‘On Desperate Ground’ Review: Victory in Retreat
The hubris of MacArthur, rather than the ﬁghting, was the main cause of casualties at the Chosin Reservoir
By Mark YostSept. 27, 2018 6:01 p.m. ET
In a somber ceremony at Honolulu’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in early August, the remains of 55 U.S. troops who fought and died in the Korean War were repatriated from North Korea. Of those 55, 35 were service members recovered from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Chosin was the site of the first major engagement, in November 1950, between Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s United Nations coalition force, spearheaded by Gen. Oliver Smith of the First Marine Division, and Mao Zedong’s People’s Volunteer Army. Until that point, Beijing had refrained from lending military support to Pyongyang, which had sparked the war five months earlier by invading South Korea. As U.N. troops appeared close to destroying the North Korean army and putting an unfettered force on China’s doorstep, Mao finally decided to join the fray.
ON DESPERATE GROUND
By Hampton Sides
Doubleday, 394 pages, $30
The U.S. Army and other coalition forces were also involved, but the Battle of Chosin Reservoir holds a special place in Marine Corps lore—alongside Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima and Khe Sanh—notable not as one of the Marines’ greatest victories but one of military history’s greatest tactical retreats. Countless books have been written about this storied battle, recounting many individual acts of bravery, as well as the maneuvers and strategies that helped extricate the troops from an unwinnable battle amid treacherous weather conditions. Subzero temperatures not only froze to death in their foxholes some of the ill-equipped Chinese troops, but also saved the lives of many coalition fighters by freezing otherwise life-threatening wounds. Among Marines, the battle has come to be known as “The Frozen Chosin.” Those who survived are reverentially referred to as “The Chosin Few.”
Some of the best books on the subject include “Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950,” by Martin Russ, and “Frozen Chosin,” by Edwin H. Simmons—both authors had served in the war—and “The Last Stand of Fox Company,” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, who provide a more focused telling of one Marine company’s ordeal in the battle. To this pantheon we can now add Hampton Sides’s “On Desperate Ground,” which hits all the right notes in the novelistic way that histories are written today.
Mr. Sides does an admirable job of balancing the book’s two storylines, explaining the upper-echelon politics that put the Marines in such a precarious position, and the on-the-ground planning, execution and sheer bravery that helped them escape. To Mr. Sides, the Marines’ Gen. Smith is the hero of the story, and rightly so. Smith had the better understanding of the conflict his men were thrust into, even as he was being thwarted at almost every turn by MacArthur and his staff.
As commander of the U.N. forces, MacArthur had ambitions to further aggrandize himself in the Far East. He greatly underestimated the willingness of the Chinese leaders to engage the Americans, and the difficulty his own troops would have against a force that was numerically, if not militarily, superior. MacArthur had surrounded himself with yes-men so beholden to and in awe of the general that they refused to believe their own intelligence reports about Chinese troop movements. Mr. Sides makes the legitimate argument that the ill-informed hubris of MacArthur and his staff, rather than the deadly fighting on the ground, played the biggest role in causing the Chosin Reservoir casualties.
Mr. Sides sets the scene well, beginning with the Battle of Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, when U.N. forces invaded the seaside South Korean town to expel North Korean forces. MacArthur ignored his ground commanders when they warned that Inchon was a poor choice for an amphibious landing. Luckily for him, the North Koreans put up only a token resistance. “The reason it looked simple,” Smith said later, “was that professionals were doing it.”
From there U.N. forces proceeded northeast toward Seoul. Smith cautioned MacArthur that the troops were moving too far, too fast. But MacArthur had imposed a deadline of Sept. 25 for liberating the capital city—three months to the day North Korea invaded the South. The only way to meet MacArthur’s target was to thoroughly bombard the city. When, on Sept. 29, the general visited a not-quite-liberated Seoul, he was aghast at the destruction that resulted from his own rash and ill-advised orders.
It was with this same hubris that MacArthur and his staff, ensconced in their palatial headquarters in downtown Tokyo, convinced President Truman that China had no intention of joining the war. The path to Pyongyang was supposed to offer little resistance.
MacArthur ordered his troops to proceed north, through narrow mountain passes carved with steep ravines and onto the high, flat ground around the Chosin Reservoir, an ideal staging ground for what the Chinese feared (and MacArthur hoped) would be an advance into communist China. As Mr. Sides explains, the Marines knew they were walking into a trap. Even MacArthur’s own intelligence reports warned that Chinese forces had already crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. The general refused to believe them, attributing the sightings to rogue units, not a broader strategy.
Realizing he could do nothing but obey orders, Smith planned his defenses well. At Chosin, he ordered that a runway be built, to help, Mr. Sides writes, with “bringing in and taking out everything Smith needed to keep his division alive.” Smith also placed troops on the perimeter of the reservoir, pre-emptively taking the high ground from the Chinese.
Despite this planning, the Marines’ biggest foe would be the weather, which, in Edwin Simmons’s own description, was cold enough “to numb the spirit as well as the flesh.” The freezing temperatures were “a physical force you had to reckon with,” another Marine told Mr. Sides. “It got down into the marrow of our bones.”
On the evening of Nov. 27, all of MacArthur’s prognostications were proved ridiculous—and all of Smith’s planning paid off. The Chinese, some 150,000 strong, charged up the hillsides toward the U.N. positions, which were manned by some 30,000 troops (about half of which were Marines). Mr. Sides does some of his best work recounting the combat, thanks in part to his interviews with Hector Cafferata, who saw the worst of it with Fox Company. (Cafferata died in 2016, at the age of 86.)
Twenty-four Marines were killed, more than 50 wounded and three were missing. Fox Company lost nearly a third of its force that night. “The Chinese casualties, on the other hand, were more difficult to ascertain, but they were impressive,” Mr. Sides writes. Some Chinese troops charged the Marine positions with crude weapons; Cafferata describes these as being “almost archaic in some cases,” including “a long pole at the end of which a knife had been attached with string.” Sometimes the Chinese charged with no weapons at all. As Cafferata’s squad leader surveyed the scene the next morning, he estimated that “two enemy platoons had been destroyed.”
Over the course of the two-week battle, the Marine-led forces fought bravely. According to best estimates, their casualties totaled around 10,000 troops, some 4,300 of them Marines. More than 7,000 other Marines suffered noncombat injuries, primarily frostbite. By contrast, the Chinese reported roughly 50,000 killed or wounded, but some estimates put that figure as high as 60,000. “Was it this bad on Okinawa?” Cafferata remembers asking. “Doesn’t matter where you are,” his sergeant replied. “When the lead is flying, that’s the worst place you’ve ever been.”
Despite their massive casualties, however, the Chinese made it so that all the coalition could do was defend its position. MacArthur was eventually persuaded that the Chosin Reservoir stalemate was untenable. If left there, his troops would have been decimated by the weather and Chinese reinforcements. China’s entry into the war changed everything. Instead of simply mopping up what was left of the North Koreans, the U.N. coalition had to completely rethink how it would deal with its new foe. The smartest thing to do, MacArthur realized, was to retreat and regroup. Smith led his troops through one choke point after another, encountering attacks by the remnants of the Chinese force, until they reached the harbor in Hamhung, almost 80 miles away, where they boarded ships, pulling out of North Korea entirely and sailing south to regroup around Pusan.
In the end, it was one of the greatest retreats in military history. It’s a story Marines are rightly proud of and one that should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the remains that just returned home from Korea, and why those men deserve to be remembered.
—Mr. Yost writes about military history for the Journal.