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Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950

Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950

by Martin Russ

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On November 27, 1950, a Chinese army of some 60,000 men poured over Korea's border intent on wiping out a force of 12,000 U.S. Marines marching north to the Yalu river on General Douglas MacArthur's orders. Three Marine regiments were strung out along 80 miles of a narrow mountain road that snaked its way up sweeping slopes to the high plateau of the


On November 27, 1950, a Chinese army of some 60,000 men poured over Korea's border intent on wiping out a force of 12,000 U.S. Marines marching north to the Yalu river on General Douglas MacArthur's orders. Three Marine regiments were strung out along 80 miles of a narrow mountain road that snaked its way up sweeping slopes to the high plateau of the Chosin Reservoir. Winter had arrived, a merciless wind driving temperatures down to a bone-chilling 30 below.

Thus the stage was set for one of the most stirring tales in the history of American arms. Soon the Marines were completely surrounded by eight Chinese divisions who suddenly emerged from hiding to pounce on the unsuspecting Americans. How the Marines, despite serious losses, broke out of encirclement while inflicting grueling punishment on the enemy, is the gripping story Martin Russ tells in this extraordinary book. In five days and nights of below-zero winds they fought back the waves of attacking Chinese before they reorganized for the epic escape down frozen mountain trails. Running a bloody gauntlet all the way to the sea, they managed to bring their wounded and equipment with them, giving birth to the ringing battle cry ever after associated with the Marines: "Retreat, hell, no! We're attacking in another direction."

Weaving into his account the voices of scores of individuals — ordinary Marines and their officers —Russ creates an unforgettable portrayal of the terror and courage of men as they face sudden death, making the bloody battles of the Korean hills and valleys come alive as they never have before.

Editorial Reviews

During the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, 60,000 Chinese army soldiers surrounded 12,000 Marines -- their chances looked bleak. This dramatic account of how the Marines broke out of their encirclement, and proceeded to inflict serious damage on enemy troops, is a gripping version of the battle that has been called one of the most masterly withdrawal operations in the history of war.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the annals of American heroic stands against long odds, Chosin Reservoir stands with the Alamo and Bataan — with the bonus of a happy ending. Russ (The Last Parallel) has written the definitive account of the 1st Marine Division's epic breakout from the Chosin Reservoir in the winter of 1950. Outnumbered, unsupported and isolated in the depths of winter, 12,000 Marines, surrounded by 60,000 Chinese soldiers, cut their way out of encirclement and fought a path to the sea, bringing out most of their wounded and many of their dead with them. Small wonder, then, that Chosin Reservoir is celebrated as a victory by the Corps. Russ weaves the Marines' stories into a compelling tapestry of understated heroism, showing how the 1st Marine Division owed much to officers and senior NCOs with combat experience in WWII and the force of character to lead teenage riflemen from the front. Cohesion, as well as courage and tactical skill, brought the Marines out of Chosin. Time and again, those whom Russ interviewed stress the overriding importance of not letting down other Marines, no matter the cost. Russ relies heavily — and appropriately — on the accounts of Marines who fought at Chosin. The result is that there is a lot of detail, a lot of close-up recollections of localized battle, but Russ does an admirable job, when necessary, of panning back to give readers a picture of the whole campaign.
Library Journal
This dramatic story epitomizes the brotherhood and fighting spirit of the U.S. Marine Corps and is a hallmark of one of the Corps's greatest battles, the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, 1950. Freezing in subzero weather, low on food, fuel, and ammunition, and surrounded by ten Communist Chinese divisions that weren't supposed to be there, the 1st Marine Division fought its way out of encirclement, bringing out most of its dead and all of its wounded while inflicting horrific casualties on the enemy. Russ, a former Marine and author of The Last Parallel: A Marine's War Journal (1973), has produced a gripping oral history that captures the viciousness of combat, the brutal weather conditions, the forbidding terrain, and the Marines' incredible triumph with stark realism and unvarnished candor. He also illustrates the fine line between hope and despair, heroism and cowardice among men at war. Although primarily a history of the Marines in Korea, this book also provides a clear view of the big picture, with stinging criticism of General MacArthur and the incompetence of the U.S. Army. An outstanding history; highly recommended for all public libraries.
— Col. William D. Bushnell, USMC, Brunswick, ME
Ronald H. Spector
...[A]n engrossing account of this campaign, which the military analyst Drew Middleton called ''one of the most masterly withdrawal operations in the history of war"....Readers not familiar with military terms and operations may find themselves lost at times, though the main story is easy to follow....But his aim is not a scholarly account...
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A masterful narrative of one of the most gripping battles of the 20th century. Russ (The Last Parallel, not reviewed), a Marine Corps veteran of Korea, provides a thorough history of the battle that pitted 60,000 Chinese troops against a force of 12,000 Marines in frozen, mountainous terrain, a skillfully detailed work that is sure to stand as one of the classics of the Korean War. Russ weaves eyewitness accounts and combat histories from Chinese, Korean, and American sources in a tale that seems made for Hollywood. The Marines, encircled by Chinese troops, fought and held their own in an environment that should have meant their end, but instead they tenaciously hung on, despite being given up for lost by their own leadership and in the US papers. Although numerous characters jump out from the page, none does so more than US Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee, a fierce soldier who goes AWOL from a military hospital to get back to his unit and rejoin the fighting (it's an unfortunate flaw of the book that Russ doesn't better probe the psyche of this Chinese-American serviceman fighting a Chinese-Korean enemy). It is in Russ's depictions of the personal elements of the battle that he excels, showing the Marines' dedication to their ethos of always recovering their dead and wounded, as well as of overcoming losses and fighting to the end when so ordered. The lack of determined coordination between the army brass and the Marine Corps is also clearly evidenced; Russ quotes numerous dispatches showing the Marines' concern over being spread thin and the army's failure to respond to that concern. A first-rate history. Russ makes the Chosin Reservoir campaign come alive in a narrative that's impossibleto put down. (photos, not seen) (Author tour)

Product Details

Fromm International Publishing Corporation
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.42(d)

Read an Excerpt

... Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.

—Lawrence Binyon

Chapter One

    Marines had always been regarded as shock troops, their traditional mission being to capture beachheads and hold them until occupation forces (usually Army troops) arrived. Battalion for battalion, the Marines were the most fearsomely efficient troops on either side of the Second World War—not because they were braver or had God on their side, but because Marine recruits were inspired from the beginning with the conviction that they belonged to a select and elite legion, and because of a tradition of loyalty which meant in practical terms that the individual Marine trusted in and relied on his comrades to an extraordinary degree, and that he himself was trustworthy and reliable.

    Most Marines of that day believed it was better to die than to let one's comrades down in combat. The ultimate payoff of this esprit de corps was a headlong aggressiveness that won battles. Ernest Hemingway, who knew something of men at war, wrote, "I would rather have a good Marine, even a ruined one, than anything in the world when there are chips down."

    It was the boot camp training these volunteers endured at the recruit depots at Parris Island and San Diego that established the foundation of this proud military attitude. For ten weeks the individual volunteer was hermetically sealed in a hostile environment, every moment calculated to prepare him to functionsmoothly on the edge of the abyss, subject to such harassment and confusion—very much like combat itself—that it spawned in his homesick heart a desperate yearning for order, and finally a love of that order and a clear understanding that in its symmetry lay his safety and survival.

    There was an undeniable mystique about the Marine Corps, a feeling of being vastly superior to the soldiers of the U.S. Army (Marines never refer to themselves as soldiers) alongside whom they were sometimes required to campaign. By and large, Marines were a resourceful, hardy breed, readier to go in harm's way than the Army's hapless minions. The ghosts of their institutional ancestors—those who fell at Tripoli, in the Halls of Montezuma, at Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Inchon, and other hallowed sites—haunted every Marine at every base and duty station around the globe, demanding teamwork, discipline, courage, and unswerving dedication to the accomplishment of the mission, even when it required entrance into the maw of hell.

    Though they were the most colorful troops in the American armed forces, there was nothing flashy about the Marines. None of their units bore names like Tropic Lightning or Screaming Eagles. The Marine uniform—aside from the "dress blues" worn on ceremonial occasions—was a simple forest green, plain and unadorned in comparison with the Army uniform with its badges, nameplates, patches, flashes, and brass buttons. Captain Michael Capraro, public information officer, 1st Marine Division: "There was a surplus of dirt-common names among the key officers of the day—lots of Browns, Davises, Johnsons, Joneses, Smiths, Williamses, Wilsons, and such. I realize that that is without significance; even so, I always thought the plainness of such names was somehow appropriate to the plainness of the Corps itself."

The division was simply the 1st Marine Division. It was composed of three infantry regiments—1st Marines, 5th Marines, and 7th Marines, each numbering about 3,200 men—and one artillery regiment, 11th Marines. Over twelve thousand strong, these were the men who would do most of the fighting during the Chosin Reservoir campaign. In the rear were ten thousand combat support troops, including the 1st Marine Air Wing.

    Captain Capraro: "It was the strongest division in the world. I thought of it as a Doberman, a dangerous hound straining at the leash, wanting nothing more than to sink its fangs into the master's enemy, preferably one with yellow skin.... So many Regular Marine corporals and sergeants and commissioned officers hailed from the South that some folks said the division descended directly from Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Like the Confederates, they were volunteers and loved a good fight."

    Many Americans regarded the Marine Corps as a national treasure. It was common knowledge that whenever the trumpet sounded, the Marines could be counted on as ready for action, and they had a remarkable history of winning battles quickly.

    PFC Ray Walker, Able Company, 5th Marines, says he cannot recall that any of his fellow Marines resembled the handsome, square-jawed, muscular paragon usually depicted on recruiting posters. "Many of these kids had just started shaving. They were ordinary-looking teenagers, maybe a bit more hard-bitten than most. Journalists referred to them as men, but if you accompanied them on a Stateside liberty you'd notice they bought more candy and ice cream than beer or whiskey, and they were pretty bashful around girls. They would call the girls' mothers `Ma'am.' I'm talking about the privates and privates first class [PFCs], of course, the ones who made up most of the Corps and did most of the fighting."

    And they tended to strut, these youngsters. The battle record of the Corps gave them that right. But none of this explains why they were so good at what they did, or how they were able to destroy the Chinese formations sent to annihilate them in northeast Korea.

Chapter Two

    General Almond, U.S. Army, commanding X Corps, had established his headquarters in the harbor town of Wonsan on October 20. While waiting for the Marines to land, unopposed, he busied himself with "civil affairs." This entailed conferring with local officials and granting audiences with representatives of the population, grandly presenting all with cigarettes and candy.

    The U.S. Army's 7th Division was scheduled to land behind the Marines; the two divisions would then cut across Korea's narrow waist and join General Walker's Eighth Army north of Pyongyang. This would involve a march of 120 miles across the soaring Taebeks.

    General Oliver P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, read the marching order with grave misgiving. Inherent in its crisply confident paragraphs was the dispersal and loss of operational integrity of his division. The initial zone of action measured three hundred miles from north to south—as the crow flies—and sixty from east to west. With the exception of the coastal route, most of the roads between Wonsan and Pyongyang were mere mountain trails, unfit for tanks or trucks. Studying the map, Smith realized that he and the Army's X Corps commander were going to have diplomatic difficulties in the immediate future.

    The young men of Smith's division were divided almost evenly between Regular and Reservist, the latter hailing from selected cities across America. For many of these young men, reporting for active duty on short notice had been a painful experience. Captain William B. Hopkins's case was typical. A citizen of Roanoke, Virginia, he was called up on August 8, forced to close his law office after two years of practice.

    "I lay awake every night," he recalls, "thinking about how I was going to say good-bye."

    On a Sunday morning, under overcast skies, the Roanoke Reservists assembled in front of the armory and marched down Naval Reserve Avenue to the Norfolk & Western station. The few people on the sidewalk, including a few churchgoers in front of St. John's Episcopal, watched in silence as the troops marched by, their boondockers making the characteristic crunching sound on the macadam. At the station, a photographer from the Roanoke Times took a picture of Hopkins shaking hands with his father. The caption would read, "Goodbye and good luck, son."

    A large percentage of Reservists were veterans of the Second World War, a war that had ended only five years earlier. Corporal Roy Pearl of Duluth, Minnesota, had seen action on Bougainville, Peleliu, Guam, and Okinawa. Joining the Reserves after the war, he attended weekend drills and summer camp, drawing meager pay to supplement the income he earned servicing cars. Like most of his peers he answered the unexpected summons without complaint, but it was hard. One of his concerns was that his daughters, three years and three months old respectively, had not been baptized. "I was greatly relieved," he recalls, "when our minister agreed to stop by and take care of it in our living room."

    The Duluth Reservists marched to the train station early the following morning. Helen Pearl was to meet her husband there with the girls. At first she was unable to find him among the Marines already boarding; but after a frantic search, there he was, smiling bravely. There was just enough time to present him with a keepsake ring inscribed To Roy From Helen and kiss him good-bye.

    1st Lt. Chew-Een Lee's memory of leaving home remains vivid in his mind nearly half a century later. "I came from a family of limited means. My father, whose Chinese name was Brilliant Scholar, distributed fruit and vegetables to restaurants and hotels in Sacramento. He stayed home from work that morning, and my mother, whose Chinese name was Gold Jade, made a special meal. There was an awkward moment when the clock on the wall said it was time to depart. My mother was very brave. She said nothing. My father had been reading the Chinese newspaper, or pretending to. He was a tough guy, my father, and I admired his toughness. He rose from his chair and shook my hand abruptly. He tried to talk, but couldn't, and that's when my mother broke down. I was the first-born and now I was going away, probably for good. This departure was very difficult for me ... leaving them behind like that, such hardworking people, struggling for survival."

    Leaving one's family was hard enough, but leaving one's native land was painful too. Major Francis Parry, an artillery officer, recalls: "Early on the evening of September 1, 1950, we slipped out of San Diego's magnificent harbor and headed into the setting sun. It was an unforgettable experience. As the Marine band played `Goodnight, Irene'—a favorite of the moment—hundreds of troops crowding the deck of the Bayfield broke into song. The families and friends swarming on the dock below began to join in. As the ship eased its way past Point Loma into the darkening Pacific, the harbor reverberated with that haunting refrain."

    Fred Davidson, an eighteen-year-old infantry private, was at the rail. He recalls the black hills and twinkling lights of the city, and the song. "It was like being a member of a great choir in an enormous cathedral."

What People are Saying About This

James Brady
No more chilling or terrible account of war in a frozen hell has ever been written. Nor has any American army come as close to panic and disintegration ... if they ever add a stanza to the 'Marines' Hymn,' here are the lyrics. (James Brady, author of The Coldest War)
Joseph C. Goulden
Will stand as a classic work on the Korean War. (Joseph C. Goulden, author of Korea: The Untold Story of the War)
James Webb
A century from now the U.S. Marines will be toasting their brave comrades who fought their way out of the Frozen Chosin in the Freezing Season. Martin Russ has done us all a great service by retelling the story with fresh insight. (James Webb, author of Fields of Five)
W.E.B. Griffin
The most gripping account of a legendary battle in the history of the Marines, the defining story of an epic .... a sermon on the splendor of human courage.
Gerald F. Linderman
A saga that, a half century later, continues to leave the reader in wonder. (Gerald F. Linderman, author of The World Within War)
Bernard E. Trainor
One of the most dramatic running battles in military history — now an all but forgotten fight of incredible deprivation, ferocity and bravery. (Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor)

Meet the Author

Martin Russ, the recipient of a Purple Heart for his service as a Marine during the Korean War, is the author of The Last Parallel and Line of Departure. He lives in California's Napa Valley.

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