If you are unfamiliar with other histories by Hampton Sides, you may be forgiven for double-checking to make sure you didn’t pick up this book from the thriller section of a bookstore or library. This real-life page-turner focuses on the battle at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. The Marines trapped in the mountains of Korea around the reservoir were desperately outnumbered and fighting in – at best – minus-twenty-degree weather. (Who would have thought this turned out to be life-saving for some, since wounds were instantly frozen shut….?)
The Korean War was fought between June, 1950 and July, 1953 between North Korea (with the support of China and the Soviet Union) and South Korea (with the support of the United Nations, and in particular, the United States).
General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of U.S. forces in the area, met with President Truman in October of 1950 and assured him the Chinese were not going to enter the war. This was in spite of the warning from Mao Zedong he would take military action if MacArthur sent United Nation forces (made up principally of Americans) north of the 38th parallel, which divided North from South Korea. MacArthur, however, claimed he had special insight into “the Oriental mind,” and although intelligence indicated the Chinese were spotted in large numbers along the border, MacArthur ignored it.
And yet, it was almost impossible to ignore. That same month, some 300,000 Red Chinese soldiers began crossing the Manchurian border into Korea.
The brutal conflict at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea began in late November, 1950, about a month after the People’s Republic of China surreptitiously entered the Korean War on the side of the North Koreans. (And only a month after MacArthur assured Truman this would never happen.)
Even when confronted with evidence of the massive Chinese presence, MacArthur and Major General Edward Almond, the commander of the U.S. forces, pooh-poohed the idea that “Chinese laundrymen” represented any threat to Americans. Almond maintained that reports about the Chinese had to have been exaggerated, and those worried about them were cowards: how could a “crude bamboo army” be any threat whatsoever? (Notably, Almond was also prejudiced against African-American soldiers.)
Almond, acting on MacArthur’s wishes, insisted their troops – primarily the 20,000 men of the 1st Marine Division – advance to the Chosin Reservoir up in the mountains of North Korea, over a single unpaved road through the heart of the T’aebaek Mountains in freezing weather and blinding snowstorms. They were to take the reservoir and then keep on going to the Yalu River (which forms the border between North Korea and China). The result of this racism and hubris at the top of the American military hierarchy was a Chinese ambush followed by many deaths on both sides.
For over two weeks the soldiers under the field command of Major General Oliver P. Smith (some 30,000 in all, later nicknamed “The Chosin Few”) were encircled and attacked by between 120,000 and 150,000 Chinese, who had been ordered by Mao Zedong to destroy the UN forces. The fact that the UN combatants were able to break out of the encirclement (albeit with heavy casualties) against such daunting odds and to make a (fighting) withdrawal to the port of Hungnam was nothing less than miraculous. Upon reaching Hungnam, the surviving veterans were evacuated as part of the large amphibious operation to rescue UN troops from northeastern Korea.
Hampton Sides tells what happened in a way that will have you gasping with shock and awe, and crying and cheering both, in turns.
Some standout moments from the story:
- Marine First Lieutenant John Yancey, 32, a WWII veteran, remaining in action despite being seriously wounded, even with one eyeball dangling from its socket; he grasped his dangling eye and mashed it back into place. He felt it imperative that he stand his ground because there was a 90% fatality rate in his platoon;
- Private Stan Robinson, who, with frostbite so bad the skin had sloughed off of both anklebones, crawling back up the hill from the hospital tent to fight by Yancey’s side;
- Private Hector Cafferata, 21, fighting in his stocking feet (it was 20 below zero), and killing over a hundred Chinese soldiers with the help of his best buddy, Private Kenneth Benson, 19. Benson, although blinded by shrapnel, readied guns for Cafferata which Benson reloaded from memory;
- Army Private First Class Ed Reeves, 19, somehow persevering after having both legs blown to bits and being shot in the head by the Chinese and left for dead. When the Chinese saw Reeves was still alive, they pummeled his head with rifle butts and broke the bones in his hands. Still he lived! He crawled on his belly and elbows across the frozen lake at Chosin to be rescued.
- The darkly funny episode when a supply drop for ammo was called in at embattled East Hill in Hagaru. Someone wasn’t apprised that “Tootsie Rolls” was code for 60-millimeter mortar shells, and boxes of the candy were delivered instead of the ammo. The Marines softened them up in their mouths and used them as spackling to plug the bullet holes in their trucks and tanks.
- The U.N. troops feeling a deep sympathy for the Chinese troops; they were young and were clearly being sacrificed as cannon fodder. Yet it was kill or be killed, and so they mowed down the Chinese in wave upon wave, using the frozen corpses as sniper screens and even ballast for rebuilding a blown bridge when they ran out of sand bags.
The bitter cold proved as deadly as the Chinese. On one night, the actual temperature was 25 below and the wind chill was 70 below. Overall, eighty-five percent of the UN combatants suffered from frostbite, and many died of exposure. In all, US Army losses numbered around 2,000 killed and 1,000 wounded. For the First Marine Division, the numbers were some 750 dead with 3,000 wounded and just under 200 missing in action. Precise casualties for the Chinese are not known but are estimated between 19,000 to 30,000. Sides also provides interesting information on how the machinery was (adversely) affected by the cold, and what the cold did to the minds as well as the bodies of the soldiers.
Marines at Chosin Reservoir in 1950. Photo by Ed Aversa via Philadelphia Inquirer
Afterwards, the First Marine Division was lauded by Truman’s liaison in Korea as “the most efficient ad courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of” and Truman himself called the departure from Chosin “one of the greatest fighting retreats that ever was.” Military historians placed most of Chosin’s success in the hands of one man: General Oliver Smith. Smith, however, credited his men and officers for what was accomplished at Chosin.
Evaluation: Once again, Hampton Sides turns history about an episode many Americans know nothing about into vivid, heart-racing drama. This terrific story makes you feel as if the American military can do anything, even while realizing that “the American military” is just a bunch of American kids, made up of equal parts of fear and bravado. My only criticism is that Sides assumes readers will know the relative sizes of companies, platoons, divisions, battalions, etc. But that may just be a problem experienced by this particular reader. Highly recommended!
Published in hardcover by Doubleday, 2018
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
I listened to this book on audio. The narrator, David Pittu, does a wonderful job acting out the parts and imbuing the narration with emotion. I can’t speak to his mastery of words in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, but he had quite a challenge, and it sounded very impressive.
There were a few mispronunciations of common words, like “internecine” and “miscellany” but the narrator had his work cut out for him with all the foreign words.
Published unabridged on 10 CDs (approximately 12 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2018