Map showing the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, November 27 to December 11, 1950, Near Hagaru-ri, North Korea
At Chosin, UN forces had to break out of a closing ring of Chinese divisions. While some were cut off and had to be relieved, and others overrun and wiped out by vastly superior numbers, the remainder cut their way southwards and made a successful evacuation.
In late 1950, United Nations troops – consisting principally of United States personnel – defeated the offensive of the Korean People’s Army, and threw the Communist North Koreans back beyond the 38th Parallel (the border that had partitioned the peninsula in 1945). Breaking out from the Pusan Perimeter in South Korea, the UN forces had temporarily defeated the North Koreans, using amphibious landings at the Battle of Inchon to crush what was left of their resistance. The UN advanced steadily northwards with the intention of eventually reuniting the two portions of the country. The People’s Republic of China saw the situation very differently. Having struggled to win a civil war just a year before, China believed the Americans would attempt to roll back the Communist tide and invade China from its new Korean springboard. In secret, Chinese forces were amassed to strike back at the UN as they approached the Yalu River. The Chinese Ninth Army was redeployed from Manchuria so hastily that it was forced to leave behind its heavy artillery, but it was the failure to acquire any winter clothing that was to prove an even more costly oversight. On 15 October 1950, this People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) slipped undetected across the Chinese border and into North Korea.
Facing them was the UN advance. On the western side of the Taebaek Mountains, which formed the spine of the country, lay the US Eighth Army, while to the east were the Republic of Korea 1 Corps and the US X Corps. In this eastern zone, a surprise attack was made by the Chinese 42nd Corps, which clashed with the South Koreans on 25 October in the Funchilin Pass, south of the Chosin Reservoir basin. Meanwhile, the 1st US Marine Division, which had landed on the east coast at Wonsan as part of the X Corps order of battle, engaged this forward Chinese element on 2 November. Taking heavy losses, the Chinese vanguard retreated towards the Chosin Reservoir itself. Within three weeks of this first contact, the Marines were in possession of the entire basin, with troops stationed at Sinhung-ni on the southern side of the reservoir and at Yudam-ni on the western side. To the west the Chinese had struck against the US Eighth Army, which was in difficulties. To relieve their pressure, General Douglas MacArthur, the UN commander in Korea, ordered X Corps to drive westwards and threaten the Chinese lines of communications. This, however, had the effect of stringing the corps out across a long front, leaving it more vulnerable to a fresh Chinese offensive from the north.
The bulk of the PVA Ninth Army crossed the North Korean border on 10 November and arrived, undetected, around Chosin on 17 November. Chinese reconnaissance revealed a number of weaknesses in the UN dispositions. The two American garrisons on either side of the reservoir were unable to support each other, and it was clear that the road junction south of the reservoir at Hagaru-ri, – although strategically important – was only lightly defended. The Chinese were aware that the road running south of the reservoir to Koto-ri and on to the port of Hungnam appeared to be the Americans’ only line of retreat. The Chinese plan was to neutralize the three positions around the reservoir and then, as the UN forces came in from the south to relieve them, they in turn would be encircled and destroyed. The only difficulty the Chinese had was determining the actual strength of the UN forces since time was short. They nevertheless felt confident that their 60,000 men could overwhelm the relatively small detachments confronting them. Moreover, by infiltrating and maximizing the element of surprise they would be able to defeat the Westerners while suffering relatively low casualties. What the Chinese commanders did not realize was that the US 1st Marine Division (reinforced by the British 41 Royal Marines Commando, and two American infantry battalions) had arrived at Yudam-ni, which meant that the total strength of UN forces was close to 27,000.
The Chinese began their attacks at night on 27 November. Ambushes were conducted against mobile units, while massive infantry assaults swept on to the defended garrisons around the reservoir. At Yudam-ni, the Marines were soon surrounded, and tried to make sense of the confused situation while fighting along a hastily formed perimeter. On the eastern side of the reservoir, Regiment Combat Team 31 found itself similarly isolated and under attack from two divisions, the 80th and 81st. Further south, US Marines at Koto-ri were being attacked by another division. Taken by surprise, each formation was initially fighting for its survival.
At Yudam-ni, the 5th US Marines tried to drive their assailants westwards and made attacks in the direction of Mupyong-ni, but they were soon pinned down by the Chinese 89th Division and subsequently attacked by five infantry battalions of the 79th, another Chinese division that had unexpectedly arrived in the vicinity. On the mountain slopes the Americans found the Chinese trying to infiltrate between their platoons, with only boulders and the folds in the ground for cover. Close-quarter fighting erupted both in front of and between the Americans’ positions, and casualties were high on both sides. By dawn on the 28th, the five Chinese battalions had been so decimated they could take no further part in the battle.
Immediately to the south, the Chinese 59th Division encountered two companies of the 7th US Marines and subjected them to a ferocious attack. Only Charlie Company was able to extricate itself (and this with some difficulty) then fight its way back into the Yudam-ni pocket. Fox Company was not so fortunate and became cut off in the Toktong Pass. This defile was of great strategic value because it controlled the road between Yudam-ni and the junction at Hagaru-ri. The PVA 59th Division made repeated attempts to wipe out this Marine company, but the defenders clung to their rocks despite sub-zero temperatures, a lack of ammunition and rations, and the constant fire from the Chinese all around them. The US 7th Marines tried to break through to rescue the beleaguered force, but, despite inflicting grievous losses, they couldn’t reach their comrades. For five days and nights, the Marines at Toktong held out alone and unsupported.
The Chinese commanders were surprised by the strength and tenacity of the Americans. They realized rather belatedly that there were far more Marines at Yudam-ni than they had initially estimated and they were concerned about the high casualties they had suffered already. The decision was therefore taken to switch the axis of their offensive in order to overrun the Hagaru-ri position, and then to cut off all the UN forces in the area. At the same time, the lull in attacks gave the surrounded Americans at Yudam-ni the chance to recover. It was at this point they received orders to make for Hungnam Port, orders that meant fighting their way out along a road 78 miles (126 km) long that was often overlooked by mountains, dissected by defiles and steep ridges, and made treacherous by ice and snow. For armoured support, the Marines had only one Sherman tank, although they could have air support when the weather permitted it. Even to begin, however, the 5th and 7th Marines realized that they would have to capture Hills 1419 and 1542, topography that dominated the route south, and furthermore they would have to make a fresh attempt to relieve Fox Company at the Toktong Pass.
The Chinese meanwhile launched the 79th, a fresh division, against the garrison of Yudam-ni on 1 December. Using the cover of darkness, the Chinese infantry bravely advanced into a storm of small-arms fire and made such progress that the Marines’ rearguard was forced to call in airstrikes to break up the Chinese formations. Vast explosions lit up the night and the Americans slipped away from Yudam-ni. At the head of the Marines’ column, the attack on Hill 1419 was already underway. Artillery and air bombardments devastated the defenders, and the PVA 59th Division that held the hill was forced to commit the last company from its reserve. The survivors, a mixture of units, refused to relinquish the high ground and it was not until nightfall on 1 December that the Marines finally managed to secure the heights. The Chinese they found lacked rations and winter equipment, and it was evident that many had suffered from frostbite. For the Marines, taking the hill represented a tactical victory of some significance. Dominating the surrounding landscape, they were able to advance on either side of the road leading south, and in doing so, surprise or encircle Chinese blocking positions. On 2 December, the 7th Marines were able to launch an attack towards the Toktong Pass, while, simultaneously, Fox Company made a breakout assault. The pass was soon in American hands, freeing up another stage of the route south.
The Americans still had to fight their way at every step of the retreat. Individual Chinese posts opened up on the column of vehicles at every opportunity, causing significant delays. On 2 December, the Chinese launched a major night attack with their infantry, sweeping out of the hills and causing heavy losses among the Marines. The assault was beaten off only after a prolonged firefight and the arrival of American jets, which blasted the Chinese positions.
While the Yudam-ni garrison managed to extricate itself, the Regimental Combat Team 31 (RCT 31) had been less fortunate. This reduced brigade was stretched across a large area at the start of the battle and on the night of 27 November a Chinese division had sought to wipe them out. Many individual units were overrun and completely destroyed and by the end of the night, RCT 31 found itself in three isolated pockets: surrounded, outnumbered and overlooked by the Chinese on Hill 1221. As fortune would have it, many Chinese troops believed that the battle was over at dawn, and they began to loot the stores they found in the RCT perimeter for the clothing and food that they so desperately needed. This lack of battle discipline gave the Americans an opportunity to counter-attack, and the 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry, although severely outgunned, assaulted the main Chinese force at a position known as the Inlet. The sudden attack took the Chinese by surprise and the PVA troops fell back hastily during the confusion. The Americans considered a more deliberate pursuit, but fresh Chinese attacks soon dispelled such optimism on that score. Three Chinese regiments from the 80th Division made a night attack, but the configuration of the ground at the Inlet and problems in communication caused the attack to lose cohesion. As the leading Chinese infantry came within range of the Americans, the US 57th Field Artillery Battalion used its 40 mm anti-aircraft guns in an anti-personnel role. The heavy rounds tore through the densely packed Chinese ranks and some shells struck the rocky terrain, adding to the shrapnel effect and increasing the number of casualties. Both advancing and retreating Chinese units were cut to pieces by this gunfire. Only 600 of the division’s men survived, but the PVA commanders were still eager to resume the offensive and deployed wings to work their way around the Americans’ flanks.
The Americans knew it was only a matter of time before another assault was launched and they fully anticipated heavy artillery bombardments by the Chinese. Consequently, 31st Tank Company tried to open up a route to RCT 31 by storming Hill 1221. Without integral infantry units, however, the unsupported armour struggled to scale the steep terrain or to defeat infantry. The attacks, occurring over two successive days, failed. Within the RCT 31 perimeter, ammunition was running low along with other combat supplies. There were also a number of wounded men to evacuate, and that meant fresh attempts would have to be made to take Hill 1221.
The Chinese were determined to destroy RCT 31 before it could slip away and replaced their existing formations with the 94th Division before a major night attack was launched on 30 November. Despite the fighting continuing well into the next day, the Americans’ again clung to their positions. RCT 31 planned to attempt a breakout, but even before the column of vehicles had formed, another PVA assault was made. The perimeter was now in danger of complete collapse and it was clear that only the most desperate measures could save the unit from being destroyed. Air support was an option, but the Chinese had already engaged in a close-quarter battle with the Americans. The extreme decision was taken to order a napalm drop right on the vanguard of their own column, despite the losses this would obviously entail. The effect was utterly devastating. The slopes that lay in front of the Americans erupted in vast orange balls of fire and oily black smoke. Chinese infantry still working their way forward were incinerated.
Although the momentum of the Chinese attack was reduced, it was only a temporary respite for the men of RCT 31. As they attempted to push forward, the Chinese troops left alive in the rocks and ravines of Hill 1221 opened fire and pinned down the assaulting troops. Any soldiers scrambling up the slopes were swiftly cut down. As the vehicles of the column inched their way along the road that ran below the summit they were raked with gunfire. Wounded men were hit again, drivers were killed and there was the risk that these survivors would be overtaken by the three Chinese Regiments that were now converging on them from the north. Lieutenant Colonel Don Carlos Faith Jr (the commander of RCT 31) inspired his men whenever he went among them, keeping the troops moving and fighting as best he could. When the column was halted by a Chinese roadblock he led the platoon attack personally, but was wounded mortally when a grenade exploded. It took a gargantuan effort to assault and eventually clear the roadblock. The column continued through the hills, still subjected to machine-gun fire at every step until they were once more halted by a Chinese roadblock. This time, the Chinese started to pour fire down from every side. Hundreds of PVA started to skirmish forward, the RCT 31 defenders taking what cover they could among the boulders and trucks. Fighting was now at close quarters, and the Americans were being wiped out, a handful at a time. Small groups tried to fight their way out of the trap, some successfully, others not. Only 385 survived unscathed to reach Hagaru-ri.
The small garrison at Hagaru-ri had been fighting just as desperately from the beginning of the Chinese offensive. Storemen, cooks and drivers had been pressed into the firing line to augment the inadequate number of riflemen available. It was still not enough. In a daring night attack, the Chinese had managed to penetrate the perimeter, cut down some of the defenders, and charge into the logistics areas. Once there, however, their cohesion and direction collapsed, giving the Americans time to launch hasty counter-attacks that gradually drove the Chinese troops out. At dawn, the Chinese remained in possession of the East Hill on the base’s northern perimeter, but had been driven back and surrendered all their other gains.
To assist the embattled garrison of Hagaru-ri, a relief detachment was despatched from Koto-ri further south on 29 November. The group was nicknamed Task Force Drysdale after its commander, a British officer who led both the unit and the spearhead element of 41 Commando Royal Marines. G Company, 1st Marines and B Company, 31st Infantry completed the relief force. This tiny composite battalion faced a near-impossible task, and came under constant attack from the PVA 60th Division from the start. The road that marked the axis of the advance was soon dubbed ‘Hell Fire Valley’ because of the intensity of the bombardments zeroing-in there. During the day, one disabled vehicle blocked the progress of the force and attacks by the Chinese broke the formation into two parts. The lead element pressed on and managed to reach Hagaru-ri after dark. The rear element was completely wiped out by Chinese attacks.
At Hagaru-ri the next day, fresh attempts were made to retake East Hill, but it remained in Chinese hands with high numbers of casualties on both sides. On 30 November, the remaining troops of the Chinese 58th Division assembled for a final overnight assault on the perimeter of Hagaru-ri, using the East Hill as part of their assembly area. Initially they enjoyed some success and the UN defences around the base of East Hill were overrun, but as the 58th tried to get further forward they were cut down. Machine-gun fire and the guns of the 31st Tank Company forced the Chinese to fall back, and rendered them unable to mount further offensive operations.
A few days after the epic defence of these UN perimeters, the breakout from the reservoir could begin in earnest. When the 5th Marines arrived at Hagaru-ri, they were able to assist in the retaking of the East Hill and help secure the UN lines. In the interval, Chinese reinforcements had also arrived but the chance to snuff out the defenders at Hagaru-ri had passed. When two fresh PVA divisions made a night attack, they were thrown back and destroyed without taking a single objective. The US 7th Marines had meanwhile taken the high ground on either side of the road to the south. The Chinese therefore shifted their attacks to these heights in the hope of cutting off the retreat. Again, Chinese assaults were delivered with great determination and at the cost of heavy casualties. The UN column was reduced to a snail’s pace as each attack was beaten off, while American aircraft were busy strafing Chinese attackers as they tried to form up. By 7 December, the UN forces had made it to Koto-ri – safe, if tired and battle-worn by their experiences.
The Chinese now renewed their efforts to pursue the Americans and positioned the remnants of their 20th Corps, which had borne the brunt of earlier fighting, on the UN withdrawal route. Attempts were made by the Chinese to blow the Treadway Bridge near the Funchilin Pass and they rendered it impassable. The 1st US Marines subsequently took the adjacent high ground known as Hill 1081 in a sharp action, and a new bridge was constructed. The Marines were astonished to find that, while the Chinese at Hill 1081 had fought to the last man, some troops had frozen to death in their dugouts and fox holes. The critical supply situation in the Chinese PVA had reached the point of crisis, and their men were dying of starvation or hypothermia. Although the Chinese could still muster more men and make attacks on the UN rearguard, the Americans had the firepower to defeat them.
The UN forces finally reached Hungnam on 11 December having fought continuously for 15 days. While an evacuation was organized, the US Navy provided additional fire support to the garrison, which helped repulse the final offensives of the depleted PVA Ninth Army. It took less than two weeks to extract the entire force from Hungnam. Despite all the odds against them, the UN had carried out a fighting retreat and managed to bring away over 100,000 troops, a similar number of Korean civilians, 17,500 vehicles and 350,000 tons of combat supplies. The PVA had been deprived of its showpiece victory and its Ninth Army had ceased to exist as a combat effective force (until substantially reconstituted the following year). While casualty figures were never agreed, even official Chinese sources admitted to losses in excess of 50,000 men. The UN lost 1,029 killed, with a further 4,852 wounded and 5,000 missing. The figures show that the UN had been able to withdraw under constant pressure and still operate as an effective force, inflicting grievous losses on an enemy that was not only substantially larger, but also possessed the initiative at the start of the operations.