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A column of troops and armor of the 1st Marine Division move through communist Chinese lines during their successful breakout from the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Photo by: Corporal Peter McDonald, USMC

The Greatest Battle of the Korean War: Part 1


The Korean War is usually overlooked by many Americans but this "forgotten" war played a critical role in shaping the world we know today. In addition, one of the most heroic and brutal military operations in American history took place during this time, in the bitter cold and snowy mountains deep in North Korea. An elite, legendary group of fighters were a product of this military operation who became known as the "Frozen Chosin.", and their military operation was the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

How did the Korean War start?

Before talking about the "Frozen Chosin" and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir let's dive into the Korean War as a whole.

In September and October 1950, the Americans and United Nations are confident as they just captured Seoul, believing the war is all but over. To better understand the situation, we have to backtrack to the aftermath of World War II. After World War II the Allied forces were responsible for the assets of the Japanese Empire, and Korea was one of those assets, being a colony of Imperial Japan.

The Soviets got into the discussion a bit late and were interested in the Northern part of Korea, and the Americans were interested in the South. Both nations decided to cut the country in half, the Soviets taking everything above the 38th Parallel and the allies taking everything below it. The idea would be to have elections and reunite, allowing Koreans to decide their own fate, but this hope quickly evaporated.

Here is a map to give you a visual aid. Everything below the red line is controlled by the U.S. and everything above it is controlled by the Soviets.

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Picture Caption: Korean region along with Manchuria. The red line indicates the 38th Parallel where the Soviets and Allied Forces decided to spilt the region. The Soviets control the North until Manchuria and the Allies control the South, below the red line. / (US Army Richard Steward)

The North became a spitting image of the Soviet Union, as Kim, the current grandfather of the current Kim studied under Stalin. He deployed an authoritarian dictatorship similar to Stalin and built his army with Soviet tanks and Soviet artillery.

Meanwhile, in the South, The United States was the custodian nation, but they weren't strengthening South Korea very well. In part, we were interested in South Korea because it was so close to Japan so it made sense to have a good relationship with them.

Unfortunately, all hell broke loose on June 25, 1950, when Kim Il-Sung darts across the border and takes Seoul. He ends up pushing the South Korean Army almost to the very end of the Peninsula, Busan (also spelled Pusan during this time).

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Photo Caption: Busan (Pusan) circled to red showing how far the South Koreans were pushed back by Kim Il-Sung. / (US Army, Richard Steward)

The US entered this war to defend the South Koreans, and we held on by the skin of their teeth for a few months in the summer of 1950. Finally, we went all in by invading the Port of Incheon in September of 1950 and retaking Seoul. We forced Kim Il-Sung's soldiers all the way back to the 38th Parallel.

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Photo Caption: Turning point in the war, The Americans capture Seoul, and push the Soviets and North Koreans back to the 38th Parallel / (US Amry, Richard Steward).

If the Americans stopped right here, at the 38th Parallel, it would have been a three-month war and they would have accomplished their goals. Millions of lives would have been spared and it would have looked like a great success.

But we got greedy. We pushed beyond the 38th Parallel and decided to do in reverse what Kim had done, which was take all of the Peninsula. We pushed all the way up to the Yalu River, the border with Manchuria, and we woke up a beast we shouldn't have—China.

Their leader Mao, who recently won his Civil War and controlled the most populous country on Earth decided to get his hands dirty by entering into the Korean conflict.

The lead-up to the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

At the time, Army General Douglas MacArthur was in charge and didn't understand what was happening on the ground in North Korea. After the success in Seoul and the invasion of Incheon, he was determined to press forward north.


Photo Caption: General Douglas MacArthur /(NARA)

In September 1950, MacArthur ordered Major General Oliver Smith to take his 1st Marine Division and move out, taking ships around the Peninsula and then up the East Coast of North Korea and land at a place called Hungnam.

Smith and his men were prepared for an advance to the Manchurian Border, 135 miles away. They went through a narrow road into the Mountains of North Korea towards a man-made body of water, a reservoir, the Chosin Reservoir where the battle will eventually take place.

It is important to know that the relationship between the Marines and the rest of the military has always been rocky, and here a group of Marines is being told to do something that their leader, Smith, completely disagrees with.

Smith was no gung-ho Marine. He was a professor, an avid pipe smoker, fluent in French, and the guy who planned the successful landing at Incheon. He was not a huge fan of MacArthur and would bypass his orders from time to time, making it look like he was obeying him.

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Photo Caption: Major General Oliver P. Smith, United States Marine Corps, visits 1st Marine Division cemetery at Ham Hung, Korea in 1950. / (Truman Library)

When it came to the advancement North, Smith thought it was an ambush. He understands his Marines will be squeezed on the narrow road and with the mountains to the left and right of them, they would be sitting ducks.

Smith also knows the Chinese are in the mountains somewhere, but MacArthur had previously denied this claim despite credible intel, going as far as having his lieutenants tamper with a lot of this evidence.

So here you have a guy giving the order to go into the North near Manchuria when there is damning evidence hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers were heading that way.

In the end, Smith decided he didn't want to be accused of insubordination and can't really violate the order. His strategic mind comes up with a way to meet MacArthur halfway—slow down and move the Marines very slowly. However, MacArthur pushed Smith to move his men in the end, and Smith's plan didn't stop the order.

In a conversation between President Truman and MacArthur on October 15, regarding Chinese involvement in the war, MacArthur said:

"They will not enter, don’t worry. They’re not going to enter and even if they do, we’ll slaughter them. Basically, they’re just a bamboo Army. They’re just a peasant Army. We’ve got planes, we’ve got tanks. We got monitor communications. We’re going to kick them back across the Yalu very quickly. It’ll be over by Christmas.”

In a nutshell, both Truman and MacArthur believed the war was won and Chinese involvement would not happen. However, on October 19, the Chinese begin to cross the Yalu in massive numbers.

Meanwhile, the Marines head North and Chinese troops are captured in other parts of Korea. MacArthur and other leaders were informed that these captured men spoke Chinese however, they wrote them off insisting they were North Koreans who spoke Chinese. A few leaders believed they were Chinese, but they thought they were acting alone, not a part of a collective Chinese Army.

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Photo Caption: Chinese prisoners captured by the Marines /National Archives Photo (USMC) 127 N-A5387

In the end, the Chinese army consisting of roughly 120,000 men managed to avoid detection from both the U.S. and the U.N. Despite the fact this was one of the worst intel blunders in American history, one has to give credit to Mao.

Mao was no dummy. He prided himself on being a great military strategist during the Chinese Civil War, and was a study of warfare, reading classics like Sun Tzu. Mao also embraced the element of surprise, guerrilla tactics, marching overland, and avoiding the roads. He believed in moving at night, stealth, and flexibility of movement. His experience will be showcased once the battle of the Chosin Reservoir starts.

Cold as an enemy.

In November the Marines got near the Chosin Reservoir, and the weather changed dramatically. People don't understand how cold it can get in North Korea, but the Marines were facing -20 degrees Fahrenheit with howling winds coming from Manchuria. They were not equipped to withstand such bitter weather.

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Photo Caption: A Marine squad trudges through the snow-encrusted streets of Hagaru-ri. The 7th Marines occupied the town on November 15. By then the weather had turned cold. Weather records indicated that Hagaru-ri could be the coldest spot in North Korea. /Photo by TSgt J. W. Helms, Jr., Department of Defense Photo (USMC) A155763

Their guns would malfunction, vehicles stalled, and artillery wouldn't register well—a crappy situation all around. Furthermore, people started freezing to death and catching hypothermia—affecting anyone's decision-making capabilities. As bad as the Americans had it, the Chinese had it worse.

Many of the Chinese soldiers didn't have gloves, they were wearing tennis shoes, but socks were nowhere to be found. This combination made the perfect formula for freezing to death. Both sides weren't equipped for the brutal cold, and basically, if they didn't continue to move, they froze, whether they were Chinese or American.

However, the Chinese still had the upper hand here because still, they were undetected, and they outnumbered the Americans 10 to 1. There were about 13,000 Marines right around the reservoir which was frozen solid at this point. Furthermore, in the valley, there were another 7,000 to 8,000 Marines. Essentially, the Chinese played a waiting game and slowly surrounded the Marines, waiting for the moment to attack.

This concludes part 1 of "The Greatest Battle of the Korean War". Stay tuned for part 2 and see what happens in the frozen frenzy between the Chinese and the US Marines.


1. The Korean War: The Chinese Intervention, US Army, Richard Steward

2. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir and the Medal of Honor

3. Frozen Chosin: U.S. Marines at the Changjin Reservoir, Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons

4. The Art of Manliness Podcast #510


Written By: Nathan Payonk

Author of Newsletter: Nathan Payonk

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