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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 2

Welcome back to our two-part series, The Greatest Battle of the Korean War. If you haven't already, check out part 1 here.

The battle

There were 13,000 Marines right there around the shores of this lake, which is by this point, frozen solid. The Marines were surrounded by 10 to 1 in many parts of the battlefield by the Chinese who had, to their credit, very successfully lured the Marines up into this area. Once fully surrounded, on November 27th, 1950 the Chinese attacked.

They only attacked at night because they were terrified of the American airpower. So around midnight, the Chinse came over the hills in waves banging their drums and whistling toward the Marines.

Imagine being in a sleeping bag in the dark, freezing, and all of a sudden hearing thousands of voices coming from all around the slopes above you screaming:

"Marines tonight you die!"

As the attacks came, the Marines were holding on by a thread trying to absorb them all night. Then by sunrise, the attacks stopped and the Chinese sort of disappeared back into the hills and the Marines wouldn't see them until the next night. This went on for a week until the Marines figured out their next move.

During this week both Marines and Chinese were dying left and right. Foxholes were too difficult to dig because the soil was frozen solid. This created a scene where all you saw were dead bodies piled together, frozen. Desperate, the Marines used these frozen corpses as sandbags to absorb the howling wind and the flood of bullets.

The Chinese kept coming, wave after wave, like something you would see out of a zombie movie. Mao treated his men like cannon fire, using everyone to ensure victory. Eventually, the Marines ran out of bullets and primal fighting took over, using shovels, bayonets, knives, and bare hands to fight in the unforgiving -20 degree weather.

There were many heroes during this fight, one of them being Captain William Barber of Fox Company. Barber and his company managed to hold a critical hill and a vital road for several days. Even though he was badly wounded in the leg, he kept moving amongst his men's foxholes, keeping them sharp and focused. Barber's company took a massive loss, only 82 out of the 220 original men remained effective. However, they did bring the hammer down on the enemy. According to his Metal of Honor citation, Barber's

"heroic command accounted for approximately 1,000 enemies dead in this epic stand in sub-zero weather."

17 days after the battle, American leadership realized they needed to get out, and the march to Yalu was not going to happen. Now came the question of how to retreat. The Marines hated to use this word and the American leadership had to choose their words wisely.

This is when General Smith famously said,

"We're not retreating, we're simply attacking in another direction."

This wasn't necessarily a lie because the Marines were surrounded so movement in any direction would be considered an attack. Finally, it was decided the Marines would exit North Korea via the port of Hungnam. The only issue was that this port was 70 miles away and there was only one road that could take them there, the road they used to get into North Korea.

To do this, the Marines had to retake a place called Toktong Pass.

A group of Marines ended up having this epic march through a blinding blizzard and captured two important places, Hill 1542 and Hill 1419, which allowed the remaining Marines to continue south. Using everything they had, the Marines recaptured Toktong Pass on December 2, reaching Hagarui-ri the next day.

However, they were not out of the woods yet. They had to be more resourceful and determined to fend off more Chinese attacks in a place called Hell Fire Valley and bridge a road through a pass known as Funchilin Pass.

During this time, Chief Marine Engineer, a man named Partridge became an unsought hero. Patridge got asked to do something nearly impossible, build a bridge in the middle of a battle.

There were Marines backed up for 10 miles because the Chinese had blown the bridge the Marines needed, thus making them sitting ducks.

So, people flew these huge girders and dropped them by parachute and engineers acted as acrobats, swinging from this precipice, building a bridge while fighting. Under the leadership of Partridge, they got the bridge built in a few short hours and held the bridge long enough for the 13,000 Marines to come out. Once the Marines crossed, they blew the bridge ensuring the Chinese couldn't use it.

On December 11, the last remaining American and UN Forces left Funchilin Pass, and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir had come to a bitter end. Faced with the constant resupply of Chinese troops, the Army and Marines reached Hungnam's port and took part in the largest evacuation by sea in U.S. military history.

The aftermath of the battle

The U.S. X Corps and the Republic of Korea I Corps reported 10,495 casualties during the fighting around Chosin. And the unforgiving cold added another 7,388 Marines to the list of non-battle casualties.

On the Chinese side, the losses were significant as well. While estimates do vary, historians now believe that the Chinese suffered 19,202 casualties and an additional 28,954 non-combat casualties. Keep in mind that throughout the entire Korean War, it is estimated that 36,574 Americans died.

The lasting legacy

The Battle of Chosin Reservoir led to 13 Medals of Honor—10 Marines, 2 Army, and 1 Navy.

The battle is still remembered as one of the signature battles for the United States Marine Corps, and those who fought in the battle became known as the "Frozen Chosin".

There are tons of lessons to take away from the battle. First, it showed how important it is to listen to field officers and people on the ground. The American leadership had the intel and ignored the signs until it was too late.

In addition, it was a diplomatic failure. America didn't recognize Mao as the legit leader of China which didn't help anything considering China was the most populous country on earth at the time. However, aside from the leadership and diplomatic failures, there were numerous heroes that were a product of this horrific battle. The stories of Captain William Barber and Patridge were just a few, and future articles will feature more heroes.


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

5. On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides


Written By: Nathan Payonk

Author of Newsletter: Nathan Payonk

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