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The Chosin Reservoir

by Dominic Armstrong

Here is a story that must be told,
Of Marines who fought in the bitter cold,
Some were veterans of WWII,
They would soon join the ranks,
Called the "Chosin Few."

Boyce Clark, USMC E/2/7

The Chosin Reservoir is the area near the Yalu River where an extended, major battle of the Korean War that dated from November 27 to December 6 of 1950 occurred. In many ways, it signaled the start of the conclusion of the war, and was a integral show of strength by the Chinese forces in the war. The units involved in the 9-day battle included the 7th Infantry Division and the 1st and 5th Marines, making up a part of the X Corps. The X Corps was given the task of solidifying position in North Korea by moving across the 38th parallel and holding territory. Amongst these soldiers were twenty-six West Virginians who ultimately gave their lives in this battle.

At this point of the conflict, North Korea was falling back from the UN forces and victory appeared to be in sight. General Edward M. "Ned" Almond was in command of the X Corps, and was interested in ending the war as soon as possible. Because of this, and under General MacArthur's instruction, Gen. Almond was prepared to push his forces farther north, helping to end the fighting and return "Home by Christmas." The Chinese government made it known (through the Indian ambassador at the UN) that if the UN forces passed beyond the 38th parallel, China would be forced to involve itself in the war, defending North Korea and its Communist interests.

China was just emerging as a Communist power in 1950, and was interested in making a clear military position to show strength and garner respect from the rest of the world. The Chinese were also concerned with keeping North Korea as a buffer between the West and the Democracy being established in South Korea. During this time, China was not part of the United Nations, leaving them unhindered by diplomacy. The Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) was a large group of poorly instructed "volunteers." They were ill-equipped, having a collection of British, US, Japanese and other weapons, but no heavy artillery, tanks, or air power. The CCF were most impressive in regards to their stealth and size, with the UN forces knowing little about their numbers or location. This lack of intelligence left the Far East Command overconfident and unprepared to handle their adversaries.

As the X Corps, led by the 32st Infantry, moved towards the Yalu River, the CCF approached undetected behind. The CCF carried none of the trappings of a modern army, and excelled at the art of concealment: they were nocturnal, moving and fighting best at night. The CCF would start their day at 7 PM, march until 3 AM, then camouflage, leaving only scouts to move in the daylight. These scouts were to find the best path for the soldiers the following night, and were instructed to freeze when a plane was heard overhead. While the Chinese had met and had some success against the United States troops already, they had not yet had the decisive victory which was their goal. While the Eighth Army and the X Corps grew more confident and optimistic, the CCF pulled back to replenish supplies and examine their victories and mistakes.

The 1st Battalion of the 32nd Infantry arrived at the Chosin Reservoir on November 26. Soon after, probing attacks began. The 1/32 (1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry) fought back the CCF forces and were secure enough to find sleep that evening. A problem reported earlier expressed that security was having a difficult time of staying awake, this time it was to the detriment of the rest of the camp, because around 1 AM the following morning, CCF forces made their first assault to begin the fighting. Many soldiers were killed without the chance to fight back, being stabbed with a bayonet through their sleeping bags. The Chinese attack overran the K Company, part of the I Company, and eventually ran through the A Battery and B Battery. By 4:30 AM they had been held briefly by the D Battery of the 5th AAA-AW Battalion. At sunrise, the Chinese vanished, for fear of an air attack. PFC James E. Blohm, a medic with HQ Battery described the scene on November 28, "The perimeter was a scene from Dante's Inferno."

"That's impossible. There aren't two Chinese Communist divisions in the whole of North Korea!" Gen. Almond reacted to the news of November 27. He told the men that the plans had not changed. "We're still attacking and going all the way to the Yalu. Don't let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you." Gen. Almond and Colonel Alan D. MacLean, the commander of the 31st Infantry, both felt that, with the arrival of the 2nd Battalion of the 31st and the tank company, the CCF forces would be easily controlled. Almond's position has been questioned many times after the fact. He had been at other battles where he saw firsthand the Chinese resistance and knew of their strength and tenacity. By the morning of the 28th, the Corps G-2 reported that six CCF divisions totaling 35,000 men were in position to attack. That night, the CCF continued their night raids.

The attacking CCF quickly penetrated the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry lines in several places. The resistance was not going well on the UN side, by 4 AM the withdrawal started, and they were forced to leave behind the A Company, who were surrounded by enemy forces. The battle continued this way for several days, the CCF moving forward, the UN forces moving back. Soon, the UN forces were engaged in a retreat, the longest ever that included the United States military. They fell well south of the 38th parallel, and were left licking their wounds.

The Chosin Reservoir was one of the biggest upsets for the UN and United States military during the Korean War. However, after the extended retreat, the Chinese made the same fatal mistake that the US made just a few months previous. The Chinese pushed hard towards Seoul in order to take the capital and end the war in their favor. They were met hard by the US forces and pushed back behind the 38th parallel, where the troops were able to hold. This is where the Korean War ended, and this is why the war is considered a stalemate. South Korea gained a few miles to the north, where the border was more easily defensible, and the Chinese were made to sign a peace treaty that slightly favored the UN troops. Had the Chinese not pushed farther than Seoul, they probably would have obtained much more of South Korea in the final accord.

West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history. Contact (304) 558-0230.

For more information about the casualties of the Chosin Reservoir and its survivors:

West Virginia Veterans Memorial Archives Database

West Virginia Archives and History

West Virginia Archives and History