In the bleak winter landscape of North Korea more than six decades ago, a small U.S. Army task force trapped on the shore of the Chosin Reservoir was under relentless attack by the Chinese and on the verge of destruction.
The outnumbered task force, part of an American drive to the Yalu River during the first year of the Korean War, had been caught by surprise and overrun by wave after wave of Chinese troops.
Blowing shepherd’s horns, spraying burp guns and flinging grenades, more than 20,000 Chinese massed in four consecutive nighttime attacks, swarming over the American foxholes and engaging in savage hand-to-hand combat in such bitter cold that the frozen earth would not allow survivors to bury the dead.
Many Americans had given up any hope of survival, including Arthur Mercier, who was then a 23-year-old Army sergeant.
But then Army Lt. Col. Don Carlos Faith Jr., who had assumed command of the task force when his superior was killed, called his surviving officers together to outline a desperate plan to break out of the trap.
“We’re not through here,” Faith told Mercier and the other soldiers. “We’re going home.”
But Faith’s homecoming never came — until now.
The 32-year-old Army officer from Washington, Ind., who was mortally wounded while leading the breakout attempt on Dec. 1, 1950, later was awarded the Medal of Honor for the heroic but largely futile effort to save his men. On Wednesday, he will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony to be attended by some of his former men and by his daughter, who was just 4 when he died.
For decades, Faith’s remains lay in an unmarked mass grave in North Korea alongside members of what became known as Task Force Faith, following one of the grimmest episodes in American military history. His remains, located by a joint U.S.-North Korean team in 2004, were identified last year through DNA testing.
“He’s been lying in an unmarked grave, not even buried with dignity, in hostile territory,” said retired Army Col. John Edward Gray, who served as a platoon commander. “Now the soldier is coming home.”
The burial preparations also come at a tense moment, as North Korea is threatening to reignite the war, this time with nuclear weapons. The recovery of Faith’s remains has also renewed debate about a little-known chapter in the Forgotten War, as some have called the Korean conflict. Despite questions about the Army’s tactics, few question Faith’s valor.
“He was what I call a soldier’s soldier,” said Mercier, who was Faith’s radio man, weeping at the memory. “He’s a real hero to me.”
Now and then, Barbara Ann “Bobbie” Broyles slips into a way of speaking about her father as if he were still alive, emphasizing the presence of a man whom she has known only through the most poignant absence.
“Father will arrive Sunday morning at 11:15 a.m.,” she said last week. “I want to be there to see him off the plane.”
Broyles, 66, who lives in Baton Rouge and has a small psychotherapy practice there, has sparkling blue eyes and an earnest, engaging manner. Her voice has a soft Southern twang as she discusses the sense of loss that has shadowed her life, especially after her mother died of cancer when Broyles was a teenager.
Yellowing photographs of her father reveal a handsome man with a chiseled jaw.
Faith had wanted to be a soldier like his father. At 6 feet tall, he was lively, fun-loving, fit and athletic, as much at ease astride a polo horse as he was at the poker table. Denied admission at West Point after he failed the physical, he studied at Georgetown, appealed his medical denial and enlisted.
“He just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said.
Faith became an aide to Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway and performed several parachute drops, including on D-Day. After World War II, Faith was stationed with the Army’s 7th Infantry as part of the U.S. occupying force in Japan. When U.S. troops were rushed to South Korea after North Korea’s surprise invasion in June 1950, Faith went, too.
After reversing the early North Korean advance with a landing at Inchon in September, Gen. Douglas MacArthur moved north toward the Chinese border, hoping to wrap up a quick victory and end the war by Christmas.
Maj. Gen. Ned Almond, commander of the Army’s X Corps, ordered an attack to start Nov. 27 along the Chosin Reservoir, about 40 miles from the Chinese border. MacArthur and Almond dismissed intelligence suggesting that China had entered the war.
Even after Chinese forces had appeared in sizable numbers and inflicted serious damage, Almond remained dismissive. Almond pinned a Silver Star on Faith’s parka and departed. Faith, disgusted, ripped the medal off and hurled it into the snow.
“What a damned travesty,” Faith said, according to eyewitness accounts.
After four nights of hellish fighting had ground down Task Force Faith and attempts to rescue and resupply it had gone awry, the task force commander, Col. Allan MacLean, ordered a withdrawal. When MacLean was shot by Chinese soldiers and dragged off, Faith took command and tried to rally the men to break out, even calling on the wounded to take up weapons and fight. After a truck convoy carrying hundreds of the most seriously wounded was hit by napalm dropped by American fighter planes, Faith, brandishing a .45-caliber handgun under enemy fire, worked to rally the demoralized unit.
“He just took it upon himself — ‘If I’m going to fight to the death, let it be trying to save my command,’ ” recalled Gray.
Faith also led an attack to clear a roadblock that had stopped the convoy and was hit in the chest by shrapnel from a grenade. Other soldiers put the mortally wounded officer in the cab of a truck to stay warm, but the convoy again was halted at a destroyed bridge. Chinese forces soon overran the column, shooting and bayoneting wounded soldiers. Those who survived found safety by walking across the frozen reservoir to American lines.
“He did his all. He paid the full price, for duty, honor and country,” said Gray.