captain Peckham commanded the only viable infantry increment in the northernmost enclave, but he was not particularly enthused by the quality of the troops: many of these men were panic-stricken South Korean conscripts who used up the bulk of their ammunition firing at phantoms.

Warrant Officer Dirst, the MP section leader, sought to steady his men by striding up and down the road, pipe in hand, barking out curt commands.  He managed to leave steady, organized soldiers and Marines in his wake.  When he heard troops firing too much precious ammunition, he gently admonished the offenders, telling them that they had only to fight through to daybreak to draw the awesome support of Marine war planes and hopefully, ground reinforcements.  In the end, however, Dirst was mortally wounded.  Another steady hand was Major McLaughlin, who left no doubt about who was in command and how the defense was to be conducted.  As ammunition supplies dwindled, McLaughlin personally collected rounds from the dead and wounded and distributed them to the men who seemed most composed.  Sometime after midnight, the remnants of the two platoons from Company B, RCT-31 managed to work their way into McLaughlin’s perimeter.  It was a welcome reinforcement.

Voices speaking from the dark in broken English called upon Captain Capraro to surrender his men in return for good treatment[8].  After trading insults, the Chinese informed Capraro that his small, beleaguered force were facing three regiments of Chinese infantry.  Continued resistance was pointless, they told him.  Capraro refused and prepared his men to meet renewed assaults.

Captain Peckham, in Major McLaughlin’s enclave, was reduced to handing out rifle ammunition in increments of two or three at a time.  The South Koreans, meanwhile, drifted away into the hills.  Peckham soon counted less than a dozen effective men in his command.

Having persuaded captive Sergeant Guillermo Tovar to act as an intermediary to carry a surrender offer to the Americans, Chinese fire abated as a delegation approached Major McLaughlin’s position.  Once again, if the major surrendered his forces, American wounded would be well-treated.  McLaughlin asked for time to discuss the proposal with his officers; the Chinese agreed. McLaughlin instructed Tovar to seek out Major Seeley and tell him to delay any surrender for as long as possible. It would soon be light; the beleaguered Americans could get help from close air support aircraft.

While Major McLaughlin was meeting with the Chinese delegation along the railway embankment, another Chinese officer approached Captain Peckham.  Peckham was promised good treatment if he surrendered his forces.  Captain Peckham gave the man a package of cigarettes and asked that he take them to his superior.  If the Chinese agreed to give up, Peckham told him, he would see that the Chinese were fed and well-treated.

Major McLaughlin discovered Colonel Chidester, wounded, and lying in a ditch.  McLaughlin told him about the Chinese proposal; Chidester reluctantly urged McLaughlin to accept the terms.  A Chinese officer, meanwhile, returned to Peckham and told him that unless the Americans relinquish their weapons within fifteen minutes, a full regiment would launch their assault.  Peckham asked for additional time to get the word out to his troops.  He then set about destroying their weapons.  McLaughlin approached the Chinese officer and informed him, “If we surrender, it won’t be because you beat us; we will only surrender to get our wounded cared for.  If we cannot get our wounded evacuated, then we will fight on.”

Major Seeley, in the meantime, had assumed from the start that a relief expedition would be mounted from Hagaru-ri or Koto-ri at first light.  For now, he thought the Chinese were being held back; the greatest threat seemed to come from the dank, subzero chill.  Troop leaders constantly checked their subordinates and one another for signs of frostbite and reminded all hands to keep their limbs in constant motion.  Ammunition supply was another constant worry; Seeley commanded mostly headquarters personnel who were issued limited amounts of ammunition.

When Seeley heard Tovar yelling his name in the dark, he ordered his troops to cease firing.  Tovar approached and asked Seeley to accompany him into a field on the east side of the road.  There he told the major what was going on and about McLaughlin’s desire to stall for as long as possible.

Farther on, the two Americans were met by two Chinese who spoke no English but nevertheless made it clear that Major Seeley was to have his troops put down their weapons and advance with their hands up.  As the exchange was winding down, Major Eagen, who the Chinese had carried down from the heights, spoke out of the darkness and asked Seeley to come talk.  Eagen, severely wounded in both legs, told Seeley everything he knew about McLaughlin’s situation and the Chinese offer; he had seen the Chinese setting up heavy mortars on the roadway, so he urged Seeley to surrender.  This was Seeley’s first inkling as to the size of the Chinese force, but he still wanted to wait until dawn, which might bring relief.

Eagen was in the middle of pleading his case for the many wounded when a Chinese officer interrupted the exchange.  It was clear from their hand signs that they wanted a decision.  Seeley asked Eagen to stall them, then walked back to his enclave by the river.  He told Sergeant Tovar to ask McLaughlin to stall while he and his troops dug in more securely.  Major Seeley had made his decision: he was not going to give in.  By then, however, the Chinese had begun disarming McLaughlin’s people —only a few of whom were capable of putting up further resistance.

Major Seeley was next approached by Warrant Officer Dee Yancey, who reported that he had reconnoitered the adjacent Changjin River and found that it was solid ice.  There seemed to be no Chinese fire coming from the far shore, so Yancey suggested that the group break out.  Major Seeley readily agreed.  The entire group, including the wounded, started west across the river toward a ridge that might provide good cover.  Capraro’s force joined Seeley’s west of the river where two seriously wounded Marines were discovered, who had been lost on patrol three days earlier. Seeley’s group struggled up to the ridge, clambered over the top and turned south toward Koto-ri at an agonizingly slow pace.

Major Seeley’s enclave was out of sight of the Chinese on the MSR before sunrise but did hear the voices of Chinese that seemed to be approaching from the rear.  Warrant Officer Yancey, who had suffered painful shrapnel wounds in both legs and back, dropped behind as the first Chinese came over the ridge. A former Marine Corps rifle team shooter, Yancey quickly dropped two Chinese point men while the remainder of the American group scrambled down the slope. The Chinese patrol went to ground, and Yancey followed his countrymen, all of whom reached Koto-ri.

41 Commando Korea 002Of the approximately twelve-hundred men assigned to Task Force Drysdale, 162 remain listed as killed or missing in action.  Another 159 men were wounded and repatriated.  More than 300 American and British troops were marched off to prison camps.  Of those, 18 Marines escaped the following spring.  About two dozen Britons and several dozen American soldiers and Marines went to ground in the hills, cut off from friendly forces.  Most of these survived.  Seventy-five percent of all vehicles allocated to Task Force Drysdale were destroyed.

Sergeant Tovar managed to escape captivity while helping to prepare the wounded for return to Koto-ri.  The wounded Colonel Drysdale was among the survivors who made it to Hagaru-ri, but 41 Commando had suffered 61 casualties, which would increase to 93 before X Corps completed the breakout to Hungnam on 10 December 1950.

 Colonel Chidester and Major Eagen were never seen again.

After being evacuated to South Korea, 41 Commando was withdrawn to Japan to be reconstituted in January 1951.  Before departing Korea, Colonel Drysdale’s stated, “This was the first time that the Marines of the two nations had fought side by side since the defense of the Peking Legations in 1900.  Let it be said that the admiration of all ranks of 41 Commando for their brothers in arms was and is unbounded. They fought like tigers and their morale and esprit de corps is second to none.”

How did the American Marines feel about their British comrades?  According to author/historian Eric Hammel, one US Marine spoke for most when he said, “I walked into Hagaru-ri from Yudam-ni where I learned that the British had supplied us with a fighting force.  Before that we laughed at the words `U.N. Forces’ because we had not seen the troops of any other nation except the Chinese.  I was delighted to meet the British. When they came around you could stop looking for a fight, because they would be right in the middle of it.”

Post Script:

Douglas Burns Drysdale was born in Hampstead, England, United Kingdom on 2 October 1916.  He spent the majority of his youth in Argentina where he developed a life-long passion for horsemanship and hunting.

Commissioned in the Royal Marines in 1935, he initially commanded the Marine Detachment aboard HMS Renownthrough the first three years of World War II and then joined 2ndBattalion, Royal Marines in Iceland.  He was promoted to captain in June 1942 and assigned to the staff of the British Admiralty in Washington DC.  It was during this tour that he had his first contact with the U. S. Marine Corps as a liaison officer until in 1943, he was assigned to serve as brigade major (chief of staff) of 3 Special Services Brigade and Commanding Officer, 44 Commando in Burma.

Following World War II, Drysdale served on the staff of the British Army Staff College, and on the staff of the officer’s school where he was promoted to acting lieutenant colonel.  He was subsequently assigned to command 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines.

DSO-UKHis command of 41 Independent Commando in Korea was to become the highlight of his military career.  For his actions at the Chosin Reservoir and his leadership of 41 Independent Commando, Colonel Drysdale was awarded two Silver Star medals (US) and the Distinguished Service Order (UK).  Additionally, 41 Independent Commando was awarded the United States’ Presidential Unit Citation in recognition of its stellar performance during the Battle for Chosin Reservoir.

In late 1951, Drysdale relinquished command of 41 Independent Commando to Lieutenant Colonel Ferris N. Grant, RM.  He subsequently served as the Royal Marine Representative at the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia until 1954.  Between 1955 and 1962, Colonel Drysdale served as Commandant, Royal Marine Noncommissioned Officer’s School, staff officer in the office of the Commandant General, Royal Marines, and after his promotion to Colonel he commanded 3 Commando Brigade.  Colonel Drysdale retired from active military service in 1962. He passed away on 22 June 1990 at the age of 73-years.

Notes:

[1]Source: Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Royal Marines (1953)

[2]X Corps was commanded by Major General Ned Almond, U. S. Army.  Almond served concurrently as General MacArthur’s chief of staff at his Tokyo headquarters and because of this, rather than being subordinate to the Eighth Army, operated independently from it.  Almond took his marching orders directly from MacArthur, and no other.  Almond had no amphibious operations experience, which given the mission assigned to X Corps, made him unqualified to command that organization. Beyond this, as a field general, Almond was operationally incompetent.  See also

[3]What made this a risky deployment, in General Smith’s opinion, was the plethora of intelligence gathered indicating a large presence of Chinese communist forces.  This information, passed back to the headquarters of X Corps, was discounted and ignored.  Not even after RCT-31 was decimated by overwhelming Chinese Communist forces on 27 November 1950 would Almond acknowledge the presence of this threat.

[4]In the Marine Corps, every Marine is a rifleman.

[5]One-third of the soldiers assigned to RCT-31 were killed or captured by the Chinese Army.

[6]This conversation was likely to have occurred before Puller realized that Colonel Drysdale was the senior combat officer present. Given the situation at the time, realizing that Puller’s plate was full-to-overflowing, he may not have thought to countermand his orders to Peckham.

[7]For this selfless act, PFC Baugh was awarded the Medal of Honor.

[8]This was a strategy the Chinese repeated several times along the MSR.

Who Was Willoughby?

In February 1942, General Douglas MacArthur (shown left) (who formerly served as Army Chief of Staff and then after retirement, as Field Marshal of the Philippine Army) scampered away from the Philippine Islands and headed toward Australia, thereby avoiding capture by a massive Japanese invasion of the Philippines.  He did this at the direction of the President of the United States (Franklin D. Roosevelt).  When he departed aboard U. S. Navy patrol/torpedo boats and seaplanes, MacArthur took with him his family, his personal staff, and his intelligence officer —Colonel Charles Willoughby, Army of the United States (AUS)[1].  Willoughby continued to serve on MacArthur’s staff until that fateful day on 10 April 1951 when President Harry S. Truman relieved MacArthur of his position as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East and sent him into retirement.

Charles Andrew Willoughby (depicted right), born on March 8, 1892, died October 25, 1972, eventually served as a Major General in the United States Army.  He was born in Heidelberg, Germany as Adolph Karl Weidenbach, the son of Baron T. Tscheppe-Weidenbach—but this was disputed by a New York Journal reporter in 1952[2].  Some uncertainty remains about who this man was, as well as his family lineage.  What we are certain about is that Willoughby migrated from Germany to the United States in 1910.

In October 1910, Willoughby enlisted in the U. S. Army, and over the next three years he served with the US Fifth Infantry Division, rising to the rank of sergeant.  In 1913, he was honorably discharged from the U. S. Army and attended college at Gettysburg College.  Having already attended three years at the University of Heidelberg and the Sorbonne (Paris), Willoughby enrolled as a senior, graduating in 1914.  Actually, we do not know for certain that he actually did attend Heidelberg University, or the Sorbonne.  In any case, Willoughby received a commission to second lieutenant in in the officer’s volunteer reserve, U. S. Army, in 1914.  At this juncture, his name was Adolph Charles Weidenbach[3].  He spent three years teaching German and military studies at various prep-schools in the United States, and then on 27 July 1916 he accepted a regular Army commission as a second lieutenant; he was advanced to the rank of first lieutenant on the same day.  He rose to the rank of captain in 1917 and served in World War I as part of the American Expeditionary Forces.

Willoughby later transferred from the infantry to the US Army Air Corps; his training as a pilot was conducted by the French military.  After some involvement with a French female by the name of Elyse Raimonde DeRoche, who was later shot as a spy, Weidenbach was recalled to Washington and asked to account for his pro-German sentiments.  He was eventually cleared of suspicions in this regard.

Following World War I, Willoughby/Weidenbach was assigned to the 24th Infantry in New Mexico from 1919 to 1921, and was then posted to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he served in military intelligence.  He subsequently served as a Military Attaché in Ecuador and for unclear reasons, Willoughby received the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus from Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government (shown right).  Beginning in the 1920s, Willoughby became an ardent admirer of Spanish General Francisco Franco, whom he referred to as the greatest general in the world[4].

In 1929, Willoughby/Weidenbach received orders to the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  He became an instructor there in 1936, and received his promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Throughout World War II, the occupation of Japan, and the Korean War, Willoughby served as MacArthur’s chief of intelligence.  MacArthur is said to have jokingly referred to Willoughby as “My pet fascist”.  He is also quoted as having said of Willoughby, “There have been three great intelligence officers in history: mine is not one of them.”

Author John Robert Ferris (Intelligence and Strategy: selected essays) stated that MacArthur’s pronouncement could be a gross understatement.  He described Willoughby as a candidate for the worst intelligence officer in the Second World War.  As an example, in early 1944, in the largest landing of the Pacific war to that date, four infantry divisions were employed in the taking of Hallandia, Dutch New Guinea.  Willoughby had reported sizable Japanese forces there.  Accordingly, the entire Pacific Fleet stood out to sea to screen the landing.  Surrendering to this mighty force were two thousand frightened Japanese warehouse and supply troops.  The operation was completely in line with MacArthur’s policy of “hitting them where they ain’t,” and so Willoughby’s misappraisal was conveniently filed and forgotten.

Willoughby was temporarily promoted to major general on 12 April 1945.

After the war, Willoughby was instrumental in arranging the exoneration of a Japanese war criminal by the name of Lieutenant General (Medical) Shirõ Ishii[5] (Unit 731) in exchange for information about biological warfare.  This was not his only debacle:

Willoughby (apparently with the approval of MacArthur) made a weak grab for the US counterintelligence effort.  Counterintelligence was not under Willoughby’s umbrella, but he and MacArthur had been stonewalling the OSS since the beginning of World War II.  What we can say with certitude, however, is that the inadequacy of US counterintelligence in Japan can be attributed to either Willoughby’s (or MacArthur’s) incompetence or his professional negligence.  When US forces occupied Japan, there was no counterintelligence effort.  One news reporter discovered the Japanese Foreign Office, Radio Tokyo, and various military offices openly burning classified documents in the middle of the street, denying this information to the occupying force.  There were no counterintelligence officers present in Japan to stop them.

Commanding the 8th US Army, General Robert Eichelberger lacked the benefit of counterintelligence advice when he welcomed the commander of the Japanese Army in Yokohama.  General Kenji Doihara was also Japan’s top intelligence officer; it was he who had engineered in 1931 the incident leading to Japan taking over Manchuria.  Eicrhelberger thought that Doihara was a “splendid little fellow.”  It was only the next day after Eicrhelberger this meeting was reported through intelligence channels to Washington DC that MacArthur ordered Doihara’s arrest.

Not long after the US occupation began, military police arrived at the Marunouchi Hotel looking for black-market operators.  What they found was Major General Willoughby having dinner with the stranded Italian Fascist Ambassador to Japan and members of his staff[6].  Naturally, Willoughby vented his anger at the military police, who were only doing their jobs.

Willoughby’s service in Japan lacks clarity unless it also reveals his vendetta against critics, or those guilty of lèse-majesté toward MacArthur.  Consequently, Willoughby spent as much time and energy to his dossiers on newsmen and military heretics as he did to reports on enemy dispositions.  William Costello from CBS decided that he much preferred digging up his own material about the Japanese rather than using handouts supplied by MacArthur’s headquarters.  How did Willoughby deal with this situation?  He sent people around to discuss with Costello what might happen if his communist membership card from the 1930s became public knowledge.  Costello was underwhelmed; he had never been a communist.  Digging in, Costello became a one-man anti-Willoughby campaigner, telling anyone and everyone who would listen what a creep Willoughby was.  By 1948, Costello was winning this war; so much so, in fact, that MacArthur invited him to a stag party.  If Costello ever attended the party, let’s hope he kept his clothes on.

Leopards never change their spots.  During the Korean War, Willoughby intentionally distorted, if not suppressed intelligence estimates that resulted in the death, injury, or captivity of thousands of American military personnel.  He did this, it is argued, to better support MacArthur’s horribly negligent (or grossly incompetent) assertion that the Chinese Army would never cross the Yalu River … and in doing so, allow MacArthur a much freer hand in his prosecution of the Korean campaign —by keeping the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington DC (and the President) in the dark.

As writer/historian David Halberstam[7] reminded us, “Control intelligence, you control decision making.”  Halberstam argues that Willoughby was appointed head of intelligence for Korea due to his sycophancy toward MacArthur and points out that many veterans of the Korean War, enlisted and officer, believed that the lack of proper intelligence led field commanders to develop inadequate employment plans such that they could not provide combat support to one another.  Entire Chinese infantry divisions passed through the gaps that existed between forward deployed American units.

In late 1950, Lieutenant Colonel John Chiles served in the operations section of the US 10th Corps.  He later stated that because MacArthur did not want the Chinese to enter the war, Willoughby falsified intelligence reports so that they wouldn’t enter the war.  “He should have gone to jail,” Chiles said.

Willoughby never went to jail, however.  He retired from the Army in grade of major general on August 31, 1951.  In retirement, he lobbied for Generalissimo Francisco Franco … true colors.

True to form, Willoughby launched a broadside in Cosmopolitan after his retirement against certain correspondents and commentators critical of MacArthur’s strategy. His targets included Homer Bigart of the New York Herald Tribune, one of the most able war correspondents and a Pulitzer Prize winner; Hal Boyle, front-line correspondent for the Associated Press; Hanson Baldwin, military specialist of the New York Times; Joseph Alsop, syndicated columnist; and Drew Pearson, columnist and radio commentator.

There was nothing diplomatic in Willoughby’s handling of MacArthur’s critics.  He called them rag-pickers of American literature, men who were addicted to yellow journalism, sensationalists, men whose reporting provided aid and comfort to the enemy.  The newsmen replied to Willoughby with equal vigor, but the mildest reply was offered by Hanson Baldwin: “As an intelligence officer, General Willoughby was widely and justly criticized by Pentagon officials as well as in the papers. His . . . article is as misleading and inaccurate as were some of his intelligence reports.”  Gordon Walker, correspondent and later an assistant foreign editor of the Christian Science Monitor, said: “There is strong evidence . . . that General MacArthur’s staff withheld intelligence information on Chinese intervention —from the President and from front-line corps and division commanders— Frontline commanders who ordered their troops into battle without prior knowledge that they faced overwhelming odds…”

Willoughby reminds us of several things: first, more important than what a man says is what he does.  We cannot claim that integrity is one of Willoughby’s virtues.  Neither does a man become a saint simply because he wears an American military uniform.  Willoughby died on 25 October 1972 —just in time for dia del diablo.  To our everlasting shame as a nation, we buried him in Arlington National Cemetery.

Notes:

[1] The Army of the United States is the legal name of the “land forces of the United States” (United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1 and United States Code, Title 10, Subtitle B, Chapter 301, Section 3001) and has been used in this context since at least 1841, as in the title: General Regulations for the Army of the United States. The Army, or Armies of the United States includes the Regular Army, Army National Guard, and the Army Reserve (as well as any volunteer or conscripted forces).  Someone receiving an officer’s commission into the Army of the United States holds a temporary appointment and serves at the pleasure of the President of the United States.

[2] The Gothaisches Genealogisches Taschenbuch der Briefadeligen, a standard catalogue of German gentry, does not help to clear up this matter.  According to this document, General Franz Erich Theodor Tülff von Tschepe und Weidenbach lacked the title “Freiherr” and never received letters of patent from Emperor Wilhelm II entitling him to use the surname “von Tschepe und Weidenbach” until 1913.  By this time, he had five children; none of them were born in 1892.

[3] At some point before 1930, Weidenbach changed his name to Charles Andrew Willoughby, which is a loose translation of Weidenbach, German meaning Willow-brook.  In any case, Willoughby was fluent in English, Spanish, German, French, and Japanese.

[4] I can only imagine what MacArthur later thought about such intense feelings toward some other general.

[5] Responsible for the death and suffering of more than 10,000 allied military personnel during World War II.

[6] Willoughby received the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus from Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government in the 1930s.

[7] The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

The Bravest Marine …

EGA BlackWhen the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Chew-fen Lee was a high school student who answered to the name Kurt. He had voluntarily associated himself with the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). In 1944, the 18-year old engineering student joined the United States Marine Corps. Standing barely 5’6” tall, weighing only 130 pounds, Lee made sure he measured up to the high standards for U. S. Marines by working harder than everyone else; he transformed himself into a wiry, muscular leatherneck. After graduating from boot camp, the Marine Corps assigned Lee to Japanese Language School. After graduating from the school, the Marine Corps retained him as a language instructor. By the end of the war, Lee had earned promotion to sergeant and was accepted to attend officer training school.

Major Chew-fen Lee USMCFrom October 1945 to April 1946, Lee attended The Basic School for newly commissioned Marine Corps officers. Upon graduation, Second Lieutenant Lee became the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in Marine Corps history. At this time, Lieutenant Lee deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war.

At the beginning of the Korean War, First Lieutenant Lee commanded 1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment commanded by Colonel Homer Litzenberg at Camp Pendleton, California. In late August 1950, the 7th Marines received a warning order to prepare to move out; Lieutenant Lee decided to set an example for other Chinese Americans to follow. He later recounted, “I wanted to dispel the notion about Chinese being meek and obsequious.” He did not expect to survive the Korean War.

The 7th Marines shipped out on 1 September 1950; while aboard ship, Lieutenant Lee drilled his Marines night and day on the main deck —enduring derision from his contemporary lieutenants. After arriving in Japan, Lee’s superiors attempted to assign him as a staff officer handling translation duties, but Lee insisted he was there to fight communists and he retained command of his platoon.

Navy Cross MedalThe 1st Battalion, 7th Marines landed at Inchon, Korea on 21 September 1950. The 7th Marines joined up with the 1st and 5th Marines in their northward movement, forcing the North Korean army into a retreat. Lieutenant Lee and his Marines endured vicious street fighting in Seoul as part of operations Hook, Reno, and Vegas. Subsequently, the Marines were withdrawn from Soul, re-embarked aboard shipping, and made another amphibious landing at Wonsan, along the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula.

By early November, the communist Chinese decided to augment withdrawing Korean forces. On the night of 2-3 November in the Sudong Gorge, Chinese forces attacked Lee’s unit. Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy’s front and attacked their positions one at a time to draw fire and reveal their positions. Lee’s men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted heavy casualties. This action forced the Chinese to retreat. Lee, shouting to the Chinese in Mandarin, confused them and at this time, he attacked the Chinese with hand grenades and gunfire. This action earned Lieutenant Lee the Navy Cross medal for heroism under fire. The lieutenant suffered gunshot wounds to his left knee and right arm.

Five days later, the hospitalized Lieutenant Lee learned that the Army intended to send him to Japan for recuperation; he and another Marine stole an Army jeep and drove back to his unit on the front at the Chosin Reservoir. Upon arrival, Lee’s battalion commander assigned him command of the 2nd Platoon, Company B. Lee commanded his platoon while his arm was in a sling.

Late on 2 December, Lieutenant Lee was ordered to spearhead a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces in an effort to relieve a vastly outnumbered Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines at a place called Toktong Pass —a strategic location controlling the main road to the Chosin Reservoir. Lee’s platoon, weighted down with heavy equipment, advanced through -20° temperatures and under limited visibility due to blizzards and darkness. Lee’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis, had no special instructions for Lee—other than to stay off the roads and avoid heavily defended roadblocks.

Silver Star MedalLieutenant Lee placed himself at the point of his platoon and used only his compass to guide the battalion in a single file over treacherous terrain. Suddenly, heavy enemy fire pinned Lee down below a rocky hill. Refusing this delay, Lee directed his men to attack the hill with “marching fire,” a stratagem used by George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply suppression fires against the enemy. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and his men attacked the Chinese in their foxholes. Lee, with his arm still in a plaster cast, shot two communists on his way to the apex of the hill. When he reached the top of the hill, he saw that the Chinese foxholes were all constructed facing the other way, where the Chinese expected the Marines to attack. The foxholes were all empty, however. Lieutenant Lee’s attack had driven the Chinese into retreat.

Following this success, 1/7 established communications with Fox Company and Lieutenant Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack that forced a path to the beleaguered Fox. During this attack, Lee received another wound in the upper part of his right arm, above his cast. Undeterred, Lee regrouped his company and led them in several more firefights against pockets of enemy resistance. On 8 December, a Chinese machine gun wounded Lee seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Lee received the Silver Star medal for his attack against superior numbers of Chinese regulars. For his wounds, he received two Purple Heart medals.

During the Vietnam War, Major Lee served as the 3rd Marine Division combat intelligence officer; he retired from active duty in 1968. In 2000, then retired General Ray Davis described Kurt Lee as, “… the bravest Marine I ever knew.” One would expect that the Marine Corps would promote Lee above the rank of Major, and many attribute this to his “pugnacious” nature when dealing with superior officers, who continually criticized him for his aggressive “chip on the shoulder” demeanor. Major Lee’s response was truculent. “My chip is a teaching tool to dispel ignorance.”

UPDATE

Major Lee passed away at his home on 3 March 2014.  He was 88 years old.  Semper Fidelis, Major Lee —I have admired your courage and your example to all Marines.

Edward A. Craig —Marine

It has been necessary for troops now fighting in Korea to pull back at times, but I am stating now that no unit of this Brigade will retreat except on orders from an authority higher than the 1st Marine Brigade.  You will never receive an order to retreat from me.  All I ask is that you fight as Marines have always fought.”

—Edward A. Craig, Brigadier General, U. S. Marine Corps

Commanding General, 1st Marine Provisional Brigade

“The Pusan perimeter is like a weakened dike; the Army intends to use us to plug the holes as they open.  We’re a brigade —a fire brigade.  It will be costly fighting against a numerically superior enemy.  Marines have never lost a battle; this brigade will not be the first to establish such a precedent.  Prepare to move.”

—Edward A. Craig, Brigadier General, U. S. Marine Corps

Commanding General, 1st Marine Provisional Brigade

This firebrand Marine Officer was born on 22 November 1896 in Danbury, Connecticut.  His father, a career officer in the United States Army (Medical Corps), was not at all disposed to having his son become a Marine: “They are a bunch of drunkards and bums.”  As with many Army officers (then and now), he overlooked one thing about the Marines —they are renowned for two things: they know how to make Marines, and they win battles.

Craig attended St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, graduating in 1917.  After four years in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC), he applied for a commission and was accepted as a Second Lieutenant on 23 August 1917.  Upon completion of training at the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia, Craig was assigned to duty as an Adjutant with the 8th Marines.  Although never dispatched to a line unit during World War I, he did serve in protecting/safeguarding oil fields in Texas from German attack along the coastal areas.  The 8th Marines performed this duty for 18 months, during which time the regiment intensely trained for combat.  During this time, he was promoted to First Lieutenant.

In 1919, Craig accompanied his regiment to Haiti via Santiago Bay, Cuba.  There, the 8th and 9th Marines formed the 1st Marine Brigade, a temporary organization organized to perform a specific expeditionary task.  A short time later, Craig was transferred to the 2nd Marine Brigade, which was stationed in the Dominican Republic.  There, he was assigned as the Commanding Officer, 70th Company, 15th Marine Regiment and received a temporary promotion to Captain.  Within the first 8-months he served in this capacity, he was assigned to La Romana, conducting combat patrols in areas populated by bandits and rebel forces, and later assigned to Vincentillo, a remote outpost, where he served an additional six months.

Craig returned to the United States in December 1921.  After a short stint at Quantico, Craig was assigned to Puget Sound where he served as Commanding Officer, Marine Detachment, Naval Ammunition Depot.  In 1922, he was ordered to the U. S. Naval Station near Olongapo City, Philippine Islands.  He subsequently served as Commanding Officer, Marine Detachment about the cruiser, USS Huron[1], then assigned to the Pacific Ocean area.  In this capacity, he and his Marines participated in several landings, including at Shanghai, China in 1924 safeguarding the international settlement from rival Chinese armies that were fighting nearby[2].  His detachment was later sent to Peking in response to the warlord Wu P’ei-Fu; Craig’s Marines remained there for a month before returning to the Huron.

Craig returned to the United States in March 1926, where he was briefly assigned to the 4th Marines at San Diego, California.  He was subsequently selected as aide-de-camp to then Commandant John A. Lejeune.  He served in this capacity until General Lejeune’s retirement in 1929.  At Craig’s request, he was subsequently assigned to duty with the Nicaraguan National Guard as a staff officer (training) near Jinotega.  From 1931 to 1933, Craig joined the Marine Corps Base, San Diego but while there served on detached duty with the US State Department.  From 1933 to 1936, Craig served as a company commander in the 6th Marine Regiment and then another staff assignment with the 2nd Marine Brigade where he served as a personnel officer.  From 1937 to 1938, Craig attended the Marine Corps Schools Senior Officer’s Course at Quantico —at the completion of which he returned once more to San Diego, California where he served severally as an instructor at the Platoon Leader’s Course, an Inspector-Instructor, Reserve Field Training Battalion, and Base Adjutant.

From June 1939 and June 1941, Craig served as an intelligence officer aboard the aircraft carriers USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise.  During this period, he served temporarily at the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor.  In brief periods, he served in the commands of Admiral Ernest King, Charles Blakely, and William Halsey.  In July 1941, Craig was assigned as Provost Marshal and Guard Battalion Commander at San Diego, California.  These duties took on greater importance after Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor in December.  In June 1942, Craig assumed the duties of regimental executive officer, 9th Marine Regiment but within a few months, having been selected for promotion to Colonel, he was assigned as Commanding Officer, Service Troops, 3rd Marine Division.  After the division’s arrival in New Zealand, Craig requested an infantry assignment.  In July 1943, he was again assigned to the 9th Marines —this time as regimental commander.  Craig led the regiment at Bougainville through April 1944; he continued to led them during the Battle for Guam.  During this campaign, Craig earned the Navy Cross.  In September, Craig was ordered to the V Amphibious Corps, where he served as Operations Officer.  In this capacity, he directed the planning for the assault on Iwo Jima in February 1945.  In July, Craig returned to the United States to serve as Chief of Staff, Marine Training Command, San Diego.

After the war, Craig served as the officer in charge of specialized amphibious training, Eight Army in Japan.  While so assigned, Craig was advanced to Brigadier General and assigned as Assistant Division Commander, 1st Marine Division, which was then serving in Tientsin, China.  In June 1947, Craig assumed command of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, Fleet Marine Forces, Guam, where he served for two years.

As with the other services, the Marine Corps was drastically reduced in size after World War II.  Accordingly, it was unprepared for North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950.  As a response to the aggression, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed the Marine Corps to ready a 15,000-man division into Korea as part of the United Nations Command.  The Marine Corps response was immediate, but in the interim, 4,725 Marines were assembled around the 5th Marine Regiment.  On 7 July 1950, the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade was reactivated, and Brigadier General Craig was assigned to command it.  The Brigade arrived in Pusan, South Korea on 3 August.  Combat operations began almost immediately.  As part of Eighth Army’s reserve, the Marines were used as a stop-gap measure to plug holes in the line left vacant by Army units in retreat.  It became known as the Fire Brigade.  In September, the Brigade rejoined the 1st Marine Division during the assault on Inchon and Brigadier General Craig served under Major General Oliver P. Smith as Assistant Division Commander.

Upon his return to the United States, Craig was promoted to Major General and assumed the directorship of the Division of Reserve, Headquarters Marine Corps.  In recognition of his valor in combat, Craig was advanced to lieutenant general on the retired list.  He passed away at his home at El Cajon, California on 11 December 1994.  He was 98 years of age.

Notes

[1] USS South Dakota was renamed USS Huron (CA 9) on 7 June 1920 to free up the name for a new class South Dakota battleship.

[2] This was during the so-called Warlord Era in China when scattered international settlements were frequently threatened by Chinese nationalists and the anti-foreign movements among various groups.

Scholar-Warrior

In his later years of service, Oliver Prince Smith commanded the 1st Marine Division in one of its most extraordinary battles: The Chosin[1] 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[2].  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[3] 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.

Notes:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

Every Marine a Rifleman

“Every Marine a rifleman is a mantra that has been engrained in our warrior ethos since the first day we aspired to be Marines. This aspect of our Corps sets us apart from other branches of Service who delineate themselves by occupational specialty or demonstrate allegiance to a specific unit through the wearing of a patch or symbol. The only symbol we as Marines recognize is the Marine Corps emblem. We are united not only by this iconic emblem but also by the shared experience of the training we all endure aimed at achieving proficiency as warfighters first; everything else is secondary. Examples of the execution of that concept are a testament to the continuing exceptionality of the Marine Corp.”

—James H. Ferguson, First Lieutenant of Marines

Skill with weapons of war is the hallmark of the United States Marine Corps and the development and maintenance of these skills has been emphasized by Marine leaders since the Corps’ earliest days. This emphasis and proficiency is how Marines win America’s battles. Because the Marine Corps has never been a large service, it is necessary that every Marine —no matter what his military occupational specialty— is able to perform the duty of an infantryman. Any Marine who is unable to qualify with his service rifle is useless to the Corps.

Nowhere was the skill of warfare more critical to the survival of Marines than the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, North Korea, October – December 1950.

Subsequent to the successful landing at Inchon and the retaking of the capital of South Korea, General of the Army Douglas McArthur attached the First Marine Division to the X Corps [1] and ordered them to make another amphibious landing —this time, on the eastern side of the peninsula at a place called Wonsan. There was not much time from October 7, 1950 to re-load amphibious shipping for this landing, but all Marines turned to. In MacArthur’s mind, it was critical to provide a blocking force to prohibit the escape of fleeing remnants of the beaten North Korean Army.

As it turned out, the Wonsan landing was unnecessary. The Eighth Army quickly advanced to seize the North Korean capital of Pyongyang; on the east coast, two Republic of Korea divisions temporarily assigned to X Corps occupied Wonsan without any resistance. The Marines came ashore unopposed on 25 October 1950.

During the unloading, Marine Corps Shore Party units assumed responsibility for the beaches. [2] At the outset, the Marines encountered difficulties from offshore sandbars. Tractors were marshaled to pull wheeled vehicles to high ground, and the beach had to be sculpted with ramps to facilitate unloading from small boats. No matter the difficulties, the Marines plugged away even to the extent of using floodlights for cranes during hours of darkness. In spite of the lack of armed opposition, Shore Party Marines took no chances: they set up a defensive perimeter on the exposed flank of the southern beach.

After six days of unremitting effort, the First Marine Division was finally ashore. Stacked along the shore stood 18,000 tons of supplies and equipment, and nearly 5,000 vehicles. A week later, the Shore Party Battalion was placed under the operational command of X Corps and ordered to unload the Third Infantry Division.

First Engineer Battalion was at the same time employed in every conceivable combat engineering task, from saw mill operations, repairing railways, converting railway passenger cars to accommodate wounded personnel, and repairing or constructing bridges and air strips. Potable water points were established, tons of enemy ammunition exploded, and the Division command post and nearby hospital at Hamhung was wired for electricity.

The combat engineers also doubled as infantry. On 3 November 1950, the Seventh Marines engaged a Chinese Communist division while en route to Hagaru-ri. A squad of combat engineers filled a gap in the line at a critical moment … it was only one of many engagements involving Marines of the First Engineer Battalion.

The combat engineers worked steadily to improve the main supply route (MSR) from Hamhung to Hagaru-ri; they did this while exposed to the possibility of enemy snipers or substantial attack. What they knew, and what every Marine assigned to the First Marine Division knew, was that no one on MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo or at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington had a clue about what was really unfolding in Korea. Not even the X Corps command, Major General Edward M. (Ned) Almond. [3] Even though the Chinese withdrew after their first engagement with the Marines, the Marines knew —because all intelligence seemed to indicate— that the Chinese had entered the conflict. The Marines needed their tanks; combat engineers made sure that the roads were suitable to accommodate them.

Marine engineers and tank officers found the MSRs uninspiring. From the railhead at Chinhung-ni all the way to the Chosin Reservoir the road presented a series of sharply winding curves atop narrow shelves —cliffs on one side of the road, and deep chasms on the other. It was not the ideal terrain for fighting a determined enemy. Combat engineers widened and reinforced the roadway; a great deal of attention was directed to bridges, bypasses, and culverts. The task was so critical that Major General Oliver P. Smith (Commanding General, First Marine Division) pulled combat engineers away from other tasks so that they could concentrate on the MSR.

Chosin Reservoir 001By mid-November, Chinese Communists were not the only enemy: cold weather was setting in. I do not mean the kind of cold weather one might find in Indiana; it was cold weather of the frigid north. The only way to break the frozen soil was by bulldozers, but even then the freezing cold demanded innovation from these Marines —including the use of carbide to jury-rig fiercely hot furnaces that kept the water from freezing, which enabled Marine engineers to construct piers. The engineers also found good uses for enemy munitions left behind in their efforts to improve the MSR.

The first Marine tanks traveled from Chinhung-ni to Hagaru-ri on November 18; on that same day, Marine engineers began constructing a landing strip suitable for C-47 aircraft at Hagaru-ri. Combat logisticians began pushing supplies forward to Hagaru-ri as General Smith anticipated Communist Chinese attacks upon forward units. The strip was ten percent complete by the twenty-second of November, but the temperatures made in nearly impossible for bulldozers to penetrate the granite-like earth. Another example of innovative Marines was that the combat engineers paused long enough to weld steel teeth rippers to the blades of the bulldozers. This did work for a while, but the earth froze to the cutting edges, and this required the Marines to use air compressors and jack hammers to remove the frozen soil.

C-47Under these circumstances, it is not remarkable that the Marines had completed less than fifteen percent of the airstrip when the Chinese attacked in full force. What is amazing is that within only ten days, the Marines had transformed permafrost into an operative landing strip suitable for C-47 aircraft. It was the result of these efforts that hundreds of frostbitten and wounded Marines and soldiers of the Seventh Infantry Division were evacuated by air. The C-47 pilots of the United States Air Force deserve credit for their skill and daring during this massive effort to save the lives of our troops. The combat engineers had scraped out an inadequate strip, the air control mechanisms were crude in the extreme, but not a single plane was lost during the effort.

I want to spend some time on the Air Force effort to support forward deployed soldiers and Marines.

When the Chinese attacked the UN Forces in North Korea, they did it with 18 infantry divisions approximating 150,000 men. They cut the single road that ran south from the Chosin by destroying a road bridge near the hydroelectric dam near Koto-ri. Their intention was to deny any escape to soldiers and Marines. Since the Marines could no longer push their resupply forward on land, C-119 “Flying Boxcar” aircraft of the U.S. Air Force Far East Combat Cargo Command, which included the 314th Troop Carrier Group, airdropped ammunition, rations, and fuel to the soldiers and Marines of X Corps.

At this point, the temperature in North Korea registered minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Chinese may have imagined that they had the Americans boxed in, but General Smith contacted the Far East Combat Cargo Command requesting aerial delivery of a replacement bridge. This was a feat that had never been achieved. What was needed were four M-2 Treadway Bridges; Smith requested eight.

C-119 BoxcarOn Dec. 6, 1950, the Air Force made a trial drop of a single 4,000-pound M-2 from a C-119 at Yonpo airfield in North Korea. The test drop took place at an altitude of 800 feet and flying at 140 knots. Five of the six parachutes failed to open and the bridge span fell to earth like a brick. With no time left for further tests, parachute riggers configured eight Treadway Bridge sections, each with larger cargo parachutes, and loaded the 4,000-pound items onto eight C-119s from the 61st Troop Carrier Squadron.

The following day, three of the loaded C-119s took off from Yonpo airfield five minutes apart.  The first three bridge sections were dropped successfully from 800 feet at 120 knots on a drop zone a half-mile north of Koto-ri. The next five C-119s then took off from Yonpo airfield and successfully dropped their bridge sections on a UN drop zone one mile southwest of Koto-ri. Six of the eight bridge sections landed undamaged within the small drop zones, one was damaged as it collided with earth, and one fell into Chinese-controlled territory.

After clearing the surrounding slopes of Chinese troops, Marine Corps combat engineers immediately used four of the eight Treadway Bridge sections to repair the bridge across the 1500-foot-deep gorge at Koto-ri. The MSR was reopened on December 9, 1950. Within three hours, thirty thousand American troops began their march to Hungnam. They took with them all their vehicles, all of their wounded, and all of their dead.

The Chinese renewed their efforts to stop them. In this process, the Chinese gave up nine infantry divisions to withering Marine air and ground firepower. Service troops from more than 30 non-infantry units fought alongside the First Marine Regiment, commanded by Louis B. “Chesty” Puller. Some of the engineers took part as infantry, and others continued to work on the airfield even as they became targets for enemy snipers.

The Marine defense of Hagaru-ri provided a base for the Fifth and Seventh Marine regiments when they cut their way through from Yudam-ni. During this march, combat engineers were often on the point using bulldozers to remove wrecked vehicles, destroying enemy roadblocks, or constructing bypasses. Combat engineers also engaged in fighting during the march from Hagaru-ri to Hamhung. At the last moment, they added another 300 feet to the landing strip at Koto-ri —they did this while under fire and frigid conditions.

In combat, every Marine a rifleman. It was true at the Chosin Reservoir and it remains true today.

Notes:

[1] X Corps consisted of two regiments in the Third Infantry Division, an emaciated, inexperienced, and poorly led Seventh Infantry Division, and the U. S. Marine Corps’ First Marine Division.

[2] Marines assigned to shore party units are responsible for organizing beach areas during an amphibious landing. They perform a function similar to Navy Beach Masters. In World War II, shore party Marines were assigned to Pioneer Battalions, along with combat engineers, and heavy equipment operators. Subsequently, these became separate battalions within the framework of an infantry division.

[3] General MacArthur set into motion a very unusual (some might even argue inept) command relationship by assigning Ned Almond to command X Corps. While in this capacity, he also served as MacArthur’s Chief of Staff in Tokyo. When Almond should have been reporting to the Commander of the Eighth Army, Almond ignored Lieutenant General Walker; he ignored the X Corps as well. Major General Smith and his staff did most of the planning, and the primary military leader of X Corps was General Smith.