Since the surprise assault at Inchon in September 1950, the North Korean Army was in a northward retreat. United Nations forces had not only regained lost South Korean territory but were pushing farther up the peninsula, closing in on what seemed certain victory. But on 25 October, Chinese communist forces entered the war, pouring across the border in overwhelming numbers.
The situation rapidly deteriorated, and many U.N. units found themselves in serious trouble. Among those was the 1st Marine Division, then commanded by Major General O. P. Smith and located near a reservoir in northeast Korea known to the Koreans as “Changjin.” Because the Marines were relying on older Japanese maps that called the reservoir “Chosin,” that name found its way into the history books.
Surrounded, these Marines alternately attacked enemy territory and defended their own for several days while enduring incredibly harsh winter conditions that included temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. Casualties included a number of intestinal problems caused by eating frozen C-rations.
When the time came to fight their way out and return to the sea at the port of Hungnam, General Smith refused to call the action a retreat, referring to it instead as an “attack to the rear.” With six squadrons of Marine Corsairs providing air cover, some 14,000 men and more than 1,000 vehicles formed a procession that stretched more than 11 miles.
Forming the rear guard were two battalions commanded by Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, whose courage under fire was already legendary. Having missed the fighting in World War I despite his efforts to participate, Puller made up for that disappointment by seeing action in Haiti and Nicaragua before landing at Guadalcanal in World War II, where he saw heavy combat and earned a number of decorations. In subsequent battles, including the meat grinder at Peleliu—one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history—Puller’s reputation as a tenacious, courageous leader was well established.
He lived up to his colorful reputation in Korea, first during the Inchon landing, where he earned a Silver Star, and then in the Chosin action. Encouraging the Marines with his personal example and with his words, he urged them on despite hellacious combat and horrific weather conditions. Coming from him, words like “You’re the 1st Marine Division and don’t you forget it” were more than mere bravado. When he told the Marines, “We’re the greatest military outfit that ever walked on this earth,” few, if any, doubted him. And his words proved prophetic as well as inspiring, when he said, “Not all the communists in Hell can stop you. We’ll go down to the sea at our own pace and nothing is going to get in our way. If it does, we’ll blow hell out of it.”
And down to the sea they indeed went. When this “attack to the rear” was complete, the Marines had lost 718 men killed in action. Intelligence estimates numbered the Chinese dead at more than 25,000—coupled with their wounded, an attrition rate of more than 50 percent. In subzero winter conditions, the Marines had destroyed no less than seven divisions of the Chinese Ninth Army Group, and had provided the Corps and the nation with a much-needed morale boost in those dark days when a certain victory was suddenly transformed into a major setback that would portend a long and frustrating continuation of the war.
For his actions at Chosin, Chesty Puller was awarded the Navy Cross, an impressive achievement under any circumstances, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was his fifth—a record that still stands to this day.