Korean War's Chosin battle proved freedom is not free
December 17, 2010
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 17, 2010) -- As part of the Korean War 60th Commemoration, the United States Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue screened "Chosin," a documentary about one of the most savage battles of the Korean War -- the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
Army Col. David J. Clark, director of the Defense Department's 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee, told the gathered guests of three reasons for the commemoration.
"We intend to honor and thank Korean War veterans for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States, commemorate the historic events and milestones from this war, and provide the American public with a clearer understanding and appreciation of the history and continued relevance of what we now call the forgotten victory," Clark said.
Not much has been produced about the Korean War. For one, it was difficult to shoot battlefield footage during the war -- it was so cold then, said Anton Sattler, a producer of "Chosin," that film stock would have frozen and fallen apart as it tracked its way through the camera.
For another, added co-producer Brian Iglesias, World War II films have overshadowed other films about war. And the 1970 film "MASH" -- on the surface, a film about the Korean War -- is really an allegory about the conflict in Vietnam, he said.
Never having wanted to attend a celebration of the war in the past, Fang Yee Woo was coerced into joining his compatriots Wednesday night by his son, Conrad.
A true warrior, though, Woo seemed just as comfortable with a crowd of people anxious to view the film that won best documentary at two film festivals last year, as he was with his Browning automatic rifle in the frozen region of Chosin.
Although born in Canton, China, the now 78-year-old Woo wanted to serve his new country from almost the time his father moved the family to Jacksonville, Fla. He was 17 when he entered the Marine Corps.
"We shipped out of Camp Pendleton for Kobe, Japan," Woo said. "Luckily, I just turned 18 and was allowed to participate in the Inchon Landing in 1950. We then relieved the Army at Chosin."
Reticent to talk about what he did at Chosin, Woo's son, proud of his dad, filled in the rest.
"Dad never talked about what he did in Korea when I was growing up and as he continued serving our country," said Woo the younger. "He also fought in Vietnam during the Tet offensive, where he was promoted from staff sergeant to first lieutenant with intelligence. He retired in 1980."
Woo isn't the only one who won't talk about the war.
"Of the 186 guys we interviewed on camera, over half of them said this was the first time they talked about it in 60 years," Iglesias said. "In fact, many of the interviews were so emotional we couldn't even use them."
From Nov. 26 to Dec. 13, 1950, Chosin became the high water mark for the North Koreans, thanks to the waves of Chinese who poured over the American-led United Nations forces.
Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur decided he could stem the tide by ordering his ground units, the Eighth U.S. Army in the west and the X Corps in the east, to continue their offensive to the Yalu River (the border with China) and to cut the Chinese supply route extending into the neighboring U.S. 8th Army sector.
The constant mind-numbing, -30 degree frigid air that froze eyeballs and gave up toes, feet, fingers and hands to frostbite didn't stop the 15,000 U.S. troops. It took 120,000 Chinese soldiers to push the Americans back south.
One of the Army's forces guarding this retreat, at the time dismissed, has become one of the unsung heroes of Chosin.
The Regimental Combat Team 31, comprised primarily of infantry, artillery and tank units from the 7th Infantry Division, numbered about 3,000 Soldiers. Of these, about 600 were Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army -- commonly known as KATUSAs.
This task force was created as part of the final UN Command offensive to occupy North Korea and cut the main supply route into the neighboring Eighth U.S. Army zone. In the X Corps area of northeastern Korea, the main effort would be made by the 1st Marine Division, attacking northwest from the Chosin Reservoir.
The 7th Infantry Division was ordered by Army Maj. Gen. Ned Almond, X Corps commander, to provide a regiment-sized force to guard the Marines' east flank, by occupying the east side of the reservoir. This force would also attack north to the Yalu River, the boundary between North Korea and China, once the offensive began.
Interestingly, Gen. Almond's aide was Army 1st Lt. Alexander Haig, who later became the 59th U.S. Secretary of State.
During this withdrawal, RCT-31 Commander Colonel Allan MacLean saw what he thought were his long-awaited reinforcements, but as he approached them they turned out to be Chinese who shot MacLean several times and took him prisoner. He died four days later.
Lt. Col. Don Faith now took command.
Reaching the southern position, he consolidated the task force into one defensive perimeter as the Chinese intensified their attacks. With the assistance of Marine Corps air support -- expertly coordinated by Stamford and without which the task force would have been overwhelmed -- RCT 31 fought off heavy Chinese assaults for another two days, inflicting severe losses on the communist forces, who left many hundreds of bodies in the snow around the Army position.
During the day Stamford directed 38 sorties, making this the major effort of the 1st Marine Air Wing for the day. From early morning until late afternoon, Marine planes attacked the Chinese, dropping 21 napalm tanks, 16 500-lb bombs, 21 fragmentation bombs, and firing 190 rockets. All attacks on the perimeter were repulsed.
The presence and fate of the Army troops east of Chosin in November and December 1950 is not well known. Many accounts of the Chosin Reservoir campaign tend to overlook or minimize their role.
Also overlooked is that RCT-31 accomplished at least part of its mission. It successfully guarded the right flank of the 1st Marine Division, protecting it from Chinese attack for four days. If not for the presence of the task force, the Chinese 80th and 81st Divisions might have captured the key Marine base and air-strip at Hagaru-ri before the Marines had concentrated sufficient units to defend it. This would have blocked the only escape route of the Marines and other Army units, leading to a significantly different outcome at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Two Medals of Honor were awarded to Army Soldiers: Lt. Col. Don Faith and Lt. Col. John U.D. Page who was with X Corps Artillery at Chosin Reservoir.
One of the most decorated battles in American History, Chosin awarded a total of 17 Medals of Honor, 73 Navy Crosses and 23 Distinguished Service Crosses.
"Sixty years later you think about it and you say well, basically those 18- 19-year-old kids were doing for their country exactly what we were doing for our country, basically what we were told to do," said one of the on-camera interviewees. "I do have sympathy for the Chinese Soldier and for the North Korean Soldier who was ordered into battle just like we were ordered into battle."
"If I were to meet a Chinese man, that was there, I'd hug him like a brother because I know what he went through, what he suffered and what I suffered and what I went through, and that he had a family waiting for him," said another interviewee. "I had a family waiting for me, and thank God, we both made it back. I mean that very sincerely. I have no hate for nobody. Never have; never will."
The Korean conflict began June 25, 1950 and ended when an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
There's been one unexpected surprise for the producers who are both combat veterans of Iraq and who both volunteer at their VA hospitals.
"For combat guys, this film is unofficially being used for post traumatic stress and transition counseling in the Veterans Administration hospitals," Iglesias said.
At one VA hospital in Houston, for instance, Vietnam veterans have been going to meetings as part of their treatment -- but they never talk.
"During one meeting they played this film and when the film stopped, you couldn't shut them up," Iglesias said.
Proceeds from the film's DVD sales are donated to the Marine's Semper Fi Fund and the Wounded Warrior Project.
For more information about the film, visit www.frozenchosin.com.