The 1st Marine Division in Korea is built around three infantry regiments, the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines. We of the the 7th Marines were to be the “point” of the last drive from Koto-ri down through the Funchilin Pass to Chinhung-ni, and there, we had heard, was freedom—or at least relative freedom.
Since the 7th had three battalions—the 1st, 2d, and 3d—naturally the lineup would be numerical. And since the 1st Battalion had three rifle companies—A, B, and C—naturally, here it would be alphabetical. That wasn’t too bad, because we in Able Company, as the point, would get to walk on the level ground for a short while. They gave us two tanks in support at dawn, and we were off. 1
It wasn’t a bad day, in fact, the sun tried to shine. However, from the very first that morning, I got the funny feeling that something strange was about to happen.
To get a picture of our road, just think of the best highway you can, then imagine it in the worst possible condition, beginning with a width of about ten yards at best down to five yards as an average, and edged by 50 yards of rocks or rice paddy fields and then hills that grew up to be mountains within 150 yards of the road.
Take a couple of hundred huge green parkas, place camouflaged-covered helmets on top of them, give them rifles, carbines (no—you can keep your damn carbines), mortars, light machine guns, and there we are, out on an early morning stroll. We’ve been doing it for a couple of months now, and we’re starting to get in shape. Things are quiet, and we’re all daydreaming except when C Company on our right sees a few Chinese on the skyline—a rare sight, usually it’s just Marines crazy enough for that—and the tanks throw a few 90-mm rounds up into ’em for reveille purposes, and we continue on.
All in all, it’s pretty quiet; the Chinese aren’t throwing in any artillery or mortar rounds as they did on our treks back from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri and then again to Koto-ri. And the thought that we all know that if we don’t run into too much today, we should be down through the pass tomorrow kind of helps the day move along.
Then the thing we had all prayed against during the whole trip down—SNOW! And what snow! And with it came lightning—yes, the manmade lightning of lead flashing across the sky.
We hadn’t gone 100 yards when we hit a frozen stream about 25 yards wide. The first three men to dash across the ice made it, but the fourth was cut in half by automatic fire that sounded about 300 yards up the stream to our right.
The field on the left side of the road was about 3 feet below the road level, so a man who ran at a crouch had a pretty fair defilade. All we needed was a little clearing of the skies, and we could call up our equalizers—air and artillery. I stood in the ditch and tried to look across the road, but no dice. I could see less than 50 yards, and there were no Chinese in sight and no Charlie Company.
A quick radio buzz showed that C Company was holding up, hoping for a break in the snow. Its men could hear automatic weapons to their front but could see nothing but snow, and their artillery forward observer (FO) was going berserk trying to get an estimate of range for his battery of 105s. Normally a quick pass by a Corsair or two or a few artillery rounds and this bottleneck would be no strain. But here the Chinese had us—temporarily. We couldn’t see them, but they knew where we had to come, because our wounded had to be on vehicles that had to be on the road. Thus they used this bridge and river bottleneck for a well-chosen roadblock.
Well, snow or no snow, we couldn’t stay here long. We had to keep driving forward. Up limped the battalion commander, who had been hit in the foot farther back but refused to be evacuated by plane. 2 A glimpse at him and we forgot our own troubles. He looked over the situation and had it solved in a matter of moments. Baker Company would move along our side of the road, and take the high ground our maps showed 250 yards to our left front. Able Company could stay close to the road for 150 yards and then cut across the road to the high ground on the right from which our point was now receiving heavy automatic fire. Then Charlie Company would move out and hit the same piece of terrain from Able’s right flank.
We passed the word to our troops and after a fast cigarette or a chomp on an old cigar, the now-second nature “Move out!” was hardly needed as we started again. The lead platoon had crossed the river with only two casualties when suddenly the Chinese really started blazing. They had us pretty badly pinned down, but only momentarily because we finally got a five-minute break. The snow slowed down to a trot, and we could see through for a good 200 yards. The men in the lead platoon were up en masse with a yell, and they blasted Chinese in all directions.
Over to our right flank was an open valley a good 500 yards long. We could see a single column of at least 250 Chinese slowly filing along toward the high ground Able was slated to take. As the tanks roared up and commenced saturating the valley with .50-caliber slugs, the first artillery white-phosphorous shell landed 50 yards to the left of the column. No strain now—we had ’em cold!
But then the sky dropped to the deck as the rumble of the 105s sounded back in Koto-ri, and we didn’t see another round. The whole thing was like a bad dream. At the same moment, one of our new rifle platoon lieutenants was shot when he was actually in defilade. 3
He was racing in a crouch up to his point when some Chinese sprayed the road haphazardly. The enemy couldn’t have seen his target, but the round found its mark. One—it only takes one—hit a rock on the edge of the road on our side and tore a jagged hole in his parka and his heart, and before we could yell for our last corpsman, he was no longer with us. His platoon sergeant looked pretty badly shaken up for a moment, but he had his men take a quick look, single file, and then they charged up over the road and across it into this rice paddy valley.
They headed for the high ground paralleling the road about 50 yards on the right. By now the Chinese were aware of our moving up. They were throwing fire in all directions, and hand grenades were punctuating the sound of their automatic weapons.
As our point started up to the high ground, the snow slowed down for another five-minute break, and that’s all we needed. The hillside seemed alive with men’s arms—every Chinese in the world was throwing hand grenades! These concussion grenades bark big and bite small, usually. And in a moment their throwers were panicky.
Apparently, they expected a few casualties to turn the whole company back (the company was one in spirit only—we started with 227 men, now had 36), but they were slightly confused when they caught a couple of dozen M-1s firing eight rounds each semi-automatic. They seemed to forget they had fully automatic weapons of their own. We reached the top of this square summit that measured about 50 yards on all sides, just as the Chinese reinforcements filing in from the west arrived. Well-placed machine-gun and mortar rounds cut their Mao Tse-tungian banzai into rice-like pieces, and our riflemen rolled grenades down on ’em for a little further discouragement.
As our most hated enemy, darkness, stifled us, we pulled our numerically meager troops back about 15 yards from the perimeter and passed the word to shoot the Chinese as they charged over the crest of the hill. This worked well, because our prayers stopped the falling snow, and the khaki-covered enemy made a beautiful contrast with the bright snowy deck. They rushed time and time again throughout the night, but good, slightly frozen Marine fingers on good M-1s picked them off like targets on a stateside rifle range. With the clearing of the skies, our artillery FOs started their radios buzzing and the situation was no longer in doubt.
To me, this was the turning point in our breakout. We now had the high ground at the top of the pass above Chinghung-ni, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines was on its way clearing a path up from the bottom of the pass, and our so-called “withdrawal” was just a matter of time now.
The Chinese had had their chance and muffed it, or, more accurately, we muffed it for them. We moved on to the pass itself at dawn, met the 1st Battalion, and it was relatively all over but the shouting—which we were too cold and tired to accomplish. I only hope that we who were fortunate enough to survive this breakout will ever be blessed with the privilege of upholding the honor of these men among men—the chosen Marines of the Chosin Reservoir—the “Cold Breed.”
2. The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines’ commander was MAJ Webb Sawyer. Though wounded two days earlier while serving as executive officer of the regiment’s 2d Battalion, Sawyer had taken over the 1st Battalion after its commander was promoted to regimental XO.
3. 1LT Leslie C. Williams.