Robert D. Taplett, 86, a heavily decorated Marine colonel who led his 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, in the grueling strategic retreat at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, died Dec. 17 of congestive heart failure at the Powhatan Nursing Home in Falls Church.
A running battle during the winter months of 1950, in temperatures falling to 40 degrees below zero at night, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir lasted three weeks, as U.S. and allied forces fought their way back to the sea in the face of relentless assaults from Chinese forces, who outnumbered them by more than 5 to 1. About 15,000 Marines and 3,000 Army troops took part in the battle.
Robert Taplett led his battalion in the Korean War's brutal Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
"From Nov. 27 to Dec. 10, we were in almost constant combat," Col. Taplett told USA Today in 2000. "I don't think I slept two hours the whole time. You had to keep moving, or you'd freeze. I left Yudami-ni with roughly 1,300 men and got into Hagaru-ni (at the south end of the reservoir) with 326 effective Marines. Better than half our casualties were caused by weather."
The severe frostbite he suffered caused Col. Taplett to have difficulties walking for the rest of his life.
A longtime Arlington resident, Robert Donald Taplett was born in Tyndall, S.D. He graduated with honors from the University of South Dakota in 1940. He was a member of the Army ROTC in college, but in 1940, the Marine Corps corralled Col. Taplett and a number of honor graduates across the country. He resigned his Army commission and became a Marine second lieutenant in 1940. He went through basic training at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
He loved being a Marine, his wife, Patricia Taplett, recalled. Dark-haired, 6 feet 2 inches tall, in his dress blues he seemed made for the Corps. "Some people called him a poor man's Gregory Peck," Mrs. Taplett said. "I always said he was a cross between Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor."
On Dec. 7, 1941, he was serving aboard the USS Salt Lake City at Pearl Harbor. The cruiser was escorting the carrier Enterprise, which had engine trouble and was just outside the harbor when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began. Unscathed, the Salt Lake City headed off in pursuit of the Japanese fleet.
He was aboard the Salt Lake City for three years and participated in the major battles of the Pacific, including a decisive engagement in the Aleutian Islands in 1943, a battle that naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison called "the last heavy gunfire daylight action, with no interference by air power, submarines or torpedoes." In October 1944, the Salt Lake City provided fire support at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
After the war, Col. Taplett served as commanding officer of the Navy supply barracks at Clearview, Utah, at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay and at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif. He also served with the Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He was dispatched to Korea in 1950.
"From the time he came in with the brigade, from Pusan, up through Seoul, all the way to the Chosin Reservoir, just about every dirty job the 5th Marines had, he led the way," said fellow Marine Frank Metersky, a member of the Chosin Few, an organization of Marines who survived the Chosin retreat.
"He, to me, is one of the finest officers in the history of the Marine Corps," said Metersky, co-chairman of the Korean War POW-MIA committee.
Col. Taplett was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit and a Bronze Star.
After the Korean War, Col. Taplett spent several months traveling the country lecturing to military audiences on the importance of close-air support, a Marine concept perfected during World War II, and then became academic director of the Basic School at Quantico in 1951 and 1952. He was at Marine Corps headquarters from 1953 to 1956. From 1957 to 1959, he was based in Hawaii, although he spent most of his time training troops in Okinawa and the Philippines.
He was sent back to Quantico in 1959, a member of the landing force development center. Unhappy that he wasn't working directly with troops, he retired in 1960 after 20 years of service.
In retirement, Col. Taplett and his family moved to Arlington, where he worked for several professional associations and then for the U.S. Postal Service, where his duties included teaching management techniques to supervisors. He retired in 1993.
He made two trips back to South Korea, the last in 1985, and while there expressed sympathy for the North Korean people. He remembered how they sheltered Marines during that unimaginably hard winter years earlier and how they shared whatever food they could spare.
He received his master's degree in human resource development from George Washington University, attending class at night, and wrote a combat memoir, "Dark Horse Six" (2003), the title alluding to his battalion's radio call, "Dark Horse." In Iraq today, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines use the same call sign in his honor. He also collected donations for the Arlington charity SOME (So Others Might Eat), volunteered with the Women's National Symphony Decorators' Show House and was a monitor at the Kennedy Center Young People's Concerts.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, of Arlington; six children, Claire Taplett and Marty K. Taplett, both of Arlington, Christine McCarty of Charlottesville, Robert Howard Taplett of Purchase, N.Y., Martin Ross Taplett of Pinehurst, N.C., and Margo Barbara Taplett of Park City, Utah; a brother; and nine grandchildren.