On June 8, 2020, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korean Government) cut all lines of communications with the Republic of Korea (South Korean Government). Eight days later, an explosion destroyed the joint liaison building which had been used to host meetings between the two governments. The bombing was instantly seen as an act of aggression by North Korea and prompted a sharp response from its South Korean counterpart. Fears of an armed conflict gripped neighborhood countries as tensions continued to rise. Many eyes in both China and the United States were watching for the events very well could have led to the re-ignition of the Korean War (1950-1953), a conflict that never officially ended. I am constantly amazed at the expressions of surprise people display upon learning this fact. It seems surreal but the fact is that the Korean is still an “open” conflict that is only contained by the 39th Parallel and the watchful eyes of several foreign countries over North and South Korea. The war itself is often reserved for military buffs and overshadowed by both World War II and the Vietnam War. However, the reality is that the conflict in Korea nearly evolved in World War III. Author Hampton Sides is here to tell us about the role of the United States Marines and their experience in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
When the North Korean army under the command of Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994) invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the United States came to the aid of its ally and engaged the North Korean army in fierce combat. As the conflict intensified, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1982) turned to the legendary Gen. Douglas McArthur (1880-1964) to assess the situation in Korea. Assured that the North Koreans could not win and would beaten back shortly, Truman breathed a sigh of relief. McArthur in turn, looked to the military to handle the growing need for combat troops. And the time had come for the United States Marine Corps to show what it was made of. Under the direction of Gen. Oliver Prince Smith (1893-1977), the First Marine Division was dispatched to aid South Korea and push the North Koreans back to Pyongyang. The landing by the First Marine Division and steady advance of infantry soldiers had nearly everyone convinced that Korea would be a short campaign that would barely last several months. But America soon learned that there was more to meet the eye and the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) would leave its mark on Korean soil and the minds of the Marines who survived hell on earth.
Several individuals in the Marines’ chain of command were confident that the Marines would face little resistance as they marched across Korea. General Edward Mallory “Ned” Almond (1892-1979) as among them and pressed his subordinate Gen. Smith to advance and continue pushing the North Koreans back all the way to their capital city. Almond makes several appearances in the story and on occasion proves to be nearly as dangerous as the Koreans the Marines were fighting. The mission starts off well until the Marines make a shocking discovery and learn that the Chinese military has come to the aid of the North Koreans. The realization that China had now entered the conflict sent shockwaves through Washington. It was seen as the biggest intelligence failure in recent memory. But was it really a failure? Hampton Sides explores the issue and what he explains just might cause some readers to shake their heads in disbelief.
The conflict that had started out as a fast moving campaign had now turned into a diplomatic and military nightmare on both sides. Marines found themselves embroiled in fierce combat and began to realize that their mission was by no means “simple”. The tide had now turned and Korea became a hotbed of savage combat. The battles scenes come back to life in the book and we are provided with a ring-side seat as the Marines are forced to fight opposing troops and a winter climate that nearly renders them completely immobile. The words of the veterans who lived through the war are included here and it can easily be seen that many years later, they are still the proud Marines they were in the early 1950s.
General Smith knew that the conflict would rage longer than Washington wanted and decided that the base of operations would be located in Hagaru, the only space in the Reservoir that could accommodate an airstrip which would desperately needed to bring in supplies, troops and evacuate casualties. The Marines had been given their orders to push forward into the Chosin Reservoir and destroy the enemy. And in the process, hundreds of young Marines were sent to a place of no return. Waiting in the distance for them was Mao’s Red Army whose only goal was to kill Americans. The Marines’ entry into the depths of the Reservoir and actions of Mao’s army are the focus for the second half of the book in which we see the Marines faced with tough decisions with very little time as wave upon wave of Chinese soldiers advanced on American posts. The fighting is savage and some of the soldiers we meet do not ride off into the sunset. Their ordeal is a sobering reminder that war is hell, Marines fight and they also die. However, the threat of death does not stand in their way and they come to life when needed in a nightmare that must seemed like a welcoming party for entry into Valhalla.
Commanders at X Corps soon realize that the Reservoir is a natural trap and the Chinese have severed key arteries that facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. The Marines are literally surrounded and must get out of the Reservoir. But the task is easier said than done and time is of the essence. The final part of the book is devoted to the controlled and strategic withdrawal by the Marines back to South Korea. And this is by far, the most uplifting part of the story as the battle-hardened troops rotate back to South Korea in route to the United States. But none of them would ever forget the Reservoir and how it became a death trap for the Marines taking on the communist threat from North Korea and China.
There are those who feel that the Reservoir was nothing short of a debacle. While it is true that the Marines suffered heavy losses, Mao’s Red Army fared just as bad if not worse. The battle is important not because of a win or loss but the psychological effect it had on the troops that served and in popular opinion. The full story can be found inside in this book which will surely delight students of history that have always wanted to learn more about an often forgotten war in America’s past. Highly recommended.