On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir—the Greatest Battle of the Korean War
For my reading seminar this semester we are studying the 1950s. For the subject of the Korean War, I knew I wanted to read On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides. I have read several other books by Sides, Blood and Thunder, Ghost Soldiers, and Hell Bound on this Trail, and like reading all of these, I was enthralled by this story. I know very little about the Korean War that has been nicknamed the “Forgotten War.” I knew MacArthur’s basic strategy, that he used an amphibious assault to get behind the North Korean Army and was eventually repulsed by the Chinese. Other than that, there is one of the best, but historically unreliably T.V. shows M.A.S.H. I knew that in all wars there were great battles and people died in tragic ways, but until reading this book I had no idea just how hard the fighting around the Chosin Reservoir was and what the men there did to survive.
The story mainly focuses on the First Marine Division and their harrowing attack and breakout from a mountain top reservoir named Chosin. Sides makes a convincing argument that the Marines were forced to fight four different enemies in this battle, the Chinese, the mountain, the cold, and their superior officers. Sides makes heroes of men like Privates Hector Cafferata and Kenneth Benson and officers like Captain William Barber and Lieutenants Chew-Een Lee and John Yancy. He saved his greatest praise for General Oliver Smith who commanded the men on the ground. Yet at the same time he was extremely critical of Smith’s superiors General Edward Almond and Douglas MacArthur. Both men were completely out of touch with what was happening on the ground. Macarthur was more concerned with photo ops and fame and Almond was naive about the situation and more concerned with pleasing MacArthur.
MacArthur and Almond designed a plan for American Marines and others to board ships in Pusan, South Korea and sail north of Seoul and attack at Inchon. In so doing they would force the North Korean troops to retreat north in defense of their own nation. Inchon was taken relatively easy and so MacArthur decided to send the Marines all the way north to the Yalu River, the border of China, instead of stopping at the 38th Parallel. MacArthur and Almond believed this assault would be easy and even when presented with evidence to the contrary, did not believe the Chinese would get involved. The Chinese Communist forces had other ideas and, in an attempt, to defend their border sent 300,000 soldiers to take on the 20,000 marines.
Once the Chinese’s forces crossed the border, they began with a series of hit and run strikes trying to pull the Marines further into the mountains with the false belief they were weak. While General Smith could see this design, his superiors who were not on location, MacArthur was in Japan, did not agree and continued to push the Marines to attack. Finally, around the mountain reservoir of Chosin the Chinese attacked in force and surrounded the American forces. Every night for about a week the Chinese attacked in wave after wave. Sides described how the Chinese government had little regard for human life. They knew they were technologically inferior but made up the difference with manpower. They only attacked at night in fear of American air superiority, but when they attacked, they came with mass even though most of the time they were completely mowed down but did not stop.
Almost every Marine fighting at Chosin was injured in some way. Yet with no doctors, only field medics, and no way to be moved behind the lines, most just continued to fight, patching up themselves along the way. For those not injured by the Chinese, almost all were affected by frostbite. A constant reminder throughout the book was the cold. For most of the fighting they were close to, if not below subzero temperatures. Though they did have cold weather gear, nothing could have prepared them for the conditions. The cold made it extremely difficult to function and was even too cold for much of their gear to work. The only positive was that their blood quickly cauterized when they were shot. In the midst of this living hell, Sides told the story of heroism and survival. I was moved by several of the stories of remarkable men, many who gave their lives and many that somehow survived with multiple injuries. Smith finally was able to unite all his men and organized breakout of the Mountain to the coast where they could finally be safe but not before he lost a just over a 1,000 killed and over 4,000 wounded by the Chinese and over 7,000 wounded by the cold.
I have never been a soldier, but I have read about battles for the past thirty years. In the 19th Century nothing comes close to the conditions of this battle. As for the 20th Century the only battle I can compare it too is the Battle of the Bulge and the 101st Airborne surrounded and trying to dig into the frozen ground around the Ardennes Forest. While both these battles truly show that war is hell, it also shows how tough and resilient American soldiers and Marines can be when necessary.
One lesson I learned from this book and should worry everyone was that the Chinese had over 19,000 killed. Sides described how even though they were being slaughtered they just continued to attack. It was so bad, and the ground was so frozen that the Marines were using Chinese bodies to make barricades. There were even men charging without weapons. The men had to climb over the bodies of their dead fellow soldiers to attack and yet continued to do so night after night after night.
My last word is simply that I would strongly recommend this book to anyone. Sides is brilliant and captivating storyteller, and this is a little known chapter of American history that deserves attention.