It's a pivotal event of the 20th century.
The Battle of Chosin, or "Changjin" as it’s called in Korea, a two-week-long bloodbath pitting 30,000 US, ROK, and British troops against 120,000 Chinese soldiers, was a defining moment of the Korean War.
Fighting in the winter of 1950 in bitter cold and brutal terrain, men endured severe frostbite, sleepless nights, and total mental and physical exhaustion. Below-zero temperatures, snow-covered mountains, icy roads, and wind-swept cliffs made every skirmish, firefight, and attack a nightmare beyond the men’s wildest dreams.
If You Stopped Moving, You Froze
With tens of thousands of young Americans and Chinese locked in eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand combat in the desolate, freezing mountains surrounding the Chosin Reservoir, the death toll soared. Even men with minor wounds or injuries frequently died. If you stopped moving, you froze.
The terrain and weather were so bad that Oliver P. Smith, the commanding general of 1st Marine Division, the largest American unit engaged at Chosin, said the mountains of North Korea were “never intended for military operations.” And every man who fought there would agree.
To most of the soldiers and Marines who found themselves at the frozen reservoir from November - December 1950, the terrain looked more like the set of a Himalayan mountain-climbing movie than a place to fight. But fight they did.They Just Kept Coming With tens of thousands of disciplined and determined white-clad Chinese soldiers attacking every night to the eerie cacophony of blaring bugles, shrieking whistles and clashing cymbals, the Americans, Brits and Koreans fought courageously. Beating back wave after wave of Chinese attackers, the UN forces barely held on.
The Chinese, despite outdated weapons and inadequate food, supplies, and ammunition, just kept coming. When a Chinese soldier went down, American veterans recalled, dozens more suddenly appeared.
By late November 1950, 1st Marine Division and 31st Regimental Combat Team, surrounded and vastly outnumbered, were on the verge of annihilation. As casualties mounted, the generals realized there was only one way to avoid a catastrophic defeat: break out to the sea.
Attacking In Another Direction
Over the next 5-7 days, the Americans fought, or as O.P. Smith said, "attacked in another direction," down a winding, treacherous, snow-packed road to Hungnam, a North Korean port 70 miles away. Through extraordinary willpower, exceptional war-fighting skills, and countless acts of valor, US Marines and soldiers escaped the Chosin trap.
By the time US forces, with thousands of North Korean refugees in tow, reached the evacuation beaches, nearly 6,000 Americans were dead or missing; thousands more were wounded. None of the men who survived the horrific battle would ever be the same. Today they are called “The Chosin Few.”
Mao’s attempt at destroying 1st Marine Division, however, had come at a high price. The communist dictator had lost an estimated 50,000 soldiers, including his eldest son, and had learned to never again underestimate the American fighting man.HOnoring Chosin Veterans Recently I had the privilege of meeting two US Marines and four ROK soldiers who fought at Chosin. In their late eighties and early nineties, the former warriors were being honored at a ceremony held in downtown Seoul.
Along with thousands of people from throughout Korea, they were part of an event that paid tribute to the courageous soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who suffered, sacrificed, and died in the remote mountains of North Korea in 1950.
As the six elderly men slowly came to the stage, some with canes and others with the assistance of young ROK soldiers or Marines, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of Americans who had left their loved ones and friends 68 years ago, never to return. Men like Bob Reem, Eddie Thorn, and Harvey Storms, who sacrificed their lives so that others might live.
As the veterans returned to their seats and looked out into the crowd and the bustling streets of Seoul, it was a bittersweet moment. They later explained that they had all lost friends at Chosin and would never forget their brothers in arms who died fighting for South Korea's freedom.
As the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC, reminds us, “Freedom Is Not Free.”
Story by Ned Forney