Surrounded and outnumbered, U.S. Army Soldiers battled Chinese troops in desperate combat at Chosin Reservoir.
In November 1950, five months after the Korean War began with communist North Korea’s June 25 invasion of democratic South Korea, two United Nations forces composed primarily of U.S. Soldiers and Marines crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea. (See Korea, November 1950 map, p. 28.) Their objective was to finish off the battered North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), advance to the Yalu River border with China, and unify the Korean peninsula under South Korea’s rule. In the heady afterglow of the stunning September 15 amphibious landing at Inchon that, in a stroke, had turned the tide of the war, Supreme U.N. Commander General of the Army Douglas MacArthur remained confident that China would not risk a military intervention.
However, Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong, who had tacitly supported North Korea’s invasion of the South, was not about to allow the communist buffer state on China’s Manchurian border to be defeated. When U.N. forces moved across the 38th parallel – long before they neared the Yalu River border – Mao considered the movement tantamount to a declaration of war on China. Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), including a number of experienced combat veterans of the recently concluded (1949) Chinese Civil War, began marching south toward the border. On October 16, 1950, CCF’s 124th Division of 42d Army crossed the Yalu. China had entered the Korean War.
Tens of thousands of CCF troops infiltrated into North Korea, hid in the rugged terrain, and awaited the order to launch a massive offensive against the U.N. forces’ two-pronged advance on the Yalu. The western prong consisted of Lieutenant General Walton Walker’s U.S. 8th Army, backed by Republic of Korea (ROK) divisions and units of other U.N. nations. The eastern prong, vulnerably separated from Walker’s army by the Korean peninsula’s mountainous central spine, was Major General Edward M. “Ned” Almond’s U.S. X Corps, which consisted of three American divisions – 3d Infantry Division, 7th Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division – and two ROK divisions.
As late as November 24, and despite the fact that U.N. units had been bloodied in heavy fighting earlier that month against Chinese forces on both sides of the peninsula, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, Major General Charles Willoughby, estimated that no more than 34,000 Chinese “volunteers” were fighting with NKPA units. Moreover, the Chinese soldiers thus far engaged were assumed to be merely stragglers or remnants fleeing back north across the border and therefore of no consequence. In fact, there were 10 times more Chinese troops in North Korea than Willoughby had estimated. CCF forces south of the Yalu had grown to 300,000 troops in 30 infantry divisions, plus artillery, cavalry and support units. The 180,000-strong CCF 13th Army Group was preparing to strike Walker’s 8th Army, while the 120,000-man CCF 9th Army Group was waiting to hit Almond’s X Corps.
Expecting to face only token resistance, Almond had fragmented X Corps’ five divisions across an extended, 500-mile front in northeast Korea’s rugged terrain. Most of his U.S. and ROK units were entirely focused on racing to the Yalu River, unaware that the CCF was about to strike. When Major General Oliver P. “O.P.” Smith protested that his 1st Marine Division was becoming too dispersed, Almond dismissed the concern as Smith merely being overly cautious. Almond also put heavy pressure on another X Corps unit, the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division commanded by Major General David G. Barr, to reach the Yalu in force as rapidly as possible. Barr and his staff, fully aware that Almond had been dissatisfied with the division’s performance during the September Inchon landings, were desperate to excel in the corps commander’s eyes.
When MacArthur’s staff suggested X Corps’ mission might be altered to a main attack to the west – moving closer to Walker’s 8th Army – with only minimum forces advancing to the Yalu, Almond instead convinced MacArthur to approve a revised plan still focused on reaching the river. This plan called for a November 27 attack in which Smith’s 1st Marine Division would advance from the west side of Chosin Reservoir and swing north to the Yalu, while 7th Infantry Division, after relieving the Marine units on the reservoir’s east side, would attack on Smith’s right flank and advance to the Yalu. Meanwhile, 3d Infantry Division would have the dual mission of providing rear security for the Wonsan-Hamhung corps base area on the Sea of Japan coast and sending a force to advance northward on Smith’s left flank.
Barr’s 7th Division, however, was totally unprepared to launch an attack on November 27, since 17th and 32d infantry regiments – two-thirds of the division’s combat strength – were 80 air miles from the reservoir and probably twice that distance by road. It would take days to redeploy the infantry regiments, along with their artillery and armor support, over the miserable clogged roads in brutally cold weather and prepare them for a major offensive. Barr’s attack was postponed, but only for one day; he was ordered to strike on November 28 with whatever 7th Division forces were available. Furthermore, when Smith wisely refused to launch his attack until 7th Division units could relieve 5th Marine Regiment from its positions on the reservoir’s east side so it could join the rest of his division, Almond – anxious to get the corps’ advance moving – ordered Barr to rush his closest available units to relieve 5th Marines.
Brigadier General Hank Hodes, 7th Division’s assistant commander, would manage the redeployment to the east side of Chosin Reservoir from his command post (CP) at Hagaru-ri. However, since the bulk of the units would be from the division’s third infantry regiment, Colonel Allan MacLean’s 31st Regiment, MacLean would exercise tactical command.
Under Hodes’ ad hoc redeployment plan, Task Force (TF) MacLean consisted of two of 31st Regiment’s three infantry battalions – 2d Battalion, 31st Infantry (2/31), and 3d Battalion, 31st Infantry (3/31) – plus Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith Jr.’s 1st Battalion, 32d Infantry (1/32) attached from 32d Regiment. Supporting TF MacLean’s infantry regiments would be 57th Field Artillery Battalion (105 mm howitzers); eight self-propelled anti-aircraft vehicles (mounting 40 mm cannon and .50- caliber heavy machine guns) of Company D, 15th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion; 31st Heavy Mortar Company; and 31st Tank Company (22 medium tanks). TF MacLean would number about 3,200 men, 700 of them attached ROK troops.
Moving north toward the east side of Chosin Reservoir over jammed, precarious and icy roads, TF MacLean made slow and difficult progress. Faith’s 1/32, whose starting position was closest to the reservoir, arrived first. However, MacLean’s other units remained strung out in an 8-mile-long column on the road from Hamhung on the coast to Hagaru-ri. After relieving the men of 5th Marines and occupying their positions – the farthest ones north on that side of the reservoir – Faith’s battalion was dangerously exposed and unsupported.
Even though more task force units were only slowly arriving east of Chosin, MacLean went forward and confirmed to Faith that their attack would go on as planned the next morning, November 28, spearheaded by Faith’s 1/32. Yet still absent from TF MacLean was 2/31 – one-third of the task force’s infantry strength – while 31st Tank Company remained well south of Hagaru-ri. Moreover, due to deplorable communications, the task force had no radio contact with either 7th Division headquarters or Smith’s 1st Marine Division CP.
Meanwhile, since Faith’s infantry battalion had relieved 5th Marines, Smith had been able to launch 1st Marine Division in its attack from Yudam-ni on November 27, but it was quickly halted by huge concentrations of Chinese troops. Smith’s advance had run into units that were part of six Chinese divisions deployed around the reservoir preparing to begin the CCF’s massive counteroffensive with a surprise attack on the night of November 27-28. The Chinese plan was to hit the widely dispersed X Corps units everywhere simultaneously, isolate them and then destroy them piecemeal. In the Chosin Reservoir area, three CCF divisions (59th, 79th and 89th) targeted the Marines west of the reservoir, while two more (58th and 60th) attacked farther south to isolate the Chosin area and cut off any retreat. CCF 80th Division’s mission was to attack what the Chinese thought would be Marines on the reservoir’s east side but actually was TF MacLean. In zero-degree weather, the Chinese prepared to strike that night.
Unknown to Faith or anyone in TF MacLean, CCF 80th Division had encircled the task force earlier that evening. At about 10 p.m., 80th Division, reinforced by an additional infantry regiment, launched its attack. Blowing whistles, bugles and horns and shooting flares, Chinese troops stormed American positions in massive waves, firing small arms and mortars, throwing grenades and screaming wildly. Occupying the most exposed of TF MacLean’s positions, Faith’s 1/32 was hard hit in heavy fighting, suffering 100 casualties in combat that raged all night. Early on November 28, Faith’s troops rallied and inflicted severe losses upon the attackers, aided after daybreak by Marine airstrikes called in by Captain Edward Stamford, the Marine forward air controller (FAC) attached to Faith’s battalion.
After fighting all night, MacLean assessed the situation facing the task force on November 28. Although 1/32 had suffered heavy losses, MacLean felt it had come through in “pretty good shape.” He was unable to reach his other units by radio but nevertheless remained “reasonably optimistic.” Two miles south of Faith’s battalion, 3/31 along with two artillery batteries had hurriedly created a perimeter on poor defensive ground. As a result, the Chinese attack had overrun most of the perimeter before withdrawing at dawn. No one totaled the casualties inside the 3/31- artillery perimeter, but they were heavy. One support unit, 31st Medical Company, was overrun and wiped out.
Hodes, whose CP farther south had not been assaulted, awoke on the morning of November 28 to the sound of heavy gunfire to the north, unaware that TF MacLean had been hit with an all-out attack. Indeed, TF MacLean’s vastly outnumbered Soldiers didn’t know it yet, but they had held off thousands of CCF troops who, had they overrun the task force, might very well have continued on and struck the thinly defended perimeter at Hagaru-ri.
Upon realizing that something had gone terribly wrong, Hodes ordered Captain Robert Drake to push north with his 31st Tank Company. Drake set off at 10 a.m. with 16 tanks, while Hodes followed behind in a jeep. As the column moved north, it encountered difficult terrain. The ground was icy in some places, causing tanks to skid out of control, but was mushy in others, causing them to become mired. CCF troops unexpectedly attacked the column with American-made 3.5-inch bazookas, knocking out two of Drake’s tanks. Two others became hopelessly mired and were abandoned. Without infantry or air support, Drake saw no way of getting through and thus called off the advance. Drake, Hodes and the 12 remaining tanks returned to Hodes’ CP. When they arrived, Hodes borrowed a tank and rode to Hagaru-ri to seek help.
On the morning of November 28, Almond flew to the reservoir area to confer with his commanders. Because of the Marines’ setback at Yudam-ni the previous day, he canceled the Marine offensive. However, he then flew to Faith’s 1/32 perimeter and notified Faith and MacLean that the task force, despite its casualties and dangerous situation, would still attack northward the next day, after the expected arrival of 2/31. “The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of Chinese divisions fleeing north,” Almond told them. “We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu. Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.”
At midnight on November 28, the CCF again attacked TF MacLean. The fighting raged inside both 1/32’s and 3/31’s perimeters, and the combat was savage and close, often hand to hand. At 2 a.m., MacLean, still with Faith inside 1/32’s forward perimeter, decided to withdraw Faith’s battalion in the darkness and move south into 3/31’s perimeter in a temporary measure to consolidate forces. Once 2/31 arrived as expected the next day, MacLean planned to attack north as Almond had ordered. However, at dawn when the 1/32 column reached high ground overlooking 3/31’s perimeter, MacLean and Faith were stunned to find the perimeter under heavy attack by the CCF. One of Faith’s Soldiers later recalled it as a “scene of total devastation.”
In the confusion, as Faith and MacLean were fighting their way into 3/31’s perimeter, MacLean mistook a column of CCF troops advancing from the south to be his overdue 2/31. When the troops inside the perimeter began firing upon the advancing column, MacLean, believing his men were firing upon one another, ran forward to stop the gunfire and was shot several times by CCF troops. He was captured and died of his wounds four days later en route to a prisoner of war camp.
Faith and his men finally fought their way into 3/31’s perimeter, only to encounter a ghastly mess. Hundreds of frozen bodies – Chinese, American and Korean – lay intermingled amid the wreckage of battle, the ground too frozen for burial. In MacLean’s absence, Faith assumed command of the consolidated forces. After search parties were unable to find MacLean, the task force became Task Force Faith.
That same morning, November 29, Drake, after gathering about 50 rear-echelon troops to act as infantry for his 12 tanks, made a second attempt to break through to the task force four miles to the north. Unfortunately for that effort, CCF soldiers were well dug in on Hill 1221, high ground that dominated a position where the road made a hairpin curve. The Chinese killed about half of Drake’s men. When airstrikes were misdirected and his 12 tanks again skidded and mired, Drake conceded defeat and once again withdrew. That night, however, TF Faith’s exhausted men were given something of a respite. Although Chinese probing attacks and attempts to infiltrate the perimeter lasted throughout the night, the enemy force did not launch a general, coordinated attack. Instead, it may have been pillaging Faith’s abandoned perimeter two miles to the north.
On the evening of November 30, the troops of TF Faith prepared to face a fourth straight night of heavy Chinese attacks. Reeling from the harsh, subzero cold, the men of 1/32 and 3/31 were in poor shape, exhausted, hungry and frozen. Casualty numbers continued to rise. Because of faulty airdrops, the units remained critically short of 40 mm and .50- caliber ammunition for their all-important AAA vehicles – although designed to engage aircraft, the AAA weapons were devastating when employed against enemy foot soldiers. Frigid Siberian winds froze weapons and food and cracked mortar tubes. That day, Barr had visited the task force and had given the men the bad news: all X Corps forces were withdrawing in the face of the massive CCF offensive; TF Faith was now under the operational control of Smith’s hard-pressed 1st Marine Division, which had no available help to offer; 2/31 would not arrive at all; and Faith and his men would have to fight their way back to Hagaru-ri. Although Faith remained optimistic that the task force could fight its way out, the reality of the situation was grim – and about to get grimmer.
The ugly fate of TF Faith had been decided that afternoon. At 4 p.m., a message from Hodes had arrived announcing that all troops in his CP, including Drake’s tanks, were withdrawing south immediately. That left the task force completely on its own, with no one to aid its breakout south through Chinese lines. Without outside help – particularly tanks – TF Faith’s chances of escaping the Chinese encirclement were now slim to none.
CCF 80th Division, again heavily reinforced, attacked at 8 p.m. on November 30, hitting TF Faith’s perimeter at several points. The fighting escalated as the night wore on, causing one task force survivor to remark that he believed the enemy had been ordered to take the perimeter “at any cost.” The Chinese assaults almost destroyed it during that night and into the morning of December 1, leaving TF Faith in an increasingly perilous situation with its number of wounded rising to nearly 600. Convinced that the task force couldn’t survive another major attack, Faith decided to make a break for Hagaru-ri and instructed his subordinate commanders to prepare to move out at noon. Marine FAC Stamford would radio for close air support. Once it arrived, the task force would begin moving south, taking all of the wounded in about 30 two-and-a-half-ton trucks.
TF Faith’s perilous journey wouldn’t be an easy one. Two miles south of the perimeter stood the formidable Chinese positions on Hill 1221 at the road’s hairpin turn. The enemy also had blown two bridges and erected two roadblocks, which made getting past Hill 1221 even more dangerous. Due to acute ammunition shortages, Faith’s column would include only four AAA vehicles – one 40 mm gun vehicle at the head of the task force’s column and one at the tail of it, and two .50-caliber heavy machine gun vehicles in the middle.
The first of the Marine aircraft, which would remain with the convoy until dark, arrived about an hour late. Faith’s column moved out at 1 p.m.; however, it immediately came under fire. Stamford directed Marine air support, but the lead plane’s napalm canisters mistakenly exploded near the front of Faith’s column, immolating 12 Americans and creating panic throughout the task force.
As the Chinese poured in fire from the high ground, taking a dreadful toll upon the task force’s drivers and the wounded, the column halted at a destroyed bridge. The tracked AAA vehicles were able to bypass the barricade, but only one wheeled truck at a time could be winched up the steep slope to the other side – a grueling two-hour task. The CCF moved closer and clustered around the column, pouring rifle and machine-gun fire into the exposed trucks. A little farther south, the column was stopped by a Chinese roadblock. A group of Faith’s Soldiers, under the command of several wounded officers, stormed the Chinese positions and, despite heavy losses, managed to gain valuable time for the task force.
By then, however, it was almost dark and the lights of Hagaru-ri could be seen in the distance over the ice-covered reservoir. Faith, a pillar of strength throughout the ordeal, gathered several hundred men, charged a Chinese roadblock and dispersed the enemy. However, during this action Faith was mortally wounded by enemy grenade fragments. His men managed to prop him up on the hood of his jeep, and the column began moving again.
Despite the heroic efforts of the few remaining officers, the task force began to come apart. When the column confronted another blown bridge, more unwounded men, leaving the stranded convoy behind, began moving out over the ice with the intention of walking to Hagaru-ri. By dark, TF Faith had ceased to exist. The area between the stalled column and any hope of safety was alive with CCF troops, who intensified their fire and began hurling phosphorus grenades into the trucks. Faith, who was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, remained with his men and died in the cold.
Behind the men escaping across the ice lay a long line of trucks blazing furiously. All that night, shattered remnants of TF Faith trickled into Hagaru-ri, and by dawn 670 Soldiers had been taken to the hospital or warming tents. Smith organized a Marine task force that moved north and rescued another 319 men, most of them suffering from combat wounds or frostbite. Of TF Faith’s 1,050 survivors who reached Hagaruri, only 385 were able-bodied. After air evacuation of wounded and frostbitten troops, about 500 7th Division Soldiers accompanied 1st Marine Division during its fighting withdrawal from Hagaru-ri to the port of Hungnam, where X Corps was evacuated by sea.
The vastly outnumbered men of TF Faith did not die in vain. Fighting off repeated heavy attacks for four days and nights in horrendous arctic conditions, they destroyed an entire CCF division and prevented any Chinese attack south that might have totally blocked the Marines’ withdrawal route.
For decades, Faith’s remains lay in an unmarked grave in North Korea. However, they were recovered and positively identified in October 2012, nearly 62 years after the battle. In April 2013, Faith was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
John Walker is a freelance writer, former paratrooper and Vietnam veteran from San Diego. Between writing projects he is working toward a master’s degree in American history from his alma mater, San Diego State University, as well as a book project on the U.S. Army at Chosin Reservoir.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armchair General.