• U.S.

War: Retreat of the 20,000

5 minute read

“Retreat, hell!” snapped Major General Oliver Prince Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division, with which he had fought on Guadalcanal, New Britain, Peleliu, Okinawa (TIME, Sept. 25). “We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”*

“We’re gonna get out of here,” said Lieut. Colonel Raymond L. Murray, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment. “Any officer who doesn’t think so will kindly go lame and be evacuated, but I don’t expect any bites for that offer.” There were no bites.

Said Colonel Lewis (“Chesty”) Puller, famed battle-scarred commander of the 1st Marine Regiment: “We’ll suffer heavy losses. The enemy greatly outnumbers us.

They’ve blown the bridges and blocked the roads . . . but we’ll make it somehow.”

The running fight of the marines and two battalions of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division from Hagaru to Hamhung—40 miles by air but 60 miles over the icy, twisting, mountainous road—was a battle unparalleled in U.S. military history. It had some aspects of Bataan, some of Anzio, some of Dunkirk, some of Valley Forge, some of the “Retreat of the 10,000” (401-400 B.C.) as described in Xenophon’s Anabasis. The retreat of the 20,000 in Korea would not have been possible without General Tunner’s ultramodern airlift, which supplied them with all the ammunition and food they could use, and even with bridging equipment (see below).

Bulldozers for the dead. Assembled in Hagaru, south of the frozen, blood-stained beaches of the Changjin Reservoir, the 1st Marine Division and the 7th had already suffered heavy casualties in battles with the encircling Communists. They had heard the screams of their comrades when the Reds lobbed phosphorous grenades into truckloads of U.S. wounded. When the order came to start south, the enemy was already closing in on Hagaru’s makeshift airstrip, whence thousands of wounded and frostbite victims had been flown out. The last plane waited an extra hour for one desperately wounded man.

The marines abandoned none of their disabled men, but bulldozers pushed the dead into mass graves by hundreds.

The fight to Koto, six miles down the road, was the worst. The crawling vehicles ran into murderous mortar, machine-gun and small-arms fire from Communists in log and sandbag bunkers. The U.S. answering fire and air attacks killed thousands of the enemy and held the road open. When the lead vehicles reached Koto, the rearguard was still fighting near Hagaru to keep the enemy from chewing up the column from behind.

Beyond Koto there was a bad stretch of road winding through steep gorges. Moving at 3 m.p.h., the column halted several times while engineers filled shell craters in the road. At one point there was a four-hour stop while the engineers built abutments on both sides of a chasm so that a bridge span would reach across. The airplanes silenced much of the enemy fire, except on one agonizing day when the air cover was grounded by a driving snowstorm.

The commanders were informed that 80,000 to 120,000 Chinese were in the country around them. General Smith said that as soon as one Chinese division ran out of ammunition, another came up to take its place. The enemy was reported to have set up four strong roadblocks along the road ahead, and one officer feared what he called a “double envelopment.”

“Wave & Look Happy.” Meanwhile, the port of Wonsan was evacuated by elements of the Army’s 3rd Division, which were moved 50 miles north by sea to help hold a perimeter around Hamhung and Hungnam. The R.O.K. 3rd and Capital Divisions, which had also been evacuated by sea far up the northeastern coast, arrived to strengthen the defense arc around Hamhung. The U.S. 3rd formed a rescue force which rolled up the Changjin road and joined the hard-pressed marines and G.I.s of the southbound column, a few miles from Koto. The rescue party had been given the formidable job of opening the road and holding it open all the way down to the coastal perimeter.

Enemy resistance seemed to be lessening. On their way to the junction, the 3rd’s fighting men had dispersed one roadblock and nothing more was heard of the other three. One day 100 cold and famished Chinese came out of the hills and surrendered. Some said they were former Nationalist soldiers who had been dragooned into the Red army, and that they now wanted to join Chiang Kai-shek on Formosa.

For the first time it looked as if most of the 20,000 would get through. A vast armada of ships—freighters, transports, LSTs, carriers and other warships of the Seventh Fleet—were waiting for them. Vice Admiral Charles T. Joy, Far East naval commander, held a secret conference on his flagship with the X Corps’ Major General Edward M. Almond and other brass. Joy said the Navy was ready for “any eventuality”—which was official doubletalk for evacuation.

At week’s end some 8,000 marines broke through the last thin crust of enemy resistance and poured into Hamhung. More kept coming in every hour as tanks bringing up the rear rolled across the coastal plain. Frantic photographers called to the bedraggled men, asked them to “wave and look happy.” They obliged. The triumph was marred by more than 30% casualties, but the bulk of the marine division’s and the 7th’s survivors had reached safety and warmth. It was an epic of great suffering and great valor.

*An echo of a 1918 statement that has become a part of Marine Corps legend. Moving up to Belleau Wood at the head of a company of marines, Captain Lloyd Williams was overtaken by a courier, told that the order of the French area commander was to retreat. “Retreat, hell,” snapped Captain Williams, “we just got here,” and took his troops into battle.

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