Chosin Documentary Review Essay

Alternative Titles: Battle of the Chōsen Reservoir, Battle of the Changjin Reservoir

Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Chosin also called Changjin, campaign early in the Korean War, part of the Chinese Second Offensive (November–December 1950) to drive the United Nations out of North Korea. The Chosin Reservoir campaign was directed mainly against the 1st Marine Division of the U.S. X Corps, which had disembarked in eastern North Korea and moved inland in severe winter weather to a mountainous area near the reservoir. The campaign succeeded in forcing the entire X Corps to evacuate to South Korea, but the Chinese did not achieve their particular objective of isolating and destroying the 1st Marine Division. Instead, in a deliberate retrograde movement that has become one of the most-storied exploits in Marine Corps lore, the Marines turned and fought their way down a narrow vulnerable road through several mountain passes and a bridged chasm until they reached transport ships waiting at the coast.

Crossing into North Korea

Following the successful landing of the X Corps at Inch’ŏn in September 1950, the United Nations Command (UNC), under the direction of U.S. Pres. Harry S. Truman’s administration and the UN General Assembly, pursued the remnants of the communist Korean People’s Army into North Korea. On the orders of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of all allied forces in the UNC, the U.S. Eighth Army crossed the 38th parallel (the prewar border) on October 7 and advanced up the western side of the Korean peninsula toward P’yŏngyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. At the same time, MacArthur redeployed the X Corps on amphibious ships around the peninsula to Korea’s east coast. The X Corps (commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond) included the 1st Marine Division (Maj. Gen. Oliver P. [“O.P.”] Smith), the 7th Infantry Division (Maj. Gen. David G. Barr), and the 3rd Infantry Division (Maj. Gen. Robert H. Soule). The corps also had control of the Capital and 3rd divisions of the South Korean I Corps, which was already crossing the 38th parallel on the east coast highway.

What MacArthur did not know was that the Chinese had feared such an offensive since the Inch’ŏn landing. The Chinese began preparations to enter the war by sending supplies and support troops into North Korea. Meanwhile, Chinese combat divisions, some 21 in number but expanding to 33 by December, remained in Manchuria ready to move against the UNC ground forces. On October 18–19, Chinese leader Mao Zedong, after considerable debate, ordered the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force (CPVF), under the command of General Peng Dehuai, to move against the Eighth Army, whose lead elements had advanced beyond P’yŏngyang and were marching along two separate routes toward the border with China at the Yalu River.

The Chinese First Offensive of October 25–November 6 staggered the Eighth Army, damaging one American division and four South Korean divisions in the battle of Onjŏng-Unsan. To the east, two American divisions of the X Corps had landed on October 26 and 29, and the South Korean I Corps was heading north up the coast road toward the Sino-Soviet border. The wide separation of these units made them a tempting objective for the Chinese. On November 2–4, the South Koreans and U.S. Marines fought their first engagement against the Chinese at Sudong, inland from the port city of Hŭngnam. There a Marine regiment defeated an attacking division, killing at least 662 Chinese soldiers.

Advancing to Chosin

Underestimating the fighting ability of the CPVF, MacArthur ordered Almond to advance inland with the 1st Marine and 7th Infantry divisions to the Chosin Reservoir. From there the two divisions would move west toward Kanggye, a mountain mining town where the Chinese and North Korean armies seemed to be concentrating—a maneuver that would place the X Corps north of and behind the CPVF armies facing the Eighth Army. MacArthur’s scheme required an 88-km (55-mile) advance over a single unpaved road through the heart of the T’aebaek Mountains in freezing weather and blinding snowstorms. Smith told Almond the plan was rash, but Almond, operating directly under MacArthur, ordered the Marines forward.

The X Corps’ first objective, the village of Hagaru-ri, rested near the southern tip of the reservoir, a narrow mountain lake that provided hydroelectric power to the mining industries of northern Korea. The lake’s proper name is the Changjin Reservoir, but, during Japan’s annexation of Korea (1910–45), its name had been changed to Chōsen, the Japanese name for Korea. Through successive translations and hurried mapmaking, the reservoir became known as Chosin and remains so to this day for American veterans of the Korean War. By any name it 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 1st Marine Division established battalion-sized bases at Chinhŭng-ni and Kot’o-ri, villages along the Main Supply Route (MSR), the X Corps’ name for the road to the reservoir. The division began its final march to the reservoir on November 13, with two of its reinforced regiments, the 7th and 5th Marines, in column and moving cautiously. Each regiment was a regimental combat team with attached artillery battalions, a tank company, engineers, and headquarters and service units. On November 15 lead elements of the 7th Marines reached Hagaru-ri. From there the regiment prepared for its next advance, west of the reservoir to Yudam-ni, 22 km (14 miles) away, while the 5th Marines moved cautiously up the reservoir’s right bank.

General Smith, unhappy with this risky deployment, persuaded Almond to allow the Marines to concentrate at Hagaru-ri and replace the eastern force with a unit from the 7th Infantry Division. Almond ordered General Barr to form a regimental combat team of two infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and other troops. The 31st Infantry Regiment, commanded by Col. Allan D. MacLean and known as Task Force MacLean, numbered 3,200 Americans and Koreans. It replaced the Marines east of the reservoir on November 25. 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 noninfantry units. The Marine Corps’ investment in making “every Marine a rifleman” would soon pay dividends.

The Chinese strike

As the 1st Marine Division advanced, Peng ordered the uncommitted Ninth Army Group (commanded by General Song Shilun) to leave Manchuria and destroy it. Song’s army group (12 divisions in 3 armies) numbered 150,000 soldiers—mostly infantry with mortars and machine guns but not much artillery, since the Chinese lacked guns, shells, and trucks and feared UNC air strikes on road-bound columns. Moreover, the army group had not prepared for winter war. Still, Mao found the X Corps too tempting a target to resist, and the Chinese believed they had found an effective formula for fighting the UNC: stealth, nighttime attacks, ambushes, local surprise, and superiority in numbers. The Ninth Army Group moved into positions on either side of the reservoir with five divisions, and it moved three more divisions to cut the road south of Hagaru-ri and attack Kot’o-ri. Smith, benefiting from aggressive intelligence operations, knew the Chinese had massed around his division, but Almond did not share his alarm.

In the last week of November the Ninth Army Group launched simultaneous division-level attacks on the 1st Marine Division at Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, and Kot’o-ri and on Task Force MacLean east of the reservoir. The 7th and 5th Marines, having met major Chinese forces in a daylight attack on November 27, quickly prepared a perimeter defense for night action. The enclaves at Hagaru-ri and Kot’o-ri were even better prepared, though the Hagaru-ri perimeter had too much critical hill terrain to defend with the available troops. Halfway between Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri, one Marine rifle company defended Tŏktong Pass, where the Chinese 59th Division had placed a major roadblock. Task Force MacLean, 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, but Task Force MacLean did not. By the time the surviving soldiers (minus their commanding officer, who went missing in action en route and was never recovered) 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, and only half of them were fit for duty. The Marine regiments, on the other hand, though reduced by one-third to one-half in their rifle companies, managed to halt or curb the Chinese attacks, aimed at penetrating the perimeters and overrunning artillery positions, the airfield, and command posts. Artillery fire around the clock and air strikes during the day also punished the Chinese. The only real misstep in the defensive battle was a decision by Smith and the 1st Marine Regiment commander, Col. Lewis B. (“Chesty”) Puller, to send a convoy of tanks and supply trucks from Kot’o-ri to Hagaru-ri on November 29. Task Force Drysdale, commanded by Lieut. Col. Douglas B. Drysdale, 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines, in addition to service and headquarters troops, included a Marine infantry company, an army infantry company, and Drysdale’s British raiding battalion. The task force was ambushed en route. One-third of the force (tanks and infantry) fought through to Hagaru-ri, and another third fought its way back to Kot’o-ri. The remainder (162 officers and men) died or became captives.

Fighting back to the coast

On November 29 Almond, having met with MacArthur in Tokyo, acknowledged that the X Corps could survive only if its dispersed divisions headed for the nearest port. Most headed to Hŭngnam and were evacuated to Wŏnsan—a decision that reflected the Eighth Army’s defeats in the west. Moreover, the Truman administration soon discarded the policy of unifying Korea by force, though it still wanted to save the Republic of Korea. Preserving the UNC for this mission (its original one) dictated that the X Corps escape the grasp of the CPVF Ninth Army Group. To achieve this aim, Almond took a worst-case position: the Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri garrisons would rally at the latter perimeter and then fly out, abandoning the division’s heavy weapons, vehicles, and supplies. The rest of the division would march back down the MSR from Kot’o-ri to Hŭngnam. Smith, however, refused to abandon his division’s equipment. Instead, he argued that the Yudam-ni–Hagaru-ri movement was the critical one. Once the two groups had united at Hagaru-ri, they could absorb ammunition and replacements by air and evacuate the worst wounded and frozen casualties. At that point the division could turn and fight its way to the coastal plain—“advancing in a different direction,” as Smith phrased it. Almond conceded that such a withdrawal by the 1st Marine Division would attract Chinese divisions and thus allow the rest of the X Corps to retreat without real danger.

On December 1 the 1st Marine Division began the movement that eventually took its rear guard inside the perimeter established by the 3rd Infantry Division near Hŭngnam. In the course of this escape, the division rendered three more Chinese divisions ineffective in addition to the four that had already been ruined at Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri. The Yudam-ni group, the first to move out, did not stop until it reached Hagaru-ri on December 4. The 5th Marines walked the road to protect the vehicle train, while the 7th Marines plodded through the hills to break up Chinese “fire sacks” and relieve the Tŏktong Pass defenders. Their two artillery battalions, meanwhile, moved by bounds to ensure continuous fire support, and Marine and navy fighter-bombers were on call during daylight to strike any suspected ambush. The arrival of the 5th and 7th Marines at Hagaru-ri ensured that the airfield would not be closed by Chinese fire. Marine and air force transports brought in critical ammunition and gasoline and took out 4,500 casualties. The fuel was critical: one Marine artillery battalion lost half its guns north of Hagaru-ri when its tractors ran out of diesel fuel.

The reassembled 1st Marine Division reorganized, tried to eat and sleep in warming tents, and prepared to fight south to the coast. On December 6 the “attack in a different direction” continued, destination Kot’o-ri, 18 km (11 miles) distant. The real challenge was Funchilin Pass below Kot’o-ri, where the Chinese had destroyed a bridge over a chasm. The solution was to assemble a bridge that was air-dropped in sections, enough of which survived to allow vehicles to pass. The Chinese contested the withdrawal at this chokepoint, but the Marines fought through the trap, although the rear guard had to abandon seven tanks. The final potential barrier, another pass to the south, had been cleared by the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, in a nighttime attack in temperatures as low as −34 °C (−30 °F). A battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division stopped two attacks on the final Hŭngnam perimeter on December 3 and 15. By the latter date the 1st Marine Division, its rear guard having reached Hŭngnam on December 11, had been loaded onto their waiting transport ships. Resistance by the Chinese had become almost token, their troops ruined by cold, starvation, and relentless X Corps firepower.

The Chosin Reservoir campaign was a geographic victory for the Chinese, for the X Corps, instead of redeploying to Wŏnsan, was forced to return to South Korea, where it became part of the Eighth Army in January 1951. Nevertheless, the campaign ruined the CPVF Ninth Army Group, which did not return to the front until March 1951, and it convinced the UNC that allied ground troops could defeat Chinese armies, however numerous. The Chinese have remained vague on their losses in the battle, but their own records and UNC estimates put the Ninth Army Group’s casualties in the range of 40,000 to 80,000, when one counts combat deaths and wounded plus deaths and incapacity from the cold. The 1st Marine Division lost 4,385 men to combat and 7,338 to the cold. Other X Corps losses amounted to some 6,000 Americans and Koreans.

Allan R. Millett

'American Experience: The Battle of Chosin'American Experience: The Battle of Chosin. PBS. Tuesday, November 1, 9 p.m.

When the Chinese mortar shell exploded, it sent the American soldier hurtling through the air, his body savaged but his mind eerily dreamy as he fell back to earth, cataloging the carnage surrounding him. He took particular note of a severed limb casually askew on the ground. "Some poor guy lost a leg," the soldier thought to himself sadly. When he tried to stand, the dream blinked back to reality: The poor guy without a leg was him.

So it goes in The Battle of Chosin, an episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience airing November 1. It's a series of postcards—surreal, grisly, terrifying—from a largely forgotten battle in the mostly unremembered war that the United States fought in Korea from 1950 to 1953.

For two weeks beginning in late November 1950, a U.S.-commanded force of nearly 15,000 men, mostly U.S. Marines, fought its way out of an encirclement of 120,000 Chinese troops near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The combat, at such close quarters that the fighting was often hand-to-hand, took place on steep, craggy mountain terrain ("you had two directions to go in Korea, that was either straight up or straight down, recalls one American soldier) in temperatures that plunged to 50 degrees below zero on some nights. It was a frozen killing field so gruesome that the soldiers interviewed in The Battle of Chosin are often reduced to ghastly free association in their attempts to describe it: "Grotesque. ... Horrible. Nightmare."

Producer-director Randall MacLowry and writer Mark Zwonitzer, though both American Experience veterans (together and separately, they've chronicled everything from the creation of Silicon Valley to the campaign to stamp out polio), have little experience in making military documentaries.

That doesn't show at all in The Battle of Chosin, which dexterously alternates between broad discussions of strategy and grunt's-eye-view of the fighting on the ground. They've assembled a truly awesome collection of archival footage and still photographs; as grim and exhausting as the battle got, military combat photographers apparently never put down their cameras.

Battle opens with a quick, deft summary of the outbreak of the Korean War five months earlier. North Korean troops poured across the border, quickly captured Seoul and within a few weeks were on the verge of driving out U.S. and South Korean forces. But American commander Douglas MacArthur's risky decision to launch an amphibious assault behind the North Korean lines broke the communist offensive, sending them in headlong retreat north with U.S. forces in hot pursuit.

As Thanksgiving approached, American troops were nearing the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, and U.S. forces were so totally in control that American planes were ferrying turkey and dressing rather than bombs and bullets to the front. Though there were some nervous voices in Washington—including that of President Truman himself—expressing worries that China might intervene on behalf of the shattered North Korean army, MacArthur dismissed the Chinese as a "peasant army" that would crumble in the face of American military technology. Even when American troops traded some sporadic shots with infiltrated Chinese soldiers—their distinctive quilted uniforms made them easy to recognize—U.S. commanders were unconcerned.

The spearhead of the drive on the Yalu was the 1st U.S. Marine Division, augmented by smaller units of the U.S. and South Korean army, arrayed in a semi-circle around the Chosin Reservoir on the eve of an offensive that their commanders had promised them would end the war by Christmas. Instead, they were awakened the night of Nov. 27 by a series of murderous human-wave attacks by a Chinese force that would number at least 60,000 soldiers.

Under-armed (only the first wave of men all carried guns; most of those in subsequent waves were expected to snatch their weapons from the carpet of corpses they raced across toward U.S. lines), the Chinese used their massive advantage in sheer numbers to overrun American positions.

"You didn't have to look where they were," recalls one American soldier. "In back of you. In front of you. Right around you, right in the middle of you." Bullets gave way to bayonets and rifles turned into clubs, bodies were strewn everywhere. "It's terrifying," says another soldier. "You know you're gonna die and you wonder how it's gonna happen."

Even after the first night's fighting, U.S. commanders remained sanguine. "You gonna let a few Chinese laundrymen stop you?" U.S. Army General Ned Almond sneered to his officers on the ground. By the second night, American forces were completely surrounded and had no choice to fight their way south, 80 miles down a road built for oxcarts, the Chinese bombarding them from the surrounding peaks every step of the way.

The Battle of Chosin is a melange of horrifying images that compound themselves into something other-worldly. Newsreel shows Marines chipping uselessly at the frozen ground with picks in a futile effort to dig foxholes to shelter themselves from the glacial winds and the clouds of enemy bullets. When that didn't work, survivors explain, they huddled inside walls made of icy Chinese corpses.

American dead, too, were put to work; they were stripped naked so their clothing could be searched for stray ammo or grenades, then wrapped around wounded men, stacked three deep in trucks, in an often futile attempt to keep them from freezing to death. The arctic cold inflicted almost as much damage on the Marines as the Chinese did; the photos of blackened, mutilated feet will forever dispel you of any idea that frostbite is a minor injury. One soldier describes how when medics finally used an axe to get his frozen boots off, his toes stayed inside.

Sometimes words fail the survivors, particularly when they're describing the weapon that saved so many of them: napalm, dropped by American planes on Chinese attackers at altitudes so low that soldiers on the ground could see their faces as they flew by. A Marine who walked through a field of charred Chinese corpses after one of the attacks can say only, "There were smells that, to this day, I can't get rid of." Other times their stories have no narrative point but are merely—though that's surely not the right word—horrifying images trapped in their brains seven decades later, including one of an American soldier's body windmilling down a mountainside, his face torn off by a Chinese shell, blood spraying everywhere in what seems like a terrible rebuke to the very concept of humanity.

If Battle goes off-track anyplace, it's in the documentary's brief forays into political analysis—particularly the undisputed assertion of University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, a longtime apologist for North Korea's Stalinst Kim dynasty, that China's decision to send troops into North Korea was an understandable act of self-defense by an innocent bystander to American aggression. "What would the U.S. do if the Chinese communist army were marching up Mexico, talking about rolling back American capitalism in the Southwest?" asks Cumings in wide-eyed innocence. That's a scrambled analogy that not only ignores the fact that North Korea's invasion of the South started the war, but voluminous documentary evidence uncovered by other historians that Mao lobbied Joseph Stalin for more than a year to approve the invasion, promising help from Chinese troops if anything went awry.

But that errant minute or two of Battle is easily ignored in a documentary that is a both a magnificent piece of military history and an appalling testament to the reality of war. The latter includes testimony that the soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir, even in the battle's ugliest moments, retained a heartbreaking ability to recognize their own roles in an agonizing tableau of suffering and bloodshed.

One Marine, after tossing a grenade into an enemy bunker, entered it to find a lone Chinese machine-gunner still at his post, his legs and stomach torn away but his heart somehow still beating. "He kept talking to me in Chinese," the American remembers, his eyes red and moist. "Was he telling me about his family; was he pleading with me to dispatch him? ... I still think about him at night sometimes, just wishing I could have understood what he was saying. It's nothing to kill them at a distance. It's when you look them in the eye, that's different." The Battle of Chosin never breaks its gaze.

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