On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle

by Hampton Sides

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385541152
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 302
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

HAMPTON SIDES is an award-winning editor of Outside and the author of the bestselling histories In the Kingdom of Ice, Hellhound on His Trail, Blood and Thunder, and Ghost Soldiers, which won the PEN Award for Nonfiction. A past fellow of the Santa Fe Institute, he teaches narrative non-fiction at Colorado College.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Morning Calm
 
In the misting rain, they pressed against the metal skins of their boats and peeked over the gunwales for a glimpse of the shores they were about to attack. Some thirteen thousand men of the First Marine Division, the spearhead of the invasion, had clambered down from the ships on swinging nets of rope and then had crammed themselves into a motley flotilla of craft that now wallowed and bobbed in the channel. Several of the rusty old hulks, having been commandeered from Japanese trawler­men, smelled of sour urine and rotten fish heads. The Marines, many of them green from seasickness, saw the outlines of the charred foot­hills that rose above the port, and caught the scent of the brackish marshes and the slime of the mudflats. Corsairs, bent-winged like swallows, dove over the city, dropping thousand-pound bombs and sending five-inch rockets deep into hillside nests where the enemy was said to be dug in. Far out at sea, the naval guns rained fire upon the city, damaging tanks of butane that now flared and belched palls of smoke.

On this warm, humid morning of September 15, 1950, the Marines had arrived at their destination halfway around the world, to stun their foe and turn the war around: a surprise amphibious attack, on an immense scale, deep behind the battle lines. Only a few months before, these young men, fresh from their farms and hick towns, had piled into chartered trains and clattered across America to California. Then they climbed aboard transport ships, where many of them did their basic training, learning how to strip and rebuild M1 rifles, drill­ing on the crowded decks, practicing their marksmanship on floating targets towed from the fantails. They crossed the Pacific and stopped briefly in Japan, then heaved their way through a full-scale typhoon. They rounded the peninsula and moved in convoy up the west coast, through the silted waters of the Yellow Sea.

By the thirteenth of September the ships had begun to concen­trate, 261 vessels in all, carrying more than 75,000 men and millions of dollars’ worth of war matériel. On the fourteenth, the armada was closing in on its target: the narrow confines of Flying Fish Channel. The channel led to Inchon, an industrial city of a quarter million people, whose strategically vital but treacherous port served the capi­tal, Seoul.

On the morning of the fifteenth, in the seas west of Inchon, the ships ranged along the horizon, a long line of gray bars stitch­ing through the mist. First came the destroyers Swenson, Mansfield, DeHaven. Then the high-speed transports Wantuck, Horace A. Bass, Diachenko, and the dock landing ship Fort Marion. Then the heavy cruisers Toledo and Rochester and three more destroyers: Gurke, Hen­derson, and Collett. Following in their mingled wakes came the British light cruisers Kenya and Jamaica, the attack transports Cavalier and Henrico. Farther out at sea lay the fast carriers, from which the Cor­sairs rose into the skies to make their deadly sorties.

By afternoon, as the Marines drew near the Inchon seawall, enemy rounds zinged across the water surface and mortar shells crashed hap­hazardly all around. Within a few minutes the Marines would reach the cut-granite ramparts. They would climb over, and they would set foot on the western shores of central Korea.

What was Korea to these young men? Some fate-ravaged place, an inflamed appendix, a wattle of real estate flapping off the face of the mainland. Though some of the units approaching Inchon had spent the past month bolstering United Nations forces at the southern tip of Korea, most of the First Marine Division had no experience with the country. They had little knowledge of Korea’s tragic history, no appreciation for how faithfully this proud culture had held on through centuries of turmoil and besiegement. It was a small nation that his­tory had pushed around—a shrimp among whales. The Mongols had had their way with her, the Manchus, the Russians, the Japanese. Now had come the Americans, nervous young men who knew next to nothing about the place, though some had passed around guidebooks filched from hometown libraries.

Korea, they’d learned, was known as the Hermit Kingdom. The Land of the Morning Calm. Its national dish was a hot mess of fer­mented cabbage. Some Marines had read with astonishment that in parts of Korea, peasants still nourished their crops with night soil and were known to roast the occasional hound for dinner—these were some of the clichés that were passed around. Korea was said to be a dirt-poor country, mountainous, swept by Siberian winds, sultry dur­ing summer and breathtakingly cold in winter.

But what did the travel manuals really know? God created war, Twain wrote, so that Americans would learn geography, and the men of the First Marine Division were about to learn a lot about this tough, sorrowful scrap of land. While some would find a deep affinity for it, many would come to hate it, for all the things it was and for all the things it wasn’t. But to most of them, more than anything, Korea just seemed a long way from home—a long way to come to fight and bleed and die, in a war that was not officially a war, for a cause that at times was not altogether clear, for an endgame that was anybody’s guess.

The Marines had a tradition of being the first to fight, the first to kill, the first to die. They didn’t earn their reputation by asking many questions. In a few months, they would face the armies of the most populous nation on earth and would become engaged in one of the more harrowing clashes in the history of warfare. Many would never return home. But for those who survived, Korea would be for­ever stamped on their psyches, and on their souls. They would never forget what happened here, even if the majority of their countrymen quickly did.

Now the assault vessels angled past the pitted harbor islands of Inchon and made for the bluff face of the seawall, where the breaking surf left a ring of bone-white foam. The bullets whined and smacked in weird patterns upon the surface. A shell screamed overhead, and the Marines crouched a little tighter into the walls of their boats.

 

Book One: Seoul
 
War is the unfolding of miscalculations.
-          Barbara Tuchman
 

1

The Professor

On the Yellow Sea

 
The amphibious invasion taking place off the jetties and docks of Inchon—an action officially known as Operation Chromite—was among the boldest and most technically complex engagements in modern military annals. The man who conceived the invasion, prevailing over enormous doubts in Washington, was General Douglas MacArthur, and his name would forever be associated with it. But the officer most directly responsible for executing the details of the initial landing, the unsung and largely unknown architect of the Marine assault, was in many ways MacArthur’s opposite. He was Oliver Prince Smith, commander of the First Marine Division, one of the great underrated generals in American history.

From the decks of the command ship USS Mount McKinley, Smith watched the proceedings as best he could through shifting curtains of smoke. He squinted into his field glasses as the ship heaved in the swells. In the distance, the small landing craft, having butted against the seawall, were in position. In the bow of each vessel, Marines raised a pair of scaling ladders, and the waiting boats treaded the water like enormous bugs with antennae quivering. The leathernecks began to scale the ladders and vanished from view. But the radio reports that came in from the spotter planes were all positive. The Marines were moving into the city now, swarming over the causeways and saltpans, already seizing industrial complexes and other installations along the ruined harbor.

Smith’s division was a formidable fighting force. Though it had been hastily thrown together at Camp Pendleton, California, most of the division’s officers and noncoms were seasoned warriors, men of the Old Breed who had served in the bitter World War II battles of the Pacific—at places like Guadalcanal and Okinawa. “They could load jeeps with their decorations,” said one account, and would “need a truck to carry off their Purple Hearts.” Battalion for battalion, the First Marine Division was as fierce and as disciplined as any­thing the United States had to offer. “It was the strongest division in the world,” boasted one Marine captain who served under Smith. “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.”
 
Smith was enormously relieved by the progress of the invasion. The resistance was proving tepid—either the North Korean defenders had been caught off guard or they were overwhelmed by the inten­sity of the firestorm. But Smith stopped short of celebrating. He was superstitious of good fortune. As an assistant division commander at the World War II battle of Peleliu, he had witnessed a senseless loss of life—the result of intelligence failures and strategic mistakes not of his making. Scarred by the events at Peleliu, he tended to proceed with a thoroughgoing sense of caution. In his own experience, it was overconfidence, more than any other single factor, that caused men to die.

He felt a little uneasy that MacArthur had invited a gaggle of journalists aboard the Mount McKinley to follow the invasion. It struck Smith as unseemly to have assembled so many members of the press to capture what MacArthur’s people confidently expected would be his moment of triumph. “This is a public relations war,” Smith wrote in disdain. “We are overrun with onlookers.”

Smith had spent a lot of time with MacArthur aboard the Mount McKinley. During the past few days, as part of the larger convoy, they had steamed over from Japan in this 460-foot floating command cen­ter, a plush flagship tricked out with all manner of radar, radiotele­phones, and other advanced communications equipment. Smith found the supreme commander initially impressive, occasionally entertain­ing, but ultimately insufferable. MacArthur, he said, is “a born actor” who “puts a lot of drama into his conversation.” He “has to his credit many outstanding accomplishments,” Smith allowed. “However, the pomposity of his pronouncements is a little wearing.”

***
 
Major General Oliver Prince Smith, fifty-six years old, was a cerebral, soft-spoken man whose habits seemed atypical of a gung-ho Marine. There was no bluster in his demeanor. A Berkeley graduate who incessantly smoked a pipe, he had a reputation in the Corps as an intellectual. People called him “the Professor.” One Marine his­torian described him as an “ascetic thinker and teacher.” He was flu­ent in French, drank sparingly, read the classics, and never cursed. An expert gardener, he cultivated roses in his spare time. He was an incessant notetaker; he kept a small green notebook on his person and wrote in a cryptic shorthand. Reed-thin and tall, his sharp-featured face set with piercing blue eyes and topped by a nimbus of prema­turely white hair, he spoke deliberately and with precision.

But for all his gentleness and reserve, Smith was tough. As a young man, he had been a winch operator and then a crew foreman at a rough-and-tumble logging camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California. He knew hard work, and his hands showed it. He had climbed his way from an impoverished background to become a scholarship student while steering his family through sev­eral tragedies—most notably the death of his only sibling, Peggy, who was found raped and murdered in a cabin at Yosemite National Park, the perpetrator unknown.

On the battlefield, Smith believed in ruthless efficiency. One Marine called him “a professional killer, employed in a hard trade: tenacious, cunning, resourceful, cold, cynical, and tough.” He took a dim view of those who brought an exaggerated sense of chivalry to war. Engagements were won by systematically destroying the enemy, not through flamboyant acts or the symbolic capturing of ground. At Quantico, he was famous for giving a lecture that analyzed the effectiveness of the bayonet charge during modern wars; after crunching the numbers, he proclaimed it, by and large, a pseudo-heroic waste of energy.

He was keenly aware of the impact of his decisions. During World War II, through his battles across the Pacific, he would tally in his diary the precise number of casualties the day’s fighting had brought. It was his nightly ritual. With the zeal of a sharp accountant who understands where every last dollar was spent, Smith demanded a reckoning of war’s exact human cost.

He had enlisted in 1917 and had devoted his life to the Corps. The Marine ethos appealed to his sense of order and rectitude. He had bounced across the globe during his long career: Guam, the Mariana Islands, Washington, D.C., Iceland, the American embassy in Paris. He had lived in a bungalow in the jungles of Haiti and in a castle in the Loire Valley. He had commanded every type of unit from platoon on up. Smith was said to be a “school man and a staff man.” He had studied at France’s prestigious military academy, L’École Supérieure de Guerre—he was the first U.S. Marine ever to do so. Smith, said one account, was “one of those rare men who love to work and who find a natural delight in detail.” If he had come to understand warfare from the perspective of the textbook, he had also seen how poorly and how seldom the theories and abstractions of military science obtained in the context of the grime, grit, and chaos of a battlefield. Smith was a “by-the-book” Marine—but he knew when to throw the book away.

His command style was preternaturally calm. His chief of staff when he was serving at Quantico found Smith to be a rare gentle­man, a dignified man who seldom raised his voice: “If you think of a forceful person as one who beats his chest and shouts loudly and utters tirades, then Smith was not a very forceful person. It was contrary to his personality to make a fuss about things. But the people who worked for him listened for any expression of opinion that he gave and took it on themselves as a directive.”

Frank Lowe, a retired Army general who was serving as President Truman’s eyes and ears in Korea, described Smith this way: “He is a very kindly man, always calm and cheerful, even under the great­est strain. He is almost professorial in type and this characteristic is apt to fool you because he is an offensive tiger. His concept is to find the enemy and kill him—with a minimum of casualties. His offi­cers and men idolize him, albeit he is a strict disciplinarian—Marine discipline.”

Smith also happened to be one of the country’s preeminent experts on the tactics and logistics of amphibious warfare. He had practically written the book on the subject. He had taught ship-to-shore landings in classrooms at Quantico and Camp Pendleton, had perfected some of the techniques on the beaches of Peleliu and Okinawa. The Profes­sor was legendary for his seaside drills. Amphibious operations were among the most complicated maneuvers in war, requiring tedious planning, careful choreography, an exquisite sense of timing. They were the Marine signature, the Marine specialty—at the heart of why the Marines existed in the first place.

Marines were supposed to be “Soldiers of the Sea,” shock troops sent to hector coastlines and establish beachheads. They were finned creatures who washed up on hostile shores, only to sprout legs. Time and time again in the Pacific during World War II, the Marines had demonstrated their indispensability, and MacArthur, having relied upon them throughout his island-hopping campaigns, had long been impressed by their steady, ready competence. Smith’s First Marine Division was the largest, oldest, and most decorated division in the Corps. So when MacArthur decided, against the better judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to forge ahead with an audacious and incred­ibly risky scheme to storm the harbor at Inchon, it was obvious whom he needed to draw up the plans.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Morning Calm 3

Book 1 Seoul

Chapter 1 The Professor 9

Chapter 2 Traitor's House 21

Chapter 3 Across the Han 29

Chapter 4 Beneath the Lighthouse 36

Chapter 5 The Battle of the Barricades 39

Chapter 6 The Savior of Our Race 48

Chapter 7 God's Right-Hand Man 56

Chapter 8 The Tiger Wants Human Beings 62

Book 2 To The Mountains

Chapter 9 Many, Many 71

Chapter 10 King's Envoy to Hamhung 80

Chapter 11 Heroic Remedies 88

Chapter 12 Will o' the Wisp 95

Chapter 13 Broken Arrows 104

Chapter 14 A Powerful Instrument 109

Chapter 15 Fattened for the Kill 119

Chapter 16 Never Too Late to Talk 128

Chapter 17 Never a More Daring Flight 132

Book 3 The Reservoir

Chapter 18 Easy for Us, Tough for Others 141

Chapter 19 Boon Companions 150

Chapter 20 Easy Company Holds Here 157

Chapter 21 Where the Bullet Belongs 163

Chapter 22 Gung-ho, You Cowardly Bastards 168

Chapter 23 When the Lead Is Flying 172

Chapter 24 A Hot Reception 182

Chapter 25 The War Council 191

Chapter 26 An Entirely New War 195

Book 4 $$$

Chapter 27 You Will All Be Slaughtered 203

Chapter 28 Kissing a Buzz Saw 211

Chapter 29 Morphine Dreams 215

Chapter 30 No Soft Options 219

Chapter 31 One-Man Army 228

Chapter 32 Every Weapon That We Have 236

Chapter 33 The Ridgerunners 239

Chapter 34 This Place of Suffering 247

Book 4 $$$

Chapter 35 Attacking in a Different Direction 257

Chapter 36 In the Day of Trouble 266

Chapter 37 I'll Get You a Goddamn Bridge 275

Chapter 38 Blood on the Ice 281

Chapter 39 Taking Departure 289

Chapter 40 The Bridge of Long Life 297

Chapter 41 Down to Earth 300

Chapter 42 The Most Harrowing Hour 306

Chapter 43 The Crossing 310

Chapter 44 We Will See You Again in the South 316

Chapter 45 We Walk in the Hand of God 323

Epilogue: In the Pantheon 333

Acknowledgments 339

A Note on Sources 345

Notes 349

Selected Bibliography 369

Index 379

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