The Second Retreat of the United Nations Command

views updated

The Second Retreat of the United Nations Command

In mid-November 1950, winter set in quickly in North Korea—almost overnight, according to some of the soldiers. The weather dropped as low as twenty degrees below zero, bringing new chaos to the units. Rifles would not fire, vehicles would not start, and many men were taken out of commission by frostbite. Morale dropped steadily with the temperature. Walton H. "Johnnie" Walker (1889–1950), commander of the Eighth Army, was having trouble getting supplies for his troops, and there was already a shortage of winter equipment, significantly delaying northward advances of the Eighth Army from the Chongchon River front.

The plan for the Eighth Army to advance to the northern Korean border on the western frontier, devised by American general Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), commander in chief of the United Nations (UN) Forces in Korea, was at last put into action. This was the beginning of the optimistically named "Home by Christmas" offensive. At 8:00 a.m. on November 24, 1950, the entire Eighth Army began its northward advance—now including the I Corps, which included the Twenty-fourth Division, the South Korean (ROK) Army First Division, and the Twenty-seventh British Commonwealth Brigade, and the IX Corps, which included the Twenty-fifth and Second Divisions and the Turkish Brigade (which had just arrived in Korea). On the right of the line was the repaired ROK II Corps, which included the recently battered ROK Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Divisions.

The Communist Chinese Forces (CCF) hit the Eighth Army on November 25. Knowing that the ROK units were

poorly armed and often weaker than the other UN forces, they concentrated their efforts at strategic points where the ROK Seventh held Tokjon and the ROK Eighth held Yongwon. The Chinese decisively shattered both divisions that day. Using the holes in the Eighth Army line left by the ROK divisions, the CCF forces then surrounded unit after unit of the IX Corps, inflicting terrible damage to the Second Division in particular. The exposed areas of the Eighth Army left it vulnerable to the infiltrating Chinese troops. Outnumbered and without suffi cient protection on its flanks (sides), the Eighth Army faced certain disaster. Walker had no choice but to request a with drawal order for the entire army. He received the authority to

withdraw on November 28. The Eighth Army units withdrew under cover of the Second and Twenty-fifth Divisions, which held the high ground on either side of the route of withdrawal as the main column passed.

The gauntlet

The Second Division held the roads open for the Eighth Army withdrawal as long as it could, with Chinese forces bearing down from three sides. When the time came for the Second Division to join in the general withdrawal to Sunch'on on November 30, most of the exit routes were impassable. The Second Division chose a route that seemed the least blocked. They did not know the Chinese had set up a deadly roadblock there, later called "the gauntlet" or the "fire wall." At this roadblock, the mountains surrounding the roads provided cover for at least two full regiments of Chinese soldiers. They perched—poised to fire—along a line that stretched down the road for six or seven miles. As the withdrawing troops of the Second Division entered the gauntlet they would remain the target of continuous shooting for miles. If one vehicle on the road stopped, everyone was stuck in the line of fire. Unable to communicate with the units behind them, the best anyone could do was to try to get themselves out of the gauntlet as quickly as possible. The Second Division had three thousand casualties that morning alone, bringing their casualties during the second Chinese offensive to a total of five thousand. No longer combat effective, the remainder of the division was sent to the South Korean capital of Seoul to rebuild.

On December 3, MacArthur ordered a retreat of all UN forces to the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. As the Eighth Army quickly withdrew, thousands of North Korean refugees followed in the bitter cold. General Paik Sun Yup (1920–) of the South Korean (ROK) Army remembers that day sadly in his memoirs From Pusan to Panmunjom: "For us in the ROK Army, December 3, 1950, lives as the day when our dream of national unification by force was dashed forever. MacArthur's Christmas Offensive had run full tilt into Peng's Second Offensive and collapsed completely." Peng Dehuai (P'eng Teh-huai; 1898–1974) was commander of the Chinese troops in Korea.

The X Corps heads north

On the other side of the mountains, the X Corps (the First Marine Division, the Third and Seventh Infantry divisions, and ROK I Corps), under the command of Major General Edward M. Almond (1892–1979), had begun the advance up to the Yalu River in October. By mid-November, MacArthur's headquarters directed the X Corps to advance

north to the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir, a huge man-made lake surrounded by four-thousand-feet plateaus at the north ern border of Korea. From there, they were to head west to link up with the Eighth Army. MacArthur issued a statement to be read to all the troops saying that if this operation were suc cessful, the war would doubtless be over.

By the end of November, the U.S. Marines and parts of the Seventh Division had formed a base in the town of Haguru. There, a new airstrip was built, with engineers working on it around-the-clock. The airstrip would serve to bring in supplies and to evacuate the wounded, and a hospital unit was built there as well. The Seventh and Fifth Regiments of the First Marines had gone on to the village of Yudam on November 26. Other X Corps units were stationed at Koto and Chinhung. Since it had been generally agreed that there was only a minor Chinese presence in Korea, no one was prepared for the mas sive attack of the Chinese on the night of November 27.

The attack at Chosin

Twelve CCF divisions were sent into Chosin. Spotting the weakness in the UN plan that had drawn fire from within its ranks—the division of the two armies—they had marched down the gap between the X Corps and the Eighth Army in the mountains. The Chinese struck the night of November 27 at seven different fronts: three places in the village of Yudam, held by the marines, and at Hagaru, Koto, Neidongjik, and Sinhung. They struck the hardest at Yudam, with orders to "annihilate" the marines there. Having learned that the marines were the most powerful fighting force of the United States, the Chinese wished to destroy them at the outset.

During the first night's attack, the Chinese set up roadblocks that separated Yudam, Hagaru, and Koto from each other, dangerously isolating some of the units. Hagaru was only lightly defended. In order to keep the airstrip work going night and day and to protect the base, troops were sent from Koto to Hagaru. Task Force Drysdale was hastily put together and prepared to move up the road with arms and troops to strengthen the base. The task force faced well-prepared Chinese forces and roadblocks and was hit hard on its trip. Out of 922 men who made the journey, 321 were killed or wounded. But the majority of the Royal Marine Commando and Company G of the First Marine Division made it to Hagaru and secured the village for the rest of the UN effort in Chosin.

Three surrounded battalions

The Thirth-second Regiment of the Seventh Division was northeast of Hagaru near the village of Sinhung when it was attacked by the Chinese around midnight on November 28. True to form, the Chinese surrounded three battalions in a double-envelopment and then infiltrated, coming in wherever there was an opening for close combat. For several days, the Chinese continued to infiltrate, causing heavy casualties and loss of ground during the night. By day the American soldiers made progress against them. Eventually the three battalions managed to come together through the roadblocks and the Chinese forces, but they were still surrounded. The continuous bloody combat and the freezing weather threatened them with utter destruction.

By December 1, it was clear that no help was coming. The survivors of the three battalions decided to attempt to make it to Hagaru. Loading the severely wounded into trucks and forcing the less wounded to walk, they set off. At once, they were attacked by the Chinese. U.S. planes came in to help, but in trying to hit the Chinese they misfired, dropping napalm right onto the American troops, killing several and severely wounding others. Things broke down further as the troops came upon a blown-up bridge and were once again ambushed by the Chinese. On December 2, the survivors of the three battalions limped into Hagaru. There had been 2,500 men in the battalions; 1,050 survived, but more than 600 of them were severely wounded or frostbitten.

The marines at Yudam

During the first year of the Korean War (1950), observers noted frequently that the U.S. Army was not ready for combat. The U.S. Marines were understrength as well. Unlike the other military services, however, the marines were not drafted (required to participate in compulsory military service), but volunteered to be soldiers. They were trained to be tough, enduring, disciplined, and combat-ready at all times. The marines had their own air support and coordinated it well with ground activities. Professional soldiers, they had shown great skill and courage in the war so far. The Chinese, appreciating the skill of this enemy, sent massive numbers of their own well-trained troops to annihilate the First Marine Division troops at Yudam. The marines put up a mighty fight.

On the night of November 27, as the marines of the Fifth and Seventh Regiments set up positions in the hills, three Chinese divisions attacked: two at Yudam and the third to the south of them through the mountains, to block the road between Hagaru and Yudam. The marines were outnumbered by more than three to one.

The Chinese struck at 10:00 p.m. that night, pouring through any holes available between companies and surrounding small units so they could then attack them at close range. Because the Chinese succeeded in isolating units from each other, each company fought its own small war. The American casualties were tremendous.

That night, General Oliver Smith, commander of the First Marines, anxiously listened by radio to the reports of what was happening to his marines in Chosin. He knew that the mission to meet up with the Eighth Army in the west was impossible due to the Eighth Army's defeat; his men were being slaughtered for a doomed mission. He desperately tried to reach General Almond to get new orders. He did not hear back from Almond for nearly two days. Unable to order a retreat without permission, Smith ordered the Fifth and Seventh Marines to forget their offensive but to continue to defend their positions around Yudam.

On the morning of November 28, Almond had flown into Hagaru and other points on the front. According to Patrick C. Roe in The Dragon Strikes, China and the Korean War, Almond's parting words as he left the front were a characteristically gross (and racist) underestimation of the Chinese: "The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of a Chinese division fleeing north.… We'restill attacking and we're going all the way to the Yalu. Don't let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you."

"When you break out, you attack"

In the late hours of November 28, General Smith finally received orders to retreat. He was instructed to bring his troops into the secure village of Hagaru. From there they were to make their way to Hungnam. The marines had no history of retreating and this turn of events shocked everyone. When war correspondents questioned Smith about it, he snapped, "Retreat, hell, we are simply attacking in another direction." The quote became famous. In The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin: An Oral History, Donald Knox provided Smith's explanation from a later interview: "You can't retreat or withdraw when you are surrounded. The only thing you can do is break out. When you break out, you attack. That's what we were doing." In fact, the retreat to Hagaru from November 28 through December 5 presented some of the most brutal fighting in the Korean War.

Fox Company's ordeal

Every Fifth and Seventh Marine company in the vicinity of Yudam at the end of November 1950 had its own battles with the Chinese troops in some of the most horrible conditions imaginable. One frequently told tale is the ordeal of the Fox Company of the Second Battalion of the Seventh Regiment. When the withdrawal order came through for X Corps, Fox Company received the assignment to hold open the Toktong Pass (later named Fox Hill), which was on the withdrawing troops' route to Hagaru. It was far too big to be defended by one company, but the survival of the entire division depended on the route being open. Fox Company was ordered not to withdraw under any circumstances.

The men in Fox Company were already at their position on Fox Hill when the withdrawal order was issued. Going to sleep the night of November 27, most of the men were concerned with trying not to freeze in the well below zero weather. It was nearly impossible to dig in for the night because the ground was so frozen. All around them, the marines heard the sound of firefights and knew their turn was coming. The Chinese struck at 2:00 a.m. Although the Chinese killed twenty men and injured many more, the Fox Company rallied and threw back the CCF.

The fighting continued each night, and the few survivors on Fox Hill held on, managing to inflict heavy casualties on their Chinese attackers. On November 29, General Smith ordered a rescue party to Fox Hill from Yudam, but it could not get through the Chinese resistance. A new cross-country rescue force was assembled and set out on the night of December 1, taking with them only what they could carry on their backs. The crew hiked all night through the frozen mountain terrain, in and out of firefights with the Chinese, and moved beyond the limits of exhaustion in order not to freeze to death. They got through to the Fox Company on its sixth day on the hill. The rescuers were able to carry the ninety wounded down to trucks waiting in the roads below. The rest of Fox Company chose to stay with the cross-country force to hold the Toktong Pass open for the withdrawing troops to pass through. Both the captain of Fox Company and the lieutenant colonel leading the rescue expedition received Medals of Honor for their bravery and sacrifice.

Leaving the Chosin Reservoir

The marines withdrew down the main supply route from Yudam to Hagaru, fighting the Chinese and smashing through their frequent roadblocks with the ever-present aid of their air support. On December 3, they broke through the strong Chinese barrier at Toktong Pass after incurring many casualties. The bloodiest combat was over, but there were many more firefights before the four-day retreat was completed on December 4 at 2:00 p.m. in Hagaru. Having just completed one of the most fierce ordeals in marine history, the marines came in exhausted, cold, wounded, hungry, sick, dirty, and frostbitten. They had not been able to carry out their mission, but they had defied the Chinese efforts to annihilate them. The Chinese had sent twelve CCF divisions to face three American and two ROK divisions, and they had focused most of their manpower on the First Marine Division. By managing to survive at such odds, the First Marines had a true victory.

In five days, from December 2 to December 6, air force and marine planes evacuated forty-five hundred wounded from Hagaru. On December 6, X Corps was on the move again: ten thousand men were on the road to Koto and then on to the coastal city of Hungnam, where they could be transported out by sea.

The Chinese had not attacked at Hagaru, but had used the time to fortify blocking positions on the road south. The marines had to fight their way out. Assault teams launched out ahead of the troops, securing the hills by the road before the main column got to it. The casualties on both sides were often very heavy and it was slow moving. But it was clear by this time that the Chinese troops were exhausted, frozen, and starving. At one battle site, the X Corps found foxholes with what turned out to be fifty Chinese soldiers in them. In Korea: The Untold Story of the War, author Joseph Goulden quoted Major W. D. Sawyer, who was there at the time: "They [the Chinese soldiers] were so badly frozen that our men simply lifted them from the holes and sat them on the road."

The troops marched on to Chinhung, and then on to Hungnam. There, a huge fleet was prepared to evacuate the soldiers and the fleeing Korean civilians who had been following them on their miserable retreat. Over the course of two weeks beginning December 11, 105,000 troops and nearly 100,000 Korean civilians were evacuated from Hungnam. The X Corps burned and bombed the city mercilessly as they left. The longest retreat in U.S. history was over. There were approximately 25,000 troops from the allied nations in the Chosin campaign and there were 6,000 casualties. One in every four men had been killed, wounded, or was missing in action.

Where to Learn More

Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986, revised edition, 2000.

Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story of the War. New York: Times Books, 1982.

Hoyt, Edwin P. The Day the Chinese Attacked Korea, 1950: The Story of the Failure of America's China Policy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Knox, Donald. The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin: An Oral History. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Roe, Patrick C. The Dragon Strikes, China and the Korean War: June-December 1950. Novato, CA: Presidio, 2000.

Web sites

United States Army, "Korean War Medal of Honor Recipients." United States Army. [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).

"Mao's Telegrams During the Korean War, October-December 1950." Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [Online] on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

annihilate: to destroy or kill.

automatic weapon: a weapon that fires repeatedly without needing reloading or other extra actions by the person shooting it.

battalion: a military unit usually made up of about three to five companies. Generally one of the companies is the headquarters unit, another the service unit, and the rest are line units. Although the numbers differ greatly, a battalion might consist of about 35 officers and about 750 soldiers.

casualties: those who are killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner in combat.

division (or infantry division): a selfsufficient unit, usually about 15,000 to 16,000 strong, under the command of a major general. Communist Chinese army divisions were closer to 10,000 soldiers strong.

gauntlet: a terrible ordeal; a ritual in which an individual is forced to run through a formation of two facing rows of people armed with clubs or other weapons who are striking him or her from both sides.

grenades: a small explosive weapon that can be thrown, usually with a pin that is pulled to activate them and a springloaded safety lever that is held down until the user wants to throw the grenade; once the safety lever is released, the grenade will explode in seconds.

infiltrate: to enter into enemy lines by passing through gaps in its defense.

mortar: a muzzle-loading cannon that shoots high in the air.

napalm: a jellylike material that turns to flame as it is shot from bombs and flame throwers; napalm is known for sticking to its targets as it burns them.

POW: prisoner of war.

refugee: someone who is fleeing to a different country to escape danger in his or her own nation.

regiment: a military unit composed of three battalions.

Tootsie Rolls to the Rescue

While the troops were fighting in the Chosin Reservoir during the frigid winter of 1950–51, their food, equipment, and supplies were dropped to them by parachute. Among the rations they received was a tremendous supply of Tootsie Rolls candies. While the candies were a welcome treat to the exhausted troops, they froze in the bitter temperatures so thoroughly it took more than twenty minutes to thaw them so they could be eaten.

Some clever soldier in Chosin saw an opportunity in this and soon new Tootsie Roll procedures were known to all the troops. When the Chinese bullets made holes in the gas tanks, fuel drums, and radiators of military vehicles at the battlefront, the men would call "Tootsie to the rear!" Soldiers chewing the candies would then make their way to the vehicle. They stuck the chewed up candy into the bullet hole, and it immediately froze so solid it sealed the hole like a true metal welding job had been done. Many of the survivors of Chosin campaign have a special fondness for Tootsie Rolls to this day.

Telegram from Mao Zedong to His Military Leaders in Korea, November 12, 1950

It is said that the American Marine First Division has the highest combat effectiveness in the American armed forces. It seems not enough for our four divisions to surround and annihilate its two regiments. [You] should have one to two more divisions as a reserve force. The 26th Army of the 9th Army Corps should be stationed close to the front. Combat must be fully prepared for, and the campaign commands must be carefully organized. Please continuously instruct Song [Shilun] and Tao [Yong] to accomplish their task.

Source: "Mao's Telegrams During the Korean War, October-December 1950." Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [Online] on August 14, 2001).

One of the Heroes at Chosin

One private in the Fox Company, twenty-one-year-old rifleman Hector A. Cafferata, stood firm as the Chinese tried to push through and separate the Second and Third Platoons at Toktong Pass on the night of November 27, 1950. He was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that night. According to the U.S. Army:

When all the other members of his fire team became casualties, creating a gap in the lines… Pvt. Cafferata waged a lone battle with grenades and rifle fire as the attack gained momentum and the enemy threatened penetration through the gap and endangered the integrity of the entire defensive perimeter. Making a target of himself under the devastating fire from automatic weapons, rifles, grenades, and mortars, he maneuvered up and down the line and delivered accurate and effective fire against the onrushing force, killing 15, wounding many more, and forcing the others to withdraw so that reinforcements could move up and consolidate the position. Again fighting desperately against a renewed onslaught later that same morning when a hostile grenade landed in a shallow entrenchment occupied by wounded marines, Pvt. Cafferata rushed into the gully under heavy fire, seized the deadly missile in his right hand and hurled it free of his comrades before it detonated, severing part of 1 finger and seriously wounding him in the right hand and arm. Courageously ignoring the intense pain, he staunchly fought on until he was struck by a sniper's bullet and forced to submit to evacuation for medical treatment.

Source: United States Army. "Korean War Medal of Honor Recipients." United States Army. [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).


The bitter cold in North Korea took a great toll on the soldiers—both communist and of the United Nations. The experiences of being out in twenty below temperatures for weeks at a time are tales of unimaginable misery. Soldiers taking off their socks would accidentally pull the skin off the bottom of their feet, which had frozen to their socks. Food was frozen and nearly impossible to thaw, and eating frozen food caused terrible digestive problems. Most soldiers were sick to their stomachs and limping from painful frostbite. Sentries (guards) could not hear the invading Chinese because they had on heavy hats, but without the hats, their ears quickly froze. The cold also numbed the mind. Orders given were often immediately forgotten. Responses to danger that are normally automatic came slowly, if at all.

So many wounded were coming into the medical stations at Hagaru and Yudam, there were not enough tents for all of them. Many had to be placed on top of straw on the frozen ground and covered with a tarpaulin (a canvas or plastic sheet). These soldiers were so frozen by the time they got medical attention that doctors and nurses could only tell if they were alive by checking their eyes for movement.

Blood for transfusion froze and could not be used. It was difficult or impossible for doctors to work on patients. Without gloves, their hands were too frozen to work. It was also nearly impossible to cut a patient out of his uniform to work on a wound without the patient freezing to death. In some cases the freezing temperatures actually stopped the flow of blood from the wounds—the one positive aspect of the terrible winter conditions.

About this article

The Second Retreat of the United Nations Command

Updated About content Print Article