Battle of Chosin Reservoir
On November 27, 1950, the Korean War Battle of Chosin Reservoir began, a fighting withdrawal in the bitter cold.
By November 1950, the United Nations forces had driven the North Korean army back into its own territory. The Yalu River, the northern border of the peninsula was within reach and many believed the war would be over by Christmas. American and UN commanders didn’t realize Chinese forces were massing along the border and would soon change the course of the war.
As UN troops advanced, Korea’s Taebaek Mountains divided them. While the Eighth Army traveled along the western coast, the US X Corps moved north on the eastern coast. On October 19, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) crossed the border to meet the advancing armies.
When the Eighth Army was attacked, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the X Corps to move west in the hopes of getting behind the Chinese and cutting off their supply line. PVA 42nd Corps was sent to stop the action and destroy the X Corps.
The US 1st Marine Division of the X Corps was the first American unit to encounter the PVA. The November 2 battle caused heavy Chinese casualties and they were forced to retreat. This lured the UN forces into the Chosin Reservoir area.
As X Corps advanced, the 1st Marine Division was ordered to the west of the reservoir, while a portion of the US 7th Infantry Division advanced along the east side. The 3rd Infantry Division was charged with protecting the left flank and rear areas. The PVA began their attacks on the night of November 27. Troops on both sides of the reservoir were ambushed, surrounded, and cut off from their escape route.
Though the Chinese army greatly outnumbered UN forces, they were poorly equipped. The temperatures fell below -30°F that winter, and PVA soldiers were not issued winter clothes. They were soon short on ammunition and food as well. These factors contributed to the enemy’s inability to destroy the X Corps. The surrounded American troops were eventually ordered to make a fighting retreat back to the coast. Over the next few days, the American troops successfully defended their positions.
The Americans faced some of the toughest terrain and weather conditions seen in the Korean War, with temperatures dropping as low as -35º F as they fought through an icy mountain corridor. Medical supplies froze and weapons jammed in the extreme cold. Frostbite became nearly as dangerous as the enemy. But for two weeks they continued their withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Colonel “Chesty” Puller of the 1st Marine Regiment was ordered to create a task force to open a road for their retreat. By November 29, his force of 900 men and 140 vehicles was ready. They were then ambushed along the way in what became known as “Hell Fire Valley.” With the help of reinforcements, they managed to reach Hagaru-ri. The surrounded Marines at Chosin then fought their way to Hagaru-ri and met up with Puller’s men.
Over the next several days the Marines brutally fought their way to safety. At one point, they built a bridge over a 1,500-foot gorge with bridge sections delivered by the Air Force. The “Frozen Chosin” finally reached the safety of Hungnam on December 11. Though the Americans were entirely removed from North Korea, they also destroyed about seven Chinese divisions, a major blow to communist plans.
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