Harry Truman's so-called "police action" in Korea is lately being remembered as "The Forgotten War" despite casualty figures that rival those of Vietnam. But if you were an Army brat as I was during the '50s, who lived in a place like Fort Benning, Georgia, then Korea loomed large in your teenage mind, never to be forgotten. Benning at the time was garrisoned with veterans of Korea, and my younger brother attended a new elementary school built of brick and glass and named for a doomed hero of the war: Lieutenant Colonel Don Carlos Faith. Faith had died little more than three years before the school opened its doors.
I still recall standing in front of his photo while I waited in the school reception area to walk my brother home. Don Carlos Faith looked back at me with dark eyes set in a young Hispanic face. The Medal of Honor citation beneath the photo gave only a general notion of how he had died attempting to lead his 600-man battalion out of the mother of all ambushes sprung at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea by 80,000 tommy-gun-toting, bugle-blowing Chinese.
Thus it was with interest that I read a back-page paragraph in Navy Times last December about a celebratory event to be held at Camp Pendleton in honor of the cleverly named Chosin Few. Faith and his lost battalion have largely faded from national memory, but not the 15,000 Marines of the First Division upon whom the Chinese fell after annihilating Faith's men and most of another Army battalion.
The Chosin Few comprise a robust national organization of some 3500 veterans of the First Mardiv's fighting withdrawal — never call it a retreat — through ten days of sub-arctic weather and 70 miles of death and agony to the port of Hungnam. The Marines suffered 4418 dead and wounded and more than 7000 non-combat injuries — mostly frostbite that devoured toes, feet, fingers, hands, noses, and ears. But during their withdrawal from the "Frozen Chosin," the Marines had slaughtered an estimated 25,000 Chinese.
Several books have been written about this heroic effort, and I'd just finished reading one of the best when I learned of the Pendleton celebration. The book, Jim Wilson's Retreat Hell! tells how the Marines had battled down a narrow road of dirt and crushed rock that snaked through mountains to connect three wretched North Korean villages starting with Yudam-ni at the southern tip of the Chosin Reservoir, then moving through Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri. The port city of Hungnam and safety lay 50 miles farther south, but the bulk of the fighting and dying took place on the 25-mile stretch of road linking the three villages.
Retreat Hell! is filled with startling images: an exhausted Marine sits on a boulder beside the road only to find he's resting on the hunched, frozen corpse of a comrade; a company fights off a night attack by a thousand Chinese and at daybreak retrieves hundreds of frozen bodies to stack as barricades against further attacks; two Marines warm themselves beneath ponchos on the cover of an idling tank engine and die of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes; Marines stare in wonder at ice statues covering a mountain meadow where wounded Chinese froze upright in grotesque postures; a corpsman tells a Marine with the lower half of his face shot off that nothing can be done: the Marine will die when his wounds thaw.
Occasional moments of humor relieve the horror. My favorite comes from a Marine who likens the situation of his surrounded company to that of Custer's Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. "Where," wonders Lieutenant John Yancey aloud, "did all these fucking Chinese come from?" Fortunately Yancey -- unlike Custer -- had not uttered his last words: he survived the battles and, according to Jim Wilson, lived another four decades.
On this past 7 December, then, I headed for Camp Pendleton to attend the 50th anniversary of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign and mingle with some of the men I'd recently read about. As I passed the 5/805 merge, I realized the remaining distance I would travel to the Pendleton front gate on the northern edge of Oceanside was the same distance the Marines had traveled south from Yudam-ni through Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri. Owing to our vastly different circumstances, I covered the distance in less than an hour while the Marines took ten agonizing days for their journey.
During my relatively short trip I recalled the full story of how Colonel Faith had died in his desperate attempt to guide his shattered battalion 13 miles south to the safety of the First Mardiv perimeter at Hagaru-ri. He took a killing round to his chest a scant four miles from the Marines. (Major General Oliver P. Smith, who commanded the First Mardiv, refused to weaken his defenses by sending a relief force. Would he have made the same choice if Colonel Faith and his desperate men had been Marines?)
My adoptive father — who was from the same generation of West Pointers as Faith — had told most of the story to me more than 40 years ago at Fort Benning. He had been a colonel on MacArthur's staff in Tokyo during the war. He detested MacArthur and his surrogate in Korea, General Ned Almond. Almond had commanded X Corps, made up primarily of two Army divisions and the First Mardiv. Faith's battalion had been the northernmost element of Almond's force when the Chinese attacked in their overwhelming numbers. On the morning of 28 November, 1950, during a lull in the Chinese attack, Almond dropped from the sky by helicopter onto Faith's beleaguered command post. He strode from the helo in clean, carefully pressed fatigues and extended an envelope to the exhausted Faith. Faith opened the envelope to discover three Silver Star medals. "One of those is for you, Don," said the general. "Give the others to anyone you choose."
Colonel Faith selected the two nearest men: a wounded lieutenant, who was patiently filling his canteen with a trickle from a mostly frozen water can, and a mess sergeant. General Almond pinned the medals on the bewildered men, turned to Faith, and said, "You don't have anything to worry about, Don. You're just fighting a bunch of Chinese laundrymen fleeing north. I want you to regroup and pursue them to the Yalu." Then the general boarded his helo and flew away. Three days later Colonel Faith was dead at the hands of these laundrymen, and his battalion had ceased to exist.