The Battle of ChosinAired November 1, 2016 Insurmountable odds. Unforgiving conditions. Unyielding courage.
On Thanksgiving Day 1950, American-led United Nations troops were on the march in North Korea. U.S. Marine and Air Force pilots distributed holiday meals, even to those on the front lines. Hopes were high that everyone would be home by Christmas. But soon after that peaceful celebration, American military leaders, including General Douglas MacArthur, were caught off guard by the entrance of the People's Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong, into the five-month-old Korean War. Twelve thousand men of the First Marine Division, along with a few thousand Army soldiers, suddenly found themselves surrounded, outnumbered and at risk of annihilation at the Chosin Reservoir, high in the mountains of North Korea. The two-week battle that followed, fought in brutally cold temperatures, is one of the most celebrated in Marine Corps annals and helped set the course of American foreign policy in the Cold War and beyond. Incorporating interviews with more than 20 veterans of the campaign, The Battle of Chosin recounts this epic conflict through the heroic stories of the men who fought it.
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Narrator: In the last days of November 1950, twelve-thousand men of the First Marine Division, along with a few thousand Army soldiers, found themselves trapped high in the mountains of North Korea, near a reservoir called Chosin.
Their leaders had been caught off guard by the sudden entrance of the People's Republic of China into the five-month old Korean War. The Americans were surrounded, outnumbered, and at risk of annihilation.
The two-week battle that followed is among the most momentous in U.S. history. It helped set the course of American foreign policy in the Cold War and beyond. And it remains one of the most renowned in Marine Corps annals.
Hampton Sides, Author: All battles are terrible, but this one might well have been the, the very worst in American history. These were some of the harshest winter conditions that American forces have ever fought in.
Manert Kennedy, U.S. Marine Corps: You were not only physically frozen you were emotionally frozen, not knowing how much more you could give, and… yet wanting to survive.
Watson Crumbie, U.S. Marine Corps: That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life was pick up the frozen bodies of the Marines that had been killed and their arms and legs were bent in the position in which they had been killed.
Bob Boulden, U.S. Marine Corps: I wrote a letter home, ''Dear Mom and Dad, by the time you get this letter you'll know the Marine Corps has been annihilated or… or we're coming out of here with some pretty good honors...''
Hampton Sides, Author: The Marines marched up into those mountains and when they marched out of those mountains, they were different, the war was different, America was different, and really the entire world was different.
Narrator: On Thanksgiving Day, 1950, American-led United Nations troops were on the march in North Korea.
The forces of democracy, according to the New York Times, were ''brushing away scant resistance.''What remained of North Korea's Communist army had apparently turned and fled.
U.S. Marine and Air Force pilots owned the skies; and proved it by distributing holiday bounty up and down the peninsula—even to the men at the tip of the spear, near the northern border of Korea, within sight of China.
Bill Mills, U.S. Marine Corps: They made a monumental effort to put that kind of meal out under those conditions and it was wonderful. Turkey, mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, cranberries… the whole works.
John Edward Gray, U.S. Army: It was cold turkey, let me tell you. The cooks did the best they could. But it was Thanksgiving and we did have optimism that the war would be over and maybe that's thanks in itself.
Narrator: The commander of the U.N. forces, General Douglas MacArthur, flew into Korea the next day to launch the final offensive of what was shaping up to be a short and successful war.
Bruce Cumings, Historian: macarthur tells the troops and his commanders that the fundamental goal of the Korean War to unify the peninsula under the control of the South Korean government will soon be accomplished and he says to the soldiers, ''I hope you boys will be home by Christmas.''
Gail Shisler, Author: The northern boundary of North Korea is the Yalu River and so his cry became that he wanted to go to the Yalu and conquer all of North Korea. They were just going to go up the mountain, just like cutting through butter, and they were gonna go to the Yalu and it was gonna be great.
Bill Mills, U.S. Marine Corps: I was really excited about it. I, I really was. I thought, ''Boy, this is what we should do,''you know. And… I thought that, you know it was in the bag. I thought we were gonna pull it off.
Sam Folsom, U.S. Marine Corps: Everything was just wide open, ''Let's do it,''routine at that point. We had won the war. It was over. It was that blunt.
Narrator: Five months into the Korean War, American troops and commanders had reason for confidence.
Narrator: Split across the middle at the 38th parallel in the political settlement that followed World War II, the Korean peninsula had solidified into two separate states by 1950.
North Korea had the support of the Soviet Union and of Mao Zedong's new Communist China; the United States and other western democracies backed the South.
This uneasy balance held until June 25th, 1950.
The North Korean army blasted through the 38th parallel that day, scattering South Korean defenses.
It captured Seoul, the capital of the South, in less than seventy-two hours and kept going, making plain its goal to take the entire peninsula.
Stanley Weintraub, Author: When the North Koreans invaded, they had Soviet equipment, they had Soviet tanks, they had Soviet advisers. The American people believed that what was happening is that it was Stalin's proxy war against the United States.
Newsreel (V.O.): On hearing the grave news, President Truman flies to Washington from his Missouri home. The President describes the invasion as threat to the peace which cannot be tolerated.''
President Harry Truman (V.O.): This is a direct challenge to the efforts of free nations to build the kind of world in which men can live in freedom and peace. This challenge has been presented squarely. We must meet it squarely.
Narrator: Within days of the invasion, the United Nations Security Council resolved to repel the North Koreans from the South and to restore peace and security in the area.
The United States was to lead a multi-national force tasked with enforcing the UN resolution.
Manert Kennedy, U.S. Marine Corps: I was 20 years old when the war, war broke out. I knew very little about Korea but I knew we were in direct conflict with the Soviet Union and that the Soviets were out to spread Communism worldwide. I knew that.
Werner Reininger, U.S. Marine Corps: They activated all of the Marine Reserves at that time because they needed troops now, like right now.
Jack Haffeman, U.S. Marine Corps: I just wanted to, to be a Marine in the worst way. I was too young for World War II. And there were at least 2,000 of us, all the same thing. We were kids just out of high school and all wanted to be a Marine -- a gung-ho Marine, carry a rifle, shoot at somebody.
Juan Balleza, U.S. Marine Corps: I remember getting on the train and we pulled out. I remember my mother waving to us… but then, later on I realized that she really wasn't waving, she was giving us her blessing as we drove by.
Narrator: By the time the first big wave of reserves arrived, the North Korean army had nearly pushed US forces off the peninsula. But Douglas MacArthur remained confident he could reverse the losses.
He ordered his forces to attack deep into enemy-held territory, at the port of Inchon.
John Edward Gray: MacArthur took the chance and tried to conduct a landing there at high tide, which only had a range of a few hours to debark troops there. And also it wasn't a good beach at all. There's a seawall there. But the enemy didn't expect us to land there so it became a tremendous surprise to the enemy and it wasn't very well defended. The success at Inchon was a bold stroke of genius.
Newsreel (V.O.): On 16 September, the 1st Marine Division moves through Inchon. This city is recaptured against relatively light resistance. Allied casualties are few, as these men move through Inchon, their objective is Seoul.
Gail Shisler, Author: The success at Inchon changed everything. The North Korean supply line was cut. There was a direct route from Inchon into Seoul, which was the capitol, and taking it was not only a military victory but also a psychological one, and a political one as well.
Hampton Sides, Author: The goal begins to change now because what MacArthur first thought was, ''Well, we'll just, we'll just disintegrate the North Korean Army and we'll re-reestablish the borders. But then he begins to realize, ''Ah, maybe I can pursue the North Koreans into their own country, into North Korea, and destroy the last remnants of that army.''It becomes this idea of taking the entire country. And it's not just MacArthur. It's, it's really all the leaders in Washington. There's a glimpse of total victory.
Narrator: President Harry Truman had a major reservation: he was worried that Communist China might enter the war to defend the North Korean regime. His general waved it off.
Hampton Sides: MacArthur was very disdainful of the Chinese as a fighting force. They were a peasant army, they weren't very well armed, they didn't have an air force to speak of, so he really was quite, he was quite scornful of, of this notion that the Chinese posed a threat.
Narrator: MacArthur's instructions from his bosses at the Joint Chiefs of Staff were to proceed with caution in North Korea; only soldiers from South Korea would be allowed to fight all the way to the Chinese border. But MacArthur believed he knew best.
Three days after his men captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, the general directed his commanders to speed forward, using all available forces.
John Edward Gray: The troops became even more jubilant because here we not only repulsed an enemy who was aggressive, we taught him a lesson. Now we're taking his territory. The word of optimism went around, ''We'll rout these North Koreans completely and we'll go all the way to the Yalu.''
Narrator: By the last week in November, MacArthur had the Yalu in his sights, and he had a plan to get there. His armies on either side of the Taebaek Mountains would act as armored pincers. They would close the divide between them, form a solid front, and then race north before the long and brutal Korean winter settled in.
''This should for all practical purposes end the war,'' MacArthur told the press, and ''restore peace and unity to Korea.''
Bob Ezell, U.S. Marine Corps: I didn't know what the orders were. All I knew is we were moving out and it was about seven miles uphill to where we were going.
Werner Reininger: We advanced rather slowly because that's about the only way you could walk up there. You had two directions to go up in North Korea and that was either straight up or straight down 'cause it was a very mountainous, very rugged terrain.
John Edward Gray: It was real hazardous for us because that main supply route was an ox trail. That's all it was. Often times it was just one lane wide along a side hill cut with a big bank on one side and then a plunging cliff on the other.
John Parkinson, U.S. Marine Corps: We finally got into a village called Yudam-ni. And it was just the most desolate country you ever wanted to see—a pile of boulders and rocks, and of course snow and wind. Everybody was grumbling and crabbing but that's the Marine Corps. If you're not crabbing you ain't a Marine.
John Edward Gray: The temperatures were plunging at night to as much as 25 below zero and the northwest wind was blowing 15, 20 miles an hour out of Manchuria. But still we were cheered up thinking with optimism, ''Well, we won't have to endure this for long. Maybe they're right and maybe the war will be over.''
Narrator: MacArthur's willingness to sacrifice caution for speed had consequences. On the eve of its final offensive, the First Marine Division was strung out on a single supply route, nearly eighty miles long, leading to the Chosin Reservoir.
Thirty-six hundred men were making camp at the bottom of the reservoir at Hagaru-ri, where division headquarters and a much-needed airfield were taking shape.
Five miles ahead, on the west side of the reservoir, was a small contingent of four hundred Marines defending the high ground above the road. The bulk of the forces—eight thousand Marines—were digging in near the village of Yudam-ni, preparing to spearhead the next-day's offensive.
To the east were twenty-five hundred U.S. Army soldiers and several hundred South Korean fighters placed there to protect the right flank of the attacking Marines.
As darkness fell on November 27th, the men on both sides of the reservoir were settling in for their last night of sleep before their big attack to the Yalu.
Jack Haffeman: There was one tree up on that hill, a fully-grown tree with pine branches. And I took my entrenching tool and knocked some of those branches off. And I laid it down, put my sleeping bag on top, and I was gonna get a good night's rest 'cause I was tired. And I heard, ''Bang. Bang. Bang.''
Juan Balleza: Blares, like a bugle blowing, whistles, clangs. Screaming and illumination flares were being shot up. And all you could see ahead of us was Chinese come at us, a lot of ‘em. You know, so we set up our fields of fire in defense positions; braced for the attack.
Grant McMillin, U.S. Army: The first sergeant was screaming for everybody out, get out of our tents, and get on the ground, and get your rifles out 'cause they're coming.
John Edward Gray: All of a sudden here come a whole bunch of Chinese. They were in these quilted uniforms coming, coming down inside our perimeter down the valley toward us. I shot the one nearest me and he, he just staggered. I had to shoot him twice before he went down.
Bob Ezell: Some Chinese Communist jumps up about ten yards out in front and somebody yelled, ''Duck, he's got a grenade.''
Bill Mills: It's terrifying. You know you're gonna die and you wonder how it's gonna happen.
John Parkinson: We used everything. We had our M-1s, the Carbines if you could get it to work. We had our machine guns and it was just one solid field of fire as they come down. You didn't have to look where they were. They were in back of you, in front of you, around you, right in the middle of you.
Bob Boulden: You'd be shooting, you'd be stabbing, you're using your rifle as a club. Sometimes they'd be eight, six, eight feet away from you before you even knew it, on that. And that's when either the bayonet, or your rifle, become a club.
John Parkinson: When things got hot and heavy my good friend Sergeant Bob Debbins got a burp gun right through the back of his head. We tried to keep him alive but we had nothing to work with. I took my T-shirt out of my backpack, I had an extra one, and I tried to stop the blood with that. But he bled to death. We were just hanging by a thread.
Narrator: When the attack subsided the next morning, one of MacArthur's most trusted subordinates, General Ned Almond, choppered into the command post on the east side of the reservoir to buck up the badly shaken Army unit. One of the highest-ranking officers on the ground, Lt. Col. Don Faith, was just then making sense of what had happened the night before.
John Edward Gray: Faith told him, and it should have been convincing, ''General, we're in deep trouble. We captured Chinese soldiers from two different divisions. That indicates we've got two divisions right here in our vicinity. ''What are, what are we doing, General? We just barely survived. We fended ‘em off but we need help.''And General Almond, he said, ''What do you mean? You're gonna let a few Chinese laundrymen stop you? We're gonna continue the attack.''
Narrator: The leader of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong, had won a long and deadly civil war a year earlier and united the country under his Communist flag. But he was a man made wary by a lifetime of fighting.
Chairman Mao was wary of his foes inside China. He was wary of the growing Soviet empire on his northern border. And he was especially wary of Americans, who had backed his enemy in the civil war, and whose army was threatening his border in the fall of 1950.
Bruce Cumings: What Mao had on his hands, and this is a reverse of what people thought in the US—people thought Mao was an evil, crazy Communist dictator and MacArthur was a great hero—but from Mao's standpoint MacArthur was the irrational one. He just wanted to plunge ahead. ''What would the US do, do if the Chinese Communist army were marching up Mexico, talking about rolling back American capitalism in the southwest?''
Narrator: Mao had begun preparations to enter the war in North Korea back in October, around the time MacArthur's troops first crossed the 38th parallel. When MacArthur's army kept pushing north, nearing the Chinese border, Mao set his battle plan in motion.
Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Historian: U.S. Intelligence knew that there were troops that were being amassed in Manchuria. We just didn't know what they were doing there, right. And of course what they were doing there was slowly and quietly infiltrating into North Korea.
John Edward Gray: The Chinese used a night cover, to camouflage their movements and they were moving away from the roads, hidden at night from our aircrafts' surveillance and also in the daytime by staying within the forest under the trees.
Sam Folsom: They moved at night and they stayed up on the ridgelines. The US forces, in general, stayed on the roads and just… went hell bent for the border. But meanwhile, in between the forces, Chinese were coming quietly down on foot.
Narrator: Mao knew his military was far inferior to the American's in tanks, artillery and airpower. But he had taken the measure of MacArthur, and discerned a weakness. In early November, Mao sent small cadres of troops to attack all along the approaching American front. Then his men pulled back in what looked like a full retreat.
Bill Mills: The Chinese hit hard. Then they just disappeared. There was… nothing out there anymore. MacArthur said, ''Full speed ahead,''again.
Hampton Sides: This became part of the strategy, which is to lure the Americans further into North Korea, have them penetrate deeply and then ultimately surround them. There's a certain shrewdness about Mao. He knows who he's dealing with. He knows that MacArthur is quite, quite arrogant. This is a strategy that plays into that arrogance.
Martin Overholt, U.S. Marine Corps: We had interrogated North Korean prisoners, North Korean civilians, and even a few Chinese. And the, what we learned from all these interrogations was that there are large amounts of Chinese army on the other side of the Yalu River, which is the border between North Korea and Manchuria. And we passed the word to division. Division passed it to Corps. Corps passed it to Army, which was MacArthur and he disbelieved that. He said, ''Nah. They'll, they're not gonna come into Korea.''
Sam Folsom: They couldn't seem to accept that, yes, the Chinese are coming down. Even when the first fingers touched us, it wasn't accepted. ''That, this doesn't mean anything.''It was, it was that sort of thing in the headquarters, ''[SCOFFS].''
Stanley Weintraub: Mao lured American troops quite literally to the Yalu, and they were surrounded on all sides.
Narrator: The worst of the Chinese onslaught landed on the First Marine Division, then under the command of General Oliver P. Smith. Soft-spoken and cautious, Smith had doubted the wisdom of MacArthur's headlong march to the Chinese border. And now the consequences of MacArthur's boldness were falling on Smith and his men.
Hampton Sides: He realizes that it's a completely different war now. The advance to the Yalu, as far as he's concerned, is over. He genuinely feared that the entire First Marine Division was in jeopardy, that it could be wiped out. His job now was to figure out a way out of this trap.
Narrator: At least six Chinese divisions—some sixty-thousand troops—were on the attack against Smith's loosely consolidated fifteen-thousand.
Smith understood that his own headquarters—at the village of Hagaru—was on critical ground. Hagaru had not yet been attacked, but Smith knew the Chinese were coming. The crossroads town had to be held … if there was to be any hope of extracting his endangered men.
Gail Shisler: Hagaru was very thinly defended. There really weren't very many combat troops there at all. General Smith had had cooks, and bakers, and PX people, and he had the engineers that were building the field. It was a really motley crew.
Narrator: While American fighter planes kept the Chinese pinned down, the engineers worked to finish construction of the airstrip, so pilots could fly in reinforcements and evacuate the wounded. Smith deployed almost every man at his disposal to defend the perimeter of Hagaru; many at a spot called East Hill, the high ground that rose above the ammunition dump.
John Y. Lee, Republic of Korea Army: Ammunitions are coming. They just drop. Every hour just drop and drop, drop. It was my job to get the supply by airdrops. And the Chinese start to fire at, at us when we are picking up the supplies.
Narrator: The vital airdrops ceased as darkness descended on Hagaru just before five o'clock on November 28th; the men dug in to hold East Hill could see the engineers, at work under floodlights, racing to finish the airstrip below. A light snow began to fall at around eight o'clock, and for the next few hours all was quiet but for the scrape and roar of the bulldozers below.
Just after 10:30, the calm broke.
Richard Carey, U.S. Marine Corps: The Chinese recognized the fact that East Hill was the key so they really concentrated on it that night. We were at the bottom to halfway up the hill and not with infantry forces. We had engineers, artillery men, cooks and bakers, whoever we could gather. You have to do it. You have to hold it.
Dr. Stanley Wolf, U.S. Navy: You hear a mortar shell coming. Wooo, and then boom. And then you'd hear a scream. Somebody had been hit. The Chinese were just coming, and coming, and coming, and we were scared. I have to tell you. I mean you never get ready for that.
Manert Kennedy: It wasn't typical sorts of warfare that we had learned during our training as young Marines: that there would be enemy coming at us in, in these huge numbers with, with very little regard for their own safety.
Richard Carey: The only way they could overwhelm us was with sheer force of numbers. The first wave would all have weapons. The second wave wouldn't all have weapons. They would pick up weapons of the first wave. And the third wave would be commissars with burp guns; nobody retreats.
Hampton Sides: Smith's men were hugely outnumbered. The Chinese divisions were coming in from all sides and Smith was really doubtful whether Hagaru could actually hold.
Narrator: While the makeshift units struggled to hold Hagaru, their fellow Marines west of the reservoir were preparing for a second night of attack.
Bill Mills: I had no idea what was coming. I knew it'd be bad and I hope I, I was just, you know, I hope I can do what I was supposed to do and don't let anybody down.
Juan Balleza: You learn to control your emotions. You pledge yourself to fight for your buddy and he has the same to fight for me. So he's not gonna leave me there and I'm not gonna leave him there either.
Thomas Cork, U.S. Marine Corps: You reach back and found out what you were made of. It's not… trying to be heroic or anything. But you are out there to do a job and if you don't do it, it's not only gonna get you killed, it's gonna get your whole outfit killed.
John Parkinson: they really came down on us. They overrun our position. Our machine guns were firing so hot and heavy they were burning the barrels out.
Werner Reininger: There were a few times that I actually had to take the damn machine gun and turn it all the way around and fire over the heads of our own men that were behind us because they were breaking through.
Bob Ezell: Now they're starting to move up the hill and we were shooting at ‘em. And so now I'm firing and people are starting to run through on the side of the rocks that way from us, maybe five, ten yards that way. So my rifle jams now. And this guy throws a hand grenade over. I took one step and the hand grenade went off. I feel myself flying through the air but I don't feel myself hit the ground.
Werner Reininger: I think it was a mortar that hit right in the hole. And I flew up out in the air and I landed on the ground. And I looked around and I thought, ''Hey, some poor guys lost a leg.''[CHUCKLES] And I got up. I fell flat on my face. And I looked down and there was that leg laying over there and that poor guy was me. It was my right leg was gone at the knee.
John Parkinson: I prayed that night for the first time in my life. ''God, don't let me die. Not h— [PAUSE] [CRYING], not here, not this far from home. I just wanna see the sun come up one more time. Just give me another day.''
Narrator: When the first light of morning rose, the Chinese retreated back to their daytime hiding spots. The Marines still held all of Hagaru, as well the crucial hills around Yudam-ni. The cost had been dear.
Bill Mills: I found this one Marine. He was on top of the hill. He was in a hole that, I thought he was dead. He wasn't nothing or moving at all but you could see his eyes moving. His face was all ashen gray and, and we picked him up and we… carried and drug him down the hill to the aid station.
John Parkinson: They had fellas all over the floor, on straw mats, under blankets and doing the best they could for ‘em. The odds were against trying to save a guy, but yet fellas that had gutshot wounds, I mean bad, bad gutshot wounds, it was so cold the blood froze and these guys managed to survive. Guys without a leg from here down. It so cold that everything congealed and they managed to live. They'd lost their leg but they were still alive.
Dr Stanley Wolf: Everything was complicated by exposure to extreme cold. They had stopped bleeding because the area froze and as they thawed they started bleeding and we discovered four or five additional bullet holes. You did the best you could do and when you finished you moved on to the next patient.
John Edward Gray: They tried to… cover ‘em with blankets, or tents, or anything else they could against the cold but they, they'd still freeze to death.
Narrator: That morning's after-battle reports were sobering. General O.P. Smith wasn't sure how much longer the men at Yudam-ni could hold on. There was little word from the badly outnumbered Army units on the east side of the reservoir.
Even worse: the Chinese had now driven far south of Hagaru, cut the main supply road behind Smith, and attacked the First Marine garrison at Koto-ri—just eleven miles away.
Hagaru was now menaced on three sides.
Hampton Sides: Smith was really worried that Hagaru was going to fall and that, that the fighting at East Hill was reaching a critical point. He needed, desperately needed reinforcements.
Richard Carey: We needed more tanks, more infantry, we needed people to reinforce.
Narrator: Just before ten o'clock on the third morning of the battle, at Smith's order, 922 men left Koto-ri to reinforce Hagaru.
Under the direction of British Lt. Col. Douglas Drysdale, the task force comprised 235 British commandos with a few attached American units, 141 supply vehicles and 29 tanks.
Hampton Sides: Smith felt that if Drysdale didn't make it, Hagaru would not hold and that would lead to the destruction of the entire division. The Chinese knew what was going on and they did not want to let those guys through.
Bob Harbula, U.S. Marine Corps: It started out well but it took time. And then we ran into a lot of machine gun, mortar, heavy mortar fire and we got bogged down. You got wounded and dead Marines you're putting on trucks, trucks are being blowed up. They're being shot up, and as each truck stopped the men on that truck had to protect that truck. That was their war. You didn't know what was happening two trucks in front of you or two trucks behind you.
Narrator: The Chinese cut off and destroyed the middle of Drysdale's convoy; the men at the rear turned and fought their way back to Koto-ri. Drysdale radioed Smith to report the unfolding disaster.
Bob Harbula: When Drysdale called General Smith and he wanted to know if he should turn around and go back to Koto-ri and General Smith knew that he had to have these reinforcements, it was so desperate in Hagaru, that he told them to come ahead at all cost. I told Joe, my assistant gunner, I says, ''This doesn't look good, Joe.''
Narrator: They were ten hours behind schedule, and a little less than half the men remained. But Task Force Drysdale – including 16 of its 29 tanks—did manage to straggle into Hagaru.
''To the slender infantry garrison … were added a tank company and some three hundred seasoned infantry,''a much relieved O.P. Smith noted. He now had the forces to hold the crucial ground around East Hill.
Bob Harbula: When we came into Hagaru they said, ''Put your men over here in this field and get some sleep.''You couldn't build fires, we couldn't dig foxholes. Everything was frozen like a rock so we, there was some dead Chinese bodies laying around so we stacked some of them up to keep the wind off of us.
Narrator: The condition of the Army unit in the mountains east of the reservoir was still largely unknown. General Smith's headquarters had no contact with the commander now in charge, Lt. Col. Don Faith. The men down on the ground were growing anxious.
John Edward Gray: The Chinese forces were increasing all the time. We had a throng around us. It looked like an entire division or a division and a half.
Grant McMillin: We were running out of ammunition, we were running out of gasoline for the vehicles, we hadn't had any food really for a couple days. The planes came in and dropped the wrong supplies to us, 40-millimeter rounds for 50-caliber machine guns. We were running out of everything including people and we knew it.
Ray Vallowe, U.S. Army: Somebody was prompting us that, ''Well, the tanks are trying to break through to you.''And well after a couple of days of this say, ''Well, we've heard that one before 'cause if we're gonna, we're gonna hear ‘em before we'll ever see ‘em 'cause they make so much noise and we don't hear anything.''We don't hear anything.
Faith's men were starting to lose all hope, when a helicopter carrying the Army's divisional commander flew into their shrinking perimeter.
John Edward Gray: We were exhilarated for a moment because we thought help was on its way. Here was our division commander. He's showing concern. Here he was. That means help must, must be on its way. But that wasn't the message.
Grant McMillin: The general said, ''You're gonna get no help.''We had to fight our own way out.
Narrator: By the time General Douglas MacArthur left his headquarters in Tokyo to reckon the damage, he appeared to have lost his characteristic self-confidence.
Gail Shisler: It must have just shaken him right down to the ground to have this happen. It just was not in his game plan. I, I don't think he could understand it.
Narrator: The Chinese had redrawn the battle map in less than seventy-two hours. MacArthur's army in the west of Korea was in headlong retreat, having abandoned supplies and weapons to Mao's forces. His First Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir, outnumbered in some places by more than ten-to-one, was threatened with extinction.
Sam Folsom: MacArthur came over. I was there. I watched him get out of the airplane and he was a distraught individual at that point. He had been winning a war. It was over then all of a sudden he was losing it. He was to me at that moment a damaged and distraught old man.
John Edward Gray: Every newspaper and every, every magazine was just full of the news. My wife didn't know anything about the details of it but the headlines are big and broad. ''31st Infantry Annihilated.''
John Parkinson: My father kept a collection of newspaper clippings and there are stories that the Marine Corps has been annihilated, it's a lost legion, Marine Corps is trapped, they're isolated. The, the papers had given up on us.
Watson Crumbie: My wife had lost a brother aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and she was thinking that I might, she might lose me.
Gail Shisler: My grandmother would have been listening on the radio when one of the famous broadcasters of the time said, ''If anyone has a son or a, a husband in the First Marine Division pray for them. They may be lost.''
Narrator: President Harry Truman's national security advisers in the White House had been struggling to adjust themselves to a new reality in the days since Mao's spectacular attack.
They admitted among themselves that the United States lacked the resources to defeat the Chinese in a protracted war in Korea.
The best they could hope for was to draw a line somewhere on the peninsula, shore it up, hand it over to the South Koreans, and get out with some measure of honor intact. But top officials at the Pentagon weren't sure they had enough troops to hold any line.
Press reports filled with talk of World War III … and of the Soviet Union rolling into Western Europe while the US was distracted in Asia. Truman even hinted he was willing to unleash the atomic bomb in defense of South Korea.
President Harry Truman (V.O.): ''If aggression is successful in Korea, we can expect it to spread throughout Asia and Europe and to this hemisphere. We are fighting in Korea for our own national security and survival.''
Hampton Sides: No one really seems to have the answer but Truman is very clear that he is not gonna give up Korea. This is a tremendously significant moment in, in American history and that the talk is that our very civilization is on the line here.
Narrator: The U.S. commanders on the ground in Korea got little direction from Washington; the Pentagon did give them leave to abandon northeast Korea and to get the First Marines out to safety. But this was no simple mission.
General O.P. Smith's men would have to make their way from the top of the Chosin Reservoir through Hagaru, Koto-ri and all the way to the Sea of Japan; seventy-eight miles into the teeth of a subarctic winter, through tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers waiting in the high ground above the single road out.
Hampton Sides: Military historians have always said that a fighting withdrawal is the most difficult maneuver to pull off successfully. Everything has to be perfectly timed with close air support, with artillery, with getting the casualties out at the right moment. It's a very, very complex operation.
John Haffeman: The division was getting geared up, they were burning a lot of things, they were getting rid of a lot of weapons, things that weren't usable and we were gonna start our way back south.
Narrator: On December 1, after four long nights of fighting off enemy attacks, the First Marines on the west side of the reservoir began their perilous journey.
Richard Carey: You only had one road, one point of entry and egress on each side of the reservoir and up to the reservoir, dirt road, one lane, flanked by hills on either side, a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.
Hampton Sides: Mao thought that if he could destroy the First Marine Division this would create great fear, and doubt in Washington and cause the war to end quickly. His goal was not just to punish the First Marine Division or damage them but to completely annihilate them.
Martin Overholt: The regimental train was on the road and the rifle companies were up in the hills doing the fighting and we were moving south. There was firing going on up in the mountains all the time.
John Haffeman: We were going up hills and down hills because the enemy was all around us and you could hear firefights going on all over the place.
Bill Mills: We were taking the high ground along the way to try to cover the road wherever possible. And we were going, I know this… up this hill and the guy next to me was from Alabama. I remember him. This shell went off between him and I and as it knocked me around and down but as I spun around he was falling. He had his hand up like that and the blood was just gushing. It looked like his whole face was torn off.
Narrator: The First Marines had only one clear advantage in their fight south; the United States still controlled the skies. Air Force and Marine pilots from nearby Yonpo airfield and Navy pilots from carriers in the Sea of Japan were quick to answer calls from spotters on the ground.
Lyle Bradley, U.S. Marine Corps: Our job was just to try to keep the numbers down so the Chinese wouldn't completely overrun the Marines just by sheer numbers. We had multiple missions almost every day. Mountain peaks are all over the place plus the fact that we had some very bad weather.
John Parkinson: If the sun came out it brought the planes. No sun, no planes. And when there's no planes the Chinese were all over us.
Lyle Bradley: That's the big thing about this Chosin Reservoir operation. We did so much close air support, and close is really close.
Martin Overholt: Occasionally they were so low that you could actually see the face of the, of the pilot through the, through the cockpit window, you know, the glass. It's amazing the, the courage those guys had coming down like that.
Martin Overholt: The serious stuff that we saw was napalm and that's a, a jellied gasoline.
Lyle Bradley: Napalm was a new device. It is very potent stuff, when that explodes it covers a big area and it can do a tremendous amount of damage.
Manert Kennedy: You walked through an area where the napalm had hit the enemy and their bodies were burned, the skin split and you could see the yellow fat, and there were smells that to this day I… can't get rid of.
Narrator: The Army units east of the Chosin Reservoir were still feeling forsaken; they were holding out against a force of Chinese that outnumbered them by as much as ten-to-one.
The dead and wounded were increasing day and night. Supplies dwindled. And there had been no word from General Smith in Hagaru.
Ray Vallowe: Lieutenant Colonel Faith, he said, ''Well, I've got all these wounded and I've got no, no orders to withdraw.''So he makes up his mind, we're gonna pull out of there. We're gonna try to make a run for it and go back to Hagaru.
John Edward Gray: We knew that our tank company had been at Hudong-ni, and we'd hoped maybe if we could join up with the tanks with their fire power that then we would be escorted in safely to the Marines at Hagari.
Ray Vallowe: Once we get back to the tanks we got it made. We're home free. We got supplies back there and everything.
John Edward Gray: We had 400 to 450 wounded that had to be carried by truck, and the only way we could load ‘em was, was to triple deck ‘em. we stacked layers of wounded in the trucks.
Ray Vallowe: The dead you had to leave. You had to stack ‘em on a pile and we had to leave 'em.
John Edward Gray: We had to strip the, the dead of their clothing in order to provide some warmth for those wounded on the trucks. We also went through the clothes, and jackets, and that sort of thing, looking for ammunition. We were so short of ammunition, it was… grotesque. It really was. Horrible. Nightmare…
Narrator: At one o'clock on the afternoon of December 1st, Faith's soldiers started the attack south. They were cheered at first to hear the roar of fighter planes overhead.
John Edward Gray: Marine aircraft came in to napalm the Chinese on the road in front of our advancing column. But one of 'em had a malfunction and it was dropped too early, and it was dropped on our advancing troops.
Grant McMillin: There was this blast of fire and a lot of the guys that were in front of it didn't get back up.
John Edward Gray: Our troops were diverted trying to put out the flames of soldiers on fire. It was disconcerting to say the least.
Ray Vallowe: We moved about a mile down the road and there was a bridge. The bridge was blown. Well, we were losing time; we've only moved, about two miles. My gut feeling was there's no way we're gonna get out of here. I mean just, just no way.
John Edward Gray: We were trapped to follow the road, because that's the only way we could rescue the wounded, we could have saved ourselves by abandoning the convoy. But to me that was a coward's approach. We were morally bound.
Grant McMillin: We got up to Hill 1221 and another truck had gone into the ditch and our driver pulled up behind them, shut the truck off, got out and disappeared. Now I don't know if that truck was still operable or why he did that but those two trucks were left there filled with wounded. That's where I was captured.
John Edward Gray: All the soldiers there that were still alive became prisoners of war. But the rest of the convoy got through. We got down to where we hoped we'd meet up with the tanks only to see ‘em gone. Our hopes were dashed.
Ray Vallowe: We thought we were on the goal line. It's like here's our goal post. They said, ''Sorry about that. You're only the 50-yard line. You've got four more miles to go. So we were totally on our own, and that's when it all fell apart.
Sam Folsom: I flew up over the reservoir on the east side. I could see every movement on the ground. The Chinese were coming down the ridgeline and attacking this Army unit on the road. And I watched ‘em gradually being overwhelmed. I've been in World War II, I've seen all kinds of battles but I'd never seen US forces being destroyed like that.
John Edward Gray: We watched one truck on fire in which the wounded, their clothing on fire, screaming in agony. I never have felt that, so desperate in my life, and that, that I could do nothing about it.
Ray Vallowe: Most of us have already calculated the situation. Said, well we've done everything we can. It was like every man for himself at that point.
John Edward Gray: You would either become a captive or you would try to save the men that were with you and get across the reservoir. And we had a wild scramble across the ice, I lost my helmet in the panic. I, I lost my compass off of my pistol belt and, and I fell down several times. My wounded thigh was just killing me. I told one of the guys, ''Leave me here. I can't make it any further. I'm spent.
Stanley Wolf: We got a call that, ''Doc, clear the deck. You've got multiple casualties coming in.''And here come over a period of about three days several hundred Army casualties, and many of ‘em had been out on the ice for two and three days. When they came in these men were frozen, literally frozen.
Grant McMillin: Out of that 2500 guys about that we had I think that they got 385 guys back to the Marines that were fit to fight. That's a pretty high casualty rate.
John Edward Gray: When we finally walked in to Hagari, we were like walking corpses from having been neglected for five days.
Narrator: As the remains of the Army unit made it into Hagaru, the withdrawing Marine convoy west of the reservoir paused about five miles away. They rescued what was left of the single infantry company that had been holding the crucial pass above the road for the previous five days.
Less than half the men at the pass were battle ready. Nearly all were suffering frostbite or gnawing hunger. Bodies of dead Marines were stacked, frozen, between the aid tents.
Bob Boulden: To bring all of our dead and our wounded that we could, that was just a Marine tradition. As long as we were able we'd carry them with us.
Martin Overholt: Most of the wounded were able to walk and those that couldn't walk rode on vehicles but they were piled up on, on trucks, and on the backs of tanks, and on artillery pieces.
Jack Haffeman: There were sniper fire and walking alongside the convoy were troops, and when there wasn't any firing going on they'd come and crowd around the Jeep, try to get warm, and the, if the convoy continued we had to tell ‘em, you know, ''You're gonna have to walk again.''And these poor guys maybe got ten, 15 minutes sleep and then they were back up again.
Watson Crumbie: We didn't have a chance to sleep so you'd fall asleep walking. And there was no food, no water.
Thomas Cork: All of us were kind of like in a daze because we were just kind of worn out. Just completely exhausted.
Hampton Sides: The Chinese are constantly throwing up roadblocks: logs, and, and rocks, and boulders. Anything to slow down the convoy so they can begin to attack them. At every, every twist and turn as they work their way south they encounter something.
John Parkinson: We were on the road there and the whole column come to a complete halt, and I says, ''Why is the column standing still?''He says, ''We got prisoners all over the road. They were sitting on the edge of the road along the cliffs in the middle of the road and they wouldn't move. So I went up further and right then and there I lost it. I see these prisoners. They were done. They were out of it. They were shot up and I didn't realize it. I took my M-1 by the stacking swivel and I started swinging at ‘em, ''Get off the road, get off the road, get out of the way, get going. Move, move.''And they would roll over and these guys had no legs, no arms, their bodies were blown apart, their feet were black with frost. And I said to myself, ''Oh my God. What are you doing? You're a maniac.''You're not the same person. You're a different person, you're just something you never thought you'd be.
Narrator: Men inside the Hagaru garrison heard the rumble of trucks just before seven o'clock on the evening of December 3rd, the end of first full week of the battle. Then they spotted the lights at the head of the Marine convoy from Yudam-ni moving toward the northernmost checkpoint of the perimeter.
Martin Overholt: As we got near the lines we were aware that we were getting into Hagaru-ri. Somebody said, ''Count cadence, count!''And they start, people started getting in step. You could hear the shoepacks, first clumpity-clump-clump-clumpity. And then they were, clump-clump-clump. People were getting in step. We were marching.
Watson Crumbie: We marched into Hagaru. The sound of feet crunching in the frozen ice. Someone watching them said, ''Look at those bastards, those magnificent bastards.''
Martin Overholt: And somebody started singing the Marine Corps hymn. I couldn't believe it. They were singing the Marine Corps hymn, we were coming through the line and somebody handed me a canteen cup full of hot coffee and a box of graham crackers and I just sat down in the snow and had probably the best meal I ever had in my life. That night I slept in my sleeping bag on the straw inside a tent. That was like luxury.
John Edward Gray: After the Marines' regiments had gotten back from west of the reservoir and consolidated there, there was a lot of correspondents there too, TIME magazine, LIFE. They said, ''General, it's not like for Marines to retreat.''And General Smith told ‘em, ''Retreat, hell. We're just advancing to the rear.''
Hampton Sides: Smith bristled at the notion that this was a withdrawal or a retreat. There was no front. There was no rear. He was surrounded in all directions and therefore any movement in any direction is essentially an attack.
Narrator: When General Smith insisted his men were not retreating, but ''attacking in another direction,''at least one reporter in the camp suspected the bravado was masking a deep concern. ''As I looked at the battered men,''she wrote, ''I wondered if they could possibly have the strength to make this final punch.''
Bill Mills: I cannot remember of having a meal at Hagaru. We were pretty short of everything. The worst part was the shoepacks they called those, rubber boots that came up about halfway to your knees, the bottom portion of ‘em were rubber and as long as you were moving they worked good. But climbing those hills your, your socks would get wet from sweat and then you had no way to change the socks so if you laid in the snow all night long your feet would freeze.
Watson Crumbie: The rubber boots had a felt insole about a half-inch thick that was supposed to absorb perspiration. Instead the insole would freeze and it was like walking on ice.
Bob Ezell: I was thawing out, I guess, 'cause they give me some hot coffee and morphine. But the, they took my boots off and I saw that my toes were black and I sort of lost it. I wanted to cry. I, I didn't but I wanted to cry, I said a few curse words somebody come over and says, ''Knock it off. You act right. Act like a Marine.''So I shut up.
Thomas Cork: My boot was frozen so they had to chop the boot off. And when they cut the boot off, part of my toes had came off inside the boot and when, when they took the boot off, all the toes are gone. The tip my toes, gone. That's big toe, little toe and all through there, and two or three of ‘em was found inside, inside of that, that boot.
Bob Harbula: One of the miracles of Hagaru and the Battle of Chosin is that they flew out 4500 wounded on C-47s. It's almost impossible.
John Y. Lee: A doctor has to certify that this patient is serious enough to, to be flown. So a doctor's main job was actually dividing those who were to be sent with the airplane, and those who to be send by a truck.
Dr. Stanley Wolf: I remember vividly one man with part of his skull shot away and brain was showing. Had we been in South Korea or in other circumstances, he would've been sent to a hospital, and, yes, he would be terribly injured but he would have a chance of living. Where we were, we said that he's gonna die. Here's another man who has a sucking chest wound. He's got a bullet hole that's going through into his chest and air is coming in and out. But we knew that this man would certainly live if we can get him to Japan, and he would go. And this other man, put a dressing on it and give him morphine for pain, and set him aside. And it's a morbid thought that we set him aside to die, but we did. That's what we did.
John Haffeman: There must have been 20 of us, maybe 30 of us on board, and we flew for about an hour and a half, maybe two hours from Hagaru to Japan. And when I got to Japan then I felt, ''Wow. I'm out of the war zone and, you know, I'm really gonna be okay.''
Narrator: The air evacuation came to a close as the Marines prepared to abandon Hagaru to the Chinese. The last flight out had room enough to carry letters from the surrounded Marines to anxious relatives back home, and to pack a handful of the frozen corpses in among the casualties.
But the question remained: how many of the ten thousand troops still at Hagaru would make it out alive?
Narrator: As the Marines at Hagaru braced for the next battle in their fight for survival, their head officer was in New York City, laying down a new marker in America's Cold War strategy. ''Idealism is fine,''the Marine Commandant told a defense industry gathering, ''but if we are to assume leadership in a free world, we must have armed forces to make our will felt wherever our interest is threatened.''
Hampton Sides: In the State Department and in the Department of Defense, what they are talking about is making the United States essentially in perpetuity the policemen of the world. Anywhere where Communism is going to rear its head we have to be ready to, to attack it.
Narrator: President Truman was preparing to declare a national state of emergency to galvanize the country in an effort to roll back what he called ''Communist Imperialism.''
We had to ''get strong fast,''said one of Truman's advisers, even if it meant giving up ''such things as refrigerators and television.''
Bruce Cumings: What the December 1950 crisis did was to convince the American people that they had to spend a lot more money and make a lot more sacrifices in a Cold War that had turned hot in Korea and might turn hot some place else. And as a result of that you had fundamental changes in, in American history. That built the national security state, built military bases abroad, a large standing army for the first time in US history. And all of that transpired in December 1950 courtesy of the Chinese intervention.
Narrator: On the morning of December 7th, as the rearguard dismantled the camp at Hagaru, destroying supplies and equipment that would not fit on the trucks, the lead Marine units were already running the next gauntlet.
Martin Overholt: When we left Hagaru-ri and we were moving on toward Koto-ri. There were Chinese all over the side of the mountain. And I was standing up behind our Jeep trailer, which was fully loaded, and standing up there firing my carbine. And the guy next to me got hit and went down.
Bob Harbula: One of the worst things of all is sitting on the lines and one of your fellow Marines is shot. And in his last dying breath he's calling for his mother. And nothing is sadder or more heart wrenching than hearing that.
Martin Overholt: One of the myths is that men don't cry, and that is bullshit. I saw people crying, especially when their friends got hit. When you're in pain you cry.
Manert Kennedy: You didn't get too close to any other Marine because the death of a very close buddy would be devastating. You had a feeling of isolation.
Bob Boulden: All of a sudden there was automatic weapon fire coming out of this, this bunker. And so this other Marine and I crawled up the side of the hill to this bunker and threw in grenades. One guy, he was sitting in there with an automatic weapon, and one grenade had landed right down in between his legs and that and it, it blowed his legs and his stomach was hanging out but he was still alive. And he, he kept talking to me in Chinese and then I told the officer that was behind us, ''We got one left alive. And he says, ''Well, you know what they did to us at East Hill,''and with that I eliminated him. But as he is talking to me and was he telling me about his family, was he pleading to me to dispatch him and, and, or was he trying to save me? But he was gonna die anyway. He was just all tore to people with that, with that I dispatched him… I still think about him at night sometime… just wishing I could've understood what he was saying. It's nothing, nothing to kill ‘em at a distance. It's when you look a man in the eye, that's a different…
Narrator: The cold had not let up in the nine days since the battle began; temperatures dropped as low as thirty below some nights, and rarely rose above zero … even when the sun was out.
But Mao was still insisting that his army continue its mission, no matter the heavy losses to his troops. Nearly half the sixty thousand Chinese soldiers facing the First Marines were already killed or wounded.
Bill Mills: When they're coming at you, especially at night, you look at ‘em as super human. You feel like that there's nothing you can do to stop ‘em. But the people who wanted to surrender, it's just the opposite. They looked helpless and they wanted help, and they were starving.
Sheila Miyoshi Jager: The Chinese, many of them were sent to, into battle without proper clothing, without enough ammunition, without enough food, many of them. A lot of them had to just sort of fend for themselves and many of them perished during the winter. We're talking about huge numbers that died not just of battle casualties but by death by freezing.
Martin Overholt: On their feet all they had was sneakers. You'd see a prisoner and, and his feet were like a block of ice. I remember seeing a prisoner one time, his ears were swollen up this big like a potato, you know. It looked like somebody, a potato on each side of his head that somebody had nicked with a knife, you know. They were bursting from having been frozen. They suffered terribly, a lot worse than we did.
Juan Balleza: I always remembered that no matter what the conditions were that I was in so were the Chinese. Up to this day if I were to meet a Chinese soldier that was there I'd hug him like a brother… 'cause I know he suffered the same thing I did.
Narrator: By the time the head of the column reached Koto-ri, the Chinese were unable to mount any serious attack on the camp . . . or to put up more than scattershot resistance on the road ahead. But word was going through the ranks: another obstacle lay ahead.
Richard Carey: South of Koto-ri several miles is a pass called Funchilin Pass, and there's a bridge there and the Chinese had blown the bridge. We had to have a bridge put in. We had to have a way to cross that canyon, otherwise we wouldn't have gotten our vehicles out, we wouldn't have got our wounded out. It was a pretty desperate situation.
John Parkinson: If memory serves me right it was probably about a span of about 24 feet and there we were with a big hole. We can't go nowhere.
Narrator: While the column sat—waiting for the engineers to repair the breach—a front swept in from the north. Temperatures plummeted; men who were there insisted it was near fifty below zero.
Hampton Sides: It goes from bad to worse. To go through everything they've been through and then to be now be facing a blizzard with this unbelievable cold.
Richard Carey: When you're so damn cold you can't, you really have trouble, have trouble breathing even. It is that cold. It was cold. Man, it was cold.
John Y. Lee: It's so cold that you just cannot function physically and mentally, too. You cannot think of any, any complicated thing. You may not able to even count ten. It really, it just, brain just, just doesn't function.
Watson Crumbie: One of the tricks I learned was to catch a nap by sitting on my helmet, which had a round bottom. And as I'd fall asleep I'd fall over and wake up. But just before I'd fall asleep I'd feel warm and at total peace and I think that's the way it feels just before you freeze to death.
Manert Kennedy: I felt, you know, ''How are we ever gonna get out of here? And there was a feeling, you know, I had that, ''Well, this could be it. This, you know, I'll never get back to see my dear wife,''and, and you just felt that, just a deep sense of, of helplessness and hopelessness.
Narrator: At Koto-ri, the Marine commanders had to make choices about what they would be able haul out on the remaining trucks, and what they would have to leave behind.
Martin Overholt: They used some explosives to blast off the top part of the dirt and then where they could get a bulldozer blade in there and they made a big hole.
Manert Kennedy: They really had a difficult time because they had to blast and, and bulldoze a huge pit, and then Marines were dropped in.
Watson Crumbie: They buried 117 right behind my howitzer. It was pretty devastating, pretty gruesome sight to look at.
Manert Kennedy: One very close buddy, he was a Detroiter and he was killed at Yudam-ni. And, and I had the feeling that, you know, he and some others that I, that I knew were being dropped into that, into that hole.
Martin Overholt: Regimental Intelligence Officer Captain Donald France was one of 'em. His assistant, Lieutenant McGuinness was one of ‘em. And our driver, I think his name was Lundberg, he was one there. They all put 'em in this hole and just covered as all, the best we could do at that point…
Narrator: The Marines at Koto-ri were not alone in their misery. North Korean civilians had seen their homes destroyed by American bombers and artillery in the previous weeks, their winter food stores pillaged by starving Chinese soldiers. Scores of thousands were already fleeing south in hopes of finding warmth and safety. A growing number of refugees had trailed the column of retreating Marines all the way from Yudam-ni.
Martin Overholt: They presented quite a challenge sometimes 'cause, you know, you can't tell if this person who, who's Asian in appearance is a enemy or not enemy. If they come into your lines, they had to be searched, you know, to make sure that there were no weapons and so on. So it was a challenge to accept them.
Bill Mills: They didn't have food, and they didn't have near the gear that we had. I don't know how they were able to do it. I mean it was heartbreaking, the kids crying and carrying on and there's nothing you could really do for ‘em.
Juan Balleza: What can you do? There's so many of them, all you can do is pray to God that they fare well and, and make it through the day, and the night, and the next day, and so forth and until they get to a place where they can be safe.
Manert Kennedy: I remember seeing old people, old women, old men, and there were reports of, of women even having babies out there in this sub-zero, 30 below zero or 40 below zero. At night a… moan would, would come up, and it was sort of a collective moan, the suffering that they went through.
Narrator: he request was urgent, and came from General Smith himself. So the Air Force agreed to undertake an operation never before attempted.
Edward Rowny, U.S. Army: We had to get that bridge in and I had a brilliant staff and they decided that we could air drop different parts of a Treadway bridge into the perimeter, bolt them together and cantilever 'em over the gap where the bridge had been blown up by the Chinese and we'd be able to evacuate.
Stanley Weintraub: Every steel girder required an entire plane to carry it, a C-119 Boxcar with two huge parachutes on both sides to drop it because they couldn't land.
Newsreel (V.O.): Flying boxcars head for the area, where the plight of the beleaguered troops has aroused the entire nation. Bridge sections to replace a crossing blasted by the Reds are parachuted to reopen the only escape route. This is the first time a bridge has ever been airdropped…
Narrator: Early on the morning of December 9th, after nearly three days sitting at Koto-ri, the Marines finally got the order to make their way toward the newly repaired bridge.
John Y. Lee: When we walking we feel we are surviving. We were able to resist the cold with the hope that this is the only way we can survive. All we have to do is just a little more. That kind of, sort of a unconsciously hits your brain. Then you'll be able to follow the guy in the head of you.
Manert Kennedy: We came down with Chinese shooting at us. Every once in a while you'd hear somebody yell out with a scream. You knew they got hit, but you just kept putting one foot ahead of the other. There was nothing you could do about it, there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, no, nowhere to take cover and so you accepted your fate.
Watson Crumbie: I always wondered how that first driver felt when he pulled over on that bridge if it was gonna hold him or not.
Hampton Sides: Nothing like this had ever been tried before. No one was sure it was going to work and it was a very, very scary couple of minutes until the first, first few vehicles passed over and the men who marched across could look down through the gap and see, you know, 500 feet, 1,000 feet down into, to the valley.
Watson Crumbie: As I reached the bridge there was a man standing there, saying, ''Walk across this side,''and I knew then that I was glad it wasn't daylight 'cause I couldn't see down what I was going over.
Manert Kennedy: I don't have any direct memories of, of even walking across that span. By that time our, my brain was frozen [LAUGHS] and all I knew is, ''Don't, don't stop.''
Juan Balleza: There was this truck on the side of the road with some guys on it. They were wounded. And he said, ''Can you drive a truck?''I said, ''Sure I can drive a truck.''So I actually drove a truck across that chasm with these wounded guys back there and the Chinese trying to kill the drivers but I thought, ''Once we get across this bridge we're, we're home. We've got it made.''
Narrator: It took almost two days to move the fourteen thousand surviving troops—along with trucks, tanks, and artillery pieces—over the makeshift bridge.
The last of the Marines and the attached Army units made it across late on December 11th, 1950—two weeks to the day after the initial Chinese attack.
Juan Balleza: Coming down into the flatter land off of them mountains it got warmer. It was 32 degrees. We were taking off clothes. It was hot for us. It's a feeling of… elation that you don't have anybody shooting at you anymore and you're not shooting back, just a total relax, happy to be alive.
Manert Kennedy: When we got to the bottom of the pass our column was halted and when we stopped we, we just fell to the side of the road and just laid back and went dead asleep. We were so exhausted we didn't have much left. We couldn't have gone on a, a lot more. We were out of there in time, just in time.
John Parkinson: On the 27th of November at quarter of ten that's when the Chinese hit us. And every year on the 27th of November I take a walk up on a hill and sit down. I just thank God… for letting me survive that and I pray about the other fellas that we lost.
Bruce Cumings: It's a testimony to the Marines that so many of them survived it and, and managed to fight their way out. But fundamentally it was a Chinese victory that was a key battle in clearing North Korea of UN forces and they've never been back.
Hampton Sides: The Chinese forced the Americans from, from the field. But they suffered staggering casualties. Mao threw everything he had at the Marines and they eluded his grasp.
Bob Harbula: When we got down off the plateau into the sea coast there, the Chinese never threatened us. We were able to get 90,000 civilians out, North Korean civilians. The Chinese never stopped ‘em, never made any threat.
Juan Balleza: I still believe that the sacrifice not only of the Marines, but the Army, and Navy, and everybody that supported that engagement did the right thing. South Korea is still alive, and they're proud people, hardworking people and I support ‘em to this day. And I don't begrudge a second of the time I spent over there in their defense. Not at all.
Dr. Stanley Wolf: They used to say that it's a forgotten war. I have to say it's a winning war, we didn't win it in the sense of reuniting North and South Korea. That didn't happen. But we were able to maintain South Korea as a viable country and what we were able to maintain was worth the fighting, worth every bit of it and I'm proud to have been part of that.
Thomas Cork: When I talk to people about the Chosin Reservoir I tell people I'm one of the, the survivors. And I'm grateful that I was able to get out there with no more than a little arthritis and lost a foot. I am proud of this because I was a part of history as a Marine.
Manert Kennedy: It was something that has stayed with me my entire adult life. I didn't realize what an impact that experience would have on my soul, on my being. I fought in many other battles after that, nothing, nothing to compare with the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.