A Clash in the Mountains

In the summer and fall of 1966, the Marines and the North Vietnamese had clashed in the mountains northwest of Dong Ha.  Soon afterwards, the Marine command placed a company of grunts at Khe Sanh to “monitor” the mountain infiltration routes into South Vietnam.  In the spring of the next year, these grunts attracted two regiments of NVA soldiers into the hills around the isolated outpost.  In April and May 1967, the grunts rushed in reinforcements and had attacked the entrenched enemy northwest of Khe Sanh.  After those brutal battles, commonly called “the hill fights,” the North Vietnamese had withdrawn and the grunts retained only a token force at the Khe Sanh outpost.

Khe Sanh 002The small airstrip had always been the lifeline to Khe Sanh.  In the fall of 1967, engineers had flown into the outpost and had spend almost three months laying crushed rock, asphalt, and steel Marston-matting on the airstrip.  When finally reopened in late October, the new 3,900 foot long runway could handle VFR and IFR landings by any aircraft up to the size of a C-130 turboprop.

The first new alarm signals began in the late fall of 1967.  Helicopters routinely dropped recon teams into the hills, and they began making some startling discoveries.  New trails crisscrossed the mountains and scores of NVA troops columns were spotted as they methodically converged on the plateau.  Often the recon teams accidently landed near these NVA units and had to call the helicopter pilots back for an emergency evacuation.  Looking down from above, pilots saw that new roads had been hacked out of the jungle.  The columns of enemy trucks and troops were all headed for Khe Sanh.

Khe Sanh 001In response to the massive enemy buildup, the grunts raced in reinforcements.  Soon, the entire 26th Marines would be airlifted to the small garrison, marking the first time since Iwo Jima in World War II that all of its battalions had deployed for combat together.  More helicopters flew in to bolster the garrison.  Huey gunships squatted between new protective revetments, and H-46’s stood ready to haul recon teams into or out of the surrounding hills.  Pilots and air crewmen spent their time digging deeper bunkers and waiting for the enemy onslaught that everyone predicted would come.

“Somewhere Out There, within artillery range of the Khe Sanh Combat Base … concealed and silent and ominous, lay five full divisions of North Vietnamese regulars.”  —Michael Herr (Dispatches)

Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam

Marion F. Sturkey, U. S. Marine Corps

We Call Him Chesty

In my younger years, conventional parents and teachers encouraged boys and girls to read stories written about famous Americans.  I recall reading about William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, George Custer, Ulysses Grant, and Robert E. Lee.  They weren’t academically vetted manuscripts, of course —they were intended for elementary aged children, after all.  It is also true that some of these stories contained as much myth as fact, but it was the reading of these stories that gave children heroes —people who were, according to pre-communist educators, worthy of emulation.

VMI 1917I am not alone, apparently.  Another young man was exposed to these kinds of stories.  His name was Lewis Burwell Puller.  He was born in West Point, Virginia on 26 June 1898 —making him a little more than 8 years younger than my grandfather.  He grew up reading the same kinds of stories as I did more than 50 years later, but he also grew up listening to the tales of civil war veterans as they recalled the great confederate generals: Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart.  Puller attempted to join the Army in 1916 to fight in the border war with Mexico, but he was too young and his mother refused to sign his enlistment papers.

In 1917, Puller attended the Virginia Military Institute, but left at the end of his first year because World War I was still going on; he said he wanted to go to the sound of the guns.  By this time, the tales of the 5th Marine Regiment at Belleau Wood had inspired Puller to enlist in the U. S. Marine Corps, which he did in 1918.  Private Puller was shipped off to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.

Puller never saw combat during World War I, but the Marine Corps was expanding; not long after graduating from boot camp, Puller was sent to NCO School and subsequently, Officers Candidate School (OCS).  On 16 June 1919, Puller received a commission to Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve.  A year later, large-scale military deactivations led to his release from active duty.  Puller was placed on inactive status and assigned the rank of corporal.

Banana Wars 001During the years progressives refer to as the banana wars, Marine Corps Noncommissioned Officers were often commissioned as officers in the military of public safety services of foreign countries.  It was thus that Corporal Puller received orders to serve in the Gendarmerie d’Haiti in the rank of lieutenant.  US occupation of Haiti began in 1915 and lasted until 1934.  Woodrow Wilson first sent the Marines to Haiti resulting from a series of political assassinations carried out by peasant brigands called Cacos.  For more than five years, Puller participated in 40 operations against the Cacos and in 1922, served as an adjutant to Major Alexander Vandegrift.  Major General Vandegrift would later command the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, win the Medal of Honor, and accept appointment as Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Puller CaptainPuller was re-commissioned a second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1924.  After attending service schools and two assignments at Marine security barracks, Puller was assigned in 1928 to duty with the Nicaraguan National Guard detachment.  During his service in Nicaragua, Puller was awarded two Navy Cross medals, representing the nations second highest award for valor.

By the time Puller was promoted to major, he had additionally served with the American Legation in China on two occasions, two sea duty tours aboard USS Augusta, and instructor duty at the Marine Corps basic school for officers.  In August 1941, Puller was assigned to command the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, which was at the time stationed at New River, North Carolina.  The base was later renamed Camp Lejeune.

x-defaultDuring World War II, Puller commanded Marines on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Pelélieu, and various elements of the 7th Marines, 5th Marines, and 1st Marines.  During the Pacific Campaign, Puller received a Bronze Star Medal, his third and fourth award of the Navy Cross, the Legion of Merit, and a promotion to Colonel.

At the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Puller was again assigned to command the 1st Marine Regiment.  He participated in the landing at Inchon, the 1st Marine Division’s advance to the Chosin Reservoir, and its retrograde below the 38th parallel.  During this period, Puller was awarded the Silver Star medal, a second Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and an unprecedented fifth award of the Navy Cross.  It was during this time that Puller is quoted as saying, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now.  We’ve finally found him.  We’re surrounded.  That simplifies things.”

Puller 001Puller was promoted to Brigadier General in January 1951 and was assigned as Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Marine Division.  Although promoted successively to Lieutenant General, Puller’s health forced him to retire in 1955 with 37 years of service.  In addition to the awards already mentioned, Puller received the Purple Heart Medal, and three awards of the Air Medal.  It is believed that General Puller remains the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps.

General Puller passed away in 1971.

The Fire Brigade

The ink on Japan’s instrument of surrender was barely dry when in the framework of the cold war began to manifest itself in the arrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union in their joint control of the Korean peninsula.  The Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945) had decided that the allies would unilaterally divide Korea—as part of the Roosevelt-Stalin plan to rule the world.  No one bothered to tell the Koreans this, of course.

On 8 September 1945, Lieutenant General John R. Hodge arrived in Inchon, Korea to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel.  Hodge, having been appointed military governor, directly controlled South Korea as head of the U. S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK[1]).  Hodge’s methodology for restoring order and seizing control was to restore power to key Japanese colonial administrators and Korean police collaborators.  Voiding Korean sovereignty resulted in civil insurrections and guerrilla insurgencies.  No one has ever accused the American government of having much sense.

Rhee 001In April 1948, between 14,000 and 60,000 citizens were killed during an uprising by South Korean soldiers, but within a month South Korea held its first national general election.  The Soviets boycotted these elections (naturally), insisting that the United States honor the provisions of the Moscow Conference in March 1948.  Three months later, Korea held it’s parliamentary elections, producing a staunchly anti-communist government, led by a unfalteringly anti-communist dictator, Syngman Rhee.  Opposing Rhee was the North Korean shill, Kim Il-Sung.

In the first half of 1950, Kim Il-Sung traveled to Moscow on several occasions to confer with his masters about reunifying Korea by force, and so we have to say that the Soviet military was extensively involved in putting together a war plan on Kim’s behalf.  Indeed, from 1948 on, the Soviet Union began arming the North Korean army and training (advising) its key components.  Initially, Stalin did not think the time was right for an armed invasion of the southern peninsula; China was still fluttering in the aftermath of its civil war, and Stalin did not want the Soviet Union to become engaged in a war with the United States.  Nevertheless, in April 1950, permission was granted to launch an attack against the South Korean regime.

They pounced on 25 June 1950 and no one in the Truman administration had a clue.

Prior to the invasion, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson somehow managed to exclude Korea from the so-called Strategic Asian Defense Perimeter—a diplomatic guarantee to certain countries and regions in Asia for US military protection.  Truman, it seems, was far more concerned with the security of Europe than he was the Korean peninsula.  At least, this is how the North Koreans and the Soviets saw it.  In any case, on the morning of 25 June 1950, the ever-effeminate UN threatened to hit North Korea with its purse and the North Koreans laughed —as they should.

Truman 001Meanwhile, following the end of World War II, Harry S. Truman[2] decided that the American people could no longer afford a military of any consequence, and so he began significant reductions to army, navy, and strategic air forces.  They called it “Defense Budget Economization.”  It gutted the United States military and created a rift between the Air Force and Navy referred to today as the Revolt of the Admirals.  Truman had no love for either the Navy or Marine Corps.

The effects of these cuts were substantial in the U. S. Marine Corps, which had been reduced from six divisions and five air wings at the peak of their World War II strength, to 3 of each in the post war period.  But it was far worse than that.  The 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton had only two regiments, rather than three.  Each regiment was reduced to two battalions, rather than three; each battalion reduced by one Line Company, and each company reduced to two rifle platoons and a weapons platoon.  Thus, the effect of North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on the morning of 25 June 1950 on the west coast Marines was significant.

Within a few hours of the North Korean attack, General Douglas MacArthur requested of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the immediate assignment of a Marine Regimental Combat Team and a supporting air group.  The JCS would approve his request, but the Marines were going in to war on two-thirds rations: rather than having two regiments, it would have one regiment, one artillery battalion, one company of tanks, and an air group.  Even then it was a massive undertaking to staff a combat capable brigade.  Marines were ordered to Camp Pendleton from everywhere: “Proceed immediately.”  These Marines would form the First Marine Provisional Brigade.  It became known as “The Fire Brigade.”

According to Major Andrew Geer, USMC [3]”The undertone of tension was as tangible as the build-up of a summer electrical storm in Kansas.  To the young Marine there was a definite therapy just in seeing combat veterans going about the job of getting ready.  The hash marks and battle star on a ribbon suddenly became a badge of experience to lean on, to follow.”

Meanwhile, Marines from Hawaii to the East Coast of the United States began clamoring for assignment to combat duty, including one colonel of some renown known to all Marines as “Chesty.”  Assigned to command the brigade was a Marine Corps brigadier general by the name of Edward A. Craig, a distinguished officer who had served in both world wars.  Many of Craig’s key leaders, both officer and enlisted, were combat veterans from World War II.  This was a luxury denied to most Army units at the time, thanks to Truman’s incompetence.

Craig EA 001The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was officially reactivated on 7 July 1950; it sailed for Korea seven days later.  When they hit the ground in Korea on 3 August 1950, they hit the ground running toward the guns.  Again, “Canteen” Truman and his hatchet man Louis Johnson had so gutted the military that U. S. Army forces in Korea were barely holding on against the onslaught of the North Korean attack.  In short order, the North Korean Army managed to push US Forces all the way south on the Korean peninsula to a place called Pusan —and then encircled it.

Upon arrival in Korea, Brigadier General Craig assembled his subordinate commanders.  He told them:

“The situation is serious.  With the forces available, it is obvious that the perimeter cannot be held in strength.  Eighth Army has adopted the plan of holding thinly and counter-attacking enemy penetrations to keep them off balance, to prevent them from launching a coordinated effort.

“At the moment, General Walker is undecided in what area we’re going to be used.  We may go north of Taegu and operate on the left flank of the 1st Cavalry Division, or we may go west to check an enemy advance along the Masan Road.  It all depends where the where the greatest threat develops.

“We are going into battle against a vicious, well-trained enemy in what will be an extended land campaign.  Unfortunately, we will have to forget the plan of an amphibious landing.  We will miss the vehicles we had to leave behind; much of our moving will be done on foot.  Therefore, we will leave all nonessential supplies and equipment in storage on the docks right here; we’ll carry with us two days rations and two units of fire[4].

General Craig studied the faces of his commanders carefully and then continued:

“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.”

At 2300 hours that very day, Marines began their march to Changwon.  The fire was started.  For the next months, until the 1st Marine Division was brought up to combat strength and shipped to Japan, and General MacArthur had formulated his plan for an unheard of amphibious landing at Inchon (perhaps the last place on the planet anyone should want to make an amphibious landing), 1st Brigade Marines would be thrown into one engagement after another along the Pusan salient.

The Pusan perimeter was an area extending 120 linear miles, consisting of mountains, plains, and rivers.  As the North Koreans forced the US Army to retreat, Eighth Army sent in Marines to recapture lost territory.  Once the Marines defeated the NKA, Army units would reoccupy the terrain, and the Marines redeployed elsewhere.  In some cases, Eighth Army directed the Marines to recover the same ground on multiple occasions.  Too many Marines were dying because Army units lacked the guts to hold on to captured territory.  The Marines were becoming irritated.

We cannot lie this at the feet of the average soldier.  Generally, he was an inexperienced young man who was poorly trained, poorly led, and poorly equipped.  His NCOs were inexperienced in war, the quality of company grade officers was wretched, and his senior officers lacked a warrior ethos.  These factors alone explain why the United States Army in Korea came very close to being destroyed by the North Korean Army.

In 30 days, the Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade moved more than 350 miles to meet the enemy at critical points.  It was the beginning of bad feelings between Marine and Army units serving in the Korean War —a rancor that is still noticeable at VFW clubs  among those who experienced it first-hand.

_____________________________

[1] This illustrates why the military is famous for acronyms

[2] Harry Truman was barely qualified for enlisted service in the Missouri National Guard due to his poor eyesight.  Having served in an artillery battery between 1905-1911, he rejoined the unit in 1917.  His men elected him as an officer and he was subsequently commissioned a first lieutenant.  He was very popular with his men as the officer in charge of the battalion canteen.

[3] The New Breed: The story of the U. S. Marines in Korea, Battery Press, 1989

[4] A unit of fire is the amount of ammunition a weapon will use in a day of battle.

Captain Hulbert of the Old Breed

Hulbert 001Henry Lewis Hulbert (12 Jan 1867—4 Oct 1918) was one of those Marines of the “old breed” I enjoy reading about. He was the first born of a prosperous Kingston-Hull, Yorkshire, England family, and this enabled him to attend Felsted School in Essex and later, to enter the British Colonial Service. His first appointment was in Malaya, where he married Anne Rose Hewitt, but a subsequent scandal and divorce led him to leave Malaysia for the United States.

At the age of 31, Hulbert enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps (1898) and completed boot camp at Mare Island, California. His initial line assignment placed him in the company of 200 fellow Marines in a joint British-American intervention expedition to Samoa. During the Second Samoan Civil War, then Private Hulbert distinguished himself in combat and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor due to his gallantry and intrepidity under fire.

Hulbert 002

By the time the United States entered World War I, Hulbert was serving at the highest enlisted rank.  Sergeant Major Hulbert served on the staff of Marine Corps Commandant, Major General George Barnett. Then, just prior to America’s entry into the war, Hulbert was appointed as the first Marine Corps Gunner (warrant officer) and was reassigned to the Fifth Regiment of United States Marines on 27 March 1917.  Hulbert was five months past his 50th birthday.  As the United States began to prepare for war, senior officers realized that the Corps was significantly short of company grade offers —those who ordinarily command platoons and companies.  As a consequence, the Marine Corps promoted Gunner Hulbert (and others) to the rank of second lieutenant (temporary).

During World War I, Lieutenant Hulbert participated in the Battle of Belleau Wood, and during this battle was recognized several times for courage under fire.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and recommended for a battlefield commission to Captain.

At the Battle of Soissons, Hulbert distinguished himself further but was killed in action on 4 October 1918 at Mont Blanc Ridge.  He was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain, and awarded the Navy Cross, Purple Heart, and Croix de Guerre (France). A U. S. Navy destroyer (DD-342) was named in his honor and was commissioned from 1920 to 1945.

The Last Man

By Vin Suprynowicz (Written in the year 2000)

Oct. 26 falls on a Thursday this year. Ask the significance of the date, and you’re likely to draw some puzzled looks — five more days to stock up for Halloween?

It’s a measure of men like Col. Mitchell Paige that they wouldn’t have had it any other way. What he did 58 years ago, he did precisely so his grandchildren could live in a land of peace and plenty.

Paige 002Whether we’ve properly safeguarded the freedoms he and his kind fought to leave us as their legacy, may be a discussion better left for another day. Today we struggle to envision — or, for a few of us, to remember — how the world must have looked on Oct. 26, 1942. A few thousand lonely American Marines had been put ashore on Guadalcanal, a god-forsaken jungle island which just happened to lie like a speed bump at the end of the long blue-water slot between New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago — the very route the Japanese Navy would have to take to reach Australia.

On Guadalcanal the Marines built an airfield. And Japanese commander Isoroku Yamamoto immediately grasped what that meant. No effort would be spared to dislodge these upstart Yanks from a position that could endanger his ships during any future operations to the south. Before long, relentless Japanese counterattacks had driven the U.S. Navy from inshore waters. The Marines were on their own.

World War Two is generally calculated from Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But that’s a Eurocentric view. The Japanese had been limbering up in Korea and Manchuria as early as 1931, and in China by 1934. By late 1942 they’d devastated every major Pacific military force or stronghold of the great pre-war powers: Britain, Holland, France, and the United States. The bulk of America’s proud Pacific fleet lay beached or rusting on the floor of Pearl Harbor.

As Mitchell Paige — then a platoon sergeant — and his men set about establishing their last defensive line on a ridge southwest of the tiny American bridgehead at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal on Oct. 25, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide a definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 desperate and motivated attackers?

The Japanese Army had not failed in an attempt to seize any major objective since the Russo-Japanese War of 1895. But in preceding days, Marine commander Vandegrift had defied War College doctrine, “dangling” his men in exposed positions to draw Japanese attacks, then springing his traps “with the steel vise of firepower and artillery,” in the words of Naval historian David Lippman.

The Japanese regiments had been chewed up, good. Still, American commanders had so little to work with that Paige’s men had only four 30-caliber Browning machine guns on the one ridge through which the Japanese opted to launch their final assault against Henderson Field, that fateful night of Oct. 25.

By the time the night was over, “The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men,” historian Lippman reports. “The 16th (Japanese) Regiment’s losses are uncounted, but the 164th’s burial parties handle 975 Japanese bodies. … The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low.”

Among the 90 American dead and seriously wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every one. As the night wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.

The citation for Paige’s Congressional Medal of Honor adds: “When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machine gun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire.”

In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings — the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition in its first U.S. Army trial — and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.

The weapon did not fail.

Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley first discovered the answer to our question: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against two regiments of motivated, combat-hardened infantrymen who have never known defeat?

On a hill where the bodies were piled like cordwood, Mitchell Paige alone sat upright behind his 30-caliber Browning, waiting to see what the dawn would bring.

One hill: one Marine.

But that was the second problem. Part of the American line had fallen to the last Japanese attack. “In the early morning light, the enemy could be seen a few yards off, and vapor from the barrels of their machine guns was clearly visible,” reports historian Lippman. “It was decided to try to rush the position.”

For the task, Major Conoley gathered together “three enlisted communication personnel, several riflemen, a few company runners who were at the point, together with a cook and a few mess men who had brought food to the position the evening before.”

Joined by Paige, this ad hoc force of 17 Marines counterattacked at 5:40 a.m., discovering that “the extremely short range allowed the optimum use of grenades.” In the end, “The element of surprise permitted the small force to clear the crest.”

Paige 001And that’s where the unstoppable wave of Japanese conquest finally crested, broke, and began to recede. On an unnamed jungle ridge on an insignificant island no one had ever heard of, called Guadalcanal. Because of a handful of U.S. Marines, one of whom, now 82, lives out a quiet retirement with his wife Marilyn in La Quinta, California.

On Oct. 26, 1942.

When the Hasbro Toy Co. called up some years back, asking permission to put the retired colonel’s face on some kid’s doll, Mitchell Paige thought they must be joking. But they weren’t. That’s his mug, on the little Marine they call “GI Joe.” And now you know.

Note: Colonel Mitchell Paige passed away on 15 November 2003.

Insolence

During World War II, a British army captain injured his knee during parachute training. He was rushed to the nearest hospital, which happened to be at an adjacent military clinic run by the Royal Air Force. After x-rays, the captain was rushed to the emergency clinic where he was treated and retained overnight. The next morning, two officers from his training unit went to visit him, and dutifully checked in with the RAF medical staff attendant at the front desk.

“I beg your pardon, we have come to see Captain Crouchback.”

“Right. Well, d’you know where to find him?”

“Actually, no; perhaps you can tell us.”

“I’m sure I don’t know. Did you say ‘Captain’? Well, there you go … we don’t take army blokes here.”

“He came yesterday for an emergency x-ray.”

The End of Battle
Evelyn Waugh
The End of Battle

“Right. Well, I suppose you can try radiology, then.”“Where’s that?”

“Check the board out front; it should tell you,” said the airman.

Captain Freemantle turned to his companion and said, “I suppose it would be no good putting that man on a charge for insolence.”

“Not in the smallest,” said Captain de Souza. “Insubordinate behavior isn’t an offense in the air service.”

Frozen Chosin

The Big Picture

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

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

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

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

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

The Snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final horror was yet to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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