Bloodbath at the Chosin: Turning Point of the Korean War

Key Point: Chinese “victory” came at a staggering cost.

When dawn broke on December 1, 1950, on the barren hillsides on the eastern shore of the frozen Chosin Reservoir in northeastern North Korea, the ragged, tenuously held perimeter of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Faith was a scene of utter desolation. The task force’s surviving members were on the verge of annihilation. The perimeter was little more than groups of starving, exhausted, and frostbitten American and South Korean soldiers, in varying numbers, huddled around campfires near the remaining artillery pieces and heavy weapons, trying to find warmth. Thousands of frozen American, Chinese, and Korean frozen corpses lay strewn about the terrain, the detritus of sustained, vicious, close-in fighting. Frozen hands and feet were common. Some wounded men, who were unable to move, had frozen to death.

The American dead were from the previous night’s attack. The Chinese commander had exhorted his troops to wipe out the task force before dawn. The dead bodies were gathered in central collecting points. Survivors searched the bodies for ammunition, weapons, and clothing. Nearly 600 wounded Americans and South Koreans awaited evacuation at the overwhelmed aid station.

The men of the beleaguered regimental combat team had been under attack against overwhelming odds for 80 hours in the harshest, sub-zero weather conditions ever faced by American troops. Lt. Col. Don Carlos Faith had taken over command of the task force after the group’s commander, Colonel Allan MacLean, had been mortally wounded three days earlier.

Caught by surprise on the night of November 27, the understrength task force had suffered through four consecutive nights of repeated ground attacks. The Chinese had massed their troops in human waves and swarmed over American foxholes into the perimeter, fighting hand to hand, firing burp guns, and throwing hand grenades.

The depleted task force now was going to launch a last-ditch breakout attempt, their goal the U.S. Marine Corps perimeter at Hagaru-ru village near the reservoir’s southern edge, eight miles away to the southwest. Cut off by tens of thousands of enemy foot soldiers, perilously low on ammunition for their heavy weapons, and burdened by 600 wounded they would bring out with them, the task force’s chances seemed hopeless. Faith, however, and many of his men were convinced they could not survive another night of enemy mortar, machine-gun, and ground attacks. The believed the breakout attempt was their only hope for survival. Unfortunately, the weather appeared to be getting worse, threatening air cover for the breakout column and the promised airdrop for that morning, which would provide precious shells for the 40mm dual cannons and ammunition for the .50-caliber machine guns.

Events on the Korean peninsula unfolded rapidly in the months after June 25, 1950, the day North Korean armored forces rolled across the border into South Korea, shattering all resistance and bottling up United Nations and South Korean forces inside the Pusan perimeter. U.N. Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur’s strategic masterstroke, the unexpected and risky amphibious landing at Inchon on September 15, led to the recapture of Seoul two weeks later and effectively ended the North Korean invasion. Buoyed by visions of quick and total victory, U.S. President Harry Truman and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed MacArthur’s plan for a follow-on advance across the 38th Parallel to destroy what remained of the North Korean armed forces, end the war, and unify the peninsula under South Korean control. Two large U.N. armed forces would cross the 38th Parallel and attack in a giant pincer movement.

Red Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong, who had tacitly supported North Korea’s invasion, considered the movement of United Nations and South Korean forces across the 38th Parallel northward toward the Yalu River and the Chinese province of Manchuria as tantamount to an act of war against China. Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), including a number of experienced combat units from the recently concluded Chinese civil war, began marching south toward the border. On October 16, 1950, the CCF 124th Division of the 42nd Army crossed the Yalu River, adding another combatant to the Korean War. Tens of thousands of CCF troops infiltrated North Korea. They marched at night, hiding in the rugged, mountainous terrain during the day, awaiting the order to launch a massive counteroffensive against the U.N. forces’ two-front advance into North Korea.

The western prong of the U.N. advance consisted of Lt. Gen. Walton Walker’s U.S. Eighth Army backed by four Republic of Korea (ROK) divisions and units from other U.N. nations. The eastern prong, which was separated from Walker’s forces by the Korean peninsula’s mountainous spine, the Taebaek Mountains, consisted of Maj. Gen. Edward Almond’s U.S. X Corps, made up of three American divisions and two ROK divisions. The three American divisions were the crack 1st Marine Division, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Division, and the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division. MacArthur’s strategy to end the war by Christmas called for Walker’s force to move north on November 24. Forty-eight hours later, Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith’s 1st Marine Division would strike west from the Chosin Reservoir and then north to the Yalu. Meanwhile, 7th Infantry Division forces, after relieving a Marine regiment on the reservoir’s east side, would attack on Smith’s right flank and advance to the Yalu. The 3rd Infantry Division would have the dual mission of providing rear security for the Wonsan-Hamhung corps base area on the Sea of Japan coast and sending a force northward on Smith’s left flank.

As the date for the massive offensive into North Korea approached, both Walker and Smith began to harbor strong misgivings about thinly stretching their units over such a vast expanse of territory. Walker tried several times to delay the inevitable by protesting the lack of logistical support and supplies that were en route from Japan and the United States, but all he accomplished was to increase MacArthur’s ire toward him and impatience at the delay. The Army’s 7th Infantry Division was not prepared for arctic warfare yet was ordered forward regardless.

Even as Almond urged Smith to get his division charging north to the Yalu River, Smith’s Marines began noticing ominous signs of activity around them, such as large numbers of deer moving down from the ridges. Before the battle erupted, Smith sent a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps, stating his misgivings. “Our left flank is wide open,” he said. “I have little confidence in the tactical judgment of X Corps or in the realism of their planning.” These misgivings were quickly pushed aside. MacArthur’s promise to have the boys home for Christmas gave strong impetuous to the ill-conceived move to the Yalu River. Pressure to bring an early end to the war in one massive operation became too difficult to contain, especially in the aftermath of the Inchon victory.

Intelligence reports given to MacArthur and his intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, indicated the presence and capture of Communist Chinese Forces (CCF) troops in late October and early November. A daily intelligence briefing in early November indicated a dramatic increase in combined North Korean and Chinese troop strength. The briefing put enemy strength somewhere between 40,100 and 98,400 men. As late as November 24, Willoughby estimated that no more than 34,000 Chinese were fighting alongside North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) units. These estimates did not seem to take into consideration that U.N. units had been bloodied in heavy fighting earlier that month against Chinese forces on both sides of the peninsula, and therefore the Chinese must have been heavily reinforcing the North Koreans.

Moreover, the Chinese soldiers already engaged were assumed to be merely stragglers or remnants fleeing north across the border, and therefore of no real significance. The true size of the CCF forces south of the Yalu River, which was 30 infantry divisions, had rapidly grown to at least 240,000 men and possibly as many as 300,000. A Chinese division at full strength numbered 10,000 men, but it is believed some of the divisions engaged in North Korea were understrength, and numbered between 7,000 and 10,000 men.

The CCF 13th Army Group, 18 divisions strong, was preparing to strike Walker’s front while the CCF 9th Army Group, 12 divisions strong, was about to hit Almond’s X Corps. Twelve under strength divisions of NKPA troops, having recovered sufficiently from their earlier reverses to be judged battle worthy, added 65,000 men to the enemy’s order of battle. Another 30,000 to 40,000 guerrilla fighters were operating behind U.N. lines in North Korea. MacArthur remained firmly convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that the Chinese would not dare intervene in the Korean civil war. He assured Truman that the war “was already won” and that any Chinese divisions identified in North Korea would be quickly destroyed by American air power. In the wake of one of the most egregious command and intelligence failures in the history of American arms, a disorganized, hastily assembled, and understrength task force of U.S. Army soldiers from the 7th Infantry Division was about to be virtually abandoned on the barren eastern hills of northeastern North Korea in late 1950, sacrificed to the foolish haste and hubris of top U.S. Army commanders.

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