On the night of November 27, 1950, in 30-degree weather, more than 80,000 soldiers of the 9th Army Group of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attacked the American X Corps along a 35-mile stretch of road west and south of the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir in Korea. By the morning of November 28, nearly the entire 1st Marine Division and the equivalent of a regiment of the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division were under siege in six separate enclaves.
Nearly two regiments of Marines and three artillery battalions were holding Yudam-ni. Fourteen miles to the south, at Hagaru-ri, the Marine division’s forward command post, two artillery batteries, the equivalent of a battalion of infantry and an odd collection of service and support units were holding out. At Koto-ri, 11 miles farther south along the X Corps’ main supply route (MSR), a Marine headquarters, rifle battalion and artillery battery also were holding out. On the east side of the reservoir, two 7th Infantry Division rifle battalions, two artillery batteries and a regimental headquarters manned three isolated, precarious positions. A Marine battalion at Chinhung-ni, 10 miles south of Koto-ri, was molested but not endangered.
Both X Corps and 1st Marine Division planners immediately saw that securing the one-lane MSR connecting all the embattled forces would be the key to preventing a collapse. The pressure being applied to Marine units at Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri and to U.S. Army units east of the reservoir was unremitting. Koto-ri was under less pressure and the MSR to the southerly Chinhung-ni was open.
Once the fog of war began lifting, all available combat units south of Chinhung-ni were ordered to Koto-ri. By the afternoon of November 28, Koto-ri was a vast vehicle park for piled-up traffic moving up from the rear. Among the mixed bag of units in this assemblage, G (‘George’) Company, 1st Marine Regiment, on its way to rejoin its battalion at Hagaru-ri, had been stopped. So had the last convoy of trucks carrying the 1st Marine Division’s forward command post. Then too, B (‘Baker’) Company, 31st Infantry (Baker/31), a 7th Infantry Division unit plucked from duty elsewhere, arrived after dark, as did 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines, a 240-man British force attached to the 1st Marine Division to bolster its reconnaissance capability.
There were also scores of trucks brimming with Army headquarters and service troops and their equipment and baggage. No one really knew how many men there were within the confines of the Koto-ri perimeter. As many transients as possible were put into tents that night. Most had to feed themselves and many went hungry.Colonel Lewis ‘Chesty’ Puller ordered his 1st Marine Regiment headquarters to organize the transients into a convoy that would be able to break through to Hagaru-ri in the morning. As the senior combat officer among the transients, Lt. Col. Douglas B. Drysdale, commander of 41 Commando, was placed in overall charge of the mixed unit, though hardly any of his new subordinates were so informed. According to Army Captain Charles Peckham of Baker/31, Puller personally ordered him to break through the Chinese roadblocks and lead the convoy all the way to Hagaru-ri.
On the morning of November 29, Task Force Drysdale units followed up United Nations artillery and airstrikes by attacking two Chinese-held areas on the MSR and opening the way for the Drysdale convoy. Captain Bruce Clarke’s D (‘Dog’) Company, 1st Tank Battalion, arrived later from the south to find the convoy stalled at a third point. After the tanks were refueled, Clarke ordered 1st Lt. Paul Sanders’ five-tank platoon to support an assault on the ridgeline overlooking the MSR by 41 Commando and George/1st Marines. Sanders conferred briefly with Drysdale, who assigned him a common radio frequency and a small infantry support team. When Sanders’ five tanks moved up the road, they were able to fire down the ling axis of the enemy-held ridge.
The Royal Marines and George Company delivered a spirited attack with the aid of the tanks and close air support. The tanks seemed to account for several Chinese strongpoints. In time, however, Sanders lost radio contact with Drysdale and had to stop firing. When Sanders looked back to see how the convoy was faring, he was surprised to see that it had fallen far behind. Ahead, he could not even spot Baker/31, which had advanced out of range, beyond the tanks. Sanders queried headquarters and was ordered to proceed slowly up the MSR with the remainder of his company: an attached tank platoon would follow in this tracks. As soon as the major PLA strongpoint on the ridge overlooking the MSR just north of Koto-ri had been cleared, the Marines moved down the roadway and climbed aboard trucks, while 41 Commando deployed between the roadway and the skyline to screen the first elements of the long column of vehicles. It was a misty day and snow flurries whipped into the faces of the troops each time they dismounted from their vehicles to return fire. Marine Vought F4U-4 Corsairs were on station overhead, but the shifting mists and the closeness of the jumbled terrain forced many of the fighter-bombers to pull up before they could get close enough to their targets. Progress on the roadway was agonizingly slow. In the vanguard, Peckham maneuvered Baker/31 with great care. Behind, Captain Carl Sitter’s George Company maneuvered against numerous Chinese infantrymen who had been driven briefly to ground by Peckham’s company. As Baker/31’s vanguard inched forward in the column lead, Drysdale’s native aggressiveness, according to many survivors, got the better of his judgment. Peckham may have been concluding an exemplary advance against serious odds, but he was too methodical for Drysdale. It was well past noon and Peckham was directing the loading of the lead platoon’s trucks following the reduction of yet another roadside strongpoint when a tank surged past him. The next vehicle was a jeep bearing Drysdale, who yelled above the din, ‘Let’s move forward!’ Peckham demurred–he had wounded men on his hands and would not advance until they had been seen safely away. Drysdale responded with a smiling ‘Tally Ho!’ and took off, drawing 41 Commando, all the tanks and Captain Sitter’s George Company in his wake. It wasn’t long before the extensive column was slowed by a massive traffic jam, and many’soft’ vehicles were easy pickings for PLA mortars on the heights. The convoy was soon fragmented by stalled vehicles and the smoking remains of burning trucks and jeeps. Many men were killed or wounded.
Drysdale’s headlong rush also fragmented Baker/31. Unable to move back in the column, Peckham and the remnants of his lead platoon were pushed forward. At length, Baker/31’s lead platoon was stopped by a burning ammunition truck that sealed the roadway. American and British marines under Major John McLaughlin, the senior Marine X Corps liaison officer, were helping to clear the roadway of wounded men and stalled vehicles. Unable to proceed, Peckham deployed his troops in roadside ditches to return the Chinese fire from the heights.
The eventual destruction of every radio in the column assured a loss of control, and that resulted in crumbling discipline throughout that long, fire-swept afternoon. Unable to advance, numerous drivers turned their vehicles around in the vain hope of going back. For a time, ambulances filled to capacity were getting through, but even they were stopped as the roadway and verges were sealed.
Drysdale’s combat elements–most of 41 Commando, Dog/Tanks and George/1st Marines–were briefly stopped at Pusong-ni, on a narrow defile about five miles north of Koto-ri. That choke point was eventually forced, but the column’s progress was almost immediately stopped again by a demolished bridge.
Sanders, whose tank platoon was Drysdale’s vanguard, now was ordered to move aside and allow the rear tank platoon to bypass the blown bridge. The maneuver was accomplished with great difficulty, convincing all that, while tanks might get through, soft vehicles would be stopped. Drysdale sent his adjutant forward to have a look, but that officer was wounded. At the same time, sheets of gunfire from the heights wounded George Company’s machine gun officer and Drysdale himself. Command of the vanguard group passed to George Company’s Captain Sitter, who ordered everyone to deploy and return fire.
As the British and American troops jumped to the road to join the fight, a scream of ‘Grenade!’ sent many ducking for cover. Private First Class William Baugh smothered it with his body. He was mortally wounded, but he saved the men around him, for which he was bestowed a posthumous Medal of Honor.
By then it was dark, and Dog/Tanks was feeling its way along the fire-swept roadway toward the Marine roadblocks guarding besieged Hagaru-ri. One of the tanks was knocked out by an anti-tank grenade and had to be shoved into a ditch to clear the roadway. Sanders passed the friendly roadblock almost before he realized he was safe. Immediately his tank’s engine died–he had run out of fuel.
George Company finally passed through the friendly roadblock at about 8:15 p.m.–after 10 1/2 hours on the move. It was immediately ordered to help man the Hargaru-ri perimeter line.
The sudden, final lunge by the tanks and George Company, however, left the bulk of 41 Commando far behind. The Chinese quickly surrounded the 200-plus Royal Marines and proceeded to whittle away at them.
The last cohesive unit to enter Koto-ri from the south was Baker Company, 1st Tank Battalion, which arrived at 3 p.m., following many minor delays. The bulk of the company, including soft vehicles, then advanced three miles up the MSR through moderate fire to find the tail of the convoy.
When Baker/Tanks drew close to the main convoy after dark, the road ahead was totally blocked by wrecked and burning vehicles. There was no way for the tanks to bypass the carnage–and at that point heavy mortar fire began falling perilously close to the tank company’s fuel and ammunition trucks.
It was clear that advancing would only accomplish the destruction of Baker/Tanks. The armored unit, no longer on the move, was forced to defend itself through the night against massed Chinese infantry assaults. Several tankers were killed or injured and several soft vehicles were lost, but the company was destined to survive.
Of about 1,100 U.S. Army soldier and Marines and Royal Marines–plus a few South Koreans–who had started out from Koto-ri on the morning of November 29, only about 250 had arrived at Hagaru-ri by midnight. The rest were scattered along several miles of the road in at least six separate groupments, isolated by Chinese strongpoints and impassible snarls of wrecked and burning vehicles of every description.
The northernmost enclave was manned by about 200 Royal Marines under Drysdale. In spite of his painful wounds, Drysdale oversaw a spirited defense, forbidding the Chinese to fragment his bloodied unit. Casualties were very heavy, particularly among the officers, but the Royal Marines inched steadily along toward Hagaru-ri. The bulk of them, including many wounded, passed through the outer U.S. Marine roadblock a dew hours after midnight. When they counted noses, the Royal Marines found that fully one-half of their original complement of 250 was killed, wounded, or missing.
That left some 500 Americans, British and South Koreans trapped in five major trapped enclaves along several hundred yards of roadway running through the defile just south of Pusong-ni, about halfway between Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri. The northernmost group in the ‘Hell Fire Valley’ was under the command of the 1st Marine Division’s logistics officer, Lt. Col. Arthur Chidester, until he was shot through both legs as he directed traffic in a vain attempt to turn back. Command fell to Major John McLaughlin, who found that he had about 135 men under his direct command, including Peckham and the remnants of a Baker/31 platoon. McLaughlin also counted a U.S. Marine military police section under Warrant Officer Lloyd Dirst, a score of Royal Marines, assorted headquarters personnel and a growing contingent of wounded.
About 200 yards south of McLaughlin’s position, two understrength platoons of Baker/31 and several Marine stragglers were holed up in a roadside ditch. Thirty yards south of them were about 95 Marine staff officers, clerks and technicians under Captain Michael Capraro, a Marine public information officer.
A short distance south of Capraro’s force was a group of about 45 Marines under the 1st Marine Division motor transport officer, Major Henry ‘Pop’ Seeley. A fifth, very small group under the Marine division’s personnel officer, Colonel Harvey Walseth, turned itself around after dark and slowly fought its way toward Koto-ri. When Walseth’s vehicles were blocked by Baker/Tanks, which was stopped on the roadway, he and his troops dismounted and walked the rest of the way to Koto-ri.
Captain Peckham commanded the only viable infantry increment in the northernmost enclave, but he was not particularly enthused by the quality of the troops, many of them panic-stricken South Korean conscripts who used up the bulk of their ammunition firing at phantoms.
Dirst, the MP section leader, strode up and down the road, pipe in hand, barking curt commands, leaving steady, organized soldiers and Marines in his wake. When he heard troops firing too much precious ammunition, he gently admonished the offenders, telling them that they had only to fight through to daybreak to draw the awesome support of Marine warplanes and hopefully, ground reinforcements. In the end, however, Dirst was shot through the head and had to be placed in a roadside ditch to await treatment.Another steady hand was McLaughlin, who left no doubt as to who was in command or how the defense was to be conducted. As ammunition supplies dwindled, McLaughlin personally collected rounds from the dead and wounded and distributed them to the men who seemed most composed. Sometime after midnight, the remnants of the two Baker/31 platoons that had been trapped south of the McLaughlin enclave managed to work their way into the larger perimeter, a welcome reinforcement despite the panicked condition of the troops and the limited supplies of ammunition they brought.
There was a brief lull for Capraro’s embattled force when voices from the dark called upon Capraro to surrender his men in return for good treatment. After a few insults had been exchanged, the Chinese mentioned that three PLA regiments were deployed on the heights and that continued resistance was pointless. Capraro roared back a curt ‘Hell no!’ and prepared to meet renewed assaults.
Peckham, in McLaughlin’s enclave, was reduced to handing out rifle bullets two and three at a time. Many of Peckham’s South Korean infantrymen had drifted away totally. In time, he counted less than a dozen effectives under his command.
A Chinese political officer who spoke good English asked a number of captives being held on the ridgeline overlooking the MSR if one of their number would act as an intermediary carrying a surrender offer. Sergeant Guillermo Tovar, an MP, asked Major James Eagen, the wounded 1st Marine Division assistant supply officer, if he should do so. Eagen assented and Tovar stood up to be led to the roadway.
The Chinese fire nearly ceased as Tovar passed through the American line and explained his mission to McLaughlin. The two climbed the railway embankment and met three Chinese who were standing on the tracks, ready to make a deal. If McLaughlin surrendered, the Chinese promised, the wounded would be returned to friendly lines. McLaughlin asked for time to discuss the offer with his officers, to which the Chinese agreed.
While McLaughlin was on the railway embankment, a PLA officer, accompanied by an American soldier who had been captured earlier, approached Peckham. The Chinese told Peckham that he would be well treated if he surrendered. Peckham gave the man a pack of cigarettes and suggested he take it to his superior–if the Chinese commander gave up, Peckham audaciously vowed, he would see that the PLA troops were fed and well treated.
McLaughlin returned to the roadside ditch to find the wounded Chidester. They discussed the Chinese terms, then Chidester reluctantly urged McLaughlin to accept them.While Chidester and McLaughlin were reaching their decision, the PLA officer who had taken Peckham’s cigarettes returned with a message from his superior: if the Americans did not lay down their arms within 15 minutes, a full regiment would mount an assault. Peckham asked for time to get word to all his troops, then set all hands at destroying their weapons.
The Chinese agreed to allow Tovar to carry a verbal message to ‘Pop’ Seeley. McLaughlin instructed Tovar to tell Seeley to stall for as long as he could; there was a chance that the entire force could be saved at daybreak, less than an hour hence.
Next, McLaughlin told the Chinese political officer, ‘We are not surrendering because you beat us. We are surrendering to get our wounded cared for. If we can’t get our wounded evacuated, we will fight on.’
Seeley, in the meantime, had assumed from the start that a relief expedition would be mounted from Hagaru-ri or Koto-ri at first light. For now, he thought the Chinese were being held back; the greatest threat seemed to come from the dank, subzero chill. Troop leaders constantly checked their subordinates and one another for signs of frostbite, and reminded all hands to keep their limbs in constant motion. The ammunition supply was another constant worry, for Seeley commanded mainly headquarters people who normally carried very few bullets.
When Seeley heard Tovar yelling his name in the dark, he ordered his troops to cease firing. Tovar approached and asked Seeley to accompany him into a field on the east side of the road. There he told the major what was going on and about McLaughlin’s desire to stall for as long as possible.
Farther on, the two Americans were met by two Chinese who spoke no English but nevertheless made it clear that Seeley was to have his troops put down their weapons and advance with their hands up. As the exchange was winding down, Major Eagen, who the Chinese had carried down from the heights, spoke out of the darkness and asked Seeley to come talk. Eagen, severely wounded in both legs, told Seeley everything he knew about McLaughlin’s situation and the PLA offer. He had seen the Chinese setting up heavy mortars on the roadway, so he urged Seeley to surrender. This was Seeley’s first inkling as to the size of the PLA force, but he still wanted to wait until dawn, which might bring relief.
Eagen was pleading the case of the many wounded when the Chinese interrupted the exchange. It was clear from their hand signs that they wanted a decision. Seeley asked Eagen to stall them, then walked back to his enclave by the river. He told Sergeant Tovar to ask McLaughlin to stall while he and his troops dug in more securely. He was not going to give in. By then, however, the Chinese were disarming McLaughlin’s people, only 40 of whom were capable of putting up further resistance.
Seeley was next approached by Warrant Officer Dee Yancey, who reported that he had reconnoitered the adjacent Changjin River and found that it was solid ice. There seemed to be no Chinese fire coming from the far shore, so Yancey suggested that the group break out. Seeley readily agreed.
The entire group, including the wounded, started west across the river toward a ridge that might provide good cover. Capraro’s force joined Seeley’s west of the river, and their men also came upon two seriously wounded Marines who had been lost on patrol three days earlier. Seeley’s group struggled up to the ridge, clambered over the top and turned south toward Koto-ri at an agonizingly slow pace.
Seeley’s group was out of sight of the Chinese on the MSR before sunrise, but Seeley heard voices and Chinese bugles approaching form the rear. Yancey, who had suffered painful shrapnel wounds in both legs and back, dropped behind as the first Chinese came over the ridge. A former Marine Corps rifle team shooter, Yancey quickly dropped two Chinese point men while the remainder of the American group scrambled down the slope. The Chinese patrol went to ground, and Yancey followed his countrymen, all of whom reached Koto-ri.
True to their word, the Chinese began assembling wounded captives, but only after they had disarmed the survivors and stolen every scrap of food they could winnow from the pockets and packs of the men facing an uncertain future in captivity–or in some cased, left behind in a hut. Most of the wounded were eventually returned to Koto-ri. Some, including Lloyd Dirst, succumbed to their wounds. Arthur Chidester and James Eagen were not repatriated with the other wounded, and no one ever saw either of them again. Several captives, including Guillermo Tovar, escaped while helping prepare the wounded for return to Koto-ri.
Of roughly 1,200 men involved in the tragedy on the MSR, 162 remain officially listed as killed or missing. Another 159 were wounded and repatriated. More than 300 American and British troops were marched off to prison camps. Of those, 18 Marines escaped the following spring. About two dozen Britons and several dozen American soldiers and Marines went to ground in the hills, cut off from friendly bases but determined to await rescue. Most of them were eventually saved. Of the 141 vehicles committed to the operation, 75 percent were destroyed.
If nothing else came of Task Force Drysdale’s disastrous run down the Chinese gauntlet, it strengthened a working bond between the U.S. and Royal marines that would serve both as they regrouped to fight their way out of the trap that was closing around them. The wounded Colonel Drysdale was among the survivors who made it to Hagaru-ri, but 41 Commando had suffered 61 casualties, which would increase to 93 before it and the bulk of the X Corps completed their ‘advance in another direction to reach the relative safety of Hungnam on the night of December 10, 1950.
After being evacuated to South Korea, 41 Commando was withdrawn to Japan to be reconstituted in January 1951. Before it departed, Colonel Drysdale’s report included some comments on his unit’s collaboration with the U.S. Marines: ‘This was the first time that the Marines of the two nations had fought side by side since the defense of the Peking Legations in 1900. Let it be said that the admiration of all ranks of 41 Commando for their brothers in arms was and is unbounded. They fought like tigers and their morale and esprit de corps is second to none’
As for the impression that the Royal Marines made on their American colleagues, one U.S. Marine spoke for most, if not all survivors of the ‘Frozen Chosin': ‘I walked into Hagaru from Yudam-ni where I learned that the British had supplied us with a fighting force. Before that we laughed at the words `U.N. Forces’ because we had not seen the troops of any other nation except the Chinese. I was delighted to meet the British. When they came around you could stop looking for a fight, because they would be right in the middle of it….’
This article was written by Eric Hammel for Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!