They compare the retreat from Chosin Reservoir to Bataan, and to Dunkirk, and the Alamo, and Valley Forge. Some scholars even go back to Xenophon's in 400 B.C.
But there never was another action quite like Chosin, in which 15,000 Americans, mostly Marines, were surrounded by 120,000 Chinese at the climax of the Korean War and fought their way out over 78 miles of a one-lane dirt road writhing giddily between chasms and 2,500-foot cliffs, in blizzards and 30-below cold.
In the end, one can only compare Chosin with itself.
More than 250 veterans of that fight held a reunion here this week, 34 years later -- retired generals with their trim bodies and clear young faces, meaty ex-sergeants, distinguished white-haired men in pinstripes and puffy-faced guys in T-shirts, gray men, past the hump of life, knowing and quiet and a little weary, some of them with hands that didn't work or legs that wanted to stay behind when they walked -- and they looked inquiringly into each other's faces and offered their names and handshakes as though searching for someone. And sometimes they found him, and there was no hugging but just another handshake maybe, a new smile. And talk. And laughter. And remembering.
White-haired guy to another white-haired guy: "You use the same dye I do, I see."
Chosin was the place where Gen. Oliver P. Smith said, "No, not a retreat. It will be an attack in another direction," echoing the immortal Marine battle cry from Belleau Wood, "Retreat, hell! We just got here!"
Chosin was the place where the 1st Battalion 7th Marines, straggling into Hagaru-ri exhausted, ragged and half-starved after a week of last-ditch fighting, paused outside the town, dressed ranks, snapped their shoulders back and came swinging in as though on parade. "The garrison defending the town took off their hats -- " said former Pfc. Edward Phillips of Woodbury, Conn. He couldn't say any more.
Chosin was the place where 13 Medals of Honor were awarded, nine of them to Marines, six of them posthumously, and the 1st Marine Division won a presidential citation for bringing out all its wounded, its guns and equipment, its prisoners, "decisively defeating seven enemy divisions, together with elements of three others."
Chosin was the place where medics carried their morphine ampules in their mouths to keep them from freezing. Where a corpsman, hunched over a wounded soldier, would dip his bare fingers momentarily in the blood to warm them. Where a company could lose four commanding officers in succession in an hour, going in with 225 men, coming out with seven.
Canteens froze and you had to work the bolt of your M-1 so it wouldn't freeze shut. Beads of ice formed in your beard and some had to go to a warming tent to have ice removed from their nostrils. The wind hit your face until it was raw and the driving snow half-blinded you. At Koto-ri several of us set a boxcar on fire and climbed inside until the flames drove us out . . .
By the fall of 1950 the invasion of South Korea had been stemmed and the daring flank landing at Inchon had broken the North Korean army. The U.N. army fought its way north almost to the Yalu River at the Chinese frontier. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was telling the men they'd be home by Christmas, for it seemed the Chinese weren't planning to get into the fight to any serious degree.
Then, late in November, the 8th Army, approaching the border, was hit hard and pushed back in what some called a rout. The Marine X Corps, coming up on its right flank, was supposed to cut left along the Yalu and hook up with the 8th.
Suddenly the Marines, plus a collection of Army units, Koreans and British commandos, were sticking out there all by themselves. And didn't know it.
The Chinese struck late on the night of Nov. 27. They had been lying concealed, tens of thousands of them, in the snowy ridges and valleys all around a dismal road junction called Yudam-ni, and in the dark they sprang up, tooting their eerie bugles and shooting at every dark spot on the snow.
Col. Robert Taplett of Arlington, commanding the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, was stationed in reserve behind the road junction, a couple of miles back from the first shooting. He hadn't heard anything yet, but he sensed something was wrong. Regimental headquarters was still talking about advancing to link up with the 8th Army or at least to take pressure off its right wing.
"I felt things just didn't sit right," he recalled at the reunion in a Crystal City hotel. "Once you're in combat you get that feeling. We went up this draw, partway up this hill. The map said the hill was occupied by a company of the 7th Marines. We didn't see any signs of friendly troops at all. I called the regimental commander, Ray Murray. 'Oh sure, they're there.'
"I said, 'Ray, I don't think they're there. I got a feeling we're sitting out here all by ourselves.' Half hour later he called and said he was wrong, and that's when I started redisposing my companies across the junction."
Then the bullet holes started blossoming magically on his tent wall, and the switchboard lit up, and the first wounded came stumbling back from Hill 1403, some of them barefoot.
Taplett's story is one of many told in "Chosin," by Eric Hammel, an hour-by-hour account of the retreat. It was a review of the book in Sea Power magazine by Jack Hessman of Rockville that led to the formation of this veterans' group, the Chosin Few, meeting for the first time this year. They hope to collect 1,500 next November in San Diego for the 35th anniversary, and they publish a slick 24-page quarterly, "The Chosin Few," full of reminiscences and appalling photographs of the terrain and the men who crossed it.
I was a Navy doctor, but there I was with the Marines. I lost 120 percent of my corpsmen. Someone hollers 'Corpsman!' and they'd get up and get hit. They were the unsung heroes. The bravest men I ever saw in my life. I was never so scared. I saw guys go up and down those hills, up and down, up and down. I've been cold ever since.
When Taplett arrived at Yudam-ni he had 1,500 men. When he reached Hagaru-ri and relative safety a week later he had 385.
"One of my sore points was my battalion being pulled out of the attack and put on defense. We did all the goddam fighting -- there'll be a lot of arguments about that, but the 5th Marines and the 3d Battalion in particular did all the fighting to clear this road.
"My people were sloshing around in their goddam mukluks but it was felt there'd be no trouble once we got past Toktong Pass. It was at the pass where I lost most of my casualties. They pulled us out and put us in defensive positions and my goddam troops' feet just froze up. It was horrible."
Frostbite was one of the reasons the 15,000 suffered 7,000 casualties in two weeks.
Picture an insanely twisted road making a Y, the stem 56 miles long and the branches beginning at a hamlet called Hagaru-ri. Between the branches sits the vast frozen Chosin (or Changjin) Reservoir. Fourteen miles up the west branch is Yudam-ni, but between there and Hagaru-ri the road snakes past a place called Turkey Hill (because hundreds of turkey carcasses were left scattered about at Thanksgiving) and another called Fox Hill and a winding, narrow defile called Toktong Pass.
The Americans, surrounded, battled tortuously back from Yudam-ni on the west and from Hudong-ni on the east, steadily draining men and trucks and guns. East of the reservoir an entire convoy was blocked by a blown bridge, and men fled out onto the ice to be gunned down.
At Hagaru-ri, engineers dug a landing strip out of iron-hard ground in 20 hours. With nine Chinese divisions now looming on all sides, headquarters authorized General Smith to abandon his equipment and just get out of there. He refused and continued his deliberate withdrawal, packing with snow the 12-foot holes blown in the road by the Chinese.
It was 11 miles from Hagaru-ri back to Koto-ri and another 10 to Chinhung-ni, where relief elements of the 1st Marines were pushing north to meet them. At a hydroelectric plant above Chinhung-ni, the Chinese had destroyed the road over the spillway, but Smith had foreseen this and had ordered a portable Treadway bridge airdropped in sections. The bridge footing was anchored with the stiff bodies of Chinese, thousands of whom had frozen to death in their foxholes.
When the head of the column entered Chinhung-ni, the rear units were still fighting in Koto-ri.
By the time the men got into the east coast port of Hungnam, the Navy had been able to evacuate 105,000 troops and 91,000 Korean refugees. The ambush is classified as a defeat for the Marines.
They overran our perimeter, pushed my weapons company across the road and left me and my radio operator and switchboard out there in no man's land until 4 a.m. I had to stay in the goddam tent because it was the only communications I had. A first lieutenant named Herb Kelly fought his way back across the road to repair the radio, 75 yards, while my operator covered him with a carbine. It was a desperate situation, the worst in my life. And the regiment kept saying we were going to continue the attack next morning.
There were so many hills that most of them just had numbers. The Marines tried to hold the road, their lifeline, by commanding the high points on either side of it; the Chinese tried to block the road and engulf the trapped column, creeping along at 3 miles an hour when it could move at all. The Marines attacked in the daytime, when they had their air support. The Chinese attacked at night, coming on in thick columns, then spreading out at the contact point, flowing through and around the defenders like some deadly, irresistible ooze.
Time and again, Marines peering into the dark, the fog, the blizzard, would touch off a flare or gasoline can . . . to reveal a packed mass of onrushing quilted figures just a few feet away.
Guns refused to work in the cold. Grenades and artillery shells refused to explode or went off among the GIs. The cheap grenades of the Chinese and their small-caliber, low-velocity bullets lacked authority, and many a GI kept going with one, two, four bullets in him.
Men wore skivvies, long johns, dungarees, foul weather pants, parkas, carried packs and sleeping bags. The rubber-bottomed mukluks didn't breathe, which meant sweaty feet, which meant frostbite. You carried spare socks under your coat, next to your body.
Everyone lived on canned fruit. There were standard rations, but the men craved the sweet syrup. You had to keep the cans close to your skin or you'd be gnawing on sherbet.
Marine Pvt. Hector Cafferata, 19, from South Jersey, was caught in a night attack at Toktong. Firing his Garand till it jammed, he picked up an abandoned rifle, stood up to his full massive height and mowed down Chinese as they swarmed over his position. He threw two grenades back at the enemy, lost a finger when the third blew up in his hand. He and his buddies batted back grenades with shovels, leaping from their foxhole when a satchel charge plopped into it. His fire-team leader, hit on the helmet by a bursting grenade, shook his head and kept fighting. Machine gun bullets slammed into Cafferata's right arm. He sat up, made a sling from his web belt and crawled to an aid tent.
Only then did he realize he had been fighting in the snow for five hours in his bare feet.
My job as a Navy chaplain was taking care of the wounded. That night we started with 600 and wound up with 1,000. The camaraderie was tremendous. The way they stuck together. We thought we were okay when we got to Hagaru-ri, but then we saw the planes strafing on the other side of town.
A few junior officers slipped aboard planes taking out wounded. Some feigned or deliberately courted frostbite. Later they were hounded out of the Marines, Hammel says. But the overwhelming majority fought as though they didn't care if there was no tomorrow.
"At Chosin, the individual surpassed even his own capabilities," said Gen. Alpha L. Bowser, who flew from San Diego to speak at the reunion. As a colonel, Bowser was operations officer of the 1st Marine Division. "A man had a desire to prove to himself and his buddies that he could do this. He felt his own chances were no good, but somehow he felt the whole thing would survive whether he did or not. We owed more than we could say to the Army, Navy and Air Force fliers. Those guys landed on airfields no one in his right mind would touch."
2nd Lt. Joseph R. Owen led a rifle company with the 7th Marines, took 300 men out, had 30 left when he was finally wounded Dec. 8.
"One regiment, close to 6,000 people, knocked out a whole Chinese division in two days. Took it right off the rolls. Probably 12- to 15,000 men. We were always outnumbered, often surrounded. At Taktong Pass one rifle company held out against a whole division for five days."
On a famous night march back from Yudam-ni his unit fought all day, helped take Turkey Hill, was forced off the road and into the rugged hills where snow lay waist-deep, slogged through a blizzard so close to the enemy they could hear Chinese chatter.
"We had the point position and were supposed to come into Hagaru-ri first, but when we were in sight of it, they pulled us off to the side and made us the rear guard. We fell down in the snow and guys went to sleep and had to be kicked to keep them awake. In the morning we found the whole hill black with Chinese bodies, thousands of 'em. Every man in my company was wounded. When we came in, people tore up parachutes for banners and waved them at us. It made us cry."
He was shot in the left shoulder and right arm, possibly with a captured Thompson submachine gun. He had 22 operations.
Tall and lean and quiet, Owen is an advertising executive in Skaneateles, N.Y. His right hand is gnarled. When you shake hands with him he gives you his left, flipped over. A career line officer, he resigned from the Corps rather than take a desk job.
"I'm still a Marine," he said.